A Whole New World

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 17 brought us to the end of the story in Ruth 4 as well as Paul’s statement about the redemptive work of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-17.  

 

Did you hear the debate? It was quite a while ago, but – WOW – was it powerful! I wanna tell you, it was a real scorcher.

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The fellow on the right – the old guy with the white beard – he made a strong case for what we might call “traditional values”: you know, a return to the things that made the country great back in the day. He was particularly tough on immigration and what we might call “multiculturalism”, and he was campaigning on a platform that proposed legislation that would not only prohibit marriage to foreign-born people, but would declare any such marriages to be invalid and would immediately deport the foreign wives and any children from such marriages.

It’s all there in the Old Testament book of Ezra, chapter 10. Ezra, and his buddy, Nehemiah, said that the anger of God had descended on the nation because so many foreigners had come and led people away from the truth. The legislation that they proposed won in a landslide – there were only four people who went on record as opposing their action. And so they built a wall and sent the immigrants packing.

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

But then the woman started speaking. It was hard to understand her because of her accent, but she talked about the idea that there is no single perspective that can capture the entirety of God’s majesty. She didn’t say this in so many words, but she sort of implied that if anyone thought that he or she had God fully figured out and understood God completely, then that person had to be wrong because God is so much more than any human mind can comprehend.

She went on to say that we are better off when we walk together toward the truth, and that when we are vulnerable to each other and those around us in love and humility we are more likely to be able to hear the ways in which God might direct our steps. One man, hearing what she had to say, summarized it this way:

[God’s activity in the world is amplified as people go] beyond the limits placed upon them by society. The social definitions of ethnicity and gender are not only unhelpful but they block the successful solution of life’s problems. Inclusion and the violation of role limits become the proper ways of living out one’s faith in the midst of a pluralistic world.[1]

To be honest, the woman didn’t speak nearly as much as the man did in the debate, but she sure showed her intentions and her heart in the ways that she acted. She demonstrated her heart for God and for God’s people in the way that she lived.

This was not, of course, a “real” debate – at least, not one that we saw in person. On the right, as I’ve mentioned, we have the historical figures of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of Israel’s leaders who brought the nation back from a punishing time of exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah understood, rightly, that much of what had led people into the place of exile and separation from God was the pagan practices that they had learned from their neighbors as they gave up on following God and instead followed the selfish desires of their own hearts. They reasoned that much of what had led God’s people to engage in such pagan practices was their willingness to enter into marriage with non-believing, foreign-born spouses, and so the solution that they proposed was simple: ban foreigners, end mixed marriage, and thus stay pure as God’s holy people in God’s holy land. As I mentioned, you can read a lot more about where these folks are coming from in the books that bear their names.

The author of the Book of Ruth gently counters this logic by reminding people that if it weren’t for foreign women, Israel would not have the greatest leader it ever knew, King David. This man who captured Israel’s heart and who led the nation into new places of obedience and success was at least 1/8 Moabite. In David’s story, we find a stunning bit of irony, in fact. A strict interpretation of the law as found in Deuteronomy 23:3 would declare Ruth’s marriage to Boaz invalid, and that any descendants of that marriage (up to the 10th generation) were to be excluded from participating in the worship of God. Since King David was Ruth’s grandson, that means that he should not have been allowed anywhere near the tabernacle. And take a look at the Psalms – the hymnbook that we’ve carried around for 3000 years: all of the best songs were written by someone who, according to the strict reading of the Law, wasn’t even supposed to be here.

What do we do?

Let’s look at Boaz.

Boaz' Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 - 1260)

Boaz’ Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 – 1260)

Boaz’ role in the Book of Ruth is to serve as what is called a “guardian-redeemer”. This role is well-defined in Leviticus 25 and other places in the Law. When an Israelite man dies, it falls to his brother to take responsibility for the man’s widow and to do everything that he can to ensure the survival of the family, even to the point of providing a son who will continue the dead man’s legacy. If there is no brother, then the next closest relative is responsible to make sure that the widow is cared for and that the line continues.

In the book of Ruth, we have seen a young woman, poor and humbled and despised for her status as a foreigner, come to Boaz and ask him to fulfill the role of “guardian redeemer” in her situation. Even though Ruth represents a family that has acted against the strict interpretation of the Law, Boaz acts in grace toward Ruth and Naomi and so presents to them, and to us, a picture of the face of Christ. Boaz sees these widows as those who are forced to contemplate a life of poverty, fear, exclusion, and homelessness and who then takes steps to offer himself to them in the hopes of correcting that.

As you might imagine, not everyone can do that. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, there was a man who was, legally, more responsible for their care than was Boaz. He could have, and perhaps should have, said “yes” to their plea, but he did not. He passed the torch to Boaz and said, “If you would do this, you’ll not only be helping these women, you’ll be helping me, too.” And, as you saw, Boaz was able to act in the interest of Naomi, Ruth, and the entire community by offering himself.

Many scholars have looked at the way that Boaz embraced the role of “guardian redeemer” and have seen an example of Christ. One writer puts it this way:

Through his actions, Boaz communicates Christ. His person and character illustrate the incredible hesed (compassionate loving-kindness) that Christ possesses for his people, as well as the great measures he is willing to take to redeem his bride. Though Ruth arrives at Boaz’s bed empty-handed and humbled to the core, Boaz treats her with respect and kindness (3:10-13). Disgraced by her position and despised for her ethnicity, the young Moabite woman appears to have little to offer. Yet, despite all this, Boaz views her as a worthy woman (3:11). Though Ruth comes from a family that has turned their backs on the Lord, the Lord turns his face towards Ruth and reveals himself to her through Boaz. Boaz foreshadows Jesus Christ, the ultimate kinsman redeemer who will redeem a bride for himself—the church.[2]

Jesus, like Boaz, took on a problem that was not his so that we could have a chance to become what we were created to be.

In this way, I’d suggest that Boaz and Jesus ended any debate between Ezra and Ruth. Each of them acknowledges the truth that when we leave God’s intentions, we can die; when we seek out less than God’s best, we are diminished. It is possible, but surely not wise, for us to pollute ourselves and our world by embracing things that are counter to God’s purposes. Yet as they call us to remember this truth, they also remind us that it is God, not us, who gets to define those purposes. It is God, not us, who sets the boundaries for the world.

The solution for Ruth and Naomi and Boaz was not to build higher walls, to spark more violent protests, or to shout louder than their adversaries. That was clearly not the solution for Jesus, either. And that makes me wonder why I would imagine that it’s a solution that would work well in my own life.

It would seem to me as though this story of Ruth invites me to look across at someone whom I might identify as being “other” and do my best to discern in what ways I am called to walk – with that “other” – into the intentions of the One who created us both.

I think that there is a word here for the protester and for the policeman… for the light-skinned and the dark-skinned… for the one who trumpets adherence to “family values” (however that one chooses to define that term) and to the one who wears all the colors of the LGBTQ rainbow… to the one who just got off the boat and to the one whose great-great-great grandfather was born here… To the born-again, sanctified Christian and to the Muslim as well as the Jew and the atheist… It seems to me that the key is not to push against each other and yell and scream more loudly, or, worse, to blow up more of theirs before they have the chance to blow up yours… but rather to walk in the steps that God has laid out for you in the hopes and in the expectation that God knows God’s heart, God’s purposes, and God’s intentions and that if we are able to submit to those things we will discover how to live more Christ-like lives ourselves.

