Joyful Obedience

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [C] (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent disciplines, Handel’s Messiah, The Muppets, Christmas unicorns, Home Alone, prodigal love, J the B, the refiner’s fire, the Daily Office, darkness, God’s grace, missional moments, the Lord’s Table, and universalism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Joyful Obedience

Vulnerability

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Tell me about your last fight.

That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.

There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything. 

There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.

But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”

To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”

I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.

And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”

Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.

Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.

Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.

Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.

And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.

This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One. 

I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.

And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.

We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.

And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.

And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.

So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.

Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.

Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?

When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…

I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little  twinge of vulnerability.

I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.

And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.

However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.

The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!

In the end, that’s Advent.

More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.

Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.

That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me. 

Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents. 

Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.

Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!

Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.

Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.

This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.

I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!

In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.

And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.

But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.

And that’s a big if.

But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.

And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!

That’s wild stuff.

It’s what we call grace.

Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.

God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.

Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.

That’s not just great news, its Good News!

Happy New Year! Amen. 

The End Of The World (As We Know It)

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [C] (Jeremiah 33.14-16, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the new year, Advent 1 recommendations, mandolins, Vince Guaraldi, Die Hard, divine promises, sacramental arrivals, sins, keeping the cross in Christmas, bullying, incarnational prayers, apocalyptic anticipation, and the end of the beginning. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End Of The World (As We Know It)

Someone Reigns!

Psalm 93.1

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved. 

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explain later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time and that Barth’s final words were as follows:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still Someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III).

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he publicly ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote against the atrocities that took place during the Vietnam War. 

And it brings me great comfort to know that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us (still) reigns over the cosmos. Barth’s final proclamation is decisively Christians in that we, as disciples, know how the story ends which feeds us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself.

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for five minutes, or scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God chooses to do so in God’s infinite and bewildering freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who ever could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been obliterated forever and ever.

Which is all just another way of saying, Christians see the world differently. We see the world through Christ which means that all earthly means of power fall powerless to the King of kings who rules not from a throne built on blood, but instead from a cross marked by his own blood. 

Therefore, we, through the power of Spirit, have the courage and conviction to rebel against the insidious power of despair and, instead, seek the means of grace and the hope of glory that are the brick and mortar of the Kingdom of God.

Someone reigns! That Someone’s name is Jesus Christ! Thanks be to God. 

The King of the Kingdom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom

Lift High The Priest

1 Samuel 2.1-10

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren have borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah is miserable.

She’s in a situation no longer permissible these days – polygamy. That is, her husband is married to two women, Hannah and Peninnah.

Hannah’s misery is born out of her inability to bring a child into the world while her rival has produced numerous offspring for their husband.

You can just imagine Peninnah walking around the house with children dangling from either arm while the rest of the herd pummel one another in the next room. “Oh Hannah, its such a shame you’ll never get to be the kind of blessing I am. You’re lucky that our husband has such pity on you, otherwise, who knows what might happen to you!”

It’s got all the makings of a mid-morning soap opera!

Every year Elkanah goes to make his sacrifices and he gives portions to his wives and to his offspring, and he even gives Hannah double portions because he loves her in spite of her childlessness.

And that only makes it worse.

So this year, Hannah weeps from the depths of her soul. She goes to to the temple, throws herself to the floor, and makes a pledge, “O Lord! If you would only look upon my misery! Please give to me a son. If you do, I will dedicate him to your work.”

Meanwhile, Eli, the priest, overhears her ramblings and accuses her of being drunk.

“No,” she says, “I haven’t anything to drink. I’m drunk with sorrow and with hope. If only the Lord will listen to me.”

And the priest says, “Get out of here, the Lord has listened to you.”

In short order, Hannah is pregnant and she eventually gives birth to her son, and names him Samuel, which means “God is exalted.”

Now, if this story were a movie, or a Netflix special, we all know what would happen next: The new mother would rejoice over her baby boy and they would live happily until it came time for her to make good on her promise and there would be some sort of epic show down because, you know, you’ve got to be careful about what you pray for.

But this isn’t a movie, and it’s not a day time soap opera, this is the Gospel of God. 

Hannah raises the child until he is able to eat solid food and then she drops him off at the house of the Lord at Shiloh forever.

Which is where our particular scripture today picks up. It’s in response to the gracious work of the Lord, and returning the child back to God, that Hannah can’t help herself from singing: “My hearts exults in the Lord! My strength is exulted in my God. There is not Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God!”

It’s a touching story. I know quite a few people for whom this is their favorite text in the entirety of the scripture. And it’s made all the more powerful by what happens next: The child Samuel sleeps in the temple at night and he hears the voice of God calling to him, “Samuel, Samuel.” And it’s this Samuel who will become the priest who anoints Saul king over Israel, and eventually David as well.

But we’ll save all of that for another sermon.

