Stand Up, Raise Your Heads!
Sermon date 11/29/2015
The halls are decked, the stores are hawking their wares, radios are playing holiday music. In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas. Christmas – the season that begins, in our society, right after the Halloween decorations are put away. No longer do we wait until Thanksgiving has passed. The holiday season seems to get longer and longer each year – holding out promises – the promise of store profits that will exceed those of previous years and put the store in the black, the promise of wishes granted, of desires fulfilled, the promise that modern ills will be displaced by precious memories and traditions.
And here we are – not celebrating Christmas, not getting into the spirit of things by hearing tantalizing stories that promise the Christ child. No. We begin Advent with Jesus himself speaking of difficult days. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
There is no nostalgia here. There is no looking back.
We might think, as well, that Jesus is speaking of some far off, distant eventuality. It is one of those passages that gives rise to talk about the second coming.
But, what if we begin to hear these words and think about the world in which we live now. How many times have you heard – or even said – “I don’t know what the world’s coming to!” or “The world is such a mess!” There is distress. People live in and with great, crippling fear. We see the signs all around us. Homes are fortresses. People are armed against neighbors and strangers. Nations draw careful boundaries and threaten each other with missiles. Wars and conflicts break out in new places. Families struggle with the more private wars – death, illness, disease, addictions – all the realities of human life that have the power to cripple us with fear, to weigh us down.
“Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near,” Jesus said.
The season of Advent invites us to consider what it means that God has drawn and is drawing near to the world in which we live. Reclaiming Christmas means something more powerful than a trip down memory lane, or a perfect present under the tree. Reclaiming Christmas means something more than putting the baby in a manger back in the center of our observations and celebrations. Advent invites us to remember God’s presence as an ongoing, present, dependable, grace-filled reality.
It seems to me that so much of the holiday frenzy all around us is designed as an escape from the real world, from its pain and suffering. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that those who have lost loved ones find it particularly difficult to participate. The trappings of our cultural observances ask them to deny their pain, their loss, their sufferings.
“Stand up, raise your heads, your redemptions is drawing near!”
How do we stand? How do we raise our heads? The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint” has a wonderful story from her work as a student chaplain in a hospital.
“I had forgotten I was wearing a pager until it starting buzzing…It was the ER. ‘I was paged?’ I said to the security guard at the ER desk….She pointed to a door that said NO ADMITTANCE and then looked at me like was an idiot. Apparently my name badge allowed me to go through doors like that.
I finally found a nurse who would make eye contact with me. I said I was paged, but that I wasn’t sure what for. ‘Trauma one,’ she said.
Inside the trauma room, a nurse was cutting the clothes off a motionless man in his fifties on a table; tubes were coming out of his mouth and arms. Doctors started doing things to him not meant for my eyes and sorely misrepresented on TV shows. Another nurse was hooking things up to him while a doctor put on gloves and motioned for paddles, which he then placed into the motionless man’s freshly cracked-open chest.
A nurse stepped back to where I was standing, and I leaned over to her. ‘Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?’
She looked at my badge and said, ‘Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.’
For the rest of those two-and-a-half months I often found myself in the ER trauma room watching life going in and out of the patients on the table-the doctors and nurses violently attempting to resuscitate them. And in that messy chaos, my job was to just stand there and be aware of God’s presence in the room. Kind of a weird job description, but there it was, and in those moments, I felt strangely qualified. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone who just had shoulder surgery, but I couldn’t help but feel God’s presence in the trauma room.”
She went on to talk about sensing God in other places – in the midst of other messy human experiences. “In this little white pit of pain,” she wrote, “I was the chaplain.” She was charged with sensing God’s presence. God was not absent. God was there.
There is no easy optimism in her words – just as there is no easy optimism in our world. But Jesus’ words are a reminder that God creates and recreates from the chaos. God is in the midst of the messiness in our world – not absent.
Bolz-Weber ends her chapter saying: “There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel – which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.
“O come, o come, Emmanuel” is one of the songs of the season. It is truly an Advent song. There is no mention of a baby in a manger. The Emmanuel of which we sing is not of the baby born so long ago, but of God-with-us, the promised presence which is constant and sure. But we tend to sing “O come, o come, Emmanuel” forgetting that God is already, always in our midst, in the world: redeeming, transforming, and healing – creating and re-creating in the midst of the world we live in. We do not need to call for God’s presence. We need to be aware – aware like the chaplain in the emergency room. We need to stand up, raise our heads and know that God is with us – God is always with us! God will always be with us. Rejoice. Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to us. Our redemption has drawn near!
