Of Gates and Grace

We continue to move ahead in time, though we remain in the Southern Kingdom, such as it is.  Jeremiah was born in 650 BCE, about 100 years or so after the events we read about Isaiah last week.  

He was born in Anathoth, a small town just north of Jerusalem. He belonged to a priestly family, probably the same one that cared for the Ark of the Covenant after its return from Egypt, and the family to which the high priest Eli had belonged.

If we had time to read all of Jeremiah, we would actually get a pretty good idea of what his life was like.  We would also see that he had a tender heart that longed for peace and rest for himself and for his people. This longing must have made his call and his message all the more difficult.  The first portion of our reading today is from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, in which he hears what the Lord wants from him.

We’ll start at Chapter 1, verse 4 Listen for the Word of the Lord:

1:4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah indeed started his prophetic work when we was very young, while under the reign of Josiah.  He generally spoke to the men on the streets, while his relative Hulda spoke to the women, and his teacher Zephaniah preached in the synagogue.  

As we turn to the next portion of our reading, at the start of Chapter 7, we see one of his key teachings, a call to return to true worship, not only in the synagogue but as a way of living under the covenant with God. Again, let us approach the Word of God in expectation….

7:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah,  you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.

4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

—————-

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you”

When I read those words about God’s relationship with Jeremiah, I can’t help but hear echoes of the psalmist’s words…
For it was you who formed my inward parts; 
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

And as God continues, I can’t help but recall the assurances God gave to the other fearful, reluctant, fallible, and often young women and men. People like Moses, Gideon, Miriam, Deborah, Joshua. Like Mary, Joseph…
All of whom needed to hear…
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.

Jesus offered similar words to his disciples…
My peace I give to you.  My peace I leave with you.
As you are going into the world, making disciples and baptizing them…  
I will be with you.  

Paul, who was not with them to hear these words… he got it, too.  The God in Christ who knocked sense into Paul on the road to Damascus would be with him in every journey to come.

In fact Paul’s letters to the earliest communities of Christ-followers were full of assurances that the Spirit of the Lord was with them.
That Paul’s prayers are with them.
And that Jesus the Christ was praying for them.

And in Ephesians, we get a sense of how this Pharisee among Pharisees understands the work that all of us are called to in light of Christ’s work in us. Which is not altogether different from Jeremiah’s word…
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. We need first to look at what Jeremiah was dealing with in his own context

Jeremiah was needed in a particular time and place. He was called to speak words of truth and wisdom to the people of Israel.  From his mother’s first birth pains onward, Jeremiah existed for more than himself, more than his family.

In the same way, from God’s earliest promises to Abram and Sarai, Israel was called to be a people and a nation who would exist for more than themselves.

Generations of prophets had been speaking truth to power, seeking to help Israel live into that vision. And now it was Jeremiah’s turn.  And would be for some forty years, in fact.

Josiah, one of the few good kings in the late history of Judah, was a reformer.  He heard Jeremiah’s words and sought to bring true worship back to the temple. Unfortunately, not all of his other decisions were as wise. And then Johiakim and Zedekiah were completely off the rails.

Which meant for most of those 40 years, Jeremiah was preaching a hard word.  One that the people needed, but didn’t necessarily want to hear.
A word that he knew was going to be mostly ignored.
One that we need to hear, if I’m honest.
Especially if we hope to live into the vision of being the Kingdom of God. And I do mean us…
as in all of us…

One of the things you’ll hear from me on a regular basis is this: the word YOU in God’s conversations and commands are almost always the plural YOU.  As in YOU ALL or Y’ALL

Even the most accurate translations can’t overcome the fact that You (singular) and You (plural) look and sound just alike.


Or the fact that our culture is MUCH more individualistic than the Jewish culture in which our holy texts were written. So…we need to listen extra carefully to God’s commands and promises.  

For instance, God will be with Jeremiah, absolutely. In fact, his story is filled with ways that God intervenes when enemies plot to kill the prophet. But I will be with you isn’t solely about Jeremiah.  It’s about Jeremiah in the context of the people of Israel. I will be with you AND y’all.  

Now, to say this is a tumultuous time for Judah would be an understatement. Assyria’s power has waned; the Babylonian Empire is on the rise. Other mid-sized nations are taking advantage of this opportunity to stretch and pillage a bit.

In other words, there isn’t a lot of good news for the people of Israel. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of Jeremiah’s story, the inhabitants of Jerusalem will be taken into exile.

Which leads me to a second important idea:
I will be with you is not the same as it’s all good.
God’s presence is not a security blanket
God’s presence is not a magic wand
God’s presence is not a talisman against bad things happening.

So Jeremiah, who longs to offer a word of hope and peace, is called to tell the people that the world is an awful, dangerous, messy place.
That yes, God’s here with us, but not because we’ve doing anything right.
Not because we have the right liturgy or the best musicians.
In fact, we’ve pretty well mucked it all up.

Standing at the Gates of the Temple, watching the people file in, Jeremiah is torn.  He knows that worship offers a sense of God’s presence.
It offers some comfort.

But he also knows that it’s not enough.
The people have lost sight of what it means to love God…
All day, every day.  
In spirit and truth.  
In word and deed.  

He knows that a word of Grace is not what they need.  
And so right there in the courtyard, Jeremiah speaks God’s judgment, which makes some sense of all those verbs God used to describe Jeremiah’s call.

There are religious and civil structures that need to be torn down and destroyed.
There are habits and rituals that need plucking out
There are actions and perhaps priests that must be pruned.

Not by dropping fire from heaven  (which God is certainly capable of)
Not by sending invading hordes- They’ve made that choice on their own.

God sends Jeremiah to remind the people that if they are not experiencing God’s presence in their households,
their worship,
their communities,
it’s not because God has left.

The people themselves have have chosen to live and lead and even worship as if God is not necessary.
They’ve got it covered.
They are so sure of themselves, their wisdom, their words, their ways of doing worship that there is no room for God.

I can’t even say that this time of year without thinking about Mary and Joseph.  There wasn’t room in people’s homes when God came to be with us and instead found their welcome among the animals.  

But that’s over 600 years away yet… Jeremiah needs the king and the people to get reoriented right now. Like Micah and Isaiah before him, Jeremiah reminds the people what God expects of them… what God expects of us:

Full participation in covenant life.
They need to step it up and live like they know that God is the God of justice.

And so he reminds them of the commandments that all of their laws were based on…
Don’t be fooled any more, Jeremiah says…
Don’t be fooled by these false leaders…
God wants you.  
All of you… your heart, soul, mind and strength
God wants your loyalty.
When you are at God’s house and when you’re out about.
Your lives should be dripping with honesty, generosity, compassion, love.

Step it up…  
Take care of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant.
Don’t hurt innocent people
And don’t pretend you’re following God when you’re offering praise and sacrifices to other gods. You can’t do both.

God is tired of hearing you talk about this place as a safe haven, a sanctuary
And then seeing you go out to lie, cheat and murder.
Or going out and give your time and adoration to idols.
This place has become more like a hiding place for criminals and thieves who use God’s name as a shield for their misdeeds

Don’t be fooled any more, Jeremiah says…
God wants you.  
All of you… your heart, soul, mind and strength
All day.  
Every day.

