Sunday, November 17, 2019

Success — a sermon on Isaiah 5 & 11

Rev Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s 
Success
Isaiah 5.1-7, 11.1-9
17 November 2019, NL2-11

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
my loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.
‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.’
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
...
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash round his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

~~~~~~~~~~

This week I spent three mornings at primary schools, running a workshop with Primary 7 pupils that is designed to help them begin to transition to high school. We do four of these throughout the year, and each one is about one of the Clydeview school values. This week the workshops were on the theme of Success. Throughout the morning we do activities that invite the kids to think about what success means, how we judge if something or someone is successful, and what it takes to succeed ourselves. Often, when we first ask them about it, they say things like “you know you’ve succeeded if you feel good about something you’ve done.” The conversations also usually include talking about awards, passing exams, and sometimes status symbols like big houses or fancy cars. But almost always the first reactions this week were about feeling more confident, knowing in yourself that you’ve done something well.

It was interesting to be thinking about success all week while also pondering this reading from Isaiah — in which it becomes clear that God’s vineyard has not succeeded. Whether the measure is by how God feels about it or by a more objective standard of fruitfulness, the vineyard is a failure. It’s a shocking idea, that God could fail at something. But through the prophet, God asks: what else could I have done? What more effort could I have put in? I did everything I knew how to do — cleared the ground, planted the best vines, prepared the wine press, pruned and weeded and watered and fertilised and cared. And still the fruit was bad. The vineyard was not a success, it did not produce grapes that could be made into wine and shared to make glad the hearts of others.

Instead of receiving all that care and turning it into an outpouring of goodness and care for others...instead of being blessed to be a blessing...it turns out that the people had taken the blessing for themselves and refused to share. They were supposed to do justice, to lift up the poor and level the playing field so that all would have enough. They were supposed to live righteously, with their relationships in the right order — God in priority position, and everyone else equal. They were supposed to understand that they were as intertwined as the vines of the vineyard, all in it together, working together to produce fruit that could be shared to enhance God’s kingdom. Instead, they set up systems that oppress. They allowed some to be outcast, and the poor to be trampled. They turned away, choosing not to look at the people who were the collateral damage of their economy, their social norms, and their greed. Instead of justice and righteousness, they produced a crop of bloodshed and cries.

So the vineyard was left in disarray...overgrown with weeds and vines dying, trampled by animals and left without water or care.

But.

Even though it looks like God gave up on the vineyard, we know that is not how God is.

And death never has the last word.

From the stump, the dead tree that had been cut down and was left there to rot in its place....from the dry stump, symbol of lost hope...from the stump will come a new shoot. The deep roots can still nourish new life. God will do a new thing, and bring life out of death.

The shoot that will grow out of the stump will be marked by the very things that the vineyard lacked: justice and righteousness, both of which will favour those who had been oppressed or left out. He won’t judge by what he can see — because remember, God looks at the heart. This new life won’t be about status symbols like fancy cars or holidays or clothes, but about the other measures of success. Even one tiny, fragile, shoot coming out of a deeply rooted stump will bear more fruit...fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

The results of this new life, deeply rooted in the truth of God’s love and call, will be just as shocking as the sight of the dead, overgrown vineyard, though. It will at first glance involve just as much disarray. The order that we think is built into the world will be turned on its head. Rather than the strong preying on the weak, they will live together. The wolf and the sheep, the leopard and the goat, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox...it’s a comprehensive list of predators giving up their natural inclinations and choosing a different way. 

In this new vineyard, the powerful treat the powerless as if they matter. 
In this new vineyard, relationships that have been fraught with violence become peaceful and mutual.

Not because the lamb or the calf or the child have changed. They haven’t become more confident, or worked harder, or paid money, or earned their way in by acting in ways the others think are appropriate.

It’s the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear that change. They choose to change their diet—to eat straw rather than each other. They choose to change their way of relating to others, lying down rather than chasing and attacking. They choose to give up some of their power in order to raise up others, making a system of equals who can work together. They choose to use their resources to create opportunities for those who had none, for both meaningful work and for rest. 

It feels wrong, because our human society is so used to the idea that it is right for some people to have more than others. But here we have a picture of the top of the food chain choosing to share meals with the bottom...where neither of them is on the menu. We have a vision of the powerful and powerless living side by side in the same house, and of neighbourhoods where those who are deemed dangerous and those who we think deserve protecting live side by side. 

God says this is what the world will be like when the earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord. They will not hurt or destroy...because why would we need to? Why would we want to? It may seem at first glance like everything is in disarray, with the powerful and powerless living together and valuing each other as equals — meaning neither has power over the other any longer. But then we would truly be living in right relationship, with God and one another. There would be no oppression or bloodshed or cries of brokenness. We would live as we are meant to — blessed to be a blessing.

Given the contrast of these two visions — of the failed vineyard and the peaceable kingdom — why do we continue to choose the one that failed?

This is a question for us as individuals, of course, but it is also a question for us as a society, and as a church....and as nations heading into elections on both sides of the Atlantic, with a daily news cycle that highlights every moment the choices we have made along the way.

I don’t have an answer as to why, other than our sinfulness, our brokenness, that leads us to think that imbalance of power and inequality of wealth is somehow a mark of success. But I do have a hope, that one day soon we will choose a different way. That when we recognise the effects of choosing to be the failed vineyard, we will want to choose the way of new life instead. Surely we would rather go through the upheaval of learning to give up our position at the top of the food chain, if it meant we could have a world of peace and fruitfulness....as opposed to the continuous cycle of destruction that comes with bearing bad fruit. I want to believe that we can dig deep, and find ourselves rooted in God’s grace, however hidden it sometimes appears to be...and then from that grace, find the capacity to do a new thing, to try a new way of sharing the blessing, and perhaps find the success God is calling us toward: a world marked by fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

May it be so. Amen.



Sunday, November 10, 2019

Still You Called — a sermon on Hosea 11

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Still You Called
Hosea 11.1-9 CEB
10 November 2019, NL2-10

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
        and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
        the further they went from me;
    they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
        and they burned incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
        I took them up in my arms,
        but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
        with bands of human kindness,
        with cords of love.
    I treated them like those
        who lift infants to their cheeks;
        I bent down to them and fed them.
They will return to the land of Egypt,
        and Assyria will be their king,
        because they have refused to return to me.
The sword will strike wildly in their cities;
        it will consume the bars of their gates
        and will take everything because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
        and though they cry out to the Most High,
        he will not raise them up.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
        How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I make you like Admah?
        How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
    My heart winces within me;
        my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.

~~~~~~~~~

During my holidays the last few weeks, I spent five days at the board meeting of RevGals, an international organisation supporting women in ministry. During the day, we worked for hours on discerning a vision, undoing some bad habits, and considering how we might lead an organisation of over 7000 people around the world. And then every evening, we ended with worship. My night to lead worship was a communion service, and the other board member I was paired up with was Episcopalian. We decided that I would be the one in charge of the communion liturgy because, as she put it, she had to follow more rules about what is included in communion prayers. She noted that she would be required to recap the entire story of creation, the fall, God’s continuous call to the people, the life and ministry and death of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Whereas we Presbyterians have fewer rules about that so I could write something that would be...well...shorter. 

I pointed out to her that we Presbyterians also cover all of those things in our communion liturgy, though we might do it in more poetic language that conveys a lot of different aspects at once, for example in one of my favourite lines of the great prayer of thanksgiving: “when we lost our way, or turned away, still you called us home.” 

It seems to sum up so much of human history — when we lost our way, or turned away.

The prophet Hosea was speaking to people from the northern tribes of Israel, in the 8th century BCE, who had separated from the southern kingdom, and they had a long string of terrible kings and they made a lot of awful choices, including worshiping other gods and treating their neighbours badly. Just a few years after Hosea’s life, they would be overrun by the Assyrian empire and scattered. But in this moment, they are still holding on to a tenuous place between the Egyptian empire and the Assyrians and their former siblings to the south. 

Throughout his book, Hosea calls to the people, telling them they have lost their way...or turned away. Or both. Sometimes they were lost and then they chose to remain that way. Sometimes they turned their back on the way they knew they were supposed to go. Both resulted in the people and their leaders being unable to discern what God wanted for them, and also unable to see what God was still doing in their midst. They felt alone, abandoned...and so they turned even farther, to different gods, idols of fertility or money or productivity or violence. 

But the line of the prayer doesn’t stop there. When we lost our way, or turned away, STILL you called us home.

Despite the terrible choices and the bad behaviour, God still loves these people. God remembers: it was I who taught them to walk. I took them up in my arms, and they didn’t even realise it was me. I was like one who lifted a child to her cheek...taking in all that sweet baby skin and smell, rubbing our noses together and looking into their eyes...I fed them with my own hand. They may be bent on turning away, but I can’t give them up. I just can’t let go, can’t turn away myself.

It’s unusual to get such an intimate glimpse into the tenderness of God’s heart in the midst of a prophet’s proclamations. But here we have it: our God is one who remembers teaching us to walk, who still holds on to that moment when we were cheek to cheek, who picks us up and feeds us. And however tempting it might be, now that we’re unruly teenagers who reject everything, God can’t bring himself to let us go. 

God never gives up on us. Even when we lose our way or turn away, still God calls us home. Still God picks us up and teaches us again and again, brushing away tears and smoothing our hair and healing us with the truth: that before we existed, God loved us, and whatever we do, God loves us still. This is not to say that we can do whatever we want, or that God turns a blind eye when we participate in injustice or hurt each other or do wrong things. There are consequences for those actions, but those consequences never include God withdrawing love from us. We may make choices that are disappointing or even angering, but God’s love is never in doubt. It is perhaps the only thing we can truly say is unchanging.

After all the descriptions of the ways humans have devised to hurt each other — war, economic systems that cause poverty, scheming, oppression, inequality, hatred, betrayal, and so on — the prophet ends by giving us these words straight from the mouth of God:
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.

God may indeed feel anger, hurt, frustration, and disappointment. But God does not act on that heat...instead, it is God’s compassion that grows warm, God’s justice and grace that leads the way. Because God is God, not a human being. Humans are the ones who struggle to respond with grace and compassion and justice....but God always chooses to act on love. 

When we claim that God’s judgment on someone else will be harsh, or that God excludes people because of their behaviour, or that God gives up and abandons us to absence, we are directly contradicting the Bible, making God in our own image. Hosea, as well as many other parts of scripture, is clear that God is not like us, our ways are not God’s ways. Indeed, if God intended to banish us to the hell of our own making, why be incarnate in Jesus? Why send the Holy Spirit? Why have the psalmist say “there is nowhere I can go away from your presence”? The prophet speaks of a God who loves, calls, heals, teaches, feeds, carries, leads, lifts up, won’t give up, has compassion, and withholds judgment.

And in response to this amazing grace, we are called to live into the truth of how God made us: in God’s image. Just as God always chooses love, we too are called to choose love. To remember how we have been picked up, taught to walk, held in God’s arms, fed by God’s hand, healed of our brokenness .... and then to extend that same grace to others. To be people who work for a world where all know the truth: that God’s love is unchanging, and even when we have lost our way or turned away, still God calls us home.

May it be so. Amen.



Sunday, October 20, 2019

Burst Forth — a sermon on 2 Samuel 5-6

Rev. Teri Peterson
GSJ
Burst Forth
2 Samuel 5.1-5, 6.1-15 (NRSV)
20 October 2019, NL2-6
(For Cameron to preach)

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.

6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’ So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
It was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

~~~~~~~

Picture the scene: a political leader who needs to unite the country as they face some major challenges, creating a spectacle of a procession, with carriages and the military and all the trappings of power and prestige, including the symbol of their real monarch, the ark of the covenant—the box which signifies God’s presence. The parade wends its way through the countryside and the town, with some people in their formal ceremonial robes, and others playing music or dancing, and the whole thing takes ages to go from one place to another....and the purpose of the procession is both to honour God and give thanks for God’s presence, and also—perhaps primarily—to showcase the political leader’s power and rule. Some might even call it manipulating the public, or perhaps at least using the visual and emotional appeal of the pomp and circumstance to prop up an uncertain system and earn some points for the leaders.

Sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed in the past 3000 years, doesn’t it?

David had risen far, from his days as the youngest brother, keeping the sheep, to being a court musician for Saul, the first king, to being a military commander, and now king himself. At the beginning of the reading we heard about those leaders who had previously been loyal to Saul changing their allegiance, and then eventually David becoming the ruler of a United Kingdom, northern and southern tribes together. He needed something to cement that position, and the answer seemed to lie in this box that had not been seen in some time.

The ark of the covenant was originally built when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, and it was supposed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and perhaps some other things that reminded the people of God’s saving grace and divine commands. It was decorative, covered in gold sculptures, and had a seat on the top, and it was the primary symbol of God’s presence. It isn’t that they believed God lived in the box exactly, though I think it would be easy for that to become the shorthand, especially given that wherever the ark was, divine things seemed to happen.

For years the ark had been kept in a home...and when it was brought out, the two young men who had grown up in the presence of the ark were the ones who stewarded its journey. Except they didn’t do it the way it was meant to be done. The ark was a holy object, representing God among the people. There were rules about how to carry it — always on poles, carried by four men, who touched only the poles, not the box itself. To put the ark on an ox-cart was already a wrong choice, perhaps signifying that the family who had kept it safe all this time either didn’t know the rules, or that they didn’t realise what they had.

When the oxen shook the cart, Uzzah — one of the young men who had lived with the ark — instinctively put out his hand to steady it.

It was an action that betrayed his familiarity with the ark, or perhaps his overly-casual treatment of this holy object. Or maybe he thought that the box containing God’s presence needed to be protected.

But here’s the thing: God doesn’t need our protection. 

In that one fateful gesture, Uzzah put himself in the place of God, the protector and saviour. He forgot that God is far more powerful and more holy than we humans are. However close our spiritual relationship is — and we want to be close, of course — the reality is that God is God, and we are not. God isn’t meant to be treated lightly or casually, not carted around on whatever we have available, and then grabbed unceremoniously as if we were capable of saving God from disaster.

David named that place “outburst”, claiming that God had “burst forth” against Uzzah. But it wasn’t really against Uzzah, exactly. It was against the ease with which we get our relationships out of order, putting God somewhere other than at the head of the list. It was against the casual use of God has a prop in political theatre. It wasn’t about God punishing one person, it was about the whole of the situation.

It is true that God burst forth, though. Because the truth is that God cannot be contained, and will always be bursting out of whatever box we have decided to keep him in. Whether that box is made of wood and gold, or of our words and ideas and theologies, or of our traditions and desires and comfort....or even if it is a tomb sealed shut with a huge stone. God will burst forth, breaking all our preconceived notions, all our boundaries, and all our mind games and power struggles. 

It is not possible to use God for our own ends. It is not advisable to treat God casually, like an object we can set down and pick up again when it’s convenient. And it is not our place to protect and defend God. Quite the other way around, in fact.

David wisely went away and left the project of using the ark as a symbol of his own kingly power. When he was ready to try again, he took the reality of God’s presence more seriously. It was carried appropriately, and with ceremonial reverence. Every 10 meters or so, they stopped to offer sacrifices, which also meant that the ark bearers would get a rest. And at the head of the procession was the king — dressed not in robes and crown, but in a simple priestly skirt and nothing else, dancing with all his might.

The language of this story is really interesting, because the word used for David dancing with all his might is the same word used when scripture says we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength—or “might.” To love God with all we have and all we are, with every ounce of our being. That is what David put into his dancing, or more accurately, “whirling.” He was spinning and jumping, with every fibre of his being. 

This time, the procession was about honouring God and celebrating that God was present with them, not just in this pretty box, but in real and powerful ways. It was no longer about David, but about God. Their relationship was back in the right order. 

In some ways, we might even say that God was no longer being confined to a box, but rather recognised and celebrated and praised as living and active in the world. God had indeed burst forth, and nothing can keep God separate from us again.

That sounds like good news. But as Uzzah and all those around him that day know, it can also be difficult news. God won’t be contained. And that means that God might just call us into a new kind of relationship too...and perhaps might call us out of our own carefully contained faith and life, to burst out into something that changes the relationship between God and the world. It isn’t just a nice happy ending to a difficult story, it’s a reminder that this is an ongoing journey that we cannot control.

Author Annie Dillard sums it up:
“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

God cannot be treated casually, nor protected, nor contained. God will always burst forth, whether from our too-small boxes of comfort and tradition, or from the tomb, and calls us ever onward into a future with hope.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Love Beyond Belief — a sermon on Ruth, for Harvest

Rev. Teri Peterson 
Gourock St. John’s
Love Beyond Belief
Ruth 1.1-17
13 October 2019, NL2-6, harvest communion

1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’
11 But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!’
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 ‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’
16 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’

~~~~~~~~~~~

It seems perhaps an odd choice to put our harvest celebration on the day when the lectionary gives us a story about a famine—or it might be the perfect day, as we remember that while we have an abundance of good things, there are many who are hungry and thirsty, and part of our duty as people with plenty is to share with others.

In Bethlehem, the town whose name literally means “house of bread,” there was no grain to harvest to make bread. It was bad enough that at least one family left that place, looking for more abundant life, and went to the land of Moab—a land whose people were enemies of the Israelites, specifically banned and despised. Living up to its reputation, Moab turned out to be a land not of plenty but of grief and loss, as Naomi’s husband and sons all died there over the decade they lived there. 

When Naomi heard that the Lord had ended the famine in Bethlehem, she decided to go home. But she had a problem — Moabites were unwelcome among her people, and she had two Moabite daughters-in-law. 

Actually, she had more than one problem. Because though she recognised that God’s hand was at work in saving the people back home from the famine, she also believed that God’s hand was turned against her, that she was, at best, abandoned by God, or perhaps even cursed. 

Two Moabite daughters-in-law didn’t help that feeling. So she urged them to go home to their own families, and she sent them away with a blessing from the God she believed had turned his back on her — she compared these young women to God, actually. Our translation says “kindness” but the word is chesed, which means something more like loving-kindness, faithfulness, and loyalty, all rolled into one word. It’s a loyalty and love beyond belief, beyond expectation. Ruth and Orpah have done more than could possibly have been expected of them as foreign wives brought into this family.

It took several tries, but eventually Naomi was able to convince Orpah to return to her birth family. Perhaps Naomi’s insistence that God had abandoned her played a part in that decision, or perhaps Orpah understood the difficulty that lay ahead if she, a Moabite, chose to emigrate, or perhaps she simply followed her mother-in-law’s directions. Whatever the case, Orpah wept, and said goodbye, and set her face back to her first home.

Ruth, however, clung to Naomi. She insisted that she had made a commitment and would not break it. She knew the challenges, she knew the risks, and still she held fast. And again, our English translations make it hard to see the full truth of her words, as they try to smooth it out for the way we speak, but Ruth doesn’t speak in the future tense. She speaks of a present reality. In explaining her insistence on sticking by Naomi’s side, she says literally “Your people, my people, and your God, my God.” Again, she acts on chesed, loyalty and love above and beyond expectation or belief. Ruth has decided to surrender her past and to go forward into God’s future despite whatever obstacles there might be. Where you go, I go, where you stay, I stay. 

It’s an astounding speech, really, highlighted by the fact that this chapter of the book of Ruth uses the word “turn around” — which is the same as the word for “repent” — twelve times. In the midst of so many reversals, turning back, and repentance for decisions made over the past ten years, we have this steadfast movement in one direction. Ruth will not turn back, she will not repent of her choice to stay by Naomi’s side, she will not reverse her familial commitments. Despite the dangers and difficulties of being a foreigner in a new land, despite the ways people will make fun of her accent and the limitations her background will place on her, she is steadfast in her loyal love, her faithful loving kindness, her chesed

Naomi and Ruth arrived back in Bethlehem just before the barley harvest, and Ruth took matters into her own hands by going out to glean in the fields. Landowners were required to leave some of their crops at the edge of the field so that those without land could come and harvest something for themselves, and Boaz was a faithful and righteous man, so he did that, and more, for Ruth. And the way Ruth managed the situation ensured not just her own survival, but Naomi’s position in the community...and ultimately she became the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king. This immigrant woman, from the most despised foreign nation, has a place in the genealogy of the people of God — because of her willingness to put aside her own self interest and to be loyal and loving beyond belief, and because God can and does use all sorts of people, even the ones we have excluded.

Yesterday morning, thousands of people witnessed a version of this as well. Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to run a marathon distance in under two hours. But part of the reason he was able to do that was because he had 41 other world-class runners to take turns surrounding him and helping him keep the pace. They protected him from wind resistance, running in front and behind in a tight formation, and they kept the exact pace outlined by a laser on the road in front of them. They had to run an incredible 13.1 miles per hour in order to accomplish this feat.

Those 41 other runners came from 11 nations, including some who are both sporting and political rivals to Eliud’s own nation of Kenya. A number of them came straight from the World Championships in Doha, using their well-earned holidays to help him reach this goal. None of them will get medals or prize money, their names will be instantly forgotten by most who saw the spectacle of yesterday morning. They were not there running ridiculously fast and in meticulous formation for themselves or their own glory. Many of them said in interviews they were doing this—on their rest days, remember!—for Eliud. 

That is a loving-kindness that is beyond belief. I mean, the pace at which they ran also boggles the mind and feels unbelievable. But so does the idea that they would give up their time and risk injury without any chance of personal gain. Yet they stuck close together and to Eliud, going relentlessly forward. It was like watching that loyal loving-kindness above and beyond expectation, running through the streets.

Most of the time, chesed is the word used to describe God’s posture toward us. Though we turn away, God is always faithful. Though we have difficulty acting as if we are made in God’s image, still God deals with us with loving-kindness. Even when we decide the risks of following God’s way are too great, God risks everything, all the way to the cross, to show us chesed. God surrounds us and brings us relentlessly forward...and asks us to do the same in return. To be like Ruth, or like the runners, to stay close whatever the cost, to cling to Christ, to live our commitment not just with our minds but with love beyond belief. 


May it be so. Amen.