Take Heart

Take Heart

Jesus was on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. This was his last journey. In Jerusalem he would be arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, and executed. He had to pass through Jericho on his way. Jericho is an ancient City that claims to be the oldest walled City in the world. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of walls that date back to 9,500 BCE. Jericho was a City before there was writing at the very dawn of the age of agriculture.

Today’s lesson is about a blind beggar in Jericho by the name of Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus. In many gospel stories the names of persons who were healed are omitted. The inclusion of the name Bartimaeus and even the name of his father suggests the possibility that this blind beggar indeed followed Jesus to Jerusalem, was a witness of the crucifixion and resurrection, and he became a member of the early church.

Jesus’ reputation had preceded him, for when Bartimaeus was told that the commotion passing by his begging place by the City Gate was Jesus and his entourage, Bartimaeus began crying out using the messianic title: “Jesus Son of David have mercy upon me! Jesus Son of David have mercy upon me!”

Our story tries to teach us something about faith, for when the bystanders told Bartimaeus to “shut-up,” he called out all the more. Persistence in prayer can remind us of Jesus’ Parable of the Friend at Midnight, who got what he wanted, not because he was a friend, but because of his continual knocking at the door – ask, seek, knock. Bartimaeus finally got Jesus’ attention, and Jesus said, “call him.” And now the people who previously told Bartimaeus to “shut-up,” said, “take heart; rise; he is calling you.”

How easily we move from despair to hope, or hope to despair. Persisting faith is the bridge that can see us across the chasms of hopelessness. Take heart indeed. Without the heart of hope we die. Take heart!

Please notice that Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question in this week’s lesson, he asked James and John in last week’s lesson: “What do you want me to do for you?” Maybe that is the question each one of us needs to be able to hear Jesus asking of us? “What do you want me to do for you?” If we can articulate what we would like to happen, we begin to be able to claim greater happiness. When we articulate the desires of our heart, we have the opportunity to decide whether or not we really want those things. Sometimes, when we finally succeed in articulating our desires, we realize how foolish or impossible are our wishes.

Other times when we express the longings of our hearts we have to acknowledge the price we might have to pay to realize those dreams. It is like the woman who came up to the great pianist Paderewski after a concert and said, “Oh I would give my life to be able to play like that.”

And Paderewski replied, “I have, I have.”

Articulating the desires of our hearts also helps us to establish priorities. So often, we allow our true goals to get lost in the mad scramble of daily living, and the push and pull of everyone else’s wants and needs. If we are clear about our priorities, we will not come to the end of our lives regretting we never really did what we wanted to do.

Articulating the deepest longings of our hearts can lead us to pray. And when we pray about the desires of our hearts we become open to hearing God’s plans and priorities. And since we will never rest until we rest in God’s heart, we will ultimately come to terms with what God wants for our lives.

Bartimaeus wanted his eye sight, and he was willing to say he wanted to be healed. The most important question physicians need to ask is: “Do you want to be healed?” Healing is possible when we ask, and when we understand what the costs of healing will be. Healing isn’t magic. We transform our lives in order to bring our spirits more in line with God. Healing usually involves, changes to diet, exercise, habits and addictions, even sometimes our patterns of thought. Many changes we have to make are hard. We won’t be able to initiate those changes without God’s help.

Pastorally, I know that if someone seeks help, sometimes I can help them. But when people expect the pastor or the counselor or the physician to help them, without their asking for assistance, there is very little that can be done to help them find healing. Do we want to be healed? Are we willing to acknowledge we are sick and in need of a physician? Jesus can help us, when we ask in prayer.

When Bartimaeus was finally healed, Jesus told him, “your faith has made you well.” Healing is not some magical trick, it is the calling forth of the healing power that already resides within us.

There is an old Hassidic tale about Rabbi Izaak of Cracow. One night in a dream he was told to go to faraway Prague and there to dig for a hidden treasure under the bridge that led to the palace of the King. He did not take the dream seriously, but when it recurred four nights in a row, he made up his mind to go search for the treasure.

When Izaak arrived in Prague he discovered to his dismay that the bridge was heavily guarded by soldiers, and all he could do was walk past the bridge hoping for some opportunity to explore underneath it. After a couple of days, the Captain of the guard approached Rabbi Izaak to question him about why he was spending so much time around the bridge.

Rabbi Izaak was embarrassed and confided his dream to the Captian of the Guard. The Captain roared with laughter and said, “Good heavens! What a silly man to take dreams so seriously! Why, if I were stupid enough to act on my own dreams, I would be in Cracow right now. I have a dream that recurs that in the corner of the kitchen underneath the stove of a poor Jew named Izaak there is a buried treasure. Can you think of anything sillier than that?”

Rabbi Izaak was stunned. He thanked the Captain for his advice, hurried home, dug up the corner of his kitchen and found the treasure. The treasure was his all along right there under his stove, but he had leave Cracow and go to Prague to find it.

Just so, the gifts of God are already within us. The talents, the strength, and the capacity to surmount hardship and challenge, the faith is already within us. As Jesus says, “our faith has made us well.” The ability to transform our lives is within us, we just have to ask and we will receive, knock and it will be opened, seek and we will find. We may need to go on a journey before we find the treasures within ourselves, but the gifts are there, if we open ourselves to ask Jesus and if we listen to our dreams.

