Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's not About What's In Your Wallet ( And it is)


How many of you remember the VISA credit card commercial “What’s in your wallet?” My favorites involved the marauding Vikings on holiday, but they all ended with a bellowing question- “What’s in YOUR wallet?” I think of it whenever I hear this gospel lesson. Because what’s in our wallets is close to us, and important to us. As the Pharisees are being tested by Jesus as much as they thought they were testing him. But what exactly is Jesus really getting at when he tells them to hand him a coin and then tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s?

The short answer is “I don’t know for sure.” But I do think we have Caesars in our lives too.  And by that I mean whatever occupies us and controls us.

The Pharisees and God’s people lived in an occupied land. They were taken over by the Romans who brought their laws, their army and their money. Literally the answer to what’s in their wallet is money that had a picture of Caesar on it and proclaimed he was the Son of God. So much for the people who say they will have no other gods before the Lord. Claiming allegiance to the Lord was seemingly an impossible dilemma. They were allowed to worship their God as long as they also worshipped Caesar. And it seems they are caught and yet, they have no trouble even in the temple of handing Jesus that coin. The one they tell others they can’t have in the temple and must exchange for temple money for a price. They have a lot of those Caesar coins and they’re not sharing. And they have no trouble going to the occupying leaders about Jesus. Their words about God and their actions have gotten pretty disconnected. Frankly, they’ve spent an awful lot of time cozying up to the very thing that threatens them.

We are not occupied in the same way, but we are also living in a system that demands much it seems. However we answer the question of what occupies us affects our decision making, how we see the world, and tells where we place our hope. Often it is in our wallet. Even though our money boldly says “In God We Trust” on it.

But I wonder if anyone has looked at those words when you’re buying something, or before you spend money. Does anyone stop and look at those words “ In God We Trust” and ask if this decision lives that out? Anyone? Me neither.

With credit cards and electronic purchases becoming the norm kids today perhaps no longer will even see those words. They won’t even cross our minds.

We’re all far more likely to pay attention to the words of the brands we are loyal to. Now advertisers have gone beyond trying to convince us of a brand- it’s about creating a whole community. There are Nike people. And I-phone people. There are Weis shoppers and Redners shoppers. There are whole systems based upon these loyalties- there are even loyalty cards. And while some offer us a deal here and there, they are mainly just tracking what we buy to get us to buy more of what it seems we can’t do without. I keep waiting for my loyalty to Turkey Hill really give me the better gas discount. They tell me to keep spending. Getting us to cozy up to their system and treat the connections as real. To be the thing we want most. But they’re not real connections.

What’s in our wallet says a lot. It says not only what we are loyal to, but I think it says where we place our hope. That’s why retail therapy is a thing. For those of you who don’t know, that’s shopping at a favorite place to feel better. The next product is bound to make a difference until maybe we do realize that VISA really does own us. There’s even a spoof on the Viking commercial where the person realizes how much they owe and the Vikings come back and smash it all.

The truth in this is that there is an obvious tension in life between how to live a life of faith in the world and how to live in the culture of our world. How to live without letting the culture own us.

And I wonder if maybe the real question Jesus was asking the Pharisees and us is, whether we think the pull of the culture is so strong we don’t even try?

Maybe we begin to think it’s too much to ask how faith shapes our decisions in life about spending and saving and giving. That’s a place of no hope in the end. Yet Jesus says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.  Which may be a way of reminding us how our coins and our cards do not define us.

Because God does. We belong to God.

Jesus invites and even demands us to engage these words we say about God and ourselves- to speak of our Lord in terms of a real living relationship. And a source of hope. Because while God wants all of us, the good news is that God first says- you are mine. It’s a promise not a threat.

Words that are intended to reassure us that we are more than our money and don’t have to live in fear of having it all.

Perhaps now more than ever these are words of community and comfort and direction we need to hear. That our hope is not limited to what we can buy. That we can live in faith that God loves us, provides for us and saves us and we can believe there is a future and hope. Now more than ever as we look at our world and feel powerless we can be a community that continues to gather together around what is real- God’s love and promise today and forever in Christ’s work of the cross. That’s our hope. And it’s real.

In a few weeks, we will be gathering for our annual meeting, and voting upon a plan for how we will carry out ministry in the coming year. The time honored term is called a budget. And it often feels that our thoughts about bills and coins are the only way we see this process. But I want to suggest we view it as a statement of trust in God and as a statement of hope.

That the choices we make in our commitment will be based upon our trust in God so that we can support it financially. And that the choice we make in shaping ministry will be based upon what we believe God is calling us to do, not only what we feel used to doing.

