When I first came to St. Paul’s UCC, there was an 80 year old woman by the name of Colleen Defraites who came to church every Sunday. She sat next to Ms. Penny Leonard in that third pew on this side. She was a quirky old lady, and if you got the chance to talk with her you were likely to hear one of her catch phrases, a memory or statement that she would share whenever it seemed she had run out of other things to say. At a lull in the conversation, apropos of nothing, Colleen would sometimes give this identity statement, “I’m German, and Lutheran, and a democrat, and I will be until the day I die.” It was almost as if she was reminding herself, this is who I am.
It is a good thing to know your identity, to know who and whose you are. History is a part of all of our identities, we all come from particular people from particular places with particular cultures. This people and places and cultures are shaped by their histories and they in turn shape us. We are products of our cultures and our histories. It was no accident that Colleen a German and a lutheran found herself at St. Paul’s UCC in New Orleans. Our history is one of German, Lutheran and Reformed people who immigrated to this country in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Among the churches that these German Evangelicals founded was Salem German Evangelical Church, which would eventually become Salem United Church of Christ. Salem, which still stands at Camp and General Pershing Streets, was the congregation that birthed St. Paul’s here in Uptown. We were founded by working class German immigrants and their families who wanted a place to worship God together, to raise their children in the Christian faith, to honor that which was good and pleasing to God within their culture and their religious background. It was a noble, honorable, Christian thing to do, and we are the beneficiaries of this great and kind Christian work of these working class German immigrants. Without them we would not have this congregation, this Fellowship Hall, this sanctuary, this rich history, and we would not be blessed with their continued presence in our beloved Mr. George Luft, and his son Jordy Luft.
I love this history, I continue to study it, and I am quite proud of it. But history and identity are not necessarily the same thing. Who we come from and who we have been we’ll always shape who we become, but it does not have to fully determine it. Let me show you a little what I mean by that. There stands today on the side of Salem Church a brass plaque that states that Salem United Church of Christ is a German American Congregation. I know that statement to be true about the history of Salem, and even mostly true about its present, and nevertheless I am unsettled by it. I’m unsettled by it because I worry that it is not only descriptive of the church’s past, but that it meant be read as prescriptive of the Church’s future. I worry that the sign might be read to say, This church is for German American people, now and until the day that it dies. If read that way, the sign doesn’t stop at honoring the congregation’s history, it allows that history to determine its future.
Jesus and his disciples were not merely dropped out of the sky one day, they too had a history, they came from a particular people, with a particular culture, and a particular history. Jesus and every one of his first 12 disciples were Hebrew, they were Jewish people. Even in the first century, the history of the Hebrew people was long and storied. They had produced some of the most incredible, insightful, and divinely inspired religious writings ever to be read by human eyes, most of which we now revere as our Old Testament. They had a history of kings and kingdoms, and also a history of resistance and survival under the oppression of foreign empires. They had a religious law and culture that had guided and sustained and blessed their people for centuries. Jesus, and his disciples, were rightly proud of their culture, their religion, their people, and their history. It had so shaped them and their worldviews, that the New Testament, and the Christian faith itself is literally unintelligible without an understanding of the religion and culture preserved in the Old Testament. The Jewish culture, history, and faith, were a central part of their identity.
And yet, it is also true that Jesus’ ministry involved the proclamation of something new, something novel, something utterly unprecedented in the Jewish faith. In the proclamation of Peter and Paul and the early church that Jesus Christ is Lord, there was introduced a new, unique, and absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ into a Jewish faith that had heretofore only recognized the ineffable God as Lord. In their proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the apostles and the early Church, had set up a new criterion for faith in God. Faith in God meant following the risen Christ, before anything else. It meant being led by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, wherever that Spirit might lead you.
In the story that we read from Acts this morning, that Spirit leads Peter into an awkward situation. It lead him to break the very religious laws that his faith and his culture had taught him, laws on how to remember God in daily life and to live faithfully. For centuries the Jewish people had maintained a separate identity from the peoples that conquered them, by strictly adhering to their food and sabbath laws. These laws helped them to remember that they belonged to God, and were always God’s people. Yet, the Spirit of Christ, the new criterion of faith to which Peter and the disciples had pledged absolute allegiance, came to him in a dream and instructed him to break these food laws, to eat food which his faith had always proclaimed as profane. Next the Holy Spirit went even further, it told him to go into the house of a Gentile, not just any Gentile but a Roman governor, the very Gentiles that dominated his people, and to make no distinction between himself and these enemies of his people. Remarkably, Peter obeyed. He went against his culture, his history, the teachings of his people, and instead obeyed only the Spirit of God. And when he did, things only got worse. Because then the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius the Roman governor and upon his Gentile household. God God’s self blessed and baptized these Gentiles. As much as this blessing of Gentiles went against everything that he had been taught and had believed, Peter nevertheless felt he could not oppose it. Not while maintaining his absolute allegiance to the Spirit of Christ. And so he said, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
When you go around breaking with tradition, violating cultural norms, and religious law, there is bound to be resistance. When word spread about Peter’s eating with Gentiles, visiting them in their homes, and worse, baptizing them, the others in the church in Jerusalem were upset. They wanted to know why Peter had done this, why he had broken with tradition, why he had broken their religious laws. The reason Peter gives is simple, God called me to do it. All throughout his explanation he insists on God’s agency. It was God who gave him the vision that all foods were clean. It was God who brought him to Cornelius’ house and told him to recognize no distinction between them. It was God who appeared to Cornelius in a dream and told him to send for Peter. And finally, it was the Spirit of God that fell upon the Gentiles and baptized them. The reason Peter gave for breaking with tradition, for betraying the norms of his culture, and violating the laws of his religion was simply that his highest allegiance was to the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit had led him there.
In welcoming the Gentiles into full communion in the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit, did not condemn the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people. Peter and Paul, both of whom accepted Gentiles into the faith without their having to practice all of Jewish law, nevertheless maintained their own adherence to this law as much as possible. They were proud of their history, their people, and their tradition, and they kept practicing it as long as they could do so, without excluding or insulting their brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultures. What the Holy Spirit did was to let them know that God is greater than every history, than every culture, than every people. God and God’s gracious and loving will may be expressed and honored in each and every culture of the world, yet it is not and cannot be contained within any one culture. God transcends particular cultures and histories. God is always bigger than us and the love to which God is always calling us will always break the barriers that our histories and cultures and traditions place between us.
Here at St. Paul’s we have every right to be proud of our German heritage and tradition. And today, the week of Mr. George Luft’s 92nd birthday, we should celebrate that history and tradition especially as he embodies it: In his faithfulness and dedication to this congregation and to the Christian Church, in his kindness and openness to new people whom he has welcomed into this family of faith, and especially in his love for children. Mr. George embodies many of the aspects of our German history of which we should rightly be proud. Yet his welcome of Nigerian, Argentinian, Australian, Carribean, and Mexican people into this congregation also testifies to the God revealed truth that the love and grace and will of God are to be found in every human culture and as such they are all to be honored. My sincere prayer and hope for St. Paul’s UCC is that we will continue to honor the best parts of our history and tradition and culture, while also remembering that the Holy Spirit calls us to greater love and life precisely by the breaking down of historical, cultural, and religious barriers that separate us. May we look to the Holy Spirit as our ultimate allegiance and may we allow it to guide us to new life and greater love through relationships with peoples of all kinds. Amen.
