Extraordinarily Ordinary

Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it 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 those days there was no real leader, and everyone did whatever they wanted.

Sound familiar?

Everything about the setting of today’s biblical text is terrible. There was political chaos as Philistine enemies were pressing in on the flanks of Israel, the “national leadership” was worse than a bad joke, there was a frighteningly wide famine, and the last judge who sat to rule before the time of Ruth was Jephthah the Gileadite, who stirred up a civil war that killed 40,000 Israelities, including his own daughter.

The people had no hope.

In these days, we fight and bicker about who is really in charge, and most people do whatever they want.

Most things about today feel terrible. There is political chaos as we wrestle with the “meaning” behind the midterms and wonder about what will happen to our country. The “national leadership” continues to bicker about everything on a two week cycle so we regularly forget what we’re talking about. And this week marked the 307th mass shooting in our country this year. 

For the sake of context: today is the 314th day.

And it’s against that same kind of frightening and turbulent domestic scale, that we get the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

It’s an old old story that speaks profound truths even into our stories today.

The famine that broke out over the land was so terrible that Naomi and her husband and two sons were forced to flee from Bethlehem – which is rather ironic considering Bethlehem means “town of bread.”

They travel to Moab and Naomi’s husband promptly dies. The widow now only has her two sons who fortunately find Moabite wives. Their names were Orpah and Ruth. But then both of the sons die.

No ruler, no food, no husband, and now no sons.

Three widows are left with no income, no rights, and no hope for the future.

So Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, and sends her daughters-in-law back to their respective families. 

Orpah cries and leaves. But not Ruth. Ruth clings to her mother-in-law Naomi. Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I will die.

And thus they return to the town of bread.

Ruth is a stranger in a strange land, and Naomi might as well be. The last time she was home she had a husband, two sons, and hope. Not she returns with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law.

Ruth volunteers to go out and glean in the fields and she meets the other member of the trio: Boaz. Boaz is impressed when he learns the story of this strange woman who risked it all for someone she had no reason to.

And that’s where we pick up: Naomi tries her hand at matchmaking and gets Ruth all prepared for a midnight rendezvous on the threshing room floor. Some PG-13 action transpires (or R depending on one’s imagination), and then God decides to show up in the story to give Ruth and Boaz a son, Obed who eventually fathers Jesse, who fathers David.

This wonderful and small little book toward the beginning of the Old Testament challenges many of our assumptions about what’s really important. While we might’ve stayed up late into the evening on Tuesday waiting for election results, while we might tune in to our favorite station every night for the important notes from the day, while we might flick through our Twitter feed with ferocity… the really important events of history happen in the most regular of places.

The whole of the book, from beginning to end, dwells on the small and not-evidently earthshaking interactions between three extraordinarily ordinary people.

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And that’s probably why we love the story – its why couples ask me to preach on the story of Ruth at their weddings and it’s why most of us know more about Ruth than Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, and Zephaniah combined.

In other places we read about matriarchs and patriarchs, we catch glimpses drastic and divine miracles, we learn about the prophets and the kings, and people with special missions from the Lord to do miraculous things. 

But then we get Ruth, and Naomi, and Boaz – people just like us.

If Ruth is a story about any one thing, it’s a story of hope. And not just hope that falls down from the sky like manna from heaven, but a hope that is born out of persistent generosity and care. In the characters and in the conversations we come as close as we can to the manifestation of what we in the church call grace. 

While worn down by the times in which they found themselves Ruth and Naomi clung to each other when they had nothing else. They were from different places, with different cultures, and different expectations. But in one another they found something that was worth staying with, no matter what. 

And, of course, upon first glance, it is easy to make the story all about Ruth’s faithfulness. She certainly takes an incalculable and completely unnecessary risk by sticking with Naomi. She left her home, and everything she knew, to accompany her to the small town of bread where she was certainly viewed with nothing by suspicion. 

But the story isn’t just about Ruth. It’s also about the strange and mysterious ways in which God acts through the ordinary to make the extraordinary possible. 

