Sunday, July 29, 2018

Ruth--A Story for Our Time: Gleaning and Hope

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law. Ruth 2 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, we began the story of Ruth. Well, really, it’s the story of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, the daughter-in-law, and Naomi, the mother-in-law. 

If you will recall, by the end of our first of four episodes in this series, Naomi had tragically lost her husband and her two sons in Moab. Originally, Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, were not natives to the country of Moab. They had moved there from their home town of Bethlehem in Judea, forced to flee there to survive because of a severe famine. Forced to flee to a country where they knew they would very likely not be welcome.

It was there, in Moab, that they had two sons, both of whom eventually married. But, by the end of the first episode, tragedy had struck. Both Naomi’s husband and her two sons had died. So, Naomi made the choice to return to her homeland. And Ruth, her daughter-in-law, made the choice to return with her, giving up her family and her own country. And vowing her faithfulness to Naomi in the words that we so often hear at weddings: “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

As our second episode begins, Ruth and Naomi are in Bethlehem, arriving just as the barley harvest is beginning.

Ruth sees this as an opportunity. They are destitute. Ruth knows that they need food. So, she asks Naomi if she might go into the fields to glean as the fields are being harvested.

This idea of gleaning might be a new idea for some of us. Perhaps you’ve heard the word “entitlement” in political discussions. We often refer to Social Security or Medicare as entitlements--something that our government has determined that certain people, such as the elderly or the disabled, should be entitled to. 

Gleaning was also an entitlement. Rather, though, than an entitlement established by some government, gleaning was an entitlement that was established by God. For the poor. And the immigrant. An entitlement that preserved one’s dignity. “When you harvest your land’s produce,” we read in Leviticus 19, “you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also, do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.” 

So, Naomi sends Ruth on her way to the fields to glean.

In these fields, Ruth was very vulnerable. First, she was a widow, which in ancient times, meant she had no status because everything--money, wealth, status--would have belonged to her husband. But, without a husband, she was then vulnerable.

On top of this, Ruth was an immigrant, which meant that she had even less status than a widow. A widow might have had access to a land grant through her husband. But, immigrants--well, they were given no land grant. And, so, Ruth was doubly vulnerable as she went into the fields to glean.

Then, something unexpected happened. The story reads, “By chance, it happened to be the portion of the field that belonged to Boaz, who was from the family of Elimelech.” 

By chance. By chance. There’s this old saying, “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.” 

By coincidence. By chance. It just so happened that the field Ruth was gleaning in belonged to a man named Boaz, who was a respected relative of Naomi’s now deceased husband, Elimelech. By chance.

Last week, we talked about this Hebrew word, hesed. This word that describes God throughout all of the Hebrew scriptures. A word that means steadfast love and faithfulness. A word that refers to a love that is not an intangible kind of love, but a love that acts. That is love in action. We used it to describe the type of love that Ruth showed Naomi last week in remaining by her side, in giving up her family and her culture and her country to stay with Naomi, knowing how vulnerable Naomi would be. How vulnerable, really, both of them would be. It is through Ruth, that God is working. Through Ruth, Naomi experiences God’s hesed--God’s love in action.

This week, that same hesed is shown through Boaz. This man, wealthy and respected in the community, who just happens to be Naomi’s kin. By coincidence.

As Ruth is gleaning in the field, Boaz approaches. He inquires of his foreman who she is. The foreman’s first identification of Ruth is that she is a foreigner, an immigrant. His second is that she is one who had returned with Naomi. It’s a typical response. Ruth looks different. She sounds different. Clearly, she doesn’t belong there. She is, first, an immigrant. Right?

But, how does Boaz identify her? The first words out of his mouth are “my daughter.” Not foreigner. Or immigrant. Or stranger. Or even widow. But, “My. Daughter.” He claims her as family. And, then, Boaz begins to ensure that his abundance will also be hers. By making sure that there is an abundant amount left over for her to glean. By making sure that she can gather with other women, so she will be safe. By making sure that his men working in the fields will not assault her. And, then, to invite her to eat with him and the rest of his household and to serve her himself.

THIS is hesed. This is God’s hesed at work through Boaz. It is a love that is shown in word and deed. It is a hospitality that is shown to neighbor. and, it is a hesed that is directed to the stranger among us. To the foreigner. The immigrant. The vulnerable. Steadfast love and faithfulness. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness shown through Boaz. Shown through us.
You see, both Boaz and Ruth give us rich examples of what welcome and hospitality should look like in our world today. There is no border that prevents either of them from showing hesed to the stranger among us. There is no border that prevents us from doing the same. Showing God’s love, God’s hesed, to the stranger among us. The poor. The immigrant.

