The Faith of Abraham – Lectionary 06/28/2020

Genesis 22:1-14

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Mark 7: 9-13

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Sermon Text

Abraham, as we established firmly last week, had a complicated relationship with his children to say the least. The composition of Genesis places his actions with Ishmael and Hagar and with Isaac on Mount Moriah, next to each other. Reading through the book we see Abraham expel Ishmael and Hagar, then immediately settle in the land he sent them into, and then immediately begin the drama that is known to us today as the, “Akedah,” or “Binding” of Isaac. Younger listeners who relate that term, “The Binding of Isaac,” to a popular flash animated rogue-like, it is an intentional and thematic decision on the creator’s part.

For us as interpreters, the naming of this pericope tells us what takes place. Abraham takes his son onto a mountain and binds him to be sacrificed. Christian writers, often writing through the lens of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, have called this the, “Sacrifice of Isaac,” and highlight what Abraham was willing to give up for God in taking his son to the mountain. The text is not overly concerned with the sacrifice itself though, except to tell us that human sacrifice is not permitted in Judaism and that this is as a scene demonstrates God’s disdain for the practice. Jewish interpreter’s focus instead on the theme of obedience to God.[1]

Yes, at the end of the day it is potentially disastrous to follow Kierkegaard or reformed thinkers in highlighting putting God above family obligations as is often how this text is discussed. While it is true that Christ warns us, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) To take this in a vacuum and not consider that Christ also says we cannot blame God for our inability to care for our older parents, as our Gospel reading for today says, is to cherry pick our scriptures.

In highlighting this particular aspect of Abraham’s sacrifice we risk missing the point as it were. Looking closer at the text, we see that God asks Abraham to offer up his son in the most agonizing way possible. In Hebrew the text clearly demarcates itself so that God builds an anticipation in anyone who listens about what God is asking. God says to Abraham, “Take now your son.” We can image Abraham’s thoughts as he hears this –

Abraham: “I have two of those, I wonder who he means? Does he want me to take Ishmael back?”
God continues on, “Your only (or uniquely) begotten son.”
Abraham: “Does he mean Ishmael as uniquely born to an enslaved woman or Isaac as uniquely born out of a promise of God?”
God: “The one whom you love.”
Abraham: “But I love them both! Even if Ishmael is… absent right now.”
God: “Isaac.”
Abraham: “Oh… Yes, Isaac.”
God: “And go to the land of Moriah.
God: And offer him up.
God: As a burnt offering.
God: On one of the mountains of which I will tell you.

Abraham has to grapple now if he is willing, having just given up one son, to lose his other. Ishmael was cast from his camp, but one day he might come back or the situation might change. However, once Isaac is killed there’s no coming back. Abraham must decide how he must act, if he is willing to sacrifice once again a child that has been given to him. He sits, and he thinks, and he waits. Yet, when the sun rises the next day, Abraham immediately heads out of the camp and the rest is history.

Abraham showed faith in following through with this, faith that only a few people can claim to have known. God and Abraham alone may know exactly what it is like to climb a mountain and prepare to see your child die, part of yourself, in fear and trembling on a cold hilltop, in part by your hand. Yet, at the same time, this story speaks to a specific group across time and space.

For the Early Church, it was not hypothetical that you may see those you love die at the hands of another. To be a member of the Church was to become a member of an illegal sect in several periods of the Roman Empire. Before the Church, Jews faced this danger across the Ancient Near East, and continued to face those dangers as Christianity moved from an oppressed group to an oppressing group in the Late Imperial and Medieval Periods. The command of Jesus to hate our lives and those within them was not that we should be ready at the drop of a hat to cut ties with our loved ones, but that they may be stolen away from us if we take our faith seriously, and that we must be prepared for not only ourselves to come to harm, but those we care for.

No wonder then that the writer of Hebrews tied the faith of Abraham to the work of Christ and asked their audience to follow Abraham’s example. The family of the faithful had to be ready for the worst and to look at Abraham and to Christ that they knew that they were not alone in facing this risk. The disasters that came their way were faced not only by the patriarchs, but Jesus himself, and that solidarity was enough to see them singing hymns as they entered the Amphitheaters or as they were crucified along the roadsides.