And yet (!) Ruth has no reason to demonstrate the immense possibility of God’s faithfulness because she was outside the covenant! She was a Moabite, a foreigner to be viewed with nothing but disdain, and she is the one who shines throughout the story as a marker to glorify of the Lord.

The story of Ruth teaches those who read it the quality of relationships that enable life with others to be decent, secure, and even happy. The three central characters are all genuinely concerned about the needs and welfare of the other in selfless ways. It therefore bombards our sensibilities and expectation about who deserves our time, who deserves our respect, and who deserves God’s love. 

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Just like the Israelites during the time of Ruth, most of us are worn down by the events of our days on a local, national, and even international scale. We are currently witnesses to cataclysmic events like the war in Yemen, the drastic and frightening effects of climate change, and the never-ending political unrest that all seem to offer only the most uncertain hope of a better and safer future for anyone.

And that is precisely why the story of Ruth is perfect for us today: in a time such as this, acts of generosity and connection open up the future that God intends for us. From continuing to break bread with the people who voted differently than us, to reaching out to the people in our community without food to eat, to being mindful of people in our midst who go day after day without hope.

When the bonds between ourselves and whomever we might consider the other are brought together we, like Ruth, begin to see the kingdom of God at work. 

Because, ultimately, this story is what the kingdom of God looks like. Not necessarily a “Kumbaya” and lassie faire attitude to the powers and principalities around us, but at least a willingness to look at someone in the eye and say, “I don’t understand you, I don’t agree with you, but I want to be for you, and I want our relationship to be built on love rather than hate.”

Ruth’s story shouldn’t work out the way it does. The amount of tragedy should’ve derailed the widows completely from any possibility of a new day dawning. But from beginning to end, everyone is brought further and further forward because of compassion.

God works in our world in and through the Ruths, and the Naomis, and even the Boazes, in the most extraordinarily ordinary circumstances. You don’t have to go climb to the top of the highest mountain to hear the Holy Spirit’s Word for your life, you don’t have to retreat into the solitude of a monastery to experience the profound wonder of God’s grace, you don’t have to give away everything you own to recognize how much Jesus gave up for you.

In Ruth’s story, in her time of terrible losses, and frightening trouble, and oppositional tyranny, and destructive pain, she found ways to grab hold of others and possibilities through the ordinary moments of the Spirit. 

And those moments, though small and sometimes missable, are huge because they shake the very foundations of what we foolishly believe is good, and powerful, and true in this life. 

Long before there was doctrine, and theology, and creeds, and liturgical traditions, there were normal people who discovered profound richness in the most extraordinarily ordinary circumstances.

The church, this church, is another place, just like Ruth’s family, where we have opportunities to learn what it means to live with people we did not choose! It is through our continued and fervent presence with those with whom we are stuck that we catch a glimpse of the fidelity of our God who is stuck with all of us.

Strangely, Ruth’s story ends not with Ruth cradling her new baby boy, but with her mother-in-law Naomi bringing him to her bosom. The whole town surrounds them in this moment and they see redemption in the strangest form: a child. Everything about their lives has been redeemed by God in this infant named Obed, without whom there would be no king David.

And, this final scene makes us think of another woman cradling a baby in Bethlehem some thirty generations later. Again, the world is in desperate need of hope. Again, a woman travels without knowing what her future will hold. And again, she holds redemption in her arms. Amen. 

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Jesus Still Weeps

Devotional:

John 11.35

Jesus wept.

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Jesus’ emotions in the gospel accounts are often overlooked. We, the readers, often become so consumed by his actions (like the miracles) and his teachings (like the parables) that we miss how Jesus was also fully human in his experiences. Preachers and teachers will gloss over profound verses in which we can discover how Jesus was just like us, in favor of verses where he is anything but us.

And even if we do emphasize Jesus’ emotions it usually comes in the form of focusing on his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane or his cry of dereliction from the cross – both of which are remarkably important, but in those moments we encounter the inner turmoil of the Messiah in a way that is difficult for us to resonate with.

