Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say November 7? 24th after Pentecost/All Saints

   If you’re observing All Saints day now, here’s a link to my general reflections and illustrations on the great Fall feast of resurrection and hope. We have some terrific texts for November 7 proper though, which I’ll preach even though we’re doing All Saints now!

   Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 has an Autumn feel to it, doesn’t it? Verse 3 provides (for me) a laugh-out-loud moment: Naomi instructs her daughter-in-law to put on your “best clothes,” wait until rich older relative Boaz has been drinking; when he lies down, “uncover his feet and lie down – and he will tell you what to do.” Oh my. How to assess such a vignette?

   Jack Sasson suggests that Naomi gave Ruth “reasons aimed at defeating any scruple and at quieting any anxiety which might, expectedly, have disturbed her daughter-in-law.” Disturbing scruples. Wilda Gafney, in her Womanist Midrash, explores the ways women are traditionally and even now thought to be sexually available to men, how therein lies their value; she even suggests that Ruth had earlier in the story been “taken” or even “abducted” (her rendering of Ruth 1:4) into marriage. Problematical gender undertones crying out for attention here.

   How vulnerable is Ruth in such a moment? Raymond Brown surveyed the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1) and the women who appear there. What do Ruth, Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba have in common? They aren’t native/in-house Israelites, they are put into morally hazy situations, but with some pluck they seize what power is available and courageously find a way forward. Does this alter then how we think of Mary, the 5th woman in Matthew’s male-dominated genealogy?

  The lectionary, pressed for time we can assume, skips from 3:5 to 4:13, skimming past all the property wrangling, and the getting acquainted of Ruth and Boaz! These scenes reveal how, in Bible times and perhaps today, “redemption” involves provision of land for the destitute!

   Psalm 127. Preaching Psalms always intrigues me, and the 127th has rich possibilities, as it addressed 3 universal, mundane activities: building, security, and growing up / raising kids. Jesus, in the final minutes of his “Sermon on the Mount,” offered a picturesque image: “Whoever hears my words and does them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock; rain, floods and wind came, but it did not fall. Those who don’t do them are like the fool who built his house upon the sand. When rain, floods and wind came, the house was swept away” (Matthew 7:24-27).

   Jesus was a carpenter / stonemason, of all things! Can’t we conceive of him building a home? Did he think of our Psalm? “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” How could we conceive of him building our homes? I’ve performed a “blessing of a new home” many times as folks move in, and I know people who’ve scribbled Bible verses on the exposed beams of a house before the sheetrock is hung. It’s not about clever architecture, or massive size. The most modest abode can be the Lord’s house, while a mansion might fall into that “in vain” category.

   Maybe it’s in the foundations. What’s underneath, hidden, propping up our lives? Probably some mix of wisdom and love, fantasy and memory. Isabel Wilkerson (in Caste) points out that lingering moods on race are deep in the foundations of our lives as Americans. How do we poke around, repair, and make the home more of a place the Lord builds? Thomas Merton suggested we try to have “quiet homes,” places of peace with the possibility of prayer.

   “In vain you rise up and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives his beloved sleep.” I’ve slept more than 20 years! It’s a lot of life. It’s God’s good gift, and the Psalm invites us not to be so restless that we wind up rest-less. Financial advisors say you can make money while you sleep. God’s hand is on the farm while the fielder sleeps. God is God, even when we’re unaware, dreaming or snoring.

   Child-rearing sounds simple for this Psalmist. Raise them well, all will be well. The reality is way more complex. The truth is, we are all always raising children, if we’re single, old, done raising our kids, whatever. Our culture, which we’re responsible for, raises children. Our church, whether you’ve got a child in youth group or not, raises children.  

   Derek Kidner understands that, for this Psalmist, there are 2 and only 2 possibilities when it comes to these basic endeavors of life: “Either it will be the Lord’s doing, or it will be pointless; there is no third option.” Maybe Stephen Covey echoed this when he spoke of spending your life climbing the ladder, only to get to the top and realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall. “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (St. Augustine).

   Hebrews 9:24-28 is simply too difficult (for me) to read without anti-Semitic undertones that would take too long to explicate properly in a sermon.

   Mark 12:38-44 presents the unavoidable laugh-out-loud moment: “Beware the guys in long robes!” – which would, self-evidently, be us clergy standing up front. Be wary of us, indeed! How do we who preach ponder how we might hide beneath the robe, the office, ordination and position, even the pulpit, and the increasing cynicism people out there have for us? – not entirely undeserved…

   A haunting image: Jesus lingering around the treasury, watching people drop in their offerings. Cheap shot in preaching: Jesus is watching you guys and your offerings! True, and manipulative. Maybe I’ll say this, and acknowledge how it feels manipulative. We know the temple featured trumpet-shaped offering boxes that indeed made a musical ringing sound as the coins clattered in. Remember Reformation Church history? Luther was appalled by Tetzel and the other church charlatans who rolled their fundraising circus into town with the chant “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.”

   Jesus observes the big, showy givers, then the widow who shyly puts in 2 lepta – almost nothing. Is he impressed by this “destitute woman whose poverty is matched by her generosity” (Joel Marcus)? Or, as Ched Myers insists, is Jesus angered by a temple system that induces the poor to give what they can’t really manage while the religioso get rich and make the sanctuary resplendent with the glory that should be care for the poor? Does this story underline the old adage that it’s not how much you give, but from how much you give? How do we help our people understand the spirituality inherent in giving, or not giving? It’s not making the budget or reaping rewards.

   I like to tell a story: Mike King (Martin Luther King Jr.’s dad) arrived at Ebenezer Baptist to find the finances in total disarray. Claiming that “anonymous giving only produces anonymous non-giving,” he established an open book at the entry to the sanctuary, where anyone could view what others had given. Financing shot rapidly upward. Even the Jesus who shuddered at the rich givers and the poor widow would nod.

   And there’s the gold standard articulated by Mother Teresa: “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not just what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which will have value before God. This giving until it hurts, this sacrifice is what I call love in action.”

   I’d commend to you my chapter on “The Offering and the Rest of our Money” in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, which assesses this text and other 'giving' passages in some depth. Taking space in worship for the offering: is it effective? Does it further idolize money? Is it our best counter-cultural critique of our moneyed culture? Is “love of money” really the root of all evil? Or is the secret to discover a proper love for our money? What’s a “cheerful giver,” and how does one become such a giver?

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