We, however, are not being dragged to martyrdom by an Empire, nor are we a minority religion scattered across the world as post-Exilic Judaism was. We are the majority religion in the Western World, and especially in the United States, no matter how restrictive a definition of a Christian is used. We are not people who, facing collective persecution and pain, look to this message as one about living a bold faith in the face of persecution. The reality is, that most Western, and especially American, Christians will go their entire life without their faith causing a single negative thing to happen to them, and when it does happen it is more often a consequence of actions independent of  their faith.

The strange thing that we as Christians must grapple with in the twenty-first century United States is that our religion has become innocuous. It asks nothing of us and when we are presented with an opportunity to act upon it we usually reject that opportunity in favor of an easier option. We talk triumphantly about how we must emulate Abraham’s faith and be willing to give up anything we are asked to give up – as long as we are not asked to give up comfort, possessions, reputation, or convenience we are happy to stand up and proclaim the faith we have in God.

Some will say that this is not the case and that there are plenty of stories that demonstrate a Christian willingness to stand up for their faith. To that we can apply a simple test, “What parts of the faith are they standing up for?” Plenty of people will take a stand on things that ask nothing of them. It is easy to, “Stand up,” against things we do not participate in or have no risk of stumbling into doing and when criticized say that we have lost as a result of it, despite the fact we are told to remove logs from our eyes before we remove sawdust from the eyes of others. (Matthew 7:5) It is easy to cause unnecessary fights and then be upset when people find us disagreeable, despite the fact we are told to, “live at peace with one another.” (Romans 12:18) It is easy to cut out family and friends from our lives because we would rather do that than do the hard work of reconciling ourselves to them.

There are situations when fights will occur between people of faith and those outside it. There will be moments when we must speak against evils in the world without reservation even as we ourselves are sinful. There will be moments when we must end relationships because there is an unwillingness on one or more parts to mutually work toward the good of each other.[2] What we mean to say in highlighting the above negative acts is not to say these realities do not exist, but to say that we as Christians are far too willing to find ourselves encountering exceptions rather than rules.

If we wish to be obedient to God, and if we wish to offer up even our most beloved attachments to God, we cannot do so only when it is easy for us because that will only hurt other people. Racial inequality in the world that we benefit from, that is something we must make sacrifices to end. That should be evident to us after the events of recent weeks, when nooses once more can be placed in the workplaces of people, even racecar drivers to intimidate them and threaten their life. Poverty in the world that we benefit from, that is something we must make sacrifices to remedy. When we buy goods that cannot be affordably made without funding slave mining operations across the world or the private prison-industrial complex in the United States the church has to act somehow. When a sickness ravages the world and kills 5 in every hundred people it infects, we should think about sacrifices we have to make. Especially, almost five months in, when that sacrifice mostly comes down to wearing a mask even if it is not comfortable or convenient to do so.

We are people of faith, and faith sometimes demands sacrifices. What we cannot allow to happen is that we invoke that reality only when it is convenient for us. We cannot declare Korban at the neglect of our family, we cannot claim Christian witness at the expense of the least of these, we cannot claim to emulate Abraham when we cannot even get up and leave the comforts of the world we’ve known. Yet, it is only when we take that trip, when we move up into the unknown hills that God shows us along the way, that we will find God’s blessing, and that blessing in abundance. – Amen.

[1] For further discussion see, Joseph Telushkin. “The Binding of Isaac/AKEDAT YITZCHAK” in Jewish Literacy. (New York, New York: William Morrow and Company 1991.) 36-37

[2] I take a moment here to emphasize that, in the case of physically or emotionally abusive relationships this is especially important to remember. A victim has no obligation to their abuser, and we as the Church cannot continue to endanger vulnerable person to soften the blow to our own sensibilities.

The Warning of Ezra-Nehemiah – Meditation for 06/17/2020

Nehemiah 9:1-6 (NRSV)

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. Then Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani stood on the stairs of the Levites and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”

And Ezra said: “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you

Meditation Text

Not every example in scripture is a good one. Not every word is meant to edify us through its example. The reality of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it is a historical book. It contains no direct speech from God, though God is often invoked. It is also a book that captures a discrete moment in the history of God’s people – the return to exile and the attempt to return to, “normalcy.” These attempts were marked by the shipment of two key figures within Babylonian Jewish society to Jerusalem. Ezra, a scribe, and Nehemiah the dignitary placed in charge of the area. These were both employees of the new King, King Cyrus of Persia.

