Sunday, August 26, 2018

8-26-18 - “Spirit of Compassion”

8-26-18  - “Spirit of Compassion”

   Shema…the Hebrew word that begins Jesus’ words means listen. “Shema, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” 
   That was part of our message last week when we looked at the Creation Story in Genesis 1 through the lens of Creation Spirituality. The Lord our God, the Lord is One. No dragon-like gods, no pantheon of gods reigning over this, that, or the other aspect of creation - no, one God. One God who created all things out of love and declared them good, very good, even supremely good!
   Shema…listen. Hear, O Israel, hear, O Crossroads, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

   We learned last week, as well, that the universe, all of creation, is fundamentally a blessing. Genesis 1 begins the story of God and humanity, not out of a place of original sin, but in the awe-inspiring truth of original blessing. THAT is the lesson we are to first learn, that is the message we’re to take into our hearts in the beginning - that God is good, that creation is good, that humanity is good. That the loving God has created us in God’s image, has blessed us, that we might be loving blessings to all of creation. Shema…listen…hear THAT before you consider the false narrative of guilt. 

   Before we get into the passage from today, I want to put some $1.50 words out there to make sure we’re all on the same page as you hear them come up, now and in the future. We often hear or read of:
  • God as immanent - which means God is nearby, close at hand. In our worship we think of God as being here, in this place.
  • God as transcendent - God is also beyond here, God is not just here, but God is everywhere. Our theological understanding of this is not either/or, but rather both/and. God is both immanent and transcendent - at the same time. 
And then we hear these words about the nature, or even existence of God:
  • Theism: God is out there somewhere, but not here. The idea here is that yes, God created everything, but then God left it behind to run on its own, and is never here anymore. This is a God who is only transcendent - out there somewhere, but not here.
  • Atheism: The belief that there is no God anywhere, neither here nor there. 
  • Pantheism: Everything is God (think about that). God IS this pulpit. God is this book. God is this carpet. God is your shoes. And you can take it from there, but the more you go with it the stranger it sounds. Pantheism sits in comparison to a similar sounding term,
  • Panentheism: which holds that God is in everything and everything is in God. God is IN this book. God is present in that tree, that bird, that sky. God is found in this mountain rather than God IS this mountain. Panentheism is traditional Christian theology, Pantheism is not. 
   And I share those terms with you so that you will understand that Creation Spirituality holds that God is both immanent and transcendent, and that God is present in all of creation and that all of creation is found in, made in the image of God. And that image is good - it is loving.
   Those two ideas, first that the universe is fundamentally a blessing, and that in Creation, God is both immanent and transcendent and is in all things and all things are in God, are the first two principles of Creation Spirituality. As we shared last week, this was the tradition of Jesus within Judaism. We cannot fully understand Jesus without understanding this about Jesus. As we hear this story from Mark’s gospel this week, we find two more principles of Creation Spirituality that mark who and how Jesus was in his life, his faith, and in his teaching. So let’s explore the story and see if we hear what those two principles are.

   To understand the context for today’s story, we have to understand that Jesus has entered Jerusalem - it is the final week of his life, Holy Week - and he is teaching at various places.  Jesus is being confronted left and right by scribes, pharisees, sadducees, priests, and others - challenged about his teachings, his healings, and his miracles at every turn. They have tried to trick him into saying something that would amount to either blasphemy or treason in order to have him arrested and even killed. In his teaching, Jesus has publicly rebuked, criticized, and condemned the teachings and actions of the Temple priests and all of those who have challenged him.  
   So, when in our story for today, this scribe, this legal expert, approaches Jesus we look at him with a healthy dose of skepticism, thinking him just one more person of power and authority trying to bring Jesus down. And he asks Jesus a seemingly simple question: “Which commandment is most important of all?” The CEB words it, “Which commandment is first?” Let’s work with that translation, shall we?

   First. Being first suggests “importance,” but isn’t exclusively about that. Alabama is ranked first in the initial pre-season college football polls, but does that make them most important? No, unless you’re from Alabama I suppose. I’m always amazed, when I watch golf on TV, that when a player hits a ball into the rough, beyond the ropes that keep the fans back, how men (and it’s almost ALWAYS men) will rush to be the first to stand right next to that ball lying in the dirt or the trampled down grass so they can be close to this golfer. Now mind you, this golfer just mishit their shot by maybe forty yards and placed themselves in the position of having to hit a pretty stressful shot out of a bad lie with no certainty of where or how it will end up, and these people have raced to be the first one there to put themselves within a couple feet of a player who just proved that on their last shot they couldn’t hit the ball straight!

   New Testament scholar Amy Lindemann Allen rightly points out though, 
   “in the first-century Jewish context reflected in Mark’s dialogue, ‘first’ was not about these things. To be ‘first’ in this context came closer to the idea of being the first stone laid—the cornerstone, upon which all of the other stones must rest. Consequently, the greatness of the love commandment lies not in its surpassing value over and against all of the other commandments of Jewish law but, rather, in its ability to hold up all the rest. It’s less about beating out all of the other[s]… and more about helping them to do their jobs.”  (, 8/21/18)

   So “firstness,” here refers to importance, not to placement. 
And Jesus replies to this question by saying, 
   Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 
The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
   Love God, with everything we have and everything we are - heart, being, mind, strength - and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. These are most important, not because they come first, but because as Jesus says in Matthew’s telling of this story, “All the law and the prophets depend on these two commands.” (Mt. 22:40, CEB). They are the foundation upon which our understanding of God and of faith are to be understood. 

   Later in the New Testament, as we shared in a series of messages a couple of months ago, 1 John tells us that “God IS love.” The God who created all things in God’s image, who is present in all things, and who then blessed all things as “good, very good,” and “supremely good,” is a God of love, of compassion. And created in God’s image, we too, are called to be people of love and compassion - doing that, as Jesus says, by loving God and by loving our neighbor as ourselves. 
   New Testament theologian Karoline Lewis reminds us that, 
According to Jesus, [the] mark of discipleship is this very act -- loving your neighbor as yourself.” As the song puts it, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
   Now being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not the same as being a saint, but as Lewis relates, “it is…a call to present daily saintly behavior.” And she goes on, “I make no claims to be a saint. But I think we come pretty close when we act out this commandment. To be a saint, to sanctify, to be sanctified, to have in mind sanctification is to embody God’s way of life that sets us apart -- not for the sake of proving ourselves to be better, not for the sake of one-upmanship, not for the sake of power, but for the sake of example, of model, of witness.
   “Why? So that those who observe how we choose to live and be in the world will catch a glimpse of the sanctity of God’s love, the holiness of God, and that a life of sainthood does not mean perfection… So that there can be another way of being in the world besides self-service, self-aggrandizement, autonomy, and narcissism. When loving your neighbor becomes the first way to be in the world, the primary lens through which to view the world, the choice that you consciously make to live your life in your world, that is a radically different way to be than what our world lifts up.”

   And we know that there is truth in that statement, don’t we. Our race to be “first” is often, ironically, a race to the bottom, because in seeking to be first, we abandon those things that Jesus tells us are the marks of being his disciple - putting others first. Look at what’s in the news right now:
  • Our politics are, and mind you, always have been, a battle in the mud, the slime, and the filth, by people seeking positions of power, often by using denigration, distortion, and destruction of the opponent at any cost in order to what? Be first.
  • In sports we have to, as the movie “All the President’s Men” told us, “follow the money.” Big time athletics, at all levels, is less about the games and more about the money that the games and the athletes bring in for owners or institutions. Basic decency, love of neighbor, doesn’t even get as close as taking a back seat, when there are millions, even billions of dollars at stake for those who are first.
  • In religion: last week it was revealed that over 1,000 children were victimized by over 300 Catholic priests, just in Pennsylvania, and that there was an unofficial “playbook” on how to keep it hidden, how to quietly move offending priests, without holding anyone accountable for these atrocities, all in order to protect the church from scandal.
As Karoline Lewis writes, 
While our world professes and wants to confess an orientation to the other, its behavior proves otherwise. We still can’t seem to get this right, as simple as it seems to be. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a false claim when poverty still exists, when people still go hungry, when shelter or safety is only known temporarily, when discrimination remains.
   “And loving your neighbor as yourself is a blatant untruth when the church continues to exclude, to rationalize selected and chosen participation, or to insist that Jesus and God didn’t really mean what they said. That neighbor refers only to those we deem worthy of God’s love. That neighbor means only those we have ascertained as acceptable. That neighbor represents a selected few who have manifested beliefs and lifestyles that match [our] ideal Christian behavior.”
   So while Creation Spirituality embraces the God of love and the love of God found in and through all of creation, it is not simply a tree-hugging, flower-wearing, hippie-dippy expression of faith. No, it is Jesus’ tradition of love of God, love of neighbor, that embraces the idea that, with practice and intentionality, we CAN learn to love God for all God is and not just who we want God to be, and to love our neighbors with the same kind of love with which we love ourselves. 

   As the 1960s singer Jackie Deshannon sang, 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.
Amy Lindeman Allen points out that in Greek, the language in which the Gospels are written, there are several different words for “love.” 
   “The first,” she writes, “phileo, refers to ‘brotherly love,’ or a love between equals and expects reciprocity. The other, agapao, refers to a complete and selfless love and expects self-giving. Neither love reflects a solely emotional state, but rather, points to the relation in which one person lives toward another. The word for love that both Jesus and the scribe use in today’s text is agapao… On the cross, Jesus acts with this agape love.
“But,” she continues, “agape love doesn’t always have to mean death. At its heart, what it really means, is simply putting the ‘other’ first.”

   And her suggestion that “this is countercultural today” is born out for us in the three areas I pointed to earlier, but also just from our every day, day-in-and-day-out experience of living in the world. 
   “Acting with agape love as our first commandment,” she says, “means stepping back from whatever other codes of conduct or moral laws dictate our personal ethics and asking first, What does this mean for my neighbor? Or, even more potently, Is this me giving myself to my neighbor? Is this me giving myself to my God? Because to put love of God and neighbor first means not just to act according to what we think is best for our neighbor, but rather, to act in such a way that we give our very self to our neighbor—and to let that be the foundation upon which everything else is built.”

   Loving our neighbor sounds easier, though, than it often is. Or at least than how we often make it. It takes practice. Anything worth doing, the saying goes, is worth doing well. This is no different. I would bet you that Zac didn’t just whip out a music book this morning and play for us without having practiced. 
   We know, because it’s reported on as thoroughly as are their games, that the OSU Buckeyes practice extensively before and during the season. If we want to become better at something, if we want to become more proficient at something, we have to practice. Our faith is no different. Whether your practice is prayer, scripture reading, journaling, fasting, or is walking, running, or singing hymns, we don’t grow in our faith,  we won’t get stronger in our faith, if we don’t practice our faith. We have to move past the idea that our faith consists solely of what we agree to with our minds, and that it includes what we do in our lives. Faith, in scripture, is about trust as much as if not more than belief. Love, in scripture, is about action more than it is an emotion.
   As Karoline Lewis writes, considering this passage in the context of All Saints Day worship,   
   “The choice to love the neighbor does indeed set us apart from those who know only what it means to love their own selves and stop there. Others will know what sainthood looks like, not because we are better or holier than thou, but because we have been called to see outside of ourselves for the sake of seeing the world as God does.

   “In part, that is exactly the surprise of this scribe’s response to Jesus in the reading from Mark. 
We expect him to be self-righteous, self-centered. Yet, he demonstrates the capacity to choose for himself, to choose God’s way instead of the way of the establishment, the hierarchy, the status quo.”
   Poet Mary Oliver says this about “love your neighbor as yourself”: “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive -- ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ -- which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

   And there’s the rub. We’ve glamorized - needlepointing it onto our pillows without inscribing it onto our hearts - a commandment that should be exceedingly difficult. This commandment means nothing if we obey it only half-heartedly.
   But God created us to do this, to be this way, when we were created in God’s image. It IS hard, yes, because we are not God, but it is not impossible. Created in the image of the God who is love, who is compassion, God created us and called us “good.” It is only our spiritual practices, though, that reveal our true “good” selves. If we make the choice NOT to love God by not loving our neighbor, it says much more about us, and who we are, than it does about those whom we choose not to love.
   This passage from Mark that we shared today invites us to get outside ourselves so that we can sense what it feels like, what it means, actually to love our neighbor. And what the world needs now, more than anything else, is love, sweet love. Amen.  

Monday, August 20, 2018

8-19-18 - “Creation as Blessing”

8-19-18  - “Creation as Blessing”

   At the end of worship today, we’re going to sing the song, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong. Hopefully, this message and service will make the reason for that clear to you. I love this song, both the original version recorded by Armstrong in 1967 as well as the version recorded years later by Izzy Kamakawiwo’ole that beautifully blended “Wonderful World” with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Knowing we would use this song, I tried to remember when was the first time I might have heard it - or at least, the first time it made an impression on me. I knew it had to have been from a movie and soon concluded that it was from the “Forrest Gump” soundtrack. So, with that “fact” firmly planted in my brain I began my work. 

   Now, as I shared once before, my sermon writing process often looks like one of those family circus cartoons depicting the winding and circuitous path taken by the little boy as he simply goes from one place to another. Sermon writing invariably leads me off on tangents that often include various books, websites, YouTube videos, and who knows what else. This one is no different. In thinking about this song and sermon I Googled “Forrest Gump soundtrack” and scrolled through the many incredible pieces of music that are part of that wonderful film. To my surprise, I found no reference to the song anywhere. Confused, I again Googled - because that’s what one does - but this time the song title with “in film” and learned that the song wasn’t in “Forrest Gump,” but rather, the Robin Williams film, “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Convinced that I “knew” this song was in “Forrest Gump,” I was forced to “unlearn” and “relearn.”

   Now, that’s a pretty insignificant example, but we have to unlearn things in life all the time - I know I do. When I switched over from a Dell laptop using Microsoft Windows to an Apple and began using a Mac I had to unlearn the ways of a Windows machine and adopt the ways of the Mac’s operating system. Now, if Lynn asks me for help on her Windows based laptop, I’m lost.
   I used to know how to do basic maintenance on my cars - changing the oil and filters, replacing hoses and belts. Now, cars have become so complicated and computerized, with so much stuff jammed into an ever smaller engine compartment, I’ve had to unlearn basic auto care and learn instead the name and number of a good mechanic.
   I used to know how to do the laundry. But after Lynn and I were married I had to unlearn that, because she said I didn’t separate things correctly and wouldn’t let me do it anymore. With her frequent trips to Sandusky lately, though, last week I had her show me how to use our new washing machine - also computerized - so that in case I needed to, I could do laundry. We’re constantly forced to unlearn old things we thought we knew, old ways of doing things, in order to learn new things to keep up with life.
   But it transcends technology. We all had to unlearn our childhood understandings of life, family, where babies come from, etc. as we grew older and more mature. Science has compelled us, over the centuries, to unlearn not only how we did things but also what we thought about things. For example, the earth is not at the center of our universe; our planet is not flat - we won’t fall over the edge if we sail too close to the horizon; and the Titanic was not unsinkable as first thought. We rethink and relearn things all the time - probably every day if we really thought about it. So, it should come as no surprise to us that sometimes we have to unlearn and relearn - we have to rethink - our ideas about God, the Bible, about Creation, and about the world in general.  
   Our image of the world is largely influenced by our culture and by the media, by what we see, what we hear, how we’re told things are. And if what “they” say is true, then the world and the people in it are mostly bad, evil, and selfish. Apparently there are kidnappers, terrorists, criminals, rapists, and serial killers lurking around every corner.

   But let me ask you - is that how you personally experience the world? Think about the people you know, the people you encounter every day in the grocery store, the drug store, at the restaurant, the library, the church - are these people all evil? Are they all child molesters, pedophiles, pornographers, swindlers and the kind of people who seek to hurt other people? I doubt it. 
I had a high school principal who always used to quip, “It’s always that 5% who ruin it for everyone!” No, I believe the world is mostly good, it’s just that we mostly only hear about the bad. We hear about a crime somewhere and the story is repeated so often that it feels like it’s happening everywhere, all the time. The evening news, national and local, spend 80% of their airtime telling us all the bad that happens and then give a token few minutes at the end of the broadcast when we’re already disgusted, depressed, and demoralized - 
to share one good news story. Twenty-five years ago, before the advent of CNN, the non-stop 24-hour news cycle, and smart-phones, most people heard the news from one of just a handful of trusted sources, once or twice a day, and that was it. But now, cable news has to program every minute of every day, 24/7/365, creating an incessant drumbeat of negativity being reported around the clock and it skews our outlook, it taints our perception and understanding, or to use a metaphor I’ve used with you many times before, it smudges the lenses through which we view the world. And when bad news is the message we’re fed day after day, week after week, year after year, it distorts our understanding of the nature of the world. 

   So, as people of faith, what do we do? Well, we can turn to the Bible, to see what it has to say about the world. And the Bible opens with two stories of Creation. The familiar story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, from what is called the Yahweh or J source, is written in prose and found in the second chapter. The first story we encounter - the opening passage in the Bible - is in the form of a poem, and comes to us from what is called the Priestly source. And when we read it, we recognize in it the patterns of freeform poetry or even liturgy - 

God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.
There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

Or perhaps even of a song…
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

Or later, where Genesis 1 records, 
God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. 12 The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was. There was evening and there was morning: the third day.
Or as Louis Armstrong sang…
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

   One of the things we must unlearn and relearn when we read these chapters is simply this: these stories are not intended to tell us the “how” or the “when” of Creation, but rather the “why,” the “who,” and the “what.”  Young Earth Creationists trace back, as though on a calendar, the ages of the various people mentioned in the Bible and declare with great certainty that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Scientists, using a multitude of tools in astronomy, astrophysics, biology, geology, and other sciences, tell us that the earth is 13.1 billion years old. Christians who believe the Bible to be the literal, dictated words of God, look at Genesis 1 and see a Creation story that says God created everything in 6 days - sometimes justifying that thinking by suggesting they were really long days - but whose overall approach to Scripture can be summed up by the bumper sticker, “The Bible Says, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But does it?
   The Creation story from Genesis chapter 2 is completely different, from a different source, written at a different time, with a different order of Creation. 
Both cannot be literally true - they can’t both be historical, factual, renderings of how it all began. And that’s good, because neither were intended to be. 

   The Biblical Creation stories lived in the oral tradition for centuries before either was written down. It was when Israel and Judah were conquered, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, and the people sent into exile that these stories, and most of what we now know as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, were put into writing. And what prompted that? Exile. They found themselves suddenly far from home, immersed in a very different, very strange culture from what they were used to. Being in exile, surrounded by polytheistic religions vastly differently than their own, away from their homeland for several decades, people intermarried, blending their identities. Their cultural heritage, their religious beliefs and understandings began to fade, to intermingle, even to be forgotten by some. They were exposed to other beliefs and ideas that were in conflict with what they had learned or always understood. 

   One example of that conflict is in how creation occurred. Both the Assyrian and the Babylonian people understood creation through an account called the Enuma ElishEnuma Elish, recounted on seven tablets,  begins with the universe unformed and containing only water. Only two beings exist in this unformed creation: Apsu, god of the fresh waters, and his wife, Tiamat, who is god of the salt water and the chaotic oceans. Tiamat is depicted as a monstrous dragon. From their union, these two gods have children of their own, and soon there are many of them ruling the cosmos. But bothered by the noise and commotion caused by these other gods, Apsu decides to destroy them, never mind that they are his offspring. Tiamat, horrified by her husband's plan, opposes Apsu, but cannot defeat him.
   Apsu is eventually conquered by the god Ea, his own great-grandson, who uses a spell to subdue Apsu and keep him imprisoned in a deathlike state of sleep. All seems well, and Ea and his wife have a son, the god Marduk, who as a child is the favorite of the other gods.They give him the winds as a toy to play with, but the winds stir up trouble on the salty seas, enraging Tiamat. Tiamat, her new husband, the god Kingu, and a group of gods to which she has given birth swear revenge for this and for Ea's treatment of Apsu. 
   The gods are frightened at the prospect of facing this army, with Kingu at its head. They don't know how they could possibly defeat it. Marduk speaks up, offering to fight for the gods and defeat Tiamat and Kingu on one condition: that he be made absolute king of the gods, having even the power of life and death over his fellow divinities. The gods ultimately agree to his conditions. Marduk is armed and sent off to do battle.
   Marduk faces the dragon Tiamat in single combat, catches her in his net and dispatches her with an arrow. Marduk then cuts up Tiamat's body and uses it to construct the dome of the sky, as well as the earth. 
He buries her head under a mountain and pierces her eyes; her tears the sources for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. And in this way, Marduk demonstrates his absolute mastery over the natural world.
[, “Enuma Elish,” accessed 8/15/18.]

   So clearly, this is a radically different idea of creation than the stories that Israel had passed down orally from generation to generation - some that we know and others since lost. And in a large cosmopolitan city like Babylon, these and other variations circulated among the people. Wanting to solidify their own traditions, the Hebrew exiles began to write down, at different times and in different places during these two distinct periods of exile separated by 130 years, their cultural stories of Creation. But beyond the differences we encounter in the two Biblical versions found in Genesis, the bigger difference we find between the Hebrew and Babylonians stories, is their image of God.

   The Babylonians epic is polytheistic, there are multiple gods, and they are an angry, violent, and power hungry brood. Humanity is a mere afterthought. 
The world, the universe, is created out of the waste and remains of a slain dragon-like god. That is not the God that the Hebrew people had come to know. Not wanting their God stories to be co-opted or forgotten, they began to record them. And in writing a story down, as is often the case, it becomes both solidified and clarified. Solidified as in less open to being changed as it is passed on than when a story is passed for centuries in what amounts to an ancient version of the telephone game. Clarified in the sense that, as a formal written account, it is more easily studied, compared and contrasted, and dissected in order to draw meaning from it.

   What we find in the Hebrew stories is not multiple gods, but one God - monotheism. And that one God didn’t create the universe from leftover parts in a Frankenstein sort of way, but created everything out of nothing - in God’s own image. God’s desire to create didn’t emerge from conflict, anger, or war, but from love, out of God’s desire for relationship. This is a much different picture, a much more loving image of God and Creation than what the exiled Hebrew people heard in Assyria and Babylon. Genesis presents creation as an act of God’s love. 
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you

   But even that doesn’t resolve all the differences found in the Genesis accounts. The second creation story, from Genesis 2, relays the epic of Adam and Eve in the garden. And while this too, is a beautiful story, our tendency is to go straight for the bad news - what we call the Fall. It’s as though we’re watching a reality TV show - “Survivor: Garden of Eden,” or something - and we skip the beauty and poetry offered in Genesis 1 and settle into the dirt with the talking snake, wrapping ourselves in what would much later become the idea of “original sin.” 
   Oh, how so many in the church love to look at the world through the lens of original sin. And when sinfulness, the Fall, inherent evil, is the lens through which we look at the world - like watching cable news - we are sure to find it everywhere, all the time. When we choose to live in the dirt, we get dirty.

   And that’s twisted, because the first story we find when we crack open the cover of our Bible, is not about original sin at all. It’s about original blessing. The message that those saints who organized the Bible into what we have today wanted us to receive right out of the gate, was a message of goodness and blessing. How? By sharing the account of Creation that tells us that God created everything and declared it “good” and “very good” - in the CEB - even “supremely good.” 
And that is unfortunate.

 We began our worship today with these words of liturgy:
God is good -  All the time
All the time  - God is good 

    We know this! God IS Good, ALL the time. And that good God, who declared all of creation as good, has not revoked that declaration, has not rescinded that proclamation. But sometimes we are blind to this goodness because everybody and their brother, inside the church and out, are too busy telling us 24/7, like talking snakes, that this place is evil; that our flesh and bodies are evil; that it’s okay to point fingers at the perceived sin of other people because we’re better than, holier than, or more righteous than they are; that those people or that group or this religion are condemned because they’re not like us; that we can ignore and even abuse the planet God created for us because God is going to destroy all this and we’re all gonna “fly away” to heaven. But who are we to declare as evil what God has declared as good? Who are we to point to another’s sin as somehow worse than our own? Who are we to decide that it’s okay to pollute the waters, the air, the land, our bodies, because we’ve misinterpreted “dominion over” and “care for,” as permission to abuse, destroy, or profit from? We need to unlearn some of the things that the world, and yes, the church, have taught us about life, about people, about creation, about faith, and about God. 

   We need to begin from the perspective with which Scripture begins: blessing. Original blessing. Creation as blessing. Creation as good and very good. That’s what Creation Spirituality does. It assumes that the universe and all creation is a blessing given to all of us by the one God who is present in all things, and who continues to bless us. Creation Spirituality, which was the tradition of Jesus within Judaism, assumes a God who is present, here and now, and not just out there somewhere. It proclaims that God is found in everything, that there is no separation between what is secular and what is sacred, that everything is sacred to God and should be sacred to us as well. Creation Spirituality is not some newly discovered or recently created new-age practice -  as I said, it was the tradition of Jesus. But for 21st century people, it’s a newly rediscovered tradition.
   The creation story of Genesis 1 presents a completely different account of the world’s origins than what the people in exile were hearing. First of all, Genesis 1 is fiercely monotheistic. Not only is there one God, but this God is sovereign and powerful. God speaks, and it happens. Unlike in polytheistic religions, God does not have a singular specified area of competence, but rather is the creator of all things.
   As well as creating the vast cosmos, God also created the animal and vegetable life, important for an agrarian society like ancient Israel. In particular, the creation of “the great sea monsters”(v. 21) represents a veiled challenge to Babylonian belief, championing the power of God. In Enuma Elish, the sea monster Tiamat gave birth to the first generation of deities, and was later defeated by Marduk. But in Genesis 1, God has no such struggle with even the sea monsters.
   Most significantly, Genesis 1  provides a unique account of the relationship between humans and divine. This good God decides to makes humans “in our image, according to our likeness.” 
   The Genesis 1 accounts assures us that humans are not created out of the capricious whim of certain deities, but rather, we stand as the culmination of the creation event. After the creation of humans, God, in God’s powerful word, blesses them and declares them as good.
As we consider the wondrous nature of creation, it’s important to recognize the radical, remarkable, and revolutionary nature of the Genesis 1 creation in its original context. This presentation of God comes as a wonderful relief and assurance to the family of ancient Israel.
   The God of Genesis 1 provides assurance to those, who work to raise crops against the numerous natural challenges. The God of Genesis 1 brings peace to the nation struggling for survival against the numerous encroaching enemies from all sides. God is one. God is powerful. God is good. And God created us in that image. This opening passage of our Bible constitutes the essence of good news.

   Of course, this is not the only good news of the Bible, but only the opening proclamation. In addition to giving a refreshing account of creation, canonically, Genesis 1 parallels the start of another biblical narrative of good news and blessing that reads, “In the beginning was the Word.” The ensuing narrative assures, comforts, and challenges all who hear to understand that as blessed and beloved children of the one Good God, we live in a wonderful world. Amen.  

Monday, August 13, 2018

8-12-18 “New Life”

   Have you ever prayed for God to resolve a particular situation in your life in the very specific way, and when things didn’t seem to be moving in that direction, when it appeared that perhaps God hadn’t heard your prayer, was still thinking about, or whatever the case may be, you then tried to control the situation, or perhaps “help” God, get to that desired end?  I’m sure most of us have. I know I have - my first marriage came about that way. Let me just leave that hanging there for a moment… 
   However, prayers and taking action also got me my current marriage, which is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So, the idea of “let go and let God,” while a good way to think about the effects of worry in our lives, is not how prayer is modeled for us in scripture for the most part. There is prayer, and then there is action. Rarely do we find prayer answered when someone prays over a situation and then sits back and does nothing. Prayer prepares us, but then we are called to do what needs to be done. We pray, for example, for those who are hungry, then we go feed them.

   We see that same dynamic at work in the book of Ruth. Nowhere in this story do we see or hear any of the characters pray. Nowhere in this story do we hear God speak, or hear an angel speak for God. No, God’s presence is assumed in this story - God’s hesed, God’s enduring, faithful, and steadfast love is modeled, is made known, in the actions of the characters.

   So understanding that, let’s recap how we’ve gotten to this final chapter:

   In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as, one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. You’ll recall she told her daughters-in-law to no longer call her Naomi, but to call her Mara, which means “bitterness.” Naomi is bitter after losing her husband as well as both of her sons. After exhorting Ruth and Orpah, now widowed, to return to their Moabite villages and families, Ruth is determined to move forward, not to go backward, and to stay with Naomi. 
   In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself by gleaning grain in a nearby field which belongs to a man named Boaz. Boaz, as it turns out, is a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Coincidence? I think not. Boaz allows Ruth to glean more than her fair share from the fields and all are abundantly blessed in the process. 
   In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. Understanding what they needed in order to survive in this patriarchal world, and understanding what the levirate law required, Naomi and Ruth “help” bring about what we have to believer were their unrecorded prayers to God. And as April shared last week, Ruth, in effect, proposed marriage to Boaz on the threshing floor - challenging custom and culture to provide not only for herself, but for her mother-in-law whom she loved greatly. And in that moment, Boaz reveals that there is yet another possible go-el, kinsman-redeemer, who has even more right to redeem Naomi’s husband’s lands, and says that he will talk to that man that very day. Which brings us to our story today.

   The scene at the city gate (where legal proceedings 
are conducted) is a rather humorous one. The nearer relative, the potential goel with whom Boaz speaks, is never named. He is enthusiastic about acquiring more land but suddenly remembers a previous appointment and makes himself scarce when Boaz says that marrying Ruth is part of the bargain. That would mean the land he purchased would never really be his, it would pass to her children as Elimilech and Mahlon’s heirs, not to his. So he says in effect, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and publicly gives up his rights to the land and to Ruth. So, having done his due diligence and fulfilled the requirements of the law, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his land acquisition and subsequent marriage to Ruth.

Ruth, we’re then told, conceives and bears a son. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. Where there was barrenness (in her marriage to Mahlon), now there is new birth. 
   The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “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” (4:15). The perfect, complete number seven here suggesting that Ruth’s love (i.e. God’s love manifest through Ruth) is greater than the love of all the sons of the world, and that most of all, Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.

   “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in [Naomi’s] bosom, and she became his nurse” (4:16). The rabbis, in the rabbinic tradition associated with this story, noting that the Hebrew word translated here often means “wet nurse,” said that a miracle happened, that Naomi’s old and withered breasts were suddenly able to produce milk, and that she nursed the child herself.
   Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness, joy where there had been only bitterness -- all of it is made possible through the hesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.
   The genius of the book of Ruth,” suggests theologian Alphonetta Wines, “is that it is much more than a simple story since there’s so much complexity in the layers, hints, and innuendo that lies within its pages. First, since its characters are exemplary, the book can be thought of as a morality narrative that demonstrates the blessing of godly living.
   “Second, knowing that in the world of the bible women’s voices are largely unheard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, their voices move the story forward. They live in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are vulnerable. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.
   “Third, it is impossible to overlook the sexual overtones in the book. Just as with the Song of Songs (another biblical book in which a woman speaks and God does not), the church has long been embarrassed by the sexual innuendo concerning Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. While the details are left to one’s imagination,” as April shared last week - sometimes “feet are just feet,” - “it is clear that Ruth intends to entice Boaz with her charms, especially since she goes at night hoping to avoid being seen.
   “Fourth, although ‘God is silent … [and] acts indirectly through the people,’ God’s care is attested. As a poor woman from another country, Ruth’s situation is dire. But even though her situation is dire, she is not forgotten. While God is silent, the message is indisputable, ‘God is on the side of the marginalized.’ 
Not that God is unconcerned about people who live on the center, but God’s care for Naomi and Ruth are indications that God cares even when the world is indifferent. The implication is that “God … [is] God of the whole world.”
   “Fifth, the book of Ruth is a story about “the birth of the monarchy” in Israel and a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that would eventually be a blessing to all humanity.” Remember, I shared in week two the history going back to Abraham and Sarah, and how God had promised that their descendants would be one tribe that would be blessed to be a blessing. However, at one point Abraham and his nephew Lot went in two different directions because their wealth had grown so vast the land could no longer support their combined herds." 

The descendants of Lot became the Moab tribe, of whom Ruth was a descendant. As Rob Bell points out, “when Ruth returns to Israel, this story about this obscure family becomes a story about Lot’s tribe and Abrahams’ tribe being reunited. Ruth coming home and marrying Boaz is about Lot coming home. It’s about healing the family. It’s about bringing together what was separated years earlier. (In the Hebrew language here, the same word is used for Lot separating and Ruth not separating. The storyteller clearly wants us to know that this is about a much larger story.) That’s why the story ends with a bit of genealogy: the tribe is united and healed just in time for their great King David to be born. So from Genesis 13, [where Abraham and Lot go their own ways,] all the way to the book of Ruth, things aren’t right. But in the book of Ruth, they’re made right.”
   And as Wines concludes, “The subtle message is not so subtle, for ‘even Israel’s greatest king is descended from a poor, vulnerable woman from a despised foreign nation.’ Ruth’s inclusion in Jesus’ lineage enlarges the message even further. If God is the God of all humanity, why would not all humanity have a role in the lineage of the Incarnate Jesus?
   "The last bit of genius in the book of Ruth “is a reminder that it is important to honor the humanity of every person. There is no need for anyone to think too highly or too lowly of others or themselves. In a world where connections to one’s own family group could determine matters of life or death, Ruth and Naomi’s willingness to cross boundaries to create friendship is remarkable. These two women are about as different as two people can be. There are differences in ‘age, nationality, and religion.’ Theirs is a story about what happens when two people from different social locations, [different backgrounds, ethnicities, even religions,] decide that relationship is more important than cultural definitions of what relationships should be or any experiences that might have kept them apart.” Being in relationship is more important than being right.
   “Through her friendship with Naomi, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Through her friendship with Ruth, Naomi again experiences a joy untold. In a world, ancient or contemporary, where people are unwilling to extend themselves on behalf of others and be changed for the better by the encounter, this story stands as an indictment of closed hearts, minds, and spirits of any age.”
    The story of Ruth is a story of new life: new life for Naomi, and for Ruth and Boaz; new life in the child they have together, Obed; and new life for God’s vision for Israel as one tribe - a mixed tribe, a reunited tribe of peoples once driven apart who are brought back together.  What began with tragedy ends with blessing. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy. The child of Ruth and Boaz, Obed, will be the grandfather of David, Israel’s most beloved king. 
   So here is where the story of Ruth leaves us: with the promise of God’s faithful love, God’s hesed, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and through David’s greater Son, into even our own lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up, and overflowing. That is the new life promised through God’s faithful love.  Thanks be to God! Amen.