As many of you know, Shannon and I have a small dog named Lucy. I love Lucy, for a million reasons, but today I want to focus not on her many stellar qualities, but rather on one of her defects. Lucy is nervous little dog. She is forever nervous that we might leave her alone in the house, or that we might not have heard the baby crying in the nursery. But what worries Lucy the most is a thunderstorm. Lucy hates thunderstorms. They send her into a panic. She paces back and forth, she follows you to the bathroom and hides behind the toilet, she attempts to burrow underneath you on the couch. Thunderstorms terrify Lucy. She acts as if we are taking artillery fire and she is the only one bright enough to run for cover. What is odd about all of this, is that in the 6 years I have known her, nothing bad has ever happened to her in a thunderstorm. She is inside, she’s dry, she’s safe. Nothing bad is even about to happen to her, she’s going to be just fine. The only trauma that she is actually experiencing is her worry and her fear. If she could just calm down, if she could just trust that everything was going to somehow be ok, she would be fine. The problem isn’t really the thunderstorm, the problem is her.
This dilemma is rather easy to diagnose in poor little Lucy, but it is unfortunately, not unique to her. Human beings are remarkable for our capacity to think ahead, to plan, to reflect and project, and to imagine all sorts of different scenarios and outcomes. This is both a blessing and a curse. While our imaginative abilities allow us to create incredible structures, organizations, and societies, they can also cripple us. For our imaginations always outstrip our ability to control events, things, and people. Realizing what little control we have can have the effect of setting our imaginations off, allowing them to run wild with all the negative responses, actions, and outcomes that the future could hold for us. We begin to worry, not just a little, but a lot. Think about the last time you drove yourself crazy with worry. Maybe you were away from your child for a period of time and you began to think about all the terrible things that could happen to them. Or maybe you had an important interview or meeting and you began to doubt yourself, began to think about all the ways you might mess it up. In either situation, the problem isn’t with the child or the meeting, its with your worry. You cannot control what will happen to your child in your absence, you cannot control the outcome of the meeting, but the thoughts of what might happen can cause you to suffer. Your troubled heart is what causes you the pain of this anxiety. The problem isn’t the thing you are worrying about. The problem is with you.
This realization, that you yourself might be the cause of your pain, can be a terrifying one. Because I can run away from many problems, but I can’t run away from myself. I can ignore many problems, but I can’t ignore myself. If I am my problem, than my problem can seem inescapable.
The portion of John’s Gospel that we heard this morning comes from what is often called Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus is fully aware that he will soon die. He knows that the time between his death and resurrection will be a difficult one for his disciples. Since he has been with them, they have found a new way of living. In following Jesus, each of them started a new life, and he had been there every day to help them along the way. In the days to come, they will have to get used to life without his visible presence. If they wish to continue in this new way of living, they will have to do it without Jesus walking by their side.
I don’t have a great sense of direction, and I although I call St. Louis home, I didn’t grow up there as a child, and I left there shortly after learning to drive, so I don’t actually know my way around my hometown very well. My favorite way to drive around St. Louis, is to drive with my friend Adam Wise. Adam is a native of St. Louis, and he has an incredible sense of direction. He once told me that he sees the city and the streets from a bird’s eye view, that it’s easy for him to visualize where our destination is and the route to get there. I believe him, because I’ve never been lost with him in the car. Driving with Adam in the car is wonderful. I go along without a care in the world, never paying attention to the route, because I know that he knows where we are going, that he will indeed get us there. As lovely as this feeling is, it can lead to real problems when I’ve had to drop Adam off somewhere. Getting there is of course, no problem. Adam gives me directions and I’m good. But once he leaves the car, I have to remember how to get back. All of sudden I have a moment of panic when I realize that I’ll be alone on the way back. I have this feeling that now its all up to me, and I am not up for the task, I am lost.
I imagine that this is how the disciple’s felt after Jesus’ death; lost and panicked. How would they continue without their leader? Were they up for doing this new way of life by themselves? Was it even possible to do it by themselves? I bet they started to really worry, to paralyze themselves with fear and uncertainy, thinking about all the things that could go wrong.
But Jesus has no intention of leaving them, or leaving us, all by ourselves. In his farewell discourse Jesus makes this most amazing promise, “Those who love me keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus the Christ and God the Father will come to us and make their home in our hearts. For those of us who have discovered that we can be the problem, that it is our own troubled hearts that can cause us to suffer the most, this promise is life changing. I can’t fix myself, I can’t escape myself, I can’t grant myself the peace that I need when I am the cause of my suffering. But I am not alone. If I love Jesus Christ, even it be only faintly, only haltingly, only as best as I am sometimes able, Jesus Christ has promised that God will be with me. That God will make Her home in my heart.
We hear this promise from lips of the living Jesus Christ, but it is kept by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the term Jesus and the Church use to describe God’s continued, active, moving, and miraculous presence in our lives right now. A lack of attention to the Holy Spirit, can leave us with the impression that the greatness of God is in the past. God once created, God once took on human form in the life of Jesus, God redeemed us through Jesus death, and resurrection. While I believe all this to be true, all of these actions can be thought of as past tense. That God once created, once redeemed, once worked miracles in the lives of people, but no more. Yet that is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is saying here in John. Though he won’t physically be with them after the death and resurrection of Jesus, God will be truly and actually present with the disciples and with us, in the Holy Spirit. This Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of everything that Jesus has said. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus and the Father, come to live in our hearts, to make their homes with us. The miracles did not stop with Jesus’ death, they continue to this very day through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Through the Holy Spirit we receive Jesus’ promise, “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” This is the first miracle that we experience in our lives. The miracle of God’s peace in our hearts. The miracle of our fear and the trouble in hearts being cast out by the Holy Spirit and replaced with the peace of God in Christ. There are a million things to worry about in this world. Our families and loved ones, our church and its stability, our country and where it is headed, the fate of our planet with a rapidly changing climate. To overcome any of these challenges we will need the miraculous and wondrous workings of God, for each and every one of them are beyond our control. But the first miracle of God, the miracle of peace coming to our troubled hearts is the one that must proceed all the rest. It is the miracle that makes possible the others. If we are to be a part of God’s transformation of the world, if we are to be a part of God’s coming kingdom, we must first welcome the peace of Christ into our hearts. For that is what saves us from ourselves. That is what sets us free from worry and the need to control. That is what ends the paralysis of our anxiety and liberates us to be a part of God’s liberating and loving action in the world. May we pray for the love of Christ that brings that peace to our hearts and may we go forth to share it with the world. Amen.
With approximately 500 people now officially running for President in 2020 we are beginning to hear folks make the case for what qualifies them to hold the highest office in the land. We hear how their experience as attorneys, or mayors, or senators, has prepared them for the job they seek. Qualifications are important things in our world. It is important that you have the required the knowledge and skills to do the job that you are called to do. It is important to only give benefits to those who qualify or the benefits might run out before they reach the intended party. It is important to qualify for the college you want to attend or they won’t let you in. It is important to be tall enough to ride the rollercoaster, or you could fall out. Qualifications are one way that we try to make sure that the right people are in the right place, that the right people get the right things.