Because we’re liberated by God from the weight of whatever feels like it occupies us. We are liberated! And our primary response is to say thank you! Thank God! And trust God’s providing as we carry out the gospel for others. So they can feel liberated and thankful too.

And this is who we CAN be because God claims us, loves us and empowers us to respond.

 

Let us pray- Lord God, sometimes we are unsure about how we can respond to your calling. Help us to surrender ourselves, and be thankful because we are yours, and to trust that you love us and provide for us, so that we can break free from what holds us back and share of ourselves for the sake of your world.

In Jesus’ name. Amen

 PS- here's the Vikings!

 

Monday, October 13, 2014

This is the Good Stuff


Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, in the name of the Triune God. I bring you greetings from your sisters and brothers at Holy Spirit as we give thanks for the privilege of sharing in ministry with you for the sake of the gospel here in Reading. This afternoon we will share in the CROP walk for hunger, but today especially I want to lift up and share our gratitude for a way you support our ministry over the years that ties in to our readings for today.

At Holy Spirit, we have an afterschool ministry called the Doves Nest, which provides a free meal, tutoring, literacy assistance and fun for 40-80 kids three days a week. Most of the time we are grateful for the meals we receive from the Kids Café program of the Greater Berks Food Bank, but a few times a year we are blessed by a feast when members from here at Nativity lovingly prepare and deliver a special meal that takes the place of the usual food.

I can assure you, that when the kids, especially the older ones, get wind of the fact that a meal is coming from Nativity, that good news spreads like wildfire! Poor Shirleen has to plan her arrival so she’s not mobbed by the kids. News of a meal from Nativity is like the proclamation of a feast! The kids go around and make sure everyone knows the news- “you gotta be here- this is the GOOD stuff!”

While I am sure that no one is thinking of well aged wines (God forbid!) or fatted calves, it is indeed a great meal. One that invites our kids into something different- knowing that great preparations were made, for them, and the taste of that great meal lingers in their memories and speaks love. And for some of our kids this meal sustains them in the midst of places that don’t seem all that great or maybe even loving. And that’s where our readings come in.

Admittedly, it’s hard to overlook the intensity of the language in the gospel this day, which doesn’t seem all that loving either. But it’s helpful to remember this is a parable. A story told to show a truth. Not told to show that the story is fact.

And I’d like to suggest that at this point in the gospel as Jesus has been sparring with the leaders for some time about who he is and what he’s about and it’s helpful to see that the strong images are intended to get attention about a truth about God’s power and purpose. Because you don’t want to miss out on what God’s up to. It’s a message humanity often misses.

All our readings this day call to mind the tensions of the world but they also point to God’s providing in the midst of it. In exile and strife, and struggle and confusion, there are these meals. Spoken of to a people in exile, to a church in conflict, to those beset by enemies, and those who weren’t expected to be included. There are these great meals.

In different ways, we ourselves know what makes for a great meal in our lives. It can be a great meal just because the ingredients are exquisite and the chef talented. It can also be a great meal to be with family or a special day. Or maybe you’ve been hungry for a long time and you finally get to eat. Maybe you’ve been sick and unable to taste or take in food, but now you can. Maybe you’ve been in a place of dark shadows, of loneliness or loss, staring at an empty chair, but today an empty chair is filled with a dinner companion- and that’s a great meal. Perhaps you’ve been at odds with someone but now there is a peace at the table. All of those are great meals, are they not?

Even our psalm this day lifts up a feast, however unlikely.

Psalm 23 is the most well known passage of Scripture in much of the world. We probably all know it well. After we hear the Lord is our shepherd and we are led by still waters and to green pastures, but before forever with God, there it is. “You prepare a table before me even in the presence of my enemies.” Even when we’re surrounded by struggles whether they are people or emotions. This is gospel for us in all kinds of times and places.

I heard it this past week as one of my colleagues told a story as a Vietnam vet of being in a watchtower on a hill with a few guys, eating lots of C-rations, and being pretty isolated. But occasionally they’d get mail. And on Christmas Eve he got a package from his fiancée.

Inside was a canned pheasant. I didn’t even know you could put a pheasant in a can. Canned pheasant and mandarin oranges and popcorn. An odd feast. And way too much for one person but those cans had to be eaten as soon as opened. So he and his fellow soldiers there in that tower surrounded by shots most of the time, had a feast, one he still calls one the best ever- as the shots stopped for a awhile, and there was a feast on Christmas Eve.

From those cans came a feast that spoke of the love of his fiancée, the protection of God and the goodness of something unexpected and abundant.

