August 21, 2016 – “Justice”

Today’s text is from Jonah 3.


There has been an anger burning in our city in recent days and weeks. But also burning for decades and centuries as well. It’s an anger that we’ve witnessed in other cities across this country too. It’s an anger for justice, for accountability, for order of law, an anger for the world to just work.

It’s an anger that is often well placed. We’re angry because something hasn’t worked out in the way we want. We’re angry because justice hasn’t been served in the way that we want it. But, just like Jonah, I think we need to examine what we even mean when we say, “we want justice.”

Of the 7.2 billion people currently on this planet, 2.4 billion of them are Christian. One third of the world’s population considers themselves to be Christian. And there are certainly 2.4 billion definitions of what justice and mercy are. There are going to be billions of statements of faith and theological ideologies and systems of belief. But I think that gets lost in the fray when we claim God to have blessed us or a certain people or country. I think it’s easy to take our belief systems and place them near the top of importance. That’s, in part, what growing up in the United States does to our faith – it makes it seem superior.

Right now in another country, in another hemisphere, there are over 11,000 athletes from 207 nations competing for 918 medals at the Olympic Games. Years and lifetimes worth of hard work sometimes come down to a mere 10 seconds. And yet, for over 90% of athletes, they’ll return to their home countries without a gold, silver, or bronze medal. Most athletes will never experience the feeling of standing on the medal podium and hearing their national anthem being played.

As of Friday, the United States led the medal count with 100 overall medals. Coming in a distant second was China with 58. Now, it’s typical to expect the U.S. to dominate in the Olympics. It’s typical to expect the best from the U.S. no matter what arena we may find this country in.

It’s typical because we’re constantly bombarded by claims that the U.S. is the best nation on earth. This leads us to wonder why our enemies can’t be defeated since the U.S. is the best. What could possibly stop this nation from succeeding? Perhaps the idea that we are the best.

Chapter 4 gets chopped off in our reading today, but toward the end of it God effectively compares the people of Nineveh to a gourd. In the grand scheme of things it may look and seem like Nineveh is anything but that. We’re told it’s a massive city with hundreds of thousands of people that rules the surrounding areas and destroys anyone standing in their path. Their power seems immense and unstoppable.

But here we find this great people at the whim of God. We find a city and nation that seems powerful and awesome begging God for mercy. We find that it’s God who creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys.

We find God asking Jonah to stretch his theologies and beliefs around justice and mercy. Because what is justice for you and me is going to be different than what our neighbors believe. And sometimes God’s justice and mercy don’t seem just or merciful at all. Jonah has been calling God out for this the entire time! He calls what God is doing evil. If you’ve ever wondered if God can handle your anger look no further than Jonah.

But let’s put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes. He believes, like any good Israelite would, that God has specifically blessed their nation. Jonah believes that God’s grace and mercy and love and forgiveness extend as far as the borders of Israel. If we fast forward for just a moment, we see that this is the issue of the early Christian church. When we say Jesus died for the world do we just mean Israel? Were other people supposed to be included too?

So, this is the dilemma Jonah finds himself in. But it’s more than a slight bending and stretching of his beliefs about who receives God’s mercy – because he finds God asking him to preach to not just anyone, but enemies. Imagine you received a word from God that told you to go into the heart of ISIS held territory and preach a word of repentance. I know I’d keep that sermon short – and Jonah does, it’s only 5 words long in Hebrew – he’d make a good Lutheran.

But this raises a serious question: What does justice look like for a group like ISIS? Or what does justice look like for Nazi Germany? How about us? I think we know what justice looks like for the U.S. We’re leading the world in the medal count in the Olympics and we lead the world in the incarceration rate as well. Justice means jail for this great nation. Justice in Wisconsin and Milwaukee means having the highest incarceration rate for black males in the entire nation. So Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin wins the gold medal for putting black males behind bars the most of any state in this country.

Like Jonah, we have our own definitions of what justice and mercy are. Like Jonah, we have been raised in a culture and society that elevate how we think of ourselves and have been taught to place ourselves above others. Like Jonah, we become angry when a version of justice and mercy are put forward that don’t line up with what we’re thinking. In fact, it’s easy to be angry enough to claim that justice and mercy that extend to others in ways we don’t like is in fact evil.

But I don’t think Jonah got to that point on his own. I think he was raised to believe that he, and the Israelites, were chosen and blessed in a way that other peoples and nations weren’t. I think he was raised to believe that God was truly merciful and just and loving, but those attributes of God only applied to him and his group of people. Because the moment they applied to his enemies suddenly his God was evil.

That’s interesting. If Jonah received the gift of mercy and grace from God it was out of love. If his enemies received the exact same gift it was now an evil act. But if you told me that if a 5-word sermon somehow changed the hearts and minds of ISIS and they received no punishment for their crimes I’d probably wonder what type of warped justice God practices.

And that’s okay, we’re free to ask God that question. But, we’ve just got to be prepared for God to ask us the same question in return. We’ve got to be prepared for God to come to us in love and ask us if what we practice is truly justice and mercy – because throughout the narrative of the Bible it’s obvious that God puts into practice a justice and mercy that are lightyears different than what we could ever dream of.

We’ve got to be prepared for God to challenge us not just to bend our theologies and beliefs, but to shatter them. Because it’s easy to get comfy in our faith. It’s easy to think that we’ve won the gold medal and to kick back and relax. But the God of all creation reminds us daily that we’re not in charge. The God of all life reminds us every minute that life and death aren’t up to us. The God of love reminds us with each moment that we are not creator or judge.

The God who sent his own Son to bring about your salvation reminds you with every waking breath that you are a child of God. That every single person on this planet is a child of God. Neither makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for the people of ISIS to be children of God and it sure as heck doesn’t make any sense for you and me to be a child of God. It doesn’t make sense because we can’t ever hope to comprehend or understand God’s character or why God has chosen us.

But in Jesus Christ, you have been chosen and set free. Not because we’ve believed all the right things, or followed the rules, or walked the path that God set before us. No, in Jesus Christ the world was set free because God loves it and everything in it. In Jesus Christ we find the world to extend far beyond our horizons.

And, like Jonah, glimpsing a fraction of who God is can throw us for a loop. Because being great and blessed and justified have nothing to do with greatness and strength, but instead brokenness and weakness.

I think Jonah is interesting because we are Jonah. God says we’re saved, but so are those people that we hate and don’t understand, and so we end up kicking and screaming as we go into heaven. But this is the God we worship – a God who, in Jesus Christ, did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unfathomable – saved you and me and the world.

August 14, 2016 – “Eaten”

Today’s text is from Jonah 2.


In 1916 the poet Robert Frost published a poem that 100 years later is still in the public conscience. It’s titled The Road Not Taken and in part goes like this:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both | Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Familiar words. Like anything it can be interpreted in many different ways, but a common way to view this poem about reaching a fork in the road is to take the one less traveled – to not follow the crowd. To be different. To go and make your own way. But when Frost wrote this poem he had a specific person in mind. He was thinking of someone, who, on their walks together could never make up their mind when they came to a fork in the road.