The Crucified King
Sermon date 11/22/2015
My last church ventured into the modern age with the establishment of a website. The person in charge chose to work with a template for churches. It turned out that the template was geared, primarily, toward Roman Catholic Churches. The top of each page featured a crucifix – Jesus on the cross.
Now, there was a member who made it a habit to look for any way that we might “sin” by being “Roman Catholic” in our approach to faith. Why she didn’t see that having a clergy woman as pastor set us apart – I don’t know. But, she constantly delivered zingers on her way out the door. She fumed one Sunday, as she left, over the fact that the morning bulletin had said “homily” rather than sermon. “What’s the difference?” I naively asked. “Homilies are what priests give,” she retorted. “We’re Presbyterian!” I couldn’t even begin to think of a response. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on me. Our preaching course in seminary was called “homiletics!”
So, another Sunday morning, she came out with her angry critique. “Why do we have crucifixes on our website?” she demanded to know. “Well,” I said, “they came with the website and we haven’t figured out how to change them.” I didn’t think it was a big deal. But, apparently it was. “We don’t have crucifixes!” she yelled at me. “We have the empty cross!”
I think she was quoting a statement that was prominent in Presbyterian Churches in an earlier age – when Protestants and Roman Catholics had little use for each other. In fact, I seem to remember hearing that statement in my childhood. “We have the empty cross because we stress the resurrected Christ!”
We stress the resurrected Christ. So, the cross is empty. There is no sign of Jesus’ pain and suffering. Easter is stressed. Good Friday is missing. We honor, we remember, we proclaim the glorious resurrected Christ without wounds. We want the King, garbed in beautiful robes, adorned with a glorious crown. “All hail, the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall; bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all!” says one hymn. “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne; hark, how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own! Awake, my soul, and sing of him who died for thee, and hail him as thy matchless King through all eternity,” says another.
It’s tempting to think of Christianity in triumphant terms. And maybe Western history bears that out, to an extent. The Western world was shaped by the spread of Christianity. Most Western nations have Christian roots. So, we hear people proclaiming that “the United States is a Christian nation!” “Christians” – primarily white, male, upper-class, Protestants have and had most of the power, both economic and political, in the country. That’s been the case since its founding. There is lots of talk about the need to protect that status – to keep us safe – from whatever the perceived threats are. Those vary from day to day, week to week, year to year.
“Jesus died for me.” Have you heard that statement? “Jesus died for me.” It is in some ways central to the Christian faith. “He died to take away my sin.” “He died in my place.” I wonder if, at times, that leads to a faith that says to Christians that, somehow, we are exempt from having to face the world’s messiness because Jesus has done that for us. So, we can live as the “triumphant ones,” the “winners.” I heard a pastor say, once, that he refused to let his congregation sing any hymns with a minor key (sort of mournful hymns) because Christians were the people of the resurrection. “We should only celebrate,” he said. As a way of expressing our status as winners, we will do everything in our power to protect it. We will make sure that Christianity continues to have a place of power and position in the world. We will keep our Christian crowns on.
The only crown Jesus wore during his earthly journey was the crown of thorns. It was a crown used to ridicule him – and, perhaps, to cause him physical pain. He resisted every attempt to name him king or ruler according to the traditions of his day. The crown of thorns is a reminder that he chose God’s way over all earthly ways. He chose to adhere to the ways of love and service even when it meant that he had to sacrifice privilege, safety, self-preservation – his own life.
We need to remember that Jesus asked his disciples if they were able to drink the cup that he would drink. We have to remember that he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He wasn’t speaking about just putting up with the problems that come our way. He was speaking of a way of living that puts God’s values above all else.
It’s always tempting to look for wiggle room. Sometimes we declare that Jesus wasn’t living in the world we inhabit – so he would do things differently. He wouldn’t expect us to follow the path that he followed. Theological gymnastics give permission for all sorts of behaviors that are far removed from the way that Jesus lived. In the 1960s, Joseph Fletcher wrote a book titled Situation Ethics. In it he postulated that different situations meant love could be expressed in ways that might, at first glance, seem to be the antithesis of loving action. I remember that he spoke of the bombing of Hiroshima as an act of love –because it shortened the war.
Somehow, time gives us a clearer view. We might be somewhat forgiving of the action, knowing that there was complexity, knowing that there was great fear, knowing the cost of war. But, when we hear the stories, the heartbreak inflicted on the families of Hiroshima, can we call the dropping of the bomb an act of love?