Because that is how living in a covenant as a community works
As siblings in the family of God, loving others as themselves, the people of Israel can again develop bonds of faith, hope and love

Bonds that can withstand invasion, exile and oppression
Bonds that can withstand all the pressures of the ancient world
Bonds that can withstand all the pressures of our modern world

The love that makes that kind of bond possible is in each of us and all of us.  That love is, in fact, the very core of our being,
made as we are in the image of the God who is three and one.
God of the covenant
God of the cross
God of pentecost
Creator, Savior, Comforter
Father, Son, Spirit

God with us.  Always
As individuals and as all the WE’s we can imagine
With us as households
As a community of faith
As a denomination
As the church universal
As children of Abraham
And even as beloved sheep who don’t yet know they have a shepherd

God With us.  Always
And always intimately acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses,
Our gifts and deficits
Our fears and our hopes

God is with us.  Always.
At the gates
Calling us out of our false worship and self-sufficiency
And into the sanctuary that is God’s grace
Into the fierce grip of God’s love

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, as we are bombarded with opportunities to worship at the altars of spending and shopping
As tension ramps up between family traditions and inevitable change  
As calendars fill and the idea of autopilot sounds really good….

Remember what we await and celebrate the coming of Christ our King…  
Jesus
Emmanuel
God with us.
Always

Sending us back out through the gates
Restored. Redeemed. Remade.
Together.  The body of Christ,
Created for a purpose

Hear the good news that Jeremiah was called to give.
God loves you.   All. Y’all.
God wants you.   All. Y’all.
God needs you – All.  Y’all.  

God love, wants and needs US to be focused and clear-eyed.   
All of us… our combined hearts of love
All of the faith, creativity, hope, and strength we can muster
All day.  
Every day.
It’s what WE are made for.

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It’s Been a Minute… or three

It’s been a while since I had time to sit and post stuff.  I’ve been writing, of course. Those Sunday sermons don’t just happen. 

And I’ve been journaling. Actually scribbling by hand in an actual paper journal. And I find that, while it is super helpful for capturing what is happening in many of the realms of my life, journaling is less helpful for blogging. 

Once it’s on the page, it’s out of my head.  Not into the world, mind you.  But somehow, those pages feel like they are done, and the stories feel told, and I feel free to move on. 

I’ve also been trying to find my way into a new rhythm of work and life.

My new congregation is different, and the expectations are different (at least as much as I can tell so far).  My new commute is different, and the office is open different hours… and my day off has shifted.  Meanwhile, the time change happened, but we’re still in that late Florida summer weather pattern.

Even as I continue doing many of the things I did in my previous ministry context, and as I continue to train for the triathlon and running events I have on the calendar, I’m trying to add a couple of new spiritual practices into the good habits pile. 

I like change, so these differences in and of themselves aren’t an issue.  I’m just in that operational problem-solving stage.  What are the moving parts in my weekly calendar? When and where do they need to happen?  What’s the best time of day for my brain and/or heart to engage with this? What needs to be pruned? What needs to be tweaked? What am I forgetting? 

The Tetris part comes next.  And then the living into it with my customary “make it work… and then make it fun” approach.  I’d like to think I could enter the new year with a plan(-ish), rather than vague/hopeful resolve.

Meanwhile- here are 3 things I need to post about… coming soon, I hope!

  • My amazing visit to FALL in Michigan
  • My latest adventure in running (also in Michigan)
  • Some things I am loving about this new ministry setting. 

Moments of Grace

Life is always slightly chaotic, but with a lot of transition happening, things feel really bonkers.  So I’ve been trying to be more mindful of moments of grace.  Those moments when people or the universe in general offer kindness and love with no expectations.

Like the morning I walked into the church building to find a single rose in front of my office door in a gas station soda cup.  It was a glorious yellow-orange… a beautifully unique color.  Taped to the cup was a note to tell me that it was a “Good as Gold” rose.  The note went on to say “which you are, too.”

The truth is, the dear lady who left me the rose has supplied me with so many cups of roses over the past 3-4 years. I have used them to make arrangements for the chancel and the office; one year, I saved enough petals to make small sachets of potpourri for the whole congregation as Christmas gifts.

But this little note.  And this single rose. Grace.

—-

Or like the end of worship two Sundays ago now, my penultimate Sunday leading worship for this congregation. Because I am not anything near perfectionist enough to make it happen, I’ve spent the last four years chasing the dream that we would have one Sunday on which the paper and projected bulletin elements would be 100% correct.

We were SOOOO close.  Somehow, the file contained the wrong lyric slides for the last hymn.  Of course, it was not in the pew hymnals, My musician paused after realizing that he and I were the only ones singing the first verse. I asked if he wanted to continue as a duet so the congregation could at least hear the text of the hymn that really was the perfect close for what had been a very meaningful service.

And in his “Yes” and the singing, and the deep listening, there was grace.

—-

Post Script… this week, both bulletins were correct.  It just took 4 years and 200-odd tries. Which, I suppose, is another kind of grace.

All In

Good news!  Today’s reading requires very little set-up. Maybe slightly less good news… It’s kind of long. Partly because the reading itself includes the sort of summary I usually give you.  

So, I’ll set the scene and then let Joshua do the heavy lifting.

After much wandering and fussing in the wilderness, Moses finally brought the Hebrew people to the very edge of the promised land.  On the banks of the Jordan River, Moses assembled the tribes. After recalling their wanderings he delivered God’s laws by which they must live in the land, sang a song of praise and pronounced a blessing on the people. Moses then passed his authority to Joshua, under whom they would possess the land. And then he  went up Mount Nebo, looked over the promised land that he would never enjoy, and died.

Our reading today takes place at the end of Joshua’s time as leader, near the end of his life, in fact. He also chooses to address the people, challenging them to be faithful and to renew their part of the covenant with their ever-faithful God.

Listen now to the Word of God as recorded in Joshua 24:1-26

I actually like this passage of scripture.  Perhaps because it is provides a great synopsis of what God’s been up to. It is always so much easier to see God’s work in retrospect.

It was true for Joshua and Moses and the Hebrew people, too… looking back and chronicling the faithfulness of God was easier than seeing God’s presence moment by moment… perhaps with the exception of that pillar of fire at night. That had to be pretty obvious.

Now that they are established in the land that was promised so many years ago, they are entering into another time of transition.  The kind of situation that the brilliant prophet Fred Rogers described this way…

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

The something that is ending is known. Knowable.
We may or may not like the situation we’re in.  But we can at least describe it.
And we can do an even better job describing all the when’s and who’s and what’s that  brought us to this place.

The something that is beginning?  That’s the unknown.
Which can be exciting.  Or it can make us anxious.  

This is why we tend to lean into the past. It’s way more comfortable.
Joshua gets this.  

And maybe because he saw Moses help the people move forward by remembering.
He knows that this is what he and God need to do in this moment, too. Restore their faith to renew the covenant.

