4:1 No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. 2 Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down. 3 He then said to the next-of-kin, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. 4 So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” So he said, “I will redeem it.” 5 Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6 At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8 So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal. 9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.” 11 Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; 12 and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” 13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. 18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19 Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21 Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22 Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
You Can’t Fake Resurrection
God of hosts,
Raise us up today.
Let us leave our ways behind
The ways of hurting one another,
The ways of killing,
The ways we steal blessings rather than bless.
Resurrect us into a new type of humanity
A humanity like the dead and risen one
Here we are, at the end of the book of Ruth. We started in tragedy. Ruth lost her husband. Naomi lost her husband. Everything was as loss, and so they started back to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem; you know it. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by…”
Bethlehem, whose name means “city of bread,” as Deaconess Claire mentioned last week.
Bethlehem, that no-name little town just south of Jerusalem.
Bethlehem, where we hear at the end of this story, King David will be born. David who will take down Goliath with a few smooth stones. David who will be the great-great very great grandfather of you know who.
Bethlehem, where if you move out of the Hebrew Scriptures to the Gospel, you will hear that Jesus will be born.
Jesus, who will be called “The bread of life” coming from “the city of bread.”
You see, Ruth starts in tragedy, but ends in resurrection.
And take note, Christians. Today, especially today, we’re going to take note on how you read the Bible in light of current events. You make the connections. And my God, if there aren’t connections to be made this month, am I right?
Tragedy. Glimmers of hope. And we’re waiting for resurrection, am I right?
I wrote you a letter this week. And by “letter” I mean email. If you didn’t get it, check your spam folders. I won’t be offended that my letters end up in your spam boxes. Well, a little offended…
But in that letter I express to you my utter mix of emotions in these last two weeks.
Even now we have people from this congregation marching in the Pride parade, a parade that takes on new jovialness for many. And at the same time my heart, I dare say, all our hearts, are still mourning the Charleston massacre. A child of a Lutheran congregation cutting down pastors and teachers and retirees and students, some of them who studied with us Lutherans at seminary…
We must remember: the presence of a law, the presence of legal protection, does not indicate the presence of a change of heart for humanity. It does not mean an end to violence and discrimination and hate. If you need proof there are fresh bullet holes in a church in Charleston to hit it home.
Or perhaps the burning of six historically black or majority black churches in five days. Haven’t heard about it? I’m not talking about the 1960’s; I’m talking about the past week.
We need resurrection, people. And not just the kind that happens when we stand in front of God at the judgment seat; the judgment seat is here. We need resurrection of the kind that happens when you can stand in front of your neighbor and see them for the good creation that God has made them. When you can see them as God sees them. And if you wonder how that is, just flip in your Bibles to that very first book where God forms the dust ball and breathes life into it. Where God makes that companion for that dust ball and calls the whole thing “very good.”
Very good, in their very being.
And it’s different than when God made the rest of creation. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself. With all other creation…that creation was just “good.” God called it good. Good is still good. But when God made the dust balls and breathed the breath of life into them, God saw them and said, “Oh yes…this…this is very good.”
But too often we are not very good. Or even good. Often times I don’t know what we are.
See, the end of this story, the end of the book Ruth, is resurrection. It’s a new beginning. You may not glimpse the resurrection because we are far removed from that time and that place, but when Boaz does his negotiating and trades his sandal, an odd custom, with this unnamed cousin, it means resurrection for Naomi and Ruth. And even Boaz. When Boaz basically reminds this cousin that, if he wants to get the land of Naomi’s husband, he’s got to take on everything that comes with it, including marrying Ruth, we actually get a kernel of deep truth that we need to all stick into our hearts and recall again and again and it is this:
Resurrection requires something of us, and you cannot fake resurrection.
Marriage is resurrection for Ruth and Naomi. They are dead without husbands in the ancient world. They have no protection. They have no land. They have no legal claim to inheritance. They only have one another: one dead person clinging to another.
But in clinging to one another, in praying and discerning God’s small voice throughout this time of tragedy, they get introduced to new life.
But this cousin, he’s not willing to take it on because taking this on would mean losing some of what he’s already got.