I am greatly disturbed by public declarations made in the name of Christianity that seek self-preservation. It bothers me when congregations speak of the need to take care of themselves first. Then, someday, they say, they might be involved in mission and ministry that reaches beyond their doors.
It disturbs me when self-preservation, justified by Christianity, becomes part of the public discourse. And it is all around us!
But, thanks be to God, there are other voices. I am heartened that there is a growing outcry from many Christian circles – diverse Christian circles saying that we are called to minister to the refugees in our world. We’re called to minister, perhaps recognizing that there is always a risk in that ministry (although, the risk is extremely minimal!) The Biblical story is full of refugees. The Hebrews were refugees seeking a new land after fleeing Egypt. They were refugees carried off to Babylon in a time of war. We are told that Jesus’ own family was a refugee family who fled Herod’s wrath and sought safety in Egypt until the threat had passed.
Nowhere does the Biblical story tell God’s people to seek their own safety, security, well-being first, and then offer whatever might be leftover to those in need.
When our image of Jesus is that of the triumphant king, we forget the wounded God who hung on the cross. We forget the one who was willing to give up even his own life in order to bear witness to the ways, the values – the love of God.
It is a counter-cultural value that the Crucified God presents us. I have to admit, I’m not sure I could ever follow Jesus to the cross. I remember Peter who declared he would follow Jesus even unto death – but fled when the danger was too real, too close. Even knowing that God says the cross is not the last word, fear so often rules. But, doing theological gymnastics, proclaiming that we live in the real world and can’t afford to think, to live, to act as Jesus did, we are in danger of missing the good news of God proclaimed not through earthly power, but through the one who hung on the cross. The good news is that God is revealed through faithfulness to God’s ways. God is revealed through commitment that seeks to serve, no matter the cost.
Jesus trusted God. Jesus entrusted his life to God’s love and concern. The resurrection proclaims to us that we may have that same trust. We are God’s beloved children. So, we may follow God’s ways when everything in the world tells us that we are to look after ourselves first.
I have pictures on my computer, some of which I had gathered for particular worship services. When my computer went into standby, a few of those came up. I was reminded of modern leaders who did not seek to serve themselves first, but to point to and work for a world that more closely reflects the ways of God. I have a picture of Mother Teresa who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor. Another was Gandhi. He didn’t call himself a Christian, but he chose the ways of Jesus as a model for his servant leadership. He was assassinated. Martin Luther King was highly influenced by Jesus and Jesus as interpreted by Gandhi as he sought to encourage our nation to embrace a new justice. We know that he paid for that service with his life. These three died, but their works, their examples, live on.
Frederick Buechner wrote that Jesus, somehow, emerged from death as a winner. “What emerged from his death was a kind of way, of truth, of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would be even more unthinkable than they are…The symbol of Christianity is an instrument of death. It suggests, at the very least, hope.”
Christ reigns. Not just in the glory of God’s realm – but in the messiness of life as we know it. Because Christ reigns, we can live confident in the ways of God – even when those ways call us to face that which gives us great fear. Amen.
A Shiloh Story: the Beginning of an End
(I Samuel, chapters 1 and 2)
Sermon date 11/15/2015
G. Malcomb Sinclair refers to this story as a “Shiloh Story.” Shiloh was one of the ancient places of worship for the Hebrews. It was important in the days when judges oversaw the communal life. Sinclair writes, “It is a Shiloh story, thought to come from that ancient place of meeting and worship that is no more.”
“…that ancient place of meeting and worship that is no more.” This morning’s passage starts the story of the transition from the time that Israel was ruled by judges to the establishment of a monarchy. It is the beginning of a major shift in the way that the Israelites were organized. It struck me, that this is the start of a sort of reformation – a re-forming. I wondered if it was one of those that modern scholars note happen every 500 to 600 years. And, if my Biblical time-line is accurate at all, this fits the pattern.
Years ago, I ran into the mailman as I was walking down the street. Since it was a small town, he knew that I was the pastor at the Presbyterian Church. “Did you know,” he asked me, “that they may have found the ark of the covenant?” This was a few years after the first Indiana Jones movie had come out that focused on the Ark of the Covenant as a source of power to be sought. The mailman seemed to think that this discovery would bode well for Christianity, for our place in modern society. Well, much to his disgust, I wasn’t really interested. “I think the Biblical witness tells us that God moved on from that Ark,” I said. We went our separate ways!