Can we embrace the concept of redemption? Can we acknowledge that things are a red-hot mess in the world right now, but that the best hope through this mess lies not in violence and the extermination of the “other”, but in the transformation of each of us? Author Anne Lamott posted something incredibly true on Facebook Friday morning:

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. it will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.[3]

I know that this sounds incredibly idealistic. I know that you may think me to be naïve; and yet it is apparent to me that the way of Boaz and Ruth and the way of the cross requires me to choose to act first out of love and humility and inclusion rather than in hostility or revenge. I confess that my heart is not pure, and that one way for me to make it purer is to learn to sing some of the songs that were written by the descendant of a Moabite woman. I want to offer the strength of my arms and my back and my legs, not to wreak havoc or inflict judgment or mete out revenge, but to protect the weak and restore the broken and search out the lost. And I’ve come here, to this congregation and to the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, to meet with those who, like me, are called to walk in the way of the cross. May we remind each other, and the world around us, that grace does bat last. That the game isn’t over. And that love always, always, always wins. Thanks be to God for the One who sought to reach out to us when we were so far away. Amen.

[1] Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, A Social and Historical Approach, Fortress Press, 1995, pp 223-225.

[2] Stephanie Van Eyk, “The Ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer” in Ligonier Ministries blog: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/ultimate-kinsman-redeemer/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/894203970709247

The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.

 

Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 3 included Ruth 2:8-23 and James 2:14-17 

Our story began with a famine that drove a couple named Elimilech and Naomi from their home in Judah into the land of Moab. While there, the couple’s two sons each married Moabite women. Elimilech died in Moab, as did both of the couple’s children. Grief-stricken, Naomi hears that there may be food once again in Judah and seeks to return, urging her daughters-in-law to remain in their own country. Orpah does as she is told, but Ruth clings to her mother in law and accompanies her to Bethlehem, where she discovers how tough life can be for a poor, hungry, female refugee.

Ruth Gleaning, by Marc Chagall (1960)

Ruth Gleaning, by Marc Chagall (1960)

Determined to keep her promise, however, Ruth doubles down on her efforts to care for her mother in law by engaging in the ancient, if demeaning, task of gleaning. She joins a line of destitute women who follow the farmhands through the fields, picking up anything that is edible in the hopes that it will be enough to sustain them or their families. It is back-breaking, humiliating work…but it keeps her alive – or, I should say, it kept her alive through the end of last week’s scripture reading. What about today? What’s next in our story?

The owner of the field, a man named Boaz, sees Ruth working with the gleaners and for whatever reason, he congratulates her for working so hard. She’s done so well, in fact, that by the end of the day, she is able to collect about 3/5 of a bushel – five or six gallons – of grain. She takes this home to celebrate with Naomi and thanks God for the provision of the day.

After he speaks with Ruth, Boaz pulls the foreman aside and asks him sternly, “What is wrong here, Zadok? Why are we losing so much of our product? Can’t your men be a little more careful as they bring in the crop?”

Frustrated, Boaz goes out that very evening and spends a few thousand shekels buying one of those new, efficient harvesting combines he’s been reading about. After all, he reasons to himself, it’s only good business sense to cut down on the wasted crops. If he can increase the yield per acre, he’ll have a higher profit margin, and with more profit, he’ll be able to do more work with the local charities, right? The more grain Boaz puts into his silos, the better able he’ll be to help some of the deserving poor who have become so common in Bethlehem.

So the next day, Ruth shows up, ready to glean again, and there’s Boaz with a nice bottle of chilled water to give to her as she begins her gleaning. He encourages her to admire his new harvesting technology, and says, “Go ahead – help yourself to anything that’s left over!”

Ruth does as she did the previous day, but finds that Boaz was absolutely correct about the harvesting combine – in spite of the fact that she works two hours longer, she comes away with less than half the grain she was able to get the day before. As the dusk settles on the Bethlehem sky, she turns for home, passing Boaz along the way, who shouts, “Ruth! Glad to see you! You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers today!”

The third day seemed to dawn even earlier, and Ruth was so weary that she got to the field half an hour later. By the time she arrived, the entire field had been mown down and other gleaners were out. She crouched in that blazing sun for seven hours and still only managed to find a cup and a half of barley to take home. She was frustrated and embarrassed by the thought of appearing before Naomi with such a pitiful offering.

As she sat and contemplated her future, Boaz came upon her and offered her a water bottle. When he saw that she was discouraged, he invited her to apply to his foundation for assistance. All she had to do, Boaz explained, was to stop by on the second Tuesday of the month with the appropriate identification and proof of need, and his people would be more than happy to consider her request for assistance. He then gave Ruth a little leaflet describing his charitable enterprise, on the back of which was printed a lovely prayer asking God to bless the poor. Ruth, of course, thanked him profusely and started for Naomi’s home, wondering what kind of recipe she could find that would stretch twelve ounces of barley into a day’s meal for two adults… but thrilled by the thought that she was included in Boaz’s thoughts and prayers. She went home exhausted, but happy.

Nope.

Nope.

Nope. I can’t do it. You know that is not what happened. You know, I hope, that is not the narrative that is found in the Scripture.

Landscape With Ruth and Boaz, by Joseph Anton Koch (1823-1825).

Landscape With Ruth and Boaz, by Joseph Anton Koch (1823-1825).

That’s not what the scripture says. You heard a story of a wealthy man who noticed the striving and difficulty of a poor widow and who went out of his way to encourage her; a man who, in fact, made it easier for this woman to sustain herself and her family by embracing a pattern of behavior that affected his personal bottom line negatively. You heard how Boaz understood Ruth’s presence in his community to be a means by which she was seeking the shelter that God, through his people, provides to those who are vulnerable. You heard how Boaz ensured that Ruth’s experience of seeking to care for her family was safer and more effective as he changed the ground rules for gleaners in his fields.

You know what happened. And you know that the alternate reality I tried to paint in the beginning of this message was a lie. The scenario I described is neither what actually happened nor what ought to have happened. So what is our take-away from this part of Ruth’s story? What do we see, and what can we do? Some observations…

A Yazidi woman and her family , Iraq, 2014 (Reuters)

A Yazidi woman and her family , Iraq, 2014 (Reuters)

The world can be a dangerous place. If the Book of Ruth teaches us anything, this is surely something we’ve got to remember. Economies fail, crops get parched, factories close, people we love die. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, we’ve got to remember that when we are down and out, people will try to take advantage of us. Did you hear Boaz telling Ruth to stay close to the people that he trusted, and not to venture into other fields? Boaz knows the dangers that face young vulnerable women who have to take calculated risks with their own dignity and personal safety simply to survive in a world filled with predators. Nothing in our story minimizes the harshness of Ruth’s struggle or the dangers that she encounters with regularity.

