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.

A Left-Handed Compliment

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  This week we heard the story of the first real “Judge” or deliverer for Israel – a sly Benjamite named Ehud.  I know, I know, Othniel came first, but he didn’t have much of a story.  Our texts for the day include Judges 3:12-30 (included in the text below) and I Corinthians 1:20-25.

         Samson-Delilah-poster-1020458735This morning we are going to continue to read through the Book of Judges, a volume that is probably not familiar to many in the room.  Oh, I imagine we’ve seen stories of Samson and Delilah or Gideon in the children’s books, but as we’ll discover in a few weeks, those are pretty poor characters to be introducing to our kids.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Judges is, essentially, a collection of campfire stories, and this morning’s reading fits that description perfectly.  And if the accounts of Samson or Gideon are likely to be found in traditional children’s Bibles, then I’d suggest that today’s story is more likely to be found in books put out by The National Lampoon or The Onion.Deuteronomic Cycle 1

12 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 13 He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amal′ekites, and went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. 14 And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

Just about as soon as we can, we turn our backs on what is right and start looking for trouble.  And that winds up with King Eglon from Moab coming in and taking over a portion of Israel.  I should tell you that it seems as though “Eglon” is a made-up name.  It comes from the Hebrew word that means “bull” or “round”.  In the next paragraph, he is described as being “fat”.  “Eglon”, then, is here to represent the “round, fat bull”, the guy at the top of the food chain.  He’s a “fat cat”.  Eglon is, here, “the man”.

This is not Eglon.  But this is probably how most of the original hearers of Judges would have pictured him.

This is not Eglon. But this is probably how most of the original hearers of Judges would have pictured him.

So “the man” takes over a part of Israel, including “the City of Palms”.  Now, wait a minute!  “The City of Palms” – that’s what the Bible calls Jericho.  And didn’t Joshua destroy Jericho as a symbol of the powers that oppose God?  And didn’t Joshua say “Don’t anybody rebuild this city!  God’s curse is here!” (Yes, he did.  Joshua 26:6 if you don’t believe me)?  So what we learn in this introduction to the story is that Israel, in direct opposition to their leader, went ahead and ignored God’s best intentions for their lives and instead, chased after what they wanted.  Wow, what a strange concept…I wonder what it feels like to ignore God and do only what I want to do…Oh, yeah, that’s my struggle every day…

The story continues:

15 But when the people of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he girded it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man.

This is not Ehud.  But this is probably how the original hearers of the story would have pictured him.  If they had access to the mythology of the American West, that is.

This is not Ehud. But this is probably how the original hearers of the story would have pictured him. If they had access to the mythology of the American West, that is.

Here we meet the other main character, Ehud.  Like Eglon, this name has a meaning: it is related to the word for “one”.  Ehud is a loner.  He’s the Lone Ranger.  And, interestingly enough, he’s left-handed.  Why do we need to know that?

In ancient folklore, left-handed people were considered tricksters, outcasts, and misfits.  Ehud is no exception to that rule, and he makes himself a special blade that can be strapped to his inner right thigh where it would likely be missed by the TSA and the Border Patrol.  Most men, you see, wore swords and weapons on their left side.

Can you see where this story is going?  For Israel, at any rate, it’s a comedy.  In this corner, you have the solitary outcast.  And in that corner, we see “the man” – evil personified…the good guy wins, the bad guy dies, and it’s really funny to boot.

Ehud volunteers for the job that nobody wants – it’s time to deliver the “tribute” to Moab.  That is, it’s time for someone to take some of our hard-earned money, cross over the Jordan River, and hand it to our enemy in the hopes that he won’t get irritated and wipe us out.  That’s what needs to be done, and Ehud does it.

It starts out like a typical delivery, but then Ehud puts his plan into effect:

18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people that carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And Eglon commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him, as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly; 22 and the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber upon him, and locked them.

You see: after presenting the tribute to Eglon, Ehud evidently goes back as far as the statues to the Moabite god, Chemosh, and then he sends his friends back home, saying, “Oh, man!  I forgot something.  I’ll catch up…”

One depiction of a statue of Chemosh

One depiction of a statue of Chemosh

He rushes back to see the King – who knows that Ehud would be passing the Moabite god, and says, “Hey, your majesty…I have a message for you…”  Once again, the Hebrew translation is tricky.  The word for “message” is also the word for “thing”.  Eglon, perhaps hoping for a word from his god Chemosh, tells everyone to leave so he can get the news in private.  They go upstairs into the king’s private chambers, where Ehud does in fact give him the “thing” – the blade that goes all the way through.  In the part of the story that has appealed to adolescent males for 3,000 years, we’re informed that the blade is so effective and so sharp that it pierces Eglon’s bowels and “the dirt came out”.  Ehud has, quite literally, beaten the crap[1] out of Eglon and, leaving him to die in his own waste, he locks the door and beats a hasty retreat.