God moves on. The Israelites had been organized one particular way. But the Book of Judges ends, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Even their religious leaders, including Eli and his sons, failed to serve God well. So, God began the long process of re-making, re-shaping, and re-forming the Israelites.
The seeds of that reformation are sown in this morning’s story. It’s just the seeds. Hannah’s story sets in motion what will need to happen for there to be a king in Israel.
I think it’s amazing that the Biblical story includes this story of Hannah. Last week, we had the story of Naomi and Ruth. In that story an outsider – a female outsider—got woven into the genealogy of the great dynasty of David. Boaz married Ruth, the Moabite, and she bore him a son, Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of King David. Here, we have a barren woman who sets in motion the events that led to the establishment of Israel’s first and second kings, Saul and David.
It was interesting to read commentaries on this story. It was a reminder that all commentaries reflect, to a degree, the bias of the one exploring the passage. All the scholars noted the difficult situation for a woman who was barren. Scholar Martin B. Copenhaver summed it up well when we said, “In such a patriarchal culture, childbearing was a woman’s only unique ability. To be unable to conceive was cause for great shame.” The scholars begin to interpret the story differently when they considered Hannah’s husband’s response to her infertility. “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Frank Yamada sees these as “words of consolation.” But goes on to note that such words cannot change her barrenness or take away that deep sense of shame. Copenhaver wonders if what Elkanah offered were really words of consolation or words that dismissed her pain. He compared it to being told to “count one’s blessings” when life is difficult. Copenhaver spoke of a yearly grief support group. One session was devoted to reflecting on statements that were meant to be supportive and comforting but, instead, were “singularly unhelpful and irritating in the extreme.” Both, however, note that Eli’s response to Hannah’s silent prayers was callous and thoughtless. He leapt to judgement against her and assumed that she was drunk.
For me, the most thought provoking reflections on this story came from the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop. She says Hannah is “a meaning maker, not simply in what she points to, but in her own image, her own personage...she reveals an iconic spiritual sensitivity to the ways that God is involved in and concerned about her life.”
Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s not a high holy day that I find particularly helpful because of its focus on “kingship”. We know in the world’s history and even in Biblical history that “kings,” “monarchs,” those who have relatively complete authority over nations are often guilty of abuse – of their position, of their power, of their people. We are told, in the gospels, that the people around Jesus were hoping for a new “king,” hoping for a messiah who would take an earthly “throne” of sorts – and set things right.
Every time people pushed that agenda, however, Jesus resisted. He refused to take up an earthly “kingship.” He was not interested in the power that can so easily be corrupted.
Hannah, this barren woman, this woman whose world despised her, poured out her heart to God. She promised that if she had a son, this son would be consecrated to God – for his entire life. And God responded. Hannah had a son, Samuel (Consecrated One.) At a very young age, Samuel began to serve the Lord by serving Eli. Eventually, Samuel replaced Eli. It was Samuel, the priest, who named God’s choice for king – first Saul, and then David. (I did wonder what it must have been like to have been Samuel – to have had a parent who chose even before he was born the path of his life! A different sermon, perhaps!)
Shoop reflects, “The monarchy is born out of barrenness, anguish, and uninhibited entanglement with God’s faithfulness. God’s character is full of grace, full of compassion, and audacious enough to make fertile what is barren and make abundant what is scarce.” She concludes that this story reminds us that graced existence has many layers: barrenness, fertility, grief, cultural limitations, surprise, pain, promise. God’s grace is not merely in the easy, in what the world labels as success. God’s grace permeates the reality of the world which human beings inhabit. (This was a message I needed to hear this week.)
Hannah’s honest outpouring of grief is the beginning of the transformation of Israel from a group of tribes to a monarchy. She sowed the seeds for this ancient reformation.
Sinclair focused less on Hannah’s story and more on the fact that it takes place in Shiloh – an ancient place of worship that is no more. He suggested that we find ourselves in “Shiloh” these days – wondering about the future of the church. I’ve encountered so many churches that are paralyzed by their grief that what they’ve always known is fading away. The inclination is to work harder at being who they’ve always been. There is anger. There is fear. There are accusations that “someone is responsible” for their pain: families that no longer set aside Sunday mornings, sports that seem to encroach on our sacred time, presbyteries or other denominational entities that “close churches” or challenge churches, pastors that don’t do what pastors of old did.
