A Love That Just Won't Die

Inspired by Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

Our reading for today out of Isaiah comes from the same time period as last week’s reading from Hosea. These two prophets were actually contemporaries but there’s no evidence that they knew each other personally. Hosea’s ministry was in the northern kingdom of Israel, and Isaiah’s was in the southern kingdom of Judah. Last week we talked about how bad things had gotten in the north, especially since the split of the two kingdoms, how bad their behavior was, but also how loving and forgiving God ended up being with them.

So, now we shift our focus to the south, where Isaiah’s ministry was. Things aren’t much better there. Isaiah’s got his hands full as well. But what’s interesting about this shift in focus is to see them keep an eye on what is going on in the north. The neighboring kingdom of Assyria is threatening the northern kingdom’s borders. And so, like any country would do, they are paying close attention to how things go with them, especially because, if Assyria invades the north, they might set their sights on the south! International relations were not all that different than they are today. The technology is different but people are people, no matter the time or place.

So, Isaiah has the responsibility to help get his people’s lives in order, particularly their spiritual lives. From Isaiah’s perspective, they need to get right with God because the future was tenuous at best. However, Isaiah takes a different approach that Hosea was taking with the people in the north. Isaiah’s approach is harsh, it’s direct, it’s raw, even quite brutal. Oh, it doesn’t start that way, it starts off very sweet in fact, “let me sing a love song about a vineyard,” Isaiah writes.

It goes on about a friend who dug the vineyard, cleared away stones, planted the best vines, and built a tower and wine press. Granted, Isaiah was a prophet and not Paul McCartney. A love songwriter he was not. I’m glad he kept his day job. Regardless, just one and a half verses in is where the sweet, warm and fuzzy feelings end, and the “love song” takes a very dark turn indeed.

Apparently, the vineyard produced bad grapes instead of the good grapes that were expected. But that wasn’t the most tragic part. The song goes on to describe how the vintner reacts to the bad grapes. It’s not good. The vintner removes the hedges and walls of protection, and then abandons it—leaving it to the wilderness. Oh, and for added measure, commands the clouds not to rain on it, thereby starving it to a very slow death.

Maybe Isaiah should have been a horror filmmaker instead of trying his hand at love songs! I’m wondering if Isaiah had ever even heard a love song before! My guess is no. Now, even though it doesn’t say explicitly who the vintner is, we are lead by Isaiah to believe that it’s God. And I think that’s a safe assumption. What I think is not a safe assumption is Isaiah’s interpretation of events, namely, that this is really how God operates.

But before we get into that, the song ends with Isaiah singing, “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but all God heard were cries of suffering.” The good grapes that God was expecting from God’s people were justice and righteousness. And we don’t have to guess what Isaiah is referring to by “justice and righteousness.” Those are clearly laid out throughout the whole of the Hebrew scriptures. They include feeding the poor, caring for orphans, refugees, and widows, welcoming immigrants, attending to the sick.

Sound familiar? All the same things that Jesus sends us out to do. But just like today, God was watching the news reports then too. And what God was seeing on the news was not what God was calling people to do. Because just like today, the news was full of violence, like the recent school shooting in Santa Clarita; the news was full of people starving like they are in modern-day Yemen; the news was full of hatred just like it is today with stories of hatred toward people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

Again, not a lot has changed over the centuries. People are people no matter the time and place.  And it was this reality that caused Isaiah to take such a harsh stance against God’s people. Because Isaiah knew that if people would only strive for justice and righteousness the way that God had been calling them to for centuries, these world issues would not be issues. Even Isaiah and Hosea knew that there was enough food to go around for everyone, that caring for widows, orphans, immigrants, and the sick was within the realm of possibility if people cared enough. But people are people, no matter the time or place, and so Isaiah, like Hosea, was at his wits end. And so his harshness is understandable even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. So let’s address that now.

Isaiah was a man of his time. Like many ancient cultures, he believed that everything that happened around him was the work of God. Just about every ancient religion believed that when good things happened, it was time to thank God for it. And when bad things happened, it was time to ask for forgiveness because they believed that they must have done something for God to make that bad thing happen.