See, here’s the thing… faith isn’t about actually knowing.
It is about remaining true and faithful when we can’t see around the corner

Faith isn’t the promise of hearing God’s voice up on the mountain
Or seeing the presence of God – even the back side of the God’s presence as Moses did… Though hearing and seeing God that way would sure make living and believing way easier.

No… Faith is more like a random Tuesday afternoon.
A random Tuesday afternoon when someone asks you “Where did you see God today?”
And all you have to offer are observations about humidity, traffic and the fact that having a full pantry and fridge with plenty of food doesn’t mean you can create a coherent meal.  

And yet… even on a random Tuesday, when you pause to reflect… you do see God… right there… in the heart of the person who cared enough about your heart to ask the question.

Faith is trusting that the God who cared for you in the past,
The God who kept those old promises for those ancestors of ours
That this God is with you now, and will be with you in the future.

So Joshua leans into the past.
And then he calls the people back into the reality of the present.

See, if his time leading through a time of war and conflict taught Joshua anything… it was to be present to God. To be in the present with God.

Joshua knows how tempting it is to “take back control” of what is God’s work to do.
He knows the temptation toward pride… of thinking we know better than God
He knows the temptation that other gods offer… the promise of a harvest, of a quick solution, or of prosperity in return for the right prayer.

He knows this because he’s seen it in himself
And Joshua knows this about his people.

Which is why he says to the people… “No… you can’t”

Ok- what he said was… “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.”

But I’m pretty sure what that meant was…  “You stand here and say to me, Yes Joshua!  My household, my people and I will be all in for God, too. But you haven’t been faithful.  You’ve rarely been all in for more than a day at a time. What makes you think today is different?  And do you understand what will happen when your fickle hearts get distracted again?  God is NOT going to be happy…”

Joshua wants the best for them.  He wants for them to be the kind of people who respond wholeheartedly, not just in the moment, but for a lifetime.

He wants them to understand that the relationship they are talking about is not just with God.  It is with one another.

As the beloved people, they must always be striving to be a beloved community, to be the builders of the kingdom of God.

Their lives together must bear witness to this commitment… Because their lives will be their sworn testimony, Joshua says.

And they again tell him Yes.  

We are ALL IN.  We will serve the Lord.

And you know what? I believe them.  

I believe that they believed that they would be as faithful as any people could be.
As faithful as we ever are.  

I mean, their future is our past, so we already know where their story headed.  And as we read on past judges into the days of the kings and prophets, and exile…
we see more failure than we do success.

But in that moment, in that moment with Joshua, right on on the cusp between the known past and the unknown future, they had the presence of mind to cast their lot with God.

You know…  if Joshua were a good Presbyterian.
Yes, it’s a crazy thought, but…
If Joshua were a good presbyterian with access to the Book of Order or the Book of Common Worship, he might have approached the challenge a little differently.

He might have asked his people the questions we ask of members as they enter the community by baptism or when we renew our baptismal vows…or when we take on the mantle of ordered ministry.  

We ask people, Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
To which they answer…  I do.

Then we ask Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Again they answer… I do.

Then we ask this one… the one that Joshua was asking, just using God instead of Jesus language. Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?

And the answer is slightly different: I will, with God’s help.

See, the people might very well have said to Joshua
We will…
We will be God’s faithful and faith-filled people.
We will remember the words God gave to us through Moses.
We will love God with all that we have and all that we are.
We will show God’s love to our own households, to our neighbors and to the  strangers and refugees who come among us.
We will… with God’s help.

With God, all things are possible.

You know, part of my work these past weeks as I wind down my time among you is to reflect on our history together.  To remember and to report the ways God has been at work among us. Here are just a few of the things I’ve recalled

God brought brought us several new members, some by transfer and others by affirmation of faith.

God even blessed us with the opportunity to baptize little Reid, and Charlie, Tory and Joel.

God took home several beloved saints among us… including Myrt, Gerry, Sandy, Beth, John…

God brought opportunities to host Girl Scout events and the Blessing of the Animals.

God spared us from major hurricane damage and then brought together volunteers to help clear out and prepare for worship the next week.

God has continued to provide in miraculous ways so that neighbors who are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity or other financial woes can eat a hot meal on Fridays.

God has consistently raised up women and men willing to serve as deacons, elders and trustees.

In the midst of all that God has done, we have been contentious and political.
We have been angry and stubborn; we have been compassionate and forgiving.
We have been joyful and encouraging.  

And we have displayed all the other very lovely and very awful things that we very human Christ-followers can experience.  All of them.

The truth is, we can be an awful lot like the Israelites and the Pharisees. We get caught up in the anxiety of not knowing and forget to trust. Or we spend more time and energy on re-reading the rules than we do on the relationships they are meant to support.  

It’s not hard for me to look back and describe our shared history, and with your help, I could describe a more complete and far-reaching past.

And I’m pretty sure that would be a more comfortable and lively conversation than one about the future of the church.  The denomination, the church in general… but especially the future of this particular congregation.

Friends, I have no idea what the future holds for First Apopka.   I can’t know, really.
Not any more than I can know what the future holds for First Titusville.
I mean, I don’t even know what the future holds for me and my family.
But I know this.  

I am all in.
I am all in with God on wherever this grand adventure leads.

Because I know that there isn’t any place I can go that God isn’t already there.
I am all in – because I know there isn’t any place in the world that doesn’t need a goober who loves Jesus and is willing to put her energy, intelligence, imagination and love into prayer and action.

And what I want, more than anything, is for you to be ALL IN, too.
For you to bring all the energy, imagination, intelligence and love you have… to this place.  Where all of that is desperately needed.

I long to hear stories that bear witness… the stories that are your living testimony to the love you have for God, and for the people God places in your lives.

You are beloved of God, my friends,
God has claimed and reclaimed us, again and again…
For a purpose.  Beyond salvation. Beyond membership.

Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the beginning of Ephesians 2 in The Message brilliantly describes what that requires of us…

It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish!

We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.

He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

All of us, we countless children of Abraham…
Gathered and scattered
Hopeful and frightened
Sitting at the end of something and the beginning of something else.
All of us have work we had better be doing.

What does that work look like?  Well, I started to get all Jesus on you, but really what it looks like to me is at the end of the movie Lilo and Stitch.  

Stitch is this crazy looking alien that crash lands in Hawaii and does what it is made to do… destroy stuff and create mayhem. He ends up being “adopted” by Lilo, a little girl whose family has come undone. Her parents died and she’s living with her sister who is overwhelmed.  Basically, they are a hot mess, and this little destructive creature doesn’t help.

By the end of the movie though, when some other aliens come to take Stitch back someplace where the universe will be safe from his mayhem, something has changed. Stitch sees that he really does belong.

He says they are a family… little and broken, but good.  And he uses the word he’s learned… Ohana.  

Now I don’t know if it’s the real definition or just a Disney thing, but he says Ohana means family.  And family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.

When I run races with friends, if I am the one who finishes first, I don’t just stop. I go back.  I go back and find them, and bring them to the finish.   One time I went back a mile to get Amy, and I started calling it the Ohana mile.

See… that’s the work I think we were made for.
Making sure no one is left behind or forgotten.  Going the extra mile.
For family…
For our families of origin.
For family we choose.
For the ones who don’t know yet that they can be part of God’s family.