And, as we mentioned last week, we each have an obligation to do what we can to take responsibility for ourselves in a broken and fearful world. When Ruth and Naomi show up in Bethlehem, they’ve got to develop and implement a plan for their survival. Gleaning, while far from attractive, provides these women with the opportunity to sustain themselves even as they hope and pray for something better to come along.

As we consider the other participants in today’s chapter, we see another truth emerging: those who have resources do well to employ them in order to serve and support the weak and the marginalized. As we’ve noted, Boaz takes the opportunity to make sure that he’s not wringing every last cent from the ground he’s been given, but rather allowing that acreage to become a blessing in the lives of those who are less fortunate. Additionally, he uses his “male privilege” to create safe space for a vulnerable female refugee, literally surrounding her with people who will see to her personal safety.

While he doesn’t say so explicitly, there seems to be a strong connection in Boaz’s mind between the sovereignty of God and God’s care for the world and Boaz’s call to use the assets at his disposal as a part of God’s care for the world. Moreover, one can read in Boaz’s behavior and conversation the notion that he perceives this kind of partnership in the Divine purpose to be a gift that he’s received, and he goes above and beyond in his efforts to share what he’s been given. Boaz knows the core truth of scripture as contained in Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s (not mine) and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it.” Whatever Boaz has, he’s been given by the One who truly has the right of ownership.

Similarly, how would it be if we each spent a few hours this holiday weekend taking inventory of the gifts that we have received and looking for ways that we might channel those gifts so that they reflect God’s blessings in the world around us. Our culture is busily training us to see all the things that we do not have, all the places where our neighbors have it better than we do, or how someone else is getting ahead of us. The perspective of faith, I believe, calls us to acknowledge our gifts and strengths and to employ them in such a way as to become a blessing to someone else.

Boaz and Ruth, woodcutting by Gustave Dore (1900)

Boaz and Ruth, woodcutting by Gustave Dore (1900)

And because we live in a dangerous world that is too often filled with toxicity, we do well, as a community, to create and dwell within structures that facilitate the loving of our neighbor. There is a sentiment that has found favor with a large number of religious people that the only meaningful charity and assistance comes as a result of individual action and autonomous choice. I’ve heard some people speak against a food stamp program, for instance, because “the government shouldn’t get involved in feeding people, it should be up to the individuals to care for their neighbors.”

Now while I’m not here to advocate for a so-called “nanny state”, especially on Independence Day, I think it is worth noting that the practice of gleaning wasn’t Boaz’s idea. The idea of refusing to wring every ounce of productivity from your land specifically so that the poor and disenfranchised might benefit from it was at least a societal norm and civic expectation. Boaz and his fellow landowners were following the law instructing them to leave sustenance for the poor – they weren’t just being nice or extra faithful.

In the same way, I believe it behooves us to create some sort of a societal “safety net” that allows the most vulnerable to receive some of the benefit of life in the richest society the world has ever known. I’m more than happy to share a sandwich with a friend who I know is hungry. If my neighbor needs help, I can see that and will offer it. But the problem is that just as Ruth was unknown to Boaz, so many of the people in our world who are most at risk are not my friends. I don’t know who they are. But they are my neighbors. And so I appreciate being able to contribute towards some sort of structure that allows the marginalized to receive help when they need it that does not depend on me knowing who they are.

This is, as I’ve mentioned, Independence Day. Take some time to reflect on what it means for you to have participated in and, most likely, grown up in this land of abundance. When you hear the fireworks in the next few days, I hope you get down on your knees and thank God that you get to hear explosions as celebration, and not as bombs dropping on your home or invaders coming to wreak havoc. We live in a place that has received a great many blessings, and we ought to acknowledge that.

And at the same time, ask yourself, where are the Ruths and Naomis in your world? What will you do to extend these privileges and benefits to your neighbors – especially the neighbors whom you do not know personally?

I promised you when we started the Book of Ruth that it was a love story with a happy ending, and we’re moving toward that ending. But today, let’s not ignore this crucial part of the middle, which teaches us that we are, by God’s grace, bound together. We are connected. And we have the responsibility to care for and to seek God’s best for the other, even when the other is a stranger, a refugee, a person of poverty. Let us, this day, commit to giving thanks for where we are, and who we are with, and what we have been given… and let us move beyond “thoughts and prayers” to create a world wherein it is normative to share our gifts with those for whom they seem to be out of reach. Thanks be to God, Amen!

Whatever It Takes

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our texts for Sunday June 26 were Ruth 2:1-7 and I Thessalonians 4:11-12.

 

 

Let me invite you to do a little thinking as I begin this morning. Please complete this sentence, to yourselves: “I’d rather die than…”

What reality, what possibility, is so unattractive to you that you’d just as soon shuffle off this mortal coil as to go ahead and follow through on it?

I mean, all of us have preferences, right? I like to eat fish, you prefer a little tofu, and he won’t eat a salad. But if fish, or tofu, or a big old bowl of salad was all that stood between you and starvation, could you choke it down?

I guess what I’m asking is whether there is anything that you consider to be so far “beneath” you, so unattractive, that it is, in fact, impossible for you to even consider.

GoodLieThe film The Good Lie tells the story of a group of Sudanese children who are forced to leave their villages and wander through the wilderness in search of refuge. At one point, the youngest child in the group dies as a result of dehydration. When he realizes what has happened, the eldest boy urinates into a metal pot and says, “I want to live. I do not want to die.” He takes a drink, and passes it around to the surviving children, who each repeat that phrase before they sip. It is a powerful, powerful scene, as something that is abjectly horrible (children drinking their own urine) is transformed into something almost sacramental as the group’s leader acts with love and humility to preserve life.

Coal PickingIn contrast, there’s an equally moving scene in Angela’s Ashes in which a young Frank McCourt is ridiculed by his father for picking up lumps of coal that have fallen from a wagon. Malachy McCourt is too proud to do that, and so the family’s home is cold and damp and several children die as a result of the conditions there.

The first film gives us a glimpse of someone who did the unthinkable in order to survive, while the second demonstrates the ways that human pride or laziness or bitterness can literally kill.

Today’s reading from the book of Ruth allows us to focus on the character and behavior of Ruth for the first time. Last week, we saw the overwhelming nature of this family’s calamity from the perspective of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Her suffering was so great that there were several times when it appeared as though she was pretty much ready to lay down and die – she felt as though the grief was too real, and there was too much for her to do.

Gleaning, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)

Gleaning, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)

At this point, however, her daughter-in-law, Ruth, decides that if the family is going to be saved, it’s because she can take action. Here in the beginning of Ruth 2, this woman acts with courage, integrity, and humility. She does what it takes to ensure survival.

As we consider this text, pay attention to how she is known. She’s not just “Ruth.” She’s not “Mahlon’s wife” or “Naomi’s daughter-in-law.” She is “Ruth the Moabite”. “Ruth, the Outsider.” “Ruth, the One Who Doesn’t Belong Here.” In the wake of the global movement to demonize refugees and ostracize the foreigner, this is important for us to note this morning. Even while Naomi and at least some in her home village know the sacrifices that Ruth has made and the bravery she’s already displayed, they can’t resist reminding her and the rest of us that she’s really not that important. She’s just a Moabite. She’s nobody, at least in the eyes of that culture. They are not sure that she’s welcome.

