Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Mark 10:13-16: Jesus Blesses Little Children
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
One hundred and thirty-four miles. Who here has ever walked 134 miles? I don’t mean 134 miles if you add up all the miles you walk in a month. I mean in one trip, over the course of several days or maybe even weeks. In 1903, a group of kids and their parents marched about 134 miles over the course of three weeks. I learned about this in an article by a write named Gail Friedman. In the early 1900’s, children as young as 10 years old were recruited and permitted to work in coal mines and clothing mills. It wasn’t rich kids who felt like they had to do this. It was usually kids from families that were poor and where the adults weren’t paid enough to take care of the whole family. The kids, just as soon as they could, would go to work to help pay for their family’s food and rent.
At work, they were often asked to do dangerous jobs in the day time and the night time, too, and the adults around them weren’t always interested in taking care of them. An organizer named Mother Jones realized that getting some of the kid workers and their families to march a long way from where they lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania through cities in New Jersey and then into New York City could help more people know about the strike and realize that kids shouldn’t be asked to do dangerous jobs. So, a bunch of kids and their parents started marching. By the time they reached New York City, 60 children and parents were left and they marched through the city. Five of them even went to the president’s vacation house to try to get him to pay attention to how bad it was to be a kid working a dangerous job.
Seeing all these kids and their parents march for so long in big cities helped get the attention of people who wanted to change things and agreed to try to make things safer for kids. Some places would start making laws to protect kids in dangerous jobs, including Pennsylvania, where these kids lived. It would take a while longer, but eventually, the national government passed laws that said that companies couldn’t hire elementary and middle-school aged kids for those kinds of jobs anymore. And, high school kids can only work some kinds of jobs, none of them as dangerous as the ones the kids who marched did. So, even though the March of the Mill Children didn’t immediately fix all the problems, having kids and adults work together to tell the truth about how the kids were being mistreated in their jobs helped make it easier for all these big laws to be changed later.
For it is to such as these that the realm of God belongs.
In 2016, a group of about thirty 13-year-olds set about to protect the land, the water, and their sacred spaces where they lived. I learned about them from an article by Matt Petronzio. These kids, who all were a part of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, heard plans to move an oil pipeline so that instead of running through the city of Bismark, it would run through the area next to where they lived. These kinds of pipelines often leak, polluting water and land. Some of the places where this pipeline would run were also holy sites, kind of like our church or the cemeteries where our families are buried. The kids from Standing Rock were worried that the pipeline would mess up their water so they couldn’t drink it or hurt the land or destroy holy sites. So, they started a huge social media campaign and shared petitions to stop this pipeline from being built.
These kids were really smart and used social media as a tool for good. Their work helped so many more people learn about the risks of building this kind of pipeline near water, land where people and animals live, and through special, sacred places. One of the kids, Tokata Iron Eyes was interviewed by an adult activist and they posted the video on Facebook. In just 24 hours, that video was watched 1 million times. Ann Lee Rain Yellowhammer, another one of the kid organizers, started a petition on-line and 460,000 people signed it.
The kids didn’t just organize on-line either. They worked with adults in their communities to set up a camp to get in the way of the pipeline, slowing down the construction. While adult leaders of the Standing Rock Nation were working on legal challenges to the pipeline, the 30 young organizers organized rallies to educate and inspire people, and organized two very long runs, first a 500-mile spiritual relay race from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to the district office of the Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Nebraska and the second a 2,000-mile relay race from their home to Washington, D.C. to deliver their petition. Like the long march of the mill children in 1903, these long relay runs helped get people’s attention and teach them something about the risks of the pipeline.
When they learned that the company that wanted to build the pipeline got permission to start, the kid organizers went back on-line and invited other people to come to their camp and help get in the way of construction. Thousands of people, even a pastor I know from here in Maine, went to help the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and try to stop the pipeline. Like the kids who marched in 1903, the kids from Standing Rock were not able to stop all of the problems they were fighting immediately. They and the adults they worked with were able to have construction halted for some time, though the company was given permission to start again and they were able to build the whole thing. The pipeline leaked 5 times in 2017, just like they were worried it would. They are still fighting though. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has won one important victory in court, and the company that built the pipeline is going to have to do a big study to tell the truth about what affect the pipeline will have on the environment where it was built. And, the kids, now almost ready to graduate high school, keep fighting for the rights of their community to have safe land and water. Their work reminds me that even if you don’t win at first, it is important to keep fighting for what is right.
When Jesus was alive and teaching, many grown-ups worried that kids were in the way or couldn’t understand what he was teaching. When his adult friends tried to keep people from bringing their kids to be blessed, Jesus got really mad at his friends. He said that kids deserved to be there with him. And, in fact, the kids could teach the adults something important about being brave and learning new things. In fact, he said, adults would have to re-learn how to be brave, curious, and tough the way kids are if they were going to be able to follow him. As you go about your week, if you’re a kid, I hope you’ll remember that Jesus said kids will teach grown-ups how to follow him. And, if you’re an adult, I hope you’ll make sure pay attention to the brave, curious, and tough kids that you know. Do not prevent them from doing what’s right. And, follow their lead. You just might meet Jesus along the way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Proper 22 (Closest to October 5),"Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
William B. McLain, “Proper 22 ,” Preaching God's Transforming Justice, A Lectionary Commentary Year B, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Here are some great resources about kids' activism:
-Gail Friedman: https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/march-of-the-mill-children/
-Mark Petronzio: https://mashable.com/article/standing-rock-nodapl-youth
Some specific information about the Dakota Access Pipeline:
Matthew 5:21-26: Concerning Anger
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
In a commentary on this scripture, Karoline Lewis describes Matthew 5 as not just being about what a disciple believes but how those beliefs will shape how the disciples will engage with the broader community. She puts it this way: “Who you are as a disciple is not just about you, but about you as a disciple in community.” Matthew 5, more commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, is very much about what beliefs Jesus finds to be central to faith. But, more importantly, I think, is about what kind of right action grows out of those beliefs. While many people are familiar with the first part of Matthew 5, the list of blesseds... blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek... today’s reading is less familiar. But it is no less important. It shows us how to practice what Jesus preached.
An important issue during the era in which the Gospel of Matthew was written was the relationship between following Jewish religious laws and following Jesus. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is dedicated to clarifying this issue. The 20 verses before today’s reading do a few things: clarify God’s special consideration for people in distress and on the margins of society, offer the metaphors of salt and light, ubiquitous and necessary aspects of daily life, to help disciples understand their place in the world, and affirm that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. That is a lot to do in 20 verses! That much stuff would take me at least 4 sermons. He does it in 20 verses! Maybe I’m chattier than Jesus. Anyway... All those blessings and metaphors are there to demonstrate how Jesus’ teachings are aligned with the Law. It’s like he is building up to the portions we listened to today, the portion about how to actually live out the values you say you believe.