Because that is what we are.
That is who we are.
That is what we are called to be and do.
To be All in- until all are in.

Treasured

Today’s passage moves us a little farther along in the story of the Hebrew people… which is actually the story of God’s work to bring humankind back into right relationship with nature, with one another and ultimately with God.

God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still being worked out, but we are already seeing God’s faithfulness in that progress. No longer a single family unit, but not yet innumerable as the stars, Israel is made up of hundreds of extended families or tribal units.  

There are multiple generations in each household and they have been blessed with a leader – Moses –who will continue to lead them toward the land that was promised.

They have been a blessing to others, even when others have not blessed them.  

And God has intervened on their behalf, staying present and making a way for them… through the sea and the wilderness.

And now, God is again ready to speak to the people through Moses. Listen for the Word of God from Exodus 19:3-7 and then 20:1-17

—–

I suspect, as you have come to know me over the last 3-4 years, you have noticed I am a bit of a nerd.  Or geek. Whichever of those terms you would care to use –hopefully with affection – for someone who has an abiding interest in a very specific topic.

Interestingly enough, we don’t use those terms for folks who yell at their televisions or travel weekly to various stadiums. People who get really deep into football are mostly called fans.

But we “geek out” about other sorts of things… like my new Wonder Woman stole.
Or the latest rumors about the next Avengers movie
Or when the new Book of Common Worship arrived!
Seriously… it is lovely…

Even more timely, my Running Nerd Club friends and I have been counting down…
The GLOBAL premiere of the new season of Doctor Who is at 12:45pm. Today.  Like in 45 minutes

Yes, friends, I am risking all the spoilers in the universe and putting tremendous faith in my DVR so that I can stay here and moderate the congregational meeting  today…

Now, if you’re still with me at all, you’ve got to be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with God and the people of Israel and the 10 commandments.

There really is a connection.  

Since we’ll be talking time travel when we get to the Doctor, it feels right to back up our own calendars a bit… to this summer when we actually spent a few weeks digging pretty deeply into the 10 Commandments. And some of what we’ve hit since then.

The covenants we’ve reviewed set the stage for today’s readings.

God’s promise to Noah and all creation… to find another way to solve the problem of our propensity for evil. Total destruction was off the table.    

Chapter 12, when we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah,  was a hinge point in as we brought the focus in on one man and his family as God’s means of blessing, teaching, changing our hearts.

In much the same way, we talked this summer about Chapter 19 as a hinge point.   We begin to see more clearly how God will use Abraham’s descendants to bless all the families of the world God’s words to them at this moment, at this point in their relationship, are crucial in their developing an identity as God’s people.

Remember, in the Jewish tradition, these 10 commandments are known as the “10 words”
Not because there are literally 10 words, but 10 concepts, ideas…

God has words for the Israelites.
God will be speaking to them – mostly through Moses- but God will continue to speak.
Because God is with them and God is for them.
For generations to come. All the way up to ours.

Commentator and preacher David Lose sums up “the relationship between “law”and “gospel” in the Ten Commandments by saying, “Nineteen comes before Twenty.”

The point is that the relationship God establishes with the chosen people comes first — it is literally primary. The law, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second — it is literally secondary.

In Exodus 19 God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples… you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”(19:3b-6a).

And the people say yes.
Yes- we will listen and we will do what you say.
By faith, they respond. By faith they commit.
And we know the rest of the story.
They fail… just as we all fall short of the glory of God.
But they said yes to this relationship. Yes to being God’s people

Because God is a covenant making and covenant keeping God, they can trust that God’s not going anywhere.
And on their best days, they do.
Kind of like we do.

But the truth is, for years… generations, in fact… they haven’t needed to do much work relationally. I mean, they had families and some specific roles within the community. But mostly, they related to the Egyptians and the Hebrew overseers.  

Imagine how strange it would have been to wake up in the wilderness and realize all of the structure that captivity had provided was gone.  All the security of knowing what came next… ? Gone.
Get up, make bricks, run out of straw, keep making bricks, maybe eat a meal, sleep, get up and start over.

Oh sure, there would have been question about how much food. How badly might they be beaten.  There would have been some praying in there. Definitely some crying out to God. I’m not sure if or when they would have been allowed to gather and pray, especially as Pharoah began to see them as a threat, rather than a blessing.

But they would have known exactly what to expect.
And what was expected of them.
Day in. Day out.

So now, as free people, how are they meant to do life? How are they meant to relate to one another? How are they meant to relate to this amazing God who hears?

What are they supposed to do with the stuff they have, those riches that the Egyptians gave them on the way out?

God knows.  And so God gives them the basics.
Starting with who they are… in relation to God.  

At the start of Chapter 20, God again says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”(Exodus 20:2).

That word… that reminder of who God is and how much God has done… that is a word of grace.

God has already saved them.
And God will continue to save them, if they… if we… can manage in our fallible way, to trust and follow God’s direction.

This is a relationship God treasures, this relationship with humankind, with these particular humans. And it is only after God clarifies that very point, that God makes a claim on our behavior.

This should make clear that God never intended the law to be seen as a means to salvation.

Using the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, would be like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship out of plywood.
It’s just not going to happen.  

God does not give the law as A WAY TO ESTABLISH relationship with the people.
That work had already been done.
God established the relationship and THEN gave the law.
And the means to remain in and return to that relationship when we humans manage to muck it all up.

And that, my friends is the beauty of grace.
Grace that is abundant well before Jesus enters the story,
Grace that abounds even to me, even to you.

Which also means we need to consider the possibility that the next words God spoke, the next 10 words, as well as all the other laws and rules and instructions in the Old Testament—
We need to consider the possibility that they were meant as a gift to God’s people.

Perhaps the God who spoke all creation into being was now speaking a way of life into being. A way of loving into being.

In the same way that a good writer creates a fictional world or universe that makes sense, that gives shape to the lives of the characters.  In our very real world, God gave us the parameters in which everyone can experience love, freedom and grace.

God was creating again the universe in which we are meant to live and move and have our being.   God was giving us the means by which we could and would co-create God’s Kingdom right here on earth….

And in those words were reminders of God’s covenant,
reminders that God’s promises remained intact.

I will be with you.
I will make you a priestly nation
Through you, all the nations will be blessed.
I was with you.
I am with you.
I will always be with you.

It was the always have been, always will be aspect of God’s presence that made my ears perk up this week. It was right in the middle of a Doctor Who episode that I’d seen many times.

Now – The Doctor is a Time Lord.  Time Lords come from the planet Gallifrey, which is  somewhere in another part of the universe. You don’t need all 50-odd years worth of backstory… but you do need to know that Time Lords are able to travel through time and space.  They live a really long time because they can regenerate (which feels a little bit like resurrection, to this theologian). They follow specific rules about when and how to intervene, and  they don’t do well traveling alone.  They are meant to have companions.

The Time Lord we follow throughout the series is called “The Doctor”. The Doctor and his companion Clara started this particular episode at a big manor house, someplace in the UK in around 1974.

