Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘redemption’

Small? So You Say…

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

nelsonandcoHave you ever been bullied?
I bet most people would answer yes.

Bullies can find any little thing to pick on, am I right? You wear glasses. You’re too skinny. You’re too chubby. Your feet are big. Your clothes are weird. You talk funny. Apparently, in Jesus’ time–the 1st century–bullying was like it is now. People got picked on just like they do today.

Zacchaeus was short. Zacchaeus was a tax collector; Zacchaeus was rich.

Three strikes and you’re out!

Tax collectors for the Roman Empire—yeah, they were pretty much disliked by everyone. Think about it. People did not like to pay taxes to the Romans. And they especially didn’t like someone who was not Roman coming to their house to collect taxes. People like Zacchaeus most likely had Roman soldiers for bodyguards just so they wouldn’t get beaten up. Add to this that many tax collectors skimmed off the top. They collected taxes for Rome, but kept some of the money for themselves.

It’s like the Beatles sing:
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.

Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

But in spite of this, the taxman Zacchaeus really wanted to see this Jesus of Nazareth character. But there were a lot of people surrounding Jesus. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see him, on account of the important detail that he was short in stature. Our perception of this story makes us think that he climbed a tree just because he was short. Maybe. But don’t forget: Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he was rich. He ran ahead of the crowds because he did not want to get beaten up. Maybe he climbed the tree so that no one in the crowds would see him.
zaqueoBeing “short in stature” does not necessarily mean that he was 3 feet tall. Perhaps he could not see Jesus because the crowds wouldn’t let him. You see, people already assumed that Zacchaeus was a bad person just because of his title.

But for some reason, Jesus did not.
He saw Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree and talked to him.

Come down. Hurry. I must stay at your house today.

Really? With all the crowds watching? Zaccheus was so excited, he forgot about all this and welcomed Jesus’ request with open arms.
But the crowds grumbled:
Jesus will be the guest of a sinner. Humph.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus is eager to tell Jesus about himself.
Look, half of my material possessions I give to the poor. If I’ve cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times what I owe them.

Let’s pause here for a moment because there is something interesting to explore. The verb form of give to the poor in the original Greek language is in the present tense. But most of our English translations render it as will give. This makes a huge difference. If Zacchaeus will give to the poor, as our version says, then this is a conversion story. He was a bad guy and now he’s not. But if it is the present tense, then we’ve misinterpreted the story.

What if Zacchaeus was already giving to the poor and making sure that he didn’t cheat people? What if he never really was a bad dude to begin with? Was he generous? What if his title of tax collector and sinner was the only thing that stained his reputation!?!

I’m going with the present tense, because I think our Bible translations have tried to turn the Zacchaeus story into a conversion story when it is actually a last-first, small-tall story. What I mean is that just earlier in Luke, Jesus said that another tax collector who called himself a sinner in his own prayers was on his way home to find God’s mercy and that he was justified more than any religious leader who supposedly knew how to pray elegantly in public. And here we have another tax collector in Zacchaeus who is called a sinner by the crowds who have judged him without a reason to, other than his marginalized status in society.

Zacchaeus was not the bully.

He was being bullied! He was a generous man who was already doing the right thing. But nobody cared. He was a tax collector and therefore, according to the people, he was an awful sinner. Even though the name Zacchaeus means pure and righteous one, he’s painted as a cruel, selfish, greedy, businessman who must undergo a miraculous conversion in order to be saved.

I just don’t think that this is the point of the story.

Jesus already knew about Zacchaeus. This is consistent with Jesus’ movements in many Gospel stories. He saw him up in that tree and called him down because he wanted to show the people just how judgmental they really were. I mean, come on. Jesus knew exactly which tree Zacchaeus would climb and when he would be there. This is all a setup for a major teaching moment. Jesus was once again flipping over the assumptions of the crowds and calling out their prejudice.

And so the story should be for us.

Two perspectives jump out at me:

One: the crowds are full of prejudice. They have become bullies, even though they think that Zacchaeus is the bully.

Two: Zacchaeus, in his suffering, doesn’t give up; Jesus knows where he is, looks at him, calls him down from the tree, and goes to his house.

The story is a warning to all of us that we can become bullies. We cannot assume that certain people are lesser or undeserving of God’s grace. We just cannot do that. Ever. We should never bully someone—even if others do it and it seems popular. No matter what label or category exists for a person—we should never judge them.

Each person deserves our empathy.

We ought to accept people as they are without assuming things about them. Oh, how that is needed in our world!

Friends, Jesus chooses to hold up characters like Zacchaeus as shining examples, even though they have been despised and bullied for a long time. Zacchaeus is another unlikely hero, but exactly the kind of hero that Jesus lifts up. So this is good news.

This encourages us to keep doing the right thing, to keep spreading love and compassion to others, in spite of all the bullies out there who will try to tell us that we’re not worth it. Somehow, Zacchaeus still had hope even before he met Jesus.

He did not despair, even though people tried to push him down. That is why he ran ahead and climbed the tree. That is why he jumped down from the tree and had Jesus over to his house.

Zacchaeus, a wee little man? So we say…but not so much. Zacchaeus was not small, but tall.

He was bullied but did not despair.
He didn’t hesitate to show compassion and generosity even when no one noticed.
And he found out—as we can—that God doesn’t ignore our suffering. God knows about all the bullying going on. God sees us as we are. God calls us out of the tree, down into the world, and God meets us at our homes.

So don’t let the bullies discourage you from being generous and compassionate. God sees and accepts you as you are.

Now do the same for others. Amen.



There’s Got to be Another Way!

Luke 13:31-35

CopticCross CelticCross RomanCross

Let’s do something different. Bear with me here.
Go back in your memory to a specific date, time of day, place, and an event in which you saw the symbol of the cross.

  1. Stand in that place. What do you see? What do you hear?
  2. Be specific. Pay attention to what you are feeling.
  3. Don’t summarize or draw conclusions or try to explain.
  4. Be brief. The symbol of the cross is there in this moment of your life.
  5. What do you feel, see, hear, taste, smell-experience?
  6. Write it down and don’t worry about complete sentences.

I just asked you to create word pictures. Thanks, Jeff Barker! Word pictures are an effective way for us to visualize a story of our lives and how we react to symbols. We very rarely pause enough to reflect on such feelings in our stories—feelings we carry with us for a lifetime. Today I have chosen the symbol of the cross, because during these 40 days of Lent we are looking deeply at our identities and also how we identify God. The cross, of course, is probably the most recognizable Christian symbol today. Its meaning, however, varies from person to person, according to his/her experiences. Here’s my word picture.