What is most challenging about Jesus’ teaching in this portion of Matthew is that he knows he is asking for a pretty rigorous set of behaviors from his disciples. He compares the behavior he is expecting of his disciples to that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Scribes and Pharisees, known community leaders who led lives of strict religious adherence, were understood to be people seeking righteous lives... people who put a lot of thought into how their religious beliefs shaped their daily actions. While we Christians have often inherited an idea that the Pharisees were somehow bad examples of faith, in reality, they were respected religious interpreters in their community. They were likely what we hope to be... people understood to be devout and faithful and examples to be emulated. When Jesus said that he wanted his disciples to act even more faithfully than the Pharisees, he was intending to set a high bar. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works said that it was like he was saying, think of the most righteous people you know and do even better than them. That is quite the demand!
Dr. Works invites we who are “would-be disciples” to consider what it means to “be bearers of God’s kindom.” To bear something is to carry it forth into the world. What would it mean for us to truly pay attention to how our faith shapes our actions and how those actions help to bring this world closer to the Reign of God. We do not exist by ourselves in the world. Therefore, we must consider how our faith shapes our interactions with other people and other parts of creation. Jesus invites us into a faith that is attentive to relationships. How we are with each other says something about what we believe about God.
In some Bibles, the reading for today is given the subheading “Concerning Anger.” If our faith is to build what Charles L. Campbell calls life-giving relationships in his commentary on this text, we must tend to the things that can keep relationships from being life-giving. While we know anger can be righteous and a reasonable response to injustice, we also know that anger can cause harm and destroy connections among people. So, Jesus, tackles anger through the lens of the commandment against murder. He acknowledges, rightly I think, that murder is often rooted in intense and unmanaged feelings of anger. So, if you want to be more righteous than the most righteous person you know, you won’t just not murder people, you will also make amends with those whom you have wronged or made angry.
He asserts that reconciliation should be a foundational religious action. To do so, he starts with the commandment not to murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders shall be subject to judgement.” Then, he goes on to set this commandment as the not the pinnacle of faith to which you are trying to send, but as the floor. This is the place where you start. You build higher expectations on top of this foundational action. From this starting point, you tend to your anger and how it impacts your relationships. Jesus notes that calling someone names out of anger as an example of bending yourself towards the force that could entice you to break your foundational commandment and not to the faith that builds life-giving relationship. If you feel this happening, you should take stock of what is going on and begin to work for reconciliation.
In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney notes that it is clear that it the duty of the one who has done wrong to begin the amend-making process. That’s what the part that says “if you remember that your sibling in Christ has something against you” means. If you know that you have harmed someone, it is your responsibility to go to them to make amends. In many Christian circles, and in society writ large, it often seems that the ones who have been wronged are pushed first to forgiveness, without asking the ones who have done wrong to initiate an act of reconciliation. Dr. Gafney describes this a “disruption of a power curve: it is not up to victim to demand justice, nor should it be; rather the moral imperative belongs to the one accused of wrong.”
I find Dr. Gafney’s point to be both challenging and faithful. What does it mean for Christians, and Christian institutions, to understand that acknowledging and seeking reconciliation for the ways we have participated in wrongs is an act of confession and repentance that is at the heart of our worship. Jesus says if you find yourself preparing to enter into a time and space of worship, and you know that you have wronged someone, rather than prioritize that rituals that bring you closer to God, you should prioritize the reconciliation with your neighbor and sibling. In fact, he says that you can't truly fulfill your religious obligations until you've done this work.
This week, a Jewish colleague, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, shared an article called “The Year of Better Apologies” by Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman. It is written specifically for a Jewish audience that is celebrating the current holy season of amend-making and penance before the upcoming Jewish new year. I’ll share it with this sermon, because I think there is real wisdom we can learn in it about how to offer more sincere and faithful apologies. Dr. Gafney rightly notes that Christian traditions have too often neglected the practice of apology in our rush to receive grace. And, we all know that a good apology can be hard. But, it is worth our attention, and, according to Jesus, necessary for us to help bear the reign of God’s love and justice into the world. May we make better apologies and, in so doing, find ourselves growing closer to Christ and to each other.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3157
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033
Charles L. Campbell, "Sixth Sunday After Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Wil Gafney, "Proper 21 (Closest to September 28)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
The Year of Better Apologies: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better-apologies/?fbclid=IwAR3aklAvO1TgT37sPqjke6TlpaKakny4fHRkrZnL2QlX7b5LtCTT_AbtxlQ
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’
(‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’)
‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
To Make the Wounded Whole: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
A mourner’s bench is a site of Christian conversion. Charles G. Finney, one of the most influential preachers of the Second Great Awakening, developed the practice of having what he called mourner’s bench, which would also become known as an anxious bench, right up front at the revival meetings, next to the pulpit. As people were spiritually and emotionally compelled by Finney’s powerful sermons and the general intensity of the services, they would physically move from their seats in the congregation up to the mourner’s bench. According to scholar Jay Mazzocchi, the physical movement to the mourner’s bench was a visible sign of the person internal conversion... a sign that they were ready “abandon their life of sin” and follow Jesus.
The ones who had been convicted by the Holy Spirit might weep or pray aloud or testify to their guilt and salvation. The preacher and others who had already had similar conversion experiences might pray with them and encourage them. It could be a raucous and moving and terrifying spectacle to witness. The practice was so powerful that it spread beyond the ministry of Charles Finney, who first utilized them in the 1820’s. There are still congregations that use them, and an adjacent practice called at altar call, to this day. I know many people who cite altar calls and mourner’s benches as vital parts of the development of their Christian faith. I also know many people who describe them as places of spiritual coercion and shame. Both things are true and we should hold both truths together when we hear about a mourner’s bench.
“Mourner’s Bench” is also the title of the central solo in a longer dance piece called Southern Landscape. Lousiana-born, Chicago-raised Talley Beatty choreographed this piece in 1947, inspired by Howard Fast’s novel Freedom Road. In a recent talk about Beatty’s work, Dr. John Perpener described Fast’s novel as a fictionalized recounting of a true story from Reconstruction- era South Carolina, where, like other parts of the defeated Confederacy, formerly enslaved people were able to build coalition communities and governments with poor white people. When the federal government abandoned the protections of Reconstruction, removing the troops who had kept former-slave owners from retaliating against the formerly enslaved, the Klan and other white supremacists were able to destroy many of these coalitions and communities, usually with violence. In Freedom Road, they siege a community, killing many of the Black inhabitants as they tried to protect their homes.
Beatty, whose own family had had to leave Louisiana due to threats from white men who were trying to coerce his father into selling them his land, was deeply moved by Freedom Road. Dr. Perpener quotes Beatty as saying “It was staggering” how cruel people could be. In an interview for the documentary Free To Dance, Beatty say that he was “compelled to do this dance.” In the talk that I watched in preparation for this sermon, Dr. Perpener said Beatty, like other Black choreographers of the same era, would craft pieces that were, at once “part socio-political commentary, part fiery protest and resistance, and part desolate commemorative.” Beatty, in an act of resistance, places his commentary and grief within the bounds of the mourner’s bench, a common part of so many of the lives touched by racialized violence.