And yet, as I’ve mentioned, she has chosen to do what she needs to do in order to stay alive. If Ruth and Naomi are to survive, it’ll be because Ruth is willing to become a gleaner.

I would imagine that if many of us were told today that our survival depended on our ability to “glean”, we’d be in trouble, simply because a lot of us aren’t exactly sure what that means. “Gleaning” is the act of going through a farmer’s fields to collect that portion of the crop that was not taken by the original harvesters. It might be unripe, or overripe, or damaged – but for whatever reason, a “gleaner” is someone who goes into a field from which almost all of the food has been removed in the hopes of finding something that will get her or him through the day. In reality, when you see a homeless person picking through the trash at the fast food restaurant, you’re looking at a form of 21st-Century gleaning.

Untitled (Ruth and Naomi Gleaning); photo by Adi Ness, 2006  Used by permission; see more at http://www.adines.com

Untitled (Ruth and Naomi Gleaning); photo by Adi Ness, 2006
Used by permission; see more at http://www.adines.com

Whether we’re talking in Bible times or in our own, gleaning is hard and demeaning work. I don’t know whether Ruth thought of herself as a gleaner when she made all those flowery promises to Naomi about sticking together back in chapter 1. But now they’re in Bethlehem, and they are hungry. And so for Ruth, there is not much debate about it – she simply announces to her mother-in-law that she’s going and she works so hard that she catches the eye of the folks who are getting paid to bring in the crop.

As we consider wisdom of the Book of Ruth for our own day and age, it seems to me that one lesson might be simply that sometimes we have to do what we would prefer not to do in order to get to a future that is a better place than where we are now. Sometimes, we have to do that which we consider to be unappealing or menial or even humiliating if we are going to do our part in growing in faith and life.

Now, before I tell you what I do mean, let me emphasize what I do not mean by this. I am not suggesting that it is ever appropriate for someone with power to somehow bully you or anyone else into doing something that is immoral or unhealthy or destructive just because you may not have any better options. I was once asked by a thirteen-year-old girl if I thought that selling drugs was bad. When I mentioned that I did, she started to cry and said, “Well now I don’t know what to do. My daddy makes me help him put the stuff in little bags and weigh it, and when I told him that I didn’t want to, he said that the Bible said to ‘honor your parents’, so if I want to be a good Christian I have to help him.”

No. I can’t tell you how wrong that is. In the same way, it’s not appropriate to let someone use you – your body, your labor, your self – as a means to help them get to a place that is in opposition to God’s best. That is not what I mean when I say sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant or humiliating.

And similarly, I’m not talking about all those commercials that you’ll be seeing in the months to come about the Olympics, and about what makes a person special is the fact that she or he gets up at three a.m. and runs 37 miles and eats only raw eggs and locusts as he or she pushes towards being the best gymnast/swimmer/sprinter that has ever gone for the gold. There may be some valid lessons in self-discipline and motivation to be had there, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I am saying is that a huge part of the Christian life is rooted in doing what you can do to take responsibility for yourself as well as for other people. Lots of times, that will be unpleasant. Often, it will be difficult. Sometimes, it will even seem unfair. None of those are sufficient reasons not to act.

Sometimes, this kind of action is easy to recognize, but difficult to do. Paying your rent on time, for instance. Just do it. Getting out of bed and going to work or school, even on days when you don’t “feel like it”. Doing what you need to do in order to keep promises you made to someone, even when somehow that’s become inconvenient for you. I don’t think that you need me, or Ruth, or Jesus, to tell you that these things are right and good and appropriate ways to behave as a mature person in the world. If this was an internet meme, it would say something like “adulting is hard”.

My mother used to encourage me to “be the bigger person”. For a long time I hoped that meant eating two sandwiches a day and taking extra dessert, but it turns out that’s not what she was talking about. What she meant, of course, was that being in relationship with other people provides us with all kinds of opportunities to swallow our pride and take the risk and try to do what’s right, even when we’re afraid that it’s going to come back to bite us and lead us to more pain.

Years ago, I heard a version of this from a friend, who had gotten it from a friend, who had probably stolen it from someone else. Where it comes from doesn’t matter: the point my friend shared with me was this: Dave, you’ve got to keep your side of the street clean.

What she meant by this was the fact that people will do all sorts of things that are unfair or ill-advised, but that you can’t control all that they are doing. You can only be in charge of making sure that there’s no way in which you are contributing to the degradation or marginalization of another human being.

Ruth is a strong woman who knows who she is and is willing to go and do some difficult things for all the right reasons. I wonder if people might be able to say the same thing about me or about you? Have I gotten so tired of being burnt in relationships that I don’t extend myself the way that I ought? Are you so frustrated by the ways that nobody at your place of work seems to do anything that you’ve become a part of the problem, too? When you look at a relationship or a social problem, are you tempted to cry out, “Oh, what’s the use? I hate this and nothing is ever going to change anyway…”?

Paul writes to his friends in Thessalonica, and he says that they ought to work hard and be diligent and seek to “be respectable”. I’m pretty sure that he’s not saying this because there’s a great financial or social gain to come from it. I think he’s saying it because no matter what your neighbor does, who your pastor is, or what your brother did last week, the bottom line is that if you have the chance to do what’s right, you do it. End of story.

But you might object, and say, “look, this ‘doing it all like it depends on you’ business sounds an awful lot like we are supposed to excuse other people’s bad behavior and just get used to being the people who clean up other people’s messes. You might think that if people of faith walk around being humble and menial and deferential, that the powers that be will never be challenged and that real change won’t occur. I agree – we can’t be one-sided in any of this, and there are a lot of things that we need to say about people who have power (and we’ll say them next week). The truth this week is that Ruth isn’t in charge of, and can’t control Boaz, or Naomi, or the other reapers or gleaners. Ruth can only take responsibility for her own actions – which she must do on a daily basis.

As we consider the example of Ruth this morning, let’s remember that the story of our faith calls us to take responsibility for ourselves, to act with courage, humility, and grace in the areas where we can.

For you, that might mean taking responsibility to work towards reconciliation in a relationship, even if it’s not “your fault” that things went south. Or it might mean that you need to stand up for yourself in a place where you’ve been accepting poor treatment from someone else in the hopes that if you name the truth about the ways that you’ve been treated, others will be spared the pain that you’ve endured. And it might simply mean that you act as one who keeps the promises that you’ve made, even if such promises are now inconvenient or even costly to you.

In another part of the Bible this kind of living is held up for us to consider. Psalm 15 reads like this in The Message:

God, who gets invited to dinner at your place?

How do we get on your guest list?

“Walk straight, act right, tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend, don’t blame your neighbor; despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”

 

As I mentioned last week, the story of Ruth is the story of us. Starting with the actions that we can control, we have got to be people of integrity and reliability. Thanks be to God, that way is open to us. I hope that we are willing to go there, even when the road seems difficult. Amen.

When the World Falls Apart

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our text for Sunday June 19 was Ruth 1.  

 

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times last week as I shared vacation with my granddaughter: “Read me a story, Grampy.” And I did. You know I did.