A drought? Who else controls the rain but God? They didn’t know about weather patterns and meteorology! So God caused droughts and since God is holy, God must have had a good reason to do it. We must have been really bad, they thought. Lose a battle? Who else could give them victory but God? So, every loss was chalked up to something they must have done wrong. How else could you explain God abandoning us on the battlefield?

These examples might seem kind of silly to our ears but this is the way they believed. You only have to take one ancient history or anthropology class to learn this. Every ancient religion began this way, including our own. What I continue to remind people is that just because we started that way doesn’t mean we have to stay that way! Because if I believed that God caused pain and suffering in the world through things like famine and plagues and war and, as in this case, the overthrow of a government, I wouldn’t be standing here as a pastor right now.

My faith just does not have room for a God like that. So, when I hear a prophet like Isaiah blame God for a calamity that has befallen them I just think to myself, well of course he did! He was a product of his era. But we are not. Today we know things like: plagues spread from unsanitary conditions, and droughts are caused by weather patterns, or pollution induced global warming but we don’t need to go there today, and battles are lost due to poor strategizing. We don’t need God to inflict these things on us. We do just fine on our own.

So, why do I continue to remind people of this? Because that type of ancient theology is still present today. Here’s an example: I was on internship in Alabama and my wife Sara was working for a hospice center. She had a family whose child had just died and when they were asked if they’d like a pastor they said yes. Only to have that pastor tell them that it was their lack of faith that caused their child to die.

When Sara heard this she was devastated for them, as well as angry, but when she apologized and asked if they’d like to see a different pastor, thinking me this time, they understandably refused. If that’s the kind of theology that the church is going to spread out into the world, then it’s no wonder that people are giving up on faith throughout the country! People aren’t stupid! They can see right through that bad theology, to the rotten grapes within. And it’s a misinterpretation of bible passages like today’s that perpetuate that bad theology, and quite frankly, destroys people’s spiritual lives.

However, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet by New Testament authors, and for good reason. We may not agree with all of Isaiah’s theology but one of the reasons why Isaiah was quoted so often is because of the many seeds of hope that he planted that were allowed to sprout and bloom and flourish in our Christian scriptures. Today we read from two chapters, we’ve talked about the doom and gloom chapter, but the reading from the other chapter is much more hopeful. Isaiah writes about a stump, a stump with roots. Normally when you think of a stump you think death! But Isaiah’s stump, in spite of its death, sprouts a shoot from that stump! And the authors of our Christian scriptures identified that shoot as referring to Jesus.

In spite of all that had befallen God’s people, and all that was about to happen to them, Isaiah knew, in his heart of hearts, that all was not lost. That even God could help them overcome death. And I couldn’t help but think of those darn rose bushes that we dug up in my new backyard/wilderness. They were not easy to dig up, and we tried to get as much of the roots up as we could. And all was good for a while, all except for this one rose bush. It has come back twice so far. It just does not want to die.

And who does? All it wants to do is live, and grow, and flower. I almost feel sorry for it. Almost. Third times the charm. The next hymn we will sing is Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming. I did not pick it which made its selection all the more serendipitous. It was first printed in 1599 in Germany but the original author is unknown. As you will see in a moment the author clearly had this passage from Isaiah about a sprout from a stump in mind but why it’s interpreted as a rose I have no idea. I’ll give extra credit points to anyone who can find that out!

Whatever the reason may be, I know firsthand how difficult it is to kill a rose bush. And so, when you sing this song, my prayer for you is this; that you remember just how difficult it is to destroy God’s love for you, that no matter your circumstances God will never abandon you, that no matter how much pain and suffering you may endure, none of it comes from God, that no matter how hopeless things may be, God will always get the last word, and that word, will be life to you, in abundance. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God, Hosea, and The Runaway Bunny

Inspired by Hosea 11:1-9 and The Runaway Bunny

[After reading The Runaway Bunny...]

I did some pretty dumb things as a kid. Well, dumb doesn’t quite describe some of my behavior. It would be more accurate to say I did some very wrong things as a kid. When I look back on those years, my misbehavior is quite embarrassing. Like that time I stole money from my parents just to have a good time in San Francisco. Or that time that my best friend and I thought it would be a good idea to climb the roof and shoot neighborhood kids with a BB gun. Or that time I snuck out with my dad’s 67’ Camaro so that I could see just how fast it really went. Or that time…well, I’ll stop there. No one who knew me back then would have ever believed that someday I would be standing in a pulpit, wearing a stole, sharing my wisdom.