Perpener argues that Beatty is making use of one particular idea about the mourner’s bench. In many Black churches, the mourner’s bench was a site of redemption, salvation, rebirth, and spiritual renewal. The figure in the dance, who has just buried his friends, family members, and neighbors under the cover of darkness so as to hide from the still lurking Klan, has come to the mourner’s bench to grieve was has been done to him and to the people he loved. Unlike Finney’s raucous revivals or even a typical Sunday service, the mourner is alone, with only the Spirit to pray over him and guide him through his grief. In his description of the dance, Beatty said that every movement, from the wide-open arms to the curling into his chest, is the mourner’s reflection on the horrific events of the day. Beatty described the dance as both a group expression of grief and one individual’s personal grief.
In his talk, Perpener reminds us that the mourner’s bench is a site of transformation. When we remember that fact, it become clearer why this man, who is not lamenting his own sin but the sinful actions done to him and his community, would choose to grieve on the mourner’s bench. In choreographing this tremendous grief in a physical space known to represent transformation, we witness Beatty’s creative shifting the meaning of the mourner’s bench from a place of repentance of the sinful to a space of welcome to the grief-stricken. The dancer does not need to repent. He does need to be healed. Beatty, in what Perpener calls “artistic license,” and I might call theological imagination, wants to find a measure of transformative healing for the man and community represented in the dance. That healing begins by holding space for deep grief right on the mourner’s bench, the site where many people were welcomed into Christian community for the very first time. Transformation comes through recognizing that grief is a part of faith, not something shameful to be hidden away in the midst of it.
As we watch the dancer, we see the potential for healing transformation, even as he is wracked with grief. Remember the ways he moves across and around the bench. He still reaches out and up, he still opens himself to the possibility of comfort and healing, even though, by the end, it is clear that the healing is still in the hoped-for-future, not the freshly painful present. And, the song that accompanies this grief is a hymn... a hymn that quotes the deeply grieving words of the prophet Jeremiah. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
I don’t know if Talley Beatty was thinking of all those words when he danced this grief across the mourner’s bench, but I cannot imagine a piece that could more clearly captures the emotions of this text. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. I feel like I know more about Jeremiah because I have watched this dance. In a commentary on the Jeremiah text, Dr. Steed Davidson describes today’s reading as “recognition of the consequences of disaster and destruction.” To me, the consequences of destruction are written all over the dancer’s face and body as he grieves. It should be remembered that the dance and the scripture speak of different kinds of disaster, of grief in response to different kinds of trauma.
We should note that Jeremiah often thought the people deserved the pain they got where Beatty absolutely did not. However, we can still hold this dance and this scripture together and be reminded that grief is a reasonable response to tragedy. Anyone who expects us not to show our pain after significant loss or tries to ignore the pain of trauma that affects an entire community is disregarding the lessons of both Jeremiah and “Mourner’s Bench.” Grief does not need to be hidden away. Transformation can come, but the grief must be felt, deeply, in a space made for renewal and rebirth. Beatty found that space on the mourner’s bench. We can make that space in our church and our community. We need not forget the losses that pain us. And, our grief need not be a beautiful as Beatty’s dance. But, it needs to be felt. And, God will be right there, on the bench, with us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Jay Mazzocchi's definition of Mourners Bench: https://www.ncpedia.org/mourners-bench
Talley Beatty talking about Mourner's Bench: https://www.thirteen.org/freetodance/about/interviews/beatty2.html
I am grateful for John Perpener's work, which I encountered in these two forms:
Love is the Only Solution, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56342 [retrieved September 6, 2022]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/5653108193 – Thomas Hawk.
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
The Victory of Mercy: James 2:8-13
Even though I was a pretty religious kid and college student, at some point, when I was in seminary, I realized that I didn’t know much about the book of James. I learned that Martin Luther, the great reformer, once called James a “right strawy epistle.” That means he had some theological issues with it. Since I grew up in one of the denominations that more strictly adheres to his interpretation of Christianity, it makes sense that I wouldn’t have learned as much about this book as others (though current Lutheran denominations have a less conflicted relationship to this book). From what I remember from my Bible courses, Luther was concerned about the part of James that I like that best, that is the clear instruction to do good works as a reflection of your faith.
Luther worried that people would think that they could buy their way into God’s good graces by working hard, which, fair. Plenty of sketchy wealthy people donate money to philanthropic causes in order to hide the ways that they take advantage of their employees and hurt the environment. I know such people would try hiding their abusive actions from Jesus the same way if they could. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I do not share the same concerns as Martin Luther. I believe that our faith should direct our actions and, even when we don’t understand exactly who or what or how God is, the Gospel guides us on the actions that we can take as followers of Christ. I think Jesus is revealed in actions in the world as much as in whatever we think in our brains and feeling in our hearts. And, James really wants to make sure Christian faith is a holistic faith, a faith of actions, as well as beliefs.
In his commentary on James, Rev. Dr. Cain Hope Felder says that the goal of the entire epistle is to urge “those who call themselves Christian to adopt a courageous faith that will help them cope effectively with the trials of life, and will produce in them heightened moral integrity and loving actions.” The book of James is credited to Jesus’ brother James, who eventually became the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. In his introduction to the book of James, he shares that this whole epistle probably began as a sermon James preached shortly before he was killed for his faith. Then, maybe 15 years later, a skilled writer added to it and edited it, then shared it with other churches.
The new letter would have been passed from one church to another, particularly to churches that were part of the Diaspora of Jewish people who didn’t necessarily live in Jerusalem anymore but would still understand that a leader from Jerusalem had a measure of authority. While we have recently talked about Paul’s letters to church made up of either a mix of Jewish and Gentile Christians or that were wholly Gentile, this letter that we call James was for Jewish followers of Christ who needed help navigating what Felder calls a “tension between their allegiance to the Torah and their newfound faith in Jesus.” It can be difficult to tell when Christianity stopped simply being a part of Judaism and became a whole separate religion. Felder argues that this book is probably one of the parts of the New Testament that shows us most clearly the theological and practical concerns of those who called themselves both Jewish and followers of Christ.
Works. That’s a central theme of this text. Works are the things that you do because of your faith. Or, as Feld describes them, “the acts that spring from the love of the believer for God.” Chapter Two of James is about a particular action, that favoritism based on social class, and whether or not this kind of action is acceptable in their faith. The short answer is: No. It’s not. You could probably guess that even if you’ve never read a word of this epistle. But, it was an issue then and, frankly, is still an issue now. People who are perceived as wealthy continue to be treated with higher measures of respect and held to lower standards of accountability than people perceived as being poor. James reminds us that while that behavior is common, that doesn’t mean it’s Christian.
In the verses leading up to today’s reading, a particular discriminatory behavior is described. People wearing fine clothes and jewelry who visit the assembly of Christians may be offered a seat and be given a warm welcome while people who appear poor are told to stand or sit on the floor at someone else’s feet. Scripture here is clear: this kind of behavior is evidence of evil thoughts. In verse 5, James says “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom of heaven that God has promised to those who love God?” James assumes, and I think this is in line with Torah, that God has a particular concern for the poor and that poor people should be treated with the same kind of respect as one would treat an heir of a wealthy family. Moreover, James points out the way that wealthy people abuse their power, particularly the ways that they drag poor people to court. Then, as now, poor people were less likely to be treated well in court and had fewer resources with which to defend themselves.