They met a man and a woman at the house who were attempting to contact a spirit who lived there, a ghost, using what was pretty impressive technology for the 70s. The Doctor decides to investigate in a different way…

He and Clara took the TARDIS  (the machine that allow for time and space travel) and a camera back in time to when the earth was just beginning to form.  And then they went forward in time… to when the earth was about to end in flames.  

And all along the timeline between, they stopped to take pictures in the spot where the manor house would be or was or used to be.  

Just before he stepped out to take the last photos, the Doctor gave Clara a set of instructions.  Just a few words… and then she watched him on a monitor. She was never truly alone, he was just feet away from her outside.

But it was clear that she was deeply saddened by something.  The Doctor noticed.  And asked what was wrong.

Clara asked him… “Have we just watched the entire life cycle of Earth? Birth to death?”
The Doctor: Yes.

Clara: And you’re okay with that?
The Doctor: Yes.

Clara: How can you be?
The Doctor: The TARDIS. She’s…time. We… vortex and so on.
Clara: That’s not what I mean.

The Doctor isn’t sure what she’s talking about, after all, this is not the first adventure in time and space they’ve had together.  But he listens closely as Clara goes on.

Clara: I mean, one minute you’re in 1974, looking for ghosts, but all you have to do is open your eyes and talk to whoever’s standing there. To you, I haven’t been born yet, and to you I’ve been dead a hundred billion years.

She looks again at the ruined Earth of the distant future displayed on the TARDIS scanner, and asks, “Is my body out there somewhere? In the ground?”

The Doctor: …Yes, I suppose is it.
Clara: But here we are, talking. So I am a ghost. To you, I’m a ghost.
We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.

The Doctor: No…no. you’re not that.
Clara: Then what are we? What can we possibly be?

The Doctor: You are…the only mystery worth solving.

And in that moment, I thought “yeah…   we are.”

We could be like ghosts to God.  Scripture even says we are like grass that withers and fades.   We came from dust. We return to dust.
Who are we, to an eternal God?

We seem to be, somehow, a mystery to God.
Something about the agency and creativity,
Something about our capacity for good and for evil.
It infuriates God, even though God made us this way.  

And yet, something about our need for God
and God’s need for companionship, for Relationship,
keeps God from giving up on us.

And it keeps us from giving up on the mystery that is God.

The truth is we are treasured.  You and I.
We are desired.

We are, when we do our dead level best to love God back, the apple of God’s eye.
Not because we’re doing a great job,
But because we’ve heard God’s call echoing in our bones,
We’ve turned our hearts toward God’s
And we’ve said, “YES, I am yours”

And with every halting step
With every stiff-necked complaint
With every act of willful defiance
We feel the tension of the mystery:

Why would God love us still?

It’s because God always has that God always will.
It’s because every time we say aloud to one another –
“Hear and believe the Good news- in Jesus Christ you are forgiven,”
we can begin to believe that we are worthy of that love.

So hear and believe this good news my friends
We are beloved.
We are treasured.

As are the Baptists who come over to the pavilion and give away food on Mondays
As are the Episcopalians and Catholics we sing and read scriptures with every Advent
As are the Methodists, Nazarenes, and all the other others who prepare and give away hundreds of hot meals in our kitchen every month.

So hear and believe this good news!
We are beloved.
We are the treasured ones of God.

As are the other foundations and churches that support Loaves and Fishes
As are the volunteers who repair and refurbish bikes for Recyclery
As are the leaders building out the Community Resource Network in Apopka and across Central Florida.

So hear and believe this very good news!
We are beloved.
We are treasured by God.

Not because we are good people
Not because we could ever be justified by following God’s Law
Certainly not because we are so adept at judging others by the law.

We are beloved and treasured because we are God’s.
God has loved us
God has freed us from the need to measure up
and the need to measure others.

God has freed us to look in the mirror
And to look across the room with eyes of love and compassion
And acceptance.

God has made us holy.
God has set us apart as a kingdom, not in an earthly sense,
But as God’s priestly kingdom on earth

God has known us from the beginning of time.
God can see what will become of us…
What will become of this beautiful earth we inhabit.
God can see beyond the edges of the universe we’ve only begun to map.

And rather than see us as insignificant, unimportant.
God honors us, blesses us, by giving us work to do
Work with eternal significance

Love God first and foremost
Then Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
So that others might see and know that God is good.

On this day when we celebrate communion alongside sister churches around the world,
I give thanks that the Kingdom of God is open to all.
I give thanks that the holy nation God created has no borders along which walls and guards can be placed.
I give thanks that we have been invited to the joyous feast
and that we are expected to bring all our friends along.

I give thanks for God’s enduring love.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Now and always.
Amen.

Even There. Even Then.

Today’s reading drops us into the middle of Joseph’s story, one of the longest sustained stories in the OId Testament. Definitely the longest in the Book of Genesis.

One of the longest sermons I ever heard was the one in which an elder decided to retell ALL OF Joseph’s story… all 12 chapters worth.  THEN he launched into a extended interpretation of the story.

I’m not going to subject you to that.  I promise. But because that context is helpful, I went looking for a video that might do the heavy lifting for us.  The shortest one I could find is a little over 3 minutes Let’s take a look, and then we’ll dig a little deeper into a slice of Joseph’s story.  

You can go watch this Joseph video on YouTube, then come back

That’s the basic arc of the story.  Now, let’s back up and take a closer look at our assigned portion of the story…  Genesis 39:1-23 (NRSV)

You may have noticed that the video was a much more vague about the details of how Joseph wound up in jail than the reading.   That’s not terribly surprising, since that clip was created for children’s ministry.

And that interaction between Potiphar’s wife and Joseph… well, it’s safe to say that a lot of Sunday School teachers would hesitate before discussing what “lie with me” means with their young pupils.

And, based on some of the conversations I observed among pastors who use the narrative lectionary, a lot of preachers had a hard time with it, too. There was much debate about how to approach this story.

Some questioned why this particular section of Joseph’s story was chosen, in light of the advent of the #MeToo movement seeking to debunk victim blaming. And with the potential for the conversation sounding political, given current conversations about jailing of immigrants, human trafficking and sexual impropriety.  

But this lectionary was developed several years ago. Which means this passage was selected for this spot in this year of the lectionary cycle without any knowledge of what we’d be talking about over coffee.  

But honestly, WHY THIS SEGMENT? is the right question to ask.  And the answer flows out of the promises we explored last week.

Remember that three-fold promise to Abraham?
That he and Sarah would have descendants…  more than they could imagine.
That those descendants would have land – a home.
That the holy nation which would begin with their children would be blessed, and that this nation would bless the families of the world.

God reiterated those promises to their son, Isaac.
And to his son, Jacob.

And in both cases, God added an important promise to the covenant.
I will be with you.
I will always be with you.
I will be with you and yours…
I will be with your family, with your descendants.

So when Jacob had all those boys, the covenant held true for all of them.
Including Joseph.

God was with Joseph during the entire roller coaster ride that was his life.
While he gaining favor with his father and being despised by his brothers
God was there.

While he was being trafficked not once but twice and while earning more and more of Potiphar’s trust.
God was there.

When he stood with integrity and refused Potiphar’s wife and when he was tossed into jail.
Yes, God was there.  Even then.

