Monday, November 30, 2009

What Grounds Our Hope?

“What Grounds Our Hope? ‘The Angels’ Point of View,’ a short story by J. B. Phillips”

Sermon for 1st Advent, 11.29.09

Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

Please pray with me: May we take heed and watch; for we do not know when the time will come. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

On a long drive, who doesn’t remember the inevitable question: “Are we there yet?” And the inevitable answer, “Not yet.” Only a few days ago, I flew to Pittsburgh. Of course there were delays and this time it was adults who were asking “how much longer,” followed by a flurry of cell phone activity. This is part of Advent: impatient waiting and urgency in all we do because we must finish all those cards and presents on time.

But it’s not only secular. As the days become shorter and as the cold really sets in, it’s hard to wait for the warmth and wonder of our caroling, of our Christmas Eve service, and of the days that follow, filled with memories and singing, generosity and hope. Once more the airport can provide an analogy: We wait and wait for those connections and finally, if we are blessed, we land where family and friends have also been waiting. And then what celebration, even from dignified grown-ups: hugs, smiles, laughter. If there are children, they may fling themselves at you, with total abandon.

This too is Advent, the longing for the blessing of a savior who comes as a beautiful baby, who is sufficiently like us so that we can believe in his friendship, sufficiently noble, powerful, and humble so that we can depend on his love. What if we ran towards the holy moments of Christmas and the Christ child with the same uncensored trust and love that we receive from the children who love us? What if our joy were so infections that it pulled others along with us? And not just for the celebration of his birth but for all that follows?

There’s even more to Advent. You’ll notice that our Scripture readings this morning don’t tell us about Mary and Joseph or the shepherds or the kings. They come later. Instead the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah won’t let us forget that this world in which we must live is far from perfect. We long for rulers who will execute justice and promote equitable relationships. The Psalmist’s troubles, on the other hand, are personal. He is tortured by memories and longs for a God who will be gracious, who will deliver, who will “remember not” the sins of his youth; a God who will forgive. These writers are looking for the baby who will be born in Bethlehem.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is more complicated, however, because it speaks of the many ways in which Christ comes. How do we respond to the Christ who has already come and who can direct our imperfect ways? Furthermore, Paul reminds his young church in Thessalonica that the risen and ascended Christ will come again. His letter prepares us for the shocking Gospel lesson from Luke that describes universal distress and the shaking of heaven and earth.

Unlike the first Christians and some fundamentalist Christians today, we may not believe that the Second Coming is about to arrive. But it is basic to our faith and a certainty built into every Creed of the Church worth its salt that God has the power to intervene and that Christ’s work is not yet finished. Whether people preach on it or not, the coming of the Son of Man is one of Jesus’ major themes in the Gospels.

We are kidding ourselves, therefore, if we don’t remember that the Church has always understood Advent in at least two ways: God’s gift of mercy in the manger is a wonderful beginning, but it must be balanced by God’s eventual coming in majesty at the end of time. As we rejoice and reflect upon the first so we must reflect and prepare for the second.

There are two important points here: Because everything earthly must come to an end, each new day is precious, not only to each of us as individuals but to us as members of a community that longs to bring God’s kingdom to completion. There is much to do.

That is why it is so important to link the two understandings of Advent: The Lord who will judge is the Jesus whom we have known as a baby and whose teachings we follow. We know he loves us. Continuing to follow him will turn the Day of Judgment—or days of our own tribulations—into times of grace and redemption.

As we begin our Advent journey, it may help to consider “The Angels’ Point of View.” This is the name of a story, written some 50 years ago, by J.B. Phillips, a giant among the translators of the New Testament:

“The Angels’ Point of View” by J.B. Phillips

Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendours and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of interstellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”

“That,” replied his senior solemnly, “is the Visited Planet.”

“Visited?” said the little one. “You don’t mean visited by ———?”

“Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps over-clean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.” And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

“But how?” queried the younger one. “Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?”

“It isn’t for us,” said his senior a little stiffly, “to question His ‘why’s’, except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that. As to why He became one of them—how else do you suppose could He visit them?”

The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”

“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”

The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.

“Close your eyes for a moment,” said the senior angel, “and we will go back in what they call Time.”

While the little angel’s eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backwards quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.

“Now look!”

And as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.

“Well, what am I seeing now?” queried the little angel.

“You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago,” returned his companion. “Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father’s knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time.”

“Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?” asked the junior angel rather crossly.

“It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendour have no idea what it is like to live in the dark. We hear the music and the Voice like the sound of many waters every day of our lives, but to them—well, there is much darkness and much noise and much distraction upon the earth. Only a few who are quiet and humble and wise hear His Voice. But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful.”

The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe, there appeared a light, tiny but so bright in its intensity that both the angels hid their eyes.

“I think I can guess,” said the little angel in a low voice. “That was the Visit, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them; but in a moment, and you will be able to tell that even with your eyes closed, the light will go out.”

“But why? Could He not bear their darkness and stupidity? Did He have to return here?”

“No, it wasn’t that,” returned the senior angel. His voice was stern and sad. “They failed to recognize Him for Who He was—or at least only a handful knew Him. For the most part they preferred their darkness to His Light, and in the end they killed Him.”

“The fools, the crazy fools! They don’t deserve ———”

“Neither you nor I, nor any other angel, knows why they were so foolish and so wicked. Nor can we say what they deserve or don’t deserve But the fact remains, they killed our Prince of Glory while He was Man amongst them”

“And that I suppose was the end? I see the whole Earth has gone black and dark. All right, I won’t judge them, but surely that is all they could expect?”

“Wait, we are still far from the end of the story of the Visited Planet. Watch now, but be ready to cover your eyes again.”

In utter blackness the earth turned round three times, and then blazed with unbearable radiance a point of light.

What now?” asked the little angel, shielding his eyes.

“They killed Him all right, but He conquered death. The thing most of them dread and fear all their lives He broke and conquered. He rose again, and a few of them saw Him and from then on became His utterly devoted slaves.”

“Thank God for that,” said the little angel.

“Amen. Open your eyes now, the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth flow.”

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

“You see what is happening?” asked the senior angel. “The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.’’

“Yes, yes,” said the little angel impatiently, “but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?”

His senior shook his head. “We simply do not know,” he replied. “It is in the Father’s hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, but now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it; He is working out his plan upon it.”

“Yes, I see, though I don’t understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet.”

Let us pray: Dearest God, help us remember that we have been visited by the King of Glory who came into the world as an innocent and vulnerable baby. Give us grace to celebrate both his first and his second coming. Give us grace to keep his light burning steadily. May his Advent be as a sanctifying time of both repentance and anticipation. AMEN.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Discerning Obedience

Sermon for 11.22.09, Christ the King/Reign of Christ

2 Samuel 23.1-5; Psalm 132.1-18; Rev 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

Please pray with me: May our soul wait for you, O Lord. May Your word be our hope. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

If I didn’t love being your pastor, I would probably spend much of my time painting. I don’t draw with ease, but I can be totally absorbed by color and especially the transparency of color possible with watercolors. One starts with the lightest tints, the least amount of pigment, and then gradually lays on shades of stronger colors. This layering can create an effect far richer and far more exciting than the most carefully mixed color that is applied only once. A mixed color can become heavy or muddy, whereas in a series of applications, the first washes allow light from the paper to shine through, and this translucency can be retained even with several subsequent layers.

Perhaps I thought of painting when I read David’s last words from 2nd Samuel. David says that a just ruler “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” One has the sense of gentleness, beauty, clarity, and the integrity of the whole under such kingship.

The emphasis in the passage from Revelation is different because of the historical situation. Given the persecutions during which it was written, the author, someone named John, makes strong assertions about a God who moves effortlessly through time and who has not yet finished his work, a god “who is and who was and who is to come.” When he does come, every eye will see him, and the result will not be subtle: Everyone still totally committed to this world—“all the tribes of the earth,” the persecutors—will wail. Which picture is more appropriate for this Sunday that is entitled Christ the King or The Reign of Christ—David’s or that of the author of Revelation? Which picture fits us?

The Gospel of John gives us a drama that seems to have escaped from Holy Week. This passage asks us to think about transparency or its lack in the context of Kingship. There Christ, on trial for his life before Pilate, is asserting his Kingdom and his Truth. Pilate certainly has power of life and death over Jesus, but is there clarity in Pilate’s arraignment? As we listen, Pilate’s predicament deepens. Pilate understands kingship in earthly terms, and, for a Roman, “king” has political and insurrectional meanings. Pilate may not even yet fully realize the subversive nature of Jesus’ total loyalty to God. But he does try to trick him, to catch him in a capital offense: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And then Jesus is his usual brilliant self. He realizes what a murky situation he is in, but he asks Pilate a direct question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” He knows that the Jewish leaders may be cornering Pilate and that Pilate may be wondering whether he has enough troops to quiet them should they not get the execution they want. Pilate’s main goal may be to stay in control at whatever cost and avoid being dragged back to explain things in Rome.

Even so Jesus, ever the teacher—ever the savior—explains that he is operating out of a very different notion of kingship and that his kingdom is not from here. He is inviting Pilate to listen, to be authentic, to be transparent—to let light shine through. “Everyone,” Jesus says, “who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus is not speaking of intellectual truth, that which is reliable, quantifiable, or merely believed in. This is truth as reality, as revelation. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Really listens, and follows through on that listening. Doing so is the opposite of unrighteousness and for this reason, Jesus’ truth must be an active thing; it is doing, it is faithful living and witness.

And so, aren’t we also on trial here, right along with Pilate? If Christ is our King and we wish to live under his reign, honor and extend it—if we love David’s luminous vision of “the light of morning”—we’ve got a lot of listening to do. Listening that is predicated on being transparent to God. Wise and humble listening that discerns the truth and then acts upon that discernment. Listening that constantly tries to distinguish the murky promises of this world from the light and reign of Christ. We’re not just talking about a contemplative high here. As one of the brothers in the monastery recently reminded me, “spiritual formation and Christian discipleship are the same.” This is Brother Charles, who runs their bookstore, but who knows that it’s not the reading of the books that matters, but moving beyond into Christian loving and living, into mission, into holy practice. Into discerning obedience.

This phrase comes from the book Beyond Mere Obedience by a wonderful theologian named Dorothee Soelle. She urges weaning ourselves from authoritarian models of obedience that can blind us even to the ethics of this world and then blind us to Christ, our king. Discerning obedience is “an obedience which has its eyes wide open, which first discovers God’s will in the situation” (p. 25). This doesn’t mean that we shrug off the world, but that we seek to transform it through the Grace of Christ. This is a tall order and I think it’s one of the reasons that we have church, so that we don’t have to do it alone.

On this Sunday, the Church Universal, including our own Methodist Church, declares that Christ is King. This has only been a day of observance only since 1925 when it was created by Pope Pius XI—you’ll love this—because of the spread of democracies. It’s a kind of paradox because Americans, who don’t usually bow to their elected officials, belong to churches that announce that we do bow, but only to Jesus the Christ. And Americans, who profoundly believe in the cult of the individual and the individual’s own right to decision-making, support churches that urge us to attend to the sovereignty of Christ.

And this is why we need discerning obedience as a daily spiritual discipline, a transparency before God that faces the truth about who we are, whom and what we worship. Our sovereign, resurrected Christ is also our shepherd, “the king of love whose goodness faileth never” and who, having ransomed our souls, continues to lead us throughout our length of days. There is a freedom and a joy in this commitment to discovering Christ’s truth, Christ’s revelation, both individually and in community over and over again. I am convinced that living into Christ’s reign, doing Christ, as best we can and through the grace of God, can be progressively transforming for us and for our communities, even here and now.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we bless you for a Kingship that is both powerful and liberating, for your truth that gives us strength, courage and hope. Help us to be transparent before you and before one another. Thank you for loving us and for filling each stage of our lives with your luminosity. Amen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Radical Reliance

Sermon for 11.15.09

1 Samuel 1.4-20; 1 Samuel 2.1-8; Psalm 113; Hebrews 10.11-25.

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Call to Worship: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.”

A number of years ago when I was teaching at Columbia College in New York City, one of my students was arrested and had to appear in court. He had no family nearby and asked if I would go with him for moral support. He was basically a good young man and had been assessing what he had done; he was also very apprehensive. I knew nothing about the judge, but the moment my student stood up in front of him, he snapped: “Take that gum out of your mouth and show some respect.” My student replied, “I mean to show respect for the court, your honor, but it’s my tongue, you see. I’m frightened.”

I remembered this incident when I read the story of Hannah this week. Seeking the security and comfort of the temple, Hannah fled there to weep out her grief to God. Since prayers were usually said out loud, when Eli saw only her lips moving, he dismissed her as a worthless drunken woman. To his credit, he accepts her explanation and gives her a blessing. This is the same Eli to whom she will later entrust her young son. But how often do we misunderstand the depths of someone’s pain or the way they are reacting to it? Such a poignant detail in Hannah’s story makes her hard to forget. Her story is too important to miss.

Like Ruth and Naomi last week, Hannah has been defined, limited, and devalued by her culture. It’s true that she has a generous husband who loves her despite the fact that she cannot bear children, but she is tormented by his other wife and she lives in shame. We can feel the “bitterness of soul” that prevents her from eating her share of the meat that her husband has sacrificed.

Many of us may remember leaving a room quickly to hide embarrassment, grief, or anger. We may recall making extravagant promises if only God will fix things: “I’ll never leave my project for the last minute,” “I’ll never lose my temper again.” Such is Hannah’s promise. Although men usually took nazirite vows only for a limited period of time, she will dedicate the son she needs to the Lord “until the day of his death.”

But in her deep trouble, she also enters deep prayer. She pours out her very soul to God, not caring about her appearance. It is this commitment to prayer, I believe, rather than Eli’s rather perfunctory blessing that allows her to return to Elkanah, her husband, to eat and drink with him, and be sad no longer. She has done all she can; she has put her life totally into God’s hands.

And God hears her! A baby is born! We all love babies and new life. But things get complicated again very quickly for this baby happens to be Samuel, a tremendously significant figure who lived in troubled times and who, with severe misgivings, anoints the first king of Israel. Since this account, this Scripture, is sacred history, the struggles of Hannah and then Samuel must be important to us too. They also remind us that nothing in this life is static and that all things must grow and change. Through that growth and change we are, like Hannah and Samuel, totally dependant on God’s grace.

This total dependence—a reality that it is often convenient to push to one side—brings us to the dialogue from the 13th chapter of Mark and the need for God’s grace on a more cosmic scale. To the innocence of the disciples’ opening line, “Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus replies—coolly, emphatically, gently, we don’t know—“Not one stone will be left here upon another.” As you probably know, Mark was written either right before or after the destruction of the temple, the temple Jesus knew during his life. Certainly by the end of the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, that temple was demolished for ever.

Think of our modern parallels: Who would have thought the twin towers would crumble or that a tsunami would leap across great portions of the Pacific Rim or that New Orleans and her people would be submerged or that someone would go amuck at Fort Hood. Innocently, we long for what is secure: the baby in our arms, a civilization, a culture and an earth that are predictable and safe. It is not always so and our sense of innocence is cruelly taken away.

Mark’s 13th chapter can be read in many ways, but Jesus and his disciples are only a few days away from the Passover and his time with them is getting short. When the disciples ask him when the temple will come crashing down, he doesn’t answer directly. Instead he urges them not to let anyone—themselves included—lead them astray. We too can become so focused on analyzing the signs of the times that we forget that something even greater is taking place. Jesus calls it the start of birth pangs. He may well be referring to God’s final judgment and to his own second coming. We must understand that behind such thinking is the conviction, central to Judaism of this time, that God controls not only individual lives but all of history and that the evil of the world is so great that only God can save it by establishing a new creation.

Such assertions may overwhelm us, frighten us, even though we are troubled by what we see around us. It is more comfortable to ask God to fix smaller things, like us, bit by bit. And there is nothing wrong with that. What we shouldn’t lose, however, is the bigger picture and the chance to see how Salvation is challenge as well as hope. Salvation brings the birth of a new age, and Salvation is not a static event for any of us. It is a Grace-driven process—a birthing—of repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration. It is manifest in individuals and in a dedicated faith community. And so we start by lamenting what we see around us just as we lament what we detect in our own hearts. One of my teachers from Divinity School puts it to us squarely: Our witness is to “move from darkness to light, from alienation to divine community, from guilt to pardon, from slavery to freedom, from the fear of hostile powers to [the] liberty and assurance” [of children of God] (Emilie M. Townes). This is the work of faith, and through faith, by God’s grace, we are saved. And we need to be.

This was also Hannah’s work. Although she did not know Christ, her connection to God is inspiring, almost mystical. She knew how to give herself totally, not with formal petition or with traditional sacrifice. The abandon with which she opens her heart speaks to her certainly of being heard.

Hannah’s story is too important to miss because it can also be our story. We are not always as grief-stricken as Hannah, but remembering her surrender, her humility, and her conviction that God is close by, we too can come to God in our awkwardness, our fear, our brokenness. In doing so, we move through and beyond isolation, insufficiency, and worry, beyond appearances, to the newness of life that is Christ’s gift to us.

Let us pray: Dear God: The pillars of the earth are Yours, and on them You have set the world! Your blessings are beyond our comprehension and often we cannot fathom them. But You are still God and still our God, ever near. Even in our moments of disappointment and pain, may we remember Your power and remember to magnify Your name. And in all that we do, open our hearts to the great gift of Your son, Jesus Christ, our companion in the way and our Savior. Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Faithfulness: A Love Story

Sermon for 11.08.09

Ruth 2.1-8, 10-12; 4.13-15, 17; Psalm 42; Mark 12.38-44.

Please pray with me: May we love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind…[and] love our neighbor as ourselves.”

From today’s Gospel: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow…out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sunday evenings seem to be God’s time for epiphanies, for taking me by surprise. When the phone rang this past Sunday, it was my friend Cathyann. We hadn’t had a phone visit since I started coming to Port Ewen. We became friends in seminary. She had just become a single mom with a daughter to raise, essentially on her own. She was determined not to let circumstances hinder her call. By the time she was ready to take a church, the only available full-time job was two half-time churches in the middle of rural Kansas. There’s nothing wrong with Kansas, but Cathyann had never lived anywhere but the East Coast. She had no friends, relatives, or associations with the Midwest. But off she went.

Unfortunately, one of the churches did not work out and so, two years later, she was without a job. Because she is United Church of Christ, there was no connectional network to place her. She would have had no place to go had not a friend from seminary, now in Nebraska, invited her. The next year was tough, lonely, and poor—another displacement for a woman now in her mid-50s. She refused to give up, responsibly reshaping her life through hard work and faithfulness to the covenant that she had made. She became a chaplain, began to do supply work, and then was invited to become a full-time interim pastor in a church that loves and appreciates her. This has been her dream and the Nebraska part really didn’t matter.

But she called me last Sunday to invite me to her wedding! After her painful divorce, I’d never heard her express any desire to remarry. And she fought the proposal at first, but then realized that this man is someone she simply loves being with. We never thought that so much good—a church and personal happiness—was waiting for her, and especially in Nebraska!

What does this have to do with the book of Ruth? Actually, quite a bit. This is as much the story of an older woman as it is Ruth’s and it also is a story of exile and emptiness. As such, it speaks to us.

The story begins with famine in Bethlehem that forces Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons to immigrate to the land of Moab, even though the people of Israel had no respect for Moabites or their strange gods. These people were descended from Lot, for heaven’s sake, and if you don’t know what that means, you’d better read Genesis 19 as quickly as possible. The sons are described as “taking” Moabite wives, rather than marrying them. Then all three men die, leaving Naomi and her two childless daughters-in-law as widows. Naomi feels that God has turned against her and well she might. As a woman past child-bearing years with no male protector, she is destitute, and so she tells the two young women to go back to their own people where there is some hope of starting again.

Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses, speaking those words that are now read at weddings: “Where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” What is behind Ruth’s risky decision to make such a covenant? Was her love for Naomi or her compassion—her call to responsibility—so great that she ignored common sense? Was she moved by hesed, the deep loving-kindness of God? In the newness of her loss, did she reach for relationship? For someone to whom again she could show hesed?

Naomi’s reaction is odd. She doesn’t speak to Ruth during the trip back to Bethlehem. Her name means “pleasant,” but she tells the women at the gate to call her Mara or “bitter.” She certainly doesn’t introduce her daughter-in-law when they walk into town, and the story insists on labeling Ruth as “the Moabite.”

In the section that we heard this morning, Ruth, the Alien, goes out to glean or gather left-over grain in the fields. The laws of Israel specified that a certain amount must be left even for alien beggars. Then the narrator slyly tells us that she “just happened” to go to the right field and is seen by Boaz. Boaz may not really have been a kinsman. If he were, he would have a responsibility towards these women. The word could equally mean “close friend” of Naomi’s husband.

The passage is full of ambiguities. Boaz is described as “prominent” or “worthy.” Old Testament readers, knowing that his ancestors were Jacob and Tamar, as dubious as Ruth’s ancestors, would be on the alert. His words are certainly pious sounding, but can we be sure? Although he might very well have been drawn to Ruth, he might also have been simply curious. He also might have worried that if he showed her too much favor, other gleaners or even his field hands would expect more. So he says, conventionally enough, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds.” Ruth may sound humble, but she subtly switches the agency from God to Boaz: “May I continue to find favor in your sight,” she replies.

Such wordplays and ironies continue and, in the end, there is a marriage and a baby, but the story is not just about one happy couple. The women of the town give Ruth’s baby to Naomi, presumably to tend, but they call him Naomi’s son. Her emptiness has been filled, her barrenness has been compensated, her bitterness has turned to joy, and she is no longer homeless. And the story doesn’t stop there.

The story records a chain of events, a chain of faithfulness and loving-kindness. Ruth, an alien, persuades the prominent Boaz to show her loving-kindness. He, in turn, had been touched both by her faithfulness to Naomi and, more, by her willingness to chose him, an older man. And first there was Ruth’s loving-kindness, her hesed to Naomi.

It doesn’t matter that Naomi is uncivil when the story begins or that Boaz’s motivation may not be clear because the story is also shot through with God’s own hesed for all of these people. God sends Naomi and Elimelech to a place that brings disaster and yet she comes home with a gift. The gift appears to be a liability, a despised foreign woman, and yet she is guided to just the right field. Finally this baby of less than perfect lineage doesn’t only comfort Naomi’s old age but becomes the grandfather of David, the ancestor of Jesus who is the Incarnation of God’s Love and the Redeemer of the world. No wonder we are given this reading only weeks before Advent.

A good read becomes first a parable about true fidelity across age and ethnicity. About giving out of what seems to be a poverty, about being able to give when it seems that there is only poverty to draw from. About discovering and fulfilling God’s law through self-giving love. A further beauty is that this story seems to be telling us that human being personify and communicate God’s hesed to each other. But finally the love story is about God’s enduring faithfulness and love for us, unlikely agents that we are.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, to whom will we cling with steadfast love? To whom will we do hesed? Will we allow those who seem alien to be agents of our redemption? Will we see that a Ruth is standing there? Who gleams among us and how much do we first take from what we consider our own fields? These questions are difficult, but help us keep asking them. Help us tear down those walls that have been so carefully crafted. Help us embrace the scandal of your faithfulness and your fierce inclusivity. Amen.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hearing God's Song

Sermon for 11.01.09, All Saints’ Day
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10; Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

Please pray with me: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

From today’s New Testament Lesson: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Today is All Saints’ Day, a day to remember our departed and to consider our own lives. It dates from the 4th century and it celebrates all Christian saints, those known to us and those unknown. I love the unknown part because we just don’t know all of those who have served or in what way—and we’d better not try to second-guess God. The passage from Ecclesiasticus reminds us that “of others there is no memory. But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” The Roman Church has a complicated and very careful way of canonizing saints, and that is fine for what we call the Church Expectant—the church in process. None of us knows who will be included at the end of time in the Church Triumphant.

It’s probably for that reason that even books compiled by Roman Catholic authors now include other categories: prophets, witnesses, those who were spiritual giants. Who would have thought, in the thick of the Civil Rights struggle, that Martin Luther King would become an “official saint.” On various lists, we find Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Kierkegaard. These and many others are those who mediate—who are connectors—between this world and God.

One of my favorites is a man simply known as Brother Lawrence. He became a lay brother of a monastery in Paris in the 17th century where he spent 40 years working in the kitchen. We know of him only because a visitor happened to begin a conversation with him and was so astonished that he needed to talk with him again and again. For Lawrence, things were quite simple. God, he said, “regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

For hundreds of years, All Saints’ Day has been followed by another, called All Souls’ Day. This day is meant to commemorate “the souls of the faithful departed.” Protestants choose not to rank or grade the faithful, and so we tend to combine the two days. For us, the term “saint” may indeed refer to an extraordinary person—a spiritual giant—but it may also describe someone as modest as a Brother Lawrence. Thus we use it as the New Testament does, for all Christians serving a community and serving Christ. And we leave it for God to judge.

There are so many saintly paths. There is the deep love of God to which Brother Lawrence refers. Two others are perhaps less obvious but thought-provoking: The English writer G. K. Chesterton defines a saint as one “who exaggerates what the world neglects.” On a different tack, Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that he must struggle “to be more than his weakest qualities.” (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Pubs) To a greater or lesser extent, each of us—with all our faults—is sometimes capable of both of these things: lifting up what no one else has noticed and managing to be better than we could be.

Last week I asked what it would be like if we tried imagining our church as a song. I had an answer sooner than I expected. On Sunday afternoon, I went to a concert that I had been told not to miss. The program was Bach’s Art of the Fugue, performed on two pianos. For an hour and a half, without a break, the two musicians each played his own melodic lines (his own piece, if you like), but always listening for the way in which a similar melody was being repeated or imitated or changed by the other. The pianos were placed so that it was possible for the two to be aware of one another, by a slight nod or by eye contact or even by their breathing. In ways that became more and more complex and intense as the concert progressed, the two independent voices interwove to form a richly layered whole, greater than either of the parts. The last section was never finished by Bach and so it stops, unresolved, in the middle of a phrase.

There I sat listening as dusk gathered. Suddenly I realized that this is the way church can work and the way in which the saints work together with God. We each are singing our own melody and God is singing God’s. At our best, we realize that we are not alone. God certainly knows this. And so, while being ourselves, we are also making our song with God. At times, through a prayer, a sigh, an action, a meditation, tears, or a moment filled with love, we are aware of a connection. The result is awesome. And our work need not be finished—all of our songs need not have been sung—before we are called away.

Our own music here at church echoes this interweaving when the instruments play different parts, or when one plays a descant melody over the others, or when we sing a round. Our sermon hymn will allow us to experience this. First we’ll hear the basic melody that we all will sing. Then we will hear the descant. Finally we will put the two together. Saints in training!

And what of those whom we no longer see? Later in the service, we will have a chance to name, either silently or aloud, those loved ones who have gone to their reward. In the Scripture for today, there is much to reassure us. The Beatitudes tell us of the comfort the departed will receive: They will be filled with good things and they will see God. So too in Revelation, we must not miss God’s tenderness for those whom God now fully shelters. God’s graciousness responds to the most elemental human needs: “They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

In different way, we each know hunger and thirst; we are scorched and stricken. We long to be understood and to be guided to living waters. We struggle to be better than we have been and to realize a vision with which we are sometimes graced. With our Hope in God as well as our failings, we want to be of that number when the saints come marching in.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we give thanks for those who have died and are now at rest in your presence. By your grace, count us as one with them. Stir up in us, by the power of your Holy Spirit, a love for singing in harmony with you. Enable us to learn by the example of your saints in glory, that we may proclaim to all the world that nothing can separate us from your love. AMEN.

*** BULLETIN ***
Morning Worship with Holy Communion - November 1, 2009
Additional reading for today: Psalm 24
Lectionary for next week: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127 or Psalm 42; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Instrumental Prelude
Greeting by Pastor
Invocation (in unison):
We bless your holy name, O God, for all your servants who, having finished their course, now rest from their labors. Give us grace to follow your holy saints in all virtuous and godly living, to your honor and glory and so that we may come to those joys, which you have prepared for those who sincerely love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Introit #64 “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty”
*Call to Worship #652 “Canticle of Remembrance” Response 1
*Opening Hymn #711 “For All the Saints” (v. 1, 2, 5, 6)
Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rejected your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray. Bring us to joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Words of Assurance
Time for Children of All Ages
(Children 3 and older may proceed to Children’s Church.)

Proclamation of the Word of God
Old Testament Reading: Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44:1-10
Instrumental Music
New Testament Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
Instrumental Music
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon “Hearing God’s Song” Pastor Dora J. Odarenko

Response to the Word of God
*Sermon Hymn #405 “Seek Ye First”
Offering of Congregational Joys and Concerns
Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer
The Offering of Our Gifts
Prayer of Thanksgiving

Holy Communion
The Sacrament of Holy Communion
The Pastor will be using The Great Thanksgiving for All Saints Day, but the people’s responses are found as usual in the Hymnal, pp. 13-14. After the Consecration, you will be invited to name, either silently or aloud, those who have died in the past year.
The Great Thanksgiving UMC p. 13
The Lord’s Prayer
Giving the Bread and Cup
*Post-Communion Hymn #614 “For the Bread Which You Have Broken”

Sending Forth
*Dismissal with Blessing
Organ Postlude