Thursday, November 12, 2009

[unpreached sermon #5] Salvation Through Relationship (Pentecost 23B)

Salvation Through Relationship

Pentecost 23 (Year B) - November 8, 2009

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

In beginning to prepare for this sermon, I was reading The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, which summarizes Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 as "Ruth wins the favor of Boaz."  I was really not excited about that, but it's not actually an accurate representation at all.
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.  Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working.  See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor.  Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do."
    Ruth said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.  When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.
    Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be God, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may this child's name be renowned in Israel!  This child shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him."
    Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.
    The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi."  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
These Sunday readings are also excerpts from Tuesday and Friday's daily lectionary.  As my best friend commented: Clearly they were the important parts of the story :)

I could do a whole annotated Book of Ruth highlighting the (potential) queerness, and that IS my preferred reading of the text, but I don't actually need to do that here.  This story isn't about Ruth and Boaz perpetuating heteronormativity; it's about Ruth becoming more fully integrated into the family; it's about restoration and sustenance for Naomi, who might otherwise have been left alone.  The Old Testament is full of exhortations to care for the widow and the orphan, because they are the most vulnerable.  Earlier in the Book of Ruth we have seen Boaz indeed be kind to Ruth, but I love that it is Naomi who makes this happen -- Naomi who has rejected her name and told those who knew her in earlier times to call her "Mara," which means bitter.  She says that she is bitter, laments that God has brought her back empty -- and yet she still seeks to provide for this foreigner who has returned with her, and tells her exactly how to go about it.

Last week we read about Ruth choosing to go with her mother-in-law rather than returning to her own people.  Here, she becomes more fully integrated into Naomi's people by partnering with Boaz.  I could use this as a segue into talking about modern life, about how regardless of the pledges you and someone else have made to each other with your hearts and souls, in order to access full legal protections, society requires something more official, like marriage -- and I hope that someone did preach that sermon, this Sunday after Election Day 2009, after the referendum on Maine's same-sex marriage law -- but that's not the sermon I'm interested in preaching right now.

She will become the ancestor of David, the greatest of all the Israelite kings -- and we Christians can't hear about Jesse and David without thinking of that other Davidic king: Jesus the Christ.  If this were a different church, I would interrupt my sermon to play part of the Hallelujah Chorus -- king of kings, and lord of lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever.  I am really really excited about Advent.

I know, I know, we don't like kings and lords -- ours is not a hierarchical God with power-over, but rather a God of an egalitarian Kin-dom.  But I can't help but be thrilled not only by the music of the Hallelujah Chorus but by its idea -- of the Creator of the world once again reigning over it, of the world being as it should be.  When I think about prayers of confession, I think about turning back to God, of the Jewish concept of teshuvah.  I think about walking with God, of God's will and our will being aligned.  And so the idea of the Reign of God doesn't necessarily conjure up for me images of some enthroned guy in the sky waving a scepter.

We're still in Hebrews for the Epistle reading.  It's getting to the point where I'm not sure which I dislike more -- that I keep having to deal with what reads to me like substitutionary blood atonement or that each week's lectionary passage seems to say the same thing.

I read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity this week, and Borg argues that in the first century CE, the statement "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" had quite a different meaning than the one that is common today.
According to temple theology, certain kinds of sin and impurities could be dealt with only through sacrifice in the temple.  Temple theology thus claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins; and because the forgiveness of sins was a prerequisite for entry into the presence of God, temple theology also claimed an institutional monopoly on access to God.
    In this setting, to affirm "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" was to deny the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God.  It was an antitemple statement.  Using the metaphor of sacrifice, it subverted the sacrificial system.  It meant: God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God; you have access to God apart from the temple and its system of sacrifice.  It is a metaphor of radical grace, of amazing grace.  (p. 94-95)
God in Jesus has [...] taken care of whatever you think separates you from God.  I really like that.  God is always with us ("close to us as breathing and distant as the farthest star" as a UCC prayer puts it -- which reminds me of the Quranic statement that Allah is closer to a person than that person's jugular) and it is we who build up walls and stumbling blocks, it is we who think that anything -- death or life, angels or principalities or powers, things present or things to come, height or depth, or any other created thing -- can separate us from the love of God.