Incredibly humid August evening in Indiana. I’m covered with oil, dirt, and fake blood and wearing white shorts–barefoot. The two other sixteen-year-olds look tired, but focused. I feel tired. I feel weird. I’m sweating; I’m thirsty; I’m nervous. Led through the grass field by seventeen-year-old Roman soldiers to the three platforms. They tie our hands to the wooden planks and make believe that they are nailing our feet. I am tired. The 100 or so teenagers watching have weird looks. Some are sad, some look anxious, others are confused, some are bored. A kid yawns. I want to yawn, but I can’t. I have to be still. Time. Moves. Slowly. Sweat. Thirst. Confusion. Embarrassment. Regret. I have an itch. On my nose. Can’t…scratch…it. Praise songs start with guitar and voices. I like it. Some relief. I want to sing, too. But I have to be still. The other youth leave. The teen soldiers tell us that the play is over. All three of us gasp for air. I’m washing off the dirt and oil, wondering why I didn’t cry like the girl in the front. I want something to drink. Or pizza. And I’m worried about having enough clothes leftover for the weekend.  

For many, the cross is a symbol that points to death—more specifically, a gruesome death for Jesus of Nazareth. The cross’ meaning, however,  has changed over time. The early followers of Christ avoided it—for obvious reasons. Crucifixion was a form of state torture for the Romans. It was not meant to kill someone quickly. Its purpose was to degrade and humiliate a person so much that he was de-humanized. Embracing such a symbol of a crucifixion was not something that would help the early followers of Jesus to remember well their teacher and prophet. They preferred instead to focus on Jesus’ teachings, life, and ministry.

Many scholars and historians believe that certain followers of Jesus in the 2nd Century may have been the first ones to use a hand gesture that mirrored a cross. This gesture was in fact to heal from disease, spiritual, or mental affliction. But the actual cross symbol–the crucifix [cross with Jesus personified on it], was not widely used until the 6th Century CE.[1] This of course follows the beginning of what we now call the Catholic tradition [out of Europe under Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300’s CE]. Of course, the crucifix and sign of the cross remain important aspects of Catholic faith practice today. For Protestants, however, [those who broke away from Catholic tradition] this is usually not the case. Notice the empty crosses [no Jesus] and rare examples of Protestants making the sign of the cross as a hand gesture.

As the symbols changed, so did the meaning of the cross. And this had major significance in people’s lives. The basic question, since all this talk of crosses began, and the question raised in Luke’s Gospel story is:

Why did Jesus die?

ChagallMarc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938

It sounds simple, but of course, the answers have not been simple. I do not have the time in one sermon to go over all of the attempts to answer this question. But I will give you a summary of [and hopefully a relevant reflection on] the most widely used perspective.

The penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Yeah, say that three times fast.
In other words: Jesus died for [and because of] our sins.

This theory of the atonement developed with the Reformed tradition. We have a man named Anselm of Canterbury to thank for it, as he developed this idea about 1100 CE. The gist is that Jesus Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can forgive the sins. In this view, Jesus died because God was angry at humans for being sinful. Someone had to suffer and die on the cross, and that someone was Jesus. This view of atonement is the most common [still] in U.S. churches, and apparently quite the norm in Indiana Christian camps with youth Passion plays. I would know. Oil, dirt, fake blood.

Of course, there are a lot of issues with this view. God is angry and vengeful enough to want to kill humanity? Isn’t this a humanity called good by God? But in God’s rage, God still finds it possible to send Jesus to take the blame and be killed, therefore satisfying God’s need to punish sin. So it’s hate mixed with love.

Of course, that has haunted many people. For if God is angry at us, this feeds a shamefulness or guilt that many people feel. Someone feels “bad” because Jesus died for her sin. I have seen this all too often: people stay in abusive relationships, isolate themselves, consider suicide—all because they are “bad” and deserve punishment. It is amazing how many times I have seen this.

There is another side as well. Penal substitutionary atonement can also justify, in some people’s minds, violence against others. Innocent children die in Afghanistan due to drones? People die in Palestine and Israel because of bombs? Shootings in Connecticut? It’s all justifiable, because it will save someone else. Taken too far, this substitution theory is awful.

Needless to say, many people reject this theory of atonement all together. Theologians, like Marcus Borg, understand Jesus’ death on the cross as an event of political motivations. Many wanted Jesus dead for his revolutionary ideas. Jerusalem indeed was a hotbed for revolt, political demonstration, and religious movement. It actually wasn’t until long after Jesus’ death that the cross actually became a symbol for forgiveness of sins. In Borg’s view, atonement theology does not go back to Jesus himself. Jesus did not see the purpose of his life [his vocation] as being only his death. In sharp contrast to the substitution view of atonement, it is God who initiates and fulfills reconciliation.

It is amazing grace, not wrath. God gets rid of any separation between humans and God with mercy.[2]

Why is this important? Well, see above–all the baggage people carry, the lack of healing, and of course, the violence.

Also, what we think about the cross and Jesus’ death is not very connected to the Gospel stories themselves. Jesus does not describe God as a vengeful, angry deity ready to blast sinful people with lightning bolts because everybody is bad. I honestly don’t see a Jesus who is so focused on individual morality and the afterlife. I see a Jesus who was passionate about serving humanity—especially those who were unloved or called “bad” by others or pushed down by oppressive systems, or left out in the cold. Jesus taught more about the kingdom of God being on earth—in other words, that God’s presence was here on the ground, where real people live and breathe and try to make sense of their purpose in life. Jesus saw the injustice, hate, and sadness of the world and didn’t try to hide it. And when he did describe himself in this Luke passage, he talked about animals.

Herod, the ruler who supposedly wanted to kill him [according to some Pharisees in Jerusalem], was a fox. Picture what a fox looks like and what kinds of animals a fox likes to eat. Jerusalem was full of little baby chicks. It’s marshmallow Peeps season so the metaphor works.  That fox [Herod] was leading them to trouble. Too many chicks were following him.

And Jesus was the mother hen.

Not a tyrannosaurus rex or a roaring lion, but…




A mother hen who is completely devoted to protecting and caring for her little, defenseless chicks. A mother hen without the teeth and claws of the fox. A mother hen who will selflessly teach mercy and accept and love all those people who were told that they’re bad. A mother hen who is sad about the state of affairs in the world—so much hate, so much violence, so much abuse of power. And yet, a mother hen who is willing to keep on healing, teaching, and empowering people to see God in their lives.

So what do you see in the symbol of the cross?
Why did Jesus die?

It is God’s wish for people to be cared for and loved—not hated.
It is Jesus’ life and teachings that call us to care and love all who are left out, hated, pushed down, and led astray.
God’s insistence on being here with us in the mess and suffering of the world is immeasurable. It’s not anger; it is grace.

In a world that tells us, to quote Bruno Mars, that we’ve been locked out of heaven:

Jesus tells us: God’s kingdom is here. On earth. Living. Working. Moving through us.

So let us journey to the cross–the path of truth, and life, and mercy.

Grace awaits. Love under the wings of a loving God.

And as you journey there, notice the others along the way. There are people just like you. They are looking for purpose and forgiveness and acceptance just as they are. They too have sometimes been called or feel bad.

So how will they see grace, justice, and love in you? Amen.

[1] Stott, John (2006),The Cross of Christ (20th Anniversary ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. p. 27.

[2] Dr. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 2003.

Little Stories within the Big One

Based on Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:68-79

The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn’t that make life a story?[1]

LifeofPiBookThe words of the character Pi in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. I am moved by this novel and the movie’s ability to push us to ask important questions about life, story, and their connections to each other. During this time of Advent, we often make the mistake of believing that the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is all too familiar, and therefore, not a story that can challenge, move, and change us. And yet, in spite of the commercial animal of Christmas, here we are as people of faith, reading these stories and hoping that they will help us understand our own stories. How we understand the world greatly affects how we live in it. How we read sacred stories greatly affects how we apply them to our lives. So once again, I invite and challenge you to journey through these stories with me, but to take special care as to not infer what we think we know about them. Let’s open our minds and hearts to hearing them again, seeking new understandings.

Malachi is a book of the Bible that we don’t really read much, but there are definitely recognizable parts in it. Many people in Western Europe and in this country only recognize Malachi because of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah of 1741.

But before the hallelujah chorus gets stuck in your head [too late], you should know that the text for Messiah was put together by a wealthy English landowner named Charles Jennens. He took bits and pieces of scripture from both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, at times editing the text to fit the libretto he compiled in three parts. Jennens used the King James Version of the Bible and sought to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, focusing on the Divine mystery of God’s presence in humanity.[2]

handelMessiah, through song, tells a story that directly connects prophetic books like Malachi to the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Certainly, if you grew up with Messiah, then you most likely see Malachi through this lens. But I told you that we were going to attempt to hear the stories as they are—not inferring or even reading into them, as much as possible. So let’s give Malachi its due. First of all, Malachi is not the name of a prophet. This book was written by an anonymous author or group of authors. Malachi is Hebrew for messenger of God.[3] This prophetic book has a unique tone to it—much different than the familiar prophetic voices of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Malachi announces a messenger who will bring purification. Israel needs to be cleaned, but from what? According to Malachi, the religious leaders [the priests] had desecrated the temple with inappropriate sacrifices. There were false prophets and selfish leaders who looked out for themselves but not for the poor, or for the forgotten, or the marginalized. They had broken their covenant promises with God.

In essence, Malachi calls out so-called “religious” people who worshiped falsely because they did not act justly. They were supposed to do good in the world; their lives preached a message contrary to that. Their worship was adoration of material things, comfort, and the plans of people. This did not please Yahweh, according to Malachi.

I have to say, though most think that Malachi was written in the time period of 515-445 B.C.E.[4] when the Jerusalem temple was rebuilt, I think the message is for us today, too. We most certainly have plenty of religious temples all around, but what are we preaching and what are we doing? Especially in a season of consumerism and shopping, what are we worshiping? Are we keeping our promises? There are people without adequate food and shelter; there are injustices done to those without the “proper” paperwork; there is discrimination and bullying against people from other countries, those who speak languages other than English, those with little money, and those who practice a different faith. Malachi is a call to repentance, to turning around. Humanity’s intentions and humanity’s actions contradict the Holy One’s expectations.

Perhaps some of us hear this prophetic book as merely background noise for Handel’s Messiah, as merely another reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. But let’s stay with Malachi’s story. In this story, Yahweh is the refining fire—the One who will restore Israel to its blessed relationship with its God, but also the one who judges humanity for injustices. Malachi’s story is a prophetic voice that speaks a message not about prediction or foretelling, but a message of truth-telling.

Are we caring for people, or does our religion prevent us from doing so? In other words, yes, Malachi is concerned with how people worship God, but this worship is worthless unless it leads to merciful and just action on the streets. That wasn’t happening way back in the day. And…I think we have the same problem now. What does religious practice lead to? After worship, do we just go back to shopping, buying, stressing out, ignoring the world’s problems, and neglecting to help our neighbors?

Pi, in his story and journey of faith, observes this disconnect. As a boy, he notices this about many religious people:

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging…walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.”


But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

 Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.”[5] 

From Malachi’s prophetic voice and story to Luke’s Gospel. Something to keep in mind here. We’re reading the Bible as a great big story. Malachi was a chapter in that story. Luke’s Gospel does not follow Malachi in the story, though it does in this version of the Bible. Let’s do this. Take the Bible and read Malachi’s ending, and then, like in many great stories, imagine that there is a fast-forward moment. Malachi ends and there are centuries that pass—ages. Generations of people come and go. Jerusalem becomes Greek in language and culture. Then the Romans bring the Latin language and their empire. People play taxes to Caesar. Jerusalem is occupied by Roman military. And now we’re into Luke’s story. We’re about to hear about another prophetic voice. We may think it is Jesus, but we would be wrong.

Luke’s story invites us to sit awhile with Zechariah and Elizabeth.

heqiElizThe Visitation, He Qi

These two characters are shared by the sacred stories of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those of the Baha’i faith. Zechariah worked in the temple, serving a priestly role. Elizabeth, due to the restrictions and taboos of her time, lived under a cloud of sorrow and longing. She and Zechariah could not have children. Being infertile was considered a shameful condition in this era. Many considered childbearing as a blessing of God and infertility as a curse. So Luke tells us a story of grief. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed to be part of the community. They hungered for connection. Even so, they remained faithful to their God, in spite of the many around them who whispered and gossiped. We’re tempted to skip over this story, but we cannot. We must stay a moment in this place of doubt, silence, and waiting. How do we expect to truly journey to Bethlehem unless we sit with Zechariah and Elizabeth? Advent is about waiting. It is about hearing the lesser-known stories and not going for the overplayed, mainstream, dominant stories. For how will we get the bigger message of God unless we hear the smaller stories?