Because we all love stories, don’t we? We like to hear them, read them, watch them, tell them… We use stories to entertain, instruct, inspire… we use stories to allow us to enter into a different reality – one that, if we’re lucky, allows us to understand our own a little better.

So this summer, we’re going to dive into one of my favorite stories of all time, a classic “once-upon-a-time” love story from the Old Testament that begins in tragedy and ends with “happily ever after”. It is, as you have heard, the story of Elimilech’s family – and more particularly, some of the women in that family.

Here’s a spoiler alert: if the story was really about Elimilech, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. If it was really about Naomi, or Ruth, or Boaz, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. Mostly, it’s in the Bible because of the ways that it points to the family that became King David’s family, and as you know, King David was a pretty big deal in the Bible.

More than that, though, it’s a story about the family that became Jesus’ family – also a pretty big deal in the Bible.

But as much as I’d like to tell you this story because it’s about Elimilech, or Naomi, or Ruth, or David, or Jesus… I think that the main reason we need to hear it today is because it’s about us. For the next five weeks, we’ll be listening to this old story and, I hope, being entertained, instructed, inspired, and challenged as we try to live lives of faith in 2016.

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

The story begins with some amazingly horrible events. There is a famine in the land of the Promise, the land of Israel – and so Elimilech and his family become refugees in the land of Moab. Once there, however, things go from bad to worse, because only three verses into the story, Elimilech dies. It only takes two more verses for his only children, Mahlon and Chilion, to succumb, and now Elimilech’s widow is left with two foreign daughters-in-law in a foreign land. The first five verses of our story are about death, decay, and devastation.

Sounds like page one of this morning’s newspaper, doesn’t it? Shootings in Orlando, or Wilkinsburg, or Crafton Heights. Refugees streaming across borders in Turkey or Greece or Ethiopia or Germany or Honduras or… Families, many of which we know and love, who have been displaced by untimely death, or job loss, or the arrest of someone in the family, or unsavory landlords…

We don’t know what it’s like to move from ancient Israel into ancient Moab, but we know something about pain and loss and times when it seems like the world is simply falling to pieces, don’t we?

And when that happens, well, it can be easy to think that we are alone in the world. Nobody has felt pain like our pain. Nobody knows the difficulties we’ve been through. We are alone in our struggle against the universe, or God, or fate. And so in our reading from this morning, Naomi responds to the famine in her native land and the deaths of her husband and sons by sending away her daughters-in-law. “Don’t waste your time with me,” she says, “I’m a broken down wretch of a creature.” She tries to bless these women as she sends them back to their homes, but her heart isn’t really in it. Eventually, Orpah is able to leave her mother-in-law, but Ruth won’t hear of it. Four times, the old widow looks Ruth in the eye and says, “You don’t get it, do you? I’m alone. Beat it. Go home.” Because that’s what pain does, doesn’t it: it isolates you.

In his  “Ted Talk” on depression (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eBUcBfkVCo), Andrew Solomon says,

Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

That’s what grief and pain and loss do to us, isn’t it? They make it seem impossible to grasp any kind of future. I’ve seen that in refugee camps in South Sudan. I heard it when my friend Kucho said, “the government of Sudan is bombing our villages in the Nuba mountains every week, and the world does not notice. Nobody cares. We are alone.” I have heard that in the plaintive cries of the lost and lonely and grief stricken here in our own community: “Go on home, Dave. You can’t do anything anyway. Nobody can.”

There are times, when like Naomi, we become convinced that not only is the world against us, but the Lord is too. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me”, she weeps. When the world is falling apart, it’s easy to think that you’re alone.

So our story tells us, so far, that horrible things happen and that when they do, we feel like we are alone. Another lesson from this chapter is that people who are in pain can be, well, unpleasant. Sometimes, people in pain act like real jerks. For instance, after Naomi is unsuccessful at getting her daughter-in-law to go back to her family, she returns to Bethlehem (accompanied by Ruth). Did you hear what she said when she got there? “My name isn’t ‘Naomi’ (meaning ‘pleasant’) anymore. Call me ‘Mara’ (which means ‘bitter’) from now on. When I left, I was full, but now I am empty and alone.”

Now when she says this, who’s there? The folks in Bethlehem, of course, but also Ruth. Here’s Naomi going on and on about how nobody loves her and all this horrible stuff has happened and she’s all alone in the world, and Ruth is standing there, helping to hold the old lady up, waiting to be introduced. The more that Naomi complains about being alone and bereft, the more Ruth has to be thinking, “Seriously? What am I, chopped liver? You know I can hear you, right Naomi?”

Remember Ruth had just made this amazingly beautiful speech about love and support and faithfulness – so beautiful, in fact, that some of you wanted to read it in your wedding services – and now Naomi is pretending that Ruth doesn’t even exist. What is up with that?

People in pain lash out – and often that winds up hurting those who choose to come close. I’ve seen that happen in a hundred ways: someone comes in to the church looking for a little help, and we go to the food pantry to pull a few things together. I come into the room where the person is waiting and explain that I’ve got some spaghetti and beans and peanut butter and whatnot and the person looks into the bag and says, “Strawberry jam? Seriously? I hate strawberry. Is this the best you’ve got?”

My first reaction is get defensive, and to proclaim, “Listen, Bub, you better check that attitude at the door because I’m only trying to help here… you’ve got no right to be angry with me.” And I realize, this person isn’t really angry with me. This person is ashamed at having to come to our food pantry, or devastated at the loss of a job, or otherwise incapacitated by the pain they’ve suffered, and I happen to be standing here at the time. That’s what happens when the world falls apart – we become people that we don’t want to be, at times.

So what do we do? We get it, Dave – the world is a hard place for lots of people on lots of days. What are we supposed to do about that?

The first and most important thing that we can do is to, pardon my language, give a damn. In a media cycle full of alligator attacks and celebrity divorces and gossip scandals and basketball finals… it’s easy to think of 49 people gunned down in Orlando as so “last week”, or to think that the nearly sixty million forcibly displaced people across the globe are someone else’s neighbor, not mine. You don’t like the news that’s in front of you? Change the channel. Turn the page. Play some Candy Crush or Trivia Crack. Who needs that negativity in your life, anyway?

I’m not asking you to care because it’s easy, or because it makes sense in your life right now. I’m asking you to give a rat’s ass about these kinds of things because I think that’s what the Gospel compels us to do. And if you are able to muster some discipline to care, at least a little bit, about the people whose lives are falling apart, then the next step is to look for a way to enter into some part of their story with them.