Because there is no border that kept God from showing God’s hesed to us. No sin great enough. Nothing to get in the way of God coming to us in Jesus. Jesus, who welcomes us to his table. Who welcomes everyone to his table. You and I. The poor. The immigrant.

In another week or so, we will be engaging in a sacred conversation around this topic of immigrant. This difficult topic of immigration. It is a complex issue. It is an issue around which there are many opinions--many different opinions that I’d suggest are present in this congregation and in our community. How do we enter into sacred conversation around this topic? How do we identify our shared values around the question of immigration? How do we figure out a way to move forward?

Perhaps, we look to this story. To the way in which Boaz responded to Ruth. To the way to which Ruth responded to Naomi. Before and after she met Boaz. Because Ruth’s hesed towards Naomi did not end with their journey back to Bethlehem, back to Naomi’s homeland. No, after Ruth had eaten with Boaz, she took the abundant leftovers and the 30 pounds of grain that she had gleaned and she brought them to Naomi. She gave Naomi hope.

This is what God’s hesed looks like. Perhaps, as we engage in sacred conversation around this topic of immigration and how we respond to the immigrant--to the foreigner--this is what God’s hesed is to look like in us. Love. Faithfulness. Abundance. Hope. 

Something to think about. Amen.

Preached July 29, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 10
Readings: Ruth 2:1-23 (Luke 6:36-38)

Ruth--A Story for Our Time: Loss and Loyalty

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
    and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them,

“Call me no longer Naomi,
    call me Mara,
    for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
    but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
    when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
    and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.  Ruth 1 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you, from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s good to be back. I’m grateful to Pastor Funk for covering for me last week, allowing me to be away. During the time I was on vacation, I travelled to Minnesota to be with my son and daughter-in-law. It was a great journey. 

Today, we are going on another journey--an imaginary journey. This journey, though, is not a journey that we want to make. It is one that will take us away--from extended family, from country, from culture, from church--from everything we know and love. But, it is a journey that we must make. Because, unless we do, we will not survive. None of us.

It is a journey like this that is described in the opening verse of our reading: “During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab.

There’s a lot in this first verse. First, it opens with this phrase, “During the days when the judges ruled...” This time--the time of the judges in Hebrew scripture--was a time of great chaos and disobedience in Israel. If we turn to the book that immediately precedes the book of Ruth, we read these words in its closing verses: In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right.

Doing what is right in one’s one eyes is never a good thing in the Bible. The book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel. And even though God sought to raise up faithful judges, or tribal leaders, to save Israel from their enemies, each time they fell back into mayhem. Every. Single. Time. Back to doing what was right in one’s own eyes--which was a direct denial of the Law given to Israel--the law we heard given earlier this summer. Given to promote life--life with God and life with our neighbors. In the time of the judges, Israel fails to fulfill that law. And falls into chaos.

In the midst of this, we enter the story of Ruth. In the second part of the first verse, we find that there is a famine in Bethlehem, which, ironically, means “house of bread.” There is no more bread in Bethlehem. Survival means finding food. So begins the story of a family--Elimelech, the husband; Naomi, the wife; and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

They journey to Moab. Crossing a border in search of food. Trying to survive. Vulnerable.

Chances are pretty good that, when they arrived in Moab, they were not welcomed with open arms. You see, there was a long, complex history between Israel and Moab. While there was some history of cooperation between the two nations, there was also tension and conflict. During the Exodus, God had even commanded Israel not to intermingle or intermarry with the Moabites. In moving to Moab, Elimelech and Naomi and their sons entered into this foreign country, knowing that they would likely not be welcome.

What level of desperation does it take to do this? To feel so hopeless that survival means  no other choice but to leave the country one loves? The culture one loves? The family one loves? To move to a place where one knows no one? To begin all over again? To a place where one likely won’t feel welcome? How desperate and vulnerable must one be?

Over time, Elimelech and Naomi and their sons settled in. They began to build a new life for themselves there. Just as things were looking up, tragedy struck with the death of Elimelech. Naomi became a widow. And, although her sons married and she gained two daughters-in-law, both Moabites, soon, there was a second tragedy. The death of both of her sons. Naomi was not only a widow, but childless, as well. And her daughters-in-law--Ruth and Orpah? Well, they, too, were widows. And also childless.