Critiques and rejections of the exclusive temple system also evoke this week's Gospel passage -- where Jesus warns against the scribes who gloat on their appearances and then notes the widow who gave her last two coins to the treasury.

I'm not actually sure what to do with this passage, as I'm not really a fan of giving up absolutely everything you have materially -- and giving it to an institution, to boot -- so I'm wary of the apparent exhortation to give everything we have to live on.  I mean, I've talked before about "credo" meaning "to give one's heart to," and I am totally on board with the exhortation to love God with our entire selves, with all that we have.  But give all my money to the church?  I love my church, but I am also attached to making my rent payment, for example.

Last week we heard (from a scribe no less -- they're not all bad): To love God and to love neighbor, "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

So we are called not necessarily to material sacrifice, but to love -- knowing, of course, that the former often comes with the latter.

In this week's daily lectionary, Paul says, "Since we have now been justified by Christ's blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through Christ!  For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of God's Child, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through Christ's life!" (Romans 5:9-10)

Leaving aside the implicit blood atonement theology, I love this idea that even when we were God's "enemies," God so wanted to reconcile with us that God sacrificed SO MUCH.  This is not a God who is going to say, "You didn't hold the proper tenets, too bad for you."  This is a God who, as I say during the Call to Confession every Wednesday, is always reaching out to us.

Our Psalm today begins: "Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless God guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.  It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for while they sleep God provides for those God loves."

One thing I hear a lot at the church I grew up in is: "God's work, done in God's way, never lacks God's supply."  Google attributes this quotation to J. Hudson Taylor.

This always makes me uncomfortable because it has the same ideas as Prosperity Gospel -- that your material success (prosperity) is directly proportional to how much God approves of you.

A number of this week's daily lectionary passages are from Paul's Letter to the Romans, exhorting us: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) and "Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." (Romans 13:10).

A book I was reading recently points out that the famous passage on Love from Paul's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13) comes after a list of the gifts of the Spirit.  You might get all this awesome stuff which we would parse as Fruits of the Spirit -- prophecy, healing, etc. -- but if you don't have love, it's not worth anything.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NIV)
Love is what is most important.

I like to think that is what the Psalmist is talking about about God building the house and guarding the city.  God is Love.  And we can build our insular communities and guard our wealth of privilege, but if we are not working in alignment with God, if Love is not the spirit that moves through our hearts and hands and mouths as we do this work, our work will ultimately crumble.

I'm cheating again, writing the sermon AFTER the Sunday in question.

I've been frustrated recently with sermons that water down the radical, challenging message of the Gospel to make it palatable for middle-class Americans.  But maybe I'm being too harsh.

I mean, I can talk a good game about radical servanthood or whatever, but I'm still a selfish bitch.  How helpful really is it for me to exhort people to do things I'm definitely not doing myself?

The day after the Sunday this sermon is for, I ended up in a fight with one of the people I love most in the world.  One of the things that struck me in processing it was my feeling that THIS of all things is something I want to do right by and yet I can't manage it.  And giving money to the New Sudan Education Initiative or whatever seems so beside the point when I continue to hurt people I love.

We live our lives in the day-to-day.

And we live in a global community, so I'm not suggesting that we turn our back on those concerns, but I wonder if in all the focus on faceless charitable giving we lose our attention to the ways in which we can better live out Love in our daily lives, with those close to us.  Ruth was a foreigner working Boaz's fields, but her mother-in-law was kin to him, and so she was also family, even before their marriage.  And maybe he would have married her even if she had been his neighbor's Moabite daughter-in-law, and I absolutely think that we are called to be radically hospitable to the stranger, but maybe this week we can think a little bit more about how to be hospitable to those we are already in relationship with -- to be more charitable, more gracious, to cultivate a generosity of spirit ... to be kinder and gentler to those around us, to pay attention to where they're coming from rather than making snap judgments and reacting thoughtlessly.

When we sang "Won't You Let Me Be Your Servant?" in morning church on Pentecost 21, verse 3 literally made me cry.
I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.
This is what we are called to do -- to embody the light and life of Christ in the world, for strangers and for those we love (and for those who are neither strangers nor loved ones as well, of course).

Go now, to love and serve God.

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