But in John’s gospel we find a small window and vignette into the humanity of Jesus when he cried over the death of his friend Lazarus.

In a strange way, Jesus’ emotional turmoil over the death of his friend brings great comfort to we who call ourselves Christians, because in that moment we see how Jesus still weeps with us as we encounter hardship and injustice and suffering in this world. However, Jesus’ emotional solidarity is not an apathetic response to the world’s tragedies, but instead it is a deep and profound desire for the world to to wake up to the senseless disregard for life that is still all too present.

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Last Wednesday a man in Kentucky attempted to enter a predominately black church and when he failed to get inside he drove to a nearby Kroger grocery store in which he murdered two black individuals in cold blood.

Jesus wept.

On Friday law enforcement officers arrested a man in Florida after he sent at least 13 potential explosive devices to prominent political and media figures in the days preceding. And after searching his property they found a list he created of more than 100 other potential targets.

Jesus wept.

On Saturday morning a man stormed into the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA shouting his hate for Jews while shooting worshipers with an AR-15 in a 20 minute long rampage. 11 were killed and 6 were injured.

Jesus wept.

And so long as we believe that violence reigns supreme, so long as we continue to act and move and speak with such disregard for human life, so long as these types of stories continue to flood our world, Jesus will continue to weep.

May God have mercy on us all. 

We Still Need To Talk

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside.

How should we react to this? Does it make us grieve with disappointment about the state of the world? Do we feel a sense of shame for the times we’ve passed by a beggar by the roadside without offering a thing? 

Here in one sentence we have the sad fate of a man, but it is, at the same time, the entire state of humanity itself. It should go without saying that in the man by the roadside we have what “life” can make of any of us today, tomorrow, or a year from now.

Life is a harsh mistress. When all is well, we forget about those who experience a life of hell. When life is good we continue through day after day without a thought about those by the roadside. We feel surrounded by those who love us, we rest in the comfort of our own existence, and we feel the sun shining even on gloomy days.

But life can change in an instant and we never know when it might grab us by the heel, throw us to the ground, and roll us in the mud. Life exists on change, sometimes gradual and sometimes immediate – change that results in even the best being knocked off course toward a roadside of ignorance. 

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. 

Look at what life has made of the man who can no longer look at anything! Why is he blind? How long has it been since he could see? Was he given improper treatment from a doctor? Did he experience some horrible attack from the powers and principalities? Has he been in a war? Was he beaten by the police?

Life, and scripture, pay no attention to such questions.

We simply do not know. All we know is that the man has experienced misfortune, and such he has resigned himself to a life of begging by the roadside.

Can you imagine the questions in his mind as he listens to the constant footsteps of passersby? “What good am I?” “Is this all life has to offer?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

His life has ceased to be lively.

And so he begs. A blind beggar by the side of the road, among the healthy and the wealthy, the strong and the powerful. He is totally and completely reliant on those who have exactly what he does not. 

The whole world looks remarkably different when seen in the darkness of the blind, or through the small windows of a hospital room, or through the bars of a jail, or from the many places of abject poverty even here in our community. 

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The whole world looks different to an older individual who wanders around from town to town without a job and hoping for one. Or to a homeless family that tries to keep their children’s truth a secret from the classmates at school. Or to the family running away from fear of death to a new country of new possibilities.

The whole world looks different to the grieving widow who cannot seem to take a step in any direction after the sudden death of her spouse. Or to the child who continues to bounce from family to family in the foster care system. Or to the family who waits out in the cold every month at the food distribution hoping for something fresh to eat.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What can he do except accept his fate? He has been cast aside by the very life that so many of us desperately cling to, and he no longer has bootstraps from which he can pull himself up. 

He will humbly beseech each set of footsteps he hears along the road, he will pray for good people moved by compassion to pass him some coins, he will express his gratitude to anyone who offers him a scrap of food.

But under it all he is filled with a rage. Can we blame him? His world, his life, is nothing but suffering, and fear, and uncertainty. Does he curse God under his breath with every passing footstep?

So, who is right, who sees the world as it is? The blind beggar by the road side or we who are secure, happy, and healthy?

We fill our conversations with the false platitudes of self-righteous indignation. We believe we have received what we have received because we deserve it or we have earned it. We assume that God rewards those who take matters into their own hands.

And we are so sure that we are right! We continue to walk by the blind beggars, and the weeping widows, and the fractured families. We convince ourselves the the world is simple the way that it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And yet, there is something in the blind beggar by the roadside that captures our attention. Somehow, he sees the world as it is. He, in his blindness, understands the world better than we do with our perfect vision. We are deceived, but he is to be believed. 

Life is a harsh mistress, and he knows it, but we miss it.

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Though sometimes we catch a glimpse of the truth – when we find ourselves sitting in the pews while a casket sits at the front of the sanctuary, when we hear word of a friend who has fallen prey to the temptations of sin, when we hear about people gunned down in the middle of a worship service

Where is the hope in the middle of such terrible suffering? What does it mean for us to live in a world where the blind wait by the roadsides for help? Is this all life has to offer?

At best, we can place ourselves beside those trapped in the amber of despair, and we can jointly lift up our accusations against brutal inhumanity of humanity. We can raise clenched fists of rage against systems that profit on the poor while rewarding the rich. We can scream into the ether our frustrations against the insanity of war, the ignorance of isolation, and the injustice of life.

But what good does it do? It’s as if with every scream, and fist, and posture of solidarity, life continues to blow past without much of a care. We might help bring a little light to those who rest in the shadow of the cross, but mostly, it just feel like life stays the same.

But, now another person passes the blind beggar by the roadside. He too is a human being who suffers under the weight of the world. He too is a victim of the cruel fate that life tends to throw. He too will be pushed by the people around him toward the road, and eventually to be thrown out among the dead. 

He is not like others who pass the blind man. He does not walk with airs of superiority, he does not relish in the suffering of the marginalized, he does not profit off of the poor remaining poor. 

He, like the blind man, has lost the possibility of proper and holy friendships with all the right people. He, like the blind man, has suffered tremendously and will only suffer more in his remaining days. He, like the blind man, knows what injustice looks like and soon he will see it from the vantage point of Golgotha.

He comes from Narareth, but Nazareth wants nothing more to do with him. The bridges were burned. His mother and brothers consider him a crazy fool, the people of his home town plotted to kill him after his first sermon, and even those who know him best, his so-called disciples, are still arguing about which of them is the best and which one will hold all the power in the new kingdom. 

He is followed by a crowd as he passes the blind man, and yet they will all desert him and betray him when he needs them most.

Life is a harsh mistress.

And for this brief moment –  these two are in one another’s company. They see the world as it really is. They know the truth of what life has to offer. And yet they are different. 

One is disappointed and shocked by the hand life has dealt.

The Other knows the deep and indiscriminate power of what life has to offer.

One is abandoned by the side of the road with no hope of a future.

The Other will be abandoned in a tomb that cannot contain him.

One is the result of world in which individualism reigns supreme.

The Other will destroy the expectations of the world and will forever reign supreme.

So what will this Other say to the blind man? Will he preach a sermon about God helping those who help themselves? Will he sigh under his breath and mutter a “sorry about your bad luck”? Will he toss in a coin and continue walking as if unaffected?

No, this Other is not the one who proclaims a gospel of settling, a gospel of making lemons out of lemonade, a gospel of silver-linings. No, again and again, this Other promises that life must not remain as it is, that none of the darkness will outweigh the light, that with God all things are possible.

The Other will make the impossible possible while mounted on the hard wood of the cursed tree, and while breaking forth from the tomb with liberty. He will bear on himself the whole burden of humanity’s inhumanity in order that we might see, truly see, that God is the divine master of all things, that God is victorious over the old life of indiscriminate suffering, that resurrection is greater than any word offered on the side of the road or any miracle of sight being offered to the blind. 