They were indecisive – as it says in the poem, neither path was necessarily right, both were equally worn, but at some point a decision was made. A decision was made to go left or right at the fork in the road. And it was this decision that haunted the walker. It was this decision, to say go left, that forever left them wondering what the path to the right would’ve been like. It was a decision that if they ran into trouble or problems along the way made them wonder what would’ve happened had they chosen differently. Their indecisiveness, regret, and blame they assigned themselves over such a minute decision about the path they had chosen had, as Frost put it, “made all the difference.”

That no matter what decision this person made, they’d always be sorry they didn’t chose the other path. And that made all the difference. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes, doesn’t it? Sometimes life throws us a curveball when we were expecting a fastball and we swing and miss. Perhaps we were expecting something different – maybe we were expecting that we were going to be traveling down another path and suddenly a decision we made – sometimes decisions that are out of our hands occur – and we wonder, “what if?” What if this hadn’t happened? What if I hadn’t been diagnosed with this disease? What if I hadn’t said, ‘Yes?’ What if I had chosen differently? What if I hadn’t been forced down this path? What if?

What if Jonah hadn’t chosen to die instead of just going to Nineveh? You know, Jonah is an interesting person. He’d rather die than see his enemies forgiven by God. He’d rather choose the path that leads to his own demise rather than help out another group of people. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the coward’s way out. It sounds like more than just indecision – it sounds like coming to a fork in the road and just turning around.

Jonah’s lucky he got that choice. He’s lucky he had that third option. He’s lucky he had the choice to run away from God and jump into the sea even if it was cowardly and crazy and foolish to think that he could outrun God. He’s lucky he even had that option because so often in our lives we don’t always have the option to turn around. Sometimes it might even feel like we’re not even given options to choose which path to take. Sometimes it feels like we’re just along for the ride and someone else is making the choices for us and taking us down dark and frightening paths that only bring about pain and suffering.

And so here we are seeing Jonah jump into the sea – choosing door number 3 – instead of journeying down this path that we call life. Jonah made a choice – but then God took it one step further – until Jonah’s choice made him. Jonah made a decision and that made all the difference, or at least so we think, because sometimes in life we make choices and sometimes choices make us.

In the belly of a fish – it the pit of despair and fear and terror – Jonah cries out to God. Jonah raises prayers of thanksgiving and praise and repentance and promise. I like to think of this portion of the story to be Jonah hitting rock bottom. I think this imagery of Jonah inside the fish is better seen as someone who has reached their wits end. Someone who has given up hope. Someone who – when forced to go down a path they don’t want to travel – simply sits down and refuses to move.

Can we blame him? Jonah’s at rock bottom because he’s afraid. And so I label him a coward. But who am I to throw stones? We all have different ideas of what rock bottom is. We all have different scenarios where we would jump into the sea in order to avoid a decision that is a lose-lose. We will all one day encounter a path we didn’t choose to go down and suddenly this choice will make us. And we will hope and wish and dream for another path, another life, another chance at something better – and it will feel like nothing can make a difference.

And then God steps in. Jesus stands by our side. The Holy Spirit clothes us with strength. And we will see that we don’t walk this path alone. We will find that a choice has already been made for us – a choice that has already determined our salvation. We’ll find that Jesus has already chosen the path of ultimate pain and suffering and death. Jesus too chose to die, but unlike Jonah, he also chose to be raised to new life. And that new life he gives you.

Now that doesn’t mean our lives our going to be perfect. They’re not. It doesn’t mean that every bump in the road is going to be smoothed out. They won’t. It doesn’t mean that we’ll always feel Jesus’ presence or know exactly where the path we’ve chosen or been forced to travel leads.

But I think that too often that’s the narrative that’s pushed. I think we, and I think I say we as Christians, and perhaps as people too, like to create those false narratives in our minds that life is somehow fair or one day the tide will have to turn our way or that just because we know Jesus has saved us we still won’t fight and kick and scream against the path we find ourselves on.

Jonah is eaten and then beautifully vomited onto dry land. But he’s still mad. And I think that’s okay. I think as Christians we too often sugar coat and dress up life to hide and cover the ugliness involved. Too often we hear messages that sound wonderful, but forget to acknowledge the pain and suffering that lives within us. Let’s stop doing that. Let’s admit that sometimes life just sucks. And sometimes it never gets better.

It doesn’t get better for Jonah. Sure, a fish ate him and then puked him back up, but apparently life still isn’t going the way he wants. But no matter what decisions he makes or doesn’t make – and no matter what decisions we had the option of making and even those we had no say in – those, in the end, aren’t what make all the difference. What makes all the difference is the decision that God and Jesus have made for us.

It doesn’t matter how much Jonah turns his back on God for the path he’s being sent down because God, in Jesus, has decided to never turn God’s back on us. In Jesus Christ we have a savior who went down to the pit with us. Sometimes in this life we’re never lifted out. Sometimes in this life all we’re guaranteed is that Jesus remains by our side whether we want him there or not.

Sometimes life sucks. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes we hit rock bottom in the depths of the sea. But in Jesus we have a savior who stands by our side. In Jesus we have a God who lifts us up to new life. In Jesus we have a Spirit that clothes us with hope and joy – because even when our lives have gone horribly wrong or taken a turn for the worse – we can know that through Jesus Christ we have been rescued; we have been saved; we have been freed; and we have been made whole. And that, truly, is what makes all the difference.

August 7, 2016 – “Flight-or-Flight”

Today’s text is from Jonah 1.


You’ve probably heard this story before. You’ve probably heard this infamous telling of Jonah – a man who is swallowed by a large fish. But there is so much more to the story than that. I would encourage you to read all four chapters of Jonah at once, it’s a fairly short read, because Jonah is, I think, a story unlike any other in the Bible.

And I say that because Jonah is so unlike the usual prophet or follower of God that we run into. Jonah runs away from God, Jonah prays to God, Jonah preaches against a wicked city, and then Jonah becomes angry at God’s graciousness. In the end Jonah tells God, “See, this is why I ran away from you in the first place! Because I knew that you are kind and loving and merciful! And the people of Nineveh deserve none of that.”

It’s an interesting argument to make against God. A strange way to reject God’s calling. A weird way of thinking that one’s bias against someone else will prevent God from interceding. But we’ve seen this outside of Jonah, as well.

Jesus tells his disciples a parable about workers in a vineyard. A landowner hires workers at different hours of the day and has them work in his vineyard for an agreed upon wage. The workers who started at 9 in the morning and finished at 6 at night get paid a denarius. The workers who started at noon and finished at 6 as well also get paid a denarius. The workers who started at 5 in the afternoon and finished a mere one hour later with the rest of the workers also get paid the same amount: A denarius.

Needless to say those who put in a full day’s labor are upset that they got paid the same amount as the people who only worked an hour. The landowner’s response to his workers is the same that Jonah will eventually hear from God:

“I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Are you envious because I am generous? That’s one of my favorite lines from Jesus. And it’s a question that will eventually be posed to Jonah.

But that’s chapter 4. We’re in chapter 1 today and we find our main character running away from God. We find Jonah on the run – literally going in the opposite direction from where God told him to go – all because Jonah knows that God will be gracious with this sworn enemy of Israel. Jonah runs because he knows the heart of God isn’t wrath and death, but mercy and new life.