This is what our Scripture shows us- not only the goodness and power of the food, but of the provider who continually prepares and invites. Our God continually lovingly prepares for and invites those who long for it, and those who don’t get it. Those who will savor it and those who will dismiss it. Even in places and times we can’t expect-God provides a feast, prepares a table and says “Come.”

And Jesus asks, “Do you really want to miss out on grace?”

God is feeding us too. Again this day-in the midst of our busy-ness and our challenges. Our frailties and doubts. Dark places and short-comings. There’s a great meal here that offers the power to sustain us today- it is a feast and celebration!

And so, we’re invited to take all those other things that fill our hearts and minds, and are maybe even distracting us now and STOP.

Stop what we’re about and be fed with good things. Good things that will be carried in our hearts and minds so we can so as Paul encourages- think on these things. Think on the truth and honor of what God offers, the pure grace and wonder worthy of praise-

the things God gives, that are stronger than enemies, and dark places and prison cells. Because the God of peace meets us in this meal and is with us. And it starts here.

In order to be the church that shares good news, I think we must first stand in that grace and take it in again. And the best part is that we’re invited!  To be lovingly fed by Christ and strengthened to walk in God’s world and to love others- to share as the kids would say, the news of the good stuff!

This is the invitation- so Come and be fed.  AMEN

 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Crazy Love


How many of you are familiar with Albert Einstein’s definition of “insanity?” Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Our first dog helped us experience this. Every day when the postal carrier would come to deliver mail, the dog would go nuts, and bark her head off, and sounded like given the chance would have attacked the person just delivering messages through the mail slot. From the dog’s perspective she was a success- every day some stranger came and tried to put stuff in our door and she barked and the person left. That’s not insanity.

Insanity was what we did. Every day we would chastise the dog for that behavior and tell her not to do it. And it never changed. You’d think that since we provided her a safe and comfortable home and good food, and she always cornered the best spot in a nice fluffy bed. You would think that she’d listen. But every day, the postal carrier would appear, and the dog had the same response. Because to our dog, “This is MY HOUSE!” And she was in charge.

Our dog was not exhibiting insanity- we were. For thinking that on a different day or with a different person the result would be different. And we could have given up on the dog but we didn’t. Because we loved the dog. And thankfully she never “got” that person who came and shoved mail through the slot in our front door.

But insanity, that act of doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is perhaps the best way I know to describe what we see in the vineyard lessons today. Stories of wild grapes and tenants run amok, and the actions of the owner of the vineyard. (Thanks David Lose!)

The owner has labored to create a vineyard, tilling soil, planting lovingly, setting everything in order for the best and most abundantly possible harvest, and then gives the care of the vineyard over to other. In Isaiah we hear that it all goes wild from there and the temptation is tear it all down. But in the gospel, we hear about the tenants in a different way. And as far as we know in most respects they have been good tenants and have cared for the place. They’ve been given a place to live and a job to do- bring in the harvest. And presumably they’ve been given a promise that some of the harvest will be theirs as their pay, but of course the rest goes to the one who owned the land and who created the vineyard. And the harvest has come!

But now they look around and they see that harvest and they just don’t want to share. They’ve worked hard day after day for an owner who isn’t really around. They’ve put themselves into it and it doesn’t seem right that most of this goes to someone else.

So when the landowner sends servants to collect, they don’t receive grapes of joy in the harvest. Instead, to borrow the phrase from John Steinbeck, they meet with grapes of wrath. In wrath and anger those poor servants are abused or killed. Because the tenants have decided that this is MY PLACE!

Here’s where the insanity starts.

The owner could do as we would at this point, send in police or soldiers and take this by force. But instead, the owner sends more servants! Who sadly meet the same result. And that’s crazy! Why would the owner put so much at stake to risk a different result? More grapes of wrath. And frankly now the tenants are feeling the battle surge.

So then it really gets crazy, because the owner says, “I’ll send my son. They’ll listen to him. They’ll show respect, and recognize his authority, after all they have had a job and a place and are getting cared for.”

And we know how it ends. More wrath and killing.

The question isn’t really so much why did the tenants act that way- we sadly expect it. The stories in our world and our lives tell us this.

The question is, “why did the owner act that way??”

Why would anyone try to live in the framework of a relationship over and over when it is clear that it’s so one-sided?

That’s just crazy.

Today’s parable was told by Jesus to the leaders of the temple to show them who they were- those who rejected over and over the messengers of God. And while it’s a story about them and about how they would go on to reject even the Son, none of us should be under the impression we would be any different.