We’ve heard before how vulnerable widows were in ancient times. Everything--name, wealth, status--was passed on only through male heirs. To lose a husband, meant to lose everything. To lose both husband and sons meant meant loss of name, wealth, status. And the family future. Without sons, there was no future. And, without sons, there was no security in old age. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah were completely alone. And vulnerable.

The custom was that a widow would either be taken into the home of the next oldest brother-in-law or to return to her father’s household to be protected and cared for. Naomi heard that the famine had ended in Israel. She decided to go back. To return to her home country, to be with her family. And, so, in the days before Israel had a king, three women set out on a long journey...

Narrator: Day one. 

Ruth: “It was hard to say goodbye to my family, not knowing if I’d ever see them again. My mother cried and my father held me for a long time and I felt his sadness. I know very little about the land to which I’m traveling. I’m glad that Orpah, my sister-in-law, is coming with us, because we share the same memories, the same stories. We can help each other along.”

Narrator: Day two.

Naomi: “To be going home was all I ever dreamed of. Ten years in Moab felt like a lifetime. I only went there because Elimelech decided that living and working in a foreign land was better than starving in our own village. But my husband and my sons are now dead. I am nothing now; a widow with no identity and no protection. Even my God has deserted me and left me bitter. This is nothing left for me in Moab. They say the harvest will be food this year in Bethlehem. I still have family there. I hope they’ll help me. I’m going home. And Orpah and Ruth, my daughters-in-law, are coming with me.”

Narrator: Day three.

Ruth: “Orpah went back to Moab today, back to her home and family. Naomi told her that it was better for her to remarry and raise a family in her own community. It was a hard parting. Orpah loved Naomi. We were all in tears. I’ve decided to stay with Naomi. I can’t really explain why, but I held onto her and told her that I was going with her. I left no room for argument. We are journeying on.” 
Narrator: Day five.

Naomi: “Why won’t Ruth go home? I gave her my blessing. I tried to set her free of any obligation that she feels towards me. I even told her that God has turned against me by taking my husband and sons away from me. But she won’t listen. She insists she’s coming with me and that nothing I can say will make her change her mind.”

Narrator: Day six.

Ruth: “I wonder what Naomi’s village is like. Will her neighbors remember her? What will her relatives say when they find out about Elimelech and Mahlon and Chilion? What kind of reception will she get? Will they welcome Naomi? Or will they resent her for leaving when they were all struggling for survival, for getting out with her family and leaving the weakest behind? And what will they make of me, with my foreign ways and accent? Will they blame me for what has happened? Naomi thinks that her God is punishing her. Will he punish me, too? I’ve said her God will be my God, but I don’t know what he’s like, this God of hers. Or what he demands.”

Narrator: Day eight.

Naomi: “Ruth is still with me. Although her presence is a continual reminder of what I’ve lost, I’m not sorry. It’s good to have a daughter-in-law who loves me like a mother, or like a friend. I’m trying to prepare her--to tell her about my village, my people, about our faith and traditions. But, it’s so strange to her. And, how can I tell her that our God is generous and faithful, when all I feel is bitterness now because it seems that God has taken from me all that i lived for and loved?

Narrator: Day nine.

Ruth: “Naomi says we’re getting near to Bethlehem. Part of me is excited and part of me is scared. This journey has given me time to think, time to ask questions. I don’t feel like the person that I was when we left Moab. I’ve had to leave behind the things that I don’t need any more, to let them go. And I’ve discovered some of the things that I want for myself, what I hope for, what I dream about, what I need. I can’t forget Chillon, or Moab, or my family. I don’t want to--they’re still part of me, part of the story of who I am. But I now know better who I am. I am Ruth. I am a widow. I am strong. I am able to take risks and to make changes. I am travelling with a new God. Naomi says he looks after his people, fights for them, shelters them, feeds them. “He” sounds a bit more like a ‘she’ to me. I’ll tell Naomi that one day. I wish I could share some of this with Naomi. But, she’s so sad at the moment. I want her to know how much I love her, that I want to stay close to her, that I want us to share whatever happens to us from now on.”

Narrator: Day ten.

Naomi: “It is good to be home again. Yet, today was both sad and wonderful: wonderful to see my friends and neighbors and catch up on ten years of news and gossip; sad to tell my story, to come home without my husband and sons. It’s so hard. Yet, somehow, it feels safe to be back with people who still believe that God loves them and cares for them. Ruth is now the stranger here, but it’s hard, because this is my home and yet it’s strange for me, too. Maybe I can learn to live with my sadness and pain. Maybe this place will be both an ending and a new beginning for me, for both of us. Maybe out of our struggle and suffering, something new will be born.”