And Jonah doesn’t think those people deserve that. He thinks they deserve to be destroyed. If he had it his way they would have fire rained down upon them until the entire city – and every person in it – was obliterated. And so Jonah runs.

He runs because he’s trying to play God, but isn’t fully on board with who God truly is. He runs because he’s fine with grace and mercy being extended his way, but to people who have killed and destroyed his own people throughout the centuries? He’ll pass.

Are you envious because I am generous? Yes, he is. More than envious, in fact – angry. Sometimes I feel the same way – and maybe you do as well. Sometimes God’s game plan seems a little off. Sometimes we can only sit back and wonder what God is asking of us. And every so often we end up going in the opposite direction.

Sometimes, like the workers in the vineyard, we wonder why people who are different from us, people who hate us, people who are downright evil and malicious – why would God’s mercy and grace extend to them? Why would they get the same gift as us?

What’s so interesting about this first chapter of Jonah is seeing that gift of mercy and grace given to people who seem undeserving of them. The sailors on the boat – we’re told they worship other gods. We’re told that they don’t even know who the God of the Israelites is. We’re told the sailors are doing everything in their power to rescue themselves – even throwing stuff overboard to try and lighten the ship. They’re actively praying and working in order to bring about their salvation.

And then there’s Jonah. We don’t find him worried about dying. We don’t find him rushing to help the sailors. We don’t find him praying to his God. Instead, we find him sleeping below deck. He’s not doing anything to bring about his salvation, in fact he’s doing the exact opposite.

And yet God still brings about salvation for everyone involved in this story. Salvation and mercy and grace are had for the sailors aboard the ship even though they had zero faith before this moment. And salvation is still had for Jonah – someone who is so angry with God that he’d rather die – salvation is had because God takes what should’ve been Jonah’s death in the violent sea and turns it into life when this large fish saves him from the waves.

I like to think that more often than not, we’re like Jonah. We know that God is God – the God of the land and the sea. We know that God is merciful and just and loving. We know these things. It’s just that putting them into practice is a lot harder than it looks. Being merciful to those who hurt us isn’t easy. Being graceful to those who don’t deserve it is difficult. Loving those who hate us seems impossible. So, when God points us toward a group of people we don’t understand or don’t like or we think don’t deserve God’s mercy and grace sometimes we run in the opposite direction.

Sometimes when God calls on us to tread the difficult and narrow path we shake our heads, “No.” And that’s okay. Because no matter what direction we turn, we will find that God is already there. Whether we go east or west, or north or south, we will find that God has already beaten us there. Because we follow the God of all creation. Our Lord is the Lord of sea and land.

Jonah is doing his best to run away from God. And sometimes we do too. But the amazing promise that we – and everyone else – has from God is that God will come to us. Sometimes we just can’t make that journey back.

And even if we do, sometimes we still don’t get it right. We’ll find that Jonah eventually makes it to the city of Nineveh – but he still doesn’t get it. He’s still angry with God’s abundant mercy and grace for those people. But God still provides and takes care of Jonah anyway. Because that’s what God does. No matter where we are in life – whether we feel close to God’s heart or a million miles away – it doesn’t matter, because God is always by our side – whether we think we deserve it or not.

Because whether we think this gift is ours or not we’ll find out it’s not up to us, it’s up to Jesus, and that matter has already been settled – because God loves you so much that even if it feels like we’re drowning in a violent sea that’s sometimes called life – God is there with the promise and free gift of new and abundant life for you.

Behind the Scenes

As part of a thought experiment to visualize my sermon writing process I kept track of where my mind was headed throughout each step of my last sermon. Below is every word I found in different resources as well as my own thinking – which I put in italics – that slowly but surely led to the completion of this sermon.


Commentary 1: Together “believing” and “abiding” point both to the reality of “life in Christ” and to the characterization of that life not in some hope of a future reunion in heaven, but to the promise of that abundant life in the here and now.

Commentary 2: The promise of “abiding” in Jesus is not for its own sake, nor an end in itself. Jesus imagines and promises a dynamic and changing life for the disciple community. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. This points to a constantly changing community that is called to be up and doing. This is a relationship of purpose and power.

Commentary 3: There is a giftedness about this verse. We received something we did not create, go searching for, or earn on our own. It resembles the glorious feeling of being asked to be someone’s spouse, best friend, beloved; the chosen-above-all-others. If we ask, “Whose name is on this gift?,” the answer is, “mine!”
But there is also responsibility attached to this election of the works of fruit bearing. Not only are we to do it, but we are to bear “fruit that will last.”

Commentary 4: Positively, bearing fruit means making wise choices and decisions for the work of and on behalf of God. It means acting thoughtfully over a life time; discerning what thoughts, words, and actions best serve the intentions of a loving God in this world, most clearly seen in the figure of the Risen Christ.

Initial story idea: Predicting the future. Jesus’ message to us is that his promise of new life isn’t only reserved for some future day, but present with us right now. So, find a story about how we’re obsessed with predicting the future: Weather, stock market, elections. Or, another route would be how we’re often focused on the future – saving for retirement, stock piling assets for some future day.

I know 27 isn’t that old, but it’s amazing how quickly in our society we expect people to grow up. We’ll land our timeframe of high school for kids who are currently in it – perhaps they’re working a part-time job to make a few bucks to spend on their own, could be working hard in school to get into a good college – most likely they don’t think about their life more than a few years down the road for now. I know I didn’t.

When you’re 18, 24 seems old. When you’re 16, 19 seems old, and so on. But once you graduate high school you’re either moving onto college or you’re off to begin your career – however winding that road may be. But at some point after high school your field of vision expands from just a few years ahead of you to decades ahead of you.

Are you saving enough money for retirement? Do you even have a 401k? Are you even able to save for retirement? Perhaps you’re saving up money for a house. Perhaps you’re looking forward to having a family one day, or owning a house, or dreaming of all the possibilities the future will bring.

I’m beginning to lose focus. My story is derailing into something else, I need to reel it back to the text.

Suddenly the worries and fears and possibilities and hopes of the world are falling upon you.

I’m going to try another story to start this sermon. I’ll try a plant metaphor to match Jesus’.

About 4 months ago we celebrated Easter. And we had plenty of decorations and flowers up front here, but a familiar symbol of that season is the Easter lily. We had many of them decorating our sanctuary and as always they produced that wonderful, potent smell.

Well, I took a couple of them home with me, but since it was freezing cold throughout April they just sat in my basement bathroom. Now, I’ve always thought that the smell of Easter lilies was potent enough when they’re sitting in an open space, but their smell was pretty aggressive when they were locked up in a small space.

Needless to say I wasn’t sure if they’d survive sitting in the dark for a month, or if my lack of knowledge around planting them would eventually kill them, but sometime in early May I finally dug a hole in the ground and planted them.

I’d water them now and again and basically just crossed my fingers in hopes that they were getting enough sun, water, and the right soil in order to grow. After a month nothing had happened. They didn’t look any different. 2 months in the leaves were turning brown and the flowers were long gone.

But then one day I noticed something – each plant had a few new shoots coming out of the ground. To be honest I was in shock. And over the past couple months these shoots have turned into full-blown plants and a few weeks ago they began to bud. As of right now it seems like they could bloom at any moment.

Time to transition from story to text.