For the people who are close at hand, that’s a little easier. Our Cross Trainers Staff, for instance, will have the opportunity to brush up against some young people this summer whose worlds have been or are being turned upside down in all kinds of ways. You all will spend time with children who have been abused or neglected; you will engage with young people whom God loves dearly who carry incredible scars that might well be invisible. If someone opens up to you about some incredible pain, know that in all probability, you won’t be able to fix it. Fortunately, it’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job – it’s everyone’s job – to listen for it. To respect it. To enter into it. And then, perhaps in conversation with Brad or Jason or me or someone else, to help that child get to a place where she or he is able to envision a different reality for her or himself. The young people we’re hiring have the easiest way to respond to the message this morning.

stop-the-gun-violence-iconAnd if you’re not on Cross Trainers staff? Figure out a way to care. I don’t care if you are a gun owner or a pacifist, can we agree that it’s horrible when 50 young people are cut down while dancing in Florida? Can we agree that it’s not God’s intention for school children or office workers or worshippers to be mowed down by the blazing barrel of an assault weapon? Assuming we can agree on that, can we talk about creating some strategies for reducing the likelihood of that happening? This is a great week for that kind of discussion in all kinds of ways. There will be some discussion of action on a national level about legislation, and you might want to reach out to our senators or representatives. Offer your ideas as to what we can do to reduce the number of funerals at which we wring our hands and say “never again”.

But here’s the deal on that, from me, this week. If you are a Christian, you are not permitted to make this conversation about what you need to do to protect your rights and keep your options open. Frankly, as a follower of Jesus, you’ve already settled that: you’ve confessed that your rights are not the most important rights in the world – that you are here to serve others. I’m not saying you don’t have rights or shouldn’t value them – but that’s not the reason for this conversation. The reason for the conversation is to look for ways to staunch the flow of innocent blood. Talk about the people who will never experience another “right”, about the parents or spouses or children who sit across the breakfast table from an empty seat this morning. Obviously, any solution to gun violence will have to account for individual rights, yours included – but how about if we don’t start there? How about if we start by throwing around some ideas geared towards preventing gun violence?

REFUGEES-1And maybe, for some reason, you just can’t get your head wrapped around how to slow gun violence in our community or our world. Here’s another option. Did you know that June 20 is World Refugee Day? Every minute of every day, an average of 8 people are forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safer. On average, refugees spend seventeen years – seventeen stinking years! – waiting for whatever is going to come next: a return to their home, a resettlement somewhere else; seventeen years of uncertainty and vulnerability. Those people drowning in the Aegean Sea, or walking across borders in Hungary, or riding the trains north through Central America… they are children of God. They are our neighbors. We are called to do what we can do to make our world a better and safer place for everyone, not just us.

And again, please don’t come crowing to me about how we can’t really help these refugees because all they want to do is come here and take our stuff. As a follower of Jesus Christ, you’ve already said that what’s yours isn’t the most important thing, but rather, living in the footsteps of Jesus is what you want to be about. Your stuff, my stuff – it’s important (hey, I have a fence to keep the deer out of my garden) – but it’s far from the most important thing, and it’s not where we’re beginning this conversation.

I’ve offered a Resource Document containing a number of websites for you to check out on your own time this week. Some are related to gun violence, while others have to do with refugees. Please understand, the only action that I am actively endorsing is that you take the time to care about this stuff. I’m not saying we are going to agree on strategies – but I am saying that Elimilech’s story, and Naomi’s story, and Ruth’s and David’s and Jesus’ story – that our story – ought to drive us to the place where we care about what happens; and that place of care can lead us to a means by which to get involved.

This is our story. We are created as people in and for community. Can we choose to care, and to act together as we stand against violence and hatred and death? Thanks be to God, who calls us from death to life through Jesus his Son, Amen.

The Baptism of Hope

On June 5, 2016 God’s people at the Crafton Heights Church were privileged to celebrate the baptism of three delightful young children, and to know that the embrace of God includes, enfolds, and changes us.  Prior to sprinkling my young friends, we read about our brother John the Baptist’s ministry as recorded in Mark 1:1-8.  Then I spun what I hope was an imaginative yarn about the power of baptism and the place of hope in our lives.

 

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

Do you remember that day, so many years ago? Do you remember the time that the angry young preacher came around? He was so . . . so different. He was so . .. . so appealing and repulsive at the same time. While most of the preachers we had ever known dressed in fine clothes and stayed in the city, the one they called John wore rags and lived in the desert. The ones that we were used to were polite to a fault, and called us “Sir” and “Ma’am” and acted like they appreciated the offerings we put in the basket, but John yelled at us. Everybody knew that people who had been in the church all their lives needed to be ceremonially washed every now and then, and only the pagans needed to be baptized, but John claimed that everyone needed to repent, and everyone needed to be forgiven. Why, it was just unheard of.

I know that you know a lot about that day that John stood by the banks of the Jordan and hollered about baptism. But here is something that you may not have known.

In the crowd on this particular day was a widow woman, whose name was Susanna. She had come to hear the preacher because her life was hard, and she was hoping for something to make it easier. In fact, she forced her three sons to come with her, even though none of these teenagers would have gone along if the choice were theirs to make. Today, I’ll tell you the story of what happened to Susanna and her sons as a result of meeting John they call “the baptizer”.

As I have said, Susanna was curious. Nothing more, really. She was just wondering if maybe there could be some real hope and substance in a religion. She had tried to believe, but it seemed so unreal. But what she saw and heard that day touched her in a way that nothing else had, and so Susanna waded into the murky waters of the Jordan and asked John to bring her to the “one who was to come”.

Her oldest son, Simon, was appalled to see his mother associating with such a religious lunatic, and he made no secret of his shame and scorn. Oh, she was his mother, and he continued to treat her with some measure of respect, but it was a respect of the hands and feet, not of the heart. Weeks and even months after they returned to the village, he was filled with disgust at the notion of his mother falling for such hucksterism. As soon as he could, he left the village and moved to the city of Antioch, where he became a cloth merchant. Because he was her son, and because she was his mother, she continued to receive packages from him, and twice he went to visit her — twice, in the course of the 27 years until she died — twice, he took her money and tolerated her religion . . . but he could never really accept her again.

 

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I'd appreciate knowing.

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I’d appreciate knowing.

Now, the middle boy, whose name was Jacob, that was a different story altogether. Although he was only 17 the day that he was dragged out into the wilderness, you could tell that it was a day he would never forget. Jacob had been running with a group of young men who were enraged by the presence of a Roman army in the Promised Land. While their parents and grandparents seemed to be happy waiting for some miraculous deliverance, Jacob and his friends knew that nothing would happen unless the faithful took charge.

So when he heard John preaching about someone to come, someone who would be great and who would deliver the power of the Holy Spirit, well, Jacob just about ran into that water. He glared at John and practically demanded baptism, and as he came out of the water, he raised both hands high in the air and gave a shout – I’m not sure even now if it was a shout of joy or a prayer, but it was a shout that matched the determination on his face.

It was only a week or two after the baptism that Jacob and his friends formed an alliance with a group known as the Zealots – a political party that urged radical steps to overthrow the Roman government. They looked and waited for an opportunity to shake off the yoke of oppression – and always Jacob was looking for this powerful deliverer. There was a teacher who came to town, a man they called Yshua, or Jesus, who was really quite captivating to Susanna and to Jacob’s younger brother, Nathaniel. But Jacob thought that he was soft on the Romans and could not be the Promised One.

About two years after meeting John, Jacob and several of his friends were caught trying to cut the bridge out from under a Roman Garrison passing through the gorge. They were executed on the spot and their bodies left for the vultures and the jackals. It was three weeks before Susanna knew what had happened.