So what journey do we need to make to find the treasure within? Maybe we might undertake a pilgrimage to a holy place like the Holy Land, or a journey back to the places of our childhood, or we might climb a sacred mountain, or take a simple walk in the woods.

The labyrinth is a symbol of the spiritual journey. Walking the labyrinth can be a pilgrimage to our spiritual center. Like life the path twists and turns, and if we persevere the journey will bring us to our spiritual center, where the gifts of the spirit reside: faith, hope and love. We set out on the journey with the promise that the gifts are already ours, if we can open ourselves to the God’s presence within us. On Thursday evening November 1 around the sharing table we will discuss the use of the labyrinth for the spiritual journey.  We will have our mini-three circuit labyrinth unfolded for people to try.  We will try using an eleven circuit finger labyrinth like the design in the Chartres Cathedral which has been reproduced on the backside of your hymn insert this

Now some people will claim that labyrinths and spiritual journeys and disciplines of prayer don’t make any common sense to them. Spiritual exercises are like flights of fancy – nonsense. But you know what? Common sense isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. It can be useful sometimes, but common sense cannot save us. Common sense would tell us that life doesn’t mean anything because we’re just all gonna die anyway. Life sucks and then you die! Perhaps the most important gift we can discover within ourselves is hope, because without hope we die. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Maybe if we ask, Jesus can restore our eyesight, our spiritual eyesight, our ability to see past the material things around us to be able to perceive the spiritual realities we miss, because we are so focused on being practical. Jesus points us in the direction of the commonwealth of God, the community of sharing, and Jesus says, “Hey folks, real life is relationships and sharing – relationship and sharing with God and other people through the community of faith.”

So take heart! Nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God. Life is good! Life has meaning! In Christ is our hope! Take heart!


Bible Study October 29 for Worship November 11

Bible Study October 29 for Worship November 11

Ruth 3:1  Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?

2  Now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.

3  Wash therefore 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.

4  But 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.”

5  And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”

Ruth 4:13  So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.

14  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!

15  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.”

16  Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.

17  And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

COMMENTARY

Ruth is a charming, human and very earthy story.  Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, and Naomi’s kinsmen recognize her and greet her.  But Naomi, who is still deeply in grief says, “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for I am very bitter over my losses.”  But Naomi cannot remain paralyzed by her grief.  She had already picked up and moved from Moab back to Bethlehem in order to survive, and like other survivors, she soon has a plan to try to secure her and her daughter-in-law’s future.

Naomi was a wise woman.  She recognized Ruth’s beauty and sent her daughter-in-law to glean in the fields of a relative in hopes that Ruth might be “noticed.”  When Ruth was indeed noticed by Boaz, Naomi makes plans to take advantage of the situation.  “Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?”

So Naomi had Ruth take a bath, put all of the moisturizer and perfume on her they had left,  washed Ruth’s best outfit, and sent her to Boaz’s threshing floor in the evening with instructions.  “Go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  But 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.”

For sensitive or prudish ears, this part of the story may be too risqué.  Feet in the ancient Hebrew was often a euphemism for genitals.  Naomi and Ruth were using time honored feminine strategy for survival.  Neither Ruth or Naomi, because they were female could make a claim to Elimelech’s land, but Boaz as a male kinsmen could.   As it turned out there was another kinsmen who was a closer relative who was ugly and not nearly as nice as Boaz, who could have claimed Elimelch’s land, if he was willing to marry Naomi or Ruth, so there is in the story a moment of suspense.  Will the two, now lovers, be able to marry?  (Marilyn Puett should write this up as a Romance.)  As it turns out the nearer relative would love to have had Elimelech’s land, but he didn’t want the added complication of incorporating two additional women into his family.  He wanted big land but not big love.  So Boaz was able to claim Ruth as his bride and Naomi then had a place in the household.

Naomi ceased to be Mara for her bitterness was gone, and when Ruth gave birth to a son, Naomi became the caregiver prompting her friends to say:  “A son has been born to Naomi.”  All’s well that ends well.  From death and grief Naomi is restored to life and joy.  And one reason the story was remembered is that Ruth was the great-grandmother of the Great King David.  And that is why the story was finally written down in the time after the exile.  For when the scribes began trying to force men to divorce their foreign wives and disown the children of those unions, the writer of the story was reminding everyone that their greatest King had been the descendant of the marriage of a Hebrew and a Moabite woman.

What do we learn from this story?  Faith is not a bunch of ideas – faith is not beliefs.  Faith is life lived out in relationships – earthy, messy relationships in covenant with other people and ultimately with God.  Faith is Naomi sending Ruth to the threshing floor, Ruth obeying Naomi out of love, and Boaz knowing what to do.  It’s complicated.  And faith is also the assertion that in this very human covenant making God was somehow in the midst of it.  Faith is recovery from grief and restoration of land and promise.  Faith recognizes that great leaders can come from irregular liaisons (just check out Jesus’ pedigree in Matthew chapter 1).  Faith also involves risk taking.  Will Boaz still respect her in the morning?  Will the claim of the nearer kinsmen prevent the two lovers from marrying?  We live by faith and not by sight.  It’s messy!  So all of the play it safe, no nonsense, prove it to me, neat and tidy people just need to get over it!

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. How were Naomi and Ruth feeding themselves?