When Cyrus conquered Babylon he issued what was known as the “Edict of Return.” According to this edict, all those who were displaced because of Babylonian conquests were allowed to return to their homelands. While the Cyrus Cylinder, that is the physical object bearing this edict has been found, there is an easier way to see it. If you open your Bible to chapter 1 of Ezra, you see an abbreviated version of the Edict. The writer of Ezra changed the language so that, rather than talking about the Babylonian God Marduk, the God of Israel is invoked in the edict. Thus, the author wished to connect Cyrus’s work to a work of God.

Ezra and Nehemiah are two books that tell us what happened when the Exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem. The land was inhabited by the agricultural workers descended from the Jews who were not exiled to Babylon and who did not flee to Egypt. Upon the arrival of the Exilic Community, the people in the land were suddenly under the control of people who, though they spoke the same language and shared the same faith, were fundamentally different than they were. Ezra, Nehemiah, and the rest of the Exiles had taken on Babylonian speech and customs in the same way those who remained in the land had developed their own.

We read in our scripture the climax of Nehemiah. The “Book of the Law,” has been found and the people have wept and promised to keep all that it says. The people mourn their apparent sins and then begin their work. They read that the Jews were to only marry Jews, that Moabites and Ammonites especially are forbidden from fellowship in the people of Israel. Thus, Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the other leadership, resolve that anyone who is unwilling to divorce their foreign wives (it is assumed women who married Babylonians remained in Babel,) must leave the community.

For centuries, this text has been taught as though it were a divine injunction. Yet, we cannot be deceived. Those who had married in Babylon were not traitors, they were doing what they were told. We read in the book of Jeremiah chapter 29 that the Exiles were to, “Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage.” God erased barriers and allowed the Exiles to grow their community beyond just the children of Abraham. God opened the doors for all people to come into the family of the Faith.

Yet, the post-exilic leadership chose to use their return to Jerusalem as a time to consolidate power. With Persia ruling over them, they had little they could do on their own. Cyrus, though beneficent, was still an emperor after all. So, they removed anyone who might threaten their rule and found out who was loyal and who was disloyal. This purity test, on one level toward the willingness to betray family and the other the willingness to chase a so-called “racial purity,” no one in the community could or should have claimed.

The lesson of Ezra-Nehemiah, two books that we hold dearly in the Canon, should not be that we blindly ascribe righteousness to every action these people carried out. At the end of the day, they cast people out based on their ability to see beyond themselves and to love those unlike themselves. Today, as we as a country strive to treat all people with decency and as we who have historically held power push forward to understand that those unlike ourselves not only matter, but are treasured, beloved, fully realized children of God, we look to Nehemiah not as a paragon, but as a warning. And we, devoted to the new works of God that are fresh every day, should hear Jeremiah crying out to us that we should repent of the old, and bring in the new and not chase after our glory days, that never really were, to begin with. – Amen.

The Sin of Abraham – Lectionary 06/21/2020

Genesis 21:8-21

[Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Sermon Text

Heroes are seldom perfect. In the history of humanity there has been a single person who never did anything wrong, only one person who was truly blameless, and when we met them our first inclination was to kill them. Yes, Jesus shows us that we are shocked whenever we meet people that do not do wrong, that our immediate reaction is to reject them, perhaps because the mirror that they offer up to us reveals too perfectly how flawed our own actions really are. Jesus, the only hero we can hold up in everything they did, is as much a positive example of what we must do as a negative test to show how seldom we do it.

With the exception of Christ, the heroes we have throughout scripture do not give us examples only of what is good, but frequently provide negative examples of what we must not do. Even those key figures alluded to time and time again have faults that are often presented in parallel to their righteousness – Moses the murderer, David the kidnapper, Solomon the slavemaster, Peter the bigot, and on and on and on. The negative examples are usually presented in one of two ways.

The first presentation of a wrongdoing by Biblical figures is to show them overcoming the evil within them that led to their wrongdoing. Peter, having rejected gentiles, learns to accept them into the church. Judah, having committed adultery, legitimizes the relationship and claims the resulting children as his own. In these examples the lesson is clear – who we are does not necessarily indicate who we will be, and who we will be is determined by what decisions we make in response to our wrongdoing now.

The second presentation of wrongdoing is more nuanced. It tells us what our leading figure has done and then leaves us to decide what we think about it. As discussed in our footnotes {https://bit.ly/SJFN06212020} we are sometimes simply told of an event and we the audience are left to decide whether the actors were acting in good faith or not. Especially in the Torah and sometimes in the historical books, the audience is left to decide more often than the story decides for us. To put this in terms of filmmaking, the Biblical authors understood what it meant to show rather than tell.

Perhaps one of the strongest examples of this storytelling technique is found in the story of Jacob. Jacob, wandering through the Levant is told to return to Bethel and to build an altar there. Jacob, before setting out, gathers all the idols in his camp and buries them under an oak tree of note (THE tree at Shechem.) While the reader will quickly see that Jacob was right to follow God’s leading to Bethel and to remove the idols in the camp, the particulars of the situation allow us as readers to question the situation all the same. Why were there suddenly a collection of idols in the camp of Israel? Why did they bury the idols in a place of note instead of destroy them? Was it so they could come back and get them later? No answer is given, but we the audience are asked to interpret and think deeply the implications of Jacob’s actions.

This kind of speculation is not an idle thing, but is an active engagement with the Biblical narrative. The Bible was written down in a time when ink and parchments were scarce, so every word that is written down must have been considered significant. The moments where something happens and the narrator does not attempt to explain them are moments where we must take up the brunt of the interpretive task, and we must balance our interpretation between honesty and cynicism, between grace and excuse making. We read in the scripture people who are just as flawed, and oftentimes just as good, as we are. That means we must look to them, not with rose colored glasses, but with as objective of a lens as possible. This allows us to engage the lessons of scripture not only in the obvious moments, but in the incidental interactions between persons.

Our scripture for today gives us a situation that is likewise presented without comment as to whether or not the right thing was done, or perhaps we should say, “the ideal thing was done.” It is a text that has been misused throughout history to justify the separation of certain classes and races of people, it has been used to justify violence towards Jews, Muslims, and the enslaved. It has often been robbed of the potential for the Spirit of Life to empower us through its lesson, and given over to interpretations that only fuel our own desire to demarcate as different and then punish those who are unlike us.

The text captures Isaac, the child promised to Abraham and Sarah, being weaned and a celebration being held accordingly. The community would celebrate now because, in a world where infants had a 50:50 chance of survival at best, and a 20:80 chance at worst, a child surviving to be weaned was a miracle.[1] It also established that a viable heir had likely been produced for Abraham. The reality that Sarah had a son who would inherit gave her peace, but there was one complication. When she looked out of her tent and saw her son playing with Ishmael, her husband’s first child through their slave, she realized that – even with her status as a wife as opposed to Hagar’s status as a concubine, there were two sons who were to inherit, and Ishmael stood to receive the lion’s share of the inheritance.

As such, Sarah demanded Hagar and her son be cast out of the camp, left to rot somewhere along the path. By disowning his child, Isaac would become the primary inheritor. Sarah, for love of her child or perhaps out of jealousy for Hagar, resolved to remove them by any means necessary. Abraham was troubled by this command, but we are told God intervenes and tells Abraham to go ahead and follow through. Thus, Hagar is sent away with a loaf of bread and a small canteen, left in the wilderness to live or die on her own.

We see the rest of the story, how God takes care of Ishmael as he promised, and we usually leave the story at that. Abraham, having listened to God, is considered to have done what is right, and we count this as another moment where Abraham acted out in faith. Yet, it seems that this reading does not dig deep enough into the relationship between Abraham and his first born. A relationship that was already deeply troubled from the beginning.

Abraham was someone who up this point has been portrayed as both a paragon of faith and a deeply flawed human being. When he was in Egypt and among the Amalekites he sold Sarah as a concubine to the rulers of both lands to not only make some money but also to make sure he was safe at her expense. When he entered into the Promised Land he fled at the first sign of danger despite the admonition from God that he would be safe and taken care of when he arrived.  Abraham’s flaws were clear to anyone who knew him, he was not a perfect person.