 

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

And the youngest son, whose name was Nathaniel, he was the most thoughtful one. When their mother ran into the water for baptism, he was not ashamed, like Simon. Neither was he eager to follow, as had Jacob. Nathaniel just watched. And, unbeknownst to his mother, he went back the next day, and the next. Something about what the preacher was saying had him hooked – but he wasn’t sure what.

Finally, about three weeks after he had first seen John, Nathaniel asked to be baptized. And when he left, he went straight home and asked his mother to be released from his duties at home so that he might follow John and learn from him. Although Susanna was afraid, she knew that Nathaniel would do what Nathaniel would do, and so she gave him her blessing and off he went.

He had been gone for a few months when he returned home to report that John had been killed by Herod, but that he was now following a new rabbi, a teacher named Yshua – Jesus. He was the one, Nathaniel said. Jesus was the salvation of which John had spoken. He was sure of it.

After that, Susanna met with Nathaniel a few times, and even hosted Jesus and his friends once or twice. And, like her boy, she came to admire and even love the carpenter’s son. But after a few years, Jesus was killed, and instead of returning home, Nathaniel became more convinced than ever of his faith. He claimed to have eaten and spoken with Jesus after he had died. He left the country altogether, and was never heard from again. There were rumors that he was killed by a tribal council in Greece, but nobody knows. He just disappeared.

And so years later, in the twilight of her life, Susanna runs into an old man she thinks she recognizes. His name is Simon, called Peter. And he was a friend of Nathaniel’s. He was a friend of Jesus’. He was, in fact the leader of the group that was now called “The Way”.

And this old lady pours her heart out to the preacher. “What do I do now?” she asked. “How can I believe? What is there left for me to hope for, really? This baptism, this faith, this Jesus — it has alienated me from one son and killed my other sons. When will the promise come true? How many more sons will disappear?”

 

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

And Peter, grizzled, hot-tempered, smelly, old Peter responded to this woman. One translator words his statement this way:

God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change . . . since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down on that day, but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promise . . . So my dear friends, since this is what you have to look forward to, do your very best to be found living at your best, in purity and peace. Interpret our Master’s patient restraint for what it is: salvation.[1]

At the end of the day, the old preacher said, really, all we can do is hope. And we’ve got to act like we have hope. He didn’t answer the old woman’s question, exactly. He just tried to encourage her, he tried to help her to see that she doesn’t see the whole picture, but that soon she will. “Hang on and keep trying” is what he essentially said.

Now why in the world would I spin this yarn for you on this baptism Sunday, the first Sunday in June, in the year of our Lord 2016? Because there’s a new preacher on the block who rants and raves? Because I suspect that there’s someone here who’s ready to join the rebellion?

No, that’s not it. I’m telling you what might have happened because I think that the world in which we live is a lot like the one in which Susanna and her sons lived. It’s a world that has lost hope. We live in a culture that can’t imagine what real health and healing and wholeness might look like, and so we spin our wheels. We are unsure about the future – we look at the coming election and we shake our heads; we think about terror attacks and gun violence and refugee crises and healthcare costs and… well, many of us don’t like to think of what will happen. It seems pretty out of control sometimes.

When we get lost in our fear about the future, we lose hope. And because we lose hope, we don’t have any reason for big changes in our lives. “Rather than make big moves, we relax, settle into present arrangements, old habits, circular movements. We cling tightly to what is rather than dare to dream about what we ought to be.”[2]

 

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Now listen to me, beloved. I am not John the Baptist. I am not the voice crying in the desert, eating locusts, wearing camel’s hair.

I am Dave Carver. I am a pastor. I tell stories. I walk with God’s people in Crafton Heights, and in Malawi, and in a few places in between. I am more apt to be eating wings and wearing khakis.

But today, today, let me play the part of John the Baptist. Let’s make this a grand production, and let me be the person who will yell about the One who is far greater than I! Let me tell you about the One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie. Let me be the one to spread the waters of baptism on unsuspecting little girls this day…

And in a sense, let me even pretend that I am more than John the Baptist, because John could only look forward, dimly, to a time when a man would come and assume his ministry and lead the people forward. But where John had the sands of the Jordan river for his platform, I have the rough-hewn rock door of an empty tomb as mine; where John promised that God was coming, I can tell you that God has come — that Immanuel – that God is with us. John had words to say, and I have words to say, but Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of life, the message of love and hope from God the Father.

You see, that’s worth hoping about. That’s worth getting excited about. Because just as my made-up friend Susanna was not forgotten by God in the length of her days, neither have you nor I been forgotten by God in the stories that we have lived. We are not beyond him. We are not too far away. We have reason for hope.

 

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980's

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s

In 1987, I had the privilege to go to Germany. While there, I spent hours driving through East Germany to the city of West Berlin. Some of you may know that in those days, there were two Germanies: the free and democratic West and the poor and communist East. Two governments, two nations – separated by an ugly cement structure called the Berlin Wall. And I drove and walked along the Berlin wall. I saw “Checkpoint Charlie”, where visitors could gain access from one side to the other — if the guards felt like it. I saw markers indicating the spot where children had been shot trying to make it from one side of the wall to the other. I saw mile after mile of razor wire, I saw tanks and guns and ugliness. And I saw what hatred looked like.

And not 500 yards from the wall, in West Berlin, I saw several brand new office buildings going up. And I asked my German friend, “Why in the world would you want to build those things so close to this wall? Is it to show the people in the East that you are succeeding and that your way of life is better than theirs?”

She was quick to reply. “No, that’s not it at all. We are building these here now because when the wall comes down and we are once again a single country, then the office buildings will be in the middle of town.”

wall-1I saw years of hatred and razor wire and people being shot. She saw a nation healed. I laughed at her idealism. She had a party about two years later when the Berlin wall was removed. And now, how many Germanies are there? And what’s the capital of Germany?

Where are the walls in your life? Where is hope held hostage? People of God, beloved, will you let me play John the Baptist today? Will you let me rant and rave a little bit, as long as you feel the water of hope splashing on you?

Our God has not forgotten . Our God is gracious, and waiting even for me and for you. So hope. And act like you have hope. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message 2 Peter 3:8 ff.

[2] Will Willimon, Proclamation 5, Series B 1993, p. 21

There’s a Storm A-Comin’

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 29 we had the 18th and final message in this series.  The text was Matthew 7:24-29 and our epistle reading was I Peter 3:12-18.

 

The pastor had all the kids up front for the children’s sermon. At one point, she asked if anyone could think of a name for a small grey creature that had a long bushy tail, gathered nuts for the winter, and lived in the trees. One little boy said to his sister, “Since we’re in church, I know that the right answer has got to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

jesus-crashed-25840-1250214387-56

 

Jesus.

Seriously – that’s the answer. I’m here to say that I love Jesus.

"Baptism of Christ" (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

“Baptism of Christ” (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

Whoa! No kidding! Last week, I started my message with “I love to talk”. This week, “I love Jesus.” Who could possibly see that coming? You may have seen in your bulletin the fact that next week is baptism Sunday at CHUP. Make sure you’re here for the 10 a.m. worship, where you might learn that water is wet!