God is now four generations into this covenant relationship, and Abraham’s family is still waiting. They’ve got a start on “as many as there are stars in the sky” fruitfulness, but they are far from being a nation. They are still not at home, not in any permanent way. And they have not yet done a whole lot of blessing…

And yet, we can see that God is at work.

God is engaged in their lives, redeeming and working good out of all manner of bad situations.  Not because Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph deserved this redemption.  Not any more than we earn our own salvation…or any kind of blessing.

Remember – God redeems our messes and our lives because God longs for us to overcome the human heart’s inclination toward evil and corruption… The heart disease that God diagnosed back in the days of Noah.

God longs to reconnect humankind to its true identity, as beloved children.
God longs to reconnect us to our first and most intimate relationship, with our creator.  

And so, rather than destroy the world, God’s plan is to bless the world.
God’s plan is to bless the world by teaching a family… a nation how to do just that.
And so God sticks close.
First with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now Joseph.

Four times in this passage, our storyteller reminds us that “The Lord was with Joseph” Theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that this phrase is not that “with God, everything will work out.”  God’s presence was not some sort of good luck charm, but something very different.

Verse 2 notes that Joseph was “successful” meaning that he was making progress… and indeed he was.  He ended up as the personal attendant of Potiphar and the guy in charge of the day-to-day handling of Potiphar’s house.

Throughout these early verses of chapter 39, we find that God is continually looking out for Joseph and even blessed those who treat Joseph kindly.  

Of course, that list does not include Potiphar’s wife. Her persistence was undeniable, but so is Joseph’s integrity. And it was this very integrity that put Joseph in a real pickle.  

See, he was meant to obey the wife of Potiphar, as she had the authority to give him commands.  ANd you’ll have noticed that she wasn’t requesting his presence. “Lie with me” is definitely a command.

But Joseph knew he was entrusted to look after Potiphar’s household, and he was well aware of his family’s covenant with God, and how greatly God had blessed them… including himself.

What else could he say, but “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”

Joseph’s choice – and her retaliation – meant that he would lose everything. Including the trust of Potiphar…  and possibly his life.

But even then, God was with Joseph. The common punishment for rape in that time was death, not imprisonment.  And yet, Potiphar chose not to have Joseph executed.

Still, Joseph is back at square one.  He went from running the house of one of the most powerful men in Egypt to being jailed like a common criminal.  But then there’s that phrase again: the Lord was with Joseph.

Even there.  

Wherever Joseph goes, God is there.
When Joseph is part of the slave caravan, God was there.
When he is in Potiphar’s house, God is there.
When he is thrown into prison, God is there.

Surely, seeing all of this, we can begin to believe that God’s promise is true for Joseph.
And thus we can begin to believe that God’s promise is also true for us.

Wherever we go.
Wherever life takes us… God is present.

The Psalmist sings of this presence, this inescapable presence of God, in Psalm 139 (NRSV):

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

God knows, there was and is such darkness in the human heart…

Joseph’s own brothers showed we are capable of wishing siblings dead and selling one another into slavery.

Our history book may downplay its horrors, but the evils of the system of chattel slavery built much of the wealth of the British Empire, and the colonies that became the United States  

And we are still selling human bodies.

You may remember meeting Jill Bolander Cohen, the founder of the Lifeboat Project. Her organization works with survivors of human trafficking, giving them space to heal and find their way back into safe and productive lives.

Jill was called away from the most recent Presbytery meeting.  Literally… the sheriff’s office called, saying they needed her to come and find housing for yet another young woman who had been freed from her traffickers.  

Yes, we are still selling human bodies.
But God is with Jill as she meets the most vulnerable among us.
Blessing her to be a blessing.
Even there.   

Potiphar’s wife reminds us that people have always been willing to use positions of power to coerce others into inappropriate relationships or activities.  And then to use that power to threaten and silence the victims.

Her actions call to mind the all-too-familiar stories of clergy, coaches, and civic leaders who victimize children, athletes or other vulnerable people, and then shame them – or worse.  

God is with them when they are courageous enough to decline.
God is with them when they face the fury of their attacker again.
God is present.
Even then.

In the darkest revelations of humankind’s brokenness.
In the darkest moments of our sorrows and struggles

God is with us.

Because even the darkness is not dark to God;
The midnight of our despair is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to God.

This is God’s faithfulness.
This is God’s promise.
This is the power of God’s love, the light God’s grace.

Remember, dear ones…
In the beginning was the Word.
The Word that was God and was with God.
The Word that brought all things into being.
What has come into being in him… was life.
And the life was the light of all people.

The Light of the World was and is God’s blessing for all the world’s families
That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not – will not – overcome it.

God is with us.

And God is in us as we shine – however tentatively – with the light of Christ.
Because God with us – Emmanuel – is at work among us and through us.
Even to the very end of the age.

Let us Run

A prayer for Sunday Worship on the road.

As the sun rises and the crowd gathers, let us run

Let us run with the joy of toddlers whose feet are learning to explore

Let us run with the abandon of children not yet frightened by what-ifs

Let us run with the courage born of trials overcome and injuries healed

Let us run with the confidence of preparation

Let us run with with the knowledge that you are here in the very air we breathe
and in the water that refreshes along the way.

You are here in the voice of the random stranger and the familiar voice in our heads

You are here in the high fives and posters and “Almost there”

Let us run until we finish,
whether first, last or middle of the pack

And then let us rest in the knowledge that you are in the resting, too

Amen

Prayers of the People

For worship at the Fall Stated Meeting of the Central Florida Presbytery.

God of justice and mercy,

We come to you, fully aware that you are so far above us, so great that our words truly fail to express who you are, what you are capable of, and even what you are doing among us here today.

We give thanks for the many gifts you have given us, and for the opportunity to mirror your generosity in our own giving today. Bless these gifts and all of our siblings in Christ who will know freedom through the work of the Bail Project.

On this day of meetings and business

On this day when we remember the tragedy of terrorist attacks and the impact of hurricane Irma

On this day when the mid-Atlantic is facing down Florence and her sibling storms form off the coast of Africa

On this day when we in this room carry the weight of quotidian sorrow and pain, grief and anxiety

On this day, as we do every day, we need you.

We need your comfort
We need your wisdom
We need your hope
We need your strength

And so we come, asking, seeking, knocking. Some of us knocking awfully loud.

Not only for ourselves
Not only for our congregations
Not only for our families

But for the communities we represent.
The neighborhoods we know.
And the neighborhoods we avoid.

We come to you, asking, seeking and knocking for all who are in captivity today
Those in jails and prisons
Those trapped by addiction
Those humbled by oppression and poverty

And those of us who are unwittingly or willingly bound
by the systems and structures of privilege we enjoy

Give us strength to stand,
courage to speak,
and faith to believe that you are already where you call us to be and
will indeed be with us to the end of the age.

We pray this in the name of the One who came to set all your children free,
Amen

Loss and Loyalty

We start with some very familiar words from Matthew: a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Part of the segment that we call the beatitudes. These verses are an important reminder of who the Lord blesses, the ones the Lord favors and seeks to honor:

Listen to the words of Jesus as shared in Matthew 5:3-9…
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (NRSV)

Now we’re about to take a pretty right hard turn this week, away from the teaching and catechism of the last several weeks into a narrative…

We started the summer with the 10 Commandments. The 10 Words of the Lord that are meant to define what a life of faithfulness and community look like.

As you recall, God was addressing Moses and the people of Israel, and these words or commands were to help a newly liberated people understand what God expects in this covenant relationship. In the first portion, God is concerned with the vertical relationship between God and God’s people… both individually and as a whole. And then God moves to the expectations for our horizontal relationships, the ways that God’s people might be set apart and known through the way we care for and honor one another.

Jesus himself described these relationships in light of love, how we love.
The first and greatest… biggest… most foundational understanding of who we are to be in relation to God flows from our expression of love for God in all realms of our being – heart, soul, mind, strength. And the remainder of the work is seen in our love for our neighbors – caring for others as much or more than we love ourselves.

For the last 4 weeks, we’ve taken a look at 1 John, which was a good next step, given its focus on making God’s love known in the world, as a faithful response to our encounter with God’s love in the person of Jesus.  Understanding Jesus as an incarnational fulfillment of the law, rather than a replacement of the law helps us connect Jesus’ teachings to the Jewish tradition he was part of. AND it helps us to connect to our everyday lives in these human bodies in a very real world to the life and teachings of Jesus.

Trusting in Jesus as both fully divine and fully human challenges us to more fully and engage in both the vertical and horizontal relationships that Christ represents.  

As Christ’s ambassadors here in the world, we are the embodiment, the current incarnation, of God’s love for one another, in the faith family and beyond. And our ministry grows richer and more visible as we deepen our understanding that we are God’s beloved.  It is that from that well of love that we draw our energy and joy as we serve and bless others.

Hopefully, you have heard over the past weeks, and hear me saying again today that you are God’s beloved.  You are loved. And we have all been called and equipped for a life that exhibits that same incredibly deep and faithful love.  The kind of love that our Hebrew scriptures call hesedYou’ll hear more about this next week from Karen, but we’ll start exploring the concept today.

Hesed is the kind of deep and faithful love that seems rare in today’s world – where we hear so much more about war, conflict and hatred than we do about peace, reconciliation and love.  I suspect that this imbalance has always been around. After all, there are myriad stories of bloodshed, sorrow, anger and grief in our history books and throughout the scriptures.

And thankfully, tucked into these accounts of humanity’s capacity for evil and horror, we also find reminders of our capacity for hesed… for love.

I think maybe that is why as the scrolls were gathered, we find the book of Ruth tucked into the long and difficult history of God’s people. Right alongside all those stories of struggle and war and death and corruption, we find the tale of Naomi and her daughter-in-law.  It is, in fact, the story of ordinary people, doing ordinary things.

But in those ordinary lives we see ordinary people going above and beyond the expectations of the world to display the kind of deep and faithful love that makes God’s faithfulness known.

There are no burning bushes or talking donkeys… no miracles… nothing like angels or visions…  nothing miraculous… unless, like me, you count hesed among the miracles of God.  

So… let’s turn to the book that will be our focus for the next few weeks.  The story is broken into four chapters in our Bibles, which is how we will approach the story together.

Rather than just listening, though, I invite you to help me read portions of our story.  I’ll take care of all the narration. But when you see the quotation marks that indicate one of the people in the passage is speaking, please join in and read aloud with me as you are comfortable.

Listen and read the word of God in Ruth Chapter 1

1:1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.

2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.

4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.

8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.

10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”

11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”

14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

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

16 But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die -— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”

20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty;why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

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

What do we hear in these words from God?
I hear the reality of fear and loss.

Elimalech feared that he would be unable to take care of his wife and their sons in a time of famine. Even as they found a place to live in Moab, they lost community, their people.

And in this new land, Naomi lost her husband. Even as she gained the love and care of Orpah and Ruth, she lost her sons.

Yes, in the midst of this loss, she has some hope. There is apparently enough grain to harvest back home. Perhaps, back in Bethlehem, she could start again.  

But this was during a time of chaos in the land… the time of the judges.  It might help us to remember the last verse in Judges, In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).

This was not good.  This was not a good time for anyone. But life was particularly difficult for those who would have been on the margins anyway.  Those who were vulnerable.

Naomi is about as vulnerable as one could be, whether she stays in Moab or returns to Bethlehem. She actually is a case study in the way that vulnerability can be multi-layered.

She was an immigrant, a refugee.
A stranger in a land that was not her own, among people who were not her own, at the mercy of their laws

She was poor
Remember, she and Elimilech had left Bethlehem at a time of famine. They would have had very little, thus brought very little in the way of possessions with them on their trek. So, no wealth. Not much to trade.   

She was a woman in a highly patriarchal society.
An unmarried widow with with no sons had no one to claim her, no one to buy land, no one to protect her from other men who might like to claim her. no one to provide for her

We can begin to to see in Naomi’s story a pattern still common today.
A disaster – in her case a famine – but it could be a hurricane, a mass shooting, a cancer diagnosis, a war that last for decades. 

Surviving any catastrophic event forces people to make hard decisions.

And since there isn’t a limit on the number of disasters in one person’s life, those who have been made vulnerable by one disaster find themselves up against harder and harder choices, often in circumstances far beyond their control.

One need only to consider the stories of the families on our borders…

From our very beginning, people have come to America in hopes of a new beginning, whether seeking refuge from genocide during wars, or famine brought on by drought, or lack of employment and opportunity  in their home countries.

And for these immigrants and refugees, what seems like a land of promise can quickly become a harsh reality with difficulties in gaining citizenship, lack of affordable housing, few opportunities for adult education in language and literacy. Not to mention the prejudice and hostility they will likely face.

Knowing what we know about the ways families have been separated, knowing what we know of people who have died attempting to cross deserts in the Southwest and closer to home…. the waters between Cuba and Florida, I can’t help but wonder: Why?  Why do they come?

I can only imagine they are experiencing the same mix of desperation and hope that first Elimalech did as he brought his family to Moab, then Naomi displayed as she returned to Bethlehem.   

Desperate hope and just enough faith to believe that God would see them through the difficulties that make them vulnerable right now.  In the expectation that some day… some place… life will be better.

Even as they know that they risk losing everything -including their lives – to cross those borders and start over.  

So… is it any wonder that
Naomi the refugee and immigrant
Naomi the widow
Naomi the grieving mother,
as she sets out on this return journey, says to the girls she has come to love,
go back to your own families, don’t come with me.

Naomi had nothing but a whole lot of nothing to offer them.

They were young enough – If they returned to their mothers, in their fathers’ households, they might be able to marry again, have children – perhaps even sons. And in the meantime, they would be part of a family unit. They would be home.

If they come with Naomi to Bethlehem, they will only prolong their experience of dislocation, of not belonging anywhere.

I remember when I went away to college, having moved out of my parent’s house for the first time.  The more time I spent away, developing into a semi-grown human with my own separate experiences and opinions and sense of self, the less coming home felt like being home.  