I am reminded that we tend to think of God as the unchanging God. We think of the institutions of God as rocks that are to endure the challenges of the world – the bulwarks that provide constancy in a world which changes. We forget that the stories of God point to the Great Innovator – the One who looks at the world we inhabit, and leads us toward new ways of being, ways of being that fit the times and the circumstances.
Hannah’s story tells us that God’s new creation, God’s transformation is never instantaneous. She was there at the beginning of a new era. But she didn’t see it emerge in its totality. She certainly didn’t see the fruits of her faith as Israel moved from a tribal society to a nation with a king.
A few weeks ago we celebrated All Saints Day. One of the images that I find helpful is to think about the stream – the river – of saints that spans the ages. If we travel a river or stream we know that each place has a beauty all its own. The river is never the same – either geographically or chronologically. Mighty rivers have modest headwaters. Raging streams become, over centuries and centuries, placid rivers that meander through plains. Rocky landscapes are tamed by the power of water. We do not stand in the same part of the river that those who came before us stood. Those who follow will also find themselves in a “different” place. We must find what it means to be God’s people in our particular contexts – both geographical and chronological. And, our particular context is one of upheaval. Many look at this world in which we live and see barrenness, death, and destruction. That does not mean that God is not here!
Copenhaven reflects that the Biblical story invites us to be sympathetic to Hannah – but maybe that’s not so easy in real life. In the US, we speak of compassion burn out. Many have noted the generosity that is demonstrated when there are catastrophic events. But, the interest fades. Someone I knew spearheaded a mission trip to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. He did it quickly – while people were still aware and concerned, he told me. Copenhaven says that Hannah’s persistence could be wearing. “She is needy, dramatic, challenging, and insistent.” She won’t go away. She hangs out in the worship center at Shiloh. She persists in her pleas to God. Copenhaven says we should remember the story of the woman who wore the judge out with her plea for justice. “When we are reminded that God grants the pleas of the importune,” he says, “then enduring persistence begins to look something like a spiritual discipline.”
Hannah poured out her grief – she persisted in it. It did not paralyze her. Instead, it drove her to a brutal honesty in God’s presence. She expressed a deep trust in God’s care, concern, and even in God’s justice in the midst of a system that treated her unfairly. And it was out of her persistence that transformation began to occur. In the short term, God opened her womb and she had a son. Her shame was taken away. Long term, she was an integral part of the journey toward a new way of being the people of God.
In the bulletin, for reflection, I have this prayer from the streets. There are echoes of Hannah’s prayer in it.
[Put your ear next to me, Lord,
I just want you to hear me and talk to me
‘Cause I ain’t got much.
Just remember I try to be like you.
You are my man
So I ask for your help.
Make me happy when I’m mixed up inside.
We know you don’t hold nothing against us
And you listen and hear us when we talk to you
And don’t push us away.
So when we got troubles
We can call on you.
Help us remember you is only one
And everybody was made by you
And had sure better know it
And you are the only God.
Show me the right side of the street to walk on
So I can walk with you and even trust you
And not be afraid to say it
‘Cause your love is just great.
When it seems like everybody is against me
And nothing goes right
And people is out to get me
Help me to know we is still friends
And that your love is here.
That’s what helps me have heart.
So “give me some skin,” Lord,
Then everybody will know where we stand.]
Sometimes, the persistence that invites God’s people to a new way of being comes from the voices that we seldom hear. It comes through the actions of those we might easily dismiss. Perhaps, the church, the established church, sees its demise. But there are still prayers being said, prayers that refuse to be silenced, prayers that proclaim a deep trust in God despite the challenges and injustices of the world in which we live. Shilohs come and go. Even the Jerusalem temple is no more. If our trust is in the institutions that point to God rather than in God, we will despair, we will be disappointed. God’s reign comes in ways we often overlook. It is born not out of the powers of this world, but out of its very brokenness.
Memories: Naomi and Ruth
(Based on Book of Ruth – a Dialogue Sermon)
Sermon date 11/08/2015
I guess I’ll begin. There was a famine in Bethlehem. The House of Food (that’s what Bethlehem means) had become a place of desperation. Elimelech said we had to leave. We couldn’t stay. We couldn’t stay in the place that was home, the place where our families had lived for hundreds of years. He made me bid farewell to my brothers and sisters – to all our loved ones. Then, he took us to Moab. He took us to the land of our enemies! We were no longer among God’s people, but surrounded by those who had no respect for God’s ways. Elimelech died and our sons took Moabite women as wives. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. They were of the age to marry – and we were far, far from home. It seemed there was no possibility that we would ever return. But, Moabite wives?