Notice that Zechariah and Elizabeth, both advanced in age, were resigned to the fact that they would not have a child. But then, one day, while serving in the temple, Zechariah is visited by an angel and promised a son. This news is so unbelievable to him that he is literally speechless—unable to talk. What follows is a muted celebration [pun intended] of a child who will be called John. Of course, this John [often called the Baptist], in his story, will be another prophetic voice, preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, echoing Malachi: repent—turn around!  But well before Zechariah’s song of praise over John’s birth, there was great sorrow and doubt. Where was God? Did God forget about Zechariah and Elizabeth? Of course, the common mistake we make with this story is to say “whew” when Elizabeth gets pregnant and forget about the rest of the story. A happy ending that leads us to Jesus, right?

But throughout the Bible’s great-big story, we find numerous female characters in their struggle to have a child. We cannot overlook the feelings of isolation, sadness, and the terrible rejection of the community. Monica A. Coleman, Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religions at Claremont School of Theology, provides this insight:

 In real life, God’s “fix” [of barrenness leading to pregnancy] is not always a boy-prophet. Sometimes it’s adoption. Sometimes it’s a birthed child. Sometimes it’s nieces and nephews. Sometimes it’s finding peace with childlessness.

 If women wrote the Bible, it might mention how messy the enterprise of not having children really is. It might mention the girl children the women loved. It might talk about how the men were in the temple, while the bleeding women gathered somewhere else. If women wrote the Bible, we would have more than these solitary scenes where a woman pours out her heart to God, and God fixes it by “opening her womb.”

 If this woman wrote the Bible, I’d write about barren women … and the women who support them. Those stories would be my love letter to them.[6]

This is the story Luke asks us to hear. All of us who struggle with doubt, isolation, unfulfilled hopes—these stories matter. And they matter to God. Our seemingly small stories are part of a great-big one. Even in our pain, God is present. So when Zachariah is able to open his mouth and speak again, he spouts out a poem, thanking God for faithfulness. It reads like a Psalm. His poem remembers what God has done in the past and how God’s fulfillment of promises does not usually occur on our time—God acts in unexpected ways and the path to blessing is often paved with discomfort and doubt. I am especially moved by the last part of Zechariah’s poem:

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The tender mercy of God brings about the coming of dawn, bringing light into our darkest moments, guiding us into the way of peace. Luke’s story uses the word peace more than the other three Gospels combined. This word peace is prophetic. It does not mean the absence of conflict. Peace is not serenity, calmness, or lack of trouble. Peace originates from the Hebrew noun shalom, which means a state of wholeness. Living shalom does not mean that we don’t doubt; living shalom doesn’t wipe away our problems; living peace is more than just a happy ending. Like always, we ought to hear the voice of the story. Luke’s characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, carry a story, even in their names. Zechariah means Yahweh remembers and Elizabeth means Elisheva, my God has promised.[7] So this story tells us that God has promised to remember us. Even when we don’t believe in anything, much less God; even when life is pain and we’re isolated from community; when we’re burned out and hopeless; when we’re lost; when it seems that our story doesn’t matter.

God promises to remember us.

And if we hear that story loud and clear, during this season and every day of our lives, we will hear Malachi, too. For God is with all people in their pain—regardless of their faith or lack thereof; no matter where they live or where they are from; God is with those who suffer, who are pushed down and forgotten; God loves the stranger, the bullied, and the left out. The story pushes us to different levels of thinking and doing. The serene scene of a manger, cute animals, shepherds, and magi in a barn is transformed into something much, much bigger. If we seek wholeness-shalom-peace for ourselves, we should offer it to others. If we hope that God will remember us in our pain and suffering, we ought to sit, stand, and wait with others in theirs. In all of our smaller stories, the big story can be told.

God remembers you.
Now remember the hurting people all around you.

Don’t ignore their stories.

May we all be guided in the path of Wholeness. Amen.


[1] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[2] Handel’s Messiah, Rex Levang and Arthur Hoehn, December 1999, Minnesota Public Radio,

[3] Malachi, Jewish Encyclopedia.

[4] John C. Holbert, Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, TX

[5] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[6] The Barren Woman Bible, Monica A. Coleman.


Luke 21:25-36:  The Fantasy of Hope

The first Sunday of Advent is known as the first day of a new church year. Christian Churches [Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox] around the world start with the stories of the prophets and the gospels in late November/early December and then walk through the stories together, leading up to Holy Week and the celebration of resurrection in the spring. Parts of the world differ on the calendar, but the basic sequence of the story remains the same. This year we start with Luke’s gospel. Now each gospel is unique of course, in terms of how it was written and pieced together, and how it tells the story. Mark’s gospel was written first; then Luke and Matthew; then John. Matthew copies Mark a lot and only adds a few unique stories; Luke copies Mark about 50 percent of the time and often changes Mark’s telling of the story to a more literary, flowing style. Luke also contains unique stories that the other gospels do not have at all.

Luke tells the story in a “moving forward” kind of way. So Luke starts from Jesus’ birth and humble beginnings in Nazareth of Galilee and then moves to Jesus’ teachings and those who followed him; then to Acts and the birth of the church [also written by the same authors of Luke and meant to be Luke part 2]. Luke’s story begins in Bethlehem and ends in the heart of the Roman Empire. Three characters appear throughout Luke: Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Other books of the Bible do not mention Mary much. But in Luke Mary is the link between the birth of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of the church.

This is all very important to know as we read the stories together. Often in the United States, we have a story in our heads about Jesus’ birth that looks a lot different from the actual stories of scripture. A lot of that, of course, is due to religious traditions created in Rome as the Christian movement became an established religion. So we must always be aware of our sources of the stories we tell about Jesus.

Of course, my hope is that during this Advent season we can hear the story of scripture as clear as possible. I hope that you will be open to being surprised, moved, and perhaps even shocked by the story of Christ’s birth as you seek to hear it anew. Yes, the scriptural stories and their realities will challenge your typical beliefs and traditions about Christmas and this story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and a manger. But if you open your minds and hearts to the story itself, I do think that you will be blessed, challenged, and moved to connect it to your own story. Since reading the Life of Pi and seeing the movie, I’ve been moved to really examine how the stories of our lives  make us who we are. And I am also thinking quite  a bit about how we sadly convince ourselves that our telling of a particular story is somehow superior to another’s telling of it.

This is so true as it pertains to what we call the “Christmas” story.
My Advent hope rests in our connecting the stories of scriptures  to our own stories in an authentic way.

Jeremiah 1Jeremiah, Michelangelo, 1516

Jeremiah’s story will lead off. Now you may wonder what the heck a Hebrew prophetic book, Jeremiah, written well before Luke’s NT Gospel, has to do with Advent and Christmas. Well, good question. So let’s explore Jeremiah, whose name means the weeping prophet. The context was a really difficult moment in Israel’s history. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the line of David’s kingdom was broken; the temple of Solomon was burned to the ground. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon three times, starting around 598 B.C.E.[1] Jeremiah, the prophet, spends most of his book talking about how God is not too happy with the people of Judah [Israel], more specifically its political leaders, because they have not kept their end of the covenant promise they made with God through Moses. They did not take care of the poor; they did not love God as they said they would. Of course, the leaders of Israel didn’t like Jeremiah’s message. After all, they had built much comfort, status, and power for themselves. They had great influence. So Jeremiah calls them out, and even though the prophet is obviously no fan of political leaders, in the face of very little hope for Israel, Jeremiah decides to promote a new vision of a leader.

This new leader didn’t look like the others. Radically inclusive and strangely ordinary, the righteous branch that will spring up restores a new kind of way for Israel, a world in which all people are given an abundant life. He calls upon imagery of trees and branches like in Genesis—ways to describe God’s good creation and human beings’ participation in it.

The branch is reflective of the God-qualities of justice and mercy; it springs forth. But Jeremiah doesn’t see this as real yet. He only hopes for it. It is only fantasy. The reality is that the righteous branch did not spring up from among the people of Israel. Instead, Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, took over Babylon and Israel in about 538 B.C.E.[2] Cyrus actually embraced other religious traditions and therefore allowed the Israelites to return home, rebuild the temple, and practice their religion. For many of the Jewish faith, Cyrus is referred to as an anointed one, or a messiah.

Notice I haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. Why? Because Jeremiah has nothing to do with Jesus. It was not until many, many centuries later that the Christian church in Rome interpreted the hope of Jeremiah to be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and the rebuilding of the line of King David and the salvation of the world. Certainly, over the centuries, the Israelites [who many in modern day identify as the Jewish people] and Christians have interpreted prophecies like Jeremiah’s in different ways. But as we connect Jeremiah to Luke, I want us to hear the story’s message above all.

Jeremiah’s story is not about Jesus. Luke’s story is. But despite that difference, both stories point us to the same theme:

redemption follows deterioration;
restoration follows chaos;
justice and mercy follow oppression;
and hope is the key.

You see, Luke’s gospel, like Jeremiah’s prophecy, tells us a story about the current state of the world and what is to come. Luke 21 is sourced from Mark’s gospel [chapter 13] and is sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalyptic literature involves story-telling in difficult times. Notice this business of signs in the sun, moon, and stars; nations in anguish and confused as the ocean roars; people fainting out of fear and anxiety, concerned about what will happen next. Like Jeremiah, Luke’s gospel is about Israel. After the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 300 B.C.E. Then, years later in the 1st and 2nd century C.E. another conquering empire, this time Rome—took over Jerusalem, destroying the temple once again in 70 C.E.[3] So we’re back to that again. Luke parallels Jeremiah’s story. Things look bleak. Help is needed. Redemption seems far away.

But there is still hope in the middle of despair.

Instead of the weeping prophet, we have the grown-up Jesus–not the baby in the manger we associate with this time of year. In fact, the baby Jesus is mentioned only six times in all of the Bible! Instead, the teachings, ministry, and life of Jesus are the most significant parts of the story. Keep in mind that the apostles and the the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. This idea of Christmas was not mentioned in history until the Roman Church established it as a tradition in about 336 C.E.[4] This shouldn’t surprise us, because the stories of the New Testament clearly tell us their purpose: to tell the Good News of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings, ministry, and death. Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus the grown-up version—not the baby. Keeping this in mind will only enrich the stories.

figtree2For Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree–an allegorical story with a point. Like Jeremiah, Jesus uses the natural world. Trees are usually metaphors for humans. The fig tree sprouts leaves and tells us that summer is near. Likewise, when we see all this chaos and uncertainty around us, God is near. Hope lives in despair. Sprouting leaves and blooming plants remind us that new life is still possible when life around us says the opposite. The Greek word for near in this case is engizo, a word that literally means coming nearness.[5] Redemption, then, is coming near. What a perfect message for Advent—a time when we recognize that the apocalypse is not some future, world-ending event someone predicts, but apocalypse is actually right now. Things are difficult now. Hope is hard to come by. At times, we can feel like the world is crashing down and the foundations of our lives are rotting beneath our feet. But redemption is coming near… FigBranch

Jesus says: watch at all times. Don’t watch for calamity or destruction or something else to stress out about. Don’t throw your hands up in the air and scream: “We’re all going to die! AAAAAAHHH!” Instead, watch for signs of redemption. Watch for God. And: pray that you might have strength. And don’t just pray; stand up. God will even help you stand up. For the low are lifted high; the last are made first. The apocalypse is in fact not bad news, but good news. All the worry and fear of life is shared by everyone. And it is in recognizing all this chaos that we notice the redemption that is coming nearer and nearer.

Friends, I, like you, often wonder about hope. Is it a fantasy? I look around and I see pain and prejudice and apathy and separation. Look, it may be Christmastime, but we cannot escape reality. We should never ignore the people suffering all over the world. We cannot gloss over injustice. Instead of looking for quick fixes or easy answers that help us forget, we should stand up. That’s right! As Jesus said, our prayers and our faith practices should stand us up.

We should all stand up stubbornly out of hope—believing that in a world seemingly beyond repair, there are still green sprouts appearing in this church and others who say to our lesbian, gay and transgender brothers and sisters—you are welcome, loved, and accepted here. You are part of our community.