Looking back on those years also makes me respect and love my parents all the more. I’m not quite sure how they resisted the urge to strangle me in my sleep. But resist they did. In fact, in spite of their tendency to overreact over small misbehaviors, those times when I really screwed up, like the examples that I just gave you and more, they were surprisingly quite calm.

Those were the times when even I knew I deserved to get my butt beat with my dad’s belt but no, they merely handed out a consequence, like having to paint the house, or apologizing to the neighbor kid’s parents face to face. But when I expected them to go off the rails in anger, or yell and scream at me, or get the belt, they didn’t. I knew I deserved it. I don’t think I would have even protested if they had. But they didn’t. Though they had every right to, they resisted.

Our Bible story for today comes from the book of Hosea, one of the twelve minor prophets. They are referred to as minor, not because of their lack of importance or influence, far from as we will see, but they are called minor simply due to their short length. These twelve books range between only one to fourteen chapters each. In fact, they are so short that they were originally all printed on one scroll, making one Book of the Twelve, as it was known.

It was only much later that they were separated into 12 distinct books. But maybe the most important detail about this book is the fact that it’s one of the oldest books of the entire Bible, predating even most of the book of Genesis! So, being one of the first books written by God’s people, one cannot overstate its importance or influence on that new religion of our Judeo-Christian faith.

Hosea was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom, remember the kingdom split in two a couple weeks ago, and as I mentioned last week they were in almost constant turmoil. The Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, found a short period of peace with King Jeroboam but once he was gone things really fell apart and this is the time that Hosea was prophet there. He did his best to guide them, correct them, admonish them, as prophets do, but to no avail. Israel as a whole was just as misbehaved as I was as a kid. And what was one of its chief sins? You could probably guess by now, idolatry. They just could not kick the habit of worshipping other gods. And there’s good reason for that.

You may remember from about a month ago, when we read about God’s people first entering the Promised Land, there were people already living there and though they were ordered to kill them all, they usually didn’t and ended up living with them, even marrying the native inhabitants. And this meant, infusing their gods with our God. It just seemed like the natural thing to do and for the most part it was allowed, even encouraged at times. And then you had prophets like Hosea who claimed that this idolatry was the reason for all their troubles and tried to get them to stop, again, to no avail. They continue in their misbehavior regardless of the warnings.

So, in this chapter that we read from Hosea, we are given the image of God as parent. And now that we know this to be one of the first books of the Bible written, it’s interesting to know that this image of God as parent was foundational to our faith. Just as interesting, is the fact that nowhere in this imagery is the word “father” used. In fact, you could make a case that it describes a stereotypical mother more than it does a father, with God teaching them to walk and picking them up in God’s arms and lifting them as an infant to God’s cheek.

But for the purpose of this sermon, it’s enough to just focus on God as parent, and specifically a parent in ancient Israel. Sometimes we too easily take these stories out of their ancient context and force them into our own. Sometimes that’s ok but sometimes we lose something when we do that and this is one of those times. The parent/child relationship in ancient Israel was very different than in this time and location. And one only has to look at the Bible for clues.

In ancient Israel, children were thought of as less than, as inferior, as voiceless, and sometimes even as property. And one thing that was expected of them was total and complete obedience. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, we expect our kids to obey us!” Well, yes but they took it to an extreme, this was obedience on steroids! In the book of Deuteronomy, it clearly states that any parent who has a child that misbehaves has the right to execute that child by stoning. Like I said, obedience on steroids.

This is what was expected of them. That’s the kind of obedience that was expected of children. And more importantly, that was the kind of punishment that was expected of parents to hand out. So, in this chapter of Hosea, when God starts speaking about God’s relationship with Israel as a parent to a child, everyone of that time would have begun to shake in their boots! They would have known where this was headed! And they would have figured, “Well, goodbye world! We had a good run.”

But! God, as always, is full of surprises! God does not do what is expected of God to do. Why? As God put it, because “I am God, and not a human being.” But before God comes to that conclusion you can hear the turmoil within God’s own heart as God recounts God’s journey with them over the years, as God remembers raising them, guiding them, teaching them to walk, holding them, cuddling with them cheek to cheek, loving them as good parents love their children. And so God asks Godself, “How can I give them up? How can I hand them over?” And God says, “My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” I love that image of God’s heart wincing! Because at the end of the day, God cannot do what is expected of God to do, by the world’s standards, by human standards.

So God makes a decision right then and there. “I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy [them]; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; and I will not come in wrath,” says God. You see God isn’t held by the same standards that we hold ourselves to. God doesn’t play our petty games of fairness and revenge and jealousy and obedience and respect that we play. God is God, and so God does as God wants, and what God wants, according to Hosea, is to love, unconditionally.

No matter what we may do or not do, no matter what we may believe or not believe, no matter which gods we allow to be infused into our own lives, no matter what we may say or not say, no matter what we may pray or not pray, no matter what, God, like Mother Bunny, will not let us go or give us up for death. It’s just not in God’s nature. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Inspired by 1 Kings 18:17-39

When I was with you last, we read the story of the northern and southern kingdoms uniting as one under the leadership of King David. And as you read last week, it didn’t last long. They split again, and our story for today comes from that time period. However, splitting the kingdom in two didn’t seem to help either. Both continued to live out their lives in constant turmoil, with each other, with the world around them, and with God.

In the five chapters between last week’s story and this week’s, they went through king after king after king, none of which were good. In fact, if you read those five chapters, just about every paragraph begins with, “And then ‘so and so’ became king, and he did evil in God’s eyes.” Seriously! Take a look, that phrase is said over and over about almost every king. It’s quite comical really, if not sad, but it’s also a great set up for today’s story of Elijah on Mount Carmel.

Bottom line, things aren’t going well for either kingdom. Any peace that they find is fleeting. And the evil that these kings were doing was usually in the form of allowing other gods to be worshiped, which is not a new problem with them. They had been struggling with monotheism since way back in those stories from Genesis that we read in September! Which brings us to the impetus of today’s story, at least through Elijah’s eyes. Elijah had been trying to correct his people, warn his people, of the error of their ways but it just wasn’t working. Elijah could just not get through to them. And so, Elijah is at his wits end with God’s people. Tensions are high. Elijah is not only having to compete with his people but also with the prophets of the other religions. In fact, tensions are so high that it has resulted in violence.

Elijah is the only prophet left because the rest have been murdered. And what did any of the kings do about that? Nothing. What did any of the priests do about it? Nothing. And so here’s Elijah, feeling backed into a corner, knowing that there’s a big ol’ target on his back being the last remaining prophet of this fledgling little religion. So, Elijah decides to invite them to a duel, to see who has the real God, and that should be clue number one that something is a little off with Elijah. He has run out of ideas and is willing to put everything on the line. What’s he got to lose? This is a pretty risky move, what if this doesn’t go Elijah’s way? He’s dead! Well, he figures, he’s dead anyway. Might as well go out in a blaze of glory. So, he concocts this plan, this duel between their god and our God.

I’m going to be honest with you, growing up, this was one of my favorite stories. As an adult, and especially as a pastor, I have some serious issues with this story and I almost did what many pastors are doing today, and chose something else to read and preach on. But you know me, I have a hard time turning down a challenge. One of my life’s mottos is, if something is difficult for me to do, then it’s probably good for me. And I’m glad I stuck with it because I ended up seeing this story in a whole new way, with the help of some other scholars and theologians of course, I can’t do this all by myself! But this story, and the verses that follow, which we’ll get to in a minute, became more meaningful for me, and I hope they will for you too.

Let me first tell you where I struggle with this story. This story is dripping with an egotistical, condescending, self-righteousness that really goes against my grain as a follower of Jesus. Granted, Jesus was known for being sassy, snarky, even downright insulting if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but the actions of Elijah in this story are just unacceptable to me. He goes far out of his way to not only prove the other prophets wrong, but insults them, makes fun of them, and is even quite crass with them but we can discuss that after worship as we don’t have time now. I mean, this is not how I was raised, or trained in seminary, to treat people of other religions. This is not appropriate behavior, then or now, and I know you well enough by now to know you agree.

So, at the end of this whole scene, Elijah believes that he has made his point. And he is basing his whole victory on the silence. Their god never answered with fire like Elijah challenged him to. The writer shares that there was “no sound.” Just silence. And Elijah claims victory after his altar is consumed by fire. Our reading ends with everyone shouting that Elijah’s God is God. But that’s actually not where the story ends, that’s just where they had us stop reading because what comes next is nothing short of horrifying.

Here’s the next verse, “Elijah said to them, “Seize Baal’s prophets! Don’t let any escape!” The people seized the prophets, and Elijah brought them to the Kishon Brook and killed them.” Elijah’s behavior goes from bad to worse. He goes from rude religious guy to homicidal maniac in one verse! There were 450 prophets of Baal! If this was a scene in a movie, the ground would be covered in bodies and the Kishon Brook would be running red! Horrifying doesn’t even begin to describe Elijah’s behavior.

So, what do we do with this? How do we justify this kind of behavior from a prophet of God? How do we read this story and be ok with it? Answer: we don’t. Religious people of every kind have done theological gymnastics to try and explain away stories like this. They say things like, “Well, it was a different time back then.” No. Or, “Well, God was more strict back then, more vengeful.” No. Or, “This was before Jesus so they didn’t know about grace.” No.

But those aren’t the worse ones, the worse ones have been the people that are ok with Elijah’s behavior because he represents their side! Being right, no matter the cost or who has to pay is what’s most important for them. Being on the winning team is priority number one! You know the kind I’m talking about. Those that are ok with the church mistreating certain groups of people as long as the church represents their beliefs. Those that can overlook a politician's behaviors as long as they represent their side. Those that are ok with children being put in cages, as long as the government represents their interests. This story of Elijah is not just some old story from ages past. This story is getting played out every day in our own time!

So, here’s another way to look at this story. What if, we weren’t supposed to accept Elijah’s behavior? What if, as readers of this story, we were supposed to recognize just how wrong Elijah was? What if that was our part to play in this? Now, you might be thinking, “Who’s doing the Bible gymnastics now?” Hear me out. As always, context is key. But instead of looking backward, we have to look at where this story goes next. Stay with me now! So, immediately after this, the drought ends and of course, Elijah takes full credit for this.

And then, the king’s wife, Jezebel, finds out what happened to her prophets of Baal, and is furious! In typical villain fashion, she sends word to Elijah that he is now an enemy of the state and wants him dead. Elijah is terrified, and runs for the hills, literally. The author writes, “Elijah finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death and said: ‘It’s more than enough, God! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.’”

After being cared for by angels, Elijah continues to flee but this time goes to a very familiar place, to a mountain. And not just any mountain, but God’s mountain, the same mountain that God met Moses on to receive the Ten Commandments. At least one of which, Elijah has recently broken. Once there, he hides in a cave, and is then told to go and stand on the mountainside because God is going to pass by. So that’s what Elijah does.

And this is what our author wrote happened next, “A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before God. But God wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But God wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But God wasn’t in the fire. And after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat.”

I believe that Elijah heard that sheer silence and was horrified. Horrified at the realization that God was in that sheer silence. Horrified that he had just murdered 450 prophets because of that sheer silence that had followed after they had called on their god, and now he knew that God was with them all along, in that sound of sheer silence.

Elijah had a beautiful opportunity to show them just how powerful his God really was, just how limitless his God really was, how far-reaching, how loving his God really was, but turned to violence instead. All for the opportunity to be right. When the reality was, that God was with them, all of them, the whole time, because God cannot be contained or held back by us, or by our beliefs and disbeliefs, or by our faith and doubts, or even by our behavior and misbehaviors. Nothing can keep God from showing up, and this is a lesson that God’s people struggled to learn then, and continue to struggle to learn now.

And just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that God only shows up in silence. For an introvert like myself I find nothing but comfort in that thought but for some, the idea of sheer silence sounds dreadful! I think the point here is that God will show up whenever and wherever and however God wants to show up; and no prophet or priest or pastor or anyone gets to say otherwise! I hope you hear that as pure grace because that’s the way it’s meant to be heard.

Even for someone like myself who loves silence, it can be hard sometimes. Especially on a day like today, All Saints Sunday, when we remember those loved ones who have died, whose voice we long to hear again, whose laughter is just a fleeting memory, whose wisdom is so deeply yearned for. Be comforted in the assurance that God is in that silence. In life’s most joyful occasions and most painful moments, no matter how loud or silent they may be, God is there, and don’t let anyone, not even a prophet, tell you otherwise. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Inspired by 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5

I had no idea where this sermon was going when I started writing it. I mean, I had a general idea of what I’d like to say but it just didn’t seem like enough. It might have been because I was a little preoccupied with our trip to Rwanda but I think it was something deeper than that, and I also think it has to do with this particular story we have before us today. So let’s dig in. To be honest I was kind of shocked that the powers that be selected this particular story for today.

So far this Fall we’ve had Sunday after Sunday of some really great stories, exciting stories, adventurous stories, even difficult, heartbreaking stories. And so, a few weeks ago I opened up my Bible to see what was coming ahead for us, read this story, and immediately checked to see if I opened up to the right page! I did but still wasn’t convinced that this was the right story so I checked online to be sure, I thought maybe this is a typo!

Nope, this was the right story. Here’s part of my problem, by comparison with the rest of our Fall stories so far, this one seemed sooooo boring! David becomes king, woopdeedo! He brings the Ark to Jerusalem and they have a worship service with lots of musical instruments. And I thought, really? That’s it? What in the world am I going to say about this story? And then, it hit me, like a ton of bricks, why I just wasn’t feeling this story. But I’m gonna leave you hanging for now because this is one of those stories that needs some context in order for us to understand the significance of it.

So, last week we read the story of Ruth and that was during the time of the Judges, those leaders like Gideon and Samson who were lifted up in a time of crisis but were not given any kind of permanent power. Well, that only last for so long before the people began to gripe and complain. O were they a bunch of whiners! Nothing was ever good enough for them. You see, now they wanted a king! They looked at the world around them and saw that everyone else had a king and so they wanted one too. The prophets kept telling them that this was a bad idea, just trust in God, not in humans. But no, they wanted to be like everyone else! I’m surprised there isn’t a verse where a prophet says, “If thine neighbors were to jump off a cliff, would thou follow?”

However, the prophets finally gave in and anointed a king for them. And the first one was a wackjob named Saul. I’m not kidding. This guy was the worst! Maybe the prophets were trying to teach them a hard lesson, I don’t know. Think of the worst U.S. president in all of history and that was Saul. No, really, he was that bad. Do they learn their lesson? Of course not! They try again, and anoint David.

Now, we read about David last year in the David and Bathsheba story and so we know that David was not a huge improvement over Saul! Meanwhile, there is a huge civil war going on. And just like our own, it was between the north and the south. They could not agree on anything: on who should be in charge, on what God’s will was, on where the capital should be, on where their center of worship and spirituality should be, nothing! And so they fought.

It wasn’t until they had a common enemy, the Philistines, that they worked with each other. So, after a very complicated and convoluted squabble that included a bunch of family drama, both sides agree to have one king, and both sides agree that it should be David, because he had fought by their side in the past and would continue to do so against the Philistines and other enemies that they’d encounter. And that’s where we jump into the story.

David is anointed again by the prophet Samuel, this time to be king over a united kingdom, the north and the south, for the first time in their history. And the first thing that he does is have some of his men go and fetch God’s chest, as our translation puts it, better known as the Ark of the Covenant. And where has this been all along? At some guy's house, some guy named Abinadab. Who’s Abinadab you ask? Nobody! Just some Joe Schmoe who probably had room in his garage for it!

Why was it there? Well, first it got captured by the Philistines in a horrible loss when Saul was king. Then it was returned because the Philistines thought it was haunted. True story. And so, Saul had it stored away in Abinadab’s house and there it stayed for decades because Saul had no use for it. Now, let me explain the significance of that. We’re talking about the Ark of the Covenant, you know, the Ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark! Up until Saul, the Ark symbolized the very presence of God for them. For them, wherever it was, God was. Period. And so, for it to be in some guys backyard shed for decades said so much about who God’s people had become, in large part due to Saul’s leadership, or lack thereof.

So, David attempts to correct this error. For all of David’s faults, and there were many, at the end of the day, he relied on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his ancestors. So, David has the Ark brought back out and put in a central place of worship in Jerusalem. And that’s when the climax of our story happens, a worship service. A worship service! And that’s where I first had an issue with this story and that’s when I realized my own error. Had David not had to be king, he would have probably made a good pastor, because he knew that they needed a course correction, and in typical pastor fashion he did so with a worship service! This seemingly boring story was a beautiful reminder for me of just how awesome an opportunity we have here each and every Sunday.

It is in this place, that we return to, Sunday in and Sunday out, to celebrate the good that God has brought into our lives, no matter what may be going on around us, there is always something that we can bring here to celebrate. And that’s just what David did. It didn’t matter that the Philistines were still breathing down their necks. It didn’t matter that this new united kingdom was being tenuous at best. It didn’t matter that there were still hard feelings over the civil war that they had just gotten out of. It didn’t matter that David had personal issues of his own to work through. None of that mattered because David knew that what the people needed right now was to return to their roots, to return to the source of all goodness, and to say thank you to that source, the God of Eve, and Sarah, and Ruth, David’s great-grandmother.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every worship service needs to be a celebration. Sometimes the weight of the world is just too heavy to celebrate and those are the times when we gather here to lament and seek God’s guidance. We’re good at that! We don’t need any help in that department. But what I, and I can only speak for myself, if you don’t have this problem then you have my admiration, but what this story teaches me is that I could work on my celebration skills. I have a tendency to focus on the negatives around me, to the point that I forget that there is so much to celebrate. Think of it this way, we are more apt to call a funeral service a celebration of life than we are Sunday morning worship. And that should just not be so.

So, here’s what I’d like for us to do. Shelby and Jesha are going to pass out some paper. During the next hymn, I’d like each of you to write one thing that you are able to celebrate today. No matter how big or small, write one thing down. When the hymn is over, they will collect them all and then, during the prayers, Sid and I will take turns reading them out loud. Each and every one, so keep them short and legible. Because I believe that no matter how bad life may get sometimes, there is always something to celebrate, and it is here that we get a chance to practice that discipline. Thanks be to God. Amen.

My People

Inspired by Ruth 1:1-17

Last week you read the story of Moses getting the Ten Commandments and today we read about Ruth. There are a few things that happened between those two stories. After Moses gets the Ten Commandments the rest of the book of Deuteronomy goes into all the other laws and regulations that they were expected to keep, because they didn’t stop at just ten! There was lots of fine print at the bottom of those first Ten Commandments! About another twenty chapters worth! Anyway, they wander the desert for a while and Moses dies without crossing into the Promised Land, that land that was promised to Abraham long, long before, or, for us about a month ago when we read that story.

With Moses dead, Joshua is appointed their new leader. He is the one to finally take them back to their homeland. And that’s putting it lightly, because what ensues throughout the book of Joshua is story after story of their conquest of this land because, surprise, people are living there now, it’s been a while since they’ve been home. So, what we get are basically a dozen violent chapters of them brutally taking back this land by force, and then ten chapters of how they divided it up among the twelve tribes. The book of Joshua is not exactly full of children’s bedtime stories. So, they have their land, they’ve become a fairly good-sized nation with a powerful enough army.

Now, you’d think the next logical step would be to crown a king but they consider God to be their king and instead they raise up these temporary leaders whenever there is a crisis, and these leaders are called Judges, which is what the book of Judges is all about, where we get are some fascinating stories with characters like Deborah, Gideon, and Samson and Delilah. And this is the time period that we also get this little house on the prairie story of Ruth, who gets a whole book dedicated to her, a short book but a whole book just for her. And she deserves it. But the context that this story falls in is just as important as she is, and here’s why. I believe, that God’s people during this period had lost their way once again.

Because that’s what we do right? We lose our way, God finds us once again, points us in the right direction, and before we know it, God finds us in a ditch somewhere in Donner Pass to bail us out yet again. But the reason why that context that I shared is so important is because they had just conquered this new land, and were now trying to keep it, and were so focused on claiming territory, and keeping outsiders out, that they forgot who they were, children of God. How do we know this? One, because of their behavior, and two, because they blamed their behavior on God. When I mentioned that they violently took their homeland, I wasn’t kidding. They were downright genocidal. And what did they say, God made us do it. Convenient.

Did you notice how I, all of a sudden, started talking about God’s people in the third person? Right around the genocide comment. As I was writing this the other day I noticed that I did that without even thinking about it, but the reality is, I should be saying we, not they, because this is our story too, a story that we, unfortunately, continue to play out, again and again. But, we know that God would not command acts of genocide, right? Please tell me that we can all agree on that. So, when we read stuff like that in scripture, we immediately know, that something else is going on here. Something is amiss.

And so, in the midst of all this violence and land grabbing, we get this little story, about a little family of farmers, and a little lady named Ruth, who has a great big lesson to teach her people, us. And this story, I believe, is a corrective to the narrative that is happening all around her, this narrative of us and them, of insider and outsiders, this narrative of those people vs my people that is being spread throughout the land. And Ruth comes along with a different narrative, that is just as counter-cultural today as it was then. So let’s dig in a little deeper. Like many great stories, this one begins in tragedy. Ruth’s family goes through hell. So much death in such a short amount of time. Something I know many of you know something about. All the men in her family die, and in that culture that could easily be a death sentence.

Naomi, the matriarch of the family, decides that this could not be the fate of her daughters-in-law. Not only were they still young but they had family back home in their native land that they could return to. Naomi had no one. Why should they suffer needlessly? Not only that but she was in the throes of grief. And what do so many of us do in times like that? We say things like, “I’m fine.” When we’re anything but. Or, “I’ll be ok.” When we have no idea if we will be. Or, “Don’t worry about me.” When we can barely dress ourselves, let alone get out of bed. We distance ourselves because we don’t want to bring others down with us. And that’s where Naomi was. So she tries to convince her daughters-in-law to leave her and make a new life of their own, to go restart back in their homeland.

She convinces one of them but Ruth wouldn’t budge. Ruth has a solid case to leave Naomi behind, guilt-free. Naomi is making it so easy for her to do so! Ruth wouldn’t budge. No one would judge her for walking away, it was the expected thing to do, that was the way of things! Ruth wouldn’t budge. As soon as she is done weeping in Naomi’s arms, she utters what may be the most endearing, loyal, loving, words of commitment that the world may have ever heard before, and maybe since. “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” I can’t imagine more powerful words of commitment. And I honestly don’t know why we don’t use those words as wedding vows.

In those words, Ruth completely redefines the phrase “my people.” She completely turns that concept on its head. By the world’s standards, Naomi wasn’t her people. Naomi’s God wasn’t her god. Naomi’s family was not of her blood. Naomi’s culture, Naomi’s food, Naomi’s clothing, Naomi’s dialect, Naomi’s politics, not of those things were Ruth’s! All the things that we take for granted, that give us a sense of home, of safety, of the familiar, of comfort, Ruth was willing to sacrifice for the one thing that none of those things could offer—love, and not just any kind of love, but faithful love, covenantal love, in Hebrew it’s called “hesed.” It’s difficult to translate into English. It’s the kind of love that causes you to redefine who you consider to be “your people.”

That’s some powerful love. We’re not talking about your everyday, run of the mill, sugary sweet, warm fuzzy kinda love. No this kind of love changes you, changes you, to your very core! Changes the very fabric of what makes you who you are! It changes you to the point that you may be unrecognizable, unrecognizable to the people who you once thought were “your people” but now realize that you had a whole family outside! That is the kind of love that causes Ruth to unlearn everything that she had learned about how the world works, how love works, especially the nationalism that Naomi’s people were currently engaged in. And here comes this outsider, Ruth, to remind God’s people of who they were. Imagine that!

But let me be clear about this kind of love, it’s not gonna be very popular, it’s not gonna win you a bunch of new friends, people aren’t gonna bust the doors down to get in here and hear about this kind of love. In fact, it’s gonna lose you some people, but I don’t need to tell you all that. This kind of love that Ruth teaches us is just too powerful for some to handle. And to be fair, Ruth didn’t even know how powerful this stuff was! Let me read you the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew, “A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez was the father of Hezron. Hezron was the father of Aram. Aram was the father of Amminadab. Amminadab was the father of Nahshon. Nahshon was the father of Salmon. Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.”

Matthew goes on through Jesus' family line, which without Ruth, would not exist. This is what made up the savior of the world. And when Jesus story was told and they heard the name Ruth, you better believe that remembered hesed, the faithful love of this once immigrant farm girl, who reminded God’s people of who they were, of whose they were, with a love so faithful, it changed her and those around her, all the way down her family line to Jesus. That’s the stuff that he was made of. That’s the stuff that we are made of. Thanks be to God. Amen.