When so often we find in our own lives, ways we reject God’s call upon us to care for the vineyard, for those who show up in it, or to listen to God. When it is easy to respond to others not with love but with wrath. To call upon force rather than tend relationships.

Our news and our own stories tell us this is true. And in the end so much of what we’re given we are sure is OURS, because we’ve been tending it, we hardly think at all about who else might have a stake.

We can do a fine job of serving up grapes of wrath. That’s not the gospel.

Sometimes we have to work harder to see what the good news is.

The bigger and more important part of the parable however is what we know of God. It’s the story of one who lovingly arranged a place for us to live and to work and to grow, and who despite all our rejections and possessiveness, and even our violence and spite, continues to send not only messengers but to send the Son.

This side of the cross we know just how crazy this love God has for us really is. Christ on the cross is the ultimate message, that takes our wrath and made of it, our salvation.

If God responded towards any of us as we deserve, there would be wrath and destruction indeed. How unexpectedly graciously instead,

God persists over and over in a relationship with us, however one-sided, and while it is indeed the height of insanity, it is the best demonstration of crazy love we’ll ever see.

The grapes in the end are not grapes of wrath, they are grapes of mercy and forgiveness and love.

And this day again we will taste them. We’ll come because God invites us and we’ll receive the body and blood of Christ who died at our hand, but for us. So today, maybe, we’ll taste these grapes and maybe linger over it, and savor that taste that for us is the taste of love and mercy for each of us and for all of us.

And then maybe remember that of all the things we clamor to possess, or to know, the sweetest and best is God’s crazy love for us all.

 Amen.
 
** thanks to David Lose, and Sharron Blezard for the inspiration


 

 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Behold the Life Giving Cross


Growing up one of my favorite comic strips was “Peanuts.” Perhaps some of you remember sometimes that Lucy would play psychiatrist. She would set up shop with a sign proclaiming, “The Psychiatrist is IN.” Recently I was reminded how One day she says to Charlie Brown, “Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?” “You know what your problem is? The whole trouble with you is you.” The whole trouble with you is you.

I’ve thought a lot about that this past week in the midst of the groundswell of response to the video of NFL player Ray Rice, seen physically assaulting a woman who is now his wife. First we wonder what the NFL knew and why they didn’t do more. And much condemnation of his behavior has been heard. But then his wife’s decision to stay and stand by him received just as much recrimination. Maybe even more. Why would she do such a thing? It’s foolish! Why are we so focused on chiding a victim?

Then again, I’ve thought about Lucy as we have another week of gun violence here in the city including the death of a man just blocks from here and the neighborhood concern about the shooting which seems to center around getting these people out of here more than concern for those caught in the midst of it. Shootings are bad, killing is wrong, but we can be quick to judge- I wonder if anyone has thought instead of judging, about how to help those caught in these places live?  

These kinds of violence seem to be always around us. The groundswell of opinions are just one example of how we approach problems in our world- we bounce between saying we need better laws or policies all the way to the other extreme which is we need victims to be stronger. We need better policies about guns or people, or we need more guns with the right people to be safe, or we need to uparmor police even in places like schools. I saw a picture this past week of an artillery vehicle repurposed for a school. Shocking.

Unfortunately the conversations we have are only about what people should stop doing or about doing better things. And while it is about us, somehow it’s not. It’s about issues and how to fix them. As though the issues and the people are separate. It’s not about life.

Today on this Holy Cross Sunday we ask what the cross means for us in this life in the world. And we first hear about the people in Numbers who are being plagued by a different kind of death- they’ve been traveling in the wilderness with Moses and serpents are biting people who are then dying. They beg Moses to do something and he goes to see God and begs for an answer.

God tells him to take a serpent and put it on a pole for the people to look at, but when they look at it they will live. The bitten will live. The image helps them see and live, but… it takes trusting in who’s behind what the image represents.

And then we fast forward to the gospel where we hear about Jesus on the cross, born into our humanity and put up on a pole for people to see. (Brian Stoffregen) One writer noticed that there is a parallel here. Serpents on the ground kill, serpent on the pole brings life. Jesus as human on the pole in our human world brings life. So what must the problem be?

Lucy is right. Jesus is on the cross because the problem with humans is humans. The problem with us is us.

So often we can see that there are problems like domestic abuse and gun violence but the way we address it is to separate the problem from people. Better policies or laws, or better victims might bring some kind of salvation-ish kind of thing. But that kind of salvation has nothing to do with Jesus. It either doesn’t need him or reduces him to a model of behavior. Yet so often we turn not to God or the cross but to these other avenues.