Yet, Abraham was known for his devotion to God. He was hospitable to all people who came to him, not only feeding his visitors but feasting with them. He worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of his relative Lot. Still more, when God said he was ready to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities famous for their greed and violence toward visitors, Abraham was willing to extend mercy to them and ask God to relent of God’s anger. Abraham was faithful and willing to go out on a limb to do what was right, even if it meant arguing with God about what came next. Abraham’s faith was evident to anyone who knew him, he was a faithful person.

Yet, it is the former characteristics of Abraham that won out in regard to his son Ishmael. Before Ishmael was born, Sarah turned against his mother. She refused to see the enslaved woman as anything like her equal, and so she demanded Abraham return her to her designation as property within their household. Hagar fled and was eventually returned to the camp. Yet, Abraham did not intercede for her, he let her be reduced to the status of a slave again and let his wife abuse her for her perceived sins.

In our text today, Abraham again does not intercede for his child. Though he is initially conflicted, he gives in the second a solution is given that allows him to continue life more or less as normal. His child is cast out of the camp, he gives them barely enough to survive a day, and then he considers everything is taken care of. We can think of James when he says it is not enough to say, “God bless you and feed you,” but that we must also give those in need what they need. Still, Abraham sends them into the world, God promising they will be taken care of, but he does nothing to show his support of them.

Abraham is, in many ways, a dualism. He is the paragon of faith we must all aspire to, but also a lesson on what not to do. He trusts God, but not always. He is merciful and loving, but not to everyone, and oftentimes not toward his family. He is the origin of our present Covenant with God, and as a member of it he strove toward righteousness, but he also tried to jump ship several times.

Abraham gives us an important lesson about not only scripture, but our life. When we look at those who have influenced us, those family members or mentors or notable figures who went before us – we receive not only positive but negative examples of how to live into our Christian faith. Our choice in reading stories is whether we will cover up the negative examples in platitudes, “Those were different times,” or if we will engage them and say, “They did wrong and we must learn from it.” Whether we will love the figures of the past because of or in spite of their failings. The Spirit of God enlivens us to learn, to forgive, and to love.

I end our discussion with one final ambiguity of our story. After all that happened between Ishmael and Abraham, after Isaac was bound (as we will discuss next week,) after Abraham had lived his life in full, Abraham died. At his tomb, a community of mourners gathered. His children, his surviving wife, all his household. Ishmael too came to the tomb. We are not told why though. Did he stand at a distance, a specter reminding the community of Abraham’s misdeeds? Or did he stand among the crowd, weeping with the community and mourning the father he never got to know and holding close his brother he only now can begin to love? The text does not tell us, but we as interpreters must decide. Why do you think Ishmael came home? May the Spirit of God bless us in the decision we make. – Amen.

[1]Carol Meyers. “Eve out of Eden” in Rediscovering Eve. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 2013)  98-99

God of All Peoples – Sermon in Honor of Shavuot 2020

Ruth 2:2-16

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.”

Sermon Text

The book of Ruth is a tragic comedy as much as a theological text. The situations which the characters find themselves in are often absurd, their language is overexaggerated, and their actions verge on impulsive. Yet, the narrative is clear that each person plays their role exactly as they must. God, though often invoked in the book, takes no direct action in the story. Instead, we the reader are invited to see God in the long stream of coincidences and chance meetings that allow for Ruth to enter into the people of Israel and for Naomi to receive a child through the proxy of her daughter-in-law.

Our text today captures one of these happenstance moments. Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, a way that people with no land were able to gather food. Gleaning was mandated by the Torah, no one could gather the grain that fell behind the thresher nor could the cut all the wheat of their field down. The extreme of the field and the grain that fell belonged to the poor who would come and follow the workers. Ruth resolved that she would go to a field and invoke this right.