What we have today – a woman who begs and the Lord who responds, it’s one that calls us to consider another woman and her child, who we will be celebrating in just a few weeks.

And it calls us to consider how the strange new world of the Bible compels us to narrate our lives as part of God’s work with us. Week after week we return to this bewildering and wonderful text not just as a reprieve from the wider world, and not just because it’s got some exciting narratives, but we also do so because it is alive – it has something to say to us today about who we are and whose we are. 

Ultimately, one of the profound declarations from this whole book, and from this story in particular, is that we don’t belong to ourselves. Despite all the pontificating from the world about our rugged individualism, the Bible tells a very different tale: our lives never really belong to us. That’s what we dare to proclaim in each and every baptism; God has desires, choices, and efforts that help to make our lives into something God wants. 

Each of us are gifted. 

I’ve been here long enough already and have enjoyed enough conversations with most of you to know that is true. Each of you bring your own experiences and gifts and graces to our community of faith and we cannot be what we are without you.

That’s the real beauty of the church – it is filled with a bunch no good dirty rotten scoundrels, myself included, and yet God delights in using our gifts to be gifts for others.

Let me put it this way: Rarely does God give us gifts that are solely for our own personal benefit. God gives us gifts so that we might actually use them for the kingdom.

Priests, pastors, reverends, whatever you want to call them, they can be a lot of things, but more often than not they serve to help us see how God can use who we are for others.

Priests point out the power in people.

There’s this great German expression, “Eine gabe ist Eine aufgabe” – a gift is an assignment. I think that’s what’s at stake in our scripture today and, frankly, in the life of all those who follow Jesus.

Gifts are intimately connected with vocations. God has given us good work to do based on what good we can do. And it is through our calls that our future becomes intertwined with God’s future. Our lives count for, and mean, something as they are caught up in God’s loving purposes in the world.

God calls people. Scripture points to it over and over and over again. And our own experiences point to it as well.

Have you ever heard God call you by name? Honestly, I haven’t. At least, not the way that scripture often portrays it. And yet, as sure as I am standing here I know that God continues to call people. Even me.

I’ve never known a time outside the church. Baptized at nineteen days old – confirmed in the church as a tweenager – ran the sound system on Sundays – played in various bands for the church. All of the good churchy stuff.

And I loved church, but not in a way that I thought I would be doing this kind of church work for the rest of my life. However, one December when I was a teenager, one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident. And like countless times before I stood in the back of the sanctuary and ran the sound for the service. But afterward, when I gathered with my friends and we tried to take steps into a future without someone we loved, I found myself reaching out and comforting other with words that we not my own. That is, the language of the faith was pouring forth from me not because I wanted to, but because God wanted me to.

And so it came to pass one late December evening, I was walking along the sidewalk on Ft. Hunt Road in Alexandria, Virginia, and I felt pulled to my knees. And I prayed and I prayed and I prayed, and when I stood up I knew this was what I had to do with my life.

No parting of the clouds, no big booming voice, just a feeling. But it was enough.

God calls us to use our gifts to be gifts for others. Part of my vocation, part of my call, is helping others to see (or hear) how God is calling them. I point toward the cross in order to help us see how God might be nudging and pushing us in certain ways.

Sometimes it happens over a cup of coffee, or hearing a hymn, or sitting down in a Bible study, or even the proclamation from the pulpit. After all, God works in mysterious ways!

But sometimes, it’s hard to discern how God is calling us. The difficulty stems from the fact that we are bombarded by stimuli from every direction – we are a people overwhelmed. Things are changing constantly and we can barely keep up with all of it. And sometimes the priests in our lives make it even harder! 

Consider Eli with Hannah: he doubts her faithfulness and accuses her of being drunk! It pains me to know that those of my vocation have failed to fulfill our vocation, myself included! Even priests are sinners in need of grace! But when faith is at work, when the Spirit is moving and we have the ability to respond, miraculous things take place.

Or, to put it another way, no matter how wild the world might become, and no matter how poor our priests might be, there is one thing that hasn’t changed, and it never will – the power of God’s unconditional love and the call on our lives from the One who is Love.

We don’t always know what the future will hold. The only safe bet is that the future will include both joy and sadness. However, in Jesus Christ, the great high priest, whatever the future holds, we know who holds the future. God is with us not only today, but tomorrow as well.

We worship the God who calls. God calls us to live for more than just our own selfish desires, God calls us to reach out to the last, least, lost, little, God calls us to use our blessings to be blessings.

Hannah and Samuel’s stories are, in fact, the story of Israel. And Israel’s story is your story, and mine, and ours. It it the story of salvation that comes through another child, born to set us free.

So today, hear the Good News, hear the call of God upon you lives: 

“By grace you have been saved. This is no small declaration! You are not a little bit saved. You have been saved! Totally and for all times. Yes you! Look to the one on the cross! Look to the one who broke forth from the grave! By grace you have been saved!” Amen. 

My Life With God

1 Samuel 1.10

Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.

Bishop Will Willimon used to teach a class in which the first assignment of the year was a 3-5 page autobiographical essay titled, “My Life With God.” The idea behind the assignment was to take the time to properly reflect on questions like, “How does God help to explain your life?” and “In what ways has God shaped you into who you are?”

Willimon will often recount his joy with regard to that particular assignment because, every year, he was reminded of the myriad ways in which God really is the maker in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Of all the papers he read over all the years, his favorite began like this:

“I was a teenager from hell. I made my parents’ lives miserable. They weren’t surprised when, only after a year, I flunked out of the University of Texas, drinking and partying my way into oblivion.”

With an introduction like that, Willimon knew he was in for a good story!

The paper continued, “I hung around Austin for a while and, strangely, I got involved in a nearby United Methodist Church. I thought I was rebelling against the church, but I loved this church, adored the pastor, and got more and more involved. Then one Sunday afternoon I drove back to my little town in Texas to tell my parents the astounding news that I was going back to school and that I was going to become a Methodist preacher.

“When I sat my parents down and told them the incredible news, I was shocked when my mother immediately broke into tears and said, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ I couldn’t believe it! I thought she would rejoice! But then she said, ‘Do you remember that I told you your father and I lost a couple pregnancies before we had you? Well, when I got pregnant with you, I prayed to God that if he would only let me keep this baby, I would dedicate him to the Lord. And I would call his name Samuel, just like in the Bible.’ And I said to my mother, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?! You could’ve saved us all a lot of time and headache!’ And she said, ‘I didn’t know that it would work! We’re Methodists! We don’t take this stuff seriously!’”

Stories like the stories in scripture still happen all the time. 

People face seemingly unfaceable situations and they call out to the Lord in need. Despite the major moments of cosmic reordering, the Bible is made up primarily of intimate moments between people seeking out what it means to be in the world. That’s why Jesus tells so many parables (read: stories) that are about things we all experience: regret, jealousy, family dynamic, loss, fear, etc.

We worship the Lord who gives people unimaginable gifts, what we might otherwise call blessings. And we are called to use those blessings to be blessings to others.

Which is all just another way of saying, “Be careful what you pray for!”

The Playlist of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 1.4-20 1 Samuel 2.1-10, Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including door stoppers, double dipping, the importance of names, John Behr, the theology of death, singing the faith, prophetic calls, the “S” word, Good News, blessed assurance, Little Red Riding Hood, and apocalyptic language. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Playlist of Faith

The Restorer of Life

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 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. 

Election Confession

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. 

Don’t mix politics with religion.

We’re told to keep these seemingly incompatible things as far away from one another as possible. Whatever political proclivities we hold and whatever we might believe are meant to remain in the private sphere and the world has no right to interfere with either.

And yet, we confuse them all the time! We put up American Flags in our sanctuaries and frighteningly blur the line between church and state, we view one another through the names on our bumper stickers rather than through “the name that is above all names,” we believe that what happens on a Tuesday in November is more important than what happens each and every Sunday. 

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” actually looks more like an extremely complicated marriage in which neither partner knows why they are still together.

It then becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to think and speak theologically about what it means to be Christian! Such that our faith has become so privatized that it is relegated to Sunday mornings and only Sunday mornings.

This is a rather strange proposition considering the language of faith articulated to and by Christians who confess Jesus as Lord.

Or, to put it another way, if we believe that Jesus is Lord then all of our assumptions about who we are and whose we are cannot remain the same.

The psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” What a wonderful word for a people who are running amok drunk on democratic idealism! I have heard, more times than I can count on more election days than I can count, that this is the most important election in history. Well, here’s a controversial and theological statement: This is not the most important election in history – the most important election in history was Jesus electing us.

The psalmist’s words echo through time and they indict us. We worship our politicians in a way that Jesus would call idolatry and we keep believing that so long as our candidate gets elected then everything will be fine and good for us. But politicians (princes) and political ideologies have come and gone with failed promises again and again.

The democratic practices we hold so dear are fine and good, but they will not bring us salvation.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, this is a deep mistake. It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Perhaps the proclamation from the psalmist is beckoning us to remember that our unending desire to win is but another way of falling prey to the practice of idolatry. If we take our Christian convictions seriously, then we are bound to love our neighbors just as we love God, regardless of their political affiliation. Which is just another way of saying, the Lamb is more important than the Donkey or the Elephant.

Therefore, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be faithful, let us pray that the Lord will grant us the grace and peace necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that there is no hope in us, but that the hope of the world has come to dwell among us. That hope is named Jesus Christ whom we did not elect.

The Good News is that he elected us.