Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Reign of Truth

The Reign of Truth
John 18:33-37
Christ the King Sunday
22 November 2009

Happy Christ the King Sunday!That doesn’t have a great ring to it, does it?

Okay. How about this:

Happy Reign of Christ Sunday!

No? What about: Happy last Sunday of the Christian year?

None of these sounds quite right. We are not all that accustomed to celebrating this Sunday as any kind of special day. We are getting ourselves ready for Thanksgiving, and then Advent, and then, finally, Christmas. It is just much easier to simply say, “Happy Holidays.”

But this morning is, in the context of the Christian calendar, a pretty big deal. Our Christian year ends now, and next week we circle back around to the beginning, with the first Sunday of Advent. This last Sunday is a sort of zenith – the whole Christian year moves towards this day, a reminder that Christ’s lordship over the whole world draws us forward; his reign is the goal of human history, the fulfillment of our hopes and of our purpose.[i]

It’s possible that all of that sounds largely irrelevant to your life. Lordship? Kingship? Christ’s reign? We have more immediate, more pressing, and more mundane things to worry about these days, don’t we? Not to the mention that, as Americans, we rejected the whole notion of a king a couple of centuries ago. The word “king” sounds archaic. It is all out of keeping with how we see our reality. We prefer our autonomy. We prefer our democracy. We do not intend to submit to some authority other than our own selves.

We are like the woman in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. When King Arthur introduces himself to her as her king, she responds, “I didn’t know we had a king… I thought we were an autonomous collective.” Then a man explains to King Arthur how the people in their collective take turns being the executive officer, and how that officer’s decisions have to be ratified by a majority in special bi-weekly meetings. It sounds quite like a Baptist church!

But King Arthur pronounces again, “I am your king!” To which the woman responds, “Well I didn’t vote for you!”

We didn’t vote for one either, did we? We do not want a king. We do not think we need a king. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do. We want to build our own lives, and we want to protect whatever power we’ve got.

Jesus is a threat to all that. He has always been a threat. The religious leaders of his day were well aware of the threat he posed, and they intended to do something about it. In their desperation, they colluded with their oppressors, the Romans. Pontius Pilate was, by historical accounts, a harsh, mean-spirited ruler who scorned his subjects. But when power is threatened, unlikely alliances are born. So the Jewish leaders, and the Roman who ruled them, cooperated in the squashing what they both thought was a subversion of their authority. And though he never intended to become the king they thought he was trying to be, they were right about this – he was a threat.

In today’s Gospel story, we are brought into the headquarters of political power. The religious leaders themselves did not enter those headquarters, so as not to be ritually defiled. They were the ones who made sure he was arrested and tried, but they did not want their own hands to get dirty in the process. And isn’t this often the way we use power against others? – cleanly, invisibly, at a distance.

Pilate now stands alone with Jesus, in the inner sanctuary of political power. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Here is where religion and politics come together in the trial of Jesus. The Romans knew that the Jewish messianic hopes posed a threat to their governance of Judea. If Jesus is claiming a throne among Jews, then he could be planning a rebellion against Roman rule. Pilate’s question is about sedition, it’s about insurrection. There is fear of revolution when he asks his question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answers the question with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Can Pilate act out of his own inner authority, or only as a politician, responding to the whims of public opinion? Jesus’ question shows who is really on trial here, and who is really the judge.

“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate responds, dripping with contempt for the people he governs. And yet this trial will show that he is just like the people he disdains, rejecting and resisting the real revolution that Jesus means to bring. Pilate pushes further, asking Jesus, “What have you done?”

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus replies. But Pilate does not grasp that Jesus does not operate from the same framework that he does. Pilate does not understand that Jesus isn’t trying to seize a throne or claim political power. Pilate cannot think beyond traditional power structures or conventional understanding. “So you are a king?” he demands.

You say that I am a king,” Jesus replies. And this is the way it has always been, isn’t it? No matter who a person really is, we try to put them into our own categories of understanding. No matter who Jesus really was, or really is, we try to fit him into our own little understandings. He is so much more than out little categories and conventions, but we insist. Insist on making him smaller. Insist on fitting him to what we can understand, and manage. Insist on shackling him to our own perceptions of power, of religion, of ourselves, and of the world.

This is not what he came for. He did not come to fit into what we think we know. He did not come to prop up our power or our perceptions or our religion or even our understanding of God. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,” he says, “to testify to the truth.”

He came to show us the truth of God’s heart and God’s being. In him, God was present, unveiled, undistorted.[ii] God’s love for us, God’s longing for us, God’s unfailing mercy towards us – these things have always been true. There is more, too. There are depths of mystery that we cannot begin to comprehend. Words are not high enough, not deep enough, not big enough to contain God’s truth. That truth had to be poured into a life. “I am the truth,” Jesus once said. It is not our doctrines about him that are the truth, He is the truth.

The truth in that life smashed traditional concepts of religion and power. It subverted understandings and institutions. It compelled individuals to lay aside their own plans and follow. And it finally bore its highest witness by laying itself down for others. That truth was lifted up on a cross, snuffed out and sealed in a tomb. But even death could not swallow up the truth. It burst forth.

We still struggle to make sense of that. We mostly fail. Our minds and our words, our doctrines and our understandings, are simply not big enough to hold all that truth, in all its mystery and complexity and vastness and beauty.

The only thing that can hold ultimate truth is another life – yours, mine. God’s truth came to us not as a proposition, but as a person. We respond to it, then, personally. We reach for it not with intellectual understanding, but by living it, by trying to put our trust in it, in him. By abiding in him. We let His being become our being, too. We let him in.

To proclaim Christ as King is to acknowledge that the Truth reigns, in our world and in our own lives. It is to say that whatever the political machinations, whatever the cultural whims and societal trends and economic fluctuations, whatever power seems to prevail at the moment, Christ, who is the Truth, will ultimately subvert anything that does not move towards peace, mercy, liberation, embrace, compassion. To say that Christ is King, to say that Jesus is the Truth, is to say that, in the end, God’s ways of love and mercy and goodness will prevail. To say that Christ is King is to say that we want the Truth of God’s love to have final say over everything in our own lives too. Where there is hatred in our world or in our hearts, love will win. Where there is chaos or fear or conflict – in our world or in our hearts - peace will prevail. Where there is despair, or cynicism, or grief – hope will have the last word. Where there is bondage, there will be liberation. Where there is greed, generosity will emerge. Where there is pain, compassion will blossom. Jesus came to testify to a reality beyond what we see. When we say that Christ is King, what we mean is that in the end, that reality will take hold. And in the meantime, we will participate in that reality, even when it does not look so real.

He stands now as he did then, in the inner sanctuary of our power, our lives, saying still: “Here is what I came for: to testify to the truth.” Every day we have a choice. Will we live as if that truth is what is real?

He came to testify to the truth, and now we must decide. The radical truth he came to show us was only love and grace. It shames all our powers – political, economic, military, intellectual, religious, moral. It subverts our conventions, questions our claims, threatens our status quo, challenges our autonomy and our self-centeredness. It awakens hope. It inaugurates a new reality. It makes possible what seemed impossible. All it asks is that we give ourselves to it, give ourselves to the truth of God’s self-giving love. Can we listen to such a voice as his? Belong to his truth? Live our lives by its absurd calculations of love?

He is the one asking the questions now. Our living is our answer.

[i] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II, cited in A. Adam, The Liturgical Year [New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1981], 179, noted in Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B [Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1993], 474.

[ii] Paul Tillich. The New Being.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Harvest of Kindness

The Harvest of Kindness

The Book of Ruth

23rd Sunday After Pentecost

8 November 2009

In the late 1940s, a group of missionaries working with the Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert began to translate the Bible into the tribal language of the nomads there. The first book they chose to translate was the Book of Ruth – partly because their best contacts were with women and this is a story about women and about the things that women care about. But they also did it because the story is direct, and beautiful, and engaging. It is little, but it is luminous.

In this story, there are no wars. There are no miracles. No plagues, no healings, no prophets and no kings. There is hardly even any mention of God. It is a story of three ordinary people, trying to survive what life deals them.

The story begins with a series of cruel ironies. Bethlehem, whose name means “House of Bread,” has been struck by famine. A family from the tribe of Ephrathite, which means “Fruitfulness,” escapes the famine by moving to Moab. Moab was a nation birthed out of the incestuous liason between Lot and one of his daughters; it was a symbol of evil to the Israelites, but the family is desperate, so they go to a reviled place to try to survive. But one by one the men in the family die, leaving no children. The family from the tribe called “Fruitfulness” has left no “fruit” behind. [In place of bread, famine. In place of fruitfulness, no fruit. In place of life, death after death after death. ]

What is left is three grieving widows, one old, two young, no men to care for them now, no children to provide hope for the future. This is how our story begins – in bleakness.

All that is left for Naomi, the mother-in-law, to do, is to return to her homecountry of Bethlehem, where the famine has ended. There is no reason for the two young widows, her daughters-in-law, to return with her. In fact, there is good reason for them not to go with her. The Israelites despise the Moabites; how would these hated foreigners find husbands in Bethlehem?

So Naomi urges the young women back to their own mothers. In the first spoken words in the story, Naomi says, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house, and may the Lord deal as kindly with you, as you have dealt with me….”

The word here, “kindly,” is a pale rendering of the actual Hebrew word, which is hesed. Hesed is “considered an essential part of the nature of God, and is frequently used to describe God’s acts of unmerited grace and mercy.”[i] Elsewhere in the Bible, hesed is translated as “lovingkindness” or as “steadfast love.” It is kindness, yes, but it is a stubborn kindness. It is dogged. It persists. It is loyal. It always goes beyond – beyond what is expected, and beyond what is deserved, and beyond what is required.

Possibly the most well-known usage of the word hesed is in Psalm 136, which could be called the Jewish equivalent of Christianity’s “Amazing Grace.”[ii] For 26 verses one line is repeated over and over: “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever!” “Give thanks to the God of gods; God’s steadfast love endures forever!” On and on it goes, like an ocean of amazing grace, each line a new wave washing over us, “God’s steadfast love endures forever!” “God’s hesed endures forever.” It is the love that will not let go.

This is the love which Naomi extols. But when she uses the word hesed, she is referring not to God, but to her daughters-in-law. In fact, what she is saying is that she hopes God will show as much lovingkindness as the two young widows have. “Go back each of you to your mother’s house, and may the Lord show you the same hesed as you have shown me.”

The young women resist, but Naomi insists. Orpah obeys, kissing her mother-in-law good-bye and heading home. Orpah does what is expected; Ruth goes beyond. That is what hesed always does. Naomi admonishes her to return to her own gods, but Ruth refuses, and she explains why in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture:

Do not press me to leave you

Or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people;

And your God my God.

Where you die, I will die –

There will I be buried.

May the LORD do thus and so to me,

And more as well,

If even death parts me from you!

In Hebrew, the central part of this pledge is simply, “Your people, my people; your God, my God.” With the nouns put together like that without verbs, the claim that Ruth is making is actually present tense and not future – in the face of Naomi’s insistence that Ruth return to her own people and her own gods, Ruth protests, “Your people are my people, your God is my God, so where you go, I go.”

We sometimes use this powerful passage in wedding ceremonies, and rightfully so. This is marriage language, just as it is a marriage image when the writer tells us that Ruth clung to Naomi. The word “cling” is used elsewhere in Scripture about the marriage relationship (Jer. 2:24, 1 Kings 11:2), and also about Israel’s ideal relationship with God (Joshua 22:5).[iii] Ruth is not just joining herself to her mother-in-law, she has married herself to God.

Three times Naomi says, “turn back.” Each time Ruth has said, “no.” There will be a turning in this story, but it won’t be a turning away from – it will be a turning towards love, and kindness, and redemption, and ultimately towards hope. Ruth is stubborn in her kindness – hesed always is. It is the original “tough love.” It hangs on.

Naomi has no more words for Ruth. Maybe she is mad that she is now traveling back home with the added burden of a foreign daughter-in-law. Maybe she is quietly grateful. Maybe she is simply made mute by grief. Indeed, the next time she speaks it is to tell the hometown women that she is bitter because God has brought her back empty. Nevermind that God has brought her back with a woman who loves her with the same sort of hesed of God. But sometimes the bitterness of grief makes it hard for us to see reality for what it is. Ruth’s kindness lets Naomi’s grief be what it must be. Their story reminds us to be patient with the grieving.

It’s easy to forget that Ruth is also mourning. Yet in her grief, she somehow finds the strength to take initiative. It is harvest time in Bethlehem, and Ruth is ready to work, knowing that it is up to her to scratch out a living for herself and for Naomi. The biblical law stated that whatever barley fell to the ground in harvest was to stay there for the poor to come and gather.

So Ruth goes to glean among the ears of grain. The story goes on, “As it happened…” which in Hebrew literally means, “Her happening happened,” another way of saying, “as luck would have it.” As luck would have it, Ruth comes to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, a relative of Naomi. Is it really luck? Or is it the beginning of the harvest of God’s lovingkindness? [The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel has said that the story of Ruth is told to remind us that there are no coincidences.]