And if you’re missing the connection here, I’m going to lay it plain. Because the mystics speak about how when we cling to God, when we cling to Christ, we actually lose part of ourselves in the process. Perhaps it’s “the chaff” as the parables say. Perhaps it’s our “old Adam” as St. Paul says. But we must lose before we gain. Jesus speaks about how we must die to ourselves to rise to new life. Nicodemus learned this the hard way; Jesus told him he had to change his way of thinking to get abundant life, and Nicodemus liked his way of thinking. The rich man in the Gospels learned this the hard way. Jesus told him he had to change his way of being, to sell all his possessions, to get abundant life. He couldn’t just add divine abundance to his life; there had to be room for God.
Here’s the thing: you cannot fake resurrection, dear people. It will cost something. And we don’t like that. We’d rather have our resurrection and skip the losing, but it doesn’t happen that way. That’s just faking it.
And we, as a nation, have been faking it for too long. We have been faking it since the 1960’s signing of the Civil Rights Act that, while granting legal protection, has not changed the hearts of humanity. And we had been faking it long before that. We have been faking it that we are past racism. Faking it so well, that some of my colleagues won’t even say the word from the pulpit because “it’s too divisive.” Since when do we shy away from hard topics in the church?!
And we will fake that we are past all sorts of things in this life because it is easier to fake it than to change it. It is easier to limp through life than be resurrected to new life, especially when your limp isn’t so bad.
But it is so bad for many of God’s very good creation. We must confess that. And it’s not just bad in Charleston. Our babies are dying here in Chicago.
President Obama’s eulogy at Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral hit home to me. I hesitate to mention this because, well, if you want to get divisive, just mention a sitting President from the pulpit. But listen. Listen here. It was about resurrection and sacrifice and risking doing something to actually change. He said,
“People of good will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires — the big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.
Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.
To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.”
“The hard work of more lasting change,” is resurrection speak. But it’s not just hard work, it’s Divine work.
If St. Paul is right, and I think that he is here, we are already “dead in sin.” He says in the book of Romans, and I quote this a lot because it is so true of me, we “do not do what we want to do, but what we do not want to do, we do.”
So often that notion, that we are dead in sin, has been used by the church to abuse people. Make them feel bad and guilty. St. Paul meant it as a wake-up call, I think. And we get good news today because, if Ruth and Naomi are any indication, the way that you become alive again is by clinging to another dead one.
Which means we cling to one another on one hand, but more to the point, we cling to Christ.
Or, rather, we find Christ clinging to us. And resurrection happens.
But first there must be transformation. The Divine does not touch you without you being changed. Think of all the healing stories in the Gospels. Think of St. Paul changing his name from Saul to Paul in his encounter with Christ. Think of Thomas learning to trust rather than doubt. Our scriptures are full of transformations stories that we have for too long just taught in Sunday School were these literal things that happened to these people in this place at this time.
But my people, Christ clings to us even today, giving us the resurrection power to let go of those things that continue to plague this nation and this world.
The Bread of Life from the City of Bread feeds us still, today.
But it costs something. It costs those of us with privilege giving it up and joining our voices with those who cry out for justice and peace and equality. It costs those of us who harbor hate in our hearts to hand it over to the one who turns swords into plow shears, hate into hope. It costs those of us who are too timid to say anything in the face of a racist joke, a little slur, a hate-rant on social media to take the risk and make absolutely clear that we will not stand for this.
In the name of Jesus, we will not stand for anyone who takes a very good creation of God and calls it something else.
And this is uncomfortable. We may want to back out of this deal like the nice unnamed cousin in this last chapter of Ruth. We may not think we can sign up for all this.
But you cannot fake resurrection, church. We cannot fake resurrection. We must say something today. If God is calling us to live resurrected lives even now, then this is how it goes.
And the first thing that I’m going to invite you to say today is in your bulletins. It’s a litany.
Today we have fortuitously chosen to honor Rachel’s Day, a day when we remember that the matriarch of ancient Israel, Rachel, the wife of Jacob, according to the book of prophet Jeremiah and the Gospel of Matthew, weeps when her children, the children of God, are killed.
And today we stand with Rachel and weep and say “no more.” We will refuse to be consoled
Because we will no longer fake resurrection, but we will cling to the dead and risen one who assures us that resurrection is at the end of this empty tomb of tragedy we see. We must not let go and go back to the way we’ve been, we must continue to cling and walk toward the Light of the World, feast on the Bread of Life, and cling to one another and all our brothers and sisters as we learn to walk together. We will live resurrected lives like Ruth and Naomi. Like Lazarus. Like The Reverend Clementa Pinckney and Cynthia Hurd, and the 7 other lives struck down in Charleston.