24 When he had gone, the servants came; and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were utterly at a loss; but when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them; and there lay their lord dead on the floor.

An anonymous woodcut from Martin Luther's Bible depicts Ehud's escape.

An anonymous woodcut from Martin Luther’s Bible depicts Ehud’s escape.

As he’s heading out, Ehud mentions to the staff that the King really enjoyed his lunch and that maybe they want to give him a minute.  Not long afterwards, they walk upstairs and they smell the bathroom, and say, “Hoo, boy, it’s not a good day to be King!  You better lay off the knishes, Eglon.”  And they wait some more (what is the appropriate amount of time to wait when someone else is in the bathroom?), and they finally go in and see that he’s been killed and they raise the alarm.

Meanwhile,

26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Se-i′rah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of E′phraim; and the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. 28 And he said to them, “Follow after me; for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed not a man to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

Ehud, the left-handed loner, crosses the border and recruits an army that whips the Moabites and drives them out of Israel.

ehudeglon1ceCan you imagine that for hundreds of years while they were getting beat up with some regularity by the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the…well, can you see that it was probably with some glee that God’s people told and retold the story of the loner, the misfit, the outcast, the trickster who walked right past those false gods and sacrificed a “fat bull” to YHWH?

Listen, the story of Ehud and Eglon is slapstick, but it points to a deeper truth.

How can it be that a single man – a left-hander, at that – defeated a king?  Everybody knows that in order to win, in order to be successful, in order to get ahead, you have to be strong and ruthless.  You have to be the man.  There is no place for weakness, no room for the underdog.

Except here, in Judges, we learn something about God.  We see his preference for the weak and the marginalized.  We understand that he is opposed to systematized repression and institutional violence.  And remember, my reading of this book is that it is not so much an historical account about who is wiping out whom, but rather an exploration of what happens when God invites his people to oppose the evil structures that surround them and create a new way of living.

And the hint of these things in this crazy story from Judges is stated explicitly in I Corinthians, where Paul talks about Jesus as “the foolishness of God”.  Jesus, who went to the heart of the religious and political treachery of his time, and stood up for the ones who were being beaten down.  Jesus, who opposed violence with suffering, disease with healing, death with resurrection.  None of it makes sense.  Except all of it does.

And we could stop now, and everybody could go home chuckling a little bit at the image of old “Lefty” sticking it to the man in the bathroom…and maybe even being glad for the ways that Jesus teaches us to see life a little differently…

Or we could go a little deeper and look for ourselves in the story.  If I am right, and this is a story about the intentions of God encountering the systems of this world, perhaps we need to ask ourselves in what ways we participate in those systems.

Look, I’m a Christian believer.  I am a member of the dominant religion and the majority race, a citizen of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 21st century.  Let’s be honest: if most people in our world are telling this story, they don’t look at people like you and me and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the underdog.  Those are the marginalized.” No.  We are not them.

But where is God in the story? With the underdog.  With the marginalized.

So I need to reflect: in what ways do I relate to systems of power and oppression?  In what ways to I relate to the bully and the one who is bullied?

Do I stand with those who suffer?

Do I stand on top of those who suffer?

Do I stand by while suffering occurs and do nothing?

Where is the Good News here?

Look, when I started this message, I was hoping for a few laughs at the fat guy’s expense.  This is bathroom humor – literally. But the more I read this story, the more I realize that on some days, in some ways, I am the fat guy.  Given half a chance, almost every one of us would choose to be the king, rather than the oppressed.  And we often instinctively look for ways to increase our advantage.

So today I want to simply pause and thank God for this story that reminds me that I can stand in the foolishness of God and walk with God’s children who are on the edges.  I am grateful that God continues to invite me away from the idols of our day and into the lives of those who are on the margins.  This week, I’d like to encourage you to look for people who are experiencing repression – maybe they are getting bullied at school, or mistreated at work; maybe they are the workers at the place where you’re doing business; maybe they’re protesting something down the street or half a world away…but look for them.  And then pray, “God, where are you in this situation?  Where are you acting? Where are your hopes being revealed and shared? Where are your intentions expressed?”  And then, when you get a sense of where God is, go to that place.

Here’s a hint: it probably won’t be easy.  It wasn’t for Jesus.  That’s ok.  Go there anyway.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] I am indebted to J. Clinton McCann’s treatment of this passage in many ways, particularly with this phrase borrowed from his Interpretation Commentary on Judges (Louisville: John Knox, 2002).