 Unlike Jesus and God in today’s reading, I had no clue what I was doing – basically through sheer dumb luck I got these plants to grow. But Jesus tells us for God new life has nothing to do with luck. Jesus tells us that love isn’t random. Jesus tells us that healing isn’t a far off event.

At this point I need to reference the text again. It might seem strange that for the moment the text isn’t my biggest reference point – but so far I simply took Jesus’ idea of the vine and thought, “Hey, plant metaphor.”

It’s also at this point that I’m reminded that traditionally this text is broken into two pieces – verses 1-8 and then 9-17. Combining them results in a lot of sermon material. Also, the beginning of this text seems judgmental and damning – but “remain” is a hard translation. Abide is the word that is used continuously here, and throughout all of John. So, we could use a reframing of what “remaining” means.

Connection. Abiding. Love. New life. Growth.

Jesus tells us that God is the greatest gardener time and space have ever known. God’s prowess for creating and sustaining life is second to none. And most importantly we have an unbreakable connection to God through Jesus. Much of what Jesus is describing to his disciples here is a relationship. Jesus is describing the intimate relationship that he has with God – the Trinity is often an unexplainable thought process, so hearing terms like “Father” and “Son” help us describe what this relationship looks like.

God as the gardener needs Jesus the vine to have life in order to produce abundant fruit and new life. And Jesus the vine needs God the gardener in order to be sustained and live in that abundance. Theirs is a relationship that is a mutual dependence – alone God or Jesus cannot bring about the abundance of life that once together is made possible.

A gardener waters and tends their plants in order to receive the fruits of the plant. And a plant can only begin to work hard at turning sunlight into sugars and taking in nutrients from the soil if there is a gardener to sustain them.

Editing time: 45 minutes. Time for another appointment.

Time to get back to writing. I’m not positive how I feel about what’s been written so far, but we’ll see what happens.

But notice this one thing about the metaphor that Jesus is placing before us: It isn’t happening in some glorious future. God as gardener and Jesus as the vine doesn’t take place once the Kingdom of God has come to be in some future day. No, it’s taking place right now.

I should probably ground this passage in its literary context.

In this reading from John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion. These words from Jesus are words of comfort and peace, not just future vision. Certainly keeping an eye toward the future can bring about hope and peace, but we don’t live in the future. We can hope for better days, we can wish for things to get better in the future, but we live in the here and now.

2,000 years ago it was the same reality. Jesus’ disciples will soon be without him. After spending a few years with Jesus on the ground healing the world around them the disciples will now seemingly lose their teacher. What hope is there now without Jesus around?

Well, the hope is that we have the power to continue on Jesus’ work in this world because we are as closely connected to Jesus as Jesus is to God.

That’s weird to think about. But I guess it shouldn’t be, right?

We, as people of God, are connected to God’s very self through Jesus. This intimate love that Jesus freely gives us is then reciprocated by God – because of Jesus we are now a part of that very relationship. We are the branches – part of the vine that produces fruit for this world. We are part of a vine that gives us abundant, new life.

When those Easter lilies were planted in the ground and given water and sunlight they only had one choice: To grow. They didn’t have the option of debating whether or not they were going to use these resources for other purposes; when given them they couldn’t help but grow – and not only grow, but thrive.

The same holds true for us. Jesus tells us that he has chosen us. Just like the Easter lilies we didn’t chose to be planted in such an abundance of life and love – Jesus did this for us. We didn’t choose to be so intimately connected with Jesus and God – Jesus did this for us.

I’m wondering about sermon length at this point. The ending seems to be coming soon – but I feel like I’m a little short on words right now. 890 words; longer than I thought. Need at least 300 more. And now I’ve lost my train of thought. Back up to those four paragraphs from different commentaries to get a spark. Change, rebirth, new life.

This is why in the midst of darkest night, or deepest valley, or heartbreak, or even death – we can have peace because we have a God who is like a mother holding her newborn child; this is the abiding that Jesus speaks of in this passage. Like a mother who holds her child close to her body – Jesus too holds each of us close.

Water break. And break time. Editing time: 30 minutes.

I just read through this to see how it works. It seems to work.

Time to finish with one of my favorite passages and themes in scripture: Love.

Jesus holds us in a love that is so abundant, a love that is so real, a love that is so unbreakable that nothing we can do will separate us from that love. As Jesus prepares to leave the disciples he leaves them with this parting metaphor of gardener, vine, and branch. But he also leaves the disciples with a command: To love one another as Jesus has loved them.

As we’ve seen, Jesus’ love for God’s people is a love that has no boundaries – it’s a love that lays down one’s life for another. It’s a love that holds us close like a mother holds her child. And it is now a love that we are called to show the world. As branches that are part of the true vine which are tended by the true gardener our task now is to take the love that we have been shown freely and share it freely with the world.

This text is so rich it’s impossible to pinpoint one theme or idea – they’re all great.

On this day of healing we are reminded of Jesus’ love for each and every one of us. We’re reminded of the relationship we share with Jesus. We’re reminded of the nourishment and strength we receive from God. We’re reminded of our calling as disciples of Christ to show that abundant fruit of love for the whole world.

Is this the ending? Close, I think.

Jesus is Lord, yes. Jesus is God, yes. Jesus is teacher, yes. These are true. But Jesus is also friend. Not a feared or threatening judge, but a friend who provides us abundant and grace filled life. A friend who we can call on at any moment. A friend, who loves you so much, that he gave his entire life so that you have the certain promise of new and abundant life right now. Not just in some distant future, but right here and now – through Jesus – we have the power to shine Christ’s light of love in our lives and the life of the whole world.

Done. Editing time: 30 minutes. About 105 minutes in total – fairly painless to be honest. It’ll need to be read through a few times to iron out any kinks in the writing and/or smooth out phrases that are tongue twisters. But I think I’m done. It’s always a journey to get to this point – one filled with mystery and wonder as I see where the Spirit takes me through the text. Also a reminder that some stories end up on the chopping block.

July 31, 2016 – “Friendship”

Today’s text is from John 15:1-17.


About 4 months ago we celebrated Easter. And we had plenty of decorations and flowers up front here, but a familiar symbol of that season is the Easter lily. We had many of them decorating our sanctuary and as always they produced that wonderful, potent smell.

Well, I took a couple of them home with me, but since it was freezing cold throughout April they just sat in my basement bathroom. Now, I’ve always thought that the smell of Easter lilies was potent enough when they’re sitting in an open space, but their smell was pretty aggressive when they were locked up in a small space.

Needless to say I wasn’t sure if they’d survive sitting in the dark for a month, or if my lack of knowledge around planting them would eventually kill them, but sometime in early May I finally dug a couple holes in the ground and planted them.

I’d water them now and again and basically just crossed my fingers in hopes that they were getting enough sun, water, and the right soil in order to grow. After a month nothing had happened. They didn’t look any different. 2 months in the leaves were turning brown and the flowers were long gone.

But then one day I noticed something – each plant had a few new shoots coming out of the ground. To be honest I was in shock. And over the past couple months these shoots have turned into full-blown plants and a few weeks ago they began to bud. As of right now it seems like they could bloom at any moment.