For James, to show favoritism of the wealthy is to forget one of the most important parts of the Law and the Gospel: Love your neighbor as yourself. The author and editor of this text go on to equate favoritism of the wealthy with other behaviors that go against the Commandments. In doing so, James is making it clear: the wealthy should have no favored place in Christian community. They should not be granted more rights or more respect or more care. To mistreat the poor is to mistreat a neighbor and that goes against the Torah. For these Christians, who very much uphold the Torah as a guide for everyday living, that would be important to hear. It would show them how to actually live out their faith... give them one specific way to clearly act in accordance to both the religious law handed down to them from their forbearers and the interpretations of that law passed along from Jesus.
Act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. That unfamiliar phrase seems to has with how one offers mercy. Liberty does not mean the freedom to do whatever you want. Liberty means the freedom to choose behaviors that reflect your faith. In this case, it means choosing mercy. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney says that the Christian is encouraged here to “deal with each other in mercy rather than judgement, assuring mercy for ourselves at our judgement.” The ones who deserve the most mercy are the ones for whom God has particular care, that is, the poor and those who struggle financially. To do right by the poor is to achieve victory through mercy. As you go through this week, especially with all these conversations about means testing and who deserves forgiveness... as you yourself have the opportunity to decide how to live out your faith, I hope you remember this text and think about what it means to choose mercy. For James, this is question of mercy is foundational to the Gospel. How will you live like it is foundational to your own faith?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Proper 18 (Closest to September 7th)" Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Cain Hope Felder, "introduction to the book of James," The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Luke 19:1-10 Jesus and Zacchaeus
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
I’ve been trying to remember the last time I climbed a tree. I know that I climbed a tree when I was 19. Some friends had found a tree swing way out on someone’s property that we probably weren’t even supposed to be on. You had to climb the tree, which had a hornets’ nest in it, by the way, to reach the swing. When you leapt off, it swung you way out over a gully about 60 feet in the air. When you wanted to get off the swing, one of the taller guys would have to grab your legs as you swung by and another one would grab the swing to help you get down. Of course, we went out to the tree at dark thirty at night with only 2 pen lights and 4 teenage boys to lead us. This was one of the more ill-advised things I did in 1999. I don’t think I learned much about Jesus up on that tree. I did learn to ask a few more questions before following my friends into the woods.
I remembered another story that reminded me of today’s reading, though I didn’t climb any trees in that one. I've told it before, but I like it, so I’m going to tell it again. In 1996, the Summer Olympics were going to be in Atlanta, Georgia. While my family had no to plans to go, I was going to be able see the Olympic Flame when it came through Knoxville, Tennessee. Coach Pat Summitt, who was not Jesus, but was and is quite beloved back where I’m from, was to carry the flame into downtown Knoxville. She was the coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team and a former Olympian herself. I was in a summer program at UT that year and walked over with friends to see her carry the flame into downtown.
Well, once we got there, we realized that half of East Tennessee had had the same idea. Thousands of people were there. Even though I was able to squeeze my way pretty close to the road where she was running, my friend Nedja and I ended up stuck behind two very tall guys. There was no way that we could see the road from where we were. There wasn’t even a tree close by that I could climb like Zaccheaus. As time grew closer for her to arrive, I just figured I was going to miss it, because there were too many people, and too many of them were taller than me and in front of me.
I said something to Nedja like, “Awww, I can’t see anything. I’m too short.” Two very tall men in front of us heard us talking about not being able to see. Then, surprisingly, they turned around and offered to let us slide in front of them! And, we did! We were so grateful! When Coach Summitt ran by, we could see her, holding the torch proudly. We, and the tall guys behind us, and the thousands of other people, cheered until we were hoarse because we got to see someone who was a hero to us doing something very special. It was a pretty good night.
Now, what have you done to see someone who was important to you? Were you like me, and just complained out loud, hoping some stranger would have mercy on you? Or, were you like Zacchaeus, and took some initiative to make sure you could see the person you wanted to see? I have always enjoyed this story about somebody who was so interested in learning more about Jesus that he climbed up a whole tree so that he could see him better. That is some dedication. Sycamore trees are not easy to climb! Would you be willing to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus?
Today’s reading happens just before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on the occasion that we remember as Palm Sunday. When we read this story about Zacchaeus, we should understand it as setting the scene for Jerusalem... for the triumphal entry, for the conflicts in the temple, for the trial, the execution, and the resurrection. It helps set the scene by showing us a person who had been making a living by cheating people choose to live differently after encountering Jesus. And, it shows us Jesus confirming that his mission is to the ones who need him most.
Zacchaeus had a very visible job in their community. He was the chief tax collector. Every single commentary I read this week reminds us that tax collectors, who worked on behalf of the oppressive Roman government, were considered traitors. And, many, in addition to taking a job that their neighbors found morally suspect, added insult to injury by taking more than they were required. They padded their own pockets and the people whom they cheated had little recourse. Zacchaeus appears to have been not just a tax collector but a cheat who stole more than was required. No wonder the crowd dislikes him. I’d probably dislike him, too.
If you were Zacchaeus, would you have been surprised if Jesus called up to you and asked to come over to your house for dinner? My hunch is that you might be. The crowd sure seems surprised, and annoyed, that Jesus is spending time with him. What kind of example is Jesus setting by spending time with cheats and traitors? Some might have even begun to mistrust Jesus because he was spending time with someone who had done so much harm.
It is interesting how short this story is. Dr. Wil Gafney points that out in her commentary on this text that we don’t see the meal at all. All that is recorded for us is that Zacchaeus quickly came down the tree and was happy to welcome Jesus. And, then, the grumbling starts from the crowd. In the midst of the grumbling crowd, Zacchaeus says, “I will give have half of my possessions to the poor. And, I will pay back anyone who I cheated not just the amount I took from them, but four times that amount.” Dr. Gafney reads Zacchaeus’ statement as one coming from a person who has spent time with Jesus and has been convinced to change. That is how I’ve read it, too. But, we see none of that conversation at the house here in the story.
In his commentary on the text, David Lose argues that the original Greek is flexible enough that Zacchaeus might not be reporting on his plan to change his life in the future, as our translation read, but, instead, he is stating that he is already doing this... that he has already been changed and is already sharing half of all he got from his shady job and paying restitution to the ones he cheated. Lose seems to think that Zacchaeus’ statement could be an explanation to the grumbling crowd, before he and Jesus even get to the house, to justify Jesus’ invitation. Lose thinks it could be a kind of confession and a description of how he will make amends... showing both Jesus and the crowd that he has been changed by what he has already learned from Jesus, thereby justifying Jesus’ kindness to the crowd.