Narrator: And so, Naomi returned from Moab, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, came with her. As they came to Bethlehem, the barley was ripening. It was harvest time.

Friends, scripture is ripe with stories like Naomi and Ruth and Orpah and entire casts of characters. In them, in their lives, in their conversation, we see and hear their diverse stories. And their diverse voices. Voices that are in conversation with each other across the centuries about many difficult issues and circumstances. In the midst of these voices, we see God at work. Sometimes God is very present. At other times, God may not seem present, but is still working there, behind the scenes.

Just as with Ruth and Naomi, God calls us into dialogue with each other, sometimes around what might be very hard issues. We may not always agree with each other. Yet, at the heart of our conversation and our understanding, and particularly at the heart of our faith is a belief that God is faithful and is always at work. Transforming. Seeking to bring life out of death. New out of old. Understanding out of misunderstanding. Peace out of conflict. Love out of hate. Hope out of despair. 

There is a Hebrew word that describes this steadfast faithfulness and love of God. Hesed. Hesed is a word that describes love. But, it is not some abstract, intangible concept of love. Instead, it is a picture of love in action. Of love that goes beyond walls. Beyond borders. Beyond differences. Of love that goes beyond laws. Of love that brings new life. Hesed is what we see in Ruth as she lives out her love for Naomi, who is a foreigner and a widow, just as she is. But, mostly, hesed is what we experience from God. Love in action in God coming to us. In Christ. Who is the embodiment of God’s love.

As we proceed through these next weeks, I pray that we might begin to engage in conversation around the difficult topic of immigration. To be vulnerable and open with one another in such a way that we might begin to identify what we have in common--our shared values. Values that are informed by God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. By God’s hesed. Values that lead us forward.

Perhaps then, if we are able--perhaps we might begin to help our desperate and divided and chaotic world also begin to find a way forward. 

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached July 22, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church.
Pentecost 9
Readings: Ruth 1:1-22 (Matthew 5:3-9)

Embodied Faith: Living With Faith

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John 4:1-6 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, God’s Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This morning, we’re going to play a game. A little game of True and False. Here are a few statements. You need to tell me if the statement is true or if it is false. Ready? Let’s go!

True or false. There are 30 days in the month of July. (It’s false. There are 31 days in July.) 

Here’s another. The horse is the fastest animal on land. (That’s false. The cheetah is.)

Here’s one, especially for our children. Mickey Mouse’s middle name is Fauntleroy. (That’s false! Fauntleroy is Donald Duck’s middle name.) 

For you World Cup fans, the gold medalists at the Olympics have a strong chance of winning the World Cup two years later. (False. With the exception of Italy in 1934 and 1936, no Olympic gold medal team has won the World cup two years later.)

A hammer and a feather, if they are dropped at the same time, will hit the ground together. (Yeah, this is a little bit of a trick question. Because the answer can be either true or false. In a vacuum, this is true. But, here on earth, it’s false.)

Last question. Stealing is always a sin. (That’s not so easy is it? Because there might be situations where stealing might be necessary to preserve life. Say you need to borrow something from a stranger’s yard to save another person. It’s not always cut-and-dried, is it? To know what is true and what isn’t.)

How do you know in your life who or what to believe? Have you ever believed something that eventually turned out not to be true? What was it? Why do you think you believed it? How did you find out it wasn’t true? And how did you feel when you found out it wasn’t true.

It can be hard sometimes, can’t it, to figure out what is true. Especially today in the era of “fake news.” It becomes more and more difficult at times to determine whether what we’re hearing is really true. Or whether it’s false. Or even if it falls somewhere in between.

This question of what is true and what is false is what our lesson today is all about. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the situation that led to the writing of the letter of 1 John. By reading between the lines, we get a sense of what was going on in this community of believers, of those who had been brought to faith by the apostle John.

It seems there was a sense of division in the congregation over who to believe. (Does that sound a little familiar in our world today?) There were those prophets (And, by the way, the word prophet here doesn’t mean someone who can foretell the future. Instead, the word refers to someone who speaks on behalf of God. Or claims to speak for God.). So, in the Johannine community, there were those prophets who were declaring that Jesus was both divine and human. And there were other prophets who were Anti-Christs.