Unlike Jesus and God in today’s reading, I had no clue what I was doing when I planted them – basically through sheer dumb luck I got these plants to grow. But Jesus tells us for God new life has nothing to do with luck. Jesus tells us that love isn’t random. Jesus tells us that healing isn’t a far off event.

Jesus tells us that God is the greatest gardener time and space have ever known. God’s prowess for creating and sustaining life is second to none. And most importantly we have an unbreakable connection to God through Jesus. Much of what Jesus is describing to his disciples here is a relationship. Jesus is describing the intimate relationship that he has with God – the Trinity is often an unexplainable thought process, so hearing terms like “Father” and “Son” help us describe what this relationship looks like.

God as the gardener needs Jesus the vine to have life in order to produce abundant fruit and new life. And Jesus the vine needs God the gardener in order to be sustained and live in that abundance. Theirs is a relationship that is a mutual dependence – alone God or Jesus cannot bring about the abundance of life that once together is made possible.

A gardener waters and tends their plants in order to receive the fruits of the plant. And a plant can only begin to work hard at turning sunlight into sugars and taking in nutrients from the soil if there is a gardener to sustain them.

But notice this one thing about the metaphor that Jesus is placing before us: It isn’t happening in some glorious future. God as gardener and Jesus as the vine doesn’t take place once the Kingdom of God has come to be in some future day. No, it’s taking place right now.

In this reading from John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion. These words from Jesus are words of comfort and peace, not just future vision. Certainly keeping an eye toward the future can bring about hope and peace, but we don’t live in the future. We can hope for better days, we can wish for things to get better in the future, but we live in the here and now.

2,000 years ago it was the same reality. Jesus’ disciples will soon be without him. After spending a few years with Jesus on the ground healing the world around them the disciples will now seemingly lose their teacher. What hope is there now without Jesus around?

Well, the hope is that we have the power to continue on Jesus’ work in this world because we are as closely connected to Jesus as Jesus is to God.

We, as people of God, are connected to God’s very self through Jesus. This intimate love that Jesus freely gives us is then reciprocated by God – because of Jesus we are now a part of that very relationship. We are the branches – part of the vine that produces fruit for this world. We are part of a vine that gives us abundant, new life.

When those Easter lilies were planted in the ground and given water and sunlight they only had one choice: To grow. They didn’t have the option of debating whether or not they were going to use these resources for other purposes; when given them they couldn’t help but grow – and not only grow, but thrive.

The same holds true for us. Jesus tells us that he has chosen us. Just like the Easter lilies we didn’t chose to be planted in such an abundance of life and love – Jesus did this for us. We didn’t choose to be so intimately connected with Jesus and God – Jesus did this for us.

This is why in the midst of darkest night, or deepest valley, or heartbreak, or even death – we can have peace because we have a God who is like a mother holding her newborn child; this is the abiding that Jesus speaks of in this passage. Like a mother who holds her child close to her body – Jesus too holds each of us close.

Jesus holds us in a love that is so abundant, a love that is so real, a love that is so unbreakable that nothing we can do will separate us from that love. As Jesus prepares to leave the disciples he leaves them with this parting metaphor of gardener, vine, and branch. But he also leaves the disciples with a command: To love one another as Jesus has loved them.

As we’ve seen, Jesus’ love for God’s people is a love that has no boundaries – it’s a love that lays down one’s life for another. It’s a love that holds us close like a mother holds her child. And it is now a love that we are called to show the world. As branches that are part of the true vine which are tended by the true gardener our task now is to take the love that we have been shown freely and share it freely with the world.

On this day of healing we are reminded of Jesus’ love for each and every one of us. We’re reminded of the relationship we share with Jesus. We’re reminded of the nourishment and strength we receive from God. We’re reminded of our calling as disciples of Christ to show that abundant fruit of love for the whole world.

Jesus is Lord, yes. Jesus is God, yes. Jesus is teacher, yes. These are true. But Jesus is also friend. Not a feared or threatening judge, but a friend who provides us abundant and grace filled life. A friend who we can call on at any moment. A friend, who loves you so much, that he gave his entire life so that you have the certain promise of new and abundant life right now. Not just in some distant future, but right here and now – through Jesus – we have the power to shine Christ’s light of love in our lives and the life of the whole world.

July 24, 2016 – “Blessings”

I have this weekend off – but I had to finish what I had started with the book of Ruth. So here’s my shortened take on the final chapter in Ruth.


This fourth chapter in Ruth is titled “Boaz Marries Ruth” in my Bible. But as we’ve already discussed, Ruth already proposed to Boaz. Ruth is the agent here. She is the one who has started this change in her life.

This final chapter in Ruth begins on a humorous note. Boaz seeks out the man – whose name we are not told – who is a closer relative to Ruth and therefore the proper man to be her future husband. Boaz tells this man about land he will acquire. He accepts. Boaz tells this man about the woman, Ruth, who will then become his husband. He declines.

So Boaz acquires Ruth we’re told in the NIV translation.

We then come up against the end of this book. While we started in despair, dispersion, and death we finish the book with new life, new hope, and a new child. The book of Ruth finishes in the exact opposite manner of how it began.

It ends with the promise we have received from God – that in the midst of darkest night God is with us. And it also ends with a genealogy. Ruth’s son was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. This is an important tie for the Old Testament audience and as New Testament readers becomes even more significant since we’re told that Jesus eventually comes from the same line. So Ruth and Jesus have more in common than simply being people who love with a reckless abandon!

They are people who are the change they want to see in the world. They are people who face great suffering and pain and yet do not give up hope.

While we’re wrapping up a book that doesn’t get nearly enough attention let’s also note who spoke and who did not speak in this book. Ruth and Naomi are the main characters. Two women were main characters in an entire book in the Bible. Also, we have plenty of dialogue between two women – again something that rarely occurs in the Bible. Someone who didn’t speak at all in this book was God.

And yet God was still active and very much present and in a way did a lot of speaking. God spoke through Ruth and Naomi and Boaz. God spoke through the communities that surrounded them. God spoke through the mercy shown by Boaz. God spoke through the bountiful harvest of grain. God spoke through the birth of a child.

Perhaps the book of Ruth feels a lot like our lives. Disaster and evils occur throughout the world and we wonder, “Where is God?” For Ruth and her family God seemed so distant as she dealt with the loss of her husband, famine, and living in a foreign country. And yet God was present in the relationships she had with the people around her. God was present and active through the generosity and hospitality of the people she encountered.

We too can be that presence for our neighbors. We too are empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the world around us. We too can create the change we want to see in the world. Just like Ruth, we have the opportunities and power to bring about God’s very presence. We too are called to carry on Jesus’ mission in this world; a mission of overflowing love, abundant generosity, and blessings that outnumber the stars.

July 17, 2016 – “Together”

Today’s text is from Ruth 3.


Have you ever been in a group of strangers for a meeting and one of the first things you have to do as an ice breaker is say something about yourself? I love vague questions like that because am I supposed to summarize who I am in three words or ten paragraphs? Do people want the truth or a short sampling? It’s a surprisingly difficult question because when it comes down to it, “Who are you?” is actually a good question.

The answers to it will probably surprise us because often I don’t think we really know what they are. Are we a good person? I’m sure we hope to be. Do we do the right things? We probably try to. But at the end of the day we probably don’t fully know who we are because we’ve never been put through every situation possible.