2. What provision for the poor was made in ancient Israel?

3. Who is Boaz in relationship to Naomi and Ruth?

4. What activity was Boaz engaged in, when Ruth first met him?

5. How did Naomi prepare Ruth for her second encounter with Boaz?

6. With what instructions did Naomi send Ruth to the threshing floor of Boaz?

7. What happened between Ruth and Boaz that night?

8. Who else might have been in the running to become the husband of Ruth?

9. When Ruth marries Boaz what is the deal for Naomi?

10. When Ruth gives birth to a son what is the interpretation placed on the birth by Naomi’s friends?

11. What name was given to the child?

12. Who else was a descendant of Ruth?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Why was the Story of Ruth written down almost 700 years later?

2. How have relationships between men and women changed since the time of Ruth and Boaz?

3. How have families changed since the time of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz?

4. What difference does contraception make in relationships between men and women?

5. How has the economic emancipation of women changed male – female relationships and families?

6. Do you think sexuality plays a role in faith?

7. Do you think the everyday covenants people make are related to God?

8. What kind of risks have you taken in your life?

9. Have you ever experienced being restored in any way?

10. What is the best example you can give from your life of the nature of your faith?

11. Do you think faith is messy?

12. How you do think God feels about earthy?

13. Are there any times in your life, when God has been present?

The week of November 5 – November 11:  Stewardship Sunday – Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 – Risk


Heaven Knows No Hierarchy

Heaven Knows No Hierarchy

The disciples still didn’t get it. The first will be last the last will be first, if you would lead you must become as a servant. They still didn’t get it. Maybe we have a hard time getting it too. James and John were part of the inner most circle of the disciples. When they approached Jesus in this passage they sounded like children: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Whenever my kids tried that one on me, I knew I was in for a wild ride, and I would almost always have to say, “No!”

Jesus was consistent. He answered their question with a question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John were seeking preferment in Jesus’ Kingdom, and to sit at his left and right hand would have made them his chief lieutenants – Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were anticipating personal glory and status. As it turned out, when Jesus entered into his glory there was a thief on his right hand, and a bandit on his left, and rather than mounting a royal throne, he was hanging from a cross.

In this passage Jesus seemed to anticipate his fate. So again he answered James and John with a question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

James and John responded in ignorance: “We are able.” Jesus told James and John, you do not know what you are asking. Of course barely a few weeks later both James and John would abandon Jesus and go into hiding, when Jesus was arrested and nailed to the cross.

I have no room to make judgments about James and John. I am always reminded of my own compromises with the Gospel, my subtle evasions, my lack of genuine authenticity, my failures to love, my cowardice. Am I willing to drink the cup of suffering, or am I along for the ride so long as everything is smooth and easy, and I am promised eternal life?

There are two issues with which this passage challenges us to wrestle. The first issue is hierarchy the human desire for status by creating in our minds ladders of relative worth. We usually want to be able to view ourselves at our near the top of some scale, even if only to note how humble we are. “I’m the most humble person I know.” In the vanity of our imaginations we even try to project our hierarchies on heaven. Like the jokes about people going to heaven, and they are given a tour by St. Peter. When they come to one room, St. Peter asks them all to please be very, very quiet as they pass the room. When the tour finally gets past the room someone asks St. Peter, “how come we had to be so quiet when we walked past that room?

And St. Peter answers, “Oh the Church of Christ, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Seventh Day Adventists, or any other group who believe they are the only ones going to heaven, are in there and we want to let them think they are the only ones here.”

Another way we humans have projected our need for hierarchy onto heaven is to imagine different levels of heaven, hell and purgatory. If you are bad, you go to hell. If you are good, you get to go to heaven. And if you’re not too bad, but not good enough, it’s purgatory. Dante the author of the Divine Comedy even imagined nine different Circles of Hell — assigning different sins and sinners different punishments.

Human beings even tend to project their need for hierarchy on heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, there’s another star in your crown in heaven. I can just imagine folks lining up to get into heaven, and people asking, “How many stars you got?” We just have a tendency to create rank, where there is no status and no need for pretense at all. I think I only truly understood the false consciousness of racism, when I saw a white lady in the 1960’s told there would be African Americans in heaven. And she responded with great vehemence, “If there are African Americans in heaven, then I ain’t a goin’.”

In this passage Jesus is trying to tell us, heaven knows no hierarchy. God loves us all without distinction, and heaven will reflect the universality of God’s abiding love.

Now the other issue with which our scripture asks us to wrestle is sacrifice. When we come to communion, the bread is the Body of Christ broken, the cup is the blood of suffering. The central act of Christian worship communicates that the secret of the Universe is self-sacrificing love. Now let us be clear, self-sacrificing love is not a pathological martyr complex or co-dependency. The Lord’s Supper, however, reminds us at some point in our lives God may ask us to live sacrificially for others. We don’t need to go looking for a hand grenade to throw ourselves upon. We don’t need to go looking for martyrdom. We don’t need to rush out to sacrifice ourselves. Rather, we can recognize, if we follow the way of Jesus, sooner or later we will be asked to embrace some sacrifice for others.

Most often I see self-sacrifice, in the face of illness. A spouse, a partner, a family member, a friend becomes ill, and other people give of themselves to care for the one who is sick. Caregiving, especially for certain kinds of dying can be very difficult and exhausting. Like when my mother and her friend Margaret were comparing notes on caring for aging husbands with cancer, and Margaret said, “Lorena, when they said for better or for worse, they really meant it!”