That being said, whether Zaccheaus’ words are evidence that he has been convinced, over the course of a long dinner, to change his future behavior, or whether they are a description of a plan that has already been put to action that he wants to share with the community he has harmed, Jesus acknowledges that it is a good and faithful plan. He says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus, too, is finally living into the promises of the covenant, that is loving God and loving neighbor, and reclaiming his place among the people who follow this covenant. Then, Jesus says that the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. Thank God Zacchaeus allowed himself to be saved. Thank God he was willing to be changed by Jesus, as we can see from his commitment to atone to his community after hurting them. May we learn to change and make amends, just like Zacchaeus did. And, may we ask ourselves, “what will you do to see Jesus?” Because there are so many more trees to climb. Just... keep an eye out for hornets while you’re up there.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-3/commentary-on-luke-191-10-2
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-3/commentary-on-luke-191-10-3
Wil Gafney, "Proper 17 (Closest to August 31), "Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Carolyn C. Brown: https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4364/worship-for-kids-november-3-2019
Mark 12:28-34 The First Commandment
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
As I reviewed today’s reading, I was glad to be reminded by Dr. Wil Gafney’s commentary that Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question demonstrates just how good of a student of his own faith that Jesus was. This reading is part of a rigorous conversation Jesus was having with biblical scholars in the temple not too much before he went to Jerusalem for his final Passover. You may have noticed when Maryelise read it, that translation calls the conversation a dispute.... like a fight. Dr. Gafney argues that the text isn’t showing us a fight. It is showing us vigorous discussions between learned and devout people. When you get a bunch of people together who all think faith is important, like Jesus and like these scholars, you’re bound to have vigorous conversations. That’s what scribe means here... scholars, not simply people who write down things that other people say. Today’s reading is one part of this conversation. It’s a part when a new person to the conversation shows up and asks him what he thinks is the heart of Jewish religious law.
Love God and Love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus says: Love God and love your neighbor. The scholar who asks the question agrees with him. This scribe sees Jesus’ wisdom and Jesus sees his. This affirmation of sound, shared teaching is enough to make the conversations around Jesus’ teaching stop, at least for the moment. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston says in her commentary on this text, this portion of story shows us that Jesus and the scribe alike know that the Law is intended to be a gift from God to the people, a gift that shows the people how to relate to God and, frankly, to other people. If your behavior is rooted in the covenant, it consistently demonstrates these two commitments. It’s like they are both saying, “God and neighbor are a package deal.” If you don’t love both, you aren’t living into the promises you made in the covenant. Nothing more needs to be said.
While this is the end of today’s reading, it’s not the end of the conversation in the temple. I think it’s worth talking a little more about the rest of the conversation, say, up to verse 44. While the end of our reading says that no one asked him any more questions, that doesn’t mean he stopped talking. In the verses just after today’s reading, Jesus shifts his focus from this one scholar back to the crowd that was listening. And, he asks them a question: How can the Messiah be the son of David? According to the scholar Richard Horsley, Jesus asks this question and expounds on it to indicate that he disagrees with any scholarly take on the Messiah that will lead the people to believe that the Messiah is a militaristic leader who will restore Israel through war. Jesus doesn’t think that the Messiah will be a soldier king like David was. This was perhaps a way to prepare people for the fact that Jesus was not a soldier, but a servant... a servant who was called to love God and neighbor.
With this disagreement in mind, Jesus, as a burgeoning leader, takes other leaders to task. In verse 38, he says to beware of scholars and leaders who like to appear holy and insist on being treated with a certain amount of deference in public but then fall short of the demands to love God and love neighbor. Jesus makes it clear that he has no patience for people, especially leaders, who are more concerned about their reputation and image than love and justice. He names particularly the plight of widows, many of whom, as Debie Thomas notes in her commentary, are generous with what little they have and supporting the scholars and priest of the temple with their meager amounts of money and simple offerings. Any scholar or priest who swans around town in fancy clothes and makes a show of their public prayers but ignores the care of those who give everything to support the temple has forgotten their obligations not just to the widow, but to God.
The scholar who asked Jesus the question about the greatest commandments would have likely agreed with Jesus. In the part Maryelise read, you’ll remember that he said loving God and loving neighbor was more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices... that is all the ritual obligations that also materially supported priests and scholars of the temple. Emerson Powery, in his commentary on this text, wanted readers to make sure to notice that. This scholar probably knew that people in his position took advantage of it, too. When powerful people pretend not to know that some people take advantage of that same power, it only protects abusers and manipulators. The Scribe knew that.
In verse 41, Jesus describes an example of the kind of person who is often taken advantage of: a poor and devout widow who gives what looks like very little money but is a significant amount of what she has. In her commentary, Debie Thomas argues that part of the reason that Jesus lifts up this particular example isn’t to push other poor people to give too much money but instead to describe the shameful behavior of the community leaders that would leave this woman so destitute to begin with. I think Jesus telling the people who were listening, and probably us, too, that if someone claims to have any concern for the covenant and for building a relationship with God, they can’t care more for their reputation and for the institution that supports them than for the people whom God loves. And, God particularly loves the vulnerable: the immigrant, the orphan, the widow.
Given that Christians broke off from Judaism and stopped following all the temple practices described here, it can be tempting to distance ourselves from these leaders who took advantage of the rules of their institution. Look at them, over there, back then, doing this bad thing. Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, reminds us that we can build up our own version of these hypocritical practices in our time and in the places where we are trying to live out our faith. I’m sure you’re thinking right now of some ways you’ve observed or maybe even some ways you’ve participated in this same kind of devouring, showboating faith that Jesus is calling out. For example, in her commentary on this text, Dr. Gafney notes that far too often, Christians decide that some people... women, LGBTQ folks, people who don’t share our faith, poor people, immigrants... are not worthy of being considered neighbors to whom we are called to love. She even goes so far to say, “If our Gospel proclamations are not true for the most marginalized among us […] then our gospel is not true.” It is both necessary and wise to spend part of our time as the body of Christ examining how we are living and moving in the world to see if our outward manifestation of Church is actually living up to our call to love God and love our neighbor. This is the very first thing Christ asks of us. Everything else is distant second.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Sarah Henlicky Wilson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Debie Thomas- http://www.journeywithjesus.net/theeighthday/446-the-widowed-prophet
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4
Richard Horsley's commentary is in the footnotes to the Gospel of Mark in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (ed. Michael Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2004)
Wil Gafney, "Proper 16 (Closest to August 24), Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Psalm 47:1-2, 5-9 God’s Rule over the Nations
To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
1 Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
5 God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.
Clap one time if you hear me.
Clap two times if you hear me.
Clap three times if you hear me.
Clap four times if you hear me.
Now, I have taught you one of the greatest ways to get the attention of a room full of teenagers at a youth retreat. Ask them to clap along! Even if they don’t, it eventually gets too loud and distracting for them to keep doing what they were doing. There is something about clapping that gets people’s attention. And, there’s something about clapping that gets you to pay attention. Today’s reading opens with that exhortation: “Clap your hands, all you peoples,” and continues with an invitation that feels a little like an order, “shout to God with loud songs of joy.” If you were going to shout out a song of joy, what would it be?
In his commentary on this text, Joel LeMon says that Psalm 47 is an enthronement Psalm. That means it is part of a group of psalms that celebrates one particular way that ancient Israel understood its relationship to God... The people understood God to be what Dr. Wil Gafney calls “a sovereign monarch.” LeMon notes that it is possible that this Psalm was used as part of a regular ritual to celebrate God’s enthronement. There may have even been special procession with the Ark of the Covenant, which is known as the Throne of God, marching it up the temple mount and back into the temple. Now, I have never been to a parade celebrating a monarch, which, frankly, I’m a little relieved about. The legacies of many human monarchs leave me leery of the institution and of anyone who seeks the power of the authoritarian or supposedly “god-ordained monarch.” However, an Episcopal colleague of mine is fond of saying (and I’m probably paraphrasing), “I view God as sovereign, and no one else.” While it’s not my favorite of the many metaphors for God in the Bible, I can hang with my colleague’s sentiment. God is a sovereign worth celebrating. The party described in this Psalm? It’s worth attending.
