Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Thanksgiving is not a liturgical holiday.
But it could be.
For, what could be more faithful than breaking bread with family (and foes) knowing that Jesus spent his entire ministry doing the same?
And yet, there is a sense in which what happens around the Thanksgiving table is more determinative over our lives than the One who gives us life. Rare is the family that is immune to the political pandering that happens over turkey and mashed potatoes. Gone are the days we could sit back and rejoice without worrying about who will say what and ruin the holiday mood. We, then, approach the table of blessings without feeling like it’s much of a blessing at all.
But what if God is the one calling us together for the explicit purpose of redeeming our Thanksgiving tables? What if this is the year to let forgiveness reign over judgment? What if we took seriously the claim that, as Paul put it, “The Lord is near,” even at the holiday table?
There’s no guarantee that anything good can come out of our Thanksgivings this year, save for the fact that we worship the God of impossible possibility! So keep your eyes and ears open, let your gentleness be known, and rejoice! The Lord is near!
And, in the spirit of bringing a little holiness to a moment that is sometimes devoid of holiness, I’ve put together a little “Thanksgiving Liturgy” that anyone can use. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of faithful clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience…
A Liturgy For Thanksgiving
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name. For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
The delight of Thanksgiving is both in the thing itself, and what it anticipates. So many other holidays come and go and leave us feeling vacant. And yet, upon the conclusion of Thanksgiving, while we put away all the dishes and say our goodbyes, we do so with the knowledge that Advent is knocking at the door, and with it: Christmas!
Advent is the season of waiting and watching, but what we’re waiting and watching for is already present at our Thanksgiving tables. The splendor of Advent is made manifest in the One who breaks bread with us whenever we break bread: Jesus.
Therefore, let us rejoice in our Thanksgivings, much like we do when we come to the Lord’s Table in church. Advent is already around us, hiding in the basement, laughing upstairs, and dancing in the living room. The unknown day and hour of it bursting into our reality is something worth celebrating, not fearing.
Put another way: God is not our mother-in-law who comes over once a year checking to make sure we’ve kept the house in order and that we haven’t chipped her wedding-present china. Instead, God is like our delightful uncle, who barges in unannounced (and perhaps uninvited!) with a baguette under one arm, and a bottle of wine in the other. We do need to wait and watch for God, but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
Lord, free us from fear and worry that, trusting in your goodness, we may always praise your mighty deeds and give you thanks for the bounty of your gifts. Amen.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem of rite festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
I would like everyone to close your eyes for a moment, find a comfortable posture, and I would like you to imagine the perfect church…
What does it look like?
What kind of people are in it?
What are some of the things the church does?
It’s a little terrifying how easy it is to imagine “the perfect church” only to open our eyes and be stuck here with each other. It’s so easy to picture a particular church in our minds because that’s what life has conditioned us to do. We usually curate everything we can to benefit our own tastes, and leanings, and hopes, and dreams.
If we don’t agree with someone else on Facebook, we can just block and unfollow them.
If we start watching a movie and within ten minutes it’s boring we can push a few buttons and watch something else.
If we’re hungry for a particular meal, we need only open an app on our phones to have it delivered right to our door, despite all the food we might already have in the pantry.
Basically, we are consumers living in a consumable world. We choose exactly what we want, take what we want, and move on with unlimited choices and unlimited speed.
And, frankly, we bring this understanding of reality to the church as well. That’s why there’s every flavor of Christian denominationalism on Grandin Road. If you encounter a church that doesn’t give you what you want, there’s always another one to try.
The only problem with that is the fact that what we want is not often what we need.
An example: We are blessed in this church to have visitors nearly every Sunday. That is something worthy celebrating, but a very strange phenomenon when taking in the scope of Christian history. Up until the last 100 years, you went to church where you could. Now we go to church where we want.
Anyway, we get a fair number of visitors here, those church shopping for a new church home. And, every once in a while, visitors come back again and again and I will meet with them to talk about what it might mean for them to join or become more involved. During that conversation I always ask about where they were attending church before.
And, more often than not, someone will describe their last church, usually somewhat local, and how they attended for years until something particular happened. A too-political sermon. A unfortunate song choice on a Sunday morning. A stinging stewardship season. And that was enough to say goodbye.
According to the world this is a normal thing that happens. We can move on over and over again.
But in the realm of the church this is downright strange.
Charles Spurgeon, 19th century preacher, put it this way:
“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”
Strangely enough, the church is where we discover the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ that leads us to live uncomfortable lives for him. Uncomfortable because, living for Jesus means living for the people in the church around us too.
When someone joins a United Methodist Church they covenant to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. To support the church by presence is literally that, it means being present.
Part of our discipleship is a willingness to be present with God and with one another. We gather week after week to remember the stories of God and to be re-membered into the body of Christ. We break bread with one another in worship, and during the Garden, as a recognition that the Christian life is one that is meant to be shared. We show up for Bible studies, and outreach programs, and all sorts of other things because, on some level, we understand that being present together is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
Luke’s Gospel has all the best stories. Mark is short and brief, Matthew is theological, John is all over the place, and Luke’s got the stories. And the story of Jesus at the temple is just so good.
It’s got drama and intrigue, family strife, and youthful rebellion.
And when we read it we tend to fixate on Jesus teaching the elders. He’s a 12 year old boy and everyone is amazed at his teaching. And so people like me stand up in a place like this and say things like, “Our youth are not the future of the church, they are the church right now.” And a 3.5 minute story will usually be shared about a youth and how they understand the kingdom better than we do. And so on.
And that’s all good and fine.
Jesus does say that if we want to get into the kingdom of heaven we have to act like children.
And yet, I fear we miss something else in the story when we emphasize Jesus’ teaching in the temple alone. What we miss is the fact that this is also a story about horrible parenting!
Listen to it again: They traveled all the way to Jerusalem for Passover, a six days journey by foot, and when they were done they returned home Mary and Joseph did not know that they left their son behind.
What? How does that happen? It’s one thing to lose track of a wayward child in the grocery store, but leaving them behind in a foreign city? C’mon!
And that would be bad enough. But then it says they traveled a whole day before they noticed. AND THEN once they turned back it took them another 3 days to find him!
Jesus was in the Temple teaching and his parents were astonished and Mary said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
Which is the Bible’s version of, “Boy, you had us worried sick! You are grounded from now until eternity!”
And how does Jesus respond? “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Must is a strong word. In life all of our must and shoulds don’t muster up to much in the kingdom of God, but Jesus’ response is notable.
It is good and right to be in the house of God. Honor and keep the sabbath, that’s 1 of the 10 commandments.
The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”
To be in the house of God was as necessary to Jesus as it is to breathe.
And yet, there are a few more staggering details in this story that really bring it all home. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem for Passover. Some 21 years later, on Passover in the same city, Jesus will take a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and share it with his friends. He will become the Passover Lamb for the them, the exodus for the rest of us.
Mary and Joseph abandon Jesus in the city, much like the aforementioned disciples will abandon him to the cross the day after Passover.
It take Mary and Joseph three days to find their son, much like Jesus sat in the tomb for three days before the resurrection.
And notably, after the family’s confrontation in the Temple, scripture says that Jesus returned home and was obedient to his parents and Mary treasured it in her heart. Which is another way of saying that Jesus forgave his parents for what they did to him, much like Jesus returns to his abandoning and denying disciples on the other side of Easter.
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the claim that salvation does not come to us by natural inclination, by birthright, by earning, or deserving. Salvation is a gift from God. And because it is a gift it can only be received on God’s terms, not ours. The church is the witness to the gift of salvation, reminding us time and time again what we have been given even though we deserve absolutely nothing.
That’s a hard truth to swallow, the “we deserve nothing.” But it’s true. We all do things we shouldn’t, we all avoid doing things we should. We are imperfect people. We might not be the type of people who forget our children back in Jerusalem and wander around for a few days before we find them, but we do have a lot more in common with Mary and Joseph than we let on. What’s more, even though we fail to be an obedient church, even though we fail to love God and one another, God offers us grace anyway.
Therefore, the perfect church is actually an imperfect one, constantly reminding us of our imperfections and the great Good News that someone has come to help us. And that someone has a name: Jesus
Without the church how can we know that grace is given to us, how can we discover that we are caught up in Jesus’ story, how can we receive the sacraments?
We need one another, because you can’t baptize yourself no more than you can give communion to yourself. We need someone to give those gifts to us. We need the church to tell us again and again, “The world will only ever see you through your faults and failures, but God loves you.”
We need the church because it holds us together even when it feels like everything else is falling apart.
Rich Mullins once said, “Nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning. Every time we go to church we’re confessing again to ourselves, our families, to the person in the pew next to us, that we don’t have it all together. That we need direction, we need accountability, we need help.”
The reason for being present in church is the strange fact that this is the only community that is consciously formed, criticized, and sustained by the truth. Which is Good News for a world that runs by lies.
Church is the last vestige of place where we willfully gather with those who are not like us, this is the fellowship of differents. And though we are different, the truth that is Jesus Christ, somehow makes us one.
I often wonder why I kept going to church throughout my life. At first I was present in church because my parents made me – they couldn’t leave me home alone as a child even though Mary and Joseph clearly would have.
But then, around my teenage years, I started running the sound system so I had to be present in church. And then I left for college, and there was a church that needed a drummer so I was still present in church. On and on and on.
And when I look back now, I know the answer to why I kept showing up for church: Jesus.
Jesus churched me. The church is how God dealt with me. I am who I am because of the church. Through sermons and sacraments, through friends and even foes, I was shaped into who I am.
God is in the business of remembering us. That is, God re-members us, puts us together, like pieces from a puzzle. And yet, have you ever pulled out a puzzle and worked away on a rainy day only to realize that one or two of the puzzle pieces we missing?
The picture isn’t complete.
The church is complete, the body of Christ is complete, when we are together. Your presence here makes the church the church. When we are present before God’s presence, we live God’s future in our present and it actually changes things.
So welcome to the perfect church! It’s perfect because God does God’s best work with imperfect people like us. Amen.
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dream. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
It is a strange thing to share the dreams we dream with others. To us, they feel so very real even though, as soon as we wake, we know they aren’t. And yet, more often than not, moved by a particularly imaginative vision, we will tell others of what we have seen and experienced knowing full and well that, most of the time, it means absolutely nothing to the people we tell.
There’s a better than good chance that each of us here have had at least one dream that left us mad at someone because of what they did in our minds even though they did nothing in reality.
And yet, how true to our human nature!
Listen – Jacob, Israel, settled in the land of his father, Isaac. Contrary to the controversial beginnings of his life, he eventually grew to have a large and prosperous family. Among his many children, Joseph was his very favorite, and Jospeh was a dreamer.
The parallels in scripture are often quite staggering.
Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching into the heavens, a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend.
Joseph has a vision of his brothers bowing to him.
Jacob’s story culminates in his reconciliation with his brother Esau.
Joseph’s tale concludes with his brothers as well.
And yet these two biblical figures could not be more different. Jacob is selfish, Joseph is kind. Jacob runs away from his problems, Joseph walks straight into them. Jacob throws his life away, and Joseph, himself, is the one thrown away.
Joseph, baby of the family, dreams of sheaves in a field bowing to him, he has visions of his family relying on him for their deliverance. And it would be enough just to have these dreams, but Joseph has the bright idea to share his dreams with his brothers. His brothers already despise him because their father loves him most of all and even gives him the gift of a coat with long sleeves.
Scripture says that Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age, but we also know that Joseph is one of the only two children from Rachel, Jacob’s first love and second wife.
Notably, Jacob is one who has experienced the divine inversion that runs rampant in scripture as he was elevated over his brother Esau (by his own heel-grabbing tendencies). Jacob’s preference for Joseph runs against all propriety at the time, and against the established norms. His love upends everything the family thinks they know about how things are supposed to work, which is something God seems to do all the time.
This tale is a foretaste of how, throughout the rest of this strange book, God will often choose the youngest and weakest for honor and leadership. It is a strange and new economy of grace.
The brothers hear out their baby bro’s vision and they decide, with a solid eleven voting members, that they can no longer live with the dreamer. Ten of them want him dead, but the eldest, Reuben, convinces the others to merely throw him in a pit instead.
Reuben, inexplicably, leaves the scene and the remaining brothers spy an approaching caravan and the decide to sell Joseph into slavery.
This is a strange and bewildering tale, even among the wild new world of the Bible. The final quarter of Genesis is devoted to this one person and his tale. The themes that follow have been made manifest of countless other stories: exile, hiddenness, the hero’s journey, riches to rags and rags to riches, drama, mystery, and hope.
As Joseph disappears into the horizon, his brothers take his aforementioned not actually technicolor dream coat, and they dip it in fresh blood to convince the rest of their family, and their father in particular, that Joseph is dead.
And, to be frank, he might as well be dead. He is completely cut off from his family, from the land of his birth, and from the story of God’s people. He travels as a slave to be a stranger in a strange land without any hope in the world, without his father’s love, and without his special jacket.
Jacob responds to the news of his favorite son’s death by ripping his own coat and vows to live a life of mourning until the day that he, himself, dies.
So, why is it that Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit of enslavement?
Those of us with brothers and sisters know, first hand, the strangeness of siblings. We know of the tensions and the pains and the jealously that can be all too present within a family. But, the kind of domestic squabbles we might be familiar with are a far cry from what happens here in Genesis.
Why is it that when God comes to dwell among us, we nail God to the cross?
Why is it that, when they hear of their brother’s dream, the sons of Jacob sell Joseph into slavery?
Joseph, now a slave, is sold to to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt, a man named Potiphar. A truly wild narrative ensues that is worth its own sermon series, but for the sake of today it is enough to know that his time there ends with his arrest.
And, it comes to pass that while he is in prison, Pharaoh has a set of experiences that require someone who can interpret dreams. The dreamer from the shackles of slavery and imprisonment has earned a reputation for interpretation, and is called before the throne. Pharaoh shares his dreams of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows but don’t grow in size, seven good ears of corn are consumed by seven withered ones.
What does it mean Joseph?
The dreamer tells Pharaoh that Egypt will have seven good years of harvest and seven years of famine, therefore someone is needed who can store up a surplus during the good years and distribute it during the years of scarcity.
And who does Pharaoh call upon for this task?
The dreamer is freed from slavery, given a wife, and the total authority in Egypt. And, when the times comes, his interpretation is proven correct and he saves the nation into which he was sold as a slave.
There’s a version of this story that ends right here. From riches to rags and back again. This would be a good place for the credits to start to roll. But God has another ending in store.
The famine that strikes Egypt is so bad that even the surrounding areas are suffering. So much so that Joseph’s family is stuck in destitution and are in need of deliverance. The brothers are commanded by their father to seek out help in the foreign land and when they travel to Egypt they beg for food from their brother though they do not recognize him.
Not only do they beg for compassion, they literally bow down to him, bringing his earlier dream to fruition.
There is great tension in the ensuing narrative with Joseph going back and forth with requests and demands from his brothers who still do not know his true identity, and it all culminates during in a moment in which, scripture says, Joseph could no longer control himself, and he reveals the truth.
He weeps so loudly in the moment that everyone in the entire palace hear his cries. And his brothers are terrified. Rightly so.
They deserve judgment and they are about to get it.
But instead of rejecting his brothers just as they rejected him, Joseph embraces them, he literally falls upon them and he covers them with tears and kisses. The scene is staggering. They offer to become his slaves for what they had done, but instead Joseph forgives his brothers, he loves them, and he urges them not to be angry with themselves.
They are invited to live in Egypt and even Jacob travels to the strange land where the entire family is reunited and reconciled.
Joseph does for his brothers what they don’t deserve at all. They come to Egypt with no hope in the world, and the only one who can do anything for them is the one they did everything to. They offer to becomes slaves to the one enslaved and he, instead, offers them a freedom they never could have imagined. Not only are they free to thrive and eat and live, they are freed from the shame and guilt of what they had done.
In short, they are given grace.
I arrived at Alta Mons this week tasked with being the chaplain for all of the campers and all of the counselors. After breakfast we would gather for morning watch during which we would sing songs together and talk about how to keep an eye out for what God might be up to during the day and after dinner we would gather around a campfire for worship during which we would talk about how we had experienced God during the day.
Throughout the week we covered themes like the body of Christ and how each of us are a part of it, the new beloved community, and grace. Asking the kids to define grace was delightful. One of them told me, “grace is what you do before you’re allowed to eat,” and another said, “I don’t know what it is but I do know that it’s amazing,” and still yet another said, “grace is loving someone even if they don’t deserve it.”
And when I asked why God offers us grace, the young theologian Caleb Anderson replied, “God’s built different, that’s straight facts.”
The first night of camp, the kids all sat and stood awkwardly around one another as they navigated the strangeness of being forced to hang out with a bunch of relative strangers in the woods for a week. And over the following days I witnessed joy and laughter and the bonds of new friendship but I also saw disagreements, and frustrations, and deep sighs and hair flips.
But on our final night, as we sat around the campfire and I told them about Jesus’s final night, as I prayed over the bread and the cup and we all shared communion with one another, I saw tears and hugs. I watched and listened to kids sing songs about Jesus, a few of whom who have never darkened the doors of a church. I experienced campers giving love and receiving love without expectation of reciprocation.
In short, I saw grace.
On the day of Easter, resurrected from the grave, still bearing the marks of the cross, Jesus returns not to the best and the brightest and the most faithful. Instead, he returns to those who abandoned him. He loves them, even to the end.
In the kingdom of God the new economy of grace is weird. It is everything for nothing. It is forgiveness, and mercy, and love. It is Good News for people drowning in bad news.
If Joseph was willing to forgive his brothers after all they had done, if Jesus was willing to return to his disciples who abandoned him and denied him, just imagine what we can do with the new economy of grace.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, quite strange.
It constantly subverts our expectations, no matter how many times we come to it. It reveals things about ourselves that we didn’t even know about ourselves. And it points to an ever-present reality that runs counter to how we think the world works.
Listen – Jacob is the worst.
We all know that plenty of figures from the scriptures have problems – nobody’s perfect. But Jacob? Jacob is a loser.
Prior to his birth Jacob wrestles his twin brother Esau in the womb, a perfect foreshadowing of his life to come.
And when Esau is born, he comes out with his twin brother grabbing at his leg, so his parents name the second-born Jacob, which means heel-grabber.
What kind of name is heel-grabber?
Jacob, hustler, scoundrel, liar, cheat, fool, faithless son of Isaac and Rebekah.
Long story short:
Two decades before the infamous battle royal on the banks of the Jabbok river, Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright.
Esau comes in from the field, having hunted and collected food for the rest of the family, and with hunger he asks his brother for some red stew from the stove. Does Jacob willingly hand it over to his twin brother knowing full and well that the firstborn contributes more to his wellbeing than the other way around? No.
Jacob prepares the plate, lets the scent waft in front of his brother’s nose, and says, “I’ll give you this only if you give me your birthright in return.”
And Esau, famished from working for the family, willingly agrees. After all, what good is a birthright in comparison with the deep hunger of your belly?
But it doesn’t stop there.
Later, Isaac in his old age, eyes weary and poor of sight, near death, asks for Esau to come and to receive his blessing, AKA his inheritance. Isaac wants to pass on all of his wealth to his eldest twin son.
Esau, come bring me some of my favorite food that I might hand over the goods.
But the heel-grabber is quick to act.
He walks in with the aforementioned food, and boldly lies to his father. He covers himself in fur to appear harrier like his brother. He leans forward to receive the kiss that conveys it all, and takes it without remorse.
For what it’s worth, that’s three of the ten commandments broken in as many verses.
Esau’s fury in response to his heel-grabbing brother heel-grabbing his blessing leads Jacob to flee for his life.
Jacob becomes a stranger in a strange land, wandering about, and during this time he has a dream, a dream from God. In the dream there is a ladder stretching up into the heavens, angels are going up and down, and the Lord says, “Jacob, know that I am with you and I will never leave you.”
Which, considering what happened and what’s about to happen sounds more like a threat than a promise.
When Jacob wakes from the dream he sets up an altar to the Lord and he is afraid.
His fear leads him to prayer. Does he pray for forgiveness? Does he offer the Lord a contrite heart?
No. He bargains with the divine: “Lord, if you will stay with me, and keep me, and make sure that I have food to eat and clothing to wear, then you can be my God.”
Jacob encounters the divine through the dramatic vision of the ladder, is still no better than he was before!
Soon, Jacob has nowhere left to go. Esau’s fury remains on the back horizon. So he reaches out to his uncle, Laban, who takes him in, provides the food and shelter that Jacob demanded from God. Jacob meets Rachel, bargains with Laban to marry her, works seven years, and then, on his wedding night, is duped by his uncle into consummating the relationship with Leah, Rachel’s sister.
More bargaining ensues, and with another 7 years of labor he is finally granted the wife he wanted from the beginning.
Soap operas aren’t even this good. But wait, there’s more!
After 14 years of labor, and after receiving untold wealth and wives, Jacob returns the hospitality of his uncle turned father-in-law by cheating him out of his wealth hiding away the best of the livestock for himself.
Again, not to make too fine a point of it, that’s a few more commandments broken.
Jacob is a no good dirty rotten scoundrel. He runs from all his problems all while making more problems for himself and his family. He’s a liar, and a thief, and a cheat. There’s nothing holy about this heel grabbing son of a, Isaac.
Why then do we read of this man and his wandering heart? Why do we lift these verses from the strange new world of the Bible and say, “Thanks be to God”? Why does God promise to remain with Jacob even though he has nothing to show for his so-called life?
Because Jacob isn’t his real name.
On the run from his mistakes, from his failures, and perhaps even from himself, Jacob catches wind that Esau is looking for him. So he divides up his family and all of his possessions, assuming that at least half will make it to safety. And, all alone, he sleeps by the bank of the Jabbok river.
A strange figure appears in the middle of the night. Perhaps the consequences of his actions made manifest in the flesh. They wrestle until the sun begins to rise. The stranger knocks Jacob on the hip, dislocating it forever, and demands for the fight to end. Jacob refuses, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Still looking for blessings.
“Who are you?” The figure asks.
“My name is Jacob.”
“No it’s not,” the stranger replies, “Your name is Israel because you have striven with God and humans and you’ve made it to the other side.”
Israel then returns the same question to the nighttime wrestler, “Who are you?”
But he receives no answer. And as mysteriously as the figure arrives, he disappears.
Israel names the place Peniel, which means the face of God, because in the wrestler he met the divine.
The morning comes and Israel sees Esau coming, with four hundred men flanking him on the right and left. Israel goes ahead and bows to the ground seven times until he stands before his brother.
And Esau runs forward and tackles his good for nothing brother to the ground and finally exacts his revenge. And yet, instead of pummeling him with punches, Esau embraces his twin brother and covers him with kisses and tears.
What a strange tale.
Jacob, Israel, is deeply flawed learns nothing except for the fact that he deserves nothing and receives everything. We read his story, we can call it Good News, because grace prevails!
His actions catch up with him, all of the hurt and all of the pain. He is caught and there is no escape. And only then is he known fully for the first time, and is loved.
Here, at the end, after a life of failure and betrayal, vulnerable and at his brother’s mercy, he discovers an acceptance which he never could have earned or deserved.
Which leads us backward, slightly. Decades before the battle royal at the river, long before he had a taste of forgiveness, Israel had a vision, a dream, of a ladder extending into the heavens. Israel knows, after all is said and done, that God is indeed at the end of that ladder, but more importantly he knows that the Good News, the gospel, is not that God is up there waiting for him to journey up – instead God comes down to meet him where he is.
And he has the scars to prove it.
The Good News of the Gospel for Israel, for each and everyone of us, is that God meets us in the midst of our sins, not our successes.
For some reason we’ve got it stuck in our heads that, like Jacob, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the game we call life. We’ll deceive our parents, lie to our spouses, betray our families. We’ll dig deep pits from which we can’t escape all while thinking we’re getting better and better and better. We’ll make horrible decisions and choices all in the name of progress.
But the life of faith isn’t about how we need to get good for God.
It’s about how God comes to us.
And God’s been doing it since the beginning.
From “Adam, Adam, where are you?” To a midnight brawl at the river to the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, God comes to us.
And when God comes to us and we expect to be clobbered with guilt, we actually get clobbered by grace.
Years ago, at a different church, I was sitting in my office one day, day dreaming about a sermon, when an older parishioner barged in through the door. She was older and getting on in years, but she had this youthful glow that I had never seen.
She shouted, “Preacher you are never going to believe what happened to me.”
My favorite stories always start like that.
So without saying a word I mentioned for her to continue.
“Well you know how you keep preaching about forgiveness? Well, I don’t know what came over me, but I finally decided to tell my husband that I cheated on him.”
“What?” I blurted out as I fell out of my chair.
“It was 30 years ago, and it was only once, but I never told anybody. So after we drove home from church last Sunday and as soon as we walked into the house I told him the truth about what I’d done and with whom and when.”
“What does this have to do with forgiveness?”
“That’s just the thing! I told him all I had done and I waited for him to start hooting and hollering and raising hell. All he said was, ‘I know you cheated on me, and I forgave you a long time ago.’ The nerve of that man. Here I am, carrying this guilt around all these years, and he forgave me long ago. Can you believe it?”
Can you believe it?
This story captivates our hearts and minds because it doesn’t end according to the way it is supposed to. Any good consumer of tales knows that Jacob is supposed to get his comeuppance; whether by violent revenge from Esau, or judgment from God almighty. He is nothing but a loser through and through.
But grace works for losers and only losers.
You know, people like us.
No matter how hard we try, and try hard we do, we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves right. We can try, and we can make a heck of a mess along the way, but the Lord has a way of reminding us, all of us, that we are not as we ought to be, that we’re up the creek without a paddle. We do nothing and we deserve nothing, and yet God forgives us anyway. Can you believe it?
The story of Israel, of the forgiven heel-grabber, reminds us that God comes to us in our weariness and woundedness. God, ultimately, rules not from a throne of glory, but from the arms of the cross. God’s power is revealed in the weakness of Christ, and God’s grace comes to us in our weakness.
We don’t have the strength, nor do we have the power, to save ourselves. We are as helpless as Jacob, hobbling around with our hips out of joint. We can run away as far as we can for as long as we can, but one day God will catch up with us. God will grab hold of us. And God will tell us who we really are.
What kind of name is Israel? It means we have striven with God and one another and we’ve made it to the other side. Amen.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Here we are on the other side of the manger, the presents have been opened, the zooms with family have taken place, and we find ourselves back in worship waiting on a Word from the Lord.
There’s something about this season that can bring out the very best, and the very worst, in us. I’ve stood in enough churches for enough Christmas services to witness the extent of how true that sentence really is.
It was merely days ago that the children of the church dressed in all the correct costumes and re-created Christmas for us…
But it was also merely days ago that I heard raised voices and arguments out in the church parking lot, disagreements came to the brim at some of our Christmas tables, and long held grudges remain held.
After our 8pm Christmas Eve service, a woman walked up to me who I had never seen before and all she said was, “Thanks for being open tonight. I didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve.” And with that she walked out.
Families are complicated.
And perhaps no family was and is more complicated than Jesus’.
The Gospel according to St. John begins with a connection to the cosmos – in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Gospel according to St. Mark doesn’t even have an introduction and just hits the ground running with the J the B going buck wild out in the wilderness.
The Gospel according to St. Luke provides some authorial remarks regards the necessity for the transmission of the Gospel in the first place.
And The Gospel according to St. Matthew gets down to earth and puts Jesus’ family tree in the particular context and history of Israel. And the closer you get to earth, the dirtier it all becomes.
Therefore, for the next ten minutes or so, I’m going to attempt to bring us through the genealogy of the baby born King we were worshipping on Christmas Eve. And, hopefully, you will see that my claim of Jesus’ sordid family history is not made in vain.
We start with good ol’ Abe. Father Abraham! The one with whom the covenant was made. I will be your God and you will be my people, and all that. Through you, the Lord says, generations will be blessed.
And Abraham, in his old age, becomes the father of Isaac.
However, it is the faith of Abraham, a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments, that results in Isaac being nearly murdered by his faithful father. Thanks be to God for the ram in the bushes!
Isaac survives to father Jacob, a devilishly tricky young boy who swindles his way into salvation history by pulling one over on his own aging father.
Incidentally, Jacob was himself duped as well. He wound up sleeping with the wrong bride by mistake and becomes the father of Judah.
And, because families are complicated, Judah accidentally slept with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, who pulled one over on him by dressing up as a harlot (more on that in a moment). And when Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law got knocked up while a lady of the night, he ordered her to be burned at the stake!
He only relented when, of course, he discovered that he, himself, through his midnight machinations fathered the child in her, Perez.
And that’s just the first three verses of the genealogy!
Next we encounter a list of people we know nothing about until we get to Boaz.
The strange new world of the Bible tells us that Boaz was a good and honorable man and his conjugal connections with Ruth, a dirty rotten foreigner outside of the covenant, continue the family line.
Ruth, notably, shows up after Boaz had a few too many ciders on the threshing room floor and, prior to their marriage, uncovers his feet.
If you know what the Bible means…
Anyway, this kind of behavior would’ve been no surprise to Boaz because his mother was Rahab, the harlot who had the sweetest little house on the edge of Jericho, who hid the agents of Joshua, and who, herself, was brought into the family line after a city was massacred.
So Ruth and her Bo-az (get it?) made their life in Bethlehem (ever heard of it?) and they brought Obed into the world, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
If you couldn’t tell already, the whole first section of the genealogy is filled with the complicated nature of reproduction.
The next section is filled with violence.
David, after slaying Goliath and playing the harp, after high-tailing it away from King Saul, eventually becomes King. And while King, with all the power it holds, he chanced upon Bathsheba, a woman bathing naked, during some afternoon peeping.
He used the power at his disposal to arrange her husband murder, rapes her, and becomes the father of Solomon, you know, the one with all the wisdom.
The whole story of David is filled to the brim with intrigue and murder.
A lot of murder.
In many ways, David was just a really successful band who, along with the Holy Spirit, brought together a bunch of tribal areas and started a real kingdom.
But, back to the family tree: Solomon’s son Reheboam lost almost all of David’s gain through his insatiable greed. He, according to scripture, encouraged pagan cults and even sacrificed male prostitutes.
The next few names on the list aren’t much to speak us, through at least two of them had some idea about what it meant to be covenanted with the great I Am.
Nevertheless, from Jehosophat through Joram and Ahaziah, it’s quite awful. Should you find yourself with some free time, you can skim through the canon and learn about murdered sons, blood thirsty kinds, assassins, and more!
Perhaps the first Sunday after Christmas isn’t the best time to take a peak behind the curtain of the Holy Family, but it’s all there. All the way up to, and through, the exile.
After the time of being strangers in a strange land, of wrestling between planting roots and getting plucked up, things only get marginally better for this family. But only because most of the next names in Matthew’s genealogy aren’t mentioned anywhere else in scripture.