Isaiah’s 55th chapter begins with the voice of God making an offer with an interesting qualification. God is inviting people to come to the waters, to buy food and wine and milk, to delight in rich food. But who is invited to this banquet feast? Who qualifies for this celebration with God? “Everyone who thirsts.” Everyone who thirsts? But don’t we all thirst? Is thirst not a universal need and desire? Its a lot like saying, “Everyone who breathes,” it emphasizes the idea that everyone means everyone. As the passage goes on, the invitation is extended specifically to those that have no money for they too are invited to come and buy wine and milk. Here everyone does not only apply to those who can afford to buy, those with resources, it means everyone regardless of their wealth. Why this insistence on emphasizing the universality of the invitation? Doesn’t everyone always mean everyone? Why spell it out?
Last Sunday we had a potluck lunch after our annual meeting, and Joe Praner, a man who has been coming to Mustard Seed Dinners with his daughters for months now, decided to come and to bring along a friend. When I entered the Fellowship Hall after the meeting, Joe approached me and asked for a favor. He explained that he’d brought his friend Salvador, a guy that he had met a few times scrapping metal over on Chef Highway, to our lunch. Unfortunately, when they arrived Salvador told him that he didn’t want to go into the church. He said that he felt embarrassed, that this church was a church for rich people, and that he didn’t belong. I went with Joe to meet Salvador, I got to use a little of my rusty Spanish, inviting him in, assuring him that he was welcome, that we wanted him to join us for lunch. I said I understood that he felt embarrassed but that he didn’t need to, everyone was welcome here.
Salvador did come in and eat with us, he even thanked me and said God bless you on his way out. But I’ve had to spend sometime over the past week thinking about why he might not have felt welcome here. We are a church that welcomes all, we preach and proclaim as often as possible, and yet Salvador didn’t think that all included him, he didn’t think everyone was a category universal enough to mean him as well. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made why he would feel this way. In our society, everyone is often a limited category. When we say everyone we sometimes mean all citizens of this nation; but of course that would exclude Salvador if he wasn’t yet a citizen. When we say everyone is welcome, we often mean everyone that can afford to purchase what is offered; folks without extra cash are often not welcome to even use the bathroom. When we say everyone we often mean everyone who can speak English fluently, who shares our culture, who look and dress and act as we do; I am sure that Salvador’s Mexican culture and newly acquired English exclude him from places and opportunities everyday. So when Salvador arrived in this goregeous, expensive, white, neighborhood, he knew that he didn’t meet the qualifications necessary to enter the church. His shorthand for saying this, was simply, “This is a church for rich people.”
Of course, I object, every bit as vehemently as all of you to this statement. Our church is not a church only for rich people, this place is for all people regardless of qualifications. This is so, because we proclaim that God’s love is for all people regardless of their qualifications. But saying something, and truly believing it are not always one and the same. Do we truly believe that God loves all of us, regardless of who we are, where we come from, and what we have done? Before your thoughts go off to how God certainly loves other people without qualification, I want us to pause and ask if we believe this about ourselves. Do you believe that God loves you? Can you truly, deeply, actually accept God’s love for you? I ask because I know how hard this can be to believe for some of us. Sometimes we are far harder on ourselves than we ever would be towards others. Of course God loves Salvador, of course God loves children, of course God loves those other nice Christian people at church, but me? Well I know myself too well. I know my flaws and my sins, and my selfishness, and all the terrible awful things I have done. If anyone knew all this about me, they couldn’t possibly love me. Sure God loves everyone, but not me, I don’t qualify.
Listen again to the Word of God from Isaiah, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters..” Who? Everyone. But certainly I’m not qualified. Do you thirst? Well yes, but I don’t have any money. “And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Me!?! Everyone, everyone, everyone. Everyone means me too. Everyone means you too. God wants this banquet feast, this glorious celebration and abundance and satisfaction for everyone. This is the good news of Jesus Christ, this is the Gospel. All qualifications have been removed. All who thirst, the wicked and the righteous, the Jew and the Greek, the man and the women, the poor and the rich, the gay and the straight, all who thirst are invited to come to the waters of God’s love. Even us.
I want more than anything for Salvador and for everyone who happens to encounter St. Paul’s United Church of Christ to know that we proclaim and believe that God’s love is for all. Everything that we do here is meant to communicate that fact to us and to the world. We collect food for the poor because we believe that God loves them and invites them to feast. We help to send books to prisoners because we believe that God loves the guilty and the innocent and redeems all people. We are working towards racial reconciliation because we believe that racism and its effects are in direct contradiction to our belief that God’s love is for everyone. All of this is tremendously important. But none of it will be truly convincing to Salvador, or to anyone else, if we are not able to believe it about ourselves. If each and everyone of us can continually attempt to accept the love of God, to trust in God’s love for us no matter what, than our message of God’s love for the rest of the world becomes far more convincing. We believe, may God help our unbelief. Amen.
My freshmen year of college, I fell head over heels in love. There was this beautiful, smart, redheaded girl, who for some strange reason seemed to like having me around. About a month into the semester we were both stupid, crazy in love with one another. So much so, that we were probably one of those obnoxious, oblivious couples too into one another and their public displays of affection to notice how nauseating we were. Anyways, this girlfriend and I were both in the same sociology class, taught by a professor from Iran whom we both adored, by the name of Mahnaz Kousha. One day in this sociology course the subject of love came up, and professor Kousha cited a psychological study on the brain chemistry behind our feelings of romantic love. According to her the brain activity associated with romantic love never lasts longer than 6 months. All passionate, romantic love ends in under 6 months. At the time, I didn’t give this a second thought. I was in love, what did I care what some brain research said about it. Maybe other people fell out of love in 6 months, but not us. We were both quite sure that we would spend the rest of our lives together.
Well, we did spend nearly 3 years together. But I must say, that the last 2 and a half years were not nearly as fun as though first 6 months. I don’t know if she was right about the brain chemistry, but Professor Kousha was certainly right about us- our romantic love, was more of an infatuation, and that infatuation burned out after 6 months. After that staying together was hard, it was a chore, it was work that neither of us were inclined to do.
The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has been called his hymn to love. Its beautifully written, almost too beautifully written. Its beauty has led to its popularity which leads people to pull the chapter out of its context to use it in weddings or write it on canvas, frame it and hang it on a wall. So we can be forgiven for thinking that Paul was nothing more than the original author of Hallmark Cards and sappy, inspirational posters. The truth is that what Paul is writing about has precious little to do with romantic love, and nothing at all to do with mere infatuation. The Greeks had three separate words for three separate connotation to the word love, where as English has only one, love. Eros is the Greek word for romantic, passionate love. Filia is the Greek word for brotherly love, love between friends. But Paul doesn’t use either of those words. Paul uses the word agape. Agape refers to a love that manifests itself in self sacrifice, a love that gives freely of itself to others expecting nothing in return. Agape is the love of God.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians is not a love letter between two individuals. It is a letter written by Paul to the congregation at Corinth. The cause for Paul’s writing is that word has reached him of great conflict within the church. Several of the members have come to think of themselves as superior than others, believing they’re spiritual enlightenment makes them more valuable to God than other members of the congregation. The wealthy are eating all of the communion meal by themselves and not sharing with the poorer members. There are power struggles between different factions in the church, followers of Apollo against the followers of Paul. In short, the church at Corinth is like every other church: they proclaim that they are follower of Jesus Christ called to love one another and the world, and they really mean it, but it turns out loving people, real people, is easier said than done.