And we keep getting bitten by the same old problems because of who we are. We are sinful. Sin hurts. But the cross changes that conversation. And we really do need that cross.

Because just as those surrounded by biting serpents everywhere needed to be grounded to survive, so do we. What grounds us is not just the image of the cross, but a belief in the relationship it represents. That God is a God who is involved, and healing, and forgiving. The cross shows us a God who loving, and longs for us to seek life. But we have to believe.

We hear this is in the gospel- you must believe. But I want to be clear, I don’t mean in the sense of “believe or you are damned.” Though this is often how some interpret today’s gospel. That’s not what is being said.

Believe… because life giving starts now. In this cross and this relationship. There's real life.
Belief is a key concept in the gospel of John Over and over the stories flow forth “so that you might believe.” And in coming to believe might keep on believing in the God of the cross.

Believing in what and who the symbol represents.

If you’ve ever noticed the abundance of ribbons, and wristbands and slogans, it’s proof we will believe in a policy, slogan or symbol as the next great hope with very little proof.

Believing that the cross is more than that. It's a symbol that points to a real relationship and identity. And those words “to believe” are a continual invitation to keep on.

When we look at the cross our belief is renewed- it not only shows the cost Christ paid, but also the life giving promise Christ assures us. We’re reminded that relationship is forged in baptism when we join in what that cross made on our heads menas, and stays with us all the way to the end of this life’s journey and beyond. Not just at the beginning and end, but along the way.

And along the way, we are continually invited into life. To come to believe again and again so that we are not perishing, or condemned, or being judged or feeling separated.

The good news is that while the serpents in our world still want to judge us or have us judge others, we don’t have to buy in. We really don’t.

In fact, the cross shows exactly the opposite. The cross is the place that shows us that we cannot be our own salvation.

It’s also the place where Jesus turns to those who have killed, robbed, beaten, and denied and says, “You’re forgiven and today you are with me.” Forever. Not just for us, but for those we are sure are not us.

It’s foolish to believe but there it is.

Good news for all the places where the painful, the poisonous, and the life-taking things surround us. Holy Cross day reminds us to behold the life giving cross, to look upon Jesus and remember not only the cost but the promise God in Christ assures now and forever.

Again we are invited, “ Come, believe, and continue to live into believing the power of our God.”

 Because the cross is not just a symbol, it's a relationship.

Take it in and believe.

This is what we celebrate here. And what when we come here we help each other believe.

This is what we share when we lift that cross high in our world

So that when the next discouraged person comes along saying, “Ouch! I just got bit!” We don’t point in judgment and say “ How could you be so stupid to let that happen?”

But instead proclaim with all our heart, “ Let me help you see the One who will help you live.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

Not Chaff


For a week at least, the animals have been trampling the gathered grain and the threshing floor has hummed with activity. Tossing up the harvest, so the grain falls to the ground, but the wind carries the chaff away. No one keeps the chaff, no one wants it. And in the world each in some way, Ruth and Naomi and even Boaz carry something of the chaff about them.

They are not desired- Ruth, carries the chaff of being a foreigner whose marriage must not have been blessed since she had no sons; Naomi, the chaff of the widow whose husband and sons are gone, not blessed. Boaz, the chaff of being older and alone-without a companion, and hardly the object of the eyes of the young.

But God is on a rescue mission.

Even for the people of Bethlehem who this year are blessed. On average, out of a ten year harvest cycle, seven of those years, one could hope to have enough to get through the winter, and into the spring. In two or three of those years, one could count on drought or famine. And they knew those times. But this year, this year was blessed- a harvest of abundance! And they’d all worked to bring it in, and to thresh that grain and scatter the chaff. To praise God’s faithfulness. Because it is God’s hand that has done this.

And then they celebrate. For in Deuteronomy, after the harvest was a week long festival. In fact, God commanded it- “Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows residing in your towns. Seven days…you shall surely celebrate…with whatever you desire.” And so of course there was eating and drinking, and the settling in of pleasant fatigue- the kind you know when you have worked hard, but good has come. Where you know you are blessed.

 

And it’s a great thing to see that God loves the people enough to bless them with the harvest, and with a command to celebrate together- everyone. Which makes sense in light of God’s command to leave part of the harvest for the foreigner, the orphan and the widow. And God’s command to love the stranger, “for once you were strangers in Egypt.”

How often perhaps we forget the love in these laws of God. The beauty of the story of Ruth is what happens when God’s loving faithfulness reaches out through people rather than staying stuck on a page. Where we see God’s never ending rescue mission come to life.