We don’t know how forgiving, or merciful, or loving we truly are if we’ve never reached our limitations in these areas. But in any case, the question, “Who are you?” begins to crack the surface of who we truly are because it forces us to investigate our actions in life.

This third chapter of Ruth is an interesting one because as they say, the plot thickens. There’s a lot we could say about it, but let’s focus in on Boaz’s question of, “Who are you?” The lead up to this question raises some eyebrows for us as well. We’re told that Ruth has put on her best clothes and perfume and late at night goes to sleep by Boaz. We’re told that before Boaz went to sleep that night he had quite the good evening – he ate good food and was drinking and in overall good spirits.

So, we find a young girl sleeping at the feet of a man who has been kind and generous to her when he wakes up in the middle of the night – startled by the fact that a beautiful woman is by his side.

And so he says, “Who are you?”
And she says, “Marry me.”
He says, “Who are you?”
And Ruth says, “Your wife.”

That’s bold. Even in today’s society it’s typical for the guy to propose, but here we find Ruth proposing to Boaz. And we don’t see questions about marriage or engagement rings here – no, the sign of a proposal in Ruth’s day was to spread a cloak over a woman.

Here we don’t find Ruth waiting for someone else to change her life. Ruth has been through hell and back with the death of her husband, living in a foreign land, and now living with her mother-in-law in a strange city. We find her life still teetering on the edge of oblivion and upon seeing this loyal love and respect from Boaz she creates the change she wants to see. In proposing to Boaz she brings to completion the change she wants in her life. In marrying Boaz she removes the separation between them.

But Ruth and Boaz are unusual. They’re unusual in terms of the amount of love and mercy and grace and respect they have for one another – it seems to be endless. And not only are Ruth and Boaz unusual, but so are Naomi and Ruth. Here we see people who couldn’t be more different from one another. We see three people who have different religions, ways of life, old and young, male and female – and yet we find them coming together.

But maybe coming together is easier said than done. We seem so divided as a country and world right now. It seems to be a constant battle between who is right and who is wrong. A fight over what the solutions to the problems are. A constant struggle to define what the problems even are.

As I’ve poured over this text this past week my attention has time after time been drawn to another section of the Bible: the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It’s been drawn to a passage where Jesus is speaking just following the Beatitudes and it’s labeled, “Love for Enemies” in my Bible. And I keep reading those words from Jesus to, “Love our enemies, turn the other check, be merciful just as God is merciful.” And my initial reaction is, “No. No, God, I won’t do these things for my enemies. Be merciful to ISIS? No thanks. Love the person who murdered 84 people in Nice, France? I’ll pass.”

These are gut feelings and reactions that perhaps you share as well and it’s called being human. Our society and culture have taught us to fight back against such evils in the world. We’ve been taught to obliterate those whom we hate, not love them. But maybe Jesus got that one wrong.

Maybe Ruth and Boaz in our reading today got it wrong as well. Maybe they’re not supposed to be together. Maybe Ruth, as a young woman, has no business finding Boaz on the threshing floor in the middle of the night and telling him to marry her. That’s not how society was supposed to work!

But then again, Jesus didn’t come to earth to commend us on how we’d structured our society and culture. He came as one of us to show us a different way of doing things. Jesus set aside the right of reigning as God from on high so that he could instead become one of us.

A human being, who like Ruth, disregarded traditional, societal conventions. Ruth saw the humanity in her fellow people. Ruth loved these people to such a degree that it doesn’t make sense – but then again love often can’t be explained or described or thought of in a way that does makes sense.

Jesus’ love for the world certainly doesn’t make sense. Jesus’ command to us to love our enemies don’t make sense at all. So, how about we start small? How about just loving those in our own lives, those in our communities and this country who we don’t like or agree with. The world needs a love like Jesus’. The world needs a love like Ruth’s. The world needs a love that has no boundaries.

In no way is this easy – and in no way am I claiming I do this. In no way is it easy to love not only those we disagree with, but it becomes effectively impossible to love those who commit acts of evil.

But I don’t think Jesus was wrong. I don’t think Ruth missed the mark. I think they looked into the eyes of the people around them and saw their neighbors as beloved children of God. And they did so at extreme risk. Ruth on the threshing floor in the middle of the night next to a man? She couldn’t be more exposed! But love drove her there. Jesus told us to love our enemies and the world couldn’t handle such a great love – so he died because as humans we’ve often decided that only certain people deserve to be loved.

But, Ruth and Jesus looked at the people around them and said, “You are mine. I love you.” Ruth looked at the loyalty, respect, and love shown by Boaz and chose him. Jesus looks at each one of us here and outside of these walls and chooses us as well. For Jesus’ abundant love and grace know no boundaries. And filled with this merciful love and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can move out into the world as we bring about the Kingdom of God through acts of love, mercy, and forgiveness.

July 10, 2016 – “Hope”

Today’s text is from Ruth 2. The image that accompanies this sermon is called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. More information about it can be found here.


In April of 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space and began its mission to explore the universe in the greatest detail that humanity had ever witnessed. From the nearby planets to faraway galaxies this telescope has produced incredible images of the universe. One of the most fascinating images it has captured during its time in space occurred in late 2003.

It’s called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. And let me take a moment to geek-out over this thing. The Hubble Space Telescope orbits over 300 miles above the Earth at a speed of 4 miles per second – meaning it completes one orbit of Earth in a blistering 95 minutes.

Now, if you or me take a picture of the night sky we’re not going to see much. If you’ve got a camera that allows you to have a longer exposure time – say 30 seconds – you might be able to see a few dozen stars. But if you’ve got a huge camera in space and say around one million seconds of exposure time then you can see amazing things.

IDL TIFF file
Hubble Ultra Deep Field

This image contains over 10,000 objects – most of them galaxies. And if you’re wondering how much area of the sky this picture takes up it’s not much. If you shrunk this image down to 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter and held it out 1 meter from your body toward the night sky that’s its relative size – a mere one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the night sky.

The light from the most distant object in this image took 13.2 billion light-years to reach Earth. It’s taken almost the entire length of creation’s existence for this light to finally reach our planet. The thousands of galaxies in this image are a stunning and microscopic glimpse into how beautiful and majestic and immense creation is.

I’m really at a loss for words as to how to describe what we’re seeing in this image. Now, in a couple months we’ll find ourselves reading the account of creation from Genesis. We’ll read an account of God creating everything that we see and know and we’ll marvel at God’s majesty.

But I think we’re cheating a little bit. As Christians we see the wonders of the Earth or of the universe and immediately can’t help but think of God’s interaction with them. But how about something mundane? How about this sticker in the shape of a star? It’s just a tiny sticker. Didn’t need a telescope in space to see this wonder – it’s right here before our eyes! When you see this do you immediately think of God? I guess I wouldn’t.

But what if I took this sticker in the shape of a star and gave it to someone and congratulated them on accomplishing a task. That seems normal, doesn’t seem earth shattering, no need to claim God at work there. And although God might be a little more hidden in this sticker than a galaxy God’s presence is located in the action as well.

