Out of this World, The Servanthood of Jesus

john 18 image*Sermon preached on 25 Nov 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  People are amazing teachers, if we are observant.  I was always grateful to CAPT Polatty for his support of the chaplains aboard the INDY, and how he opened a whole new door to ministry for me our of our times at Captain’s Mast.  And, his wife, Nancy, will always have a part of my heart for her kindness to Julie.  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of John 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

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INTRODUCTION

Two or three times a week, during my first assignment in the Navy I would stand on the hard steel plates of the navigation bridge, on the starboard – right side – of the main bridge from which my carrier INDEPENDENCE was commanded.  That was when and where “Captain’s Mast” was held, a disciplinary proceeding that addresses less severe infractions… such as disrespect, sleeping on duty, missing ship’s movement, minor theft, and so on.  More of a hearing, my skipper would listen to the chain of command which had brought charges, the witnesses, the judge advocate, the master-at-arms, and, of course, the sailor.  Judgement would be rendered, either a dismissal of charges  or a conviction and sentence which might include pay being taken, restriction imposed, time in the brig, reduction in rank… all or some of them.

One of my skippers spent a lot of energy getting to what had actually happened, the plain facts, and what had gone through the mind of the particular sailor.  Sometimes, CAPT Polatty set aside punishment in favor of the sailor being sent to me for counseling, so that whatever was really bothering the sailor which had been acted out in misconduct, could be worked through and not mess up their career.  Extremely fair, he used the proceedings more for correction than accountability – which is why about a third of the sailors he referred me.  I took note of how he was interested in the deeper truth, as we stood upon those painted steel plates.

Not everyone is interested in that deeper truth.  Sometimes, we recognize that instead there is a whole other agenda in play.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

So if questions permeate the interaction between Jesus and Pilate, a scene with two distinct agendas in conflict, it’s quickly clear it’s Jesus who is running this exchange and the nature of Jesus’ kingship will take shape in truth of crucifixion rather than in deceit of political dominance.

FOR INSTANCE

Ever since the temptation in the desert, Jesus has been clear – he will not operate along the lines others attempted to lay out for him to follow.  We may recall how in the 6th chapter, Jesus fed 5,000 in a miraculous event, and in response they attempted to seize and compel him to be their king.  Not unlike the angry crowd at his hometown synagogue, Jesus simply slipped through them; holding fast to a truth they do not comprehend – his kingdom will not be in the form of this world’s expectations.  Nor will he be seduced by their pleas, no more than he was by Satan’s in the temptation that he faced at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the desert.

Jesus will bring about a reign unlike any ruler they are accustomed to in the, unfortunately, checkered history of Israel’s kings and rulers.  As one writer has observed, Jesus is well-aware “…we tend to enslave ourselves to cynical rulers for whom power and coercion are synonyms, so long as they satisfy our bellies and require no sacrifice.”  The reign of Jesus will be different, and it’s that very difference which comes to the fore in today’s reading.

The accusers of Jesus know something of Pilate and his aspirations for power.  Let’s face it, in the Roman world this was a stepping stone assignment, even for a “Friend of the Emperor.”

Too far from Rome and the true levers of power.

Too much the dubious duty of being in charge of a contentious people whose monotheistic religion had previously led them to throw off foreign rule, under the Maccabees.

Pressed, Pilate finally decides to take a hard look at whether this Jesus person is a political threat to Roman authority, as he asks the first of four very brief questions:  “Are you king of the Jews?”  I would imagine it would have surprised him when Jesus answers his question with a question, surrendering no ground to Pilate.  It even appears to put him on the defensive, as Jesus asks: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

In effect, was Pilate set up by the religious authorities to spar with Jesus like some weird psychological game referred to as “Let’s you and him fight”?  At some level, yes.  In Jesus, they had encountered one who will not play by their distorted rules which makes for a disordered Creation.  He’s a threat, one that they seek to use Pilate to confront, and he seems to use them right back, in the irony of his rhetorical question back to Jesus, saying “I’m not a Jew, am I?” 

If we step just beyond the somewhat arbitrary ending of today’s reading, we would hear Pilate asking his second rhetorical question of the day: “What is Truth?” as he takes two actions denying the Truth which is Jesus –

A robe of royal purple is ordered cast upon Jesus as a way to mock him and at the same time, mock those religious leaders who thought they controlled Pilate.  He had this done on the very day before the Passover sabbath, when the attendants in the Temple would be expected to sing: “The Lord is king and has put on glorious garments, the Lord has put on his garments and has wrapped himself around with strength, ever since the world began has your seat been prepared.”

And, an ironic placard was placed above the head of Jesus.  On the day when the religious leaders had declared “The emperor is our only king!” Pilate’s words would seem to ridicule them as well when he announced Jesus as “The King of the Jews,” with a crown not of gold, silver and gems – but one of thorns which do seem to echo the spirits of the religious leaders who had sought Jesus’ death.

Now if Pilate appears the bad guy, he has company in the defacto partnership with the religious authorities.  This offers an insight into what happens when those of faith so confuse their faith with earthly power that they live as though “The emperor is our only king!” instead of Jesus.  It’s to share the same cynical, self-absorbed perspective as to how the world should operate.

However, as scriptures don’t exist in a fixed moment of time, but speak across the centuries, on this Sunday before the start of Advent, we are confronted with these words from the Gospel of John, as to the meaning of the reign of Christ.  It gives us an opportunity to step back and do some soul-searching, if we are to see Jesus as truly authoritative in our lives and ponder anew as to how that should guide us and our influence upon the larger society.

I’ll be honest, the interaction between Pilate and Jesus presents some real parallels within our own nation which cannot be ignored, and the choices of who we are as followers of Jesus.  So think about this for a moment and what seems familiar in our observation of our current times… as to how life is to actually be ordered in the reign of Christ.

If Pilate would use his power and authority for selfish ends without concern for either the building up or the sustainment of community, then the kingdom Jesus proclaims creates and nurtures a community that is guided by love and truth.

If Pilate would hoard his power without concern for righteousness, even if it meant destroying another upon a cross or otherwise, then Jesus empowers his disciples, while demonstrating his authority rests in service to one another – even washing the feet of those he leads and giving the last of his life to bring forth life.

If Pilate in the midst of otherwise calm would misuse the mechanisms of the state’s military to enhance his own power, then Jesus comes to bring peace through the power of inclusive acceptance and forgiveness.

If Pilate knew that his tenuous authority came from the will of Caesar, then Jesus’ eternal authority comes from the humility of doing the will of God.

If Pilate and those who emulate him in the quest for earthly power would use words and violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations, then Jesus’ followers would hold up a different vision, throwing open the doors with the invitation to the kingdom’s banquet table found by way of the door which is the very Cross – here being the place where we may live out his prayer to be as one as He and the Father are one.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?  As we prepare this week to approach the season of Advent which heralds the reign of Christ, we aren’t in trouble standing before the mast although there is a Christmas tree in the near future!  But certainly we are invited to seek that deeper truth, to ask the thoughtful, discerning questions of ourselves, of the larger church, of our nation even – like my long ago skipper would ask of his sailors so they would find their footing again.  If Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” we know that truth – but what that should world look in Christ then becomes our central question.  We are asked to think about the way we would want our lives, our church, and yes – our society, to reflect the kindness and mercy of our Lord, the gift of God’s love and the way of life found in the servanthood of Jesus

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  My apologies for being so far behind on posting.  Credit to where credit is due, I did make use of some insights from “Commentary on John 18:33-37,” by Jaime Clark-Soles.  25 November 2012, accessed at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1490 

Hold Fast

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered

*Sermon preached on 18 Nov 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  These are challenging scriptures, but then they speak to challenging times… times that can rattle us and cause us to forget what truly grounds us in life, as those of faith.  That is the nature of scripture, it is always relevant!  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of Mark 13:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.   When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Letter to the Hebrews 10:11-25 (New Revised Standard Version)

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.”  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.  And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:  I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.  Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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INTRODUCTION

It was not long after I had started as a student minister to three rural congregations, when on one sunny Sunday morning that Fall, I came up the steps of a Victorian gingerbread church, greeting the men all gathered there and shaking hands.  It was then that one older gentleman said to me, “The Bible says you’re supposed to shave before you come into God’s temple.”  I wasn’t if I’d heard what I thought, so I asked him to repeat what he had just said, and I had indeed heard correctly.

I stood before him with a close-cropped beard about like now, absent of my present-day white hair, thinking what had I walked into, but then I noticed the reactions on the others and I relaxed.

He was on his own, and over the course of the next three years he would say this again to me on more occasions.  In those pre-Google days, sometime in my first year, thinking somehow I had overlooked an obscure verse buried in the 1100 pages of the Bible, so I finally decided to risk revealing that I didn’t have the Bible memorized.

I asked him where it was written about needing to be clean-shaven.

It was then that I discovered that he had contorted a verse from II Samuel into a rule that actually stood in contrast to the Levitical requirement to not shave – except as a sign of defeat or mourning.  And so on more that one occasion, I had to restrain my sarcastic wit from a rejoinder twisting another of David’s acts into an axiom, one that would have done nothing for either of us.

Well, I kept my beard… except for the later 24-year stretch in the Navy.

It gets tricky sometimes, reading God’s Word, and doing so as to not impose our own understanding upon what is written.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Yet, here stands this morning, the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, a letter unlike any others in the New Testament, with its challenge to live in hope, and more.

FOR INSTANCE

If there is any book more densely and eloquently written within the New Testament, than Hebrews, I don’t know which it would be.  Written before the destruction on the Temple in 70 AD, since it refers to the ongoing sacrifices being offered by the temple’s High Priest, the Letter to the Hebrews does not identify its author, unlike the rest of the New Testament books.  Some have wanted to ascribe it to Paul, but it isn’t his writing style, with its distinct theological thrust and spirituality.  And, let’s face it, Paul was the “John Hancock” of his day, always making sure it was clear in his letters that he authored them as an apostle of Jesus Christ.  No such signature line of his exists in this letter.

Even the ancient church historian Eusebius, writing in the mid-second century, only hazarded a guess that it might have been written by Bishop Clement, in spite of its different writing style than any of Clement’s existing letters of the late first century and other factors.

Hebrews may reflect, as one church historian has remarked, “a deliberate blackout more than a case of collective loss of memory.”  So if it has also been speculated it was by Barnabas, who had accompanied Paul on missionary journeys, or Apollos of whom Paul spoke of… my money is on Priscilla, a clear leader in Rome.  Given the preponderance of women disciples, prophetesses, and leaders denoted in the Gospels and Paul’s letters to the first generation church, and then their complete disappearance from the recorded scene after the death of the last apostle, all I can think of is a remark on the matter as a “conspiracy of anonymity in the ancient church.”  All of this may be why one reason early Christian writers and historians noted its difficulty in being accepted as part of the Christian canon that would become the New Testament.

So what do we know…

We do know is that its audience was to Jewish Christians, likely a small home church in Rome, where there was a large Jewish population in the Diaspora.

We do know is that things were getting challenging for them.  The Emperor Nero had arisen and public harassment, imprisonment, and confiscation of property had begun, and eventually it would include move toward martyrdom.  It was darkening times, indeed.

We do know that of such times Jesus had spoken, as in our reading from Mark when he and the disciples were departing from the Temple complex.  One disciple, impressed with the imposing structures, had said: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!,” to which Jesus replied: “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Winter was coming.  There were no flames or Roman armies yet laying siege, but Jerusalem would indeed fall, and even the behemoth stones as much as 80-tons, would be thrown down.

It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, and yet we may recall how 12 years ago amid the banking crisis the idea that they were “too big to fail” came crashing to earth along with our economy.

It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, just as much as it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the terrible fires currently sweeping through California, laying waste to more than 231 square miles of forests and fields, with two towns destroyed, almost 12,000 structures burned, something like 1,000 people missing, and 71 found dead… even as volunteers continue the tough task of sifting through ashes in search of others’ remains.

It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, and yet we only have to look at how ours and how in a short space of time it’s been reshaped by the politics of some so that we appear to be an embittered land of plenty, one that perverts the goodness of our land and people into something to be subtracted from, lifting up those who would tear down and not build, destroy and not create, use up and not give…

– with immigrants cast as takers, instead of the builders whom they are;

– with non-Christians cast as unworthy, instead of honored as those also created in God’s image;

– with insurance for those with pre-existing health issues treated as not an obligation of our society, in a twisted form of victim-blaming;

– with students seeking a better life being held ransom, with loanshark interest rates making them all but indentured servants;

– with people of color finding themselves recast as somehow not worthy of the 14th Amendment’s protection, instead of people also endowed with the same inalienable rights as the rest of us;

– with environmental concerns as something to be cast aside in the name of profits, with land, air and sea polluted, as though the generations to come are owed nothing.

Yet, it is precisely against this incomprehensible, that we hear Jesus can say “Do not be alarmed,” even as he gives us these words of caution:  “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”  As Paul wrote to Timothy in the 4th chapter of his letter, “ For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”  And so it is we now see such things as the heresy of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” distorting scriptures and ignoring others to justify a theology and lifestyle of building bigger barns, while blaming those who suffer as somehow deserving of it.”

Yet, it is precisely against the incomprehensible, that the word of Hebrews calms us, saying: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  We are empowered by His word, His hope, His love – to make this covenant apparent through the living of our lives, in contrast and challenge to the forces of confusion.

Yet, it is precisely against the incomprehensible, we are reminded “…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Embedded in the Greek words in which this is written is the understanding that whether here on Sunday morning or wherever – we are ALWAYS a gathered community in Christ, for what is mistranslated as “church” in most English Bibles, isn’t something we go to, IT IS WHO WE ARE..  We as Christians, cannot forsake our assembly because we’re always assembled before God as those literally referred to as the “called out” of the community to become members of the body of Christ in the world.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?  Tucked into the rich words of Hebrews, the writer adds, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

Every Sunday I enjoy looking upon the sailing ship in the stained glass, not just because I was a sailor, but because it’s a reminder of this congregation’s heritage rooted at one time near the shipyard.  It reminds me of how in days past, sailors working the rigging of sailing ships would often have their knuckles tattooed with just two words on the four front-facing fingers of each hand:  “Hold Fast.”  A way to remember they weren’t going to let go, no matter what.

Amen,

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A Love That Won’t Let Go

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered*Sermon preached on 11 Nov 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  It was good to be back in the pulpit this past Sunday after break due to some health issues. I am very grateful for the kindness of many, especially my congregation in giving me time to recover from pneumonia.  Ruth has always intrigued me as a person, perhaps because there is this circa 1860 painting of Ruth that I grew up with in our home.  It only shows her face from an oblique angle and there is just something powerful in the image.  As for the reading, I would encourage you to read not just the portion in the lectionary, but the whole distance from Ruth 3:1 to 4:17.  Blessings, Vinson

Book of Ruth 3:1-5 & 4:13-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.  Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.   Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”  She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.  Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!  He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”  Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.  The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

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INTRODUCTION

In William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V (Act IV, Scene III), the king gives a rousing speech before battle as some perceive odds that do not favor the English army against the larger French force.  Key among the king’s words are these:

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered –

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

These words have ruminated in my mind of late, not because of the approach of Veterans Day, which has fallen on our sabbath this year, the 100th anniversary of the end to the “war to end all wars” – as in vain hope still.  No, I thought of these words because I fell ill, and illness is a discouraging thing especially when one is not inclined to just sit back and watch life go by.  I had asked for prayer from a long-time friend from my years of providing pastoral care for the East Coast SEAL team.  We had worked together to care for families of deploying SEALs.  Then I got a call from one SEAL, then another, as word passed, each calling to check on me.  One I hadn’t heard from in almost 19 years; it didn’t matter and it was like no time had passed.  From each I heard not just words of encouragement, but wise counsel – sharing their observations of the challenge of transitioning from the intensity of wearing the nation’s cloth, to that of the more measured pace of civilian life.  There was empathy.  There was understanding.  There was insight.  From other directions, a former corpsman quietly ordered me a special pillow to ease my back pain, as another sailor reminded me in a text message: “you are stuck with me” when making sure I had what I needed.  Those who’ve been in harm’s way with another or handled the stateside messy, traumatic events together, often discover a deep trust in one another, a bond as tight or tighter, than family.

Yet, I have found such relationships of loyalty are hardly exclusive to those in uniform, not from what I’ve observed of people.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I think this is where the Book of Ruth offers such keen insight.  Among the most cherished words of the Psalmists and scattered throughout the Old Testament, is “hesed” – literally it means “loyal love.”  Even if that word wasn’t used in the earlier books of the Old Testament, such as Ruth, it certainly defines the relationship between Ruth and Naomi wherein loyalty is elevated to a virtue, for it speaks to kindness between people, their piety towards God, and God’s love towards His people.  It’s a love that just won’t let go.

FOR INSTANCE

Against this backdrop of self-evident “hesed” through the earlier chapters of the Book of Ruth, Naomi is bereft of both husband and her sons, cut off from a future in a society where widows had an exceptionally hard life.  Yet, she is so concerned for Ruth’s own circumstances that Naomi’s first instinct is to turn Ruth back toward her own people, the Moabites, and not let her travel back with her to Israel.  She wants good for her, but Ruth will not leave her side.

Having lost her husband, clearly a man with a challenging life as his name meant “sickly,” on the face of it Ruth’s prospects might have appeared better if she stayed with her own people.  Instead, amid this new life in Israel, quite aware that Moabites weren’t a people respected by the Israelites as those born of Lot’s incestuous relationship by one of his daughters and being viewed as worshippers of idols, Ruth would have seemed to be on the bottom rung of society.

However, like my friend reminding me I am “stuck with” him for life, Ruth would not be dissuaded.

And so, in today’s reading, having arrived among the kinfolk of Naomi as the barley harvest had begun, focused just upon the hope of survival, they found an unexpected hope and prosperity.  Having arrived upon the wheat harvest, now two months later it was of barley.  As a just man, Boaz followed the Levitical laws which meant leaving a portion of the crop upon the ground so that the poor and the widows might glean what remained.  Thus, it was to his fields Ruth turned.

As the story goes, folks soon take note of Ruth’s character, this remarkable loyal love she possesses for her mother-in-law Naomi.  As we’d say back when I was active duty, Ruth shows herself as all heart and no quit.  Her reputation builds.  Character indeed matters and even among strangers, some folk just stand out among the crowd, and Ruth is no exception.

There are interactions, Boaz having gone so far as to bless this Moabite woman in God’s name and be a word of encouragement to her.  But then the story moves into an interesting plot twist, for if Ruth is loyal to Naomi, so Naomi is utterly loyal to Ruth.  A plan develops in Naomi’s mind, thus Ruth arrived late in the day, clean and perfumed, in the final moments of separating the barley from the chaff that left seed upon the stone floor of the typically high tower built to catch the late afternoon and early evening winds typical of that area.  The evening meal had been consumed and Boaz rested, not knowing Ruth laid down close by him, per Naomi’s instructions.

Admittedly, I get the impression Boaz has held back from taking an initiative in the relationship.  Clearly he has taken notice of this unusual woman, one that preceding chapters note he has even given instruction that his harvesters be sloppy so even more grain is left for her to glean.  Maybe such hesitation is borne of his own grief, for something the Book of Ruth doesn’t mention but which is raised by a midrash of some rabbis some two millennium ago.  In this explanation, the crowd that met Naomi and Ruth upon their arrival from Moab was actually a funeral procession for the wife of Boaz who died earlier that day, their entrance giving the people a moment of joy amid their grief.  In this story, Boaz is identified as the judge Ibzan in the Book of Judges (the 12th chapter), the book which precedes Ruth.  In this story, we have a widower, who like the suffering Job, was berefit of his wife and children, which explains the absence in Ruth of the mention of a wife and children to Boaz, though otherwise a prosperous man.

If this is indeed the backdrop against this night, it would explain the energy behind Boaz’s awaking with surprise that a woman is beside him, demanding to know who it is, and the poignancy of  Ruth, in what one commenter notes as probably one of the least romantic marriage proposals in scripture: she directs Boaz to spread his cloak, literally his “wings,” over her.

Notice what Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”  For Boaz, clearly is neither, as he adds “And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.”  Her character is well-known, her loyalty to Naomi has set her apart, for had she not been so loyal, Ruth would have naturally sought out a younger man.  Against this, Boaz’s prior refrain from seeking her hand is shown as rooted in his own character, an inferred kindness in not wanting her to be obligated to a marriage she did not want for herself.

If her loyalty to Naomi led Ruth to leave her homeland behind, toil without fail for her welfare, and risk both herself and her reputation in order to create a future for Naomi – we can see it’s the very admiration of such a steadfast loyalty that results in something greater than security for two widows, an heir for Elimelech and son for Boaz.  It is something which brings a delight to the whole community, what would become the genesis of the eventual Davidic dynasty that will rule Judah for four hundred years.

It is no small wonder that such a value for loyal love would be a heritage that would echo down the generations.  Certainly it is echoed in the words of Solomon, the great-grandson of Ruth, in the opening words of the 3rd chapter of Proverbs, wherein it is written:

1My child, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments;
for length of days and years of life
and abundant welfare they will give you.

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good repute
in the sight of God and of people.

Let’s be honest, sometimes such loyal love might be better expressed as stubborn love.  It just cannot be shaken off.  Doesn’t that reveal it to be a form of grace?

Now, imagine if you will a community in which this wasn’t remarkable, something that goes even beyond the eloquent words of Shakespeare in writing of such shared loyalty of King Henry’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

SO WHAT?

I have some observations of what this would look like among us and how it would shape our relationships.

I think about the kindness extended toward me as a pastor when, well, I ran into some health issues made worse by me trying to push past them – only to be cared for by ya’ll.  That isn’t a given for pastors, not at all, to be vulnerable and yet safe.

I think about last Sunday and those whose lives we lifted up in thankfulness on All Saints Day, and those who in a myriad of ways cared for them during their decline in health… advocating for them with medical providers, supporting them in prayers and presence and more.

I think about the people who come to eat in our fellowship hall, some familiar now and others new, and how people of this church dedicate untold hours of preparation, of service, of feeding and cleaning.

I think about so many things I hear of, stumble across, or just never know of, but which evidence such loyal love within this community of faith.

Isn’t that what we are called to be as disciples of Jesus?  Are not we called to amaze and transform the world – “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters)”… as we share the Lord and extend his invitation to a whole new family?

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Pastor’s Note:  In addition to the commentaries off my shelf, I found this an intriguing article from the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Ruth:  Midrash and Aggadah,” by Tamar Meir.  Accessed 09 Nov 2018 at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Ruth-midrash-and-aggadah