Anti-Christs. This is the word that the writer uses for those who oppose his view. This word, Anti-Christ, has in popular imagination today come to represent this massive political figure who will come to dominate the world at the end of all time. But, in 1 John, which, by the way, is the only place where this word appears, it has a very different meaning. The Greek prefix “anti” means both “against” and “substitute for.” So the writer uses this term for someone who is against Christ or who is offering a substitute for Christ. And, in this situation, it is a fully spiritualized substitute for Christ. A Christ that is only divine. A Christ who had no human nature. A Christ who did not come to earth in the flesh and blood, with a warm, living human body. Those who denied the humanity of Jesus were expressing a dualism between spirit and body, calling the spirit good and the body evil. This dualism was present in Gnosticism, which devalued human experience as a place where God could be known. That God’s revealing of God’s nature was only evident in spiritual knowledge. That it could not be revealed in the flesh. 

So, this was the division going on in the community of John’s followers. One set of prophets was saying one thing, the others were saying something else. And the rest of the people, well, they likely divided themselves in the same way with, perhaps, a few left in the middle who had no idea what to believe whatsoever. For those of us who have been in the church for any length of time, this is sadly nothing new. Who, we wonder, in these situations of devisiveness, speaks the truth? Who is not? And how do they (and we) figure out where the truth lies?

Most of you, I think, know that I grew up in the Wisconsin Synod. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this part of the Lutheran church, it is a very conservative arm. Even moreso than the Missouri Synod. Growing up in this church body as a young woman I was taught that women were wholly subject to the men of the congregation. Women were not allowed voice in the leadership of the church, never allowed to speak in meetings or to sit on council, certainly never allowed to go to seminary or to be ordained as pastors. 

As I went onto a Lutheran high school and college, this even meant that female teachers were not allowed to teach mixed classes of young men and women. That they could only teach young women. And that only men could teach both young men and young women. 

Over time, I began to see the hypocrisy in this policy. Where this teachers worked as hard, were as intelligent, held the same degrees, even, at times, taught mixed gender classes, they were never given the title of “professor” as the men were. Or the pay or status. Women in my church were second-class citizens. It drove me back to Scripture on my own and to the revelation of how integral women were, both in Jesus’ time and also in the early church. How women funded several of the ministries of the apostles. And, even, that one of the early apostles was, in fact, female. As I tested what I had been taught against the Word of God, I began to see its falsehood. It was this new understanding that eventually led me to this place. To the ELCA.

This same thing--this testing of the prophets--is what our lesson today calls us to do. There are many different spirits, many different so-called truths in our world today. These spirits, which you may also call the source of our insight or our feeling or our will, abound. How do we know which of them are true? The answer, according to our text? We test them. We put them up against God’s Word and, particularly, God’s Word incarnate. God’s Word come to earth in the form of the human being, Jesus Christ. This Word in the flesh. In the body. Who reveals the truth of who God is in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Born. Crucified. For us. God as Love incarnate.

Does the spirit capture this nature of God? This God of love? This human being named Jesus, the most radical expression of divine love for the world? Does this spirit proclaim this love and then encourage it’s embodiment in our own lives lived out with the same love? Because, if it does not, it is a false spirit. A spirit of error. An anti-Christ. 

The only way to conquer such false spirits, such anti-Christs. (And, yes, according to our text, they can be conquered. They can be overcome. They can be countered.) The only way to win victory over them is to profess our faith and then to live our faith out in love. Because love transforms. Radical love transforms radically.

May you live your life in the same radical way and with the same radical love as the embodied Word of God, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Preached July 8, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 7
Readings: 1 John 4:1-6 (John 14:15-17)

Embodied Faith: Living With Integrity

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 1:5-2:2 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

We are continuing our look at 1st John, which was a letter written to the community of John’s followers sometime after the Gospel of John, near the end of the first century. We learned last week, that this letter was intended to affirm the divine nature of Christ, but, that mostly, it was intended to stress the tangibility, the touchability, the being in community with Christ. Specifically, the human nature Christ. That it is this humanity of Christ--Christ coming to earth in the body to be with us--that suggests to us that our faith is to be lived out in community. Not individually. But, in community.

So, today, we have our second lesson from 1st John. As we think about this lesson, we are going to think about this together. This will be more of a participation sermon! More of a conversation between us. And, perhaps, between all of our ideas and thoughts, we may come to an even greater understanding of this passage than if I simply stood up here and preached a one-way sermon. Because we are so much greater together than we are individually. So, I hope and I invite you to feel free to join into conversation with me around today’s reading.