At one of our New Members classes this fall, I got to sit one on one with a woman Amanda and chat. I asked her about her religious background, her own faith journey, and one of things she said has stuck with me. When speaking of how she saw God in the world, she said that she sees God in other people. Although the world is full of flawed people doing inconsiderate, hurtful, even terrible things to one another, nevertheless you can still find, with remarkable frequency, ordinary people doing incredible acts of kindness. In the midst of a world full of trials and trouble, Amanda said she still sees that love, those acts of kindness, and for her that is where she sees God.
Paul would have loved that. Because that is exactly what Paul means when he speaks of love. Listen again, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul lists the various gifts of the church members, things they can and should do, things like having faith, and he tells them they are all worthless if they aren’t done in love. What makes an action Christian, what makes it resonate with God and with our souls, what makes it truly worthwhile, is the love behind it and through it and beyond it. Love is the purpose of life, it is the reason for living, it is what being truly alive is all about.
Yet Paul goes further than that. He says this remarkable thing, “Love never ends.” Professor Kousha might have disagreed with him, but they were talking about two different things. Infatuation is a human emotion, whereas for Paul love, agape love, is divine, it properly belongs to God, to the eschaton, to the heavens. Eternal is an adjective used exclusively for God, because in truth all things end. This sermon will end, soon I assure you, this church service will end, this day will end. Cities come to an end, countries too. Whole civilizations rise and fall. One day this earth will be no more, and one day the sun too will end in a fiery blaze. All things end. All things except for God. In this life, on this side of eternity, we can never fully know God. God is beyond our comprehension. But eternity reaches out towards us. God reaches out towards us. This initiative of God, this extension of eternity into time, takes the shape of three things: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. When we practice agape love, self-sacrificing love, we are participating in God. Real, true love, agape love, is of and from God, it is God’s presence among us. The gift of the Christian life is the blessing to be a part of God’s love, to experience God’s presence when we are giving freely of ourselves.
We remembered our beloved friend and member, Ms. Penny Hendryx this morning. Ms. Penny loved St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. She was baptized here, she was confirmed here. She spent years playing the organ for worship, and years selecting the hymns. For all of her 92 years, Ms. Penny gave freely of herself to this congregation. And she did it, not because she expected something in return. She did it simply because this was the place that she encountered Jesus Christ. This was the place where she felt and experienced the love of God. Ms. Penny knew, better than most, that service to a loving a God is its own compensation. Yet as Ms. Penny was nearing her death her church family showed up. Following in exactly the example she set for us, you all, cared for her expecting nothing in return. Dorcas and Mosoba, Melisa Jean Marie, and Gabrielle all went to visit her in her room at Jefferson Health Care. Our youth group went and sang Christmas Carols to her in the dining room there. And in her last week, visitors from St. Paul’s were nearly constant by her side, Gwen, Sue, Tom, Melisa, Faye, Janet, Mr. George, myself. We all sat with her, prayed with her, read scripture with her, even sang to her. Few times in my life, have I ever felt the presence of God as strongly as I did in room 125 at Jefferson Health Care. God was there. In and through our love, our real self giving love, God was palpably present with Ms. Penny. That is the love that never ends. That is the love of God. May we seek it out, may we find it, may we treasure it, and may we find ways to give it away again and again. Amen.
For a couple of years I was the proud owner of a pickup truck; a white ford F-150. I bought the truck when I was working construction, and while it was helpful to haul around tools and materials, it was not a 4 wheel drive vehicle, and so on occasion, when we working at a particularly wet job site, my truck would get stuck in the mud. I can remember one time in particular, when my tires began to dig in and spin uselessly in the mud. After trying to free it myself several times, and only making things worse, I called over Cooter, who was our companies operator of heavy machinery, and asked if he could get it out for me. Having already tried to drive the truck out myself, I was hoping Cooter would hook the bobcat up to it and pull it out of the mud. But when he approached he asked for my keys and got in the driverside of the truck. Several times he revved up the engine and spun the wheels good and fast. They failed to find any traction and just continued to dig the tires deeper into the muck. When Cooter killed the engine and I got out of the truck I gave him look like, “What was that for?” and he shrugged and said, “Yup. Looks like you’re good and stuck, just wanted to check before I got the Bobcat.” Both Cooter and I had tried our best, we’d each gotten the Truck to give its all, and neither of us could do anything but make it worse. That truck couldn’t get itself out of that hole, try and try as it might, it only made things worse. We had to give up on the Truck ever being able to save itself, before anything could be done to help it.
At the beginning of the third chapter of Luke’s gospel, we hear that the Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Interestingly enough, we don’t hear what exactly that word was. Often in the bible, the Words of God are specific, they are quoted, they come after a nice prelude like, “Thus saith the Lord,” but not here. In the 3rd chapter of Luke we hear that the Word of God came to John, and whatever those words may have been, they apparently lead him to begin proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We can deduce several things about what John must have heard from God from his proclaiming this baptism.
First, John learned that there was a problem. The problem was that people were sinful. People’s thoughts and actions and even parts of their being were warped by sin, turned away from their God-given beauty and righteousness and into something different, something worse. Sin had so infected the people that they caused harm to themselves and to each other, they took the gift of God’s creation for granted, they felt entitled to gifts of grace, and they convinced themselves either that they were worthless, or else that their worth was somehow greater than that of their siblings.
We can also deduce that John learned the people couldn’t stop sinning on their own. If sinning were easy to stop, there would be no need for the baptism, there would be no need to wait for the coming Messiah. One could just hear John’s proclamation about our sinfulness, politely agree, and then give up sinning. But instead, to those who can acknowledge their sin, John offers baptism. Baptism is a sign not only of their desire to change, to repent of their sinful behavior, but also a symbol of their need for God’s help to bring about this repentance and change. Baptism is also a symbol of God’s promise to save them from their sin. Even these symbols of God’s support was not enough, John told the people that soon another would come, one greater than he, and that one would baptize them with the Holy Spirit, that one, the Messiah, would truly and finally save them from their sins. What God’s Word told John was that salvation was coming, but that it could not come from sinful humanity itself. The sinners attempts to break free from sin are themselves marked and marred by sin. All of our best efforts to save ourselves are just like tires spinning and spinning, and only digging us further in. John has seen the problem, he has diagnosed our disease, but he is not the physician. John can assess our problem and he can point us towards a solution, but he is aware of his own limitations, he is not deluded enough to believe that he is the savior. John points to God as the one who can save, he tells the people to wait for one to come who is more powerful than he.
And then Jesus arrives. The Son of God, the awaited Messiah, is somehow just there amongst the sinners awaiting baptism. In the sentence just before we hear of Christ’s baptism we are told that John is going to be put in prison; he and his movement are considered criminal by the state authorities. So here we have the sinless, spotless, Son of God, sitting amongst a criminal gang of self confessed sinners and joining them in their baptism for repentance. The scene reminds me, of the Chappell’s dog Bubbles. Bubbles is an active and beautiful dog, with lovely mostly white fur. I have witnessed several times as this beautiful dog, with spotless white fur, goes out for a walk in the park and promptly lays herself down in a mud puddle. This is how I picture the sinless Son of God sitting with John’s group of criminal sinners. The spotless white fur of Jesus cozying up to the mud and muck of us sinners.
This of course, begs the question, why? Why would Jesus, one supposedly without sin, sully himself and his reputation by hanging with this group of criminal misfits? Furthermore why would the Son of God need a baptism of repentance? For what does the sinless one need to repent?