And thus we begin to see, behind the curtain of the gospel, the truth. The blind man, and all who are like him, people like you and me, we suffer in this life and we do not know why. Most of the time we don’t even notice how bad things are until its too late. We trudge through the muck of life day after day after day, but Jesus refuses to leave us in our sad estate and wills to make all things new, not without us, but with us.

And so the Other walks past the blind man by the side of the road, and yet something happens. The blind man notices something, he feels something, he sees something he should not have been able to in the Other who walked by. And behold, he jumps from the road, he abandons the posture of weak resignation, he forgets the shackles that life has wrapped around him. 

Behold, he begins to understand the truth that we seek. God can help and God will help. 

Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!

And the bridge made possible by the incarnation and the cross is already taking form as he catches a glimpse of the future ahead. This Jesus who walks with all the suffering of the world shines a light, a blinding light among the blind, and something has been changed for good.

And Jesus says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

“Go, your faith has made you well.” 

And immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way. Amen.

Getting Out Of The Way

Devotional:

Job 42.17

And Job died, full and old of days. 

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Eugene Peterson died yesterday.

Peterson was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. Throughout his life he wrote over thirty books, and served a church in Bel Air, Maryland for almost 30 years.

His name might not be familiar, but he leaves behind a legacy of bringing people closer to the Word through The Message. The Message is Peterson’s paraphrased version of the Bible for the modern vernacular. The story goes that in his early days of leading a church, he would “translate” passages in little bits as devotionals for the congregation, but as they became more and more popular, he eventually tackled the whole of scripture and had it published.

By 2015, The Message had sold more than 6 million copies.

To be clear: The Message is not a translation of the Bible, but is an interpretation of what it might sound like had the Bible been written today. There are of course problems with trying to adapt any piece of writing this way, but Peterson’s commitment to the paraphrase most definitely brought people to the church in a way that was exciting, refreshing, and life-giving.

I am grateful for Peterson’s work, and in particular The Message. I have used parts of his paraphrases throughout my ministry in order to bring people closer to the God that has come close to them. There is a comfort with hearing what God has said, as if God was saying it right now in a conversation.

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But Peterson’s contribution to the church extend far beyond The Message and his memoir (The Pastor), which was published in 2011, played a huge roll in my call to ministry. In fact, the passage below was so powerful, that I copied it in a notebook when I read it for the first time and have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since:

“What does it mean to be a church of Jesus Christ in America? We had let Luke’s storytelling in The Acts of the Apostles give us our text. We saturated our imaginations in the continuities between the conception, birth, and life of Jesus and the conception, birth, and life of the church. As we let Luke tell the story, it became clear that being the church meant that the Holy Spirit was conceiving the life of Jesus in us, much the same way the Holy Spirit had conceived the life of Jesus in Mary. We weren’t trying to be a perfect model or a glamorous church. We were trying to get out of the way and pay attention to the way God worked in the early church and was working in us. We were getting it: worship was not so much what we did, but what we let God do in and for us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. 171-172)

Like Job, Eugene Peterson lived a full life. The church is better for having had him in it and his legacy will last long after his death. His life was never so much about what he did with it, but what he let God do in and through him. 

We would be so blessed if someone said the same for us when we die. 

Jesus Ain’t Your Friend

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including loving and loathing the pastoral vocation, preaching better sermons, dust and ashes, leaning toward mystery, the use of dissonance, tasting the Lord, TV trays vs. tables, Jesus as the perfect permanent priest, and believing without seeing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Ain’t Your Friend

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Hold On To Your Butts

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost (Job 38.1-7, 34-41, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Lindsey is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves as the Associate Director for Call, Candidacy & Discernment in the office of Clergy Excellence. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the daughter of thunder, reading before seeing, level playing fields, hospital texts, PTL, singing with clergy, guided prayer, Jesus as priest, and the spiderweb of scripture. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hold On To Your Butts

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Stupid Questions

Devotional: 

Mark 9.32

But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 

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“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” 

I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.

But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:

“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”

“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?

“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”

However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.

We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.

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And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing! 

There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces. 

Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be. 

So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.