Going back to Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, it’s hard to describe this image. There just doesn’t seem to be an English word that captures the gravity of the image. It’s a picture of creation, but we have no good way to express what we’re witnessing.

The same thing happens sometimes when translating Hebrew into English; and it happens in today’s reading in verse 20.  “The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” The word in question is ‘kindness’. The Hebrew word behind it – hesed – is a tricky one to translate into English. It runs the gamut of kindness, loyalty, friendship, love, mercy. But one thing this hesed is not is a feeling. Now, of course words like kindness and love have feelings behind them. But they also have actions. Love can be seen in our actions. Kindness can be seen in our actions. Same with mercy and friendship and loyalty.

We’re told that Boaz is acting upon his loyal love for Ruth by how he treats her, not just how he feels about her. In verse 12 Boaz prays that God bless Ruth. 2 verses later Boaz does just that. He invites Ruth in for a meal. He tells the other harvesters to leave her alone and to even set Ruth up for success.

God’s hesed – God’s loyal, merciful, abundant love for humanity is seen through you and me. Often we look for God’s presence in burning bushes, bolts of lightning, magnificent images of creation – but the beauty of a sunset isn’t going to help the poor. An object billions of miles away isn’t going to end war.  A waterfall isn’t going to wash away the thirst and hunger billions of people experience. But we can.

Boaz prays that God bless Ruth and then God acts through Boaz to complete his prayer. This word – hesed – that we see translated as ‘kindness’ in our reading is the turning point for Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

And it’s a starting point for all of us as well – this word that cannot be fully translated or understood – this word that describes a love beyond anything we can fathom. In recent days we’ve come upon events that we don’t understand and can’t comprehend.

Late last week we heard about the deaths of two black men and saw the horrifying videos of the aftermath. And then on Friday morning we woke up to see that five police offers had been assassinated.

And as I wrote this and as I stand here now I’m at a loss as to what to say. My heart aches – as I’m sure yours does as well – for those who have been killed and for the systems of hate and injustice we are a part of. But I cannot underscore enough that this isn’t an “us vs. them” problem. It’s not a pro-cop vs. pro-black issue. It’s a human issue. We’re killing one another out of fear and hate and anger.

As Christians we are called to stand with the oppressed and rejected and hated – we’re called to show God’s hesed with the world around us, and right now that means standing with People of Color and for the police officers who now must fear for their lives while protecting their communities.

But standing with someone also means doing something. As we’ve seen so far in Ruth, love is more than a feeling – it is an action. If even only 1 Person of Color is killed because of their race then we’ve failed as a society. If even only 1 police officer is killed because of hate then we’ve failed as a society.

God’s hesed for the world calls us to see one another with a love that is unquenchable. God’s hesed for us calls each of us to see the humanity in one another and to do everything in our power to bring about peace. God’s hesed for us demands that we follow in the footsteps of Christ – calling for systematic change and reconciliation for a world that is broken.

We can be that change in the world. Just like Boaz, we can bring about that love. But in order to do so we must see one another as God sees all of us – as beloved people who have the gift of new life from Christ in their hearts.

I don’t know what else to say besides that God loves you. Never forget that promise. As we move out into the world let’s replace fear and hate with community and love. Let’s show the world that Jesus’ love is stronger than hate. That in the midst of darkest night we have a Savior by our side who walks with us as we call for people to come together and to be seen as human beings, each beloved by God who made each of us in God’s image.

That in the midst of despair we can have hope because we have one another and we have a God who loves each of us.

July 3, 2016 – “Loyalty”

During the first four weeks of the month of July we will be reading one chapter of the book of Ruth each weekend. Today’s text is from Ruth 1.


With terrorist attacks happening in recent days and months the topic of immigration has once again surfaced. The debate surfaced during the referendum held in the United Kingdom during their vote whether or not to leave the European Union as well. And the debate over immigration has surfaced for as long as this country has existed, but with a presidential election months away it has become a topic of interest for all parties involved.

We also find it as a reality for our protagonist in today’s reading. The short book of Ruth is wedged between Judges and Samuel and follows a dark and bloody time in Israel. If we’re reading Ruth in its narrative place in the Bible we have just finished the book of Judges – where 12,000 Israelite men murdered all the men and women of a city, but took the virgins as their wives. Preceding this book about two women, where we find the only dialogue in all of scripture between women, we read in the final chapters of Judges about a girl who was offered up to be raped and beaten and literally left for dead.

So, we start the book of Ruth with horrifying images in our mind and thoughts of male dominated society in our heads. Not much has changed then, I suppose. And we find a similar narrative to start off the book of Ruth with Naomi sons’ taking women to be their wives. The NIV nicely censors the translation with the word “marriage” in verse 4, but we’re not going to let that fool us.

What’s also interesting about the start to this book is the intermarriage that is taking place. Scripture had a list of nations that couldn’t intermarry and Judeans and Moabites were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

While we’re still on the first few verses of this book let’s also take notice of the reason why Naomi’s family is leaving Bethlehem in the first place: There’s a famine taking place. Perhaps not unusual, but ironic in this case since Bethlehem means, “house of bread”.

So, a seemingly normal family must leave their homeland for a foreign, despised territory because the ‘house of bread’ is out of bread.

10 years into their displacement tragedy strikes.  Naomi’s husband had died soon after the move and now both of her sons have died. So, in a male dominated society we find three women living alone in a foreign land.

We find three women who have faced horrific circumstances. Forced out of their homeland due to famine and living as refugees in unfriendly land. Forced into marriages with men from different tribes; and now all three on their own – which, for women in ancient Israel was a big problem.

Naomi has no prospects, no hope of having more children for which to carry on the family name. Only daughters-in-law left with no husbands – as we’ve seen women don’t have much value in society so they’re not much help either.

Which brings us to the news that the ‘house of bread’ is once again producing food. Naomi’s homeland is once again flowing in an abundance of food and the three women see this as their only opportunity at surviving. We’re told the three of them begin the journey to Bethlehem together, but at some point Naomi has a change of heart. At some point Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to go back to their own homeland. Naomi realizes her time has come and gone and simply wants to return to her homeland to grieve.

She offers Ruth and Orpah a chance at having a normal life again. We’re told this is no easy separation. The women weep over the news. Their devotion to one another, their love for one another, has kept them together through the tragic deaths of their husbands. Their love for one another has kept them together as a family through the midst of famine and foreign lands.

They have been through the worst of times together and there’s barely a glimmer of hope on the distant horizon. As Naomi trembles in pain and grief and sorrow she tells Ruth and Orpah to leave her to die and to try and find new life somewhere else.

This family is being torn apart at the seams by one tragedy after another and eventually Orpah follows Naomi’s word and returns home. Naomi is nearly ready to return home to grieve as it seems God has turned God’s hand against her to the point of death, but there’s one problem: Ruth will not let go.

Ruth and Naomi’s relationship has been forged through the fires of despair. Theirs is a story of hunger, foreigner, widow. Theirs is a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. It is in the midst of pain and grief and tears that Ruth utters from the bottom of her soul the heart-wrenching words that we are familiar with to this day.

Words that often are heard at weddings for the love and devotion and loyalty they proclaim. But here we find them being spoken through tears of pain and loss. They’re not words of promise, but words of reality. What has been an unbreakable relationship will continue to be so.