And finally, finally (!), we make our way down the list until we’re back in the little town of Bethlehem with Joseph who Matthew describes as a just man (which is saying something compared to his ancestors). And who does Joseph brings to the family reunion caused by the emperor’s census? His pregnant virgin fiancé Mary.
No wonder no one wanted to let them stay at their house.
And then, Jesus, son of God and son of Man, light from light eternal, is born in the manger.
That’s it. That’s Jesus’ family tree in all its glory.
So what should we make of it?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus obviously did not belong to the nice clean world of all the worst Hallmark Christmas movies. He did not belong to the reasonable, or honest, or sincere world of decency and that we all too often claim for ourselves today.
Jesus comes from a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, scoundrels, adulterers, and liars.
Jesus comes from people like us, and he came for people like us.
No wonder God had to send his Son into the world; Jesus is the only hope we’ve got. Amen.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praise to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout along and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
A friend of mine, Kenneth Tanner, is a priest who defies all sorts of labels. He is both Charismatic and Anglican. His church has icons and their band plays songs by U2. He wears a collar just about everyday and, when necessary, he can say things you’d never imagine hearing from a priest. He serves a church called Holy Redeemer outside of Detroit, Michigan. Last week, he got an urgent phone call to go to a grocery store right near Oxford High School which had just experienced a mass school shooting.
Ken arrived and stood among the gathered parents who were all waiting to be reunited with their children immediately after the incident.
Teacher were there having just experienced the trauma themselves.
And even the employees of the grocery store did what they could to help.
Ken was there for hours, ministering among the families, helping to connect desperate kids with their desperate parents.
And, eventually, it became clear that a few families no longer had children with whom they could be reunited.
Ken, afterward, said that his experience of darkness in that moment, the total and upmost despair led him, once again, to the conclusion that either Christ is resurrected from the dead, or there is nothing.
I don’t know if it has been your experience in the past, but it seems like we are confronted by the harsh realities of life most during this season of the year. The rates of depression and suicide skyrocket during these weeks, more CPS reports are made, all while we decorate our houses with twinkling lights and we tune our radio to the same 25 songs being played over and over again.
When I talked to Ken after everything he witnessed and experienced last week he said, “Whenever I come this close to the darkness, even in the midst of its most horrifying degrees, the only thing I can cling to is that God is our salvation; God is the only hope we have.”
That, in a sense, is what the prophet Isaiah proclaims for us today: Surely God is my salvation! Come to the wells of salvation that will never run dry. Give thanks to the Lord, call upon God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the people, sing it out to the whole earth; God is with us.
That’s a powerful word for those who sit among the ruins, for those who are overwhelmed by the darkness, for those who don’t experience this as the most wonderful time of the year.
In life we are told again and again who we are. We are labeled by the world for all sorts of things, be it our jobs, vocations, mistakes, shortcomings, on and on.
We can receive one hundred compliments and one critique and it will be the critique that we hold on to. And, after time, we start to believe the critique, whatever it was, is more determinative regarding our identity than anything else. We internalize those things so deeply that we become what we fear.
And yet, in the life of faith, none of us really know who we are until God tells us.
We are who God says we are.
The church, at her best, functions as this proper mirror by which we can see ourselves. We lift up the cross as the reflection for us to really see who we really are.
The church exists to tell the truth – We are sinners in need of grace and Jesus is the power in our lives who makes us more than we could ever be otherwise.
And, let me be clear, that does not mean that the church exists to make people like you better and better. We don’t get together in order to rejoice in how good we are. We are not a gym nor are we a self-help program.
Jesus has already changed us. The only thing we have to do is act accordingly.
Which can be both extremely easy, and dangerously difficult.
Surely God is our salvation! That’s Good News! But’s it’s also hard news to receive because if God is our salvation, then it means that we are not.
And if there’s one thing we don’t like to do, it’s relinquishing control.
There will always be other things in life we chose to trust instead of the Lord. We will cling to the powers and the principalities in life, we will even lean on our own ability to do certain things.
But those idols will never give us life.
They cannot and will not bring us the love and the salvation we so desperately need.
There is no gift under the tree that will bring us the fulfillment we seek.
There is no promotion at work that will prevent us from the anxiety of what tomorrow might bring.
There is no perfect parent to fill us with just the the right amount of love just as there is no champion of a child who will fills the holes in our souls.
And yet, it’s those types of things that we turn to when we know not where else to turn.
Isaiah’s proclamation is meant for a people who have no home in this world. It is for strangers in a strange land. Whether it was in the exile of Babylon, or the places we find ourselves in today surrounded by objects and obsessions that promise life and only give death, this is a Word for us.
It is for us because Isaiah calls for us to celebrate the coming of God’s salvation to a land that is in the deep darkness of God’s judgment.
We don’t talk much about judgment in the church today save for the ever present reminder that we shouldn’t be so judgmental all the time. And yet God is the God of judgment. God holds up these scriptures and calls us to task.
Look at what we’ve done, look at what we’ve become! Those stories on the news, the ones that leaves us quaking, they are about us! This is the culture we created.
And that is a difficult word for us to hear! It is challenging because we are addicted to control. At least, we’re addicted to thinking we’re in control.
We make lists upon lists of all the right gifts for all the right people. We map out the perfect holiday meals and grocery stores runs to make sure we’re able to procure all the essential ingredients. We curate playlists of just the right songs to put us, and everyone else, in the right mood. And that’s just during Advent!
We also do what we can, explicitly and implicitly to make sure that we never have to bump into the wrong kinds of people. We turn on the news and assure ourselves that we’ve taken all the right precautions to make sure those kinds of things never happen to us (until they do). We build up these stories about who we are and what we stand for all the while things are crumbling all around us.
But Jesus is our Salvation! The strange new world of the Bible bombards us with the declaration that Jesus is all we need to live in a world out of control.
You see, following the Lord is just training for learning to live out of control. Faith is just a word for letting go of our obsession with trying to fix everything. Everything has already come out right because we have seen the end in Jesus.
The end that is Jesus makes it possible for us to go on even though we are not sure of where we are.
That’s not to say that we can’t do or change anything. To learn to live out of control guarantees that our lives will include suffering. Remember: these words are for people in exile. For those who live between the times; for Advent people.
Advent, therefore is the blessed and bewildering opportunity not to turn away from darkness, but to stare right into the heart of it knowing that the light of Christ will always shine in it. And then we take that light, whether in our prayers or in our singing or in our talking or our walking, and we live according to it rather than the darkness that creates nothing but fear.
We cling to the old rugged cross, that stands in the shadow of death, in anticipation of the new dawn that is redeeming grace.
Because if this is it, this world, in spite of efforts of good people, if this is it, then it’s nothing but unmitigated bad news.
I don’t know, maybe Advent isn’t the right time to think about all of this. I’ve got a job, I’ve got presents wrapped under the tree, I’ve got a family, maybe you’re like me. But there are people, lots of people, for whom this world, this life, has been one disappointing misery after another.
There are families in Michigan who will wake up on Christmas Day without a teenager they had just two weeks ago.
There are families here in Roanoke who have no bright hope of tomorrow because all they can see is the darkness.
There are people here in this church, right in these pews, who are terrified of the future because they see and hear nothing but bad news day after day.
And yet, hear the Good News: Jesus comes to make all things new.
So maybe that’s why you’re here. Perhaps you’ve come to church not for some tips and tricks on how to make it through another week. But instead you are here to have your minds blown and your imaginations opened.
Maybe you’re here for hope.
Hear me when I say there is no greater hope than this: God is our salvation. God does for us that which we cannot do. God saves us.
If our hope is only in ourselves and in the machinations of this world, then we have no hope at all.
But, by the grace of God, we have hope because hope is born in that little manger in Bethlehem, born to live, die, and live again, born to set us free, born to return with the resurrection of the dead, born to make all things new.
In the end, that’s why we set up the decorations. We do so in defiance of the powers and principalities that rule through darkness. We do so as a reminder to ourselves that Jesus has redeemed us from the temptation of believing that violence is the only answer. We do so in anticipation of the One who returns to us with holes in his hands and says, “I forgive you.”
We are called to practice resurrection. That is, we Christians live according to the Good News of the Gospel which means we are different. We belong to a new age and a new time and a new kingdom in which death is not the end.
Our rejoicing, therefore, is not naïveté.
We don’t come here to pretend that everything out there isn’t actually out there.
We come here precisely because the darkness is so overwhelming, and we need something we can cling to in the midst of it all.
That something has a name: Jesus Christ
Surely God is our salvation; that is why we rejoice.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
The older I get the more complicated Thanksgiving becomes.
When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of delicious food, eavesdropping on grown up conversation, and running around in the cold until one of the aforementioned adults beckoned us back inside.
But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say the one thing that will set everyone off.
And that’s not even mentioning the logistic nightmare of figuring out who will cook what and how in a tight time frame!
Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). This year we are likely to hear opinions on presidential decrees, gubernatorial soundbites, and judicial rulings, just so that everyone else can know exactly what side of what issue we are on.
Which is remarkably strange, at least from a Christian perspective, considering the fact that Jesus came to destroy the very divisions we so desperately cling to and want to demonstrate around our tables.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.
Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Thanksgiving Liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Psalm 126: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Jesus boldly proclaims in the midst of his temptations in the wilderness that, “One cannot live by bread alone.” It is certainly true that we need food to survive, but we need more if we want to really live. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is more than merely sharing food. It is through our conversation and our prayers and our thanksgiving (the action, not the holiday), that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. In many ways the table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table to which we are beckoned again and again even though we don’t deserve it and we cannot earn it. So let us rejoice in the knowledge that, through the power of the Spirit, God has done great things for us.
Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table around which to gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. Work in and through us such that our tears turn into laughter, and our mourning into rejoicing. Let the feast around the table give us a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that is may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “ A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
In the days when the judges were judging, there was a famine in the land. That’s how this book in the Bible begins. It was a time of political chaos, with the Philistines pressing in on the boundaries of Israel. Sure, the Lord raised up Judges to help guide, shape, and lead the people, but by the time Ruth’s story starts, “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
What a proposition!
And it’s here against the background of nation rising up against nation, leaders failing again and again, and a famine on a massive scale, that scripture tells of a small little domestic tale with three primary people – Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.
This is an ordinary story with ordinary people. It concerns the little hopes and dreams of a few people who easily could’ve been lost to the sands of time, and I think that’s why people gravitate to the story.
This little book shows what Karl Barth called, “the simplicity and the comprehensiveness of grace.”
Or, to put it another way, Ruth’s story is prophetic.
It is prophetic because it tells the truth of who God is in relation to God’s people.
So here’s the story:
Naomi and her husband are Hebrews from the village of Bethlehem (ever heard of it?). But when the aforementioned famine hits the land, they are forced to leave in search of food. They go into foreign territory where the Moabites lived, and during their time in Moab, their sons marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth.
And things are good, until they aren’. In short order all of the men are dead. Naomi is left in one of the most vulnerable conditions possible at the time – she is a childless widow with no grandchildren. Naomi believes she has been abandoned by God because of her fate and she has no hope in the world.
Before we jump to the meat of the tale, it is important to rest in the knowledge that this story begins in the dark. That is, the threats of fear, hunger, death, loom large over our people.
Naomi therefore urges her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab because she will be returning to her homeland. Orpah agrees, and decides to stay. But Ruth, inexplicably, refuses to leave her mother-in-law.
Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, and all that.
To be clear, this doesn’t make any rational sense! Ruth chooses to align herself with hopelessness. She has every opportunity to seek out any opportunities, but instead she wills to be among those considered the last, the least, the lost, the little, and probably the dead.
The women, Naomi and Ruth, return to the land of Naomi’s people and the famine has ended, but their situation makes it such that they do no have access to the newfound abundance. And yet Ruth, living into her wild recklessness volunteers to enter the fields to glean barley. She takes on the mantel of a beggar with all of the humiliation and danger that it entails.
And then Boaz enters the story. Boaz owns the field from which Ruth seeks out sustenance. He catches her taking what has been left behind by the reapers of the harvest and he orders his men not to stop her and cast her into the darkness, instead he orders her to be protected by his men!
Why? If this were a Netflix series (which, for what’s its worth, this would be a great show), Ruth would be a beautiful young woman who catches Boaz’s wandering eye. But that’s not what scripture tells us. Boaz is not captured by her beauty, but instead by her fidelity, her faithfulness. Ruth wants to know why he is treating her so kindly and Boaz says, “I know what you have done for your mother-in-law, how you left everything you knew to become a stranger in a strange land – may the Lord bless you and keep you.”
Ruth returns to Naomi with her bountiful harvest, with tales of Boaz and when Naomi puts two and two together, she hatches a plan for the future.
“Get dressed up,” she tells Ruth, “and go down to the threshing floor where the men will be eating and drinking. Find out where Boaz lies down and go to him, uncover his feet, and lie down beside him.”
What reckless advice! Sending a young single woman into such an establishment with such instructions! And yet Ruth, as noted, is bold and daring enough on her own. So she agrees to the plan that will eventually shape an entire people.
Boaz, later, having enjoyed the fruit of the vine, lies down to sleep. Time passes and he wakes up to the young woman from the filed uncovering his feet (I’ll let you imagine what that means). The details of what transpire that night are unknown to us save for the fact that Boaz and Ruth get married, and they have a son whom they name Obed (which means worshipper).
Naomi, now a grandmother, rejoices with the other grandmothers in town as they huddle together taking turns holding this little child. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has given you this gift! May he be to you a restorer of life!”
Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David. The end.
What a story!
And yet, why do we tell it again and again and again? Sure, it can entertain, and it is filled with all the markers of a powerful tale. It’s got intrigue, and mystery, and love, and hope. But why do we dare to proclaim this as God’s Good News for the world?
Well, in part, we tell this story because without it there is no David, the great king of Israel, the one who defeated Goliath and the one who united the people of God.
But we also tell this story because it is a story about us.
At every turn there are choices being made that run counter to the notions of the world. Ruth chooses to remain in a hopeless situation, Boaz chooses to become a redeemer to a foreign beggar, and Ruth and Boaz together become bearers of God’s grace in a world that is otherwise run on violence, selfishness, and greed.
Our world, then and now, is full of famine and death and dereliction and a host of other evils. Often, like for Naomi and Ruth at the beginning, it can feel as if God has abandoned us. But then this story which is our story, reminds us that God’s blessing often come through the simplest, and yet the most profound, means.
When we reach out in love to help the other, it is the hand of God.
When we forgive those who have trespassed against us, it is the mercy of God.
When we are given hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, it is the power of God.
Today, there are still systems that actively reduce people to being among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. The great famines of scripture are made manifest by the powers and principalities that have no regard for our humanity.
And the church can break the mold of the world that continues to run on that devastation of destruction. The prophets, since the beginning, have been those who are willing to care for and reside among the most vulnerable. They did, and do, so because God is in solidarity with the “least of these.” The church has this blessed opportunity to provide a new image of a new community where there is space for everyone, where gifts are cherished, and where systems of oppression are called into question and rendered null and void.
The church, at her best, is a storied enterprise – that is, she exists because of the story and lives by telling the story – the story of us.
Here’s our story:
Time and time again, we reject that which is offered and given freely by God.
Paradise, rejected for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from the tree. (Creation)
Unified Community, rejected for selfish desires of power. (Babel)
So God set out to make a new people in a new land through Abraham and covenant. It is God’s hope to draw all people into this new people.
But Israel, like us, will have none of it! She is just as rebellious and foolish as we are. She worships at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next. And yet, even in the midst of ruin, Israel receives the very greatest gift of all – God in the flesh.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and full human, becomes all that God ever hoped for from God’s people – the obedient and faithful child, called out of Egypt, the new cornerstone of a new community made possible by peace, grace, and mercy, the Davidic king who exists to protect the poor and the vulnerable.
But we will have none of that either! On a tree in a place called The Skull, we nail God in the flesh, rejecting the elected One. He is buried dead and a tomb – utterly forsaken and abandoned.
But then, three days later, God gives him back to us. Jesus raises victorious not only over death, but also over all of our prideful attempts to become the center of our own universes.
That is the story that is worth repeating because it is a story that repeats itself. We reject God and God is determined to elect us. We destroy ourselves and God is determined to bring about resurrection. We get all sorts of lost and God is determined to find us over and over again.
In the end, that’s what prophets do – they tell the story, they tell the truth. They open our eyes to who and whose we are. And Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, is, in himself, the story for a people who have no story.
Therefore, when we read and encounter Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, we do so not as people to emulate literally. Leaving to go be a stranger in a strange land, getting dolled up for the threshing floor, is maybe not the best advice in the world.
And yet, we cannot help from identifying with these people.
Perhaps you’re like Naomi insofar as you feel like you have been abandoned and that you have no hope in the world. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you would be encouraged to reach out for help, or at the very least, accept the help that might be offered to you by others.
Or perhaps you’re like Ruth insofar as you have a little boldness in you but don’t know where to direct it. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you will take that first step toward someone in your life, and become the hope for them that they so desperately need.
Or perhaps you’re like Boaz insofar as you have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you can open your eyes to the people in your life for whom you can be their restorer of life.
Or perhaps you don’t identify with any of them right now. But chances are, you will someday. That’s the beauty of story, we can return to the same story again and again and discover something new each time we do.
In the end, we worship an odd God. Consider: God chooses to align things such that Ruth, a foreigner with no hope in the world, became the great-grandmother of the great King David. And, how odd, that in the fullness of time, God chose to take on flesh in that same little town of Bethlehem, through Jesus Christ, the greater restorer of life, the ancestor of Ruth.
All that we are rests on the story found in the strange new world of the Bible. It is a story we recount week after week, year after year, because through it we discover who we are and whose we are. We must tell this story in order to know and to receive the Good News.
Ours is a storied faith.
So, like the prophets before us, like the prophet that is Jesus Christ, let us tell the story. Let us tell the story when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. Let us tell the story when we are received and when we are nowhere believed. Let us tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6.14-29). Our conversation covers a range of topics including family ties, Money Heist, liturgical dance, food, the heart of the psalter, embracing the unknown, grace in parenting, theological adoption, absent sermons, and the story within the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Faithful Consequences
And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This is a difficult passage.
We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.
So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.
Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”
Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.
“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”
I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!
And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.
This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.
And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.
Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.
Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.
Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”
No. They said he was out of his mind.
But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.
Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life.
That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.
Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.
And perhaps they had a point.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”
That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster.
Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”
That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”
Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…
Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.
No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind.
And it doesn’t stop there!
Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.
You can only win by losing.
You can only receive by giving.
You can only live by dying.
Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?
Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.
And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!
Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”
And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?
His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.
The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?
But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset.
It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you.
But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.
If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.
The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be.
It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.
It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.
Could there be any better news than that?
But wait, there’s more!
Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds.
But what about for God?
God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.
The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.
Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.
And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.
Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!
Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail.
That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes.
So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen.