Thursday, November 26, 2015

It’s Good He is King!

     Well, we have made it through another church year.  Those of you a bit surprised to see white today may have forgotten it is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday.  The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in our liturgical cycle.  It came about only in 1925.  That is not to say that our spiritual ancestors did not believe that Christ was King of kings and Lord of lords.  It means only that they did not celebrate a day of intention whereupon they reminded themselves of that reality.  The feast itself was introduced to the liturgical church world by one of the Pius’.  Pius XI noticed the rise of secularism and the increasing denial of Christ as King, as well as Christians’ (RC’s in particular) increasing belief that the Church could not continue Christ’s authority.  So he came up with a plan.  Each year, there would be a day of celebration where we reminded ourselves that Christ was King and so counterweighed the testimony of the secular world that was given the other 363 days of the calendar year!  Why are you laughing?  He was a Pope.  He must have known what he was doing!
     All kidding aside, Pius did write a document outlining his goals for the celebration.  (1) He wanted the leaders of the nations to see that they owed respect, at least, to Christ, who would one Day come to judge them and their use of the power He granted them.  (2) He expected the nations, or more specifically their rulers, to see that, since the Church followed Christ, churches should be exempt from being an agent of the state.  Put in modern language, there was to be a separation of the Church from the State, and the State, out of respect for her Lord, would not interfere in her affairs. (3) The faithful who celebrated this day would be strengthened in their faith and reminded that Christ must reign in our minds, our hearts, our wills, and our bodies.  From your laughter a moment ago, it was clearly an ambitious goal.  Given the rise of secularism over the last 90 years, and the increasing pressures on churches in places that practice a separation of Church and State, never mind the ones that make no such distinction, one might say Pius’ vision failed miserably.  Of course, Pius has good company.  The outcome of our Lord’s conversation with Pilate, as recounted by St. John today, was one of seeming abject failure.  Pilate later sentenced Jesus to the Cross where He died.  That failure should have been the end of this bit about Jesus and kingship; yet here we are, two thousand years later, celebrating that truth half a world away!
     Pilate’s opening question of Jesus is a loaded question.  To take you back to the scene a bit, remember, the governor of an area was personally responsible in the eyes of the emperor for any alleged crime that might affect the well-being or interests of the empire or where capital punishment was required.  The Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas, has done a wonderful job of walking this minefield.  Jesus has been arrested outside the view of those whom He has taught in the temple.  The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin has gone very well.  They have voted that Jesus should be killed.  Now, Pilate must be navigated.  Pilate must be convinced to kill Jesus as a threat to the empire, but they cannot enter the debate directly, for fear of ritual defilement.  See any irony there?  They are plotting to kill Jesus while maintaining ritual purity.
     Pilate is loathe to enter the Jewish squabble.  When first engaged in the discussion, Pilate tells them that their powers are sufficient to deal with the troublemaker Jesus.  They argue that it is a capital case and so must be heard by him.  The threat in the words is heard by Pilate.  If this Jesus was not killed and later led a rebellion, Pilate would be personally held responsible for the rebellion.  His failure to hold a cognitio to determine the facts of the case against Jesus would likely cost him his life as well as his power.
     My guess is that Pilate wanted nothing to do with this case.  Most likely, his soldiers had told him of the great threat this Jesus was to Rome.  He taught in synagogues and in the temple; He advocated putting away the sword; He advocated paying taxes to Caesar; and He claimed Yahweh as His Father.  He might be crazy, but this Jesus of Nazareth was no real threat to Caesar.  His question would serve to cut to the nub of the case.  If Jesus says He is king of the Jews, then clearly He was some sort of crazed rebel.  If Jesus said He was not king of the Jews, He could not possible be a threat.
     What we forget reading this passage is that Rome had denied Judea a king since the death of Herod the Great.  Herod’s sons, although they pleaded for the title of king, were allowed to call themselves only ethnarch or tetrarch, depending on the child.  None of the four governors who preceded Pilate had ever had to deal with a king in Judea.  From Pilate’s perspective, were Jesus to claim the title of king, then perhaps He might be a threat, however small, to the empire.  An affirmative answer would indicate complicity in some sort of conspiracy to seek independence from Rome.  Were He to ignore the title, then it was likely He was not.  Pilate was nothing if not energetic in his apparent zeal for the empire.  As a minor aristocrat, he wanted to prove his worth and rise in the rank of service.
     Jesus, naturally, does not answer the question directly.  Instead, Jesus probes the source and intention of the question.  If Pilate is asking “Are you here to lead a revolution against Rome and Caesar,” Jesus’ answer would be no.  But if Pilate is asking the question on behalf of the Sanhedrin sycophants, then the question is something more along the lines of “Are you the Messianic king of Israel.”  That answer, of course, would be yes.  In essence, Jesus is asking Pilate to consider his question.  Pilate is being forced to evaluate the threat of Jesus; it seems only fair that Pilate then know what and who it is he is evaluating and by what standards he is doing his evaluation of this accused seditionist.
     Jesus’ response, “Do you ask this on your own, or did someone else tell you about Me?” forces Pilate to do a couple things.  One, Pilate must acknowledge that it is quite possible he is being manipulated.  Second, if this really is Pilate’s question, what does he mean by asking it.  Pilate naturally seems indignant about the idea that he is being drawn into a Jewish religious squabble.  Pilate is the representative of the might and force of Rome, Pilate is the representative of Caesar in Judea, why would he care a fig about internal Jewish religious quarrels?  Worse, Pilate’s power is as much a threat to them as it is to Jesus.  Still, Pilate needs to fulfill his duty in case this carpenter’s son thinks Himself a ruler.
     “Are you a king?”
     Before answering, Jesus describes His kingdom and affirms that it is not of this earth.  We might say this is Jesus’ way of reminding Pilate that He is not a threat to Rome, for now.  Jesus’ kingdom is not even of this earth.  Were it, His servants would be fighting for Him even now.
     Luckily for Pilate, he has an answer.  The guy before him is a nutcase.  Who says, “My kingdom is not of this world?”   Where else are kingdoms going to be, but in this world?  Jesus is, of course, testifying that His kingship does not come from this world; it comes from Heaven.  He is ruler of this world because He made this world and all that is in it.  He is ruler of this world because the people of this world were made in His image.  Pilate, as we might expect, knows none of this.  Looking around, he would see no fighting.  Heck, Jesus’ own people have turned Him over and demanded He be executed.  Whatever this nut thinks He rules, His servants are not acting against the interests of Rome.  So he asks Jesus again, “So You are a king, then?”
     Jesus responds with a different affirmation than Pilate or we might expect.  “King is your word, not mine.”  More importantly, Jesus goes on to describe His mission in great detail.  We make a terrible mistake in thinking that truth here in John and in Jesus’ mouth is a philosophical or ethical term.  John relates that Jesus is concerned with far more important matters.  Jesus has come into the world to unveil (apocalypse) the truth to the world.  What is the truth that Jesus unveils?  Jesus has come into the world to unveil that His words are God’s words, that His voice is God’s voice, that His face is God’s face, and that He is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to humanity!  Truth in this understanding put forth by John is the reality we experienced lived out in full communion with God.  Jesus, the Son of God, already shares that full communion with the Father.  All that He does, all that He says, all that He teaches comes from that amazing relationship with His Father in Heaven.  And He has come into the world to open that relationship up to all of humanity who will hear His voice.  John will remind us that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  God will affirm all this by taking what the Sanhedrin and Pilate meant for evil and using it for the greatest good possible.  Through Jesus’ suffering and death, our sins will be forgiven.  Through His Resurrection, we will be raised into the possibility of that true relationship with the Father.  Yes, we will fall short in this world, but one day, one glorious day in the future, we will share in that same abiding as our Lord Christ!  It is an amazing and glorious promise and thought.  It is a thought that Pilate cannot grasp because he is not given to Jesus by the Father. 
     What does it mean to be one who calls Christ the King?  What does it truly mean to be one who claims that true relationship with the Father in Heaven?  We have seen what it means in the life and ministry of Jesus, who lived as the Father’s only Son.  Our King placed His faith in the Father and the Father’s will, eventually at great cost to Himself.  He did not rejoice in His sufferings; indeed, He asked the Father to let that Cup pass and even sweated blood.  Still, His commitment was to do the will of the Father.
     In theological terms, we might think of this as emptying Himself.  Jesus came down from Heaven not to the sounds of trumpets and angel choirs heralding His descent, but to the baying of animals and wonder of shepherds.  His life was an emptying of Himself to show what the Father wanted for His people.  Think how tired you and I get working forty, fifty, or sixty hours a week.  Jesus was the Messiah 24/7/365 for some 33 years or so.  Talk about pressure.  Everyone He met had a need, and Jesus met those needs in ways they struggled and we still struggle to understand.  Even those who fought Him He engaged, not to condemn, but to turn back to the Father’s intention in their lives.  Always He gave of His power, His time, His wisdom, and later of His life.  And to us, His disciples, He charged us only with picking up our crosses and following Him.  Our lives are meant to emulate His.  We do not lord ourselves over one another, we serve one another.  We become great by becoming least.  Talk about radical kingship!
     Given that wonderful example, and the amazing promise through faith in Him, why then the fear in our lives?  Why is it we trust in our accumulated wealth more than His provision?  Why is it we trust in our own power and influence rather than in His providence in love?  Why is it we claim to serve a God of infinite resources and power, but live as if we have more?  The low hanging fruit this week, brothers and sisters, has been our “Christian” response to the Syrian refugees.  Politicians who claim to be Christian are holding press releases proudly proclaiming their willingness to turn away from the plight of those impacted by wars.  Pastors who are charged with proclaiming daily in word and deed the death, resurrection, and return of our Lord are shouting against the admittance of foreigners people because some among them might be terrorists.  I am never one to encourage you to seek martyrdom or stupidly risk your life brothers and sisters, but I am one who will remind you that the worst thing that can happen to us in death is that we wake up and see our Lord face to face ushering us into the most amazing wedding feast ever prepared!  And if that is our “worst case,” what do we really need to fear about death?  Oh, one more thing, our Lord commanded us—it wasn’t a suggestion, it wasn’t a “guys, if you have time”—He commanded us to proclaim the Gospel to all people.  How much easier is it for us to proclaim in word and deed when they are among us?
     There are other low hanging fruits that hit far closer to home.  Every time there is a shooting of some sort, who often leads the cry of “we need guns to protect ourselves?”  I cringe every time I hear a pastor say it, and I flinch whenever I hear one of their flock elevate the Second Amendment to some sort of permanence like the Gospel.  Jesus Himself reminds us that if His kingdom were of this world, His followers would be fighting Rome and the Sanhedrin to free Him.  Heck, when Peter draws the sword and chops off the ear of Malchus, how does Jesus respond?  He rebukes Peter and heals the ear.  If we really are residents of somewhere other than here, why are we so jealous to protect the trappings of this life and this world?  Why is it that we who claim the truth are so quick to serve a lie?  Those who do not belong to Him do not hear His voice, but what is our excuse?  We read it.  We hear it.  We ignore it.
     When we consider the appropriateness of a ministry within our body, how often do we think first of its cost to us, in terms of money, resources, and time, rather than its advancement of the kingdom and of our mission in that expansion?  When we consider whether to help someone in need, how often do we count the cost to us, never once thinking of the cost that was born for us by the King?
     What does it mean to have Christ reigning in our minds, in our bodies, and in our wills, as Pius asked barely a century ago?  What is it we celebrate?  I know we should have joy.  I know that you and I ought to be impelled by thanksgiving to do those things our Lord asks of us.  Knowing our shortcomings, knowing how many times we would fail Him, still He stood before Pilate and the Sanhedrin and took our medicine, our punishment for us.  Despite the cost, despite the pain, despite the anger and hurt, despite even the mockery of those whom He came to save, still He testified to the Truth.  He lived and died and rose again, to show us that what He taught was truth, that salvation in His name was now possible for all.  Brothers and sisters, throughout all time and throughout all history only one person has ever come to rule for the welfare of all.  Some kings and some queens have ruled well for there people, but only Jesus Christ has come to rule for the well-being of all.  We have beheld His glory, as the only Son of the Father.  Amazingly, He has called each one of us to represent Him.  How do we respond?  Will He see us as Pilates, not really given to Him, or will He see us as disciples, frayed, battered, tattered, and dealing with our sins, trusting that the King has come, the King has redeemed us, and the king will one day restore us?


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On predictions, prophesy, and urgency . . .

     As we continue our push to the end of the Church year, we encounter an interesting piece of literature in Mark.  What makes the piece so challenging, I think, for us modern readers is that we really do not read and write in this genre anymore.  The style is called apocalypsis.  It comes from the Greek word that means unveiling, rather than final battle or destruction or whatever you might assume apocalypse meant.  Apocalyptic literature, in our Judea-Christian heritage, often  spoke of how or taught how God was at work in the events of the world.  As western people based in science, we tend not to look for God at work in the world around us.  Many of us are closer to the deism of Thomas Jefferson than the Christianity of the Apostles and disciples.  We like to think that God is out there, but we want Him at a safe distance.  If He gets to close, He might figure out who we are.
     It is, of course, natural that the Church should focus on unveiling the actions of God in the world around us.  Each time we gather, we remind ourselves that Christ lived, suffered, died, and was raised again for us.  What was the big sign in Mark’s Gospel that we have access to God again through the Christ?  The tear of the Temple Veil, from top to bottom.  Talk about an unveiling!  To outward appearances, the son of a carpenter dying in the Roman occupation of Israel is less than noteworthy.  Heck, except for the resulting claims that Jesus was raised from the dead, the famed historian Tacitus barely gives Jesus of Nazareth a paragraph in his voluminous writings.  It remained for the Church to give meaning to what Jesus endured.  It remained for the Church to testify to the reality of the Empty Tomb.  We enshrine that testimony, if you will pardon the word use on my part, in our Eucharistic liturgy which we celebrate when we gather.
     We may take such unveiling for granted since we do it often, but we sure struggle with it in other areas in Scripture.  And if we, the Church, struggle with it, how much more will society around us!  Imagine two thousand years hence how the world would view our business practices of the late 20th and early 21st centuries if they unearthed books of the comic strip Dilbert.  If comic strips have gone away by that time, they might well read the strips as a “how to” manual for how we ran our businesses today, missing out on the sarcasm, irony, and goofy behavior of the characters.  On second thought, given the way we run our businesses, Dilbert might not be example of potential veiling over time. . . By the laughter, I’m guessing at least some of you get what I am trying to say or work in a business that has a Dilbert spy employed!
     In one of those moments that makes you wonder if the Apostles and disciples ever listened, one of the disciples points out to Jesus the magnificence of the temple.  I’m guessing this disciple was at a bathroom break during the teaching on the widow’s mite.  Jesus then makes this incredible pronouncement.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  It is a statement that His accusers will try to use to have Him put to death.  It is also a statement that turns out to have been prophesy.  Those of us who read history know that within about three decades of His giving this statement, Jesus will be proven correct.  In an act of wanton destruction and more animalistic fervor than conditioned soldier, the Roman soldiers will pull the temple apart, once they are finished raping and killing.  The scene was anything but glorious.  As the Romans broke through each of the walls, fierce fighting occurred.  Eventually, the defenders were driven into the temple.  So crazed were the attackers that they pulled the temple apart after winning.  The gruesome scene, however, caused Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian, to refuse the Senate’s offer of the garland of victory.  Titus reportedly tossed the garland to the crowd while stating there was no glory in defeating a people whose god had clearly deserted them.
     Think on that for just a second.  The son of the Emperor refused the garland of victory because the god of those conquered had clearly deserted them.  Can you imagine?  I know commentators want to make a big deal about how the thought of God abandoning His people would have been unimaginable to the Jews at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But would it have been so unimaginable?  Would not faithful people have in mind the Exile?  Was there not another example, or more, of God’s seeming abandonment of His people because they served idols rather than Him, because they listened to their own hearts rather than His torah, because they turned the rightful worship of Him into a business that weighed heavily on the poor that He loved?  Would the idea of God allowing the temple to be destroyed again really be that crazy?  Sure, those who paid little attention to His torah, to His prophets, to His heart might have found the idea as preposterous as rebuilding it in three days’ time.  But what of the faithful?
     As is so often the case in Mark, we are in the midst of another chiasmus, or literary sandwich, that is making and repeating a point or more.  In this case, I think, it is the more.  On the one hand, deceivers will appear, wars will occur, and our job is to watch, to see, to perceive.  And in the very middle of this literary sandwich is this promise that His followers will be persecuted for following and glorifying Him.  Still, He promises victory.  Still, in the midst of those persecutions, wars, false witnesses, still He wins.  His return will be unmistakable.  No one will be able to miss it, neither those who claim Him Lord nor those who reject Him!  And our instruction in the midst of this chiasmus, this literary sandwich of which Mark is so fond of using is the command, not a suggestion but a command, that we watch ourselves.
     Jesus is telling His disciples and us that we will face persecution, we will face hatred and mockery precisely because we cling to Him as Lord, especially in the midst of these cosmic or international or local events.  These events are simply the beginning of the birth pangs, He says.  What He is unveiling is that these events signal the destruction and His return.  But Jesus does not give the disciples nor us specific signs.  Jesus does not say that He will return when the temple is destroyed or rebuilt.  He does not say that on December 31, 1999 He will return.  He does not say that He will return when there is an eclipse, or a flood, or a fire, or an earthquake.  Those events, though, as tragic and painful as they are, simply remind us that He is returning.
     It is, I think, significant that Jesus uses birth pangs to describe this process.  In the one sense, we are being reborn.  Unsurprising to you present, I have a bit of experience with the birthing process.  But there are a number of you who have been present for your children’s births.  There are a number present who have delivered babies.  Were any the same?  Did they all last x hours and y minutes?  Did the cervix widen at a predictable case that suggests a linear motion over a set time?  Were the babies all the same size?  Were the pregnancies all identical to the day, hour, minute, and second?  Of course not!  Births are as unique as the individuals they produce!   Each one has a story of pain and suffering, or a needle in the back, and then incredible feelings of love.  Really, mothers, can you really explain even to your husbands the why you were willing to suffer what you did?  Can you ever really put into words the how you could put yourself through those nine months in a way that would make us dads truly understand why you were driven to conceive and to birth?
     And just as each our birthing processes are unique, our rebirthing processes are unique, too!  The sins that tempt me are different that the sins that tempt you, or your neighbor, or the person beside you in the pew, or even our children.  For reasons known only to Him, God uses the refiner’s fire to purify us.  Oh, we can say we believe He is Lord, but when does our rubber hit the road?  When is our mettle tested?  During our suffering.  When we are powerless to stop the suffering, He must step into the breach!  It is then, then, at our impotence that we see His power at work in the world around us.
     This last couple months have produced what I call low hanging fruit sermon illustrations.  The suffering in Paris is simply too early and too raw for us to draw much from it.  If God is good, why did He let those terrorists get away with so much destruction?  Yet, even after only a couple days, we are beginning to hear tales of how Christians and others responded to anarchy and destruction.  Some officers, doing their job at the soccer stadium, discovered a bomb-vested man and ended up giving up their lives to save the lives of those in a stadium.  Some ran toward the shooting to tend or comfort the wounded and dying.  Already the French press is interviewing people and discovering that some of these people were driven by the faith in God.  In France.  In post-Christian France, there are still Christians willing to lay down their lives for complete strangers.  What, do you think, gave them the confidence?  What, do you think, convinced them that this world, this body, this life was worth sacrificing for someone else?  Our Lord and His promise.
     And while Paris will dominate our news cycle until the next event, there have been others.  What about the hue and cry over the red moon super eclipse or whatever it was called?  How many “Christians” claimed to know that the eclipse was THE sign, even though our Lord refused James, John, and Andrew privately.  In seeking that special knowledge of Christ and His plan, they became instruments of the Enemy who would love to lead us all astray from God.  Now that the world has continued on, how as our Lord glorified in their bad prediction?  How has their false testimony made our testimony about Jesus seem more believable?  Have they not made it harder for all of us?  Thankfully, and mercifully, we serve a God for whom nothing is harder or impossible.  He can overcome any false testimony.  He can use what was meant for evil for His redeeming purposes.
     What of the church shooting in Charleston?  I know that event was tragic for those who lost loved ones.  I mourn for them whenever I see them cry in interviews.  But in those interviews I have watched, I have also seen that steeled face of our Lord.  Just as He steeled Himself to Jerusalem, they seem to be steeling themselves to forgiveness.  They struggle with the wantonness of the crime, but they recognize that our Lord promised them that such was the lot of those who follow Him.  And so many, after mourning, remind themselves, the interviewer, and those listening that their loved ones are alive even today!  As much as they miss them, they are so happy to have known them and to know that now they reside in the shade of our Lord with all the martyrs, and that their voices have joined the cry, “How long?”!
     Lastly, pick your favorite natural or manmade disaster over the last year or two.  Have there been floods?  Tornadoes?  Earthquakes?  Droughts?  Wars?  All are happening around us all the time.  What are they?  Jesus instructs us that they are simply the beginnings of the birth pangs.  They are simply reminders to you, to me, to all His faithful followers that His return might be as imminent as a baby’s birth when the mother is in labor.  That the birth pangs have lasted 2000 years may not be as surprising when we consider it on that scale.  Nor should it surprise us or catch us unawares if the next pang turns out to be the last contraction that precedes His appearing!  That possibility ought to inspire each of us with a sense of urgency.  Just as each of us during the push phase would expect the doctors and nurses and midwives and doulas to be present, we should be present to the possibility that His return may happen any moment.
     Jesus was careful not to give specific dates and specific signs to presage the date of His return.  First, Elijah needed to come.  He did.  Jesus needed to suffer, die, and be raised.  He did and was.  The temple needed to be destroyed.  It was.  The disciples needed to suffer because of their loyalty to Him?  They did and do.  And the Gospel needed to be preached to the ends of the earth.  It is.  All His requirements have been met.  All the pre-conditions for His return have been fulfilled.  His return, like that of a birthing mother who is dilated to 10cm, can happen at any time.  In the meanwhile, it is our job to reach out to others in His name and to guard ourselves that we do not fall away because we have forgotten His words.  Rather, it is our job to remind ourselves and others that the events have occurred just as He said they would, and that they point to the glorious day of His return.  Events like Paris or whatever comes next do not testify against God.  Thanks to His unveiling, they remind us that we and the world around us are in the midst of those beginning birthing pangs that one day, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe two thousand years from now, will lead to our rebirth in His eternal and glorious presence!


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The promises and glory of The Redeemer . . .

     I hate weeks like this.  A couple months ago, as we were beginning to speak about Stewardship in the Vestry, I was challenged by a couple members about my lack of sermons on Stewardship.  Their concern was certainly legitimate.  During the search process, some on the Vestry and Search Committee had been excited that my own sense of my call had coalesced around a stewardship sermon I gave as a much younger layman in charge of my sending parish’s Stewardship campaign.  Not unsurprisingly, eyes lit up at that story.  You mean you are not afraid to talk about money?  You mean you pay attention to secular concerns?  I had not preached specifically on money since my arrival at Advent.  Understandably, this had some of us a bit concerned.  But I started going through the lectionary with Gregg.  We had not had many “money” opportunities.  To be sure, I had preached on stewardship in other areas of our life, but I had not hit the wallet or checkbook.  That got us looking forward.  Somewhat surprising to us both, there was no real reading on money until the Widow’s Mite.  But, it was in November and stewardship would be ramped up by then and it would work.
     For two months or so, I was pretty certain what I wanted to preach on today.  Then the week hit.  Try as I might, I could not bring myself to preach on the widow’s mite today.  Believe me, I tried hard.  But for some reason I felt the knowing urge to go elsewhere today.  That being said, at least in naming the sermon I am not preaching, maybe you will hear an old one in your minds and mull it over more in your prayer life this week.  Or maybe, if you prefer, ask a friend what his or her preacher said about the widow’s mite and giving to the church this week.
     Instead, I was drawn to Ruth.  Like Job, Ruth is one of those books that we ignore to our own detriment.  Heck, it is a book that ought to appeal to those of us who love Outlander, Game of Thrones, a love story, a bit of suspense, a bit of tragedy, and an incredible ending.  For those who have forgotten the story, Naomi and Elimelech are suffering from a drought in the beginning of the book.  Faithful Jews, they are tending the land promised to them since the time of Abraham.  Those who farm often live on the edge.  I know the joke is that there are few atheists in foxholes, but there are fewer even in farming.  Farmers can do everything right, everything from plowing to adjusting the pH of their soil to selecting their crops, but if the rains do not come in a timely fashion, or if the scorching heat and freezing cold occur at just the wrong moment, all their hard work can be undone.  Many pray to God for the weather, because they recognize He sets the patterns in place.
     Naomi and Elimelech are so on the edge of starvation that they eventually abandon their inheritance.  I have explained to you several times that living in the Promised Land was much like us sharing the Sacrament.  It was that outward symbol of God’s grace and promises.  Imagine choosing to give up the Sacrament.  Maybe it is not so hard for us today either.  Many of us know people who cannot find time to attend church, who’d rather be golfing or sleeping than giving thanks to God for what He has done in their lives.  Perhaps some of us have been in that mood as well.  In any event, Naomi and Elimelech hear that life is better in Moab.  Moab of all places!  What in the heck is going on with God?  He is causing rain among one of the enemies of His people but is withholding it from His people?  Is He asleep at the wheel?  Has He forgotten His instructions?  No, of course not.  This is the time of the Judges.  People are doing as they see fit rather than listening to God.
     Naomi and Elimelech head to Moab and begin scratching out a living with their boys.  Eventually, the time comes for the parents to find brides for their sons.  Faithful Jews would look from among the Jews, right?  That’s what God commanded.  Naomi and Elimelech, unfortunately, look locally.  They choose two Moabite women as brides for their sons.
     Not unsurprisingly, the story goes downhill from there.  Elimelech and the two sons die.  We, as students of God’s instructions, know that this is clearly His judgment on the family for forgetting God and His commands.  They left the land, they went to Moab of all places.  They chose Moabite women as wives for their sons.  Maybe they should have flipped God off as they went about their life.  Clearly, this book is about judgement.  The patriarch sins and God exercises vengeance against him and his sons, just as He always promised He would.
     As the story continues, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are in tough shape.  Naomi hears that things have improved back in Israel—God has opened up the heavens again.  So she determines to head home.  Before leaving, the seemingly accursed mother-in-law frees her daughters-in-law from her.  She tells both that they are young and able to find new husbands.  Were she even of a mind to try a Levirate marriage, they would be well past child-bear age once she produced another son for them to marry.  Not surprisingly, Orpah heads back to her family, though after an emotional parting.  Clearly she loved Naomi.  But, she accepts Naomi’s wisdom and heads back into Moabite society.
     Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to leave Naomi.  Naomi’s God has become her God, and she will forsake neither.  Though Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth is determined.  So the two widows set out for Israel.
     Eventually, they arrive back in the area of Naomi’s family.  There they meet a kinsman of Naomi named Boaz.  Boaz, we are told, is a righteous man.  In fact, when he sees Ruth gleaning the field, he instructs his workers to give her something to drink and assist her, because of her faithfulness to Naomi.  He tells the men not to hassle her.  He even instructs her not to go to anyone else’s field.  I need not remind you all of the vulnerabilities faced by women in the ANE.  Imagine being a young, beautiful, immigrant woman in that day and age.  I don’t have to because I have met lots of Ruth’s.  The more things change the more they stay the same.  Yes, faithful Jews were supposed to let the poor and foreigners glean the fields.  Yes, the faithful Jews were expected to be gracious hosts and to remember above all else that the Lord their God loved the widow and the orphan.  Of course, faithful Jews were supposed to keep the Land their Lord had given them.  Faithful Jews were not supposed to marry Moabite women.  Boaz stands out because he lives his daily life in testimony to his Lord.  He does his best to do as God instructs.
     As a curious side note, Boaz even explains to Ruth the source of his seeming generosity.  He has heard how she gleans for Naomi, how she left her home and land and travelled to Israel in faithful service to his kinswoman.  And for her faithfulness he offers a prayer of blessing.  He prays that God will bless her and reward her both for her service and for seeking refuge under His wings.
     This is where our story picks up today in our readings.  Naomi asks her daughter-in-law to trust her, but that she needs to get her some security.  Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, anoint herself, and dress and then sneak into the threshing floor after the men have fallen asleep for the night.  She tells Ruth to observe where he sleeps.  Once he is asleep, she is to uncover his feet and do as he says.
     I said that the story is like Game of Thrones or Outlander.  It is more so like the latter, but it has some good sexual innuendo in it.  The Hebrew word for feet is also the Hebrew word for another part of the male body.  I see you get the danger of the passage now.  Naomi may well be pimping her daughter out for their mutual security.  Such was the likely outcome of widows.
     We already know, though, that Boaz is a righteous guy.  We have been told that, and his actions have backed up what has been described to us.  He has told the men not to harass Ruth.  He has told them to share their water with her.  Heck, he has even given her as much as five gallons worth of grain for gleaning!  Nevertheless, hearing this story for the first time, we should probably hold our breath.  What will he do?  When Boaz wakens and finds Ruth at his “feet,” he blesses her for what she has done.  On the righteous hand, she has loved Naomi enough to have offered herself to Boaz so that he might redeem Naomi and her family by giving her a son.  On the other hand, she has trusted Naomi even to the point of prostituting herself to care for her mother-in-law.  She has defied common sense and normal relationships.  She has come to truly care for the mother of her husband, the lady who instructed her in the love and grace of the Lord.
     Boaz does not seem to think himself to be quite the catch.  He is neither young nor rich nor hunky.  Ruth, in his mind, should have been chasing after young men, wealthier men, or more handsome men.  She has chosen instead to trust the advice of her mother-in-law.  But a problem remains.  There is a kinsman who is closer to Naomi than Boaz.  Before Boaz can redeem his kinswoman, this closer relative needs to give up the right in front of the elders at the gates.
     Boaz may be righteous, but he is nobody’s fool.  He seeks out the kinsman and asks if he has heard that Naomi is back and that her sons are dead.  The implication is, of course, that the old woman needs someone to care for her and to try and father a child on her for poor Elimelech.  The kinsman wants nothing to do with the cursed hag mentioned by Boaz.  So Boaz offers to redeem his kinswoman in this guy’s stead, as well as the Moabite hanger-on.  For different reasons, both are excited to do this in front of the elders at the gate.  The closer kinsman wants freed of his responsibilities to Naomi.  Boaz wants to marry the faithful beautiful daughter-in-law of Naomi. 
     Plots, intrigue, some comedy, a little sex—the story seems right out of prime time network television, does it not?  In the most amazing way, God answers Boaz’ prayer.  Never in a million years did he think himself anyone’s answered prayer; yet God used him to redeem the family of Naomi and Elimelech.  Both lived happily ever after, it seems, yet we are given an amazing footnote.  Boaz did indeed know his wife and she conceived a son.  His name was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.
     For her faithfulness, this Moabite widow is not only grafted into the vine of Israel, but she becomes one of the matriarchs of the Holy Family.  Yes, the town to which Ruth and Naomi returned was Bethlehem.  Yes, Ruth is the grandmother of David, the king of Israel.  More amazingly to a foreign widow and to us, she now stands in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David.
     The story is a beautiful story and full of twists and turns and humor and sadness.  On the surface, it is about the kinsman redeemer of Israel, the Go’el.  None of Israel was to be dispossessed of their land.  To be dispossessed from the land was equated with being cut off from the promises of God.  Whenever tragedy befell families, God expected kinsmen to alleviate the suffering and eventually produce an heir, if possible, for the ones dispossessed.  It is a simple and complex rule and was followed by the righteous and ignored by those who did as they saw fit. 
     Family dynamics are . . . .interesting, are they not?  Most families, it seems to me, excel in putting the fun into dysfunction.  But what we call dysfunction, God calls normal.  Every family has its difficulties.  Sometimes it is a black sheep; sometimes it is someone who besmirches the name of the family by their actions.  We like to think such black sheep are distant cousins or weird aunts and uncles.  But, with the holidays on the horizon, let’s be real.  Some are far more closer to our immediate families than distant cousins or odd aunts or goofy uncles.  Some are brothers, some are sisters, and some are seen by us in our mirrors.
     At the deeper level, though, the story of Ruth speaks to all our need for a Go’el, a kinsman redeemer.  We all need someone who will rescue our families from whatever systemic sin we find ourselves rooted.  The story of Ruth speaks to that frailty, that weakness we all share with the One who came down from heaven and called Himself the Son of Man.  At the deeper level, Jesus took on that title and uses this story to remind each and every one of us that He is our brother who has redeemed us.  When we should have been cut off, when we should have been abandoned, He stepped in and adopted us into that same family that now counts among its matriarchs and patriarchs Ruth and Boaz.  When we were the drunken uncle, when we were the crazy aunt that could not stop pinching cheeks, when we were the black sheep who hung out with the wrong crowd, introduced substances to our bodies that had no business being there, or sought comfort in the arms of one after another, He stepped in and reminded us that we were loved, that we were invited into this amazing holy family, that we could be white sheep, while retaining some of the unique characteristics that made us us.  And the relationship He offers us is not one of tolerance, not one of “I only have to deal with you on special occasions like holidays,” but rather one of love!  How do we know this?  Because He died for us, knowing all our faults, long before we ever came to know and understand Him.  He died for us even when we were fighting against Him!
     And what does He ask of us?  Everything and nothing.  In one sense, becoming a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is as simple as asking Him to come into our hearts and to rule our lives.  When we sin against God or neighbors, we repent and try again.  He has already born the true cost of our forgiveness on the Cross.  On the other hand, though, becoming a disciple of Jesus, becoming a follower of the Lord, is the most difficult thing you and I will ever do.  Accepting that relationship means that we become His hands and feet and voice in the world, a world which wants nothing to do with Him or us.  Accepting that relationship means that we begin to live as if we believe the things He taught are true.  Boaz had every reason not to want to father a grandson for Naomi.  As a faithful man, he no doubt felt some twinge of guilt about marrying a Moabite woman as go’el.  Yet, he also had the witness of Ruth’s service to Naomi before him.  He knew she was different that her sister.  He knew she placed her trust in her mother-in-law and, far more importantly, in her God of Israel.  Knowing he was no looker and no longer young, Boaz likely understood there would be whispers and laughter at the man being taken advantage of by the Moabitess.  But he was determined to follow God and serve him in all that he did.  How he treated the poor and aliens before Ruth entered the picture is clear enough to us.  And God blessed his faithfulness in ways this humble, faithful man could never have expected.
     That same relationship is offered by our Lord to each one of us.  Our Lord stands ready to redeem each one of us, not as a slave, not as a servant, but as a friend, a brother, and a sister.  Our Lord stands ready to serve us even as He asks us to serve Him.  Brothers and sisters, each of us has incredible misery in our lives.  Were we honest and truthful with each other, we would all know, way down deep inside, that we are in a real way unlovable.  Still, He loved us and died for us and offers to redeem us.  All those secrets He knows, and still He suffered to redeem us!
     His love for us will not make the hurt magically go away.  Our decision to follow Him will in no way end all our suffering in this world.  But our decision to follow Him, just like Boaz’, will have incredible opportunity for redemption in our lives.  He will give meaning to the senseless in our lives.  He will give value to the valuelessness of our lives.  He will sanctify and redeem that which the world claims is not.  And for our faithfulness, for our willingness to pick up a cross and follow Him, He will give us rewards even greater than Boaz received, for all eternity.  That’s what it means to be THE GO’EL.