One good way to learn a little about someone is by hearing what others say about them. There are a nearly infinite number of different takes on who Jesus was and is, but there are some commonalities among, some themes that arise over and over. One of these themes, is that most people, especially people considered sinners, believe that Jesus is on their side. It’s incredible really, the sheer number of radically different people who are sure that Jesus understands them, their situation, and their choices. There’s a whole genre of rap songs about Jesus understanding thugs, songs contemplating if there’s a “Heaven for a G.” Drug dealers, bank robbers, and criminals of all stripes will claim Jesus as their own, the one who understands them, has compassion on them, and takes their side. The major reason that the issue of homosexuality is so controversial in the church is not simply because many churches condemn it, if that were all gay people would simply leave the church. The cause for the continued controversy is that so many gay people, considered sinners by a majority of the church tradition, are utterly convinced that Jesus loves them, understands them, and takes their side. This is the reason they remain in the church, the reason they fight for change from within, the reason that the controversy continues, and the reason that so many have come to see the Christian light of accepting and affirming our gay siblings.
This widespread conviction amongst those considered sinners that Jesus stands in solidarity with them is not without basis in the gospels. Luke’s gospel provides one of the primary supports for this belief in the crucifixion scene where Jesus hangs between two common criminals and declares to the one that he will be with him in paradise. Jesus, quite literally at the side of the criminal, declares his solidarity with him in eternity. Another such supporting story, is the baptism of Christ, the one we heard today. Jesus joins John criminal band of repentant sinners and he joins them in accepting their baptism of repentance.
What are we to learn from Jesus’ proximity to criminals and sinners? Is this a green light to sin away, to finally rob that bank you’ve had your eye on? By no means. Though the Christian faith takes seriously the conviction that all people are sinners, Jesus joins himself to a specific group of them. Hanging there upon the cross, Jesus is side by side with two criminals, yet his promise of eternal solidarity is given to only one of them. The repentant one. Indeed it is not just any group of criminals and sinners that Jesus affirms down by the Jordan, but the group who have heard the call to change and have answered it. Even more than this, Jesus, the sinless Son of God, joins himself to sinners who want to change, and who have come to believe that they cannot save themselves. Whenever people truly desire change and have come to the painful realization that it is them that needs changing, and that the them that is broken cannot bring about the change, at this moment of despair and surrender, Jesus is there. God is there. Not as another broken and miserable human warped by sin, but as the truly righteous one, the one with power to save, the one without sin, yet happy to be surrounded by us sinners. Once we have given up spinning our tires, once we have seen that our salvation is beyond our own abilities, it is at that moment that Jesus plops down in the mud with us.
I once heard this story, a story almost too cheesy to believe it actually happened, but a fitting story nonetheless. A man who had come to the end of his rope, a man who had come to the painful realization that his salvation was beyond him, once told it to me. He told me about watching an insect trying to climb up his screen door. He was just sitting there with nothing to do and watching this bug struggle to climb up the screen. The bug would make a little progress, 6 or 7 inches up the screen, and then loose its footing and slide back down. It would try again, struggling and straining with all its might to climb the screen, getting a few inches higher, and then sliding right back down again. This went on for a good while, the bug fighting to climb the screen, until it looked like the bug was running out of gas. The little insect had worn himself out, so much so that he just kind of gave up. He surrendered. He let go of the screen and started to fall backwards towards the floor. And just then, a pair of wings on his back fluttered to life, and flew him to the top of the door. The man who told me this story said, “Ain’t that me. Trying as hard as could to climb and getting nowhere. And the whole time I had wings and didn’t even know it.” May we have the strength and the courage to recognize our own sin. May we have the wisdom to know that we cannot save ourselves. And may we have the faith to surrender and to let Jesus be our grace, be our forgiveness, be our new life. May we let Jesus be our wings. Amen.
The other night I was watching a sitcom in which two of the characters are sisters. The older sister, the responsible, mature, stable one, is hosting a party to announce her pregnancy. She’s gone to great lengths to put on a marvelous party and thought out the perfect timing for the announcement. The younger sister, the impulsive immature one, shows up late, gets a little drunk, and ends an argument with her boyfriend by deciding that they should get engaged. At precisely the moment that the older sister is about to make announce her pregnancy, the younger one steals the spotlight and announces her new engagement instead. There follows a shouting match between the two, each accusing the other of trying to make everything all about them. “You make every party all about you!” “You are always stealing my moment!” It’s clear these siblings have more than a few issues to sort out, and quite clear that neither of them has much interest in anything not directly related to themselves. It is all about them.
In our story from Luke this morning, Elizabeth is on older woman who has just received the greatest news of her entire life. After watching her child bearing years go by without a single pregnancy, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself with child in her old age. It is a miracle, and it is her miracle, exactly the miracle for which she had hoped and prayed. The coming of this miracle was proclaimed beforehand to her husband Zecharaiah, the priest, by the angel Gabriel. Yet when he heard of it, Zechariah did not believe it could happen since he and Elizabeth were already so advanced in years. As a result of his disbelief, Gabriel silences Zechariah saying he will remain mute until the birth of the child. The man is silenced. The priest is silenced. This story isn’t about him, and he won’t have anything to say about it until after the climax. In Luke’s story, the men are relegated to non-speaking supporting roles. One more time, in Luke’s story of the birth of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God, and the redemption of the world, the women play the lead roles and the men are silent. In our present time, one in which we are confronting so many of the misdeeds of our men, Luke’s Christmas story is one from which men can learn a great deal. It may be that a quiet and supporting role to women is the only one God grants to men in the drama of salvation. Anyway, Elizabeth gets to enjoy her long hoped for and miraculous pregnancy, with what some women only dream of, a man who doesn’t speak but only listens.
While Elizabeth is living her own personal miracle, her young relative Mary, has also had a angel appear to her. Mary is but a teenager and she is engaged to be married to a young man named Joseph. Before their wedding, an angel appears to her and announces that she will conceive and give birth to a son who is to be the Son of the Most High and will sit on the throne of David forever. The long awaited and frequently prophesied Messiah, the Ancient One who is to redeem all of Israel, is to be Mary’s child. While thats a big pill to swallow, so is hearing that you will be pregnant for the first time, and Mary understandly focuses on that more immediate issue. “How can this be?,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will help her to conceive and thus her child will be called the Son of God. And then, as if he knows that all of this is a lot to take in, the angel casually mentions that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived in her old age ostensibly to show that nothing is impossible with God, but possibly also to let Mary know that she wasn’t in this whole miraculous pregnancy thing alone. Mary, likely confused and scared, decides to go and visit Elizabeth, to see if she is pregnant as well, to see if she knows what to make of all of this.
So just when Elizabeth is finally having her moment in the sun, when everyone is ooohhing and ahhhing over her miraculous pregnancy, her comes Mary with her own pregnancy to announce. A younger woman has arrived at her home with a story just miraculous enough to top her own, Mary is going to upstage Elizabeth during her one and only pregnancy. We might expect that Elizabeth would react poorly to Mary’s appearance, that she would view Mary as a competitor for attention, might expect the two of them to shout it out like the two sisters from the sitcom. But Luke is overturning expectations in this story. He has silenced the men, Zechariah by an angels fiat, and Joseph just without any lines. Just as God helps the men to realize this story is not about them, so too does God help Elizabeth to recognize and accept that Mary is the star of this drama.