I was angry – angry with Elimelech because he had taken us from home. I knew why. I even knew we had to go. But, it just seemed that one bad thing happened after another. I didn’t want Moabite daughters-in-law. I wanted my sons to marry good Hebrew women – to continue to live on the land that had been in their father’s family for generations. I was angry—with life, with Elimelech and with God!
They were strangers – enemies even, who had come to live in our land. We knew they were from Bethlehem – yes, Bethlehem, the House of Food. Everybody laughed. Here were these Hebrews, who claimed their God to be above all Gods, coming in as refugees from the city that bore God’s promise of abundance. I heard the stories. I saw the disdain. Maybe I even, at times, shared that disdain. But, my people knew the pain of hunger. I wouldn’t say they were welcome – but they were tolerated.
Now the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, had, I think, an easier time. They didn’t have the ties to Bethlehem that Naomi and Elimelech had. They quickly learned to blend in. But, when Mahlon expressed his desire to marry me, no one was happy – neither his mother nor my parents. It was with great reluctance that my parents accepted the offer. They didn’t want a Hebrew son-in-law! And, Naomi didn’t want a Moabite daughter-in-law!
Ruth’s right. I looked at Orpah and Ruth and saw Moabites – not daughters. Things might have been different if Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion had lived. But they didn’t. Things might have been different if Mahlon or Chilion had produced heirs. But, they both died childless. I was sure God was punishing me – for leaving Bethlehem, for leaving the place promised to God’s people. When we left, had we not abandoned God? Now, there I was without husband, or sons, without heirs and with two daughters-in-law – Moabites!
The only glimmer of hope was that the famine was over in Bethlehem. At least in Bethlehem, I wouldn’t be a foreigner, a refugee. I told Orpah and Ruth to go back to their families. They had been good daughters-in-law. I prayed that the Lord would be merciful! And I got ready to go. Both Orpah and Ruth started to go with me. But, I knew they weren’t being realistic. What could I offer them? I was going back with nothing – to nothing! And I didn’t need foreign women to come with me! They would be a public declaration that we had abandoned God and God’s land! I would be judged. Yes, they had been good daughters-in-law, but to have them go with me was just too much!
Yes, Naomi didn’t want us to go with her. I think that even though she loved us, she was ashamed of us. She didn’t want to come home with her Moabite daughters-in-law. Orpah turned back. I pray that God was merciful to her. I thought about going back. But, I didn’t belong there anymore. I didn’t really belong anywhere! My family didn’t look at me the same way because I had been married to a Hebrew man. I knew, I understood, that going with Naomi provided no guarantees. But neither did staying in Moab. What man in my own country would accept me after being married to Mahlon?
I probably didn’t understand….Well, that’s not fair. I probably understood too well. But to see Ruth’s pain would have meant that I had to acknowledge my own. The Lord had not dealt kindly with either of us. We had no hope!
Her words, however, pierced me. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.” I couldn’t argue with her. I could do nothing more than accept her presence with me. So we journeyed together.
I wish I could tell you that her company eased my pain, that it spoke to me of God’s constancy. But it didn’t. We travelled together, each with our own painful memories, each with our despair.
Did you know that my name, Naomi, means pleasant? There were times I laughed with scorn at that name. My life was hardly pleasant! So, when we came to Bethlehem and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” I replied, “Call me no longer Naomi. Call me Mara – Bitter, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” I have to admit, I counted Ruth’s presence as one more mark of that calamity!
The other women, the people of Bethlehem, looked at me with disdain. I was a Moabite and they didn’t want Moabites in their town. I could sympathize with Naomi – maybe not with her despair over having me with her, but with her despair at what had happened in life.
People may have greeted Naomi, but no one welcomed her into a home. We, like others without families to support them, had to rely on the traditions of the Israelites. One of those traditions was gleaning. Farmers were not allowed to harvest a field to get whatever had been missed the first time. We, the poor, we permitted to come in and gather whatever was left. (Sigh) That sounds wonderful --- but it’s not. Gleaning is dangerous. The desperate are often violent, trying to get what they need to survive.
Ruth’s right. Yes, there was food. But this was a hard life. This was a dangerous life. Sometimes the weaker were women were hurt, even killed, by others in the fields. Ruth insisted that she could do this alone and find enough for both of us. I think I knew that she would be a target because she was different, because she was from Moab, but I let her. I was too bitter to care – much. When Ruth went to glean, she came to the field owned by Boaz, a member of Elimelech’s family.