Our congregation’s caregiving committee tries to extend the care of our congregation to people who are sick, or in trouble. Serving on the caregiving committee requires a sacrifice of time, attention, and concern. Our covenant to pray with and for each other is another covenant of sacrifice — allowing the pain and distress of others enough space in our hearts to respond to them through prayer, visits, calls, cards, encouragement and love. Visiting the very sick and giving them space and time to talk about their dying is another difficult ministry. So often family and friends want to remain in denial about impending death, and to have a friend or loved one with whom a dying person can confide their hopes, their fears, and their faith can be a wonderful gift.

Beyond the call to care for others, I am also aware, when we commit to following the way of Jesus sooner or later God will ask us to do something we don’t want to do. I remember almost forty years ago I was asking a church member in Plattsburgh, New York, if she would do something in the life of the church, and her answer was, “no that’s not my bag.”

This was late in the season of Lent, and I began to wonder, where would we be if in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had turned to God and said, “no God this crucifixion business just isn’t my bag, you go get yourself another messiah.” Again, I don’t think God is asking any of us to be martyred, but I can imagine God is likely to ask some of us to pick up tasks that need to be done, but that we would prefer not to do. And when we pick up those tasks, we understand it is not with the promise of extra stars in our crown. We take up those tasks because God is asking.

I don’t know what God may ask you to do. I have enough trouble struggling with what God asks of me. What I know is God will give us the gifts and graces we need to do what God wants us to do. I also know when we embrace God’s will for us, we find a peace only God can give.

Mahatma Gandhi had a list of seven deadly sins: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, Worship without sacrifice. And I think our scripture has something to say about the last of Gandhi’s seven deadly sins – that curious phrase worship without sacrifice.

On Thursday nights we are learning the practice of gratitude – learning to stand in awe of the gift of life and being. Gratitude for God’s gift of being brings us to worship to give praise. All of those songs of praise we sing in worship, the psalms, the prayers of praise and thanksgiving are appropriate expressions of thanks for the gift that is our lives. Most of the time, we take our lives as a gimme, something somehow owed to us. We act like we earned our existence. We behave as if we are entitled. And nothing could be further from the truth. How pompous and vain we are.

Worship without sacrifice is an important message. Praise without giving back is empty. Offering hollow thanksgiving without giving back to life is meaningless. We were not created for ourselves alone. We were created to give. We were created to give back from the talents and endowments God has bestowed upon us. Let’s allow God to shape us into servant leaders who give back to life from the abundance God has given to us.


Bible Study October 22 for Worship November 4

Bible Study October 22 for Worship November 4

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

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

3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.

4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years;

5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was bereft of her two sons and her husband.

6 Then she started with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.

7 So she set out from the place where she was, with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.

8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.

9 The LORD grant that you may find a home, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

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

11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?

12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons,

13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me.”

14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

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

16 But Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God;

17 where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.”

18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

COMMENTARY

According to some commentators the Story of Ruth is very old. In its present form it may not have been written down until post-exilic times, probably about the time the Priest Ezra was insisting that the men of Israel should divorce their foreign wives in order to preserve racial and spiritual purity. Ruth the Moabite woman, the Great Grandmother of the Great King David provided an excellent counter to Ezra’s inhuman treatment of these foreign women. The story is also about economic refugees and illegal immigration. A prolonged drought had driven Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion (the names of the two boys were not auspicious, Mahlon meaning “sickness,” and Chilion “weakling”) to leave their native Bethlehem and go to the country of Moab as economic refugees. We should not that their status in Moab would have been similar to illegal aliens coming into the United States trying to make a living.

While the family was in Moab, the two boys married Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. The text does not tell us who was married to whom. Elimelech died leaving Ruth a widow and then Mahlon and Chilion died leaving Orpah and Ruth widows. With no male protection and no share in the land, Naomi concludes she must go back to Bethlehem and hope some family will take her in and perhaps lay some claim to Elimelech’s land. She encourages Orpah and Ruth to go back to their families for that is their best prospect of avoiding starvation, and perhaps they can remarry. Under Hebrew law if one brother died without children the other brother inherited the wife. Since both sons were dead, if Ruth had another son, he would have been obligated to care for both widows, but as Naomi points out, she is past the age of child bearing, and even if she wasn’t Orpah and Ruth would not be able to wait for another son to grow up to take care of them.

Naomi must have been a pretty good mother-in-law, because both Orpah and Ruth refuse to leave her. Finally Orpah turns and goes back to her family, but Ruth steadfastly clings to Naomi. This extreme loyalty may have been the result of compassion, and perhaps the bod of shared grief. Ruth seals her pledge to stay with Naomi with her famous oath:

16 But Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; 17 where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.”

This was a powerful oath. In this promise Ruth bound herself through Naomi to a land, a people and a God she had never seen. There seemed to be little hope for Ruth in this promise. The people of Bethlehem might refuse to receive Naomi, and even if they accepted Naomi back there was no guarantee they would accept Ruth the foreigner. And what prospects did they have? Naomi was certainly past her prime. Ruth was an alien in a strange land. Both women might be treated as little more than slaves.

So this passage is about grief, faith and moving on. Grief can forge powerful bonds. Grief can be transformative. Grief can midwife faith. As we will see next week, Naomi and Ruth embark upon risky business that through faith results in restoration and new life. Most importantly though Naomi was angry and bitter at her fate, she did not remain stuck. She picked up and moved on. That was a tribute to her faith.

On remembrance Sunday we remember the faithfulness and loyalty of Ruth. She was not deterred by her grief but instead remained true to Naomi even though there appeared to be little hope for her in her choice. As we grieve for our loved ones we remember Ruth’s famous words to Naomi: “where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Love is faithful and true.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. At what point in Israelite history was the story of Ruth caste?

2. Where was the home of Elimelech’s family?

3. Why was Elimelech and his family in Moab?

4. How long were Elimelech and his family in Moab?

5. At what point did Mahlon and Chilion marry Orpah and Ruth?

6. How long were Mahlon and Chilion married before they died?

7. How many children did they father?

8. Why did Naomi decide to return to her homeland?

9. Upon deciding to return to her homeland, what did Naomi encourage her daughter-in-laws to do?

10. Who wanted to go with Naomi?

11. What oath did Ruth swear?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Why do you think most immigrants come to America?

2. Do you know why your ancestors came to this country?

3. What do you think are the complications that can arise from marrying outside of your economic, ethnic or racial group?

4. Have you ever experienced a bond that was formed or became more powerful because of grief?

5. What has been your greatest spiritual challenge in coping with grief?

6. Have you ever found yourself feeling stuck after a loss?

7. What has been your experience with in-laws?

8. Do you think men or women tend to have closer relationships?

9. Have you ever sworn and oath?

10. What is the most power promise you have ever made?

11. What would you do if you had more faith?

Week of October 29 – November 4: Remembrance Sunday – Ruth 1:1-18 and Deuteronomy 6:1-9 – Wherever You Go – Psalm 146, Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:38-44.


What Must I Do?

What Must I Do?

Whenever the lectionary schedules the story of the rich man and Jesus, everyone squirms a little bit. When Jesus looks at the rich man and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” we all sort of look down sheepishly and shrug our shoulders to shake off some the guilt. In twenty-first century America we are likely to wince, when we hear Jesus say in verses 24 and 25: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And so like some of Jesus’ disciples we are likely to cry out: “Then who can be saved?” Who can be saved indeed, and what is the meaning of this passage for us? Let’s take a minute to try to unpack this story.

The Rich Man came to Jesus asking: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In at least three or four other places in the gospels other people asked Jesus similar questions. Eternal life was a hot topic. Let us begin by noting Jesus did not give exactly the same answer to everyone. In fact, in our story Jesus originally said to the man, “keep the commandments.” Only when the man claimed to have kept the commandments since his youth did Jesus go further. When the Pharisee Nicodemus in the Gospel of John approached Jesus, he said, “you must be born anew.” To the lawyer who asked who is my neighbor, he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When the disciples were squabbling about who was the greatest in the Kingdom of God, he told them they must become like children. So first we must understand Jesus was not handing out any formulaic answers.

Now many people, perhaps out of guilt, believe Jesus was being unusually harsh with the Rich Man. Jesus did not like him or something, or Jesus was against all rich people. But let us look at what the text reads: “Jesus looked upon him and loved him.” Jesus’ answer was not motivated by contempt, or hatred, or jealousy. Jesus really liked this guy. Jesus did not judge the rich man, he simply shared with him, if you want peace, love and joy in your life, then share with other people especially the poor. But people with great wealth often have difficulty sharing. The rich man had a choice, to share or not to share, and he chose not to share, so he left sadly, because his possessions owned him.

Now let’s ask the question, can these sayings, “sell what you have and give to the poor,” and “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God,” be reliably attributed to Jesus? We know that some of the followers of Jesus had money. In the Gospel of Luke last week we learned several well to do women were instrumental in bank rolling the Jesus ministry.

The early church seems to have conducted an extensive discussion about wealth. According to John Dominic Crossan a radical group of itinerant missionaries in the early church advocated absolute poverty: Mark 6:8 “Take nothing for your journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” But then there was a group of more prosperous and propertied households that rejected itinerant poverty for a more balanced view of wealth: “Then who can be saved?”

“With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Jesus did not automatically reject people of wealth, the primary issue in this passage may not be wealth at all, but rather the willingness to share. The story of the Rich Fool laying up riches for himself, when he is scheduled to die that night, suggests that earning the money is not a problem, but hoarding it is. Or as Colonel Sanders said, “There’s no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery. You can’t do any business from there.” Similarly the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the Rich man is feasting sumptuously and is dressed in fine clothing enjoying his wealth, while poor Lazarus is starving to death in rags laying on the Rich man’s door step, again suggests that it was not the accumulation of wealth by itself that was the problem, but the failure to share the wealth that sent the rich man to Gehenna.

Inevitably people ask, “well how much do I have to share?” My guess is that if we have to ask how much, we haven’t shared enough. Trying to fix a percentage of sharing is not what Jesus was about. He wants us to share compassionately and generously. The truth is the poor usually share a far higher percentage of their disposable incomes than the wealthy. A new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy confirms this observation. The Chronicle found a pattern across the nation. Households with incomes of $50,000-$75,000 donate on average 7.6 percent of their discretionary income. That’s compared with about 4 percent for those with incomes of $200,000 or more.

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that’s consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and giving. “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become,” he says.

Piff says it’s not that rich people aren’t generous. They’re often just isolated. They don’t see a lot of poor people in their daily lives.

The less contact wealthy people have with poor people the less generous they become. When people making more than $200,000 a year account for more than 40 percent of the taxpayers in a ZIP code, the wealthy residents give an average of 2.8 percent of discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for all itemizers earning $200,000 or more. So, if we live in a gated community far from the misery of the poor, we become less likely to give to charity. The Chronicle found that pattern holds across the country. High-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods, and high income people who live in or near economically distressed inner-city neighborhoods gave an average of 12% of their incomes to charity.

 

Perhaps most interesting, the Chronicle of Philanthropy also found that poor people give when they can, though it is often only a few dollars at a time. But even if it is only a few dollars at a time, the median household contribution of the poor is almost 19 percent of discretionary income. Material poverty tends to lead to generosity and spiritual riches, while material wealth tends to lead to miserliness and spiritual impoverishment.

Of course wealth is relative. As Henny Youngman said, “”I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need, if I die by four o’clock.” Most of us don’t think of ourselves as wealthy until we compare ourselves to the Billions of people on earth who live on one or two dollars a day. I believe the community of faith affords us an opportunity to share in a way that is good for our souls.

Lillian Daniel wrote a Still Speaking Devotional about Acts 2: 44 and 45 – and the text reads: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”

Lillian wrote:

I love my church but I find it difficult to imagine all of us emptying our savings accounts and dumping them into a common pot. I can’t picture us all selling our cars, so that everyone gets the same vehicle, be it a bike, a Chevy, or a skateboard. I’m in awe of the early church in the book of Acts, where they shared it all in common. Today, we would talk these people into doing a reality TV show. We’d film them squabbling over who brought the most bread or wine to this giant ecclesiastical yard sale. In other words, I don’t believe this was actually easy for them.

I see this scripture as a goal. And at church, we come closer to living it out than we do at work, or school, or the sports arena. At least every week in church, we do share some of what’s in our pockets. For this reason, I am in favor of always putting something in the offering plate when it is passed. You may pay most of your pledge by check through the mail, but that weekly act of taking something out of the wallet that is “mine” and putting it in the plate that is “ours” is a spiritual discipline. It reminds us that none of what we have is really ours.

I think she is right. What we begin to learn to share through the community of faith, can transform us. In the past I don’t think United Church has ever had members who were actually poor. But since we have become a more economically diverse congregation, we have people coming to the Sharing Table, who need the meal.

If we have to ask how much do I have to share, we probably aren’t sharing enough. Jesus wasn’t opposed to wealth, but he knew that until we can learn to share, we will never make our way into the Commonwealth of God. Jesus doesn’t judge us, he invites us to share for our own good. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Share!

 


Bible Study October 15 for Worship October 28

Bible Study October 15 for Worship October 28

Mark 10: 46  And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.

47  And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

48  And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

49  And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; rise, he is calling you.”

50  And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus.

51  And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Master, let me receive my sight.”

52  And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

COMMENTARY

Jesus was on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem.  This was his last journey.  In Jerusalem he would be arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, and executed.  He had to pass through Jericho on his way.  Jericho is an ancient City that claims to be the oldest walled City in the world.  Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of walls that date back to 9,500 BCE.  Jericho was a City before there was writing at the very dawn of the age of agriculture.

Jericho is 846 feet below sea level and is warm in the winter and hot in the summer.  The climate today is relatively arid, although the River Jordan and other fresh water springs provide plenty of water.  The climate of Jericho has been much moister at times in the past explaining the early development of agriculture.  The Dead Sea is also a short distance away providing a reliable supply of salt.  In ancient times salt was extremely valuable, and the salt trade helped to make Jericho wealthy.  In fact Zacchaeus, the short tax collector of Jericho, probably became immensely wealthy by collecting taxes on the salt trade.

Today’s lesson is about a blind beggar in Jericho by the same of Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus.   In many gospel stories the names of persons who were healed are omitted.  The inclusion of the name Bartimaeus and even the name of his father suggests the possibility that the blind beggar indeed followed Jesus to Jerusalem (see verse 52), was a witness of the crucifixion and  resurrection and became a member of the early church.

Verse 47 suggests that Jesus’ reputation had preceded him, for when Bartimaeus was told that the commotion passing by his begging place by the City Gate was Jesus and his entourage, Bartimaeus began crying out.  The blind beggar was familiar enough with Jesus’ reputation that he used the messianic title:  “Jesus Son of David.”

Our story tries to teach us something about faith, for when people tell Bartimaeus to “shut-up,” he calls out all the more.  Persistence can remind us of the Parable of the Friend at Midnight, who gets what he wants, because of his continual knocking at the door – ask, seek, knock.  He finally got Jesus’ attention, who said, “call him.”   And now the people who previously told Bartimaeus to “shut-up,” said, “take heart; rise; he is calling you.”

How easily we move from despair to hope, or hope to despair.  Persisting faith is the bridge that can see us across the chasms of hopelessness.  Take heart indeed.  Without the heart of hope we die.  Take heart!

Please notice that Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question in this week’s lesson, he asked James and John in last week’s lesson:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Maybe that is the question each one of us needs to be able to hear Jesus asking of us?  “What do you want me to do for you?”  If we can articulate what we would like to have, we begin to be able to claim greater happiness.  When we articulate the desires of our heart, we have the opportunity to decide whether or not we really want those things.  Sometimes, when we finally succeed in articulating our desires, we realize how foolish or impossible they are.  Other times when we articulate the desires of our hearts we have to acknowledge the price we might have to pay to realize those desires.  It is like the woman who came up to the great pianist Paderewski after a concert and said, “Oh I would give my life to be able to play like that.”

And Paderewski replied, “I have, I have.”

Articulating the desires of our hearts also helps us to establish priorities.  So often, we allow our true goals to get lost in the mad scramble of daily living, and the push and pull of everyone else’s wants and needs.  If we are clear about our priorities, we will not come to the end of our lives regretting we never really did want we wanted to do.

Articulating the desires of our hearts can lead us to pray.  And when we pray about the desires of our hearts we become open to hearing God’s desires and priorities.  And since we will never rest until we rest in God’s heart, we will ultimately come to terms with what God wants for our lives.

Bartimaeus wanted his eye sight, and he was willing to say he wanted to be healed.  The most important question physicians need to ask patients is:  “Do you want to be healed?”  Healing is possible when we ask, and when we understand what the costs of healing will be.  Healing isn’t magic.  Healing means we have to be willing to change, transform our lives to bring our spirits more in line with God.  Healing usually involves, diet, exercise, changes in habits and addictions.  Many changes we have to make are hard.  We won’t be able to make those changes without God’s help.

Pastorally, I know that if someone comes to me for help, I can probably help them.  But when people expect the pastor to call on them, without their asking for help, there is very little I can do to help them find healing.  Do we want to be healed?  Are we willing to acknowledge we are sick and in need of a physician?  Jesus can help us, when we ask.

When Bartimaeus was finally healed, Jesus told him, “your faith has made you well.”  Healing is not some magical trick, it is the calling for of the healing power that resides within us.  In a Still Speaking Devotion on Hebrews 3:7-19 William Green uses an old rabbinic tale to illustrate the power of God that already resides within us:

In his book Souls on Fire, Elie Wiesel retells the old tale of a poor Jew named Isaak who dreamt he would find treasure in a distant city under a bridge that led to the palace. Isaak decided to make the journey. Arriving at the palace he ran into a soldier guarding the bridge. He demanded to know what Isaak was looking for. Upon learning of his dream the soldier laughed. He said that if he paid attention to dreams he would have traveled far to the house of a poor Jew named Isaak and dug for treasure beneath the stove. So Isaak journeyed back home. Beneath his stove he discovered a great treasure. He hadn’t realized he already had what he was looking for.

We start with “treasure” gifted us by God that we often think we don’t have but hope to acquire: talent, strength, and the capacity to surmount hardship and challenge. As one everyday example—since according to surveys public speaking is feared as much as money trouble and almost as much as death—many of us are terrified to speak in public. But even if you think you’re a miserable public speaker, something of God’s spirit will speak through you regardless of how you judge and attribute this capacity. You won’t know this until you do it and sometimes not until afterwards.

We’ve got more treasure now than any we want to obtain. We can’t “hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at the beginning” if we don’t have confidence in the beginning. We have so much more going for us than we’ve realized!

The power of God already resides within us.  Jesus was right.  Our faith can make us well.  We may need to go on a journey before we find it within ourselves, but it is there, if we open ourselves to ask Jesus.  Let us find the healing power of Jesus within us, and then follow him.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. When Jesus passed through Jericho, where was he coming from?

2. Where was he going?

3. If Bartimaeus was blind, how did he know Jesus was passing by?

4. What title did Bartimeaus use for Jesus?

5. When people told Bartimeaus to “shut-up,” what did Bartimaeus do?

6. When Jesus called for Batimaeus, what was the reaction of the crowd?

7. What questions did Jesus ask the blind beggar?

8. What did Bartimaeus ask for?

9. How was Bartimaeus healed?

10. To what did Jesus attribute Bartimaeus’ healing?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Have you ever cried out for help?

2. How desperate to you think Bartimaeus was?

3. How persistent is your faith?

4. What do you think it might mean to be persistent in prayer?

5. If you had the chance to ask Jesus anything you wanted, what would that be?

6. If someone said to you, “take heart,” what do you think they would mean?

7. Can you think of any ways that you or people around you are blind?

8. What would it mean to receive your sight?

9. Can you think of any ways that your faith might make you well?

10. If the gifts and graces we need are already within us, then what do you think you need to do to access those gifts and graces.

Week of October 22 – October 28:  Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost – Mark 10:46-52 – Take Heart – Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22), Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28.


Protecting the Vulnerable

Protecting the Vulnerable

Our scripture this morning has been misunderstood. Traditional church doctrine has taught that divorce is a sin and grounds for expulsion from the community of faith. That is very ugly, when most people going through a divorce are already pretty beat up and hurting as it is.

So let’s try to unpack our scripture to see what might have motivated Jesus’ teaching. The context of our scripture was the extremely low status of women in the First Century. Women had almost no legal rights. They were considered to be the property of men, first their fathers and then their husbands. A woman ranked just a cut above a mule or a slave. A mule could be killed. A slave could be abused but not killed. A wife was supposed to suffer in silence.

In ancient Israel a man could have more than one wife, and prostitution was legal, so the desire for sexual variety was not a compelling reason for divorce as far as men were concerned. If a woman burned her husband’s supper, however, that was considered adequate grounds for divorce. And divorce was easy. All the man had to do was say three times: “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” and have a scribe write out a “bill of divorce,” and the woman was on her own. She had no rights to property from the marriage, no rights to her children from the marriage. She was simply out on the street with the clothes on her back. The “bill of divorce” was her proof that she was no longer married, and so she could return to her father’s house, or she could start making her living in one of the only ways left to her – prostitution.