To begin with, we just heard a reading that is chock full of metaphor. What is a metaphor? (Dictionary definition: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Or a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.) It’s when we transfer some of the meaning of a word or a phrase to something else.

What are some examples of metaphors? These can be from scripture or not. 
I am the good shepherd. (Jesus in John’s gospel.)
All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. (William Shakespeare)
Chaos is a friend of mine. (Bob Dylan)

So, metaphors are things that are used to help us better understand something. Would that be a fair description?

In today’s lesson, there is a very famous metaphor that is used for God. “God is light.” What meaning does this particular metaphor for God have for you? What are other examples of metaphors for God that you can think of or that we find in scripture? (I am the gatekeeper. I am the bread of life. Etc.) Why do you think the Bible writers use metaphor so much? (To help us better understand the nature of God.)

So, if metaphors are used in scripture to help us better understand who God is, then, I’m going to do a little demonstration using the “God is light,” metaphor to understand what this might mean for us in our lives as disciples.

(Hold up flashlight.) What is this? Flashlight. What is it used for? To help us see better in dark places or in darkness. What are some other things we use to help us see better in darkness? You have an example of something that was given to you as you entered the sanctuary this morning. Candles, lights, or nightlight.

So, now, I’m going to tap into those who were in the Kerygma class this past spring. In that class, we went deeper into the Gospel of John. In particular, at the start of our study, we looked at specific words and their meaning as they were used by the gospel writer. The epistle of 1st John was likely either written by the same author or group of authors. So, many of the meanings from the gospel of John are transferable to the letter of John.

So, Kerygma experts, how did the author of the gospel define the word “light”? As goodness. So, if “light” means “goodness,” then what is “darkness”? Right, the absence of goodness, or, in one word, “evil.” Let’s go back then to the very first sentence in today’s Gospel lesson and replace the words “light” and “darkness” with “good” and “evil.” Does someone what to read it with those replacements? This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, the God is good and in him there is no evil at all. 

How does this change, or does it change, your understand of who God is? Has anyone ever said this to you, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”? Do you see how bogus that phrase is? It’s bogus because it suggests that God gives us evil things, but never anything more than we can handle. If the nature of God is good and if there is no evil in God at all, does God really send evil to us? 

This leads us to the second point of today’s text. It’s the part that applies to us as people of God. It’s a pretty strong and pointed message for us. I’m going to read it this time from The Message paraphrase:

“If we claim that we experience a shared life with God and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth--we’re not living what we claim. But, if we walk in the light, God himself being the light, we also experience a shared life with one another, as the sacrificed blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purges all our sin.”

As Lutherans, over and over again our focus is that we are saved by faith through God’s grace. This is absolutely true! But, what this often led to is a disconnect between our faith--what we say we believe--and our actions.  If we truly have faith, 1st John says, then our faith--our embodied faith where Jesus is incarnated in our very hearts. Then our faith requires us to live with integrity.

Integrity. That’s a big word. What does it mean? There is a consistency between words and actions. When we do what we say we will do. Or when we do what we say we believe. 

When we say we will do something and do it, that is integrity. When we say that God desires we love our neighbors and we go out of our way to help someone, that is integrity. 

But, when we say that, as believers, we are to care for the poor or the marginalized and we act in ways that harm them, then, quite simply, we are lying. And, even worse, if we say we have faith and then walk in darkness, but then say it is light, we “double err.” That’s what Luther calls it. Two evils: to err and, then, to defend error.

My friends, faith is not faith if we don’t live it out. And not just to our family and friends and those people we like. But, particularly, to those we don’t like or to those who we don’t think deserve it. That is an embodied faith that is living with integrity. A faith that walks the talk.

It is not easy. And we often fail, don’t we? The good news is the promise at the end of our lesson today. “My little children, I’m writing these things to you so that you don't sin. But, if you do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is God’s way of dealing with our sins. Not only ours, but the sins of the whole world.”

This is our comfort. That, as we go about our lives together and seek to truly live out our faith with integrity, here in this place and in our neighborhood, we have the promise that, when we fail, God will be right there to pick up the pieces. To pick us up and forgive us. Because God has given us God’s Son as our advocate. Our own public defender. Our Savior who has dealt with our sins and with the sins of the entire world. 

Thanks be to God, who, loves us so much that, even when we fail, God clears us of guilt and frees us to try one more time!


Preached Sunday, July 1, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 6
Readings: 1 John 1:5-2:2 (John 1:29)