<Sermons are primarily meant to be heard, not read. To listen to a recording of this sermon, click here: Hebrews 9:1-14 >
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. 4 In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; 5 above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot speak now in detail. 6 Such preparations having been made, the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; 7 but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing. 9 This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right. 11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Your dwelling place is beautiful
Your dwelling place is Christ
Your dwelling place is here
Your dwelling place is with and in us
Fleshy, bloody, us.
Be with us, Holy Spirit,
move in this body of Christ today
I was once told by someone that blood in your veins is actually blue, and only turns red when exposed to oxygen. Turns out we’re all blue-blooded, if that is true.
In my family it is lore that my great-great grandmother Tina could stop blood flow by quoting scripture and holding her hand over it. Story goes that one of the horses on the farm got tangled in some wire and was bleeding from the neck. She held her hand to the neck and recited a verse from Isaiah and the blood stopped.
I don’t know what to think about that. Sounds like Ghostbusters sort of stuff to me, but it’s there in the lore. The passage is marked in the family Bible.
How many of you get sick at the sight of blood? As a chaplain I witnessed not a few people faint at the sight of blood which, of course, compounds an already tense situation. I remember one person turning sheet white and before they fell over they said, “Oh no. It’s happening…” Boom. Down.
In the church we have a complicated relationship with blood. Let’s be honest: I think most of us aren’t really comfortable talking about the blood of Jesus. Even some cringing when we talk about the blood of Christ in the cup at Eucharist. It evokes thoughts of violence. It evokes images of death. Gross. Gruesome. As one theologian put it, talking a lot about the blood of Jesus perpetuates this idea that God is some sort of King Pin mobster who “requires the pound of flesh” for humanity’s sin (NBW). As if Jesus’ blood were necessary for salvation to happen; God’s required sacrifice.
And yet when we read the stories of Jesus we don’t get the picture of God being very King Pin-ish. You have to ignore the story of Jesus if you want to believe God is vengeful.
In the ancient world blood was the signal of sacrifice. Sure, it was violent. But the ancient world was violent and they understood the symbolism and when you wanted to offer something up to God or to the emperor or to the screaming masses in the Colosseum who were hungry to be entertained so that they’d forget about the monotony of their lives, blood was what did it. For all of those. Or so they thought.
You know, I watched my nephew play Grand Theft Auto this last week…and, well…we’re still in the Colosseum. I was absolutely appalled. I’m no culture warrior, but a video game dedicated to shooting people and stealing cars? So violent. Bloodshed. The world is still ancient.
And so is writer of Hebrews. He is writing to context. He is writing in a way that the audience would understand. It’s a good symbol, blood, for people who understood those sacrifices. To us it seems gruesome; to them it was holy. It is connective tissue, to use another body reference, to the temple sacrifices that they knew of old with the action of Jesus.
The writer connects the blood of Christ with the blood sacrifice of the past so that you, and me, and the ancient hearers of this letter get the picture that God doesn’t want anything to do with that. No need to shed blood anymore to appease God. God’s had enough blood to last five eternities. The cross and resurrection confirm it. It’s an appeal to stop the madness, as it were.
What do we shed blood over? We look at the ancient world and think it is violent. People tell me all the time that they don’t like reading the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, because “it’s so violent.” Have you picked up a paper lately?! Have you watched the evening news?! The ancient is today.
St. Bono of the U2’s song Sunday Bloody Sunday says it so well:
Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up
Puts my back up against the wall
We are no less blood mongers today, but we pretend not to be. Which is worse.
In Christ we do not see a God who wants violence, but a God who suffers violence to show you and me that it is useless. We are “covered in the blood of the lamb” because it is only by seeing that even God suffers when violence is in the room that we might finally beat those swords into ploughshares and pledge that we “aint gonna study war no more,” as the Gospel song goes.
But I’m not just talking about overt violence. I’m also talking about the covert violence of our lives. The violence on our calendars, on our families, on our bodies. How do you get ahead in this world? “Blood, sweat, and tears.” “Cut him off at the knees.” “Destroy the competition.” And with the recent articles flying around at how cutthroat Amazon.com is to work for, well, let’s just say it’s no wonder my packages arrive on time…somebody’s head will roll if it doesn’t.