And yet, living in a dorm room that had to be emptied and packed up every few months, living among people I hadn’t known very long and likely wouldn’t know forever… that didn’t feel like home either.

It was the first time I ever felt rootless, placeless, dislocated.

When we moved to Orlando almost 20 years ago now, I had no idea that it would take me a good 5-6 years to lose that same odd sense of never being truly at home. We came here for Paul’s job.   

In doing so, I left behind the people I knew from school and work, I left the church I grew up in, I left the town where I knew all the back roads and shortcuts and where to get the best kolaches.

Paul had lived out here before we met. He knew Orlando and Kissimmee and Winter Park. He knew how to get everywhere. He still had some friends in town. Connection. It was a little like coming back home.  

I knew 2 people, and both of them lived at least an hour’s drive from us.Assuming I didn’t get lost.

But like Ruth, I had promised in my wedding vows to Paul, “Where you go, I will go” Maybe not in those exact words, but that was the idea.  

When a move was clearly  the best choice for his career, I totally agreed we needed to look and go where the next best step took us. Turns out that was Orlando.

We were pretty sure that I could find a job, too. That we would make new friends. That we would find a good neighborhood where we could raise our kiddo.  

We had hope.
And not a little trepidation.

Paul had some excitement.
I had fear. And loss. And grief.

Of course, I came with him. Not out of duty, but out of the love that was and is foundational to my commitment to our relationship.

Following.
Trusting.
Hoping.
That’s what love does.

Love compels you to venture into the unknown, based on even a kernel of hope.
Based on a kernel of barley, in Naomi’s case.
And a daughter-in-law who loved her deeply and stubbornly.

And, as a community does, the women of Bethlehem welcomed Naomi home. I don’t know if you caught the word our translation used to describe the town on her return-  that they were stirred. Eugene Peterson’s translation makes more sense to my ears. He says that the town was “buzzing” and asking if it was really her, returning after so long.

And her response probably shut that buzz down pretty quickly.
A total buzzkill.

If I’m totally honest, this is the point in the story that made me fall in love with Naomi.
So much respect.
Because she did not hold back. Not one bit.

She made it abundantly clear that life had been hard.
And it was still hard.

She wasn’t ready to be pleasant, even if that was the meaning of the name she’d been given.  She was definitely not feeling it.

She was Mara.  In the core of her being..
Bitter’s my name and lamenting is my game.

She was not ready to praise God for much of anything.
She was still grieving and needed to lament.
She needed to be angry.

I believe that finally being home allowed some space for that anger.

And in the loving, persistent presence of Ruth, God honored her anger.
For God sees and loves those who have lost everything,
those who are so poor, that even their spirits are impoverished.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Through the loving, persistent presence of Ruth, God honored her sorrow and pain.
For God sees and hears the cries of those left behind,
those who are no longer able to hold onto the ones they loved.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Through the loving, persistent presence of Ruth, God was present for Naomi.
And through the loving, persistent presence of God, there was hope
Hope for the promise of a harvest to come.
Hope for the promise of life to come
Hope made real in love and loyalty.

And there’s the miracle.
Ordinary people living ordinary lives… lives filled with
Loss
Fear
Anger
Loyalty
Faithfulness
Hesed

Ordinary people loving in ways that go far above and beyond the law,
above and beyond the expectations of the world,
one ordinary moment at a time.

So look around this week…

Watch for ordinary people loving in extraordinary ways
Give thanks for their faithfulness, for God’s presence and faithfulness through them.

Watch for the poor in spirit, those who need someone to provide space for their anger, sorrow or pain.
Pray and ask God, how you might be that persistent loving presence for them.

Still making strides

It’s been a little while since I posted about my adventures in running, or much of anything personal, really. It’s funny how writing stays on the list of things I need to do, and yet… it seems like the closest I get is posting pictures on other social media.

So… what’s happened on the road since February? Let’s see…

There was the visit to the podiatrist to figure out why my left foot wasn’t happy in any of my shoes. Turns out that tendinitis and bursitis (which aren’t supposed to be visible on xrays, in case you wondered) are hard to get rid of when you stubbornly keep running through the pain.

And the opportunity to hire an excellent coach who could help me think through workouts while resting said foot… because I had a half-marathon, some 5Ks, a 10K and my first actual for-real Sprint Triathlon to be ready for.

All that means I’ve been swimming and running, and trying to get used to being on a bike for more than a couple miles at a time. And getting used to doing more than one of those things in a row. I’ve started doing spin classes, since I don’t have any real hills to train on near me. And I’ve been doing strength and balance training, so that I can be more efficient in all three disciplines.

If that sounds like a lot of work, you’re not wrong. It’s called “working out” for a reason. But it’s also a lot of fun. Most days. It’s oddly fun to challenge myself to get faster or stronger than yesterday. And it was incredible fun to climb onto my new bike, pump the legs that had endured spin classes and robo-bike programs, and actually crank up some wicked hills last Saturday.

There is nothing like completing that swim-bike-run combination to make you feel like a Bad. Ass. It is the hardest fun I’ve had in a long time. That explains why “I’ll try a triathlon” turned into “I can fit another one in this summer” and “Wait, they’re going to do one at the Daytona Speedway? I’m in.”

And frustrating days like Monday happen. Getting stronger and faster means doing pace-related workouts. To plan those, my coach and I need to know my “go hard but don’t puke” mile time.  The best way to get one of those is on a track. So I jogged over to the high school in our neighborhood to get it done.

I had no idea until I stepped out into that middle lane, just how much baggage I still carried with me. It was like my whole non-running life came back to haunt me… I was back in elementary school, struggling to finish the run portion of the President’s Physical Fitness challenge.  Then crossing the line well after all my middle school friends were headed to the dressing room. And then feeling like a total fraud as a college athlete who couldn’t break the 9-minute mile requirement.

And now, here I was, voluntarily on a track at 8am. Old enough to know better, and I had even paid someone to tell me to get out there. For just a moment, I hesitated.  Was I really ready to go around those ovals and risk feeling that inadequate again?  If I have learned nothing in the last couple years, it’s this: The only way out is through.

Funny thing is, the first lap seemed to be over really quickly, and I felt good. The track felt shorter than any I’d run on before, but it was a for-real quarter mile loop. The second and third laps were a little harder, so I shifted to sprinting straights and going easier on the curves… and there I was, sprinting the last straight to finish the mile strong.

Due to technical glitches with my watch, I don’t know what my time actually was- but I’m pretty it was closer to 9 minutes than I’ve ever been.  Bonus: No puke.

Going home?  That mile was craptacular, for a variety of reasons. But after I posted about how ugly it was, I realized that running home at all was a victory of sorts. After all, by then, I was only carrying a water bottle. That big doggie bag of emotional leftovers stayed at the track.

I’ll never have a classic runner’s physique, nor do I pedal with a sleek biker’s silhouette. I’ve got broad shoulders, but probably wouldn’t be mistaken for a swimmer . But I am a triathlete now, which is “something” as a friend commented on one of my pics from Saturday. When I joked about not knowing what, he spoke truth. “Whatever it is, it’s good and it’s strong.” I think I’ll take that and run with it.

Sprint Triathlon #2 in the books!