And how does Elizabeth become aware of Mary’s pregnancy and its supreme importance? Does an angel descend to tell her? Does a man interpret it for her? No, her own body tells her. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the fetus in her womb, leaps for joy. It is only after this cue from her body that the Holy Spirit descends upon her to confirm what her body already intuitively knows, Mary is carrying the child of promise. I draw out this point, because for much of the Western Christian tradition the body has been opposed to the Spirit, the spirit being what is good and righteous, and the flesh, the body, being sinful. In many Christian contexts people, but women especially, are taught to distrust their bodies. To identify their bodies as the site of sin, as something to be overcome. Yet here, in this most important of Christian stories, it is a woman’s body which recognizes the Messiah, which intuits the presence of God. And then it is the Spirit that confirms the bodies intuition. So far as the opposition of the flesh and the spirit refers to the opposition between centering your own needs and desires above those of God and God’s creation it is a helpful conception. But so far as it leads to the denigration of our divinely created bodies it is a sinful lie. Women’s bodies are miraculous. They are the good creation of our Great God. It is from the bodies of women that all human life comes, it is from the body of a woman that our Redeemer comes, and it was the body of a woman who first recognized Him as such.
So Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the Angel had told her. Not merely that she is having a child, but that this child will be the LORD. And then Mary, overjoyed by the welcome of her sister and her affirmation, says what has become one of the most recognized portions in all of the Bible, the Magnificat. In this poem Mary begins by giving thanks to God for the great thing that God has done for her. But she quickly moves from speaking of herself to speaking more generally. God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God has brought down the powerful from their thrones. God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel and remembered God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The focus quickly becomes what God is doing in the world, for Israel and for all people. Through the support of her friend Elizabeth, Mary has moved from focusing on what this pregnancy means for her, to what it means for the world. She too has come to see that the story is not about her, it is about what God is doing through her. And she doesn’t just think these things might occur, she believes so strongly in what God is doing that she speaks of them in the present tense. God HAS scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly. God HAS filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. She believes so completely that God is about to accomplish these things that she speaks of them as though they have already occurred. For if God has spoken these things than they are just as good as done. Mary, the young woman chosen by God to bear God into the world, is the very model of faith for us all. She is able to believe that God so valued her in her lowliness that God would do such an incredible thing for her. God also values us, not because of our greatness, but precisely because of our weaknesses, our lowliness. But Mary was also wise enough to see that the story wasn’t just about her, it was about what God was doing for all the earth. And with the help of Elizabeth she was able to believe in these miracles as well. As much as God loves and values us, we too are only a part of what God is doing in the world. Its not just about us. May we ever hold up Mary as an example for ourselves. May we recognize when our role is one of quiet support. May we seek out the advice of wise women. May we trust women and may we trust and value the divinely created miracle of their bodies. And may we come together to see that all of the blessings God has given us are meant to be used in bringing about the redemption of all people. Amen.
When I lived in California, I was able to take a couple of trips to visit the
Great Sequoia trees, in the national parks there. If you’ve never been to such a place, to what is called an old growth forest, it is hard to forget. They are called old growth forests, because the absolutely massive trees in the forest can be as many as 2,000 years old. When you stand on the forest floor you can’t even see the top of them, their branches disappear into the clouds. They are ancient, and sturdy, and huge. They look as if they have been there forever, and as though they will always be there. But that’s not true. Even a 2,000 year old life must come to an end. And these trees do die, they do fall over making a huge crashing sound and sending vibrations for miles on the forest floor. Its remarkable to think that something that big, that strong, and that old, could just one day fall down.
Jeremiah was a prophet in the city of Jerusalem at the time of its fall to the Babylonians. At the time of the Babylonian invasion, Jerusalem had been the capital city of Israel, and later Judah, for nearly 400 years. Throughout that time the people had gone from being a rag tag group of escaped slaves and nomadic tribespeople, to becoming a mighty nation, with kings and armies, palaces, and a glorious Temple. From the tiny seed of the exodus community had grown a magnificent tall and sturdy oak. Jerusalem and Judah were the people of God living in the city of God and they were sure that God would keep things going just as they were, just as they had been for the last 400 years.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate task of telling the people of Jerusalem that a change was coming. It was not to be a small change, nor was it to be a popular one. Jeremiah received the word from God, that Jerusalem would be punished for her sins, for her oppression of the poor, and her idolatry. What’s more he received the word that the punishment would come at the hands of the Babylonians, the raging empire would come and utterly destroy Jerusalem and its Temple, and would cart off the Judeans to live in exile in Babylon. The mighty oak that was once Judah and Jerusalem would be chopped down, leaving nothing but a stump where it once stood. It was Jeremiah’s task to bring this word from God to the people. Jeremiah had to bring bad news to a people who had begun to think they were immune to it, he had to tell people that their world, the world they were accustomed to was over.
Over the course of my life, the branch of the Christian Church that I serve here in the United States, mainline protestantism, has undergone a steady decline. The heyday for our denominations, for the mainline church, was the fifties and early sixties. As people returned from war and started families in record numbers, they also flocked to our churches. If you ask Mr. George he can tell you that in the 1960s we had nearly 200 kids in Sunday School here at St. Paul’s. We even had two Sunday services just to fit everyone into the sanctuary. Things were going well, and looking even better. But as the sixties progressed, the trend towards decline began. There are numerous reasons given for why, whole dissertations and books on the subject, but whatever the cause our church’s started shrinking, and closing, and becoming fewer and fewer. This happened all over the country, and it happened here at St. Paul’s too; by 2013, this church had only 6 regular worship attendees.
This long and slow process of decline has meant that I have spent my life in a denomination that is already quite aware of the crisis it is in. The work of Jeremiah in bringing attention to the coming crisis had already been done. By the time I came of age, I was already overly familiar with the doom and gloom scenarios about the future of the mainline church; I had already heard again and again that we are shrinking, we are aging, we are in serious decline. It is good to be honest and straightforward about the challenges that you are facing, its is the only way to deal with them. But after awhile, once everyone knows that there is a crisis, continuing to preach doom and gloom is a little sadistic, instead of rallying our forces to address the problem, it leaves us in despair that nothing can be done, that no change is possible. We are a dying people, in a dying denomination, we were once a mighty oak, and now we are no more than stump.
Stumps are funny things; although they remind you what once lived there, the fully grown tree, they are more than just tree grave markers. They are often not quite dead. Its been awhile since I’ve mowed the grass around the church. Daniel and John and I get together every couple of weeks on a Saturday morning and mow the lawn here at the church, and trim the edges. Typically, I get to push the mower, the job I like best. Along the sidewalk in front of the parsonage on Eleonore Street there is a stump in the grass. It is the stump of a crepe myrtle tree which our next door neighbor chopped down sometime ago. Often we think of tree stumps as being dead, they are what’s left when you kill the tree, when you chop it down. But this particular crepe myrtle stump is stubbornly holding on to life. Everytime I mow the lawn in that spot, I can see the stump before I get to it, because it has all these brand new little shoots. New twigs growing from the stump, with new little leaves. Fresh new attempts of this crepe myrtle to live again. To again become a tree, where there once was only a stump, there is the potential for a brand new tree.