I soon found that others saw what I didn’t. They saw Ruth’s faithfulness and care. Boaz had heard of her and he responded with a welcome that was generous.
Boaz was kind. He knew I was foreign, yet he welcomed me. He called down God’s blessing upon me. I was comforted in a way that I had not known for a long time. I continued to work in his field, gleaning until the end of the barley and the wheat harvests. I lived with Naomi.
What a difference it makes when you have food to eat, when you are not consumed by fear. I began to see Ruth in a new way. I began to treasure her. So, when the harvests ended I said, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” (Pause) She had become my daughter!
Boaz had already showed his concern, so I told Ruth what she needed to do so that he would see her in a new way – as one he could marry! I still laugh to myself. What a nerve I had, thinking Boaz, a respected member of the community, would ever think of marrying a Moabite woman. But Boaz saw her more deeply, more fully than I did. He saw a faithful woman – not merely a Moabite woman.
Boaz fulfilled the law – offering Elimelech’s inheritance to the closest relative, but stating clearly that the relative would bear responsibility for Ruth and for me. When that relative refused, Boaz redeemed the field and took Ruth as his wife.
I was a wife again! And this time, I conceived. I had a son! Naomi’s God had blessed me.
Yes. Ruth had a son! My husband’s line continued. They named the baby Obed, One with the right to redeem. I could tell that attitudes towards Ruth were changing when the women said to me, “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.” I think I truly heard them that time. “Your daughter-in-law loves you and is more to you than seven sons.”
They were right! I had resisted God’s grace over and over again. I had seen what was wrong. I did not see what was right – a daughter-in-law who would not leave me. God had surprised me with Obed in my old age. God surprised me even more, caring for me, journeying with me and my Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth.
Unbinding the Trappings of Death
(John 11:32-44, Hebrews 12:1-2)
Sermon date 11/01/2015
The passage from Hebrews is such a wonderful one for All Saints Day. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” I think it’s easy to hear the word “witness” and think of what it means to be a witness in the legal sense. Witnesses “tell” what they observed – and that is the full extent of their responsibility – in court, anyway!
So, when we hear that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” we might think of those watching us to see where and how we mess things up – those who are judging us. We hear enough “Christian” proclamation about judgment to think of witnesses in this way – they are ready (and maybe willing) to call us to account.
But, maybe there’s a different way to hear these words about witnesses – and the hint is right in the words that follow. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us!” “Let us run the race.” What if we picture witnesses as those who line the race course to cheer on the participants? What if we picture witnesses as those who wait at the finish line to welcome, congratulate and celebrate with each and every one of those who “finish the race”?
They are witnesses – but not of our failures. They are witnesses to what God has accomplished – for they have completed the race set before them. So, we are surrounded by those who love us and want to encourage us to persevere in God’s ways.
In honor of Halloween, (Hallowed Eve before All Saints Day), I considered several Halloween-ish sermon titles: Unwrapping Mummies or Living as the Undead. I have to admit that the Lazarus story conjures up some of those mummy (or zombie, according to my daughter) images.
I’m not a huge horror movie fan. But maybe those horror movies have something to tell us about this story of Lazarus. Jesus went to the tomb of someone he loved. He went with the man’s sisters, Mary and Martha, and many others who were there to console the mourning sisters and to see what Jesus would do. There’s a stark realism here. Jesus said, “Take away the stone,” and Martha responded, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days!”
“Already there is a stench!” Even the stone couldn’t mask the smell of death! There was no denying that Lazarus had died. Yet, Jesus prayed and then cried, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Can we picture zombies or mummies? He came out of the tomb wearing the grave cloths. He had received the gift of new life – yet, he was still bound by the trappings of death. So, Jesus had another command for the bystanders. “Unbind him and let him go!”
They were witnesses – witnesses to what God was doing in and through Jesus – witnesses to the good news of life conquering death.
When I started in ministry, the Presbyterian Church had a new liturgy for marriage ceremonies. I call it the hippie service (and I actually love many, many parts of it!) It reflected a growing consciousness of women’s issues, so a very traditional piece was left out. “Who gives this woman to be married?” That was left out because it reflected a history that was and is detrimental to women. It reflected the tradition of, to put it crassly, selling a woman to her husband. She was transferred like property. So, no such question existed in that “hippie” ceremony. (And the Presbyterians weren’t alone.) But, I can’t tell you how many young women rebelled against the lack of that question. “I want my father to give me away,” was a sentiment that I heard over and over again. They had seen that element of the service in movies and TV shows – and a wedding ceremony without it seemed incomplete.