So there we are, and the party was great and the last of the revelers are finally asleep. There on the floor with all that grain. Which at first makes no sense in our silo world, but in the day, it was first important to harvest, and then to celebrate, and thank God, but at the end of the celebrating, the men slept there with the grain. Each in a different spot, forming a circle round it, to protect it for everyone. Sleeping head in, feet out just in case thieves came.

That’s how it is. No wonder Naomi told her to Ruth to look for where Boaz laid down if you had to wander around in the dark looking at feet. She’s cleaned up and looking her best and she has come and laid down and she touches him.  And at some point her presence startles him. And he could have mistaken her for an intruder. Or a prostitute. Neither of which end well. There she is at the very edge of the harvest, just reaching out, hoping for something. But what follows is not what we expect.

He wakes up startled asking, “Who are you?” And she tells him they are kin. When really he wakes up, she proposes marriage! Suggesting she is not chaff that should just blow away in the wind of no concern. She proposes that she instead be gathered. “Spread your cloak over your servant-you are next of kin.” If she as a foreigner has married an Israelite, she has become kin. When she became a widow, there was no obligation to still see her as such.

But she bound herself to Naomi, and now asks Boaz to honor her with the same treatment a daughter of Israel could expect. Don’t cast me off like chaff. I ask to be treated like the law demands.

Because God’s law provided that a widow be married to another member of the family in order that she be provided for. That too was the law. So widows would be rescued. “Spreading a cloak was not only an invitation to a marriage bed, but a symbol of being gathered under the protection of his wings. And Boaz said yes. And there on that threshing floor, they exchanged the equivalent of marriage promises.” (Rolf Jacobsen)

And God’s love was at work as Ruth was gathered in, not cast to the wind.

At each turn in this story, the question is – will she be scattered or gathered? “Through Boaz living out the law, God was at work, rescuing Ruth from a marginal life of gleaning as a foreigner. But through Ruth, God was at work rescuing Boaz, who apparently was alone, as love moved into his home. Boaz recognized that Ruth could have approached a younger member of the relation. But by choosing the older, and more loyal Boaz, Ruth also secured a future that rescued Naomi. God’s steadfast loving kindness shows up in everyday ordinary, even unremarkable people. As Ruth leaves at dawn, returning home perhaps wondering whether that promise in the night will hold up in the light of day. With yet more steps of faith to come.

Would Boaz honor his promise? Would the community live as God intended? Would God still be faithful?”

When she comes back to Naomi, we hear the question “What happened?” But in the Hebrew, it is the same question Boaz asked her- “Who are you?” Who are you now? Ruth responds by showing what she has received- grain for today and a promise she hopes is true- that she is rescued.

The chaff does blow away but it is the chaff of the labels- widow, foreigner. But the grain- the heart of who she truly is as God’s child remains.

There we are too. We who wonder if the labels of our world define us, we who are those who have received the promise that is not yet fulfilled. Wondering whether the hope is for real, whether the promises will last.

We too walk by faith in the promise that Christ is not only risen but returning again. That we share in the greater feast to come. That we will be gathered not scattered. That God’s abundance, faithfulness, overflowing love are for us. We are not only rescued, but desired by God who promises not only salvation, but more to the story.

Until then, we, just as unlikely people, gather and share in the grain of the meal of this day, believing it is a foretaste of the feast to come. When the celebration has no end and that God’s desire is to gather us in until all are fed.

 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Can We Make That Journey Together?


Here in Reading, the Lutheran Churches function as a cluster called “The Reading Lutheran Parish” which was first described to me as being about the fact we each have our own individual congregations but that we collaborate in some areas and the pastors and leaders gather for Bible study and support. Within the last year or so, we as the leaders began to see a possible vision of more deeply collaborating in a specific project that would be a Reading Lutheran Parish project, as opposed to being one congregation’s effort that others supported. One of the questions we’ve been asked is how we as leaders will build “capacity,” in other words, how will we deepen the commitment to a collaboration beyond just the intentions of the leaders- how will the people of our congregations get invested and become active in what we are dreaming. We have dabbled at a RLP wide picnic, and at pulpit exchanges or having a couple people from each congregation go to another for worship and then gather to talk about it.

While these things have scratched at the surface, the depth that we hope will be achieved will take more building. In my part of the city, the congregation where I serve, Holy Spirit, is located about a mile from the next, Hope. We are not far from each other, although our two neighborhoods have some differences, and we are far enough to be located near two different elementary schools in our city’s school district.