There are buds blooming where people show that color and culture and language matter less than character; if we don’t hope and pray for these things, we won’t do these things!

There are branches budding and bearing fruit in the middle of our chaos and destruction. And you and I—we have this fruit to bear. But it’s not false hope. It’s not ignoring the problems. It’s seeing the world for what it is and seeing ourselves for who we are. And then it’s standing up to do what is just and merciful and kind. It’s you and I springing forth with new life and lifting up others who have fallen down.

I close with an excerpt from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis:


“…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars..”[6]

Hope is only fantasy until we make it real. Redemption is coming near. Look for it. And bear redemption’s fruit for others. Amen.

[1] Amy Erickson, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Iliff School of Theology.

[2] Jona Lendering (2012). “Messiah – Roots of the concept: From Josiah to Cyrus”.

[3] Jewish Encyclopedia. Temple of Solomon.

[4] Biblical Archeology, Christmas origins,

[5] Gospel Commentary, Karl Jacobson, Asst. Professor of Religion, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr.I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee.

Life of Pi and the Story of Ruth

Ruth 4:  Redeeming and Being Redeemed 

“I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Life of Pi is a novel full of fantasy, philosophy, adventure, religious exploration, and great story-telling. Author Yann Martel finally got Life of Pi published in 2001. Of course, a movie adaptation of the book is now in theaters, directed by Ang Lee. The main character/protagonist is Piscine Molitor, French for “pool.” As a boy, Piscine decides to change his name to “Pi” Patel. Pi grows up in India in Pondicherry. From an early age, Pi explores issues of spirituality, rationality, doubt, and God—all the while growing up with various animals in a zoo that his parents own. The story takes a dramatic turn when Pi’s family is involved in a shipwreck. Pi survives 227 days at sea, stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. The twist is that his constant companion on the boat happens to be a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Here is one of the trailers of the movie, Life of Pi:

Life of Pi is a challenging story—one the author claims is non-fiction, even though as a reader, we wonder how that could be with all of the fantasy and surrealism. After all, the story begins with an old man in the French-speaking part of India in a fantasy town. The old man tells a novelist [who acts as narrator]: I have a story that will make you believe in God. And yet, Life of Pi does not push a particular religion, dogma, or doctrine. Instead, it closely links storytelling and religious beliefs. The book explains to the reader that on a literal level, each religion comes up with its own set of tales and fables which are used to spread the teachings and illustrate the beliefs of that particular faith. The boy Pi loves all these stories and enjoys hearing and telling them. So do I. But like Pi, I sense that sometimes we don’t listen very well to the stories themselves. We sometimes get caught up in our own agendas and motivations. We can forget that all stories can be aspects of a greater, universal story, and in this case, a greater story about love.   

The Bible is indeed a big book of stories. And in fact, as we take our final look at the story of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures, we ought to remember that these stories first belonged to ancient Israelites. They were passed down from generation to generation. These stories are still told by Jews around the world. And many of these stories are shared by Muslims and Christians, Buddhists, and Bahai’s, too. Chapter four of Ruth is indeed the end—I told you it was short! Here we find Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi in what seems like a happier ending to the tale that began so horribly. Boaz, true to his word, went into town to find the younger man who could be Ruth’s next-of-kin, called her provider [redeemer]—the one who could offer land, food, and security to her. Boaz surrounded himself with elders of the city so they could witness the exchange of intentions. The young man, Boaz shared, had the option of buying Naomi’s late husband Elimelech’s land, since the young man was the next-of-kin. So the man agreed to buy the land, or in their words, redeem it.

But Boaz continued: if the man bought the land, he would also “acquire” Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Elimelech’s son, so that Elimelech’s name would remain in his land. Suddenly, the young man changed his mind. This would not be a wise financial investment, as far as he was concerned. Land, yes. Ruth, no. Apparently, the young man had caught the disease of Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners. Marrying Ruth would most certainly damage his reputation and perhaps his wealth. So he gave up his right to claim the land to Boaz. Go figure. Anyone else sense that Boaz had this all figured out from the beginning?

The custom at the time in Israel, says the story, was for a sandal to be exchanged when a transaction of redemption took place. So the young man removed his sandal and gave it to Boaz. In front of all the elders, this happened. It was official. Boaz claimed Ruth as his wife; people agreed to be witnesses. And then, this declaration about Ruth: May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel…

Indeed, Ruth and Boaz got hitched. Finally, right? And soon after, the story tells us that Ruth got pregnant. She had a son. Women of Bethlehem celebrated for Naomi, saying: Blessed be the Lord! He [the child] shall be a restorer of life to you; your daughter-in-law [Ruth], who is more to you than seven sons, loves you. Naomi took the child, named Obed, in her arms. She cared for him. All is well. The story should end there, right? But it doesn’t. The story doesn’t end with Naomi restored to life, the land [and Ruth] redeemed. The story ends with this:

Obed became the father of Jesse who was the father of David.

 And then a longer list of the names of the Perez family tree. The end.

Now in every story there are symbols, histories, and perspectives to keep in mind. None of us will really embrace the story of Ruth unless we know something about redemption—a word we often hear in U.S. Christian circles as something reserved for explanations of Jesus Christ “saving” or “redeeming” people from sin. We hear redemption and head right for atonement and the cross. But that’s far too limiting and quite unfaithful to the Ruth story. And actually, not far removed from Black Friday and the shopping frenzy that will continue until December 25th, we don’t have to look hard to understand what redemption actually meant historically. Redemption is about business. It’s about buying and selling and consumerism, as we would call it today. Everyone here is familiar with gift cards, right? You may have bought some for family and friends already. What is the language we use when someone uses her gift card? Redeem. She, the consumer, redeems her gift card. He redeems his iTunes code to buy a song.

Redeeming is about exchanging bonds, gift cards, or whatever–for money or goods. We know how this works. We also know how redemption works with debt. If you have a mortgage, someone can redeem it by paying it off. If any of us have been unfortunate enough as to experience our house being foreclosed upon, we know that it can be bought back or redeemed. So I’m trying to bring home the point that we ought to read Ruth’s story as it is, with its own lens. We should not project other things onto it, including Jesus of Nazareth or much later projections of atonement or redemption because of original sin. This actually lessens the power of the story itself. Ruth is about a widow who was poor, a foreigner, and a person who practiced another religion. Ancient Israelite law made two things clear to Ruth and Naomi: 1] Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband, had land but now that land was up for grabs, because the women could not inherit it on their own; 2] foreigners were not welcome to marry Israelites.

You can read about this in the book of Leviticus, specifically chapter 25. So basically, Naomi and Ruth had no men in their lives who were family. That meant that they were destined to live in poverty and on the outskirts of society. Unless…someone redeemed their situation. There is a Hebrew word for this type of person. It is go’el, in English, a kinsman-redeemer. The young man who was a distant relative of Naomi could have been their go-el. But he refused out of Xenophobia [see previous comment about not marrying foreigners] and out of his desire to keep land for himself. If he would have married Ruth, she would have had access to his land as well. For the young man, redemption was measure for measure. He wasn’t acting oddly because he simply followed the status quo of his time. This is essential in the story, because it helps us understand why Boaz’s action ended up being the climax in the Ruth tale. You see, Boaz had no financial reason to redeem Elimelech’s land; he had no social or religious reason to marry Ruth. His redemption was not about measure for measure, but about mercy and love.

Boaz redeemed and played the role of go’el, for a reason. He loved. It’s clear, long before Boaz calls the elders of Bethlehem together to witness the transaction that Boaz cared for Ruth greatly. He admired her even. Boaz saw how Ruth was kind, loyal, and loving to Naomi. Ruth redeemed Naomi, even without money, land, or power. Even though Obed’s birth was a blessing, the women of Bethlehem proclaimed that Ruth was more important to Naomi than seven sons! Why? Because she loved her. Ruth was go’el for Naomi when society didn’t even think it was possible. And so Boaz responded to Ruth’s character by showing her Xenophilia—a love of foreigners. He cared less for his reputation and more for Ruth as a person. He loved; he redeemed.

And so the story can lift us out of our consumerism, out of our obsession with getting as much as we can, of maintaining our reputations and not making waves out of fear. The story begins and ends with Naomi’s doubt and even anger towards God. She moves from hopelessness to restoration. She feels, at the beginning, that God hates her. Until Ruth proves her wrong.

“I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Pi is sitting down with the Canadian novelist to share a meal to begin telling his story. They prepare to eat and Pi bows his head in prayer. He closes by saying Amen.

Canadian Writer: I didn’t know Hindus say “amen.”

Pi: Catholic Hindus do.

Writer: Catholic Hindus?

Pi: We get to feel guilty before hundreds of Gods instead of just one.

Writer: But you’re a Hindu first?

Pi: None of us knows God until someone introduces us.

None of us knows God until someone introduces us.

While the writer is trying to “pin down” exactly what Pi believes, seeking some sort of explanation for these crazy stories, Pi reminds him to just listen to the story. So I say to you, just listen to the story. Ruth isn’t about a family tree, or Jesus of Nazareth, or Christmas or shopping or even sin.

The story is:

Ruth loves Naomi when she doesn’t have to; Naomi is redeemed.
Boaz notices Ruth’s love; Boaz chooses to love when he doesn’t have to; Ruth is redeemed.
People in Bethlehem see this love and they are redeemed.
Naomi thought God was absent and even against her until Ruth loved her.
Ruth thought that her gender, nationality, and religion limited her until Boaz loved her.
None of us knows God until someone introduces us.

How, like Ruth, will you be both redeemer and one who is redeemed? Remember, it’s not about “saving” someone; we don’t have the power to save people. But we can love. We can be caring and merciful when it’s not expected of us. We can go above and beyond. We can redeem relationships that are broken; prejudices that separate us; injustices that push down and hurt; hate that destroys.

Friends, so much in the next month will be about other things that seek to distract us from the great story of love. So many times, we’re tempted to read into stories our own interpretations that make us feel better, confirm what we already believe, or give us something we want. And yes, just like with Ruth, next week we’ll be talking about Bethlehem again and another baby born there. But I encourage you to let the stories surprise you, challenge what you believe, and push you to see higher, further, and differently.

For none of us knows God until someone introduces us.

No one knows love unless they see love in others.

No one finds healing unless someone offers a healing hand to them.

No one has hope until someone cares for them when all is lost.

No one finds redemption unless you or I decide to offer it to them.

I have a story that will make you believe in God.

Listen well to the love and redemption in your story. And now live it for others. Amen.

Character-Building and Redeeming

Ruth 3:1-18

Fear, Anger, and Sadness: Who Walks with Us?

No matter what age we are, or where we are on our journey—I think all of us know what it’s like to be scared, angry, or sad. When I was a kid, I moved a lot. I remember my first day of middle school in Iowa after moving from Indiana. I was scared. I didn’t know anyone in my school. The teachers were new; the hallways were strange; the students weren’t my friends. I felt alone. And I was scared. Then, as a teenager, I remember some vicious bullies roaming the hallways of our school. They didn’t just terrorize me—they picked on all sorts of kids. Sometimes they bullied a guy because he got good grades; other times, they bullied a girl who didn’t come from a family with lots of money so she wore hand-me-down clothes; they also bullied anyone they identified as different. This made me mad, furious–angry. Fast forward to my time as a young adult studying in seminary. I remember my first internship in a church and my first board meetings. I expected discussions and perhaps arguments about how we ought to serve the community, help those in need, lift up those who were down or include those who were left out. But those discussions rarely took place. Instead, time and energy was spent arguing over which songs to sing in worship services; the clothes that people wore; the dogma or doctrine that people “should” believe; and the amount of money the church should save for itself. It made me incredibly sad–depressed, even.

On life’s journey, I think all of us visit places that are scary, angry, or sad. Perhaps some of you are in one of those places today. Maybe you’re trying to get out of one of those places but cannot find the way. Such places in life, I believe, are even worse when we’re alone. We go from being scared to paralyzed; angry to hateful; sad to depressed. But in our stories, if we are not alone—if someone is with us through it all—things can change. Back when I started middle school in Iowa, I was frightened because I did feel alone. But by day number two, a kid named Derrick started talking to me in history class. Before I knew it, he invited me to his house. Soon enough, we were friends. And then a new school was less scary. As a teenager, I was angry at all the bullies around; it wasn’t fair how they treated us; the teachers turned away from it and other students let it happen. But friends gathered around me, stood up for me, and I learned how to stand up for others. Our anger turned into action as we stood with the kids who were constantly picked on. We chose to say “no, stop” when it was easier to just ignore it. And in seminary, as sad as I had ever been because of the hypocrisy and apathy of the institutional church—when I felt alone–my sadness was capable of becoming deep depression. But there were colleagues and friends, some working in churches, some studying in seminary—who stood with me. We shared our sadness, prayed for each other, laughed together, and refused to let hypocrisy and apathy overcome us.

Friends, it’s true that all the scary, angry, and sad places in life look different when we’re not alone, when we walk with others. It changes the game when we’re in a community or alongside a friend, a life partner, or a blessed colleague—people who pull us out of those places with support, love, and care. Then the difficult places can become opportune places to build character, to learn and grow, and even—to find something that was lost, or to heal, or to redeem.

This is the story of Ruth—a story of sadness, anger, and fear—an ancient Israelite story of friendship—that brings about joy, courage, transformation, and redemption. We are looking at chapter 3 of this story, but let’s recap chapters 1 and 2 with the help of these paintings from Marc Chagall:

Chapter 1: Israel was in the middle of a famine. A man named Elimelech journeyed from Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife Naomi and his two sons to Moab. Elimelech died, and so Naomi was left with her two sons. Both sons married Moabite women. One was named Orpah, and the other was named Ruth. Later on, both of the sons died, and Naomi was left with only Orpah and Ruth. Eventually, Naomi heard that the famine was over in her homeland, and so she decided to return to Judah. She told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. Both Orpah and Ruth refused. Naomi insisted they stay, because in those days, a woman of Naomi’s old age would struggle to survive; she had nothing to offer Ruth and Orpah. So the three women cried, and they hugged, and Orpah went back to her family. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. No matter how much Naomi insisted, Ruth refused to leave her side. Ruth was willing to leave her home and all that she knew with no guarantees that it would work out. All for Naomi. So both women went to Bethlehem together at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Chapter 2 begins with this: Naomi had a relative on her late husband’s side. He was a wealthy man named Boaz. One day, Ruth told Naomi that she wanted to go collect the scraps left in the fields as people harvested the barley crop. It was common practice for the ancient Israelites to leave the stalks that fell after picking the barley. This was a spiritual practice of caring for the poor and foreigners who had nothing to eat. The field Ruth chose to collect in belonged to Boaz. Not long after, Boaz noticed Ruth and asked about her. His workers told him that she was the Moabite girl who came with Naomi.

So Boaz and Ruth meet for the first time. Boaz, not obligated to really care about this widow from Moab, tells Ruth: Don’t go collect in another field. Stay here close to my girls. Keep your eyes on where they’re picking the crop, and follow them. No one will bother you. And when you’re thirsty, go drink from the jars of water that the men have drawn.

Surprised, Ruth wonders why Boaz would show such kindness to someone like her. Boaz tells Ruth that it is her character that intrigues him, how she had stood by Naomi through thick and thin, how she had taken risks to leave her family and her homeland. So he makes sure that Ruth has enough to eat. And when Ruth tells Naomi this news about Boaz, the bitter, once-sad and angry Naomi praises God.

Now in chapter 3 and Naomi has changed completely. No longer down in the dumps, she now plays matchmaker. She has hope for Ruth and her household. Naomi knows that Boaz will be sorting the barley that was picked. So Ruth, Naomi thinks, why not clean yourself up real nice, make sure you smell good, dress up to the nines, and go to that threshing floor. When Boaz lies down to sleep, uncover his feet and lie down yourself. Quite a risk. Up to this point, Ruth had been protected from such a scenario. But now Naomi was asking her to put herself in a very vulnerable situation. Ruth isn’t sure, but her friendship with Naomi has brought her this far and given her much courage. So Ruth waits until Boaz is lying down and he uncovers his feet. Of course, the story is playing with words here, for the uncovering of feet is well—not about feet. I’ll leave the birds and the bees explanation to all you parents out there. But can you feel the tension in the story? What will happen to Ruth? How will Boaz react? The spreading of Boaz’s robe would be a symbol of betrothal. Is the story about to end with a happy marriage? No. Even though Ruth calls Boaz her redeemer, [the one who would allow Ruth to have land, food, and community], Boaz doesn’t accept. Don’t get me wrong—he is grateful for Ruth’s act of loyalty and her thankfulness. But Boaz mentions another man, a guy who is younger. But Boaz is clear that he will help Ruth. Either way, she would not be left alone.

At this point, you and I will leave the story there and wait to turn the page. There’s drama here, isn’t there? Unexpected twists abound. Rules are broken; obligations and duty are pushed aside in favor of friendship and mercy. Women destined to live in poverty, on an uncertain path, with seemingly little hope. And yet, a lasting friendship forms that binds them together. Their fear becomes courage; their sadness, joy.

An unlikely friendship between an Israelite woman and a Moabite woman is more than just a nice story. The book of Ruth was a protest against the Nehemiah-Ezra marriage laws established at the time, prohibiting Israelites from marrying foreigners. Clearly, Ruth’s story was challenging how society defined marriage, relationship, and even love. Obligation and duty gave way to friendships well beyond the established categories.

Ruth and Naomi had little in common. They were of different generations, from different cultures, practiced different religions, and claimed different homelands. But they trusted each other, even when things looked bleak. They picked each other up and shared what they had—be it wisdom, experience, talent, strength, or courage. And together, they were able to overcome the many obstacles of life. Together.

On Thursday, I attended Stars of David, a world premiere play, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 







Towards the end of the play, there is a touching scene between a mother and daughter. The twelve-year-old daughter is crying—expressing to her mother all the fear and anxiety and inadequacy she feels as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah. She can’t learn the Hebrew. She can’t get the traditions right. She’s feels like she’s going to fail; she’s unsure that she can go through with it. She’s scared, frustrated, and sad at the same time. Her mother looks at her with love in her eyes and simply says:

Life can be uncertain and scary sometimes. We can even go to dark places. But when you go with someone who cares about you, what was scary and dark becomes an adventure that you share together.

 Who are the people who journey with you in life—stay with you, through it all? Be thankful for them. Let them know how much they matter to you.

 Who are the people around you who are sad, afraid, or angry? How can you be a good friend to them—lift them up, encourage and bless them–not out of obligation, but out of genuine care?

Choose to be such a friend to others. And choose, like Naomi, to accept the people God brings into your life to challenge you and bless you—even when those friends come from unlikely places.

May Ruth live in your story. Amen.

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