Well, when the Presbyterians (and other denominations) rewrote the marriage ceremony again, in the 1980s, they picked up that lost element – but changed it. First, both sets of parents were asked a question: “Do you give your blessing to [these two] and promise to do everything in your power to uphold them in their marriage?” That is a powerful question. The couple may have made the decision to get married, but this acknowledged that married life didn’t take place in a vacuum. Some parents choose to be disruptive in their children’s relationships. This question challenged both sets to think about how they might be proactive rather than destructive. Then, the ceremony goes on to ask a question of all who had gathered. “Will all of you witnessing these vows do everything in your power to uphold [this couple] in their marriage?”
I think it’s a great question. Witnesses are called to be encouraging – like the witnesses at a race. They are invited to be participants in the success of a couple’s commitment. They were asked to be something more than spectators.
Those who were at the tomb with Jesus, Martha, and Mary were more than spectators. Jesus commanded them, first, to take away the stone. Then, after he called Lazarus out of the tomb, they were told to “unbind him and let him go!” The cloud of witnesses is not just a “heavenly host”; the cloud of witnesses includes all of us who have in any way seen, experienced, and heard of God’s redeeming presence. And, as the cloud of witnesses, we are not to be passive. We, like those at the tomb, have work to do so that what God has done, is doing, and will do, can be seen by the world.
Jesus called Lazarus from death to life. But, the witnesses were charged with unwrapping the trappings of death so that he could know, fully, the magnitude of that gift of life. The witnesses could not be passive bystanders. They had to participate in making God’s work visible.
I wonder what is was like, to be charged with “unbinding Lazarus”? Were they afraid of this new life – something unexpected, something truly inexplicable? Did they wonder what they would find when they removed the bindings and let him go? And what did Lazarus feel? Of course, we know little about his death. We don’t know if it was unexpected. Was Lazarus able to emerge from the tomb with joy? Or did he find the idea of life-restored somewhat frightening?
New life, God’s redemption, shakes the familiar. It emerges from the tombs we create. We are, perhaps, more comfortable with the trappings of death than we are with the signs of God’s transforming presence. I have been thinking about congregations that cling to the past and hope that if they just repeat what they’ve always done, somehow they will find new life. They forget that new life is already bestowed upon us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The hard work is rolling away the stones from the tombs of familiarity and unbinding the trappings of death that prevent us from participating fully in God’s realm in our very midst.
It’s hard work, it’s challenging work to take away the stones. We smell death and despair and it would seem crazy to trust that where we see death, God could be bringing forth life. And it’s hard work to be involved in removing the trappings of death – to unbind and set free. We can do that only when we’ve been willing to open up our carefully shut tombs.
Maybe, it’s hard for parents of couples getting married to set aside their notions of who the perfect mate for their child would be and of what the perfect marriage would look like. Those ideals can become tombs that entrap both the parents and the couple. I’ve sat with couples planning to get married and feared for their future as they talked about one set of parents interfering and objecting at every point. But that modern ceremony asks the parents to be the witnesses that participate in letting something new emerge. The parents, themselves, may need to let the grave cloths be removed so that they can embrace a new relationship blessed in God’s presence.
Jesus didn’t ask the bystanders to “raise Lazarus.” That work belonged to God through Jesus alone. He did ask them to help prepare the way by taking away the stone and to bear witness to the resurrection by “unbinding” the grave cloths and letting Lazarus go forth. Maybe, like the crowd at a race, they had to encourage him to go forth, to live – and to believe in this gift of new life.
Today, we remember that this journey is never a solitary one. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on, encouraging us to discard whatever grave cloths still cling to us and to emerge from our own tombs. On All Saints Day we remember that there are witnesses who have already finished the journey, who know the fullness of God’s realm – and who stand by, encouraging us to continue the race.
But, we do not wait to be witnesses. Even as we need to break forth from our own tombs, to shed the trappings of death that offer false comfort, Jesus invites us to witness, to cheer, to encourage, to remove the grave trappings from people and situations that deny God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s justice. Our vision may be limited. Maybe we’re standing along the course – or even numbered among those who race toward the finish line. But, if we listen, maybe we will hear the voices of the saints, standing at the finish line, who encourage us and all that, ultimately, the tombs of this world will be conquered. Amen.
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