In her commentary on the text, Wil Gafney clarifies why the celebration is necessary. It is rooted in the covenant between the people of Israel and God. Unlike our country, their nation was organized around a specific religious identity as the Chosen People of God. Others nations, including factions in our own, occasionally assert an identity as people adopted in to the Chosen-ness or even talking about replacing those who are Chosen. Unfortunately, too often interpreters use the idea that they are Chosen by God to excuse really terrible behavior on both individual and national levels. When powerful people start to claim God made them powerful, suspicion is a righteous response. We would do well to remember that God, throughout the Hebrew Bible and in Jesus’ ministry, sided not with the powerful but with the powerless. It is one thing for people who have been beaten down to remember that God is still in covenant with them. It’s another for those who are doing the beating up to claim they are doing God’s will.
The portions of Psalm 47 that Dr. Gafney suggested for the reading for today demonstrate a people celebrating God who has chosen to be in covenant with them, that is God who in relationship with them and has made promises to them. This isn’t a monarch who is disconnected and distant. No, this is a God who is with them, tending to their well-being and offering both support and accountability. The shouts and songs and hand-clapping are a celebration of God’s graciousness and the on-going relationship between the people and God. Dr. Gafney reminds us in her commentary that central to a covenant is an oath, a promise, with mutual obligations. God will tend to Israel’s well-being. Israel will tend to the well-being of the orphan, the immigrant, and the widow. And, regularly, they will gather to remember that covenant, give thanks, and importantly, celebrate.
Earlier, I asked you what might be your song of joy. As I was working on this sermon, I remembered a flash of something I’d heard about a song that I consider quite joyful and perfect for a procession through the city, the song “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas. You might remember the opening verse:
Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand-new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the street.
They're dancing in Chicago,
Down in New Orleans,
In New York City.
Now, I think of this as a joyous party song. But, somewhere... I think on a commercial for a tv series about music... I heard someone say that this was more than a party song. It was a protest song. I went to try to find more information because that is very interesting to me.
I found an interview with the journalist Mark Kurlansky, who wrote a book in 2013 where he describes “Dancing in the Street” as more than just a very good song of the summer. He called it a “protest anthem.” The song came out in 1964, right in the midst of the civil rights movement and literally two days before the War in Vietnam escalated due to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Black churches were being burned and protesters were being arrested. Because of all the turmoil, people were looking for connections and for ways to find meaning in a confusing world. Kurlansky thinks that this song helps to do that. He said “Dancing in the Street” is powerful because “it makes you feel like doing something.” What you do depends on what you are called to do in that moment: have a party, go to protest, sing with your friends. “It doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there.” Sounds little like church, doesn’t it? Sounds a little like a protest, too. Or a really good street dance. The Psalm and the song, when read and sung together, remind us that these three things aren’t really all that different.
There’s a part of today’s reading that describes God as a sovereign who actually loves all nations... is potentially in relationship with all nations, not just one. This is not a sentiment held by all the Psalms. But, it is the sentiment of this one. Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem all that different from “Everywhere around the world, they’ll be dancing. Dancing in the street.” If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend at least part of the rest of the day humming “Dancing in the Street.” Or, the Ode to Joy. Or this peppy version of “Breathe On Me, Breath of God” we sang today. I hope you will accompany this humming with a little clapping... you own procession to celebrate covenant with God. And, I hope you’ll hear the call to grab up a partner or two and connect with the world around you. The world needs our joy, our work, and our inspiration. God’s covenant requires it of us. So, clap your hands. And, get out to the streets!
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ascension-of-our-lord/commentary-on-psalm-47-3
Wil Gafney, "Proper 15 (Closest to August 17)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Information about Dancing in the Street:
-Martha and the Vandellas singing "Dancing in the Street": https://youtu.be/CdvITn5cAVc
-Lyrics, "Dancing in the Street": https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/16308672/Martha+Reeves/Dancing+in+the+Streets
-Mark Kurlansky, Ready for Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013)
-In interview with Kurlansky about his book: https://www.npr.org/2013/07/07/199063701/how-dancing-in-the-street-became-a-protest-anthem
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Sometimes I feel like my sermons are about all the scriptures around the reading as much as they are about the specific scripture that is our reading for the day. Lucky for you, today is one of those days. You may be pretty familiar with the idea of Jesus as a shepherd. It’s one of the most recognizable ways that that he is described in Christian tradition. When Cyndi and I were looking for art work for this Sunday’s bulletin, we had a multitude of choices for Jesus as Shepherd. That is not true of every scripture.
So, what does the story before today’s reading tell us about how Jesus was a shepherd? I am grateful for the work of scholar Osvaldo Vena who pointed back to this healing story in chapter 9 to clarify the shepherd discourse in chapter 10. Dr. Vena notes that at the beginning of chapter 10, when Jesus says “Very truly, I tell you...”, the you is not a general you... an “all y’all who are listening”... but a specific “you,” that is, “you, the Pharisees who have been a part of the debacle around the healing.” I call this healing a debacle not because of what Jesus did or what the person who was healed did, but how the community leaders respond when they see that the man is healed.
The short version of chapter 9 is that Jesus healed someone outside the bounds of the community’s traditions around healing. The leaders of the community are suspicious of Jesus’ power, which is fair. The leaders couldn’t agree with one another about Jesus’ actions: some thought them wrong because he healed on the Sabbath, which was a kind of work that people were asked to refrain from, and some thought him right because healing is a sign of God and acts of mercy were allowed on the Sabbath. They questioned the man and his parents about how Jesus healed him. The three all say they don’t know. The man who was healed said that it would seem obvious to him that Jesus was sent by God based on the good he did. So, even if he didn’t understand it, he knew it was holy.
Well, as we all know, embarrassed powerful people can be mean. The leaders resented being lectured by a random guy with no education and no money. So, they kick the guy out of town! This poor guy... having a great day because he can see for the first time in his life and people are so suspicious of the miracle that they’d rather get rid of him than learn from it. Jesus then goes to find him and welcome him into the fold as a disciple. As he welcomes the man who had been discarded, Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). The Pharisees who are close enough to hear this statement say “Surely we are not blind, are we?” The Shepherd discourse is the response to the Pharisees who wondered if they had made a mistake.
In Chapter 10, Jesus uses the metaphor of the shepherd to explain how he will use his power. He used metaphors they’d understand. Jesus said that he was both the gate and the shepherd, letting people into beloved community and laying down his life to protect his fold. Our reading today is his description of what it means to be a “good shepherd.” In his commentary on this text, Dr. Obery Hendricks Jr. points out several other places in the Hebrew Bible that call upon the image of Shepherd as someone good and holy. For the Pharisees, who knew their scripture well, they might have understood Jesus to be invoking those scriptures to explain his own mission. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, Jesus was offering the man he healed access to good pasture, safe paths, and cool water. Like the shepherd in Ezekiel (34:1-10), Jesus sought out the lost and wounded sheep. Like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:10-11, Jesus comforts and heals his sheep. When asked to explain himself, this is what he says: I offer comfort, safe passage, and healing. “I am the Good Shepherd. I am more than a hired hand. I will call out to his sheep and they will know me. I will lay down my life to save them.”