We each draw folks from our geographic neighborhoods as well as people who drive in to the city to come to the “home church.” We each have folks who could more easily worship at the other. We both provide resources to kids and families in need in ways that dovetail each other well. We each have large old structures that take a lot of us in time and resources to maintain and heat and insure.

And because we are distinct enough, we stay that way- cordial and supportive, but distinct.

Until the other day when Hope Lutheran experienced a problem with their building that meant they would not be able to worship there on Sunday. Which when I shared it with my leaders, immediately one of leaders who lives here in the city, said instinctively-“Invite them to come here!” And we did.

Yesterday, in addition to our regular folks, and a couple visitors invited by others, we doubled in size for worship. Because the Hope folks, carpooling with the church van and personal cars, or biking over, joined us.

Not a couple folks participating in a well orchestrated “exchange”- a congregation joined ours. We sang together in ways we don’t usually, and we prayed together, and we walked together through sharing bulletins to ensure everyone had one. And we showed grace when the grape juice ran out, and the juice box backup was almost impossible to open. We paused to let an older worshipper be communed in his seat even though it interrupted the “flow” of communion traffic. We blessed each other- actually literally- making the sign of the cross on our neighbor’s foreheads and proclaiming them a blessed child of God. And we shared the peace in a way that if replicated would end conflicts everywhere.

And after communion, the bread crumbs looked like confetti on the ground. We had indeed, however cautiously at first, celebrated Christ in our midst together. And people were smiling in contentment- and it was good. It was that mystical combination of realizing this is sacred and it is a celebration. I felt like we were a part of a moment that demanded, “take your sandals off, it’s holy ground.”

And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. And arguably “capacity” was built, because God accomplished it. God did not make Hope Lutheran’s building problem, but I do believe God’s Spirit interceded and answered the prayer of people who were saddened at the notion that the only option they might have had was to put a note on the door and just been “closed.”

So I wonder, where might God lead? What we experienced was incarnational community- Christ centered, Spirit led community. Because in a crisis moment, all that could be done was to get beyond ourselves. No worrying about if there is the right display at the coffee table, and who sat where. No worrying about whether we will like the hymns today, or if the pastor leads worship the right way. No worrying about whether we know in advance who is coming. Or whether when we say we have transportation to church, anyone will use it. We all got beyond ourselves. And got to experience what God might be trying to get us to see but where so often we are too busy being “Us” to see it. And it was a blessing.

What if we kept intentionally mingling? Back and forth between our two neighborhoods and in our ministries which are compatible in many ways.

Will we allow ourselves to move from being a place where one group “let” another join, to a place where the words we speak and pray and sing each week, come to life?

Interestingly enough, at Holy Spirit, I have been preaching on the Book of Ruth, and I cannot help but hear Ruth’s words to Naomi in a new light. We know nothing about their relationship as mother in law and daughter in law before the men all died. It may have been cordial, and supportive, but probably distinct. Not unlike our churches. But when the crisis moment arises there were two choices- close the door on it all, or figure out what to do together. And so it is for us, perhaps. We can bemoan the high costs of caring for our churches, and keeping leaders. We can feel like strangers in a strange land and long for another day, or place. We can.

Or we can live into what Ruth speaks to Naomi: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).

There is bitterness of Naomi in her losses, but that’s not the whole of the story. Not even when after Ruth has been traveling with her and she still stands and wails that she is no longer able to be called “pleasant” only “bitter.” Ruth still stands with her.  Each step of the way, could lead to a "yes" or "no." Ruth's ability to journey shows great faith.

Ruth’s loyalty and love for holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi is empty (1:21), but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.

We live in an area whose population is not shrinking, and whose people long to be filled- not only with food, but with the good news that life doesn’t have to be empty. There is much to be done for the sake of the gospel.

Knowing just a glimpse of the feast, can we make that journey together?

 

 

Living Blessing


One thing I miss about living in Lancaster County is Gleaner Season. Where we used to live, at the edge of a town surrounded by agriculture we lived in awe of the Gleaner. It would come through town to get from one field to another. A massive machine that took up the whole road and shook the windows of the house as it drove by, it was so powerful. It was designed to get ALL of the crop from the field.

Smaller scale harvesting left things behind. The Gleaner kept that from happening. The field is stripped bare. I find it ironic that then a huge percent of the harvest never makes it to the store because it’s not pretty enough but that’s another sermon.

I have a friend who grew up gleaning the traditional way. In a poor family whose parents used to drop them off at various fields to pick, not around the edges- in the middle where you can’t be seen. She grew up thinking that everyone did this. Only in adulthood she discovered it was trespassing and theft. It was the neighboring farm. I don’t know if the farmer knew and tolerated it, or if it was lucky for her they were never caught or found themselves at the other end of a shot gun and someone else’s understanding of the law. Getting caught in the wrong part of the field is like being on the wrong part of the street. Either way, I am sure they would not have been blessed by the landowner.