But seriously – I love Jesus. And let me tell you more (because, you know, I love to talk, too…).

Late last summer I commenced with a plan to spend most of this past year studying the Sermon on the Mount. This is the eighteenth sermon I’ve preached in that series. When I said we were going to focus on Matthew chapters 5-7, I made the case by saying that we’d had a year wherein we considered the importance of hospitality and worship, and we’d emphasized mission and looked at a number of key Old Testament passages. And I wasn’t lying when I said any of that.

But the truth is that last summer, I was weary and dry.

Listen: I know a lot about running a church. If there’s a crisis, I can be a good guy to have in the room: I’m farily level-headed; I know some great scripture verses; I can pray up a storm on some days…

But here’s the deal: sometimes I think that I – and the rest of the Christian family – get so hung up on running the church, on having productive meetings and missional emphases and sustainable strategies that I – and we – miss the reason that we got into this in the first place. Jesus.

The church is important. The church needs to do stuff in the world, and the people in this room are the ones to make that happen. We have to talk about the heroin epidemic and gun violence and corporate greed and human sexuality and environmental issues and money and a thousand other things. I know that. I get it. And we do talk about those things.

Yet sometimes I get so hung up on my own ideas about those things that I lose sight of the one who called me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the church that I lose sight of Jesus.

And I was afraid that was happening last year, and so I said, “All right, CHUP, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount.”

When I did this, I hoped to explore some new insights about what Jesus had to say about the issues of his day and ours, but mostly, to be honest, I just wanted to be with him for a while.

JEsusIn the middle of all our churchiness and programming and policies, I just wanted to hang around with Jesus, and to remember who he has been for me and for us. I wanted to be like Peter and hold on to the testimony – “we ourselves have been eyewitnesses of his majesty”, the old apostle says. We’ve known Jesus. We’ve seen Jesus. We love Jesus.

And so for much of the year we’ve wandered through some familiar sayings. We’ve contemplated the logs in our own eyes, the wisdom of cutting off one’s right hand, and foolishness of making a show of our giving or praying. And we’ve liked being there to hear those things and to remember those things with Jesus.

But our walk through the Sermon on the Mount is not just about memory, or going into our spiritual “happy place”. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a series of dire warnings. Last week, we heard Jesus talk about false prophets. This week, we get a weather forecast – and according to Jesus, there’s a storm a-comin’, and we’d best be prepared for it.

Nothing I can find in the Gospels indicates that Jesus ever lost a lot of sleep over whether or not we would like what he had to say, or that we would get all warm and fuzzy when we heard the beatitudes. He didn’t do much opinion polling. His concern, as evinced here, is whether we and the other hearers of the word would be attentive to the message. The question is not, “Do I like it?”; the question is, “Will I obey?”

Does the message of the Sermon on the Mount shape me? Do I hear the words of Jesus and as a result of that hearing, am I less likely to become debilitated by worry, or falsely emboldened by a judgmental attitude, or less likely to be consumed by lust or anger? That is to say, am I building my life, am I experiencing reality, as defined by Jesus’ words? Or am I simply admiring them the way that I do a sunny day, a beautiful painting, or a fine meal?

In the conclusion to his own study of the Sermon on the Mount, German pastor and theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. But again he does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal, he really means us to get on with it.[1]

And those who heard it first knew and understood that to which Bonhoeffer referred. Matthew tells us that they were amazed at his teaching – they knew right away that this was no mere wordsmithing; Jesus meant business.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

And the religious establishment and the Romans knew that a man who said things like this was something to be reckoned with – they came to realize that Jesus was dangerous to their cozy charade, and that he needed to be dealt with.

You see, that’s why I love him so much. Jesus, contrary to the understandings of him that are so prevalent today, was not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. He said it. He did it. And he offered to teach you and me how to do it, too.

So if you don’t know this already, let me tell you plainly: the storms are coming. It is a question of “when”, not “if”; a question of “how”, not “whether”.

Have you ever noticed how often we speak conditionally? It’s ridiculous. You hear it all the time. Someone says, “If I die…” or “Should something occur.” Seriously? Of course I’m going to die. There is no “if”, only a “when”. “Should something occur…” When in the history of history has something not occurred? You know that it’s going to happen… jobs will be lost, your spouse or parent or child will die, we will see floods; lives will be wracked by drug abuse or affairs; we’ll break legs and promises, we’ll suffer auto accidents and famine… It’s going to happen, people. And even if you say, “No, I’m good, I’ve already had that…”, well, think again – because this isn’t the mumps, people. The storm is coming. Again. And again. And again.

And when (not if) that storm comes, who will you be?

And when (not if) that storm comes, how will you get to the next step?

And when (not if) that storm comes, to whom will you turn?

Jesus.

Yes, that’s the right answer. Jesus.

When the first disciples hit a wall, and a lot of the crowd melted into the woodwork, Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave, too?” And Peter replied– do you remember this? –

“Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

I’m with Peter. I don’t have any better ideas because Jesus is the best that there is.

I hope you’re not surprised to hear your pastor say this, but a lot of days, I don’t get it all. There are times when I look at God the Father and I think, “Holy smokes, what in the world is going on with this Guy?” There are, as Robert Capon says, some days where I look at the Father’s track record and I think that the best thing he’s got going for him is a Son like Jesus who is willing to vouch for him, ‘cause I sure can’t figure him out. And often the Holy Spirit isn’t much better – so much gets credited to him or blamed on him that I’m not sure what to believe – except that Jesus said he was sending the Spirit so I’ll be on the lookout.

But Jesus? Jesus I can love. Jesus does everything. I can do nothing on my own, but I can trust and follow him. It is a sweet deal, and the only deal that works for a knucklehead like me.[2]

I had a friend who lived with debilitating mental illness her entire adult life. Some of you knew her and would remember her. She suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia and four or five other conditions that landed her in the hospital for six or eight months at a time. But when she was lucid – wow, was she a woman of faith. And I can’t remember how many times she grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, Pastor Dave! Thank God for God! Thank God for Jesus! Right, Pastor Dave? I don’t know what’s happening, but thank God for Jesus.” And all I could do was hold her hand right back and say with conviction, “That’s right, Barb. Thank God for Jesus…”

Because, you know, he’s Jesus.

So we’re finished with the Sermon on the Mount. And because we’ve had it in bits and pieces for 18 weeks over the course of nine months, let me ask you to do this: go home and read Matthew 5, 6 and 7 today. And read the entire Sermon every day this week. And try it. Look for logs in your own eye. Give secretly. Let go of lust or anger. Remember Jesus. Listen for his laughter, heed his warnings, learn from his wisdom, and accept his grace.

And love him. Oh, for Christ’s sake, love him.

And follow him into the storm, knowing that you can’t control the ride, but you can control who you’re going to hold onto in the midst of it.

And thank God for Jesus. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 218-219).

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988, p98).

During the offering, I concluded the series of messages on The Sermon on the Mount by singing a Rich Mullins tune entitled “Heaven in His Eyes”.  You can hear this song (although, mercifully, not me!), by clicking on the link below or pasting this url into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCBOZVLfCco