GOSPEL LESSON Mark 12:28-34
HEBREW LESSON Ruth 1:1-18
Previously on Ruth and Naomi: A complicated relationship had developed between the Israelites and the Moabites, who held territory east of the southern part of the Dead Sea. The man named Moab was both the son and the grandson of Abraham’s nephew Lot (you’ll have to go back to Genesis 19 for that story! as the Book of Ruth has all the twists and turns of a modern-day soap opera). So Moab was Jacob’s (aka Israel’s) second cousin once removed. There was bad blood between the two peoples, and they remained persistent enemies into the days of King Saul and King David and long after. For the Hebrew people hearing this story, that the main character, Ruth, is a Moabite woman, means that she is a foreigner, a nobody, totally without status.
Famine and a bad economy had hit the territory of Judah, and so a man by the name of Elimelech, along with his wife Naomi and their two sons, picked up and moved from Bethlehem to Moab. After the move, poor Naomi – had one bad day after another.
Now you know you’re having a bad day when you put both contacts into the same eye.
You know you’re having a bad day when your twin sister forgets your birthday.
You know you’re having a bad day when it costs more to fill up your car than it did to buy it.
You know you’re having a bad day when your doctor tells you that you’re allergic to chocolate.
You know you’re having a bad day when you wake and find your waterbed has sprung a leak and then realize that you don’t have a waterbed.
My sister and brother-in-law in New Jersey have had a bad week, with, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, no electricity, which also means no water. No water means no showers, shaving, and . . .
But even they have never had a bad day like Naomi. First of all, sadly, Naomi’s husband Elimelech died there in Moab. Their two sons each married women from that region, Orpah and Ruth, and then the two sons also died, leaving Naomi, an Israelite with two Moabite daughters-in-law. These folks could have sung the old song, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. We have to understand this wasn’t the 20th or 21st century when women can have careers and become self-sufficient. In ancient Israel for a woman to have neither husband nor sons meant she was destitute, impoverished, poverty-stricken. No rights, no property, no power. Hearing word that the economy in Judah had turned around, Naomi made the decision to go back and live among her own people. Perhaps she had relatives who could give her shelter. Naomi gave the best advice she could to her two daughters-in-law – that they should stay in Moab with their own people, possibly marry again and maybe they could still have a good life. Both Orpah and Ruth loved Naomi, and wanted to go with her. Mother-in-law wisdom pointed out that Naomi wouldn’t be having any more sons; they should stay put and marry men from their own people.
So, Orpah bid her mother-in-law a tearful good-bye, but Ruth “clung” to Naomi and adamantly refused to stay in Moab. “Wherever you’re going, that’s where I’m going.” Your people are my people now. I’ve come to know and trust your God. I’m going with you. If you die there, that’s where I will die. Nothing is going to separate us; we will be buried there together. This story of Ruth, like the well-written story of Job, sets the ancestry line for King David and ultimately for Jesus and gives us a vision of what is involved with being part of God’s people.
God’s people know what it is to receive “hesed” from God. As a seminary student I had a great time with Greek. There are many words in English that originate from the Greek. The alphabet was already familiar, and it all just made sense. But Hebrew – now that was another story. There are few, if any cognates to English words. I worked hard at learning the letter symbols and alphabet for a year before enrolling in Hebrew I, and then there’s the problem of it being written from right to left, which for those of us who are right-left dyslexic, is a huge barrier. But there are two words of Hebrew that every Christian should know, even if you never study any other part of the language. The first is known to many of you: Shalom. Shalom means both “hello” and “good-bye;” and it means “peace,” although our English word ‘peace’ barely does it justice. It is the kind of peace that is much more than the absence of war or conflict. It carries a meaning of completeness, of safety, total wellness – happiness.
The second Hebrew word, is perhaps less well-known to us. “Hesed” is translated here as “kindness.” May the Lord show you “hesed (kindness).” Again, the Hebrew word carries much more meaning. “Hesed” is a loving-kindness that is central to Jewish ethics, . . It’s about compassion, . . .grace. May the Lord show you “hesed” calls for more than a contractually-required benevolence; it is a call for unconditional, sacrificial, love-based, healing care.
As Naomi suffers the painful depths of grief, as she faces economic devastation, she credits both Ruth and Orpah for having shown her kindness (hesed), loving loyalty. Orpah obediently returns to her family home. Ruth, with an oath formula swears the seriousness of her choice to remain with Naomi. There’s no warm “I’m so glad you’re coming with me.” Naomi may simply have stopped pressing Ruth to return home. Keep reading and you will see that Naomi did explicitly show care for Ruth (3:1). Ruth sets out for a new land, among a new people, trusting Yahweh as her God. And God will bring about remarkable things through her.
Who in your life has shown you loving kindness that comes up to the level of hesed – unconditional, loyal, loving, kindness? We are in the month of thanksgiving. Could this be a time to let them know how much you value their loving kindness? And who in your life has had Naomi-like bad days and could benefit from a bit of “hesed” from you?
As the choir sings for us now the “Song of Ruth,” and later as we come to the Table prepared for us to celebrate the sacrificial love of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us all consider if we also trust Yahweh as our God, what remarkable things God can yet bring about through us when we choose to build our future on unconditional, loyal, loving-kindness.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
EPISTLE LESSON II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
MESSAGE: “Can We Reclaim Halloween?”
You may find this an interesting factoid: The year 1972, 40 years ago, was the year in which more horror movies were produced than any other year – some 189 of them! Perhaps the most famous of the horror genre, The Exorcist, came out the following year, 1973.
I read this week that the movie Jaws grossed $470 million and remains the No. 1 horror movie ever. Thirty-seven of Stephen King’s scary stories have been made into feature films. Jamie Lee Curtis became “The Scream Queen” by starring in six horror movies between 1978 and 1981. One horror film actually won an Oscar for best picture: The Silence of the Lambs, in 1991. More recently, zombies have been popping up in a number of movies. And of course the Twilight movies and True Blood television series have made vampires more popular than ever. Here we are on this eerie 40th anniversary of that horror-ible year, and three days from Halloween, and we have friends who love it, and friends who think Christians should have nothing at all to do with it.
The writer of Psalm 34 says, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (v. 4). In times of trouble, we want to be delivered, and yet -- at the very same time -- we seem to like to be scared. We even have a holiday for it. Halloween is just three days away, the day on which normally well-behaved boys and girls become zombies and scream queens. And it is not just a children’s holiday anymore: Adults currently spend an average of nearly $70 per person on their Halloween costumes. The holiday has expanded to include a month of lawn decorations, plus weekend parties for adults and children. The National Retail Federation estimated that more than 68 percent of Americans celebrated Halloween last year, spending $6.86 billion.
“I sought the LORD, and he answered me,” says Psalm 34, “and delivered me from all my fears.” When children become frightened of witches, ghosts, zombies and vampires, they need to understand that the LORD is with them and has the power to deliver them. A child is never too young to learn that, in the words of the apostle Paul, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Sharing this powerful truth is one way to take back Halloween. Not just our children, but all of us need to know that “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them”
Some of you know that I haven’t been a great fan of Halloween. I haven’t said much about it for quite a while, so others of you may not know that about me. Here’s the deal. I grew up in a family that joined in the Halloween fun. We got costumes and went out trick or treating up and down our block – and in Chicago one block has a lot of houses. I remember when a new apartment building was built by the university the “Residents’ residence” we called it because it was built to house doctors who were residents at the hospital. If we could get just one person to buzz us in.
As a self-affirming chocoholic I like the sales of all those mini candy bars. Seriously, it’s a long time between Easter and Halloween, with no major candy holidays.
Halloween can be a holiday with great fun, and although there are some rather sinister legends behind some of the traditions, many of them are built-up urban legends. I doubt it hurts much of anything to, say, bob for apples, carve pumpkins, wear costumes and go begging for candy. My personal choice to avoid Halloween (except for shopping excursions to grab chocolate on sale), originated with learning that a very dear friend suffered ritual abuse at Halloween throughout her childhood as she was raised in a family that was part of a satanic cult. Such cruelty is the exception, not the rule. Still I remain mindful of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 8 when he dealt with the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Paraphrasing his letter to apply to this issue, Paul said “When you sin against them (those who are weaker, those who have suffered) in this way and wound the weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if my celebrating Halloween causes my brother or sister pain, I will never celebrate Halloween again.”
That’s my personal choice which stems from compassion for my friend. It’s not a standard I ever intended impose on others.
That said, when pop culture transforms a “holy day” into a “holiday,” it almost always manages to focus on the wrong side of the equation. For example for today’s culture:
I think about the minister of the church in which I grew up – Mr. Parsons. I think of our associate pastor who dealt graciously with the youth group – Lou Schweppe, countless Sunday school teachers, and children’s choir directors. I think of my mom, who sang in the church choir, served on the administrative board, never missed a Sunday unless she was flat-on-her-back sick. I think of a pastor in Ludington who visited me in the hospital there, simply because we shared a last name, who did a funeral for one of the administrators where I was working and so clearly proclaimed the gospel, but that I who had not been in church for a long time, had to go. I think of professors and instructors at McCormick Theological Seminary, some of whom are still living, but some have passed on. I think of Christian friends and colleagues who have accepted and loved me for who I am, flaws and all, when they could have easily turned away. Whom do you think of who taught you and nurtured your faith, and modeled for you Christian kindness. Can we reclaim Halloween as the prelude to All Hallows, remembering the saints who have nurtured our faith and gone on before?
In my first call, I remember Charlotte, who at 92 still lived at her home on a family farm, never missed Sunday school or worship, and with honesty spoke her mind every time she opened her mouth. In this congregation I think of David & Winnie Boyle, their delightful Scottish brogue, their faithfulness in worship and that table in the fellowship hall afterwards. I remember John Hyde who used to sing tenor in our choir. I never heard an unkind word from his lips. Whom do you remember?
I remember Gwen Ryerson – whom I met in the parking lot the night before I candidated. She was quite clear that she didn’t want the congregation to call a woman pastor . . .and she told me so as we walked into the building. We got past it and developed mutual admiration and affection. Whom do you remember?
I remember the “ saint “ we lost most recently – Gene McIntyre, who demonstrated his faith serving a deacon in this church. And I remember Rich Armstrong. He always had a smile for me, and he always called me “the boss.” Whom do you remember?
There are others . . . I’m not going to try to name them all, because if I try and miss even one. . . I’ll be in big trouble.
Like any good “coach” Jesus gave his followers a goal. He gave them concrete steps they could take to reach that goal. Jesus’ goal was nothing less than turning the “me-first” morality of the world on its head. The poor, the hungry, the sorrowing — they would become the blessed, the fulfilled, the laughing. Those reviled and cast out would become those who rejoiced and reaped heavenly rewards.
Yet there was only one way to achieve these miraculous transformations. It was a simple three word directive. But these three words turned all anticipated expectations and established interpretations on their head. Here are the three words: “Love your enemies.”
Did you hear it? “Love your enemies.”
No qualifications. No exceptions. No caveats or special conditions. Just “Love your enemies.”
“Do good to those who hate you.”
“Bless those who curse you.”
“Pray for those who abuse you.”
“Lose your coat? Throw your shirt in as well.”
“Give cheerfully and extravagantly.”
Don’t expect to ever get anything back in return.
Except spiritual stamina.
Except moral musculature.
Except heart health and soul strength–neither of which can be measured by any cardiac monitor or stress test.
So this morning let us celebrate the “saints” of our faith, the saints in our midst and the saints in the distant past. Let us celebrate this morning those brothers and sisters that still stand among us. And as we celebrate them, let them inspire us to employ and embody Jesus’ kingdom of God.
That is our spiritual legacy no matter where we have come from.
At the cost of his life, Jesus reminded us that there are some things worth dying for. On All Hallows' Eve, let's not focus so much on the living dead -- zombies that pop up on movie screens. Instead, let's remember the dead who are still living as saints of God, and as inspirations to us.
GOSPEL LESSON Mark 10:32-45
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Job 38:1-7, 34-41
MESSAGE: “The Answer Is in the Questions”
Two weeks ago I told you that I have a special fondness in my heart for the Book of Job, and part of the reason for that is because it tells us from the opening chapter that not all of the bad stuff that happens to us in life is our fault. Some of our troubles we may bring upon ourselves when we make poor choices, but Job’s troubles came upon him precisely because he was a good and upright man. His virtue and integrity were precisely what attracted God’s attention made him the subject of a debate between God and Satan.
For lack of time we are skipping over the arguments and pleas of Job’s so-called friends, who attempt to convince him that he must indeed have done something wrong to earn his suffering, that he should just grin and bear it, and that if he would just pray hard enough and believe strongly enough all his troubles would disappear. The reader knows what the “friends” don’t – that Job’s troubles are the result of Satan attempting to prove to God that if Job suffers enough, he will eventually curse God and die. God takes the wager and bets that no matter what – Job will not ever curse God. The only restriction is that Satan is not permitted to kill the man.
A second reason I love the book of Job is because it tells me that when we are hurting, when we are pushed to the breaking point, when we face troubles that seem greater than we can bear, we can argue with and yell at God. We don’t need to fear God’s wrath because we question. God is big enough to handle our outbursts. Job isn’t the patient one here. God is.
After all of the prattling of his friends, and Job’s ranting at God, finally the narrative tells us in the first verse of chapter 38, “Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm.”
Job has been complaining bitterly of God’s silence. Is there anyone here who has not sought answers from God only to find themselves confronted by deafening silence?
Why, God? Why did I have to have cancer?
Why, God? Why is my child sick? And what are you going to do about it? And when?
Why, God? Did my spouse lose his job? Betray me?
Why, God? Why do we have such a bad economy and my brother lose his job?
What, God? Is there really global warming? What can I do about it? What are you, God, going to do about it?
When, God? When will I feel better? When will my grief begin to pass?
Your Word tells me to bring everything to you in prayer. I do that, and I still don’t get any satisfaction. Why, God? Why don’t you answer me.
The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. Three things jump out of those nine simple words. The Lord spoke to Job – God does answer; God does speak to us. Perhaps not when and where and how we would like. But God does speak. Remember Jesus told the story of the man who had gone to bed with his family and a neighbor came knocking at his door? All settled in for the night, the householder is not inclined to get up and open the door, but because the neighbor continued to knock and knock and knock – eventually the householder drags himself out of bed and answers. Jesus told that story not at all to characterize God as an absent, gone-to-bed, selfish householder. But we understand that if a man will eventually get up and answer the knock, how much more will God answer when we call upon him.
The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. It is in the storms of life that we are most open to hearing God’s voice. I suspect that God speaks to us more often than most of us realize. When things are going well, we are healthy, our family and friends are all healthy, our finances, employment and social life are all good, it seems to be human nature to turn off our listening ears. It is in the storms of life, the anticipation or reception of a scary diagnosis, the dreaded financial hard times, the broken relationship, the depths of depression, anxiety, loss and fear that we fine tune our hearing and listen for God.
You want to see the church grow? Look around you at work, family and social gatherings, any place where there are people, and see those who are hurting. Those who focus on the financial needs of any church would love for you to bring happy, healthy, financially blessed people into our midst. Those folks are, of course, welcome. But the people who are in trouble, those who are dealing with a major illness –theirs or that of a loved one, those who are lonely, grieving and struggling in the storms of life – those are the people who long to hear God speak.
The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. God’s majesty, power and mystery are found in the storm – some translations say “whirlwind.”
The storm is a common mode of revelation in the ancient
Near East and it is meant to invoke terror! “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (v. 2). It takes a secular age like ours to be blasé about the voice of God - to think of an audience with God as some unambiguously good thing.
The author of Job suggests that when God speaks, you had better run for cover. Job had demanded answers, God comes with questions. “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you!” (v. 3). With a kind of repetitive excess, the questions come with machine-gun rapidity. Where were you when? Can you? Do you know? Who but me has? In chapters 38 and 39 (seventy verses), we are regaled with a poetic description of God’s works, covering creation, the earth, the heavens, the natural world, the animal world, even the mythical or the primordial. God hammers away at the fact that Job is just an infinitesimal part of an awesome creation.
The sum of it is, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond” (40:2). Job is stunned. The “once great” Job answers, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (40:4). Then, as if to put the final nails in the coffin, God goes on for two more chapters!
Does Job get an answer? To the questions that plague us, the questions of justice, of fairness, of proper retribution, the answer is probably, “No.” Children still drown, spouses succumb to cancer, friends are hit by drunk drivers. Whether on the grand scale of a tsunami or in the anonymous death of an indigent, there is little clarity. We may be impressed by God’s performance, but not satisfied.
So did Job get an answer? Yes he did. The answer is in the questions.
Jack Canfield says that it’s not what other people say that makes us feel bad. It’s what we say to ourselves when they get done talking. Any of us who have zero tendencies to be super-responsible will look at this and nod and say, of course that’s God’s job. Those of us who at some level feel overly responsible for things, even things over which we have no control, will look at this and bristle as we are reminded that God is God and we are not.
It may not have been the answer Job was looking for, or the answer we are looking for. But the answer to our questions about the sovereignty, justice and power of God is that God is God and we are not. The support for that answer is found in the questions:
4 ”Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? 5 Who marked off its dimensions?
34 ”Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens 38 when the dust becomes hard?
God often has a different plan than earthlings. Does things in a different way. In the gospel for today (Mark 10:35-45), this is what the disciples did not understand. They wanted the best seats in the house, but what they got was the cup of suffering. They wanted to be on the right and left, but what they got was the baptism unto death. This may not be our way, but it is God’s way. Jesus gives a counter-vision to the ethos of his day and of ours. Mark knew, from his encounter with Rome, that for an empire, the values are force, intimidation, and a network of patronage. For the kingdom of God, the values are suffering, submission, and servanthood. (spell check: servanthood is “not in dictionary” !!)
This doesn’t sell well in today’s society and culture. But today’s society and culture are not God. God is God.
Only when we reach the end of the story, can we see the full meaning; only through the cross and empty tomb are things fully redeemed. The God who speaks from the whirlwind is also the God who hangs on a cross for us. The God who created the universe, Leviathan and all, is the God who has redeemed and will restore it. The God who was hidden in deep darkness will be revealed to us in glory.
Thanks be to God who is God.