Favor Fades

Devotional:

Matthew 4.12

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

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Having the favor of the people can disappear in an instant. I have known too many beloved leaders in their respective communities who took one step too far and then lost the popularity or the respect they once held. Preachers, politicians, and professionals alike are often at the whim, and the opinions, of the people they serve. 

Jesus was widely praised by crowds of people when he first initiated his earthly ministry, but then he was run out of town (incidentally, his home town) as soon as he claimed that the scriptures were being fulfilled in him. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. was revered and praised for the kind of prophetic proclamations he made, but in the end those kind of declarations led to his assassination.

Years ago I was asked to speak at a community gathering in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and, to be honest, it was terrifying. How could I possibly do justice to the man who I had admired throughout most of my life? How could I find the right words to offer in memory of a preacher I still strive to emulate on a regular basis? How could I speak a word of hope and truth while so many people are still being persecuted for the color of their skin?

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But then, shortly before I was invited forward toward the microphone, I remembered a few words that Martin Luther King Jr. often said, words that Jesus similarly uttered in the garden of Gethsemane: “I just want to do God’s will.”

Whatever we do in our lives, it should have less to do with what we think people will think, and more to do with striving to live out God’s will for, and in, our lives. Rather than sugar-coating messages of false hope, we are called to seek justice for the many ways we have failed to love our brothers and sisters with every fiber of our beings.

Which is all to say, sometimes our faith will drive others crazy.

And now, in honor of Dr. King, I would like to end this devotional with a prayer from the man himself – a prayer that is worth our time and consideration particularly today…

“Thou eternal God, out of whose absolute power the infinite intelligence of the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls, and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives in the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

We Are (Not) Accepted

1 Corinthians 1.1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Do you ever feel like things couldn’t get worse?

Natural disasters across the globe keep ravaging particular communities.

Political discourse and partisan rhetoric are dividing families and friends and churches.

It’s becoming ever more expensive to live and yet wages continue to stagnate.

Things just feel so broken.

Here in the US we are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get poorer. So much so that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion – it is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We are currently spending more money on national defense every year than we are on all of our programs of social uplift combined – when weapons become more important than people it is clearly a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

In ways big and small we are perpetuating a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives – the price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction. 

Now, before we go on, I want to be clear that most of what I just said is not original to me, I didn’t sit down this week and pull those thoughts out of thin air. Most of what I just said actually came from another preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever heard of him?

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Across the country, countless students will have the day off from school tomorrow in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and rightly so. He was a man committed to a vision of the kingdom that others refused to see, and it cost him his life. But one of the things that we forget, here in 2020, is that shortly before his assassination, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Though he is remembered as a bastion of freedom and equality, 2/3 of the country opposed his work and words the year before his death.

It’s hard to remember this, for those of us old enough to do so, because today everybody loves Dr. King. Partly because we’ve sanitized his message, and it’s a lot easier to love someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead. 

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice to the powers and principalities in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and rampant poverty. 

But we’re far more content with simply remembering his speech about having a dream of a different future. However, that future (which we are still yearning for) is not possible without transformation. His life, and death, is an ever present reminder that things cannot merely remain as they are.

Grace is messy.

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Each of Paul’s letters begin with a blessing on the recipients of the epistles with “grace”. Even to the famously fractured Corinthians, Paul begins by saying, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Grace is one of those all too important words in the church and, frankly, it’s a word we throw around all the time without thinking or talking about what it actually means.

Sometimes when I hear about grace, and even when I talk about it, it comes off like some nebulous gas that’s floating around affecting various people as they breathe it in.

Which, to some degree, is true. But grace is about a whole lot more than that.

The arrival of Jesus Christ into the world, mediating a new reality with God and God’s creation is a gift. It is all part of this cosmic plan for unending communion and it frees us from our own slavery to sin and death. It comes in spite of of our earnings and deservings and is made available to all without cost. Grace is, in every sense of the word, a gift. 

We have been gifted with a rescue from something and regathered into something we call communion.

But this gift we call grace runs counter to how we so often think about gifts today. Namely, when we receive something for nothing we almost always respond by immediately planning how to repay the gift. We want to out-gift the gift-giver. We live under the tyrannic rule of reciprocity such that we must always make the scales even again, even if it is outside of our ability.

But in the early church, grace was not about repaying what could not be repaid – grace was a reality. 

It both named the concrete gift of Jesus for the world, along with the generosity of God who sent him. And yet, it was not confined to some idea about who Jesus was, it was a lived reality in and through the ways people lived. 

The early church community gifted among themselves things like food, and money, and clothing, and healing to those who needed it the most. And they did so without keeping some sort of ledger about who owed what – it was simply done and thats it.

So whatever the gathering of Christians looks like today, it is supposed to look like a community of grace.

The gathering of disciples we call church are called to lives of generosity that is so obvious and known that only a God generous enough to give his only Son for an evil and sinful humanity can explain it. 

Grace, understood as such, changes everything, including us.

Or, to put it another way, we can’t remain what we once were.

There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about how God loves you just the way you are. Which, though true, is a denial of the power of grace working in and through us. 

The letters of Paul and the stories of Jesus show us that there is more to grace than simply being accepted for who we are. And, no doubt, we are accepted – after all, grace abounds. But we are now in a kingdom bound by that grace which means we have been changed.

Can you imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. work would’ve have looked like without a call to change? What good is a dream of something new if only we stay committed to the past? 

Here’s where grace gets messy: Grace is a gift, given for free. We don’t have to change or do anything before receiving it. And, we don’t have to do anything or change after receiving it. Paul will remind the good Corinthians about this – grace is less about out need to change and more about how God is already in the business of changing us. 

Were it up to us alone to change, we wouldn’t do it. It is far easier to remain the same and hold on to the old visions of the past than it is to try embarking on a different journey. Our captivity to sin keeps us firmly planted instead of taking steps or leaps of faith. But, thankfully, God will not leave us to our own devices.

God is changing us.

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Now, if you’re anything like me, we don’t particularly like all this talk of personal development or change. All the “shoulds” and “musts” leave us exhausted. Which is why it’s of paramount importance to remember the the Kingdom of God isn’t conditional. It exists whether we participate in it or not, the empty tomb remains empty whether we change or not. And yet God is using all of the means at God’s disposal to show us that our lives are being reknit, even right now. 

The world, just like us, cannot remain as it is. God won’t allow it. God is faithful, even when we are not. God believes in us even when we can’t. God is working toward a vision of things not yet seen, and God is bringing us along for the ride.

We can resist it all we want, but God is on the move.

Which is all to say that, when properly considered, the kingdom is about more than acceptance. We are at war with the powers and principalities of this world that insist on making the last laster and the first firster. Our King of kings is fundamentally different – Jesus does not rule with an iron fist or with boots on the ground – our King rules from a cross.

What could be messier than that?

I started all of this today with talk of Martin Luther King Jr.’s forgotten quotes. He was radically committed to seeing a different world and, to some degree, knew it would cost him his life. In fact, the night before he was killed he delivered one of his most moving speeches. It was not about securing the right to vote for black individuals, nor was it on dismantling Jim Crow laws, but was actually about establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

He stood before a packed crowd that night and after speaking at length on the subject at hand he ended it all by saying this:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead. 

God’s grace is about being part of a kingdom the world doesn’t want – it’s about how God makes a difference and that difference means we are now different.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have been transformed through the waters of baptism and the meal at the table – we are made new.

God does not accept the current realities of the world, nor does God accept the banalities of evil that run all too rampant. But God believes in us, God will remain faithful, and the kingdom of God is at hand. We will get to the Promised Land.

What a strange and wondrous thing grace really is – for by grace we have been saved, and are being saved, even now. Amen. 

Tradition!

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 2.15

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 

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The whiteboard behind me was covered in names, dates, and an assortment of arrows connecting them all together. After a few weeks of Sunday school classes on the early history of the church I was trying my best to bring us up to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE. The room had quieted to frightening degree and the look of glazed eyes told me that I had lost the class. So I did what any good teacher would do – I asked if there were any questions.

For a moment the silence continued as the participants looked across the room at one another wondering if anyone would be brave enough to say what they were all thinking, “What in the world have you been talking about?” But instead someone sheepishly raised their hand and simply intoned, “What percentage of church folk know any of this stuff, and what difference does it make?”

I appreciated the question. I can remember sitting in the basement of my Divinity School doing my best to commit to memory those same names and dates on the board for a Church History final exam asking basically the same question. What does Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea and Polycarp and Constantine’s conversion have to do with what we do today?

The answer: Everything.

We are the stories we’ve been told, whether we know the stories or not. The witness of the Christian Church is the diachronic (through time) sharing of a tradition that keeps on giving. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how many people know the stories of the ancient church because we are still telling them in different ways. Just take a look around the church sanctuary the next time you happen to be in one or look closely at the church bulletin – we adorn our sanctuaries and liturgies in particular ways because of what was done before us. 

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Does every Christian need to know that the Nicene Creed came out of a council of bishops who met in the year 325 who fought (literally) tooth and nail over what would unify the early church? Probably not. But at the very least Christians should know that what we say when we proclaim the creed (whether Apostles’ or Nicene) ultimately shapes how we behave.

Does every United Methodist need to know about John Wesley’s conversion moment at a meeting house on Aldersgate Street that eventually led him to theological proclamations about the totality of God’s prevenient grace? Probably not. But at the very least, the people who call themselves Methodists should know that we practice an open table at communion because we believe that God’s grace, like the bread and the cup, are given to us whether we deserve it or not.

Today, we stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of the church not because it is particularly rigid and unmovable, but precisely because it opens up for us an understanding of God’s wondrous works in our lives even today. 

Or, still yet to put it another way, tradition doesn’t have to be a four-letter word, even though some people treat it that way. 

Saved In Death

Devotional: 

1 Corinthians 15.36

Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 

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There are two types of stories we can tell in the church. 