After God’s word to Jeremiah came true and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the people into exile, it was no longer necessary for him to convince them that disaster was coming; it had already come. The people are living in despair, their home, their loved ones, their whole world seemed to have been destroyed. Living as exiles in Babylon they were without hope, they were mired in despair. It is at this point that God’s word to Jeremiah changes from judgment and warning to comfort and hope. Jeremiah acknowledeges the plain truth of the situation: The House of David had been cut off, the people of Judah have been chopped down, all that remains is a stump. But this does not mean there is no hope. This does not mean that God has forgotten or abandoned God’s people. Just as brand new shoots can spring forth from a seemingly dead stump, so too will God bring forth from the stump of Judah, a shoot, a branch that will fulfill God’s promises to the people. This branch will grow to be a new, strong and sturdy tree and it will execute the justice and righteousness of God, it will save the people. Things are bad now, yes, but the days are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when God will fulfill Her promises, when the people will live in peace and security and know the righteousness of God.
When a big tee falls, when something that we have come to take for granted is taken away, it can feel like the end of the world. When people here that the church or the denomination they loved is dying, it can be overwhelming, it can be devastating. When people see their country changing in ways they don’t like, it can seem like all is lost. When we hear about the coming disaster of climate change, of whole cities being swept into the ocean, it can lead us to panic and a sense of hopelessness. But all trees eventually fall. All things eventually change. Even the tallest, sturdiest sequoia falls. The one thing that we in the Christian Church believe never changes, the one thing that is always true, the one thing that will never pass away is the Word of God in Christ Jesus. This eternal Word proclaims to us that God has acted in the past, and that God will act to save in the future as well. God saved the people from slavery in Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness, God established a kingdom in David, and God brought the exiles back to Jerusalem. This very same God caused a branch of righteousness to spring forth from the stump of Jesse in Jesus Christ who comes to us in love, salvation, justice and righteousness. Jesus Christ is the new shoot, the new branch, the new tree, bringing life from the death of the past.
It is because of God’s saving actions in the past, that we have hope that God will act again. In Jesus Christ God brought the light of the world out of the stump of Judah. Though our denomination may only be the stump of what it once was, God can still bring forth new shoots of life from it. Though our heyday of the 1960s has been chopped down, there are still living roots in the UCC and here at St. Paul’s. We continue to look for new shoots, new possibilities for sharing the gospel, new opportunities to serve our community, new chances to be instruments of God’s grace and love in our world. We must continue to tend carefully to each new shoot, each new ministry that we begin, nurturing them, allowing them to grow, and trusting in our hope that God will bring forth a new shoot of love, justice, and peace here at St. Paul’s, here in the United Church of Christ, and here in the United States. We can be so audacious as to hope in the future impact of St. Paul’s and the UCC because we base our hope in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the one who has acted to save in the past, and will once more come to save our lives, our church, our country, and our world. May we hold fast to this hope and may we ever be on the lookout for the new thing God is doing, the new shoot of salvation of which we are invited to be a part. Amen.
A short time after we were married, my wife Shannon and I discovered that one of the seldom spoken of perks of marriage is that you now have someone else to blame for all your mistakes. When I was single and I misplaced my keys, it was always my fault. But now, when I lose my keys or misplace my phone, I don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility myself, I have a wife to blame! I have someone else to curse out under my breath as I search the house for my missing items. This is obviously not the greatest perk of marriage, but it is sometimes nice to shrug off some of our responsibility for the ways things are onto someone else.
Unfortunately, blaming others, especially women and foreigners, is a time honored tradition that I cannot claim to have invented myself. Indeed the practice of blaming women for the problems of the world goes back well into the BC era, and can be found in several places in our Bible. Throughout the centuries many Christians have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in such a way as to make Eve responsible for bringing sin into the world. This is quite a stretch considering that only Adam was commanded by God not to eat the fruit and that he made his own decision to do so. Nevertheless, this text has been used countless times to place the responsibility for sin onto a woman.
Where it really gets bad, this blaming of our problems on women, is when the female and the foreign overlap: our own women are bad enough, but foreign women, they are truly to blame. When the very survival of Israel as a people was threatened during their time in exile in Babylon, the leaders of the community insisted that the best way for Israel to survive as a distinct people was to avoid marrying women outside of Israel. In this way, they believed they could preserve the distinctive identity of Israel; they could avoid assimilation. Even after the exile, when the Judeans began returning to Jerusalem, this prohibition on mixed marriage remained strong. Ezra, the man sent to help rebuild the Temple, insisted that the Judeans not intermarry with the other peoples. These foreigners, these women, would dilute the faith of Judah and lead its people into sin and abomination. According to this view what was holy about Judah was its racial purity, the Judeans were God’s people by birth and any mixing with other ethnicities would damage this identity. So it was these foreign women who were the problem, they were destroying the racial purity of God’s people.
Given this male tendency to blame women, especially foreign women, for the ills of the world, one has every reason to expect that the biblical book of Ruth, which is about a moabite woman, a foreign woman, is all about how she ruined everything. This is not the case. Ruth is lovely little short story about how a daughter-in-law’s love and devotion to her mother-in-law saved their lives and helped to make a new life for themselves in Bethlehem. Ruth the Moabite woman, is the hero of this Israelite story. That alone would be enough for this book to be incredible, it is quite rare in the world, even today, for a man to lift up a woman, especially a foreign woman, as a hero.
As remarkable as that is, the book of Ruth is actually far more radical. Though it may appear as nothing more than a quaint short story about how two women help one another survive, the ending of the book reveals the hidden impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth, the Moabite woman, was the great grandmother of the legendary King David. The great patriarch of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem, the Israelite par excellance, has foreign blood running through his veins. David himself was racially mixed. And if David wasn’t racially pure, than neither were his descendants that ruled after him. The kingdom of David that Ezra and his contemporaries held up as the ideal to be restored through their prohibition on inter-marriage was always a kingdom of mixed race and ethnicity. Racial purity was a myth. It never existed. So the way to God, the way to holiness, cannot be racial purity.
If race or ethnicity is not what defines God’s people, than what does define them? What made Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Ruth, and David people of God if it wasn’t race? The people of God are people who live in covenant relationship with God. Noah lived in covenant with God long before the birth of Israel. Abraham was a wandering Aramean who entered into covenant with God and then became the ancestor of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite, but she too made a promise, a covenant, with God and Naomi when she said, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” What gave Israel its identity as a people was not their race, their ethnicity, or even their homeland, what gave Israel its Identity was that they lived in covenant with God.
As followers of Christ, we too live in covenant relationship with God, a relationship opened to us by Jesus Christ. What makes us Christian is our adherence to this covenant- our promise to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. It is not our history that makes us Christian. It is not our nationality, ethnicity or race. It is not our culture or our good fortune. What makes us Christian is our decision day after day to try to live in covenant relationship with God as we know Her in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ is the very same God as the God of Ruth. This God does not love us because of our race, or our ethnicity, or our homeland, for this God created all lands and all peoples. This God loves us simply because we are Hers, and She calls us into loving relationship with Her and with the rest of Her creation. Racial purity is always a myth, it does not exist and it is of no concern to God. All of our other identities are meant to melt away in the presence of our identity as people of God. We are not American and then Christian. Not white and then one of God’s people. We are, first and before all things, beloved children of God seeking to live in covenant with Her. When we fail to do so, when we value our national, racial or gender identity above our identity as God’s people, we cease to be people of the covenant, we cease to be the people of God. And when that happens it isn’t the fault of women, or of foreigners, or of anyone but ourselves. We must take responsibility for our identity as God’s people and our actions as people who live in covenant with the God of Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.