As I read over this scripture, I remembered something I read about the Shepherd imagery in John. I think it was in Karoline Lewis’ book about John. She said that if you pay attention, Jesus acts like a shepherd through the whole book. In chapter 10, he says that the shepherd will call out the sheep’s names, identifying them as his own. In the stories recounting the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ own resurrection, Jesus called out to Lazarus and called out to Mary Magdalene to claim them as his own. In fact, he found each of his first sheep, his disciples, and called them to ministry alongside him. He also kept his sheep safe at the time of his arrest, giving himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. Remember, a good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people.
In another commentary on this text, Karoline Lewis also notes that Jesus seems to be training up apprentice shepherds... that is, the sheep can also shepherd the rest of the flock. Several chapters after today’s reading, in the days after the resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter he, too, needed to be a shepherd. In John 21, Jesus says, "Simon (that's one of Peter's names), do you love me more than these?" Peter said of course he loved him. Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." Jesus then told him, "Tend to my sheep." And, a third time, Jesus said, "Feed my sheep." Jesus was not the only shepherd, Lewis argues. His followers may shepherd, too.
In her commentary on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney points out this fascinating bit about “the sheep who do not belong to this fold,” but are nevertheless Christ’s. Who is this other flock that we don’t know? I mean, I can think of people who aren’t always welcomed in the flocks I’ve been a part of: unhoused people who don’t have regular access to showers or medication, people who aren’t white, people who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction, people who have been hurt by the church, people who have been in prison. Thank God this scripture reminds us that we aren’t the only ones claimed by Jesus. There’s this whole other flock! Shoot, maybe we’re the other flock, waiting to be called by Christ and joined into one body with all his beloved sheep. Perhaps this is our question to consider for the following week. How can we live in a way that is open to Jesus calling us to follow him and also open to all the people, the ones we know and the ones we don’t know, who Jesus is also calling along the way. May we learn to be one flock, made stronger by our differences and made whole by Jesus’ call on our lives.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-being-the-good-shepherd
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-4
Wil Gafney, "Proper 14 (Closest to August 10)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Obery M. Hendricks, "John," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’
The Genealogy of David
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
That Boaz is a good man, even if he’s a little slow on the uptake sometimes. I mean, sure, he could have taken Naomi and Ruth in immediately when they got to town. He didn’t. He must have been distracted that day... it was the beginning of the harvest. Do you know any farmers? They are always thinking about the harvest at harvest time. But he stepped up, once he realized who this young foreign woman was gleaning in his field among the others who counted on the faithfulness of strangers. Once he found out that this woman was the woman who had bound herself to Naomi, he knew that he had a responsibility to help her... to help them. Not only had God called on him to help the immigrant and the impoverished and widows. His community also expected him to care for his relatives. Naomi was his relative, though distant, and Ruth had become Naomi’s family. He just needed to be reminded a little.
Who among us hasn’t been at least a little like Boaz? Knowing that we have a call to justice and hospitality but also caught up in the regular responsibilities of our lives? I mean, the harvest still has to come in, even if there are also strangers and long-lost family members to tend to. Thank God for the Ruths of the world who show up, work hard, and make the most of the few opportunities they have. In her essay on Ruth called Women at the Center, Judith Kates writes about how Boaz needed to be “mobilized” from passively following his religious obligations, as in, leaving grain to glean, into actively working for the good of Ruth and Naomi. Yes, he needs to be mobilized, but once he gets going, he does pretty well.
You may have heard me mention the Hebrew word chesed before. It means, according to Kates, “generosity beyond obligation.” Kates notes that God is often described as behaving in ways that demonstrate chesed, that is, a generosity beyond obligation, towards humanity.
Remember, God and Israel had a covenant. A covenant implies that both parties have an obligation. Israel is obliged to God in certain ways and God is obliged to Israel in certain ways. Boaz’ behavior is driven by this obligation to God. It is because he is living out his faith that he chooses to respond to Ruth and Naomi out of chesed, loving-kindness beyond obligation. God both exhibits chesed and is witnessed at work in the world through chesed. Kates argues, and I agree, that once Boaz sees Ruth, whom he claims has been demonstrating chesed through her love and loyalty to Naomi, he is motivated to chesed. It first happens at the field where she is gleaning, and it happens again on the threshing floor when he is startled awake and sees her near him. Today’s reading is the result of Boaz’ inspiration. Ruth risked so much to try to get him to tend to his familial obligations. How could he not respond to her bravery with loving-kindness?
So much of this reading is a less clear than it could be because both the legal practices and cultural practices around marriage are drastically different in the era described in this story. I am grateful to the scholars who help modern readers parse it out. Kates helps to set the scene in her essay by noting that the loving-kindness that Boaz needs to enact to care for Ruth and Naomi is not simply interpersonal support. At this point, to care for them best, he needs to shift into actions in the public and legal sphere. And, Mary Joan Winn Leith notes in her commentary on the text, legal matters were settled in a space at the city gate where elders gathered. These elders were respected community members, usually men. Boaz must direct his appeal and plan towards them.
In the reading for today, we learn that apparently Ruth and Naomi’s husbands still had a little property back in Bethlehem. But, according to Leith, women could not sell land that their husband’s had owned. But, a man in their family could assume the responsibility... and the wealth... if he were a woman’s next-of-kin after her husband died. In the verses just before our reading for the day, another male relative had shown up, hoping to claim the land and the wealth for himself. He expressed no concern for Ruth and Naomi. Boaz outmaneuvers him, saying that he plans to marry Ruth to produce an heir with an equal claim to the land as the unnamed, shady possible next-of-kin. According to Leith, the unnamed man, unwilling to accept the financial complications that would come with claiming the land without marrying Ruth, drops out of the running for kinsman redeemer, leaving Boaz. Boaz, who is a good man, even if he needs a little reminding sometimes.
If there is one last lesson to be learned from the book of Ruth, it is this: be willing to be reminded of your obligations when you fall short. And, when you are reminded, act on them with wit, creativity, and gusto. Make a good plan that outsmarts the ones who are just in it for them money. Make sure that your plan does the most good possible, which, in this case, means securing the long-term well-being of two women who really need someone to be on their side for the long haul. Our reading begins with Boaz’ public declaration of his intent to marry Ruth and have a child who will, according to their interpretation of their cultural practices, will be an heir to Mahlon, Ruth’s deceased first husband. If Mahlon has an heir, Naomi’s future is secure as well.
Ruth and Boaz have a son, named Obed. This child is understood to be Naomi’s child as well. And the women of Bethlehem shout with joy, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you without next-of-kin!” They call this infant “a restorer of life and a nourisher” for Naomi’s old age. These women speak of Ruth as the one who loves Naomi and “who is more to [her] than seven sons.” In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker calls Ruth “Naomi’s greatest blessing.” And, I’m inclined to agree.
Schifferdecker also summarizes the entire book this way: “Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the chesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.” And, that child they conceived, Obed, the one who brought hope to their little, unconventional family, his name will show up again. He is an ancestor to King David. Christian writings would go on and say that he was an ancestor to Jesus, too. Isn’t this how generosity works sometimes? One good act intended to save two people ripples out into love and liberation for countless more. May our faithful God grant us the wisdom to enact some of this hopeful generosity in our own time. And, may we be confident that our loving-kindness can ripple out into the world, too.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Judith A. Kates, "Women at the Center," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-4-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-41-22
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Where you can find the art: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved July 25, 2022]. Original source: Estate of John August Swanson, https://www.johnaugustswanson.com/.
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’
So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do so. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.’
So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, ‘It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.’ Then he said, ‘Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.’ So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. She came to her mother-in-law, who said, ‘How did things go with you, my daughter?’ Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.” ’ She replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.’
Ruth 3:1-18: For Good
“I love it when a plan comes together.” Does anyone recognize that phrase? That’s right. It’s from the tv show The A Team. This show about a group of former soldiers who, after escaping prison following wrongful arrests, end up hiring themselves out for high stakes cases, often helping people in desperate situations. The jobs they are hired for are usually dangerous and often kind of impossible. The plans they devise are usually wild and likely to fail. But, they always pull it off, even though they usually have to do something very silly, like turn a watermelon into a weapon. In just about every episode, after something zany and cartoonishly dangerous has happened and the innocent has been saved, Hannibal, the team leader, says, with cigar firmly clamped between his teeth, “I love it when a plan comes together.” That’s why you watch this show... because someone is going to have a problem and the A Team is going to make a plan. You want to see how the plan will come together.
Maybe I should blame it on the A Team since I watched it at an impressionable age because I really love a movie or a show about a team making a wild plan in the face of impossible odds. Usually, you see this kind of thing in heist stories, like the Oceans movies, where thieves are trying to get at some very hard to steal treasure. Even though they are thieves, we are nearly always invited to root for them and their wild, intricate plans. Sometimes you get stories about teams and plans in shows like Leverage, where former con arts and thieves use their planning powers for good, much like the A Team, to take down corrupt politicians and business owners. Heck, there’s even a kind of romance story that relies on a crisis, like the family business being in danger of closing, that has the protagonists turning to a wild plan, like winning an elite baking competition despite being an inexperienced baker , to both save the business and help the heroes fall in love.
There are, of course, wildly divergent stakes in the kinds of stories I described above. Often, though, the characters in the story risk losing their freedom, or meaningful roles in the community, or meaningful relationships. Sometimes they also risk losing their lives. And yet, inevitably, the protagonist will decide that the risks are worth taking.... they might be able to clear their name or pay off a debt or take down an abuser or impress people who mean something to them. So, they figure out what skills they have, what resources they need, what barriers they must overcome. They figure out who their compatriots are in this impossible task and then they make a plan. And, we, the audience get to watch and see how their plan comes together. And, I love it (and I bet you love it) when a plan comes together.
When we read Ruth 3, our scripture for the day, we need to keep in mind that this is a story about a risky plan. And, the stakes are high... life and death kind of stakes. But this plan is not a Danny Ocean plan. It’s not about glory. It is about survival. But, because we are not from the same time or the same cultures as Ruth and Naomi, it may not be clear what all the plan means or just how high the stakes are. I am inviting you to consider the rest of this sermon to be the part of the movie where the heroes walk us through events that shape their plan. It matters that we understand how and why this plan is so risky and why it seems worth it to try.
As I’ve talked about in other sermons, as poor widows without sons of working age, Ruth and Naomi’s lives were precarious. Mary Joan Winn Leith, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that it was so widely recognized that women in positions like Ruth and Naomi were vulnerable that God gives the Israelites specific instruction to leave a part of their fields unharvested for them to come and glean. You can find those instructions in Leviticus 19.9-10, 23.22 and Deuteronomy 24.19-22. In the last sermon I preached on Ruth, we talked about how Ruth was gleaning in a field, that is, foraging for bits of grain left behind in the main harvest. That is where she met Boaz.
Additionally, with Naomi being of an age where she can no longer become pregnant and Ruth being from Moab, a people whom Deuteronomy (23: 3) says will never be allowed to become a part of God’s chosen people, we are also led to assume that the likelihood that either of these two will be able to remarry in Bethlehem is low. Given their status as poor widows who have few marriage prospects, I think that it is an appropriate reading of the text to say that they are not abounding in options or support. Fortunately, though, there is Boaz... Boaz who chose to see Ruth as a welcome foreigner instead of an enemy... Boaz who remembered one religious obligation when he left grain for vulnerable people to harvest and could likely be reminded of another obligation to tend to distant relatives... Boaz, who might not think to reach out to Naomi when she first gets back to town, but, when reminded of her need through Ruth, goes above and beyond what would have been expected of him in caring for her. In Boaz, Naomi sees potential. So, Naomi makes a plan.
I asked in my first sermon on Ruth, how do you survive the unsurvivable? Well, in this part of the story, we can see that in order to survive, one must pair deep wisdom with great bravery. Naomi has the experience with the community and their faith to understand how to approach Boaz in the way most likely to garner a positive response. And, Ruth... Ruth is so brave. In an essay about the book of Ruth, Judith Kates outlines all the ways that Ruth, in particular, in vulnerable: she is a woman without a man obligated to care for her (either as spouse or mother) she is poor, and she is a foreigner from a despised people. Naomi’s risky plan will go on to demand even greater vulnerability from her. Kates notes that this plan, which involves a late-night rendezvous with possibly inebriated-from-post-harvest-celebrations Boaz, risks sullying Ruth’s reputation. This reputation is the main thing that is keeping the community offering the little bit of care they have offered Ruth and Naomi up to this point. If the broader community, and Boaz, see this action as a scandal, all could be lost! Naomi, though, is wise and a good teacher. And, Ruth is brave and patient. It is clear that they believe this plan can work. So, Ruth headed to the threshing floor.
It is good storytelling, isn’t it, to see Boaz be, as Kates calls it in her essay, “startled into remembering his connection” to Naomi’s family. Yes, we’ve had some foreshadowing to his response because we saw him go over and above his obligations of hospitality when Ruth was gleaning in the field. Still, though, nothing was guaranteed. The particular obligation Naomi seems to have been hoping he would enact was that of levirate marriage, where the brother of the deceased husband would marry his widow. Boaz was not a brother, but a distant cousin. He technically could have escaped public disdain by not stepping. But, Naomi was wise and Ruth was brave. Their plan works. Kates says, “Ruth and Naomi [are able to] get Boaz to work actively for their good.” In so doing, Kates argues, the book of Ruth demonstrates the notion that humans’ cooperation is necessary for God’s purpose to come to fruition. And, God will do great things through this relationship that Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz cultivate. We’ll talk more about that next week. Until then, I’ll just say this. Thank God this plan came together. And, thank God for the reminder that wisdom, bravery, and risk-taking are absolutely necessary for God to work through us in this world. May we be more like Ruth and Naomi and cultivate enough wisdom, bravery, and meaningful relationships to guide us through the risks that are clearly necessary in the days and weeks ahead.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Judith A. Kates, "Women at the Center," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.