What occurs in the moment she leaves is important – Ruth invokes the Mosaic right to glean without being told about it. She has internalized the Torah so well that she knows what she can and cannot do since she has entered into the region near Bethlehem. What is more, Naomi does not tell Ruth which field to glean in, despite the fact she is later revealed to know that Boaz, her relative by marriage, is nearby. Ruth, if she knew about Boaz would have been able to go directly to him and ensure her safety in gleaning. Yet, because she was sent off without this information, she was open to the danger of ambiguous fields.

Though gleaning was provided for in the Torah, there was no guarantee that the owner of a field would honor the practice. Not only this, but the field work was exclusively overseen by men, and as such it was dangerous to send a woman, especially a woman with no relatives and no rights under Mosaic law, into a field she did not know. Naomi, in not volunteering information about Boaz, put Ruth in a great deal of danger.

Yet, the divine happenstance of the story sees her end up in the place of safety. Boaz is in his fields overseeing the work of his harvesters. Through word of mouth he learns all that has happened with Ruth, and more than that he decides that her relation to him through marriage and her devotion to Naomi (especially in spite of Naomi’s apparent disinterest in her well-being,) is enough reason for him to go above and beyond the requirements of the Torah. Not only does she get all she gleans, but she receives a meal with him when it comes time to rest. Not only does she receive what falls naturally to the ground, but Boaz has his harvesters discard sheaves of grain for her to collect. He is generous to the point of excess, and she walks away with something like 46 pounds of barley, enough food for her and Naomi to eat for 3 weeks.[1]

The narrative here is a historic one. In recounting how Ruth came to know Boaz a genealogy is established for King David. At the same time, the framing of the story is written with an eye toward being read aloud. It is a story that would be told to an assembly of people, around feast tables or a roaring fire. The characters exaggerated politeness toward one another demands dramatic readings, the dialogue with its repetition and puns demand flamboyance. Yet, despite the dramatic presentation of the story, a powerful message is given about God and God’s gracious love for all persons. A story that sees a Moabite lifted up as the ideal Israelite.

You see, the Torah explicitly bans the inclusion of Moabites into Israelite society. While marriage between Israelites and other people groups is discouraged in several texts, many of which are contextual injunctions, it is not given a blanket prohibition. Yet, Moabites are given a special dispensation toward exclusion. They and the Ammonites alone are given such a strong indictment, and the reason given is a single offense in the antiquity of the two groups. (Deut. 23:3-4) This rule is given no caveat, it would seem that to be true to the Torah would be to reject a Moabite whenever they presented themselves, to never have ties with them.

Yet, Ruth is a hero. Ruth enters into Bethlehem and invokes God’s law more easily than any of those who live there. She cares for her mother-in-law when she had every right to leave her to her fate in the land. Ruth, when she was given the choice to go to her homeland and be regarded as a person with full rights and privileges, chose to choose the hard road of persecution and exclusion for the sake of her mother-in-law. Ruth gives up everything, to enter into a world that will hate and exclude her, for the sake of one who she loves. If that sounds familiar, then you do well to remember that Ruth’s great (x28) grandson is none other than our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

Ruth exemplifies not only Jewishness but Christianess in her love and devotion. She is an example of how little we can know based on a person’s appearance or place of origin. She also puts into question our understanding of what it means to follow God’s law. If we are truly observant to every word of scripture, then we must tackle the story of Ruth which fundamentally sees a Moabite entering into communion with the people of Israel and the Torah which fundamentally sees Moabites as antithetical to the people of Israel to the point of non-conditional exclusion. The two texts are not just in tension, they actively oppose one another.

Ruth and her story expand our image of God in ways that we are not comfortable with. The sorrowful thing about her story is that we have made it a clean story with no edges. We look at it with the same lenses we did hearing it in bible school. A series of things that happen, that show the goodness of God, and that concludes with a happy ending for all. Yet, the text is an open critique of itself. The ideal Israelite, described in terms that mirror Proverbs 31, is a Moabite.[2] Her foreignness is so obvious that she is described by the head of Boaz’s field as, “Ruth the Moabite… from Moab.” It is her defining feature to the community she comes into.

Yet, Boaz enters the story and speaks for God. He does not reject Ruth, he does not call her a Moabite, but calls her “My daughter,” which is equivalent in Hebrew to something like, “darling,” or, “my dearest.”[3] Boaz does not tolerate the presence of Ruth, nor does he alienate her. He goes further than usual expectations of hospitality would make him go, to feed her and then send her on her way, but actively gives her an abundance of good things. Boaz, a man of means, but for our interpretive purposes a sign of God’s faithfulness, does not turn to a law that excludes, but acknowledges the kinship he shares with Ruth and goes above and beyond in showing her compassion and acceptance.

Our natural inclination to deal with the discord of Boaz’s kindness and the mandated harshness of the Torah is to make a hierarchy of divine law. “Purity laws are secondary to moral laws,” or something to that effect. That would resolve our discomfort. Or else we could say that, because Ruth assimilated into Israel, and resolved to worship Israel’s God rather than her gods of Moab she was permitted entry. However, that answer still opposes the non-conditional status of the Torah’s prohibition.

Rather than creating a hierarchy of the Law and rather than making this a special case, we do well to dig deeper. When there are circumstances of ambiguity, any sort of uncertainty in what we ought to do in a situation, it helps us to remember what the core messages of scripture are. There are different ways that people understand this core message. Victor Furnish describes the center of our faith in the Kerygmatic Core, those things proclaimed throughout all scripture. Namely he identifies, the goodness of creation, the association of all creatures with a just and loving God, that all things are gifts from God, that we live our life through the Grace of God, and that when we express grace in the day to day we flourish.[4] Another writer, Richard B. Hays understands our lenses as being summed up in three images: Community, Cross, and New Creation.[5]

No matter the framework we build off of, we must found it on the Scripture we read and the God who breaths that Scripture to life. Can we, in good faith, exclude any person from the community of faith, knowing that even Moabites found their way into God’s kingdom? Can we presume to know the limits of God’s grace, when we know that thieves on the cross can sit at the right hand of God? We worship a God who is no regarder of persons, who is God of all Nations, and who shows preference only for the least of these – the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. Can we welcome the stranger? Can we love those who have nothing to offer us? Can we see Ruth, better still can we see her son of many generations, the Christ, in those in need, regardless of where and how they came to be among us? That is the question that our scripture hangs on our doors, and the one we must answer with an affirmative: yes, yes, yes. – Amen.

[1] Carol Meyers. “Women and Household Maintenance” in Rediscovering Eve. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 2013) 131

[2] Samuel T.S. Goh. “Ruth as a Superior Woman of תיל in JSOT 38.4 (2014) 488-500

[3] Judy Fentress Williams. “Terms of Endearment.” In Ruth. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press. 2012.) 71

[4] Victor Paul Furnish. The Moral Teachings of Paul. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press. 1985)

[5] Richard B. Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, New York: HarperCollins. 1996)

In the Name of the Trinity – Lectionary 06/07/2020

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Sermon Text

Today as we gather to celebrate the blessed Trinity we do so as a Church with a mission. The first time that a trinitarian formula is evoked in scripture is in our reading for today. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” While the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it, and indeed the word Trinity, are not developed until the second or third centuries and not completed until the fifth, the truth of the Trinity nonetheless is present within the New Testament from beginning to end.

This particular instance, when Jesus offers assurance to his disciples that the ministry they are beginning is going to be a global one that lasts from that moment to the completion of all things, sees the Trinity invoked as the defining aspect of the Christian conversion experience. The baptism of a person into the community is an act of God. While the Elder who performs the baptism is the most obvious conduit of the action, God remains the true actor. The water, poured over the head of the baptizand, is a visible sign of the grace of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that washes us clean of our sin and brings us into our new life in Christ.

The mission that is given in our reading seems like a difficult task given in simple terms. “Go forward and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to attend to the commandments that I have given you.” Three steps to establishing the Kingdom of God, sounds simple enough. Yet, as with so much of scripture there is a wealth to be taken from each of these three imperatives. In particular, they tell us something about what it really means to be evangelistic. The duty of evangelism which is given to all people of faith must be more than rote memorization or the restating of our beliefs to those who may not know them. After all, if that was all there was to our mission into the world then there would not need to be three different commands, none of which it should be noted, allude anything to proclamation.

The first thing we must understand about our mission in the world comes, not in the first command of Christ in the passage, but in the first words of Jesus. “All authority in Heaven and Earth has been given to me.” The establishment of Christ as fully in control of creation fulfills two needs. The first is that Jesus’ universal authority allows for the mission to expand from the Jewish people to all people. The phrase rendered, “Make disciples of all nations,” is alternatively rendered as, “Make disciples of all Gentiles.”[1]  The work of God is not locked to one place, but is now available for all people to participate in. Secondly, Jesus having authority over all of creation allows for Jesus to make the closing claim of the passage, that Jesus will be with the Church, “Even to the end of the Age.”

Built on this foundation of Jesus’ authority, the community of the faithful is capable of going into the world and making disciples. “Discipleship,” is a popular phrase in Christianity and most everyone who uses the term means something very specific in saying the word. Fundamentally, the term “disciple,” means, “student.” To make disciples is to pass knowledge on from one generation of learner to the next. It is not a term limited to the passing on of religious knowledge, and is used elsewhere to describe relationships between philosophers and their students, tradesmen and their apprentices, and leaders and their successors.

Demystifying discipleship can be incredibly helpful to our understanding of what it means to go into the world and make disciples, to really understand what evangelism means. For the Christian, we are not just declaring truths to the world in hopes that we will somehow flip a switch in their mind to have them join the community. Likewise, as Christians we are not passively sitting around and waiting for people to discuss things with us, after all the command is to “Go make disciples,” not, “stay and make disciples.” [2]

The duty of Christians is to engage with the people in their community as teachers of Christ’s life. While the initial interaction may take forms that we understand as traditional evangelism – the preaching of the word, the proclamation of the Gospel through prophetic witness, other definite acts of evangelism – it is the substance of evangelism which really matters. We can bring people into camps and church building and get them to pray a prayer of confession, but that is not a complete evangelistic action. The purpose of the Church is not to get as many people as possible to the altar railing, it is to get them engaged in the Kingdom of God.

The community that is established in the Kingdom is one where individuals constantly learn from one another. We share God’s work with one another, we study the scripture together, and by living in community discover those aspects of the Christian life that can only be learned living and working with one another. In understanding the mission we are given to make disciples of all nations, we should see that our work is not just to check as many attendance boxes as possible, but to build authentic Christian communities that learn from one another in love.

This community of love is epitomized in the example of the Trinity. We baptize in the name of Trinity because we are subsumed into a community like the Trinity. In the same way that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make up a substance that is called God, we who are baptized make up a single substance called, “The Church.” The sacrificial love of God for Godself, the ability to give deference to one another, to always truly understand the needs of one another, that is what is offered in the unity that is given to us through our Trinitarian baptism.

The lessons that we teach one another are demonstrated to us first by God. The command to teach the world all that has been commanded us is not simply lessons given verbally. It is easy to list off what we can and cannot do in life. However, we find that the commandments of Christ are seldom defined by specific circumstances. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is an absolute rule of Christianity, but how we carry it out is contextual. We can teach plainly the ideal, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but the ultimate teaching tool is in application and example. When we, as the Church, live in Christian community and show compassion not only to those in our community but to the stranger, to the foreigner sojourning in our land, to the poor and powerless wherever they appear, then we teach people to keep the commandment we are given.

The defining aspect of the Church’s mission is the community that forms wherever the name of the Trinity is invoked among its members. The Spirit that ties us together, the Son that united us to Life and to Divinity through his life and death, and the Father who has looked over us from before creation began. When we go out and evangelize, we do not do it to meet a requirement, we do not do it to save people from future peril, but we do so to initiate others into the community of God. Does that fulfill our mission? Yes. Does it save the person from future peril? Yes. However, in practice and in outcomes the primary mark of our success in mission, in ministry, is in the development of authentic community initiated and completed through God.

As we share the Love Feast today, we do so knowing that we are a community seeking to teach one another, to learn how to live like Christ through our time together. As we go out into the world and spread our message of Christ’s work on our behalf, we also expand the community which we are called into. Let us celebrate this communion, born in the Name of the Trinity, this day and always – Amen

[1] Aaron Gale. “Matthew” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 2011)

[2] Benjamin L. Merkle. “Why the Great Commission Should Be Translated “Go!” and Not “As You Go” in STR 9.2 (fall 2018): 21-32