Your People, My People

A Sermon offered by Laura on 10.13.19, Narrative Lectionary Year 2

Scriptures: Ruth 1:1-17, Mark 3:31-35

“I have five grandchildren, and none of them have my DNA.” Pete Wells, the former Stated Clerk of Eastern Oregon Presbytery, once used these words to introduce himself at General Assembly. El Rae, Pete’s wife, shared the story of this moment with me. She reflected that it marked a transformation in Pete’s picture of “family.” He’d been raised with a traditional sense of kinship as biological, but El Rae came to their marriage with a more expansive idea of what family could be. Years later, Pete had come to see how God can create “family” in less conventional ways.

In their family, El Rae says, “We have four children, two biological and two by circumstance.” Two adult women became “daughters by circumstance” when El Rae’s dear friend, their mother, died, not long after one of her daughters had given birth. El Rae immediately decided that the new baby would now be her grandchild, and that was that. She had the opportunity to nurture a child and a mother, and she took it. “I want people without biological grandchildren or people whose grandchildren live far away to see how God can give you grandchildren, right where you are now.”

I asked El Rae’s permission to tell this story, because to me, it resonates deeply with the story of Ruth. Ruth’s vow of companionship to Naomi is a true marvel of scripture, a blazing gem of fierce, impassioned loyalty whose words even now people speak to bind their lives together:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

The surprise is that Ruth makes this vow to her mother-in-law, Naomi. There are enough “mother-in-law” jokes in our culture to recognize how remarkable this is. Ruth has no so-called “blood” ties to Naomi; and now that Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, has died, she has no further kinship obligations.

Even more surprising, Ruth makes her vow to a woman from an enemy tribe.  Ruth is a Moabite; Naomi is an Israelite. Overall, the scriptures depict the Moabites as “shameful, inhospitable, and dangerous.”[1] Genesis 19 tells us that the Moabites are distantly related to the Israelites, by way of Lot—and Lot’s daughters. (Ugh). Numbers tells us how the Moabites tried to curse the Israelites as they passed through Moab after escaping Egypt. And Deuteronomy 23:6 instructs the Israelites about the Moabites in these words: “You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”

So it’s actually shocking that Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, made the decision for his family  to take refuge in Moab, of all places. We should anticipate things will not go well. Throughout this story, the names of places and characters emphasize ironies of fullness and emptiness. The family leaves Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread,” because of famine—no bread in this house. They migrate to Moab, a name which signifies the “descendents of a father;” but in Moab, all three potential fathers die with no descendants.[2] Places where fulfillment was sought turn out to be empty of hope.

Names of people in this story are also insightful, hinting at nuances of character. Elimelech means “my God is king,” though God seems absent, there’s no king in Israel, and Elimelech’s leadership fails his family. He leads them to a place where his sons, Mahlon and Chilyon, meet up with what their names signify: disease and destruction! Yet in his name there is a foreshadowing that kingship will ultimately result from his story.

Naomi’s name means “pleasant,” but her life, with famine, migration, the deaths of husband and sons, has been anything but. She renames herself Mara, “bitterness,” to better fit the “plot of her life as she reads it.” [3] Naomi’s daughter-in-law Orpah’s name means “back of the neck,” and that is what we see when this Moabite woman turns back to her biological family. Orpah takes Naomi’s advice, but Ruth “clings” to Naomi.

And Ruth? Ruth’s name means “friendship.” So let’s talk about friendship. What an amazing kind of relationship it is! It seems more fragile and tentative than what we think of as biological kinship. Our culture protects biological kinship with all sorts of policies and social norms, guarding its procreative potential;  but, as writer and pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler notes, friendship is non-procreative, a “fertility…that yields only flowers that never turn to fruit—beauty without production, without possession.”[4]

I think we take friendship somewhat for granted in our culture. In the United States, it’s not uncommon for children and parents to live states away from each other. Many of us grow up developing circles of friends with whom we spend much more time than our parents or siblings. We are less concerned about loyalty to blood relatives than most cultures throughout history.

But such an attitude was unthinkable in the Ancient Near East of Naomi’s and Jesus’ times. Children lived close to their parents, perhaps sharing a house and a business. Furthermore, as N.T. Wright notes, “for Jews, the close family bond was part of the God-given fabric of thinking and living. Loyalty to the family was the local and specific outworking of loyalty to Israel as the people of God.”[5] Recall again how God’s promise of blessing to Abraham is made manifest through plentiful ancestors—as many as the stars in the sky.

Jesus’ words in Mark would be heard as scandalous: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus challenges the family loyalty at the heart of Jewish identity, opening up a vision of a new kind of family, a people belonging to one another quite apart from conventional means, by way of his body and blood.  “I have called you friends,” Jesus says to those he has called away from their blood-kinship bonds to follow him in doing the will of God.

So it is that Melissa Florer-Bixler writes that “the friendship of Ruth and Naomi is the cipher through which I understand the church,” in “an elusive interconnectedness as an earthly body of Christ, not a constant and fixed institution.”[6] True church is experienced where God’s life sparks in companionship, “unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated.”[7] Florer-Bixler continues,

“Church is often trust in that which I cannot control, the shared life of another without institutionally mandated promises or production…We grapple with the fragility of what is possible, that we will come in and out of each other’s lives, that we will find ourselves failing at overcoming our otherness and, perhaps, trying again. Along the way we may come to discover that this love grows and extends outward beyond our biological kinship, into a beloved who is strange and similar, all at the same time.”[8]

Ruth’s vow to Naomi sparkles with God’s life. It is a spontaneous outflow of grace in friendship’s loyalty and loving-kindness transcending, in that moment, differences of ethnicity, religion, and generations. Ruth’s story reveals the quality of hesed, a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate, synthesizing the meanings of faithfulness, kindness, mercy, and commitment to do what is right.[9]

Hesed begins in God’s covenant love with God’s people; but it is also attributed to human beings in scripture. Ruth’s vow exemplifies hesed, as she steps up to do right by Naomi, refusing to leave the older woman to journey alone. Later in this story, Boaz also exemplifies this quality as he steps up to right and kind action, taking Ruth, and with her, Naomi, under his wing as a kinsman-redeemer. Hesed is faithful love that enacts righteousness.

Ruth is the heroine of hesed, which is all the more significant because she’s a Moabite. While the book of Ruth is set in the chaotic times narrated in the book of Judges, scholars think it was written much later, in the days when Israel was returning to the Land of Promise. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the stories of these times, and the policies of separation from “the people of the land.” The people craved stability, certainty and clarity about their geography and identity.[10] A Moabite heroine, who reveals God’s covenant-love, who turns out to be the grandmother of King David, would be a provocative reminder that God’s friendship and faithfulness knows no conventional boundaries.

My friends, this is good news! In Jesus Christ, we are brought into what some have named the “Kin-dom” of God: a family which transcends DNA, which is drawn together in the powerful bond of God’s covenant-love. And there is a call, here, not so much to reject “blood” ties, but to experience the “expansiveness of friendship,”[11] by which we open our lives to others in unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated ways.

I invite you to spend this week contemplating the treasures of your friendships, especially those you’ve experienced at church. How has God drawn you into unexpected kinship with brothers and sisters-in-Christ? How has God given you children and grandchildren who do not share your DNA? How might God be asking you to covenant-love, to hesed faithfulness which steps up to care with kindness and commitment?

May God bless you with insight and inspire you to action as you dwell in gratitude for  God’s faithfulness. In the name of the Triune community of overflowing love. Amen.

Sources:

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4212

[2] http://www.lookstein.org/resource/ruth_literary.pdf

[3] http://www.lookstein.org/resource/ruth_literary.pdf

[4] Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, 172.

[5] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 39.

[6] Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, 172.

[7] Florer-Bixler, as above.

[8] Florer-Bixler, as above.

[9] http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Hesed%20Routledge.pdf

[10] https://shelovesmagazine.com/2012/sheponders-ruth-the-moabite/

[11] Florer-Bixler, as above.

She Who Believed in a Fulfillment: Sermon by Laura, 12.20.14, Advent 4C

Scriptures:  Luke 1:39-56, Micah 5:2-5a

 God nudged me the other day. It was very gentle, a little burst of warmth and awareness somewhere between my mind and heart, and suddenly there was a new idea,a motivation to do something that hadn’t been there before. Do you ever get nudges from God? Author Margaret Feinberg, calls them “God whispers.” She writes, “God is big. [God] could use anything to communicate with [God’s] people…[God] could fill the sky with a Star Wars presentation,leaving messages beaming in the atmosphere for hours…But…[God] takes a much more subtle approach. Instead of shouting, [God] whispers…Why? Because God is not as interested in imparting information as [God] is in a relationship.”[1]

The God-whisper I experienced was indeed about a relationship, as they usually are,about my relationship with God or with others,which amounts to the same thing. In this case, God suggested I contact a friend with whom I haven’t really connected in 10 years. I’d been rereading old journals, in which God revealed to me how this friendship made a difference for me during a particularly hard time. This friend gave me acceptance and wisdom which invited me to a new awareness of myself in God.

As this truth became clear, deep inside me, the Spirit wondered, “Does she know she had such an impact on you? Perhaps today’s the day to bless her with your gratitude.” My response to this nudge was a little thing—just a Facebook message!—and my friend hasn’t yet responded. I have no idea how it will affect her, or how it fits into God’s larger plan, but in receiving and responding to God’s whisper, my eyes have been opened in a new way to appreciate God’s gracious provision of friends who offer welcome and wisdom.

Of course, God didn’t just whisper to Mary. She got an angelic visitation with a big picture promise of the impact she would have in her willing participation with God’s call upon her life: “You will conceive and give birth to a son…He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and…his kingdom will never end.”

A spectacular message for certain! But God also knows that the scope of Mary’s calling to be the mother of Christ means she will need especially sturdy companions to help her stay the course. At the end of his message, Gabriel gives Mary a little hint, a nudge: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary wisely responds “with haste,” heading straight to Elizabeth’s door. This was a significant undertaking—the hill country of Judea would have been an 80-100 mile journey for Mary, a teenage Jewish girl on her own in an occupied territory. She needed strong motivation to make that trip.

What is going on in Mary’s mind and heart The signs of her pregnancy are not yet visible, so I don’t think she’s primarily motivated by the not-unfounded fears of becoming a village outcast in her unmarried, pregnant state, or being rejected by her fiancée, Joseph. But more immediately, Mary has a need to share her incredible story with someone who might understand, even a little, what it means to have accepted God’s strange and wonderful calling. Mary needs a friend.

The good news is that God has already been at work to provide just the friend Mary needs. As one author writes, “In truly stunning fashion, God orchestrates Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies six months apart. It is a testament to God’s care and provision that each woman has someone to journey with as she navigates the peculiar seasons in which she finds herself. The gift of a believing community can make all the difference in the form our challenging waiting seasons take.”[2]

Elizabeth offers Mary the priceless gift of friendship, welcoming her to a safe haven, not just accepting Mary in her present state, but rejoicing in Mary’s faithfulness, offering wisdom from the broader perspective of her longer faith journey even as she remains present with the new thing happening in Mary’s life. Elizabeth is for Mary a “believing mirror,” recognizing, naming, and reflecting Mary’s power, strength and beauty back to her.[3]

Whenever we say “yes” to God’s invitation to whatever creative and transforming work God wants to do in us, whether birthing a baby or a work of art, starting a business or shaping a community, the companionship of such “believing mirrors” is vital. These are friends who not only affirm and reaffirm the value of the calling upon us but who also strengthen our courage, energy, and capacity to pursue the call.

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” says Elizabeth, offering Mary the powerful gift of believing with her that God will do what God has promised. In the warmth of Elizabeth’s friendship, Mary moves more profoundly into her calling. Elizabeth’s prophetic blessing draws forth Mary’s powerful song of praise for the Redeemer and Restorer who scatters the proud and uplifts the lowly, who indeed fulfills the promises made to God’s people, generation upon generation. What an amazing moment in scripture, when two obscure pregnant women on the margins of their world, become aware of themselves as powerful prophets at the center of the eternal story, agents of God’s blessing for all humanity. These women, these holy friends, bless each other, giving each other “shelter and sanctuary” even as they free each other to “imagine and live into a world made new.”[4]

My friends, in this Fourth week of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth invite us to reflect on the people who have walked with us in our faith journey, people who have offered us welcome and acceptance and blessing. As we wait on God’s promises in Jesus Christ, God provides us with the sustenance of friends and communities to encourage and strengthen us. In such friendships, we practice sharing ourselves and our stories, risking vulnerability and receiving grace. They pattern us in daring to trust and receive the steadfast welcome and wisdom of friendship with God, the fulfillment of God’s covenant to God’s people.

Even further, the holy friendships God brings us not only bless who we are in this moment, but invite us to imagine something greater, a yet-greater outpouring of ourselves in love for God and God’s world. We are blessed by such friends so that we may in turn be sent as a blessing for others.

Friendship. In one light, it seems such a small and ordinary thing. Yet in our world these days, where ugly divisions and debates claim all the airwaves, a current of fear seems to cling to us, and we are often tempted to despair, I can think of little we need more than people who offer of themselves the kind of acceptance and welcome, affirmation and blessing Elizabeth and Mary give each other. These two women provide an example of the life-giving hope God provides us in the friendships God brings us, especially friendships across differences of circumstances and generations.

It is not always easy to offer our friendship. It often feels messy and awkward. Children trying to navigate the ins and outs of school-yard friendships remind us that bravery is often necessary in learning to communicate our God-given authenticity to others and in trusting it will be graciously received.

Yet I am proud to say that this congregation is a place where we have the privilege of witnessing such friendships being offered on a weekly basis between women and men and children who are related through Christ and care deeply, not only for the old friends they know well, but for the new friends they haven’t met yet.

So in these last days of Advent, amidst the busy-ness of preparing Christmas for you and yours, consider this a holy nudge, a God-whisper, inviting you to notice and give thanks anew for the friends God has brought into your life. Who are your “believing mirrors,” who are the people whose blessing enriches your life?  Notice, too, how you are being invited to offer such blessed friendship to others. For whom might you serve as a believing mirror, as a welcoming sanctuary? Ask God this week to open your eyes to someone you may normally have passed over; how might God be inviting you to offer friendship to that person?

The One who comes to us through Mary, the babe to whom she gives birth and lays in a manger, is the One who says to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” My friends, you who are friends of God, let us receive Christ’s friendship and let us share it with the world he loves. Amen.

 

[1] Margaret Feinberg, God Whispers: Learning to Hear His Voice. Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2002, 21.

[2] Enuma Okoro, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2012, 67.

[3] http://juliacameronlive.com/2011/09/26/week-3-task-believing-mirrors/

[4] Jan Richardson, “Introduction,” in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015, xiv-xvii.

Divine Friendship: Sermon by Keith, 5.10.15, Easter 6B

Scriptures: 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

(Congregational conversation around the question, “what is a friend?”)

When I asked that question, did a dictionary type definition pop to mind, with bullet point characteristics of what a friend is? Or did a real-life person come to your mind? (Let people answer). My guess is that this friend came to your mind and then how you answered my question about what a friend is, you pulled out characteristics that you have really experienced in the relationship with that friend to define what a friend is. Is that correct?

And that is what Jesus is talking about here in this portion of the farewell discourse, this long speech he gives right before he heads to his crucifixion. He’s talking about a relational friendship, not something metaphorical, but real and tangible with a person, with him. And as he talks about this divine friendship, we look at and to him for what it means to have a friend in Jesus and what friendship can look like in the community of faith.

Jesus’ criteria for living into this divine friendship is three-fold. Jesus’ friends are those who love one another. Now, we have been reading a lot from the Gospel of John and John’s first letter about love over the past couple of weeks. And the love Jesus is talking about is that self-sacrificial love that puts the other person first just for the sake of love. No agendas, no getting something out of putting the other ahead. Just love.

It is what Jesus’ whole ministry is about,  and we even find his understanding of love in his words today. He says, “I no longer call you servant, but friend.” That word that usually gets translated “servant” is actually the Greek word for “slave.” Think about the hierarchy between a master and a slave. Now what does it look like between two friends? Jesus has lowered himself and at the same time elevated the status of his disciples by calling them friend. That’s one of the ways we love one another, not by elevating ourselves in the community, but by lifting each other up, celebrating each others’ gifts and mourning with each other when our hearts are broken. In building our friendship with Christ, we love and build our friendship with one another.

The next part of friendship, as Jesus reveals it, is that everything is revealed. Jesus does not leave us in the dark. This is one of those parts of scripture that that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around.   Jesus holds nothing back from his disciples when he states clearly, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Everything. No secrets to dig out of what Jesus said. No special knowledge for a select few best disciples. Everything is and has been revealed in Jesus. In order for us to live in a loving relationship with God, Jesus has spilled the beans that we need to love one another. No secret handshakes or special rituals. Revealed love.

And that is what friends do with each other, they hold nothing back. It’s easy to share the good stuff in our lives, and it does take time to build trust and share those things that lay hidden in the back of the closet. But I think that Jesus is calling us to reveal those things to one another so that they are exposed to the light and love of God so healing and transformation can take place. Friends hold nothing back from God or each other. Everything is out in the open.

The last part of this divine friendship is understanding that being Jesus’ friend means that he chose us to be his friends. There was nothing we did or could do to be his friend. It was his initiative to lower himself so that we could be lifted up and be friends with the divine. Look around: God in Christ has chosen everyone here to be a friend. Indeed, he chose us long before we chose him.

And that is the second part of this choosing. It isn’t one way. We also have to chose to respond to God’s friendship. Friendship is a two-way street. I really like how Friedrick Beuchner talks about it. Friendship isn’t “something God does. It is something Abraham and God or Moses and God do together. Not even God can be a friend all by himself…” In speaking of the friendship of God and Abraham, Beuchner adds, “There is no agenda. They are simply being together, the two of them, and being themselves.” We respond to Christ’s invitation to be his friend by spending time with him and each other. That is how we build and maintain any friendship.

Friends, we are called to a personal relationship, a friendship, of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine. He is the one who calls us friend. And to prove his love for us, he shared everything and gave up everything for us. He lived, died, and was raised from the grave for us. And in that friendship with him, he calls us to a simple, profound, and difficult command: Love one another. Amen.