And, as hard as it is, we must pray for resurrection for Dylann Roof, too
So stand, let’s confess in the presence of the Bread of Life, let us resolve ourselves, let us pray for true resurrection, for our nation and ourselves.
(At this point we went forward with the Litany for Rachel’s Day)
I’m not sure how to describe these last two weeks.
On Thursday morning as I was packing for vacation, my eyes were glued to the news, tears welling up in them, as I heard of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston, where my wife and I honeymooned.
South Carolina, sister to my home state.
That day Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, put forward a statement. You can read it in full here. In it Bishop Eaton identifies that both the shooter, a member of an ELCA congregation, and two of the victims, The Reverend Clementa Pickney and The Reverend Daniel Simmons who both attended a Lutheran Seminary, are “our own.”
She’s right, of course. I’d take it one more step, though. All of them are “our own.” Are we not all children of God? Are we not all human?
I did not preach last Sunday, but Deaconess Claire did the difficult and necessary work of connecting the scriptures to our current lives. I heard from some of my colleagues that they feared saying the word “racism” from the pulpit because it is divisive.
More divisive than bullets? More divisive than discrimination? Are we not Lutheran? Do we not, as Martin Luther encouraged us, to “call a thing what it is”?!
Racism is real. It is a sin. It is a scourge upon our nation and upon humanity. It is the “original sin of the United States of America,” as The Reverend Jim Wallis so rightly put it.
Today President Obama, giving the eulogy at The Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, broke into Amazing Grace. He said, “We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen.”
And even as this massacre’s shadow lingers on our hearts, we hear today news of great joy for many. The Supreme Court has made marriage equality the law of this land, effectively making something not seen but hoped for by many, a legal reality. Our own faith community has welcomed same-sex couples, and married them, for many years now, believing that God has not made us to be alone in this world, and that the love of two consenting adults is a mirror image of God’s own love for the world.
But I believe the tragedy of last week informs even this joyous occasion today.
Even as confederate flags are taken down and silenced and rainbow flags are flown, we must not mistake the presence of law as a marker of the absence of evil. Indeed, we make laws to protect people from injustice and evil. Were they not present, we wouldn’t need the law.
Discrimination, racism, sin…these things remain. I say this not to call out fear, nor to dampen any joy or elation. We indeed should celebrate today even as we continue to mourn last week’s massacre.
We walk with tragedy in one hand and hope in the other.
But we must continue the God-given work of spreading the message of sacrificial love and peace in this world. We must continue to speak of the love of God seen through Jesus with strength, humility, and resolve until the weapons of violence in this world are silenced and human dignity is upheld in every corner.
The presence of a law that rights injustice is symptomatic of a world on its way, not a world that has arrived.
This Sunday we will, at the urging of Bishop Eaton, honor a day of reconciliation and mourning. Our prayers will be of repentance and hope for peace. Our litany will be one of resolve, where we confess that with God’s help we can change the trajectory of the bullets, the rhetoric of hate, racism, and discrimination in our world.
And we will celebrate with our gay brothers and sisters the presence of marriage equality.
This Sunday we will practice, as a community, what it means to walk with tragedy in one hand and hope in the other.
In the name of the one who calls us into the world to change it,
1:1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “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. 17 Where you die, I will die -— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Loss Without Getting Lost
God sometimes we feel
Like a stranger
Especially when we suffer loss.
Remind us that we are never
Stranger to you. Help us not get lost. Amen.
The beginning of the book of Ruth is a downer. There’s no two ways about it. Ruth and Naomi have suffered great loss, and we enter into it quickly and surely. Cue the slide trombone. Why would we read such a book? What’s the point?
I remember reading the Kite Runner at a local coffee shop. And I remember noticing that I was starting to cry as I was reading the book-like really cry- and then looking up and around and others were looking at me. I got the knowing nod from someone who had also read the book. And I recall thinking to myself, “The point of this book is apparently to make me cry in public…”
I didn’t read the Kite Runner in public after that.
I was speaking to a rabbi this week about the book of Ruth, talking about preaching on it in June. I told him I never fully felt the depth of the sadness of the first chapter until that was the only assigned text for the day.
“Yes,” he said. “It subverts the normal trajectory of most of the stories we’re used to; starting in tragedy right from the beginning and heading toward the light.”
We’re used to stories starting in light, fading into crisis, and then heading back into the light.
This book is messing with our minds!
Ruth is a story that begins in darkness. We don’t hear anything at all about the good times years before. We only hear about the struggle to walk toward the light day by day. During the month of June we’ll be heading toward the light, but I think this whole journey will be something good for us.
Anyway, sometimes I think it can feel that way for those who have experienced deep loss. Day to day is the narrative.
I read an article in Business Insider by a Jewish woman, Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband in a tragic accident. She was heading out of the 30 days of mourning called sheloshim. It’s a mandatory grieving period. There is good wisdom in that, I think. Our current culture doesn’t encourage that kind of grieving. We’re a “what’s next?” culture. But sometimes being “what happened?” people in a “what’s next?” culture just causes confusion and more pain.
Certainly we can’t live in our pain forever. That, too, is destructive. But if we’re ever going to get out of it, we have to go through it. A colleague once said that if you’re in hell, just keep walking, eventually you’ll get to heaven. Fuzzy cosmology, I say. And yet even Jesus went through hell to get to heaven, if we believe the statement of our Creeds. “You do not get the Kingdom of God without a crown of thorns,” a mentor of mine once noted.
Maybe that’s what Naomi meant when she changed her name to “Mara.” Bitter. Despite the fact that I don’t think God caused her bitterness, it doesn’t mean it didn’t feel that way…
In describing her sheloshim, her grieving, Sandberg said that she learned a powerful one-line prayer, “Let me not die while I am still alive.”
That, I think, speaks to Ruth and Naomi here. They’re trying to figure out a way, in the shadow of death, to live. For Naomi it is going back to her ancestral home. Moab, a country that was not kind to Israel or Israelites, holds nothing for her now. Ruth, though, is finding that for her to live she must cling to Naomi. For her, her ancestral home holds nothing for her now. She must make a new home with the only family that she has, even if it is a chosen family.
That pull of Naomi to her ancestral home and Ruth away from her ancestral home is good to sit with for us. Sometimes to not die while we are still alive we must go back. Or sometimes we must leave. For each person it is different.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short pastorate it is this: all grief is different. And all grief is the same.
Loss always leaves a hole in our being: loss of a loved one, a job, a dream, loss of our identity. Not all loss is equal, and yet it seems the damage is the same, though the degree varies.
For Ruth and Naomi it is not only the loss of a loved one, but the loss of status and the ability to survive. To what will they cling?
You know, for as much as Jesus wandered around the desert as an itinerant preacher, he didn’t do it alone. I think it’s telling that the Son of God, from Bethlehem mind you, from the line of Ruth the Moabite mind you, decided not to go at life alone. He needed a Naomi.
Sometimes grief can cause us to try to go it alone. We push people away consciously or unconsciously because, well…what to say? A vulnerable heart that experiences loss is wary of giving itself to someone again. To love means to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable means you get hurt. You just do.
And yet from the very beginning, from the book of Genesis, we read that we aren’t made to do life alone. This is confirmed in Jesus who chose others to go along side him, to cling with him, who in his moment of despair asked his disciples to “stay near him to watch and pray.”
I’ve done that at many a bedside. Someone, I pray, will do it for me. Even the monks who take a vow to seclusion and silence, often do seclusion and silence together.
And so when we see Ruth cling to Naomi, I think we should be seeing in ourselves an answer to some of our own questions about grief. Grief is a solo event you cannot do alone.
It’s how we do loss without getting lost. We watch out for each other. We help one another cling to life instead of loss; cling to the cross instead of despair.
This is, I think, one of the reasons that God calls us into community. It’s one of the reasons that Jesus surrounded himself by community. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t think you can be a Christian and not be connected to a community.
Community, for all its warts, for all its issues, is what carries us through the peaks and valleys of life.
The spiritual gift of companionship is never so accentuated as when we lose a companion.
“Christ has no hands but ours, no feet but ours…”St. Theresa of Avila once penned.
Christ also has no tears but ours, makes no meals but the ones from our ovens, has no body to sit with others except for this body…we need to be community for one another.
I think it’s a lovely symmetry that today we’re going to be introducing the Stephens Ministry that will kick off later this year today, because Ruth and Naomi could use a Stephen Minister to sit with them. In that absence, they’ll be it for one another.
Sandberg ends her article by quoting the lovely Irish theologian St. Bono of the U2: “There is no end to grief…and there is no end to love.”
And the God who is love, the Christ who embodied God’s love, promises us that although there may be no end to either of these, in the balance of time the weight will be given to love.
We read this book to recall that promise, the promise that keeps us from getting lost in our own loss. We read this book as a way of praying that prayer, that when grief happens we might remember too that God will not let us die while we yet live.
This chapter ends with the words, “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the harvest.” Loss is upon them, but that is not the end of the story. It’s a wonderful literary device here in the story. The harvest is on the horizon.
And I’m not sure I can say it any better than that. For any of us.
Summer is a great time to practice embracing change.
We should embrace the warmer days, and the change of clothes.
We should embrace the lengthening days that lead up to the Solstice, and then embrace the slowly waning light that leaves room for fireflies and fireworks.
We should embrace the disruption of vacations and last minute audibles to spend a lunch on the beach of Lake Michigan instead of that dingy cell generously referred to as “staff break room.”
Many churches in this time embrace change, too. Many go from two services to one service. Many switch up the worship liturgy, or meet in a park once a month.
And sometimes many parishioners change up their Sunday morning habits, too, and go to St. Mattress of the Springs a few more Sundays of the month…
(Your Pastor DOES NOT recommend that)
But here in my faith community we’re going to make some temporary summer changes.
First, we’re going to use a reusable bulletin. We’ll be greener as a congregation, we’ll save some trees, and we’ll save some waste. All the information for the service that you’ll need is included as an insert, but the cover is reusable (though we have new covers for every month).
Secondly, we’re adding more plants: plants with vines, tall plants, green all around to reflect this green time of growth in the church and in nature.
And finally, and most notably, a space change just for the summer.
Since the late 1980’s we’ve had a free standing altar near the north wall of the church. It’s beautiful and hand-crafted by a member of the community, now sainted.
For summer we’re going to move the altar, just a bit, to be on the main floor. This is an experiment in community.
We’re going to try to gather around the altar for communion. Not all at once, but as we’re able, to encounter the Body of Christ and the bread of Christ in a new way.
I know that any time a change is made there is resistance, even if the change is temporary. On Wednesday the ministry staff showed some people at One Stop Wednesday the layout. Some did not love it; some did. But we’re going to try it for the summer so that we can experience something different in what we do each week.
And when, at the end of this experiment, we go back to having the altar on the high steps, some of you will miss it on the floor. Some of you will be relieved to have it back in place. But everyone will have experienced something different, and will approach it come September in a new way.
And, yes, there are questions. “Where will the bells play? Where will the ministers sit? How will people fit around it?”
These are wonderful questions that we’ll work out as we go, and we’re keeping them all in mind.
Sometimes we change music in the liturgy to keep it fresh. Sometimes we change worship times. And sometimes we change worship space.
I was talking to one of our long-time members about the proposed summer change. He was looking at the set-up and laughed a bit to himself. “You know, before this altar was built we put a temporary altar on the floor right here to get used to the pastor facing the congregation…”
He thinks it’s a fine idea for the summer.
And it reminded me that even with summer changes, some are not changes at all, but a glimpse back into the past.
My conviction is that this will be life-giving for us, even if it disrupts our lives a little bit for a while.
But not everything will change. We’ll still encounter Jesus. We’ll still encounter one another. We’ll still have the liturgies that we do as a faith community to anchor us.
Your pastor is asking you to embrace this change, even just for a few weeks. Let’s see what changes in us as we see our space with new eyes.
See you Sunday!
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
B List Celebrity and Comebacks
We know you and
We do not know you.
But you promise to know us.
And today that is enough.
So, I’m sure that most everyone here who is friends with me on the Book of Face saw that I, yes I, became your next closest link to Kevin Bacon when I met…nay, conversed with…Molly Ringwald this weekend at a wedding I was doing in Virginia. My picture with her literally broke the internet. My mother stalked her for quite a while trying to snap one…
You may hold your applause.
At council on Tuesday night I got some good-natured sneers as people thought that perhaps I may not want the whole world to see that I (yes I), met Ms. Ringwald. It was suggested that she is a B-list celebrity or something.
Jealousy is a sordid mistress, who makes us say such things…
It was a fascinating thing for me to observe her interactions with the people there. There were no other celebrities at this wedding (except for those of us who are celebrities in our own minds). How do we interact with people when it seems like everyone knows you, or thinks they know you, but no one really knows you?
I imagine it’s akin to living in middle school all over again, the very age that you, Elizabeth, and you, Maggie, are right now. The existential angst of middle school, the angst of being known but not really being known.
Maybe not even fully knowing yourself, either.
The angst is real. And even into adulthood sometimes that angst lingers, or recurs, or…well, let’s just say that many times we feel like people know us but do not know us, even when we’re beautifully bald and have a mortgage and a 401K.
Nicodemus had such angst, I think. This is what the writer of John means when he says Nicodemus “comes to Jesus at night.” Things are confusing at night. Angsty. He was a rule follower, a doer, an accomplished person. He thinks that somehow he can accomplish salvation, too, with a little elbow grease and with knowing the right people and accessing the secret to wisdom…
So Jesus gives him something he can’t accomplish. This is par for the course. If there’s one thing Jesus is about it’s trying to get humanity to see that our identity is not found in our doings, but in God’s doing. Our identity is in God’s identity.
If the Bible had an A-List verse, a celebrity verse, it would be John 3:16, part of this section.
But I like John 3:17 much better. It’s like the Bible’s B-List celebrity verse, but like Keauneu Reeves and Neil Patrick Harris, it’s making a comeback. It’s so uncool, it’s cool again.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
One of the foundations of the Christian faith is that we have a God who knows.
Elsewhere in the book of John Jesus says, that “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Or go back to that older testament where, in the book of Jeremiah, it is claimed that God knew the prophet when he was “knit together in the womb of his mother.”
You can’t get much more known than that.
Or think of last week when that Pentecost Spirit blew through the church and made all the stoic Lutherans uncomfortable because the Spirit does what she wants when she wants and, well, for as much as Lutherans like Reformation, we certainly don’t like surprises.
When we talk about God knowing, we mean that God sees something in us that is hidden. Like the potential in a seed pod; like that real self we bury under makeup and awards and raises and good grades.
When we say that God knows you, it’s not that God knows who you are, it’s that God knows, sees, understands, loves, is attuned to your biological and spiritual presence in this universe on a level that goes deeper than your name, deeper than your heritage, deeper even than what you know about yourself from one time to the next. In fact, according to the Scriptures, God knows you so well that God even renames you. Renames you “child of God.”
And that means something. It means God “loves the you you hide, as the song goes.” You.
When Ms. Ringwald was chatting, I overheard people wanting to talk about the work that she had done in her younger years. The Breakfast Club. Pretty in Pink. 16 Candles. And you could see it on her face; she didn’t want to talk about what she’d done. She wanted to be known for what she does. For who she is now. They thought they knew her. They didn’t know her. She wanted to be known.
We often condemn people, not just celebrities but many people, to a life of being known for who they were by what they did or did not do. If you doubt that, think long and hard about how difficult it is for you to change your mind about someone’s identity because of what they did or did not do.
That’s how we define people.
But remember, God did not come to condemn the world, but to save it! Remember the B-list celebrity verse of the Bible. Remember the verse that makes a comeback.
One of the reasons we describe God as being Trinity is because, at the core, we are trying to assert that God is not that kind of thing: the kind of thing that can be defined. The kind of thing that defines others by what they did or did not do.
We see God in Jesus. We know God through the inspiration of the Spirit. We participate in God as we create in this world.
But God is constantly shifting in definition, giving from the father to the son, the son to the Spirit, the Spirit back again. Giving from the creator to the redeemer to the sanctifier.
The optimal word there is giving.
And despite what a lot of the Christian world today wants to say, despite what sometimes our own judgments about ourselves want to say, God does not desire to give condemnation.
God is in the saving business.
God chooses, selects you, Elizabeth and Maggie; you. You, Corrine. And you all. Knows you. You. That’s what we acknowledge in baptism. We are washed of our masks, washed of our achievements, washed of everything, and are bare and naked in front of the God who truly sees us and loves us. This is both wonderful and terrifying, which is why the ancients described their emotions toward God as both love and fear. The one who truly knows us knows much about us. Sometimes, we fear, too much about us.
But remember the B-List verse! God does not come to condemn, but to save. Save all of you; the whole of you. Save you from a life of trying to prove yourself. Save you from a life of trying to save yourself by what you do. Save you from a life of thinking that the people around you who will try to define you by what you do or do not do have you pegged.
Your identity is in God’s identity, and God’s identity is Trinity: it can’t be pegged down. The minute you think you’re pointing at God, you’ve just missed her because she’s gone to take up dwelling in the Son. And the minute you think you’re pointing to God, you just missed him because he’s gone to blow free in the Spirit.
If you can define it, it is not God. God is always defying definition, reinventing God’s self, and reinventing all of us in a continual act of creation, redemption, sanctification, restoration.
You know, if you want to talk about a B-List celebrity, think of Jesus for a minute. Despite how we read the story so often, he went out with a whimper, dying a death like so many other common criminals. His show was canceled. His sophomore effort flopped.
But man, did he make a comeback.
May 24th, 2015
On Staying Open to Making Memories
This is about my 40th wedding as an officiant, or serving in some official role. I learned at wedding number 6 that wedding reflections, sermons, homilies, what have you, should be three things: short, witty, and touching.
No one is here to see me. They’re here to see you two. Or at least Joseph’s hair. Or the pony.
As with everything I do, I’ll shoot for two out of three.
And as I was thinking about today, I realized that, JS, we’ve known one another longer than we haven’t known one another. We’ve been friends for longer than we’ve not been friends. Memories came flooding back for me of those crossroads in Startown, North Carolina. We met when we were 12 and instantly bonded over our apathy toward the Atlanta Braves.
And I remember hanging out at our houses, with a bunch of these guys here. I remember listening to Boys 2 Men and All 4 One and a bunch of other R&B bands with numbers in their names for hours.
I mean, the memories kept coming.
By the way, this is where I was going to include a reference to the play Cats, when talking about memories, but I was advised by someone I trust that it would say more about me than I want to say, so I won’t…
And two years ago when you introduced Rhonda and me to Joseph, I had this feeling that one day Joseph and my family would be able to say that we’ve been friends for longer than we haven’t.
And, judging by our age, we just might make it…I look forward to that future.
And when I tell my sons, ages 2 years old and 4 months old…who I wish could be here because, really, they are party animals…especially that younger one…he’s up all night. When I tell them about this day, and about all the remarkable things about today: celebrity singers and musicians, a pony, and the amazing love between their Uncle JS and their Uncle Joseph, I am happy to say that the least remarkable thing for them will be that they live in a country where their Uncles can marry and enjoy the full rights and joy of marriage.
And I give thanks to God for that. I can’t wait for that to be a distant memory for all.
And today I can’t help but remember your mom, JS. She would have loved this. Joseph: she would have loved you.
And, like me, she would have loved your Twitter feed.
And it is not lost on me that she should and would be the one standing here. It is a great honor for me to fill this role for her.
But enough remembering the past; let’s start imagining the future. Because that is what we’re leaning into today, and every moment I guess. And as you lean into the future after today, JS and Joseph, you do so declaring for the world that “you are more when you’re together than you are when you’re apart,” as the song goes.
But I will warn you that it won’t always feel that way. Intellectually we know this, but in this moment, as the butterflies…or ponies, I guess…are fluttering about in our stomachs we can’t imagine life without the other one.
But sometimes you will. And that’s just honest. I mean, one of the reasons we get married is not because we will always feel like we’re in love. Life has a way of playing with our minds and emotions and causing all sorts of disruptions in us.
One of the reasons, maybe the primary reason, we marry is so that we’ll stay together until we fall in love again.
I was reading Business Insider this week—it’s where I get all of my relationship advice—and they had an article about what makes for a good relationship. Seriously. It was in Business Insider. Because, that makes sense, right?
Anyway, don’t read the article because I’m going to summarize it for you because I think it’s true: what keeps us together in marriage isn’t that we’re always in love, it’s that we’re always open to the possibility of loving the other person. It’s that we’re interested in looking for their love and giving them love and being loved and leaning into that possibility.
And there’s no advice anyone can give you to make that happen. No trick. That openness must be from inside. And it’s an openness that comes from embracing not just the exciting parts of life, but also the boring parts of life. You lean into the boring in marriage, and that doesn’t sound exciting, but trust me, it’s a great adventure.
Robert Frost’s poem “The Master Speed” is one of my favorites, much better than that trite one about a fork in the road and choosing the unbeaten path. I generally assume there’s a reason a path isn’t well traveled; it’s probably boring or has bears or leads to Old Navy or something.
But “The Master Speed” is a great piece of work. It’s about married life, and in it Frost claims that the lovebirds, the married ones, know a secret: “master speed.” And it’s basically the supersonic speed where you realize that the mundane is sacred. That the beautiful is ordinary. Where standing still together means more than moving quickly when you’re apart.
Indulge me for just a moment with it:
No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste,
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still–
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar
Although I can’t imagine either of you being ordinary, in marriage you will, you must find the beauty in the ordinary, the power of standing still, the master speed.
Every ordinary moment has an infinity of meaning because you are choosing to do the ordinary together moving forward.
Open to one another forever. Together.
And that, my friends, is what makes memories: being open to having them made.
So, Joseph and John Stuart, let’s make a memory together. Wing to wing and oar to oar. Are you ready?
May 22nd, 2015
Everyone who hears my words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell—and great was the fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Sometimes You Don’t Know You’re Built on a Rock Until the Storm Passes
I’ve presided over a number of weddings in the last five years, and have preached at many more, and I can’t remember ever preaching on this text for a wedding.
A fun challenge.
I guess one of the challenges with this text, and I think also with marriage, is how much advice we get around it all. Mindi’s heard me say this at a million weddings: I hate marriage advice. And let’s be honest: Jesus sounds a lot like he’s giving advice here. Except that he’s saying it in the past tense, so it’s kind of like a passive-aggressive piece of advice, or like when you’re looking at a job application and it says, “The successful worker will have…”
Sure, hind-sight is 20/20, but when we talk about life like we should have known what was going to happen, we sound rude and snobby and, well…I don’t want to say Jesus is being snobby here, but when he says, “The successful person will have built their house on rock…” it kind of sounds that way.
But let’s give Jesus the benefit of the doubt for a second and imagine that he’s not saying it to people who haven’t weathered storms before. Maybe Jesus is talking to people who are past the storm, who find themselves OK, still functioning, and need to have their eyes reopened.
It does no good to talk about the future as if we know what is going to happen. Look at this, here, today. Prediction after prediction of how the story of Mindi and Aaron would progress didn’t make this happen.
No amount of predicting caused today. Today was caused by you two and deep love and jumping into the deep end of life and choosing to do it together.
Because, here’s the thing, sometimes you don’t know that your house is built on rock until after the storm has raged, the rains have beat down, the wind has all but blown you away…
And here you are with Ike in tow.
I don’t think you two are here today because you saw the future and built your house on stone. I think that you two, in being who you are and who you are together, had houses built on stone and here you are.
And that should be a real comfort to you.
Because success in most anything, including life together, including marriage, isn’t the ability to predict the future, but the ability to stand together no matter what happens in the future.
Which is why we vow things. We make promises about the future not dependent on the future, but relying on our present ability to be built on stone. But for you two, today’s vow will kind of be like an affirmation of things that have already come to pass. The ways that you’ve decided, off and on, explicitly and implicitly over the years, to remain open to one another, to support one another, to hold each other through all of life. The ways that God has held you individually when you were apart, and holds you as a couple now that you are together…
Today is the first time you’ll say some of these things to one another and to God, but it is not the first time that you’ll have proven you’re built on stone.
That’s really important to hear today. Because that has the backing of past authority.
And make no mistake, I do not think that you two were two ships out to sea who weathered storms and just happened to find yourselves at the same port. I think you two weathered storms and made the decision to head to the same port to weather all the rest of them.
So Aaron, Mindi, I’m not going to give you any advice…and I encourage you (like I encourage all couples I marry) to forget about 90% of the advice you do get about marriage. Every marriage is different. If I were sentimental I’d say they’re like snowflakes. But that’s hokey, so I’ll say they’re like the yearly White Sox roster: every one is different from another.
But I will tell you this: your house is built on rock. I can’t predict the future; no one can and we waste our breath trying. But I can see the past. And that is what I see.
So no need to move; you’re on solid ground together. Let’s vow to one another to try to stay there, with God’s help, and with the help of these people of God.