Even with this declaration of Ruth’s loyalty, Naomi still cannot see or feel God’s presence. Everything in her life has been taken away from her – Naomi, whose name means, “sweet” tells the people of Bethlehem upon her return that she is no longer sweet, but bitter. Bitter from the years of emptiness that she has experienced, bitter from God turning against her, bitter from God seemingly being nowhere to be found in her life. And so she becomes Mara, which means, “bitter.”

And so through the decade of death and loss, famine and hunger, aliens in a foreign land, two women who are now vulnerable and at risk for the horrors heard verses before this book in Judges, we find Naomi and Ruth returning to the house of bread just as the barely harvest is beginning.

We find their relationship strengthened – forged through pain and grief – unbreakable even to death. We find the relationship between these two women central. Even though they are from different lands they come together. Even though they have different religions they come together. Even though they have no reason to stay together they remain. Even though everything in their society points to them being worthless and unable to fend for themselves they decide to travel to Bethlehem with nothing – not even a hope or a prayer.

All they have is each other. All they have is the love that despite reason and reality refuses to give way. Two travelers going to Bethlehem with nothing but each other in the midst of an unlikely pairing. At the halfway point to Christmas I can’t help but be reminded of Mary and Joseph. A couple who had no business being the parents of Christ. Rejected, left to travel on their own, foreigners in a different land – all traveling to the same, quiet village.

Bethlehem, the house of bread, where the harvest was beginning. For God there is no ending, only beginning. Only creation in the midst of nothing. For on the cross Jesus spoke to us and said, “Where you go, I go. Where you stay, I stay. Where you die, I die.” And where Jesus rises to new life we too find new life. A life that is forged in the relationships that we have with one another.

June 26, 2016 – “Generosity”

Today’s text is from 2 Corinthians 8:1-15.


As I was driving back from the Synod Assembly a few weeks ago, I came across a very interesting sign on the side of the road. In the distance were a pair of railroad tracks and the usual crossing gates ready to go down when the next train passed. But before you could make it to the crossing there was a big, yellow sign. And it wasn’t the usual “railroad crossing” sign you would see, but instead this one said, “Rough Crossing”.

Now, I figured this sign was simply exaggerating the problem – it seems that whenever I see a sign that says, “Bump”, or “Right lane closed”, or “take this turn at 50 mph”, they sometimes turn out to be wrong.

But as I got closer to the crossing I noticed that the cars ahead of me were slamming on their breaks at the last second and sure enough their cars bounced up and down over what was apparently a rough crossing.

When it was finally my turn to cross the tracks I could see huge chunks of the road missing in various places over the crossing and sure enough it felt like I was about to destroy the suspension of my car even as I went slowly over the tracks.

And as I continued down the road I began to wonder why the county had taken the time to put up a sign that said, “Rough Crossing” instead of actually just fixing the problem. Why did they feel the need to point out their inadequacies instead of actually fixing the problem? Why was the solution to the problem not so much a solution but more of a, “Hey, there’s a problem ahead. We didn’t want to fix it, so we’re just going to warn you about it and now you have to deal with it yourself!”

Rough crossing. Now, I later learned that in fact the city of Kenosha could do nothing about it – the pavement inside the crossing was in fact the responsibility of the railroad company. All the city could do was put up a sign that warned of the bumpy road ahead and hope that the railroad would eventually decide to come by and fix the problem.

But I think the point remains. What should be a simple problem to fix was turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. What was obvious to any driver wasn’t so obvious to those who weren’t impacted by this rough crossing on a daily basis.

So, when Paul points out that the poor in Corinth are facing a rough situation he nearly commands the city to do something about it. He even says that nearby Macedonia is out-giving them. Now, I have no idea who city or school rivals are around here. But back in my hometown of Westby the neighboring town of Viroqua were our outright rivals. So much so that I still don’t like the color orange to this day. So imagine someone you admire says that your rival is outperforming you at your own game. That’s not something you want to hear.

So as Paul tries to be the coach for the people of Corinth he realizes he’s fighting a losing battle. In Paul’s day, and in our day, overflowing abundance of money, grace, love, help isn’t the norm. The norm is to give what we can out of our wealth, to seek refuge in the safety provided by government programs, to simply be okay with these Band-Aid fixes.

Like the sign placed before the crumbling railroad crossing we often find solutions to problems that alleviate the issue, but don’t actually stop the problem from happening.

Paul sees this and has no problem placing the mirror of Jesus Christ right before our eyes. Paul sees our reluctance to be generous and says, “Look here. Remember Jesus? He gave up the privilege and right of being God and instead became poor for you. Instead of using his power as God to crush death from above he instead came to earth as a servant. He gave everything that he had.”

It’s a tough mirror to look into. It’s tough to hear things like, “It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. Or that the wealthy gave out of their abundance, but a poor widow gave all she had. Or that following all the commandments isn’t enough, but that we also need to sell all our possessions and then we’ll have treasure in heaven.”

Jesus sets the bar impossibly high for us. And I say impossibly because as followers of God we don’t do these things. Now, we could argue the semantics of who is actually rich or wealthy. But we are all rich and yet we are all poor as well.

We can be rich in terms of money, yet we can be poor in terms of happiness. We can be rich in terms of owning a house, yet poor in terms of friends or family. We can be rich in just about anything – just as we can be poor in nearly everything as well.

And yet Paul tells us we are rich in grace; that we have each been given the overflowing abundance of grace from Jesus. It is an abundance that sustains us through pain and grief and it is an abundance that celebrates our joys and happiness. It is an abundance that reconciles us to God and Jesus so that we don’t need to worry about our salvation. It is an abundance that frees us to give of ourselves to our neighbors because we know that salvation is ours.

It’s an abundance that allows us to be generous – not because we receive a reward for doing so, but because our brothers and sisters across the globe are in need of our help. Across the globe are signs that say things like, “Rough Crossing ahead”. Across the world are plenty of Band-Aid fixes for these problems. But when we hear things like 1 out of 10 people don’t have access to clean water or that 1 in 3 people don’t have access to something as simple as a toilet it makes your head spin.

And perhaps that’s why Jesus, and now Paul in his letter, are urgently requesting the people’s help. Because for many in our communities and many in this world there are problems that can be fixed by the generosity of others. It’s a generosity that comes from the abundance of grace we have received from Jesus.

And it’s a generosity that is frightening. Jesus said for the rich to sell all they have, for the poor to even give away what they have – but to do so knowing that God and society would embrace them and take care of them. But in order for this to happen we must all jump on board.

1 person alone cannot fix the rough crossing ahead. We must do it together as a community. Standing as one person we find our generosity seemingly meaningless against the vastness of the problems on this earth. But as one body of Christ we find our efforts empowered by the Holy Spirit and strengthened by the grace we ourselves have received from Christ.

It is an abundance which overflows our hearts and souls. An abundance that we cannot help but exude – for God’s light, God’s word, Jesus’ love cannot be hidden from the world. This abundant grace flows freely like the wind – to every corner of creation.

And it is an abundance that we can give freely from – knowing that all we have and all that we are is a gift from God – a gift that can take the rough crossings of this world and turn them into smooth intersections where all people can walk freely in the light and love of Christ.