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…seeking knowledge of God and of ourselves….

“Ruth: Gold-digger or One True Love?” (Ruth 3)

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Congregationalists of Connecticut had a short-lived dream of Christianizing the entire globe in a single generation.

That dream came about because of the arrival of a young Hawaiian native, later known as Henry, who had signed onto a Connecticut whaling ship when it had stopped for resupply on his island. Little did the ship’s crew realize that they had arrived during a lull in vicious internal wars by different island factions—the kind that made a ticket to anywhere else something very much worth thinking about, and which Henry acted upon.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that Henry stayed with the ship until its voyage concluded in New Haven and was in no hurry to return home.

He was taken care of by a series of students, then boarded with the families of several local pastors, and was converted to Christianity. His story was a matter of great interest throughout Connecticut, New England, and New York.

But he was only the first young “heathen” man – that was their term – to visit Connecticut, and soon it became clear that others were arriving, too, not only from Hawaii, but from all kinds of places.

And so the ministers of the Congregational churches began to imagine what might happen if these young men were not only converted, but then trained as missionaries and returned home to serve.

The possibilities seemed enormous. Funds were raised. Celebrities endorsed. Faculty were hired.

Eventually, buildings for a school were acquired upstate, in the town of Cornwall, which is in Litchfield County.

But after auspicious beginnings and ongoing coverage in the newspapers, tragedy struck.

A local mob attacked, and burned down the school.

You see, some of the heathen boys had taken the idea of Christian brotherhood too far.

“In Christ, you are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free,” it says in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Perhaps with that in mind, the boys had struck up friendships, and then potentially romantic interests, with some of the local girls of Cornwall.

Christianity, it seems, was one thing; racial mixing was quite another.

And so that was the end of that.

I’m thinking of that story today because it can be easy to forget how brave, in its way, Ruth’s visit to the threshing room floor to be with Boaz really was.

Remember: she is a woman in a time when women were viewed as having few, if any rights—and on top of that, she is a woman who comes from another place, where people worship another deity, and she has no one of any standing to protect her, much less vouch for her character, or her purity.

She comes in tow of her “mother-in-law Naomi,” but it’s “mother-in-law” in quotation marks because Ruth’s husband is dead, and Naomi’s husband is dead, and there are no children, and they had been living out there in Ruth’s country, so any notion of the letter of the law protecting anyone from anything was a non-starter.

And yet, as we noted last week, things are not so bad now that they’re in Bethlehem.

Life isn’t easy. But good things are happening.

In particular, Ruth receives generous treatment at the hands of Boaz, a wealthy, well-meaning landowner who was perhaps a cousin of her late husband’s family.

Boaz, it seems, is just one of those pay-it-forward kind of people. He’s been moved by Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, and he treats her not only with generosity, but even more remarkably, he offers her tremendous face-to-face respect.

And in that, of course, he sets the tone for how she will be treated by the community at large.

Ruth is the consummate outsider–a childless, destitute woman of another ethnic tradition. By contrast, Boaz is the consummate insider: a figure