At any rate, Boaz “happens” to notice Ruth. He asks others about her and is told of her relentless kindness towards Naomi. Boaz tells his workers to leave plenty behind for her, and then he goes to Ruth and tells her to help herself to his fields. Ruth falls on the ground in front of him and asks, “Why are you being so good to me, a foreigner?” And he tells her it is because of her kindness to Naomi.

This is the harvest of hesed. This is what persistent, radical kindness can yield. Though life has dealt as harshly with Ruth as it has with Naomi, Ruth keeps responding with kindness, and more kindness. That kind of kindness can be contagious. It hasn’t yet softened Naomi’s bitterness, but it has caught hold of Boaz, and he responds with kindness of his own. [Ruth has sown only kindness; now she begins to reap kindness as well.]

Ruth comes home to tell Naomi the news of her day, and shows her the harvested grain; suddenly, Naomi is transformed. She pronounces a blessing, “Blessed be Boaz by the Lord, whose hesed has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi’s grief has started to break. Ruth’s kindness to Naomi brings kindness from Boaz. Boaz’s kindness to Ruth brings Naomi out of bitterness and into blessing. This is the harvest of hesed.

And now Naomi gets to work planting seeds of kindness herself. Naomi reveals to Ruth that Boaz is actually a relative. There is an old Israelite marriage law that said a widowed woman without children could be married to a kinsman of her deceased husband to give her children in her first husband’s name. Such a man was called a “kinsman-redeemer.” Like a wiley old matchmaker, Naomi hatches a plan, hoping to encourage a romance between the young widow and the older man. She tells Ruth, “Boaz will be at the threshing floor tonight. Wash yourself, put on your best perfume, and get on down there. When he lies down after eating and drinking, uncover him and lie down with him. He’ll tell you what to do next!”

This time, Ruth does what Naomi tells her to. She creeps in and crawls under the covers. At midnight, he rolls over, and there lies a woman. Surprise! Did you know that there were such racy stories in the Bible? It’s true. Lots of interpreters have tried to make this story sound virtuous and above reproach. But regardless of whatever else did or did not happen that night on the threshing floor, an unmarried woman creeping into the room of a sleeping man and lying down with him? That’s pretty scandalous. Let’s don’t sanitize it – this is sometimes how kindness has to act – it has to be audacious. It has to do things that might make some people uncomfortable. It doesn’t worry as much about reputation as about doing lovingkindness. Ruth is willing to do what is needed to secure a future and a hope for her mother-in-law and for herself.

And so: a proposal. Ruth asks Boaz to marry her. This girl has more than hesed. She has chutzpah! Boaz accepts her proposal, telling her that her kindness in wanting to marry him is even better than the kindness she showed Naomi.

And so they marry. And they have a son. And the women of Bethlehem say, “A son is born to Naomi.” She has been redeemed from her emptiness and her bitterness. New life has been created, and it started first with kindness that would not let go. The boy born to Ruth is named Obed. He will later become the father of Jesse, who will become the father of David, who will become the king of Israel. And so bitter broken Naomi becomes the great-great-grandmother of King David. And his great-grandmother is Ruth, the foreigner. And both women are great-great-grandmothers many times over of another child born in Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ, who will also be called Redeemer, and will embody the hesed of God for all the world.

Again and again in this story, the kindness of God is made flesh by the kindness of humans, and it changes everything. It’s a story like I promised – no wars, no miracles, no prophets, no kings, just the stubborn, courageous kindness of a (foreign) woman. Her bold kindness was a seed that God planted to bear the fruit that would change the world.

Henry James once said, “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

And Jack Kerouac said it like this: “Life is life, and kind is kind.”[iv] Which is to say, life will do what it will to us. Sometimes it will nearly crush us with what it lays on us. Sometimes we will feel powerless to change our circumstances. But no matter what, we will always have a choice. We can always choose to be kind.

And kindness is no little thing. To be simply, fiercely, courageously kind, no matter what happens – there is power in that. Your kindness – your choice to be kind - can change how a day goes. It can change how a life goes. And when God is unleashed by it, it can change the whole world.

[i] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer. “The Book of Ruth: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988). 904.

[ii] I first read this about Psalm 118, which also includes the line “God’s steadfast love endures forever”, but only a handful of times (compared to in all 26 verses as in Psalm 136), in a paper by John Ballenger entitled Harvesting the Extraordinary. July 2000. He gave credit to the comparison to H. Stephen Shoemake, Godstories: New Narratives from Sacred Texts. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1998). 104.

[iii] Farmer. 905.

[iv] Jack Kerouac. On the Road. Part 2, Chapter 5.