Jesus was absolutely revolutionary in his attitude toward women in his time and cultural context. The Gospel of Luke mentions several women were bankrolling “the Ministry,” “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

Jesus also believed that women had brains. At the home of Mary and Martha, when Martha complained that Mary was not helping with the women’s work, because she was listening with the men to Jesus’ teaching, Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better portion. Many non-canonical gospels, especially the Gospel of James, grant Mary Magdalene a much more prominent role in the circle of Jesus followers, even claiming that Jesus considered her equal to or even superior to his male disciples. Karen King, a professor at Harvard has even come forward recently with a 4th Century snatch of papyrus from Egypt purporting to refer to Jesus’ “wife.”

Jesus was concerned about the status of women in his society, and so when he was asked about the law of divorce, he sided with the women. Essentially he was saying, in a society in which women have no economic options, if you marry a woman, you must continue to provide for her, even if the relationship sours.

What would Jesus say about divorce in twenty-first century America? Our situation is so far removed from First Century Israel, trying to apply Mark 10:2-12 in our modern context is fraught with difficulty. For one thing many divorces are initiated by women, who no longer wish to be married, and forcing them to remain in a loveless or even abusive relationship is not what Jesus intended. Churches that excommunicate or dis-fellowship people, when they become divorced are just adding insult to injury. Divorce is a crumby experience and the church needs to provide comfort and spiritual insight in helping people sort out their lives after the break-up of a marriage. There is usually enough blame to go around and the key is forgiveness, resolution and moving on.

The key to understanding how we might apply Jesus’ intent to our modern context is to try to sort out what is a fair and equitable financial arrangement, when a marriage dissolves. Currently we have too many women and children living in poverty, because of divorce. Way too many single Moms are trying to support their children on their own after the Dad has abandoned his responsibilities.

And maybe that is why the lectionary included verses 13-16, where Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” Jesus’ ministry was notable, because he included women as his followers and because he reached out to children another disenfranchised segment of his society. Perhaps what we need to carry away from our scripture this morning is that Jesus reached out to, embraced, lifted up the nobodies. Women and children did not count in his world, and Jesus affirmed their worth. The affirmation of the disenfranchised helps to explain the amazing growth of the early church in the Roman Empire among women and slaves. In Paul’s letter to Philemon we see Paul intervening with a Christian Master to free his slave Onesimus. Similarly in several of Paul’s authentic letters we see women described as apostles, deaconesses, and other offices of leadership within the early church. It was only after the church adopted a more conservative message and organization in the second century to appeal to the men of the Empire, that women were put in their place, “wives be obedient to your husbands” and slaves were counseled to “be obedient to your masters.” Indeed, I think it was hard for the church after Constantine to see the difference between wives and slaves.

I don’t know what it is about fundamentalism, but fundamentalists of all stripes, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu seem bent on turning back the clock on the liberation and empowerment of women. One of the most important social movements initiated by Jesus was affirming the worth and status of women. Jesus’ vision of the freedom, equality and dignity of women has been a long time coming. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The day is coming in the United States, when women will be guaranteed equal pay for equal work. And if we look at the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, Leyman Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, and Tawakkol Karman a Yemeni journalist and human rights activist, Jesus’ vision of the power and dignity of women is spreading — slowly to be sure.

There are set-backs along the way like male dominated legislatures mandating vaginal ultrasounds for women, or Islamic militants raping women’s rights advocates to try to keep them in their place. I’ve heard some women speculate that maybe those men need to have prostate exams administered by a women’s roller derby team – level the playing field – turn the other cheek.

Even though progress is halting and slow, like the resurrection of Jesus, the victory is assured. Women all over the world are entering the work force and claiming new dignity and power in their societies. Bangladesh for instance has a long way to go, but women have entered the labor market in droves. They are limiting the size of their families, and they have even elected a woman Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. An international social revolution is afoot.

Social evolutions take time. If we measure human progress in terms of the empowerment and dignity of women from the time of the First Century until now, at least in the developed West we live in a very different world than Jesus. Not only are women better off, but the advancement of women has generally been coupled with improvements in the treatment and security of the most vulnerable in society.

Like Moses many of us will not cross over the river into the Promised Land. If we climb to the mountain top, God may give us a glimpse of a brighter fairer future. And we will have to be content to know that our efforts in the present have brought us closer to the Commonwealth of God Jesus proclaimed was at hand.

In 1970 I was working at the Washington Office of the Council for Christian Social Action of the United Church of Christ. Our offices were in the Methodist Building in between the Supreme Court Building and the New Senate Office Building. Just down the street was the American Headquarters of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WILPF was founded in 1915 in a bid to try to stop World War I. Since then the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has advocated an end to war, disarmament, women’s suffrage, and full human equality for all people. I was invited to an anti-war meeting at their headquarters, and there were several older women in attendance along with a number of younger women. The younger women were already beginning to reflect some of the advances the feminist movement had made.

There were a couple of very ancient and frail looking ladies among the younger women, who had been part of the founding of the WILPF in 1915. They had spoken out against war, worked for the right to vote for women, opposed child labor, advocated for free public education, and protections for the environment long before any of those dearly won issues had become popular. And what I noticed most was the sparkle in these ancient and wise women’s eyes as they saw the younger women stepping into a new future they had helped to shape.

Like those older ladies many of us will not live to see the day, when the commonwealth of God becomes a reality. But what we are promised is that if we keep the faith, follow in the way of Jesus, in some way we do not yet understand, we will know it and be part of that future in that day.