1. There’s a lifeguard who has just ruled that the surf is no longer safe for the visitors at the beach. He ascends to the top of his vaulted chair until the wind dies down but then he hears a few people shouting down the beach. As he glances toward the commotion, he sees fingers pointed out toward the ocean, and he immediately grabs his binoculars and discovers a woman in struggling to keep her head above water. He then rushes down toward the water, swims as hard as he can against the current, grabs the struggling woman, and drags her to safety on the shore. Countless observers watch as the winded woman expresses her gratitude toward the life guard who has saved her life.

2. Same as the first, except when the lifeguard makes it out to the water, he is unable to overcome the pull of the water, and the drowning girl, and they are both pulled below the surface. The crowds on the sand wail in fear and sadness. However, on the lifeguard stand, attached to a clipboard, was a note with the following words: “Everything will be okay, she is safe in my death.”

This two-type typography comes from Robert Farrar Capon who notes that we can tell both of these stories in church, but we are FAR more inclined to tell the first. It has a happy ending, there is a noble hero, and the crowds get to witness a “miracle.” But, upon comparison, there’s nothing that miraculous about it. Sure, the drowning woman has been saved, but she has only been saved to eventually die in the future. Sure, the lifeguard appears heroic but he was doing nothing more than his job. Sure it appears magical and powerful, but it doesn’t really result in any profound changes; people will still swim in dangerous oceans.

The second version leaves us uncomfortable. Its ending appears tragic, the hero dies, and the crowds witness a tragedy. It strikes us as a rather dark tale, and certainly not one that we want to hear about in church on Sunday mornings.

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And yet the second story is the story of the gospel!

We are not saved by Jesus only to die again in the future – his death defeats death. 

We are not saved by being better swimmers (studying out bibles, praying our prayers), because the waves of life will keep crashing on us regardless.

One of the most important, and least talked about, aspects of faith is that we are saved in our deaths, not in our attempts to live better and more faithful lives.

When we start to realize that the second story is our story, other parts of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are no longer trapped by the feeling of having to be perfect for God to love us. We are freed from believing that any of our sins (Any!) have the power to separate us from God’s grace. We break away from the crazy idea that we have to be morally perfect to earn God’s favor.

If all we tell is the first story, then Jesus really is nothing more than a lifeguard who saves us only for us to die again.

But if we tell the second story, the challenging and truthful and even dark narrative, then Jesus’s death really is the thing that bring us life. 

The Future Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Call Special General Conference on human sexuality, I led a three part Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. During our first class I unpacked all of the letter from the LGBTQIA acronym, and in the second class we looked at the five passages in scripture that mention homosexuality. To conclude the class we debated whether or not the UMC should change its current language.

Considering the fact that many people in the room felt strongly about the future of the UMC, I wanted to make some of what I taught and some of what was discussed available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find some of my notes and some of the reactions from people in the class. 

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding the call to remain the same or change, but merely as a brief and general overview. And, to be clear, the opinions/comments below are not from me alone and represent comments from the entire class. 

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The Future Is Important

The current doctrinal position of the United Methodist Church is that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This manifests itself in a number of ways from self-avowed practicing homosexuals being barred from ordination in the UMC, to clergy being punished for presiding over same-sex unions, to some pastors using the language to prevent members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming members in the churches they serve. 

For decades the denomination has debated our current position and whether or not to enforce our doctrinal position, or to change it.

Why Should The UMC Maintain Its Position?

The witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality. Though mentioned rather infrequently, the mentions are unified in its being against the perspective of the Law. 

We are a global church and there are vary different opinions about homosexuality throughout the world, but theological and cultural. In order to stay unified, we need to make sure that the language is applicable throughout the globe.

Salvation is at stake. We don’t want to encourage anyone to disobey the commands of God should it remove from them the possibility of their heavenly reward. 

Why Should The UMC Change Its Position?

Though the witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality, it is often included in a list of laws, some of which were abandoned within the first century of the church. It appear incongruous to emphasize some laws over the others, particularly when homosexuality is mentioned less than other moral/ethical concerns like adultery, divorce, dietary restrictions, etc.

Homosexuality it not a choice. Why then would we tell people they are incompatible if they are unable to change who they are?

Questions about sexuality often lead to despair in young people, particularly those who are involved with a church. If we are a church who believes than some are incompatible, then we are telling people who question their identity that God has abandoned them.

Jesus would not reject homosexuals – he would welcome them with open arms. 

Homosexuals have as many gifts for ministry as heterosexuals do.

Conclusions

The future is important for the United Methodist Church. What happens in the next few weeks will largely determine (for better and worse) what that future will look like. For some there is hope that maintaining the integrity of the Biblical witness will carry the church into the future. For others there is hope that opening the doors for homosexual ordination and marriage will carry us into the future.

No matter what happens, some people will leave the church and some churches will leave the denomination. The sheer fact that we are being compelled to discern and vote on something like this points at the irony of a name like the UNITED Methodist Church. 

If you would like to read more about the plans being presented, and the ramifications of each, you can read about them here: Overview of Plans to 2019 General Conference

Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

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From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

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Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

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.