In Ruth’s day, gleaning was a part of culture for many, actually provided for in the law. But just like not everyone drives the speed limit, not everyone obeyed the law about leaving part of the harvest behind for others. Not everyone was as charitable- and in our reading, did you catch the little phrase about wondering who this person was, followed by an assurance you will be treated well?

It suggests that not everyone treats gleaners well, or maybe not everyone treats foreigners well- that maybe what some can get away with others cannot. And that maybe people think that the problem of those other people is just not their problem. Ruth and Naomi are widows hoping for enough to survive, counting on gleaning in the harvest season to eat. And Naomi has been bitter and skeptical, with frankly, good reason. Ruth goes out determined and frankly a little fast and furious. She’s going to glean as long and fast as she can.

Ruth works fast, because it may not last. She asks no questions, and bothers no one. And no one bothers her. She’s tolerated. No one so much as offers her water in the midday sun either. In our story today, there are not only Ruth, and Naomi and Boaz, there are all those other people in the field, just doing their thing. But Ruth is not connected to them.

When Boaz shows up, he gets personal which is what living out God’s law looks like. He shows up and blesses his workers. How many of you when you show up for work are blessed by your employer?

He blesses them, and then he notices Ruth.

We perhaps want this to be about how he “notices” Ruth and sexualize the story to give him a motive for generosity. But there is nothing in this encounter to suggest that. Rather, he seems to be the sort who notices others. After all, Ruth is hungry, she’s traveled far, and she’s a foreigner. That suggests dirty, smelly, scrawny, not Hollywood beauty. We’d feel better about the times we don’t notice others if we give Boaz a motive.

Boaz, takes a personal interest in Ruth-because their paths have crossed. He doesn’t have to. He could ignore her and truthfully say what a ridiculous decision she made. She could’ve stayed where she was. She chose to follow this Naomi and put herself at risk. Why should anyone care if she’s that foolish not to take care of herself? Indeed today, I wonder if we would think that Boaz is the brave one, letting some foreigner glean on his land.  She shouldn’t be our problem. In a world where every needy person or person who is “not like us” is now viewed as an intruder, or an assault.

 

Boaz not only shares he blesses Ruth! Boaz instead notices her and praises her loyalty to her mother-in-law. And then shows generosity, and blesses her.  “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD… under whose wings you have come for refuge.”

Boaz represents what loving kindness looks like-  abundance, protection, hospitality, blessing.  

No wonder Naomi is astonished. Aren’t we all?

Naomi had decided to just be bitter, now she has hope. The hand of God she thought was against her is not. She’s quick to name God as the source of blessing: The Lord whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!"

Naomi’s hope isn’t found in remembering that everyone recognizes that gleaning is the law and everyone follows it, but because in spite of human nature, a good thing has happened where you can see God’s hand in it. That’s what she teaches Ruth and us-that while God has spoken in large miracles, like speaking from burning bushes, or dividing the sea, God is far more likely to be seen acting through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. Like you and me. God’s blessing happens through us.

Our world and our lives are full of places about more than just physical hunger-there is real hunger for many, for more than just food. Hunger for dignity, for generous hearts, hunger for compassion, hunger for justice that laws be used rightly and enforced the same for all. A hunger that our lives actually touch others, a hunger for blessing.   Ruth shows up hungry, striving, struggling to find hope. Wondering if that emptiness can be filled. Maybe you have too.

And we’re met by God’s blessing, that’s God’s desire-lovingkindness, and mercy and grace not judgment or scorn or rebuke.

That’s the gospel for all of us as Jesus spoke this day-telling us, his followers, to live out our God created identity.

Live as God lives toward us- Don’t condemn, don’t pick on people or jump on their failures. Show mercy. That’s how God already sees it. That’s what Jesus reveals. That’s what God wants for us, and what God wants us to share. That our lives do touch and that blessing and grace overflow.

So today we’re going to do something else we probably don’t do much- bless each other. You’re the end of the sermon.  

I invite you to turn to your neighbors, and remind them of that blessing made most clearly known for us in the cross. It’s time to get personal.

Make the sign of the cross on their forehead and say, “you are a blessed child of God.”

I wish you could see yourselves- you’re all smiling! You’ve been blessed! That’s the gospel – the blessing we experience here we’re called to take out into our world!

Amen