And a lot of us buy into it, shedding our blood not on the Colosseum floor, but on the floor of the conference call, behind the computer, on the floor of the 9:30pm work nights to get it all in. That may seem like a first world problem, but people have shed their own blood over it and less. Parents have sacrificed their children on the altar of the calendar; spouses have sacrificed each other on the altar of the never ending iPhone work capabilities. And if that doesn’t resonate with you, then at least lament with me the fact that our society forces people to work two or three jobs just to afford an apartment and a future for their babies.
Did you hear that little part in the first portion of today’s reading, the part where the priest would enter the holy of Holies with a blood offering for the “unintentional sins of the people?”
Let me ask you how many restless nights of sleep have you spent trying to do just that? Sweating on your pillow, screaming into the air because of, as our confession says, something “done or left undone”? Usually unintentional?
How many people do I have to sit with who tell me of how taking a knife to their skin and eliciting just a little drop of blood takes away the pain that they’re going through?
We are still in the blood business, so perhaps we need the cup of salvation filled with God’s own blood to remind us to stop shedding our own and one another’s…
We may get sick at the sight of blood. As it turns out: so does God.
A little blood talk isn’t as out of line as we might imagine it. God doesn’t desire our bloody sacrifices, so why do we keep offering them? The blood sweat and tears that we’ve shed working at our lives, trying to save it, make it into something, agonizing over what it is and isn’t, that’s not what this life is about.
We don’t need to shed our blood; it won’t do what we want it to. Or as our own blessed Martin Luther would say, “God’s already done it. What more is there to do?”
That, by the way, is true freedom. Not having to earn meaning in your life, but allowing God’s meaning and love to wash over you like a bath.
But…I gotta be honest here…there are times when the image of blood, well, it kind of becomes important for me.
Back to St. Bono, when he says, “Puts my back up against the wall.” When my back is up against the wall it does well for me to remember that Jesus’ back was up against the cross. Because I need a God who has been there.
Sometimes when I feel the cuts of life. When it’s me who is sick at the sight of the blood flowing from my life and I think “Oh no. It’s happening…” and boom, life takes you down for the count. Or when I see others going through it. That’s when it actually gives me some comfort to hear that God has bled alongside me. Because it reminds me that Jesus follows his own advice to “weep with those who weep.” When I feel the pain of this world and I look at the heavens and think, “God, do you even have a clue?!”
God has a clue. Jesus shows God has a clue. The cross shows God has a clue.
Maybe that’s why you find the symbol of blood so prominent in African American spirituals. It seems like every other verse is “covered in the blood of Jesus.” Maybe you need to know what it means to be covered in blood, as 12 generations of humans were kept in slavery in this country alone, to understand the power that comes from knowing that God has been there, too. That God stands with you in a world that just seems to demand your blood without redemption.
You know, this last week I did it again. Yup; I cried at Starbucks.
Not big weepy cry…I don’t really do that. But there’s a lot on this heart and in this head lately. And in this community there are lots of conversations about standing in solidarity with each other as discrimination and subjugation and injustice is faced head on. And when we got the news that Alistair’s daycare is being closed due to budget cuts, and that these people who have helped raise my babies wouldn’t care for him anymore, and that his classmates would all have to find other places to go, and that we couldn’t keep our sons together in the same school because the state can’t figure out a way to pass a budget that doesn’t fall on the backs of working families…
I felt the cuts. I saw the cuts in others. The blood, sweat, and tears of all of us seemed to be for naught. We thought we were working toward something together…but it feels like it was all wasted on the ground now in a lot of ways.
And then you, the body of Christ, you blue-blooded Christians, you all with your calls of encouragement and love and suggestions and you calling your state reps and alderman; you began shedding your blood, sweat, and tears to stand with us and these families.
Do you see? That is being covered in the blood of the lamb. The blood that is shed with you when you feel the cuts of the world. God doesn’t desire it, but God is willing to give it when God’s children are hurting. And then the words of the body of Christ make it stop.
In Christ we see that God doesn’t desire blood, and also that when the world comes down on us and we feel the cuts of an existence in a world that sometimes demands its pound of flesh, God is willing to be there with us. In it. Pointing toward the resurrection that is promised for those who find themselves on the crosses of life.
Because if God redeemed the crucifixion with resurrection, surely my redemption is eminent. And yours.
And it’s good to be reminded of that at least once a week, usually Sunday, bloody Sundays and the beginning of the unending work week. But also sometimes on Tuesdays when you’re sitting at Starbucks and you feel the overflowing love of the body of Christ bleeding with you, giving you hope for a resurrection that is eminent.
I don’t have to get over my issue with blood. Christ has already gotten over it for all of us. So come and taste the cup of salvation, and let us learn war on one another and ourselves no more. Amen.
<Feel free to listen along to the sermon. Sermons are written to be heard rather than read! Listen here>
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he made purification for sin, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Name us beloved today, God.
Name us joyful.
Name us forgiven.
Name us beautiful, God.
Name us peace-givers.
Name us hopeful,
Name us content,
Name us, Henry and Alistair and all of us,
“Oh what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” opines Juliet from her little balcony in fair Verona with Romeo being the ultimate creeper in the bushes below.
As a matter of science, I am inclined to agree with Juliet. The smell of what we call a rose is not dependent upon its name. And yet, I have to think something would be different if a rose where not called “rose” but perhaps took the name of another flower, the name of, say, “spiderwort.” Spiderwort, by the way, is a beautiful purple flower that dangles from its stem as if on a spider’s web.
But if I’m honest, with the name Spiderwort…I’m reluctant to stick my nose into that.
Names are important. Our own church name, Luther Memorial, is named after the Reformation on the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. In 2017 we’ll have the 500th anniversary. Who wants naming rites for the rename? Oh…I see some of you squirming…we won’t change the name. Maybe.
As an aside: from a young age I wanted to name one of my children “Jennifer” but tell everyone it was pronounced “Tiffany.” A little life-long test for the little one…
When thinking about our own son’s names, Rhonda and I debated back and forth for months. We refused to let the name out of the bag because, well, we only agreed on one for a boy and one for a girl each time and really didn’t want to hear other opinions on it.
For me, I wanted a heritage name and a Biblical name. When we knew Alistair was coming along, we didn’t pick his name until we saw him. If he had been a girl, his name would have been Rowan. A good Gaelic unisex name.
But on the chance he was a boy, we were stuck between two: Alistair for my Scotch-Irish side and Fredrick for Rhonda’s German side. I, by the way, lobbied for the much more German Friedrich. But she nixed the idea. So the Americanized Fredrick was it. Had it happened we would have had Finny and Freddy…which would have been way too cute, right?
But when we saw this 9lb 6oz wonder for the first time, we saw Alistair. Alistair Joseph, to be precise. Alistair, Gaelic for the English Alexander, “Defender of humanity,” it means.
And Joseph as the middle, the Biblical name. Josephs in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are the dreamers. Joseph, son of Israel, dreamt of moons and stars and signs and portents. His brothers threw him in a well, he was sold into slavery, but still he dreamed for better things. Joseph, betrothed to Mary, was told in a dream to stay with her despite his reservations. He was told in a dream to save his family from Herod’s coming onslaught and run to Egypt in the Gospel of Matthew. Joseph the dreamer.
With the juxtaposition of Alistair and Joseph together, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that my hope for him is that he will be the defender of humanity’s dreams more than a defender of his own. A dad can hope.
And his brother, Findley, the Gaelic name meaning “fair-haired warrior.” An ironic name for his pacifist parents to give him, of course. And the middle Gabriel, the Biblical bearer of God’s messages for humanity, meaning “God is my strength”. A large piece of his father hopes that his time as a fair haired warrior he will rely on God as his strength, rather than any weapon he might pick up…
Gabriel brings good news to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, tidings of great joy for all people. And in Matthew it is Gabriel who whispers in Joseph’s ear concerning his marital commitments and escape plan to Egypt to keep the family safe. When I see Findley whispering to Alistair these days, I can’t help but see Scripture come alive in my house.
Surely they are plotting some sort of escape plan constantly.
Henry, baptized today as well, the French Henri, “ruler of the home and hearth.” Also possibly a family name.
Names are important. We honor people with naming rites.
And then there is Jesus whose father, Joseph, bucked first century, second temple Jewish tradition and didn’t name him after his father or himself, but rather used Yeshua, or Joshua, as we would say. And perhaps Joseph was, in his wisdom, doing what we were doing when naming our children: praying that history would bleed into the future a bit.
Joshua, the namesake of the 6th book of the Hebrew cannon, the Biblical soldier who led Israel into the promised land after Moses’ death. He would be a leader. But Joseph, knowing his child was special, perhaps he was hoping that this son would not so much lead people into a particular geographical land, but rather into God’s eternal, non-geographical, kingdom of shalom.
And his prayer was answered, I think. Is still being answered.
In this reading from the first part of Hebrews, the author indicates as much. “The name (Jesus) has inherited” is much more excellent than even the celestial beings, it is written here, because “(Jesus) is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
Jesus, in the very name, is the embodiment of God’s essence, leading presence, is the reflection of Divine glory, is the leader in laying the divine hand laid upon the dead to make them rise, is the leader in wearing the Divine hem of God’s own cloak of majesty where, if you touch it, you are healed.
That’s what the author of this little letter to the Hebrews written about the same time as the earliest Gospel is indicating. “Oh what’s in a name?” Juliet asks. The author of Hebrews answers her from the past, “In this case, God.”
In Detroit a few weeks ago at the ELCA Youth Gathering we heard a sermon by a colleague and friend who is pastor at All People’s Gathering Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. And this pastor got into a little cadence with his preaching, reflecting his community’s heritage, and he kept saying the phrase, “We claim Jesus!” And everyone would clap and say amen. And he’s say it again, and everyone would clap and say amen.
And our youth, afterward, said something akin to, “Why did he do that? I don’t know what he was getting at with repeating ‘Jesus.’ It seemed trite to use the name like that, like a hashtag of some sort. Perhaps he should have said ‘peace,’ or ‘love,’ as well as Jesus…”
And the pastor in me beamed with pride at our thoughtful youth who won’t take easy answers or trite words.
But if we dig a bit, I think we can get at the heart at what he was saying there. Because, you see, long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets, and continues to (and we continue to want to kill the prophets because they tell us uncomfortable truths, Amen?). But we claim that there is a special, a unique word, spoken through the one named Jesus. A unique word of love, of hope, of peace, of salvation, of sustenance, of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of counsel, of understanding.
Of life. In saying that name, he was saying all of the above…even if it sounded trite or thoughtless or like a way to pander for quick “amens.”
And so, when we say “Jesus,” it is not just the 190lb Jewish guy that we’re talking about, although it is him. It is the entirety of the hope and potential and actuality that is wrapped up in that person, infused with God’s own being. In that way the name holds a power that allows us to name other things in this world and stand strong in the face of them.
I can name leukemia. I can name divorce. I can name love. I can name cancer. I can say black lives matter, naming God’s creation as good. I can name you forgiven. I can name myself forgiven. I can name violence as evil and peace as good. I can name questions as part of faith, as Jesus asked many questions. I can name that one night where we raised our voices and said those things to one another, that fight, that anger, that hurt, as not being who we truly were made to be for one another. I can be bold in naming, confident though possibly afraid, because I have been first named by God as beloved.
I can name the anorexic and bulimic as ones whom God wants to enjoy their bodies through food because I pass out food from this table every week at the bidding of the one named the bread of life, given to you who I now name the “body of Christ.”
I can name all things through the name above all names. And not because I hold any power, but because, as C.S. Lewis once said, by Christ I see everything else: the leper at my door, the marginal at the gate, the wounded, the afflicted, the one needing healing, the sin in my heart as well as the graceful forgiveness of God, the powers of this world that rebel against God. I just too often ignore it all…and even then, through Christ I still see that God loves me. I see that God has naming rites in the end, and has named me and you all children of God.
It allows us, today, to pour water over the heads of the one named Henry and the one named Alistair and say, without a doubt, “you are a child of God, full of the potential of your names because the one with the name Jesus, the name above the angels, the name above all names, has shown exactly what God thinks of you and all of us: you are loved.”
Beloved, in these last days we still have prophets. In these last days we may have signs in this world that the kingdom of God is far, far off in so many ways, but we also have signs that it is so, so near, too. So I pray that we live into our name as children of God. I pray that the past hope seen in Jesus bleeds into the future, and that the future reality of Christ’s peace bleeds into the present.
And I pray for you, named one. Perhaps today you can see yourself with the water of grace, the water of hope, the water of purpose poured over your head. And that you, today, may find the strength to name and be named in this world as the one with the name above all names walks with you in this life. Amen.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcised” by those who are circumcised—a physical change made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time outside of the fold of the community of Christians, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, not knowing about the hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the cross of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups, Jew and Gentile, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Pieces of Peace
You are the peace of the world.
You unite humanity.
You knit us together, one to another.
You promise that no physical differences
Can mask our spiritual sameness in you.
Be the cornerstone of our lives today.
For a few years of my life I walked around with part of the alphabet on my chest.
In Greek. Sounds ridiculous to say it that way.
Those college days where we took so much pride in wearing these three letters in block script upon our chest seem like forever ago, but at that time it was the great accomplishment that I proudly wore more days than not.
We have some in that fraternity here today. I know this because when we share the “peace of Christ” every so often one of them will shake my hand with the “secret handshake” which, in my later years I’ve come to find out, is the same secret handshake of almost every other fraternity.
Apparently when it comes to secret handshakes, the only secret we’re keeping is that everyone’s is the same…
At that time I relished the fact that my letters bound me to others who wore the same ones. But they also put me at odds with others who wore different letters, also in block script, across their chest. Needless, even fake, hostility at its worst. Why we disliked the others, I do not know. I only know that we did and that bottle rockets should be shot at their houses late at night to protest the fact that their letters were different than my letters.
It was a learned dislike; as all dislikes when it comes to people are learned. A seed of dislike planted in me.
But it was easy to learn because, when we’re honest with ourselves, we like boundaries. Ask anyone who has ever shared a bed with another person. Unwanted encroachment onto my side of the mattress deserves swift and severe retribution. Nothing is worse than cold feet or hot feet or just feet in general.
An apt illustration on this day when we’re waiting for a wedding! Newly weds take note!
Lightheartedness aside, I need not mention the other demarcations that we, as humanity, have taken as invitation to plant seeds of hostility, pieces of hostility.
And sadly, of course, the church has often highlighted these demarcations. We have from the beginning, as the writer of Ephesians points out today. From the very first years of the Jesus movement, there were arguments over whether you had to be circumcised to be Christian, to be part of the covenant that God set up with humanity and continued through Jesus.
It was their version of the secret handshake. It would morph into whether or not you professed this creed or that, whether you thought Mary was a literal virgin, whether or not you believed in hell or heaven, whether or not…well, no need to go on.
But the writer of Ephesians paints for us a picture of the Christ as one who only has one handshake. And despite the fact that many in the Christian world still today want to argue about boundaries and dividing lines, the Christ that we call Lord is always, always, breaking down those lines.
It reminds me of a quote in The Immortal Diamond by the beautifully bald New Mexican monastic Richard Rohr. He quotes St. Bonaventure, a 13th Century scholar: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”
That, my beloved people of God, is a radical thought for a radical Christ who continues to break boundaries; a seed of truth for our hearts this morning. A Christ without boundaries, but with a strong center.
And Christ is that because Christ refuses to wear letters across his chest in block script. Instead he wore nails and thorns and a host of letters above his head, “INRI,” Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans, showing that God will go to great lengths, even death, to break down barriers in this world.
And Christ can do that because Christ refuses even to be bound by space and time forever, cracking open the portal of time to come back from the dead, back from eternity to enter back into reality, to show all of humanity that God’s presence is pervasive.
And so when we talk about Christ being our peace, we are not just talking about an absence of violence across dividing lines. An absence of violence does not mean everything is peaceful. And so when we talk about Christ being our peace, as we do in Ephesians, we are not just talking about you and your partner not arguing, or you and your family not struggling, or that the streets of Chicago don’t ring out with gunfire, or that black churches no longer burn across the south like torches in the night lighting the way to mark what many think is a racist past but is actually a racist present that we are called to confront.
The peace that Christ is does contain all of this. But it is more.
Those are only pieces of peace.
But the fullness of the kind of peace that Christ brings is the kind that permeates all being across dividing lines to not only make violence and heartache and struggle and trials cease, but also to cause love and shalom and righteousness grow and flourish throughout all of humanity, permeating demarcations and boundaries, uniting us all. The kind of peace that Christ brings is the kind that not only stops hurt, but brings about full healing, like the balm in Gilead, like the tree of life in the middle of the garden with “leaves for healing” as the book of Revelation says. Christ’s peace is one that stops violence and starts healing; stops pain and starts progress. Both.
And it’s the kind of peacemaking that we, as a church knit together by a Christ who crosses our boundaries, should be involved in. Amen?
You know, if you want to see some boundary crossing, volunteer with our church on Thursday evening when we work with The Night Ministry. We not only make the food—and people have been lovingly doing that for years now, there’s a special sainthood for that dedication—and serve it, but many from our church and others walk the line, talking with the clients, conversing, giving dignity as well as a good meal.
You know, if you want to see some boundary crossing, come with us this week to Detroit where the High School youth from this church will make signs and walk in procession as we tell a city that has been ravaged economically and politically that they have hope in the one who hung on the cross of hopelessness to show the lengths God will go to be with humanity.
If you want to see some boundary crossing, imagine to yourself that the scene that will happen today at the 11am service, the marriage of Amber and Kathy, was never even imagined by some as ever being possible.
Love. Shalom. Righteousness. Growing, brooding, expanding, living like a seed sprouting justice in a field of unrightousness, breaking through the barrier of the ground to provide life for the living.
Locked doors cannot keep God out. Hard hearts cannot keep God out. Tombs cannot keep God out. Death cannot keep God silent. And though the presence of evil in this world tries to drown God out, in the ark that saved Noah God showed that even the mightiest floods cannot drown all life.
God’s life-giving force continues to cross boundaries, even the boundaries of death to life.
In your bulletins you have before you an illustration that I’ve shared before, but it’s worth it again today. As people who see pieces of peace, but who long for the fullness of shalom, who believe that God can give us the fullness of shalom, it’s sometimes good for us to use a little visual aid to hammer home just what the scriptures mean when they talk about Christ moving over boundaries.
I mean, sure, the scriptures are full of stories where Christ walks on the boundary waters, passes through the locked doors, and even traverses the boundaries of death to life. But what does that mean for us, here?
Look at this illustration (How Jesus Cuts Across Divides) . This comes from that crazed Irish metaphysicist theologian Peter Rollins in his wonderful book The Idolatry of God. And he uses this illustration to help describe what Jesus means when, in the Gospel of Matthew, he came not to bring “peace, but a sword.” (10:34) Which seems to fly in the face of this Ephesians text, or even the moniker “Prince of Peace” that the prophet Isaiah uses.
But look at what Rollins exposes here. Because Jesus doesn’t bring a sword to cut down people, but rather to cut down the barriers that already exist between people. Look at it here.
And we’re not talking about uniformity or conformity here. God loves variety; we can’t deny that. God wants us to love variety, too.
Instead what we’re talking about is that God doesn’t allow the differences between people to cause hostility and division, but invites us to be united in Christ.
Like a sword across the racism, sexism, homophobism, ethnocentricism that divides us. Like a pruning hook that cuts across the political left and the political right. Like a sheath that cuts across the marriage bed torn and divided by arguments that don’t seem to end. Like a plow that cuts across the rows of family strife that can’t seem to find resolution. It cuts across the divisions that secret handshakes and “in and out” thinking and dualisms and right and wrong create in this world.
If we understand that it is Christ that connects us one to another, the very life of God that bids us to love one another and holds us together, than truly we have peace.
But, and this was true in ancient Ephesus, and it is true today, as I said before we, the world, likes divisions and demarcations. The world relishes boundary lines. And so when Jesus came proclaiming a radical message, when we come proclaiming a radical Christ, that cuts through our divisions, the world will try to bury that message. Bury it under shouts of fear that people different than us are scary and dangerous. Bury it under shouts of fear that if that ethnic group, that social minority, that sexual minority gets these rights, there won’t be any rights left for the rest of us. Bury it under even this Holy Bible which, at times, can seem to go against this unifying vision of the Christ we hear today. Bury it under the arguments between lovers where fickle hearts…and that’s the only kind of heart…will start to create divides between lovers as a response to monotony and neglect.
These moments threaten to bury our pieces of peace. Bury it in a tomb for three days. Bury it with Jonah in the belly of the fish, with Lazarus, with the very Jesus who gives peace. Bury it like a morsel of bread into outstretched hands here at the table just wanting a little bit of grace to ignite passion for life again.
There is a saying made popular in this time by the Zapatista movement for independence in Mexico, but that really comes from Greek poet Dinos Christianopolous that goes, “You tried to bury us. You didn’t know we were seeds.”
The lovers of dividing lines, the lovers of secret handshakes, the lovers of demarcations tried to bury Jesus, they tried to sow seeds of hate and bury Jesus in the ground. They didn’t know he was a seed. The world will try to bury us followers of Jesus. We are seeds.
Seeds, pieces of peace, counteracting seeds of hate. The world has, since the beginning, tried to bury the all pervasive message of love and peace in this world with the noise of persecution, bombs, war, hate, fear, seeds of hostility.
But what they don’t know is that, these pieces of peace placed in you and me by the Gospel, these are seeds, too. Stronger seeds than those of hostility. Stronger than seeds of fear.
Seeds that, in God’s time, grow into a more perfect shalom for you, and me, and this world. A world that needs more pieces of peace growing strong. I do believe this.
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!