I’ve been trying to spend less time on social media of late, trying to keep my head out of my phone and to actually experience life rather than read about it on a screen. My success has been minimal, a fact I try to excuse by telling myself that some of my social media use is on behalf of the church, though to be honest, it is certainly a small percentage of the time I spend on theses sites. At any rate, I saw a little video on Facebook the other week, one of those real sappy, sentimental, ain’t the world grand stories. Usually, I don’t particularly like the sappy videos, I try to avoid them, but this one drew me in for some reason. It was a story about a little girl who was very sick and needed a blood transfusion to survive. Unfortunately, she has a rare blood type that means finding the right blood may not happen in time. This leads the doctor and the parents to the girls younger brother who has the same rare blood type. The doctor explains how serious the situation is, that his sister may die without a transfusion, and asks the boy if he is willing to donate the blood to his sister. The boy thinks it over for a long minute, and then says simply, “Ok, I’ll do it.” After the transfusion is complete, the boy looks up at the doctor in confusion and asks, “When am I going to die?” He had given the blood to save his sister’s life even though he thought it would mean death for him.
I have no idea if this story really happened, and it does raise some concerning questions, like what kind of a hack doctor doesn’t explain to his patient that the proceedure they are about to undergo will not kill them. On the other hand, I have met some absolutely amazing children in my life, many of them here, children who seem to instinctually understand the suffering of others, who are naturally drawn to generosity and self sacrifice. What I really couldn’t get over was how the little boy in the story perfectly exemplified the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The story gives precious little background on the boy and his family, we do not know where they are from or what religion if any they happen to practice. Yet somehow, this little boy more perfectly lived out the Gospel in a such a way as to shame myself, and anyone else who might claim to be follower of Christ. When a need arose, he decided to meet that need by sacrificing his very life. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter where it occurs, and no matter who might enact it. It is the embodiment of the love of God we know in Jesus Christ.
The book of Ruth is an absolutely phenomenal short story that sits in the bible right after Judges and right before 1 Samuel. It is noteworthy for several reasons, but the one that kept jumping out at me this week, is that Ruth is a biblical book, a book written by a man of Israel, in which the hero is a female immigrant: Ruth, the Moabite woman.
Just two days ago, I was at Octavia books with Ruth looking around for a new book for her, and they had this great little one called Baby Feminists, on each page is a picture of a famous feminist with a sentence about her life, and underneath the picture is a baby. For instance, Before she was a Justice on the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a baby! The message being, of course, that the baby reading the book could one day also grow up to be a feminist. I love this book, I love that book exists, because I like Ruthie to see female role models. However, the book as I found it, was in a special part of the children’s section which was dedicated to Women. As though women were a special subgroup and not a little over half of the world’s population. Seeing that centering women in our stories is still seen as novel and new today, makes the centering of women in the book of Ruth all the more remarkable.
The story of Ruth begins with Elimelch and his wife Naomi who live in the town of Bethlehem. When a famine comes to the land of Israel, Elimelch and Naomi and their two sons, immigrate to Moab to find a better life. There both of the sons marry Moabite women and live happily. Until one day, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi to the care of her two sons. Then tragedy strikes again, and both of her sons die as well. Naomi, by now and old woman, is widowed and without any male relatives.
In our time, not having any male relatives might seem like a fluke, an odd coincidence, or possibly good luck. In the Ancient Near East however, men were the only ones with rights, with the ability to own property, with the ability to generate an income. To be without a man, was to be desperately poor and incredibly vulnerable. Naomi is alone and vulnerable in a foreign land. When she hears that the famine in Israel has lifted, she decides that she will be best off returning to her home and throwing herself on the mercy of her people.
Naomi’s two daughter-in-laws are in a somewhat less precarious situation. They are still young and still have living parents. Each of them could return to their mother’s homes and try again to create a family. Out of their love for her, both Ruth and her sister in law, Orpah, walk with Naomi to the border of Judah. There Naomi tells them to go back to their land and their mother’s homes, for she will not be able to provide for them in Judah. Both of them insist that they are going with her, but Naomi carefully explains that they will both be better off at home in Moab. Orpah hears the truth that Naomi is speaking, that her chances at a happy life are better if she stays at home, and decides to return. Ruth does not, instead she clings to Naomi. When Naomi tells her to follow her sister, Ruth again refuses to leave her saying, “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.” In this beautiful statement of personal devotion, Ruth insists that she will never leave Naomi. There is nothing that Ruth is willing to place above her love for Naomi.
What makes Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi all the more amazing is that Ruth has no reason to think that this decision will benefit her. Naomi was correct in saying that the better choice for each of the two daughters was to stay in Moab. Ruth knows this. She knows that choosing to go with Naomi will be difficult. They will have to risk a dangerous journey together, they will have to search for food and shelter, they will have to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Ruth knows that it will be difficult for both them. So why does she choose to go? Why not obey Naomi, and choose the better life at home? I believe the reason that Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, is because she knows how desperate and vulnerable Naomi is. As hard as it will be for the two of them, it will be impossible for Naomi to start a new life on her own. Ruth places her love for Naomi, above her personal well-being. She places her compassionate love for Naomi above her nationality, her family, even her religion. Ruth gives up her very life so that Naomi might live.
Ruth’s generosity saves Naomi’s life. Ruth’s generosity transforms her own life and the life of Israel, for Ruth becomes a mother, and a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. And her great-grandson, a shepherd boy by the name of David, becomes the Lord’s annointed King over all Israel. Without the bravery of this poor immigrant woman and her love for her friend Naomi, there is no David, there is no Davidic Kingdom, there is no house of David, and there is no Jesus Christ. Ruth’s choice to place her love for Naomi above all else, to give her very life for Naomi’s, has incredible and reverberating consequences even to this day.
Today we had several new members join the congregation here at St. Paul’s UCC. This is always a joyous occasion, it is our little family growing in numbers, in love, and in the impact our work has on the community. One of the greatest functions of a church is the opportunity it gives us to practice self-giving love and transforming generosity. The world will always give us countless reasons not to be generous, reasons not to care about others, reasons to limit our loving relationships to family, or race, or creed, or country. You’ve heard them repeated again and again, “We have enough poor people here, we can’t care about poor people born in other countries,” “If they wouldn’t break the law, they wouldn’t get shot by police.” “Nobody ever gave me a handout.” These are all excuses for why we don’t need to see the suffering, the vulnerability, and the desperation of our neighbors. They are reasons to limit our love and concern to those most like us. In this world, we need the book of Ruth, we need her example of transforming generosity, we need to continually practice widening our circle of love and care. For the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about making the choice that benefits you the most, it is about freely giving of your very self so that others may live. I’m overjoyed to have these new members become a part of our community, because just by being who they are, they will challenge us to expand our circle of love to include their unique individual selves and they will help us to model here at St. Paul’s that love is the highest law. They will help us to practice placing love for God and others above all other loyalties, above our loyalty to our country, our family, and our very selves. With the grace of God, we have a chance to practice growing in love here at St. Paul’s and we have the incredible blessing of seeing with our own eyes how this love transforms our lives and the lives of others. May we continue to grow in ministry, in numbers, and most importantly in self-giving love and transforming generosity.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast