Sunday, November 11, 2018

Restoration

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17


At 11 am on the 11th of November, silence fell abruptly on the Western Front as German guns finally stopped firing. One hundred years and a few hours ago, church bells began to ring across shattered fields of trenches and in villages and cities, as the final Armistice of the First World War took effect and the long, hard work of peace began.

It wasn’t easy work, and history is littered with failed attempts at peace. But all those attempts – the ones that fail as well as the ones that succeed – are testimony to the dream of restoration and peace that has been part of humanity for as long as we’ve known loss and war and pain and division.

That longing seems to have been particularly strong a hundred years ago. From the early years of the war, drawing on a 1914 article by H.G. Wells, people had begun to speak of the war devastating Europe as “the war to end war”, with a profound belief or a faint hope that the destruction unleashed in the trenches and fields would ultimately destroy Europe’s – or humanity’s – capacity to make war on one another. 

The founding of the League of Nations was an attempt to make the dream of restoration practical, permanent, and self-sustaining – a dream that sharing the practical business of daily life: postal services, safe working conditions, health initiatives – as well as disarmament and dispute resolution – could create a world where war could not even begin.

The hymn we sang just now – Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” – describes a longing for restoration and peace set to music in the midst of that first devastating World War. The hope of “building Jerusalem” is a dream of building a place of heaven on earth, inspired by the visions of the Book of Revelation.

And today, one hundred years (and a few hours) after the guns fell silent, we heard part of the story of Naomi and Ruth, another story about the longing for restoration and wholeness, and of God working through us.

Naomi, at the beginning of the story, is an economic refugee, forced by a famine in her hometown of Bethlehem to flee with her husband and sons to the land of the Moabites – a people whose ancient division from Naomi’s people runs so deep that scripture forbids any Moabites to take part in the assembly of God’s people.

Naomi and her family survive the famine and make a home in the strange land of Moab. But when her husband and sons die, Naomi sets out to return to her land and people. She’s accompanied by one of her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth, who has declared her fierce and unyielding loyalty to Naomi, committing to share her life, her God, her people, and her fate.

So these two widows, one of them foreign, from a land of ancient enemies, come to Bethlehem, to a community that has no particular place for them. They survive by gleaning in the fields, hard and practical work, picking up the grain left after the harvest. And they find kindness and concern for their well-being in the fields of Boaz, distant kin of Naomi.

So when Naomi wants to seek some longer-term security for them both, she sends the younger (and apparently attractive) Ruth to offer herself to Boaz.  And when Ruth comes to Boaz at night, she invites him to take up his right and responsibility as Naomi’s kin to restore her to the community.

Boaz accepts this invitation, negotiating among the neighbors and community the practical details of the right – and the responsibility – of restoring an inheritance to Naomi’s family.
In the excerpt we heard today, we hear the results: When Boaz and Ruth are married, and have a son, Naomi is made whole. This grandchild is proclaimed “a restorer of life, and a nourisher or old age,” a heir who ensures her place in the community, now and for generations to come.

It’s a restoration that requires strange alliances and an expansion of our sense of unity – an immigrant, a Moabite, long forbidden from joining God’s people in worship, now welcomed at the center of community and helping to create a holy future.

And then, with a little end note, the dream of restoration is expanded, inviting you and me in:
This child Obed, born to Ruth, is the grandfather of David, king of Israel.

Naomi’s dream of restoration, Ruth’s hard work in gleaning and in building relationship, not only restore them and assure the permanence of their peace. It also produces David, who becomes a promise and a dream of the restoration of all God’s people to their home, and to God’s peace, for generations and millennia.  Naomi’s dream of restoration brings to you and to me the David whose distant grandchild will be Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth, God made flesh to bring about the restoration and wholeness of the entire world.
Naomi’s story, Ruth and Boaz’s story, are about how God acts across many generations to create wholeness and renewal when we pursue restoration faithfully in our own lives and place. When we pursue our own restoration generously, like Naomi and Ruth and Boaz who each consistently put one another before themselves in this story.
Naomi’s story, and the stories of David, build up the dream that God has come to us in Jesus to make real.
Because the dream of restoration and lasting peace, of an entire world made whole and holy, isn’t just a human dream from the midst of war or loss or famine. 
It’s not just a human longing, triggered by the remembrance of war or the weekly horror of gun murders or the inflated divisions of an election season.
That dream of wholeness, of restoration, of peace that heals, isn’t our human dream at all.
It’s God’s.

It’s the dream and the purpose of God, through ages and generations.
It’s the dream and the purpose that God works to make real in Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, Obed and David. In the leaders and the unsung ordinary people who try over and over to build peace out of the devastation of war, whom we remember today. The dream that God makes flesh in Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem, a teacher in Galilee, and a resurrected Lord in Jerusalem. The dream that God is working, right now, to make real in Moorestown, in our county and our country, in you and in me.

God takes your longings and dreams, and mine, and the faithful and generous work they inspire, and uses that to create wholeness and renewal that will outlast us.

Today, one hundred years and a few hours after the guns fell silent,
two millennia after Jesus lived in Israel,
an uncountable number of generations after David inspired God’s people,
after Naomi and Ruth dreamed of and worked for restoration in Bethlehem,
today, God dreams of restoration and peace in you and me.
and invites us to share that dream, now and forever.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Unearned

Mark 10:35-45

Maybe they were just looking for reassurance.

Asking to sit at Jesus’ right hand and left in glory does seem to be a pretty clear demonstration that James and John still have no idea what Jesus is talking about – much less what Jesus is all about – after he tells them for at least the third time that the Son of Man must be handed over to the government, beaten and killed, and rise again.  It’s a signal that they don’t understand when Jesus tells them that in his glory, the first will be last and the last will be first.

And they get grief for it – from their fellow disciples, who actually probably wish they’d thought of it first – and from lots of later scripture readers and critics, who complain that they haven’t been listening to Jesus.

But maybe they asked because they were listening to everything Jesus has been saying, and now they don’t know if they can still believe Jesus really is going to save the world, like they’d been expecting him to. So they want reassurance that this dying and rising thing isn’t going to leave them falling off a cliff.
Maybe they were tired of listening to Jesus preach what sounds like doom and gloom, tired of how anxious it made them when Jesus kept talking about money and divorce and rules and sacrifice, and they want to talk again about the joy and the glory.

Maybe their question about whether they can have the good seats is really a question about whether there are going to be any good seats – any happy ending to this story at all.

If that’s what’s going on, I can’t really blame them. Because I want reassurance, too. I want to know it’s all going to work out in the end. That salvation is real, eventually, even if Jesus isn’t going to fix the world right now.

I pray for that assurance. Like James and John, I’ve been known to try to change the subject to eternal glory when Jesus keeps talking about things I don’t want to do right now, that sound too hard for me.

And I invest in backup reassurance, too. I confess that I invest in church relationships that promise short-term success, as well as the ones that demand a lot of love and sacrifice. I buy a nice house to sit in, and nice sofa to sit on, so I can feel secure while I try to get close to Jesus in prayer. (I like the good seats as much as anyone.)

That’s not what Jesus hopes for in me, but I do hedge my bets, and look for reassurance, just like James and John, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

So John and James ask their question – or you or I ask for reassurance – and Jesus asks his own question: Are you able to drink my cup, and share my baptism? Will you follow me so closely that you experience what I experience: blessing and suffering and everything that goes into God living right here in the world?

Yes, sure, you bet! James and John respond. They want to be close to Jesus. And there may even be something reassuring about this invitation. It might feel like earning their place at the table; like assurance is back in their own hands again, if they can just meet this challenge.

But drinking the cup, sharing the baptism, meeting a challenge are still not going to get them the glory seats. Because you can’t earn your way to salvation. Can’t earn your way to closeness with Jesus, or to assurance, either.
And we can’t control our own access to God and God’s grace; not by meeting challenges, overcoming odds, or laying dibs on the good seats.
We can’t earn it, and we can’t control it.
All God’s grace, and all Jesus’ glory, and all the good seats, are for those for whom it has already been prepared.

There was a time when I thought that the annual pledge drive in church was a challenge that I had to meet in order to get status with Jesus. That I could earn some kind of spiritual rank by making or increasing my pledge.

When I was a child, I believed that pledging to the church was what would make me a “real member” – an adult, with a seat at the table, and grown-up respect - something I really craved at the age of twelve or thirteen.
So I tried pledging at that age. I liked putting my envelope in the plate, but it certainly didn’t get me honor and access. No glory seat for me. Those seats are for those for whom it has been prepared.

So I gave up pledging for a while, then tried it again as a spiritual challenge in my 20s. I wasn’t yearning to be a grown-up anymore at 25, but I did sort of think I could work my way closer to Jesus by giving.
And that…sort of worked. I did start to feel more invested in the life and mission of the church, since investing money draws your attention to something (Jesus knows about that – famously pointing out that where your treasure is, your heart is also.) It didn’t seem to get me a seat next to Jesus, though. And it didn’t take long to figure out that pledging wasn’t going to earn me anything.

That assurance of God’s favor can’t be earned, after all. We can’t earn salvation, or relationship. Or control our own access to God and God’s grace. And the places at the table close to Jesus aren’t for the early bird, or the over-achiever, or the super-giver, but for those for whom it has been prepared.

That’s a hard truth,
but there is another truth that Jesus also teaches:
you are the one for whom God has prepared a place.
I am.
John and James are.

Not because we earn God’s favor. Or achieve it by meeting challenges.
But because it’s just who God is that God has been preparing that gift and that glory for us all along. It’s just how God is, that God invites us into that complete closeness and sharing in the full experience of creating the world’s salvation that Jesus offered James and John. And God is working to create the unshakeable assurance of salvation and love within us all the time.

I didn’t earn my way into glory by financial giving,
I can’t earn it now by growing the church, or by self-denial, or sacrifice or suffering.
And you can’t, either.

I don’t know exactly when it changed, but I give now – I tithe now, and work for more – specifically because I never earned this. Never earned the love and glory and healing and salvation that God has prepared for us.
I give because that’s just who and how God is, to have prepared for me all along that assurance I keep looking for. And because God has prepared it for you, too, and that reassures me even more.

And in my everyday life with God, I sacrifice, or serve, or celebrate specifically because God has already made me – you, us – part of salvation, as Jesus made James and John a part of the work of resurrection long before they asked or agreed to share his cup.

We give, we serve, because it’s how we say “Yes” to God.
Not, “Okay, yes, I’ll do what you’re asking,” but “YES!!”: that fist-pumping affirmation of what God is doing with us and in us.

It’s how we say “Yes!!” in joyful recognition and assurance of the glory and the purpose and the place God has prepared, for you, and me, before we even thought to ask.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Possible for God

Mark 10:17-31


For mortals it is impossible.  But for God, all things are possible.

Just this week, a chance encounter in the Trinity chapel reminded me of this truth that Jesus teaches. Elsie Fountain told me the story of her granddaughter. Hit by a truck while waiting for the school bus at age ten, she’s now living evidence of the impossible: graduating from high school, preparing to study medicine.

As Elsie told me the story of what happened that day, I saw angels and heroes, agents of God, everywhere: People who, just by doing the one thing they could do - or more than they thought they could do – helped God make a miracle: emergency squad drivers who may have broken land speed records to ensure that she got to a trauma center in time to save her life – and stood up for her to ensure that she stayed in the right hospital. Surgeons inspired to exceed their own best estimate of their skills by this child’s story – and by her family’s dedication. Praying family and friends and strangers; teams of supporters who forced the medical and insurance systems to do life-saving work.
Her life is a miracle; her thriving now is evidence that indeed, the things that are impossible for mortals are possible for God.

This story has stayed with me all week. Not just the amazing emergency work, but the back office moments that also create the miracle: a family, a grandmother, selling and signing away all their assets: mortgaging their homes, cleaning out retirement funds, selling it all to give this child life.

I heard that in the gospel story again this morning, when Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The man to whom Jesus first said that went away grieving because he had many possessions. Because it’s hard to give it all up. It terrifies me, this idea of emptying out my life, selling my home, my furnishings, my beloved books, the sweaters I love to wear, my car. Giving it all away and owning nothing. I can barely imagine it, and when I do, it’s scary. I can’t contemplate it seriously with any kind of comfort or confidence.

Jesus knows this. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” he says. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven!

You don’t have to be rich the way Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg are rich to find it difficult or terrifying to sell, to give away, everything you have. (Although if you do, please consider not only donating to, but helping out with, our rummage sale next month!) Giving up everything is hard when you’re living on a lot less money or possessions than you’d like to have.

No wonder the disciples – most of them from less than wealthy backgrounds, probably – demand to know who can possibly be saved under these conditions. And Jesus tells them that they can.  You can. I can.  Yes, it’s impossible for us, but all things are possible for God.

Most of us here never have, and never will, actually give away or sell everything we own. But Jesus is speaking to each one of us, still, with the same invitation he gives the man we heard him speak to this morning. Because when he says to that one rich and faithful man: “there’s only one more thing to do, sell it all and follow me,” he is offering an extreme and powerful invitation to trust, and to love.

The thing that was missing from this man’s faith, from his clear and lifelong dedication to God, was radical trust. Because we don’t – can’t – entrust ourselves entirely to God while we are trusting our possessions and our assets.
In all honesty, I depend on my microwave and refrigerator and Wawa a lot more than God when it comes to daily food. I depend on my phone and my house for security and direction in practical everyday terms.
I invest my wealth, such as it is, in independence. That’s what all of us are taught to do, every day, every hour we interact with the twenty-first century American world. But Jesus is inviting me, us, you to DEpendence.  To depending on God – deeply, vulnerably, with a radical trust – because I have given up trusting in any other thing.

Getting to that risky, holy, absolute trust and dependence on God is more expensive for some than others. For some of us, it does, in fact, cost everything we have. For others, giving just that much more than we know we can afford will bring us into that radical trust.

Jesus just wants us to do this, whatever it takes, however much it costs. And not to scare us, either. The invitation to give it all up – to depend entirely on what God makes possible – is only the doorway into the even bigger invitation to follow Jesus. It’s an invitation to share the extraordinary, life-altering daily habits of loving and being loved by God more than we can ask or imagine.

Giving it all up is an act of love. That’s the thing I’ve often forgotten when I read this story and worry about how hard it would be. But when Elsie told me her granddaughter’s story this week, I recognized that giving it all up is actually natural – not easy, but irresistible – when we are caught up in love, like the love of a grandparent for a beloved grandchild fighting for life. And Jesus is inviting us into that kind of relationship with him, with God: mutual love as close and life-giving and powerful as the love of a grandmother ready to put it all on the line for her grandchild.

We don’t give our possessions to God to do good works. We give to God, and to others, for the good of our own souls and hearts, to love and be loved by God as our own hearts’ flesh and blood.

All of that – all the love, all the trust Jesus is asking – is still impossible for mortals. But it’s possible for God. God gives the trust and the love we need.
God prepares us for this long before God asks it of us.

That rich man who went away from Jesus grieving because he had many possessions was a man who was already tithing, already committed to God’s commandments and mission, regular in worship, consistent in living his faith. Jesus recognizes this in him, and sees that he’s ready for the big ask. Sell it all, and follow me.

And he grieves because it will be a real sacrifice. He’s acknowledging the loss he’ll face in order to accept the great gift and invitation he has been offered. But God has been at work all his life, creating in him the love and the trust he’ll need to take this step now, hard as it is.

Whatever love and trust God is asking of you today, God has already prepared you for. Not so that it will be easy to take the risk, or make the sacrifice, but so that you can do what you know will be difficult. So that you can trust that much, love and be loved that much, and do what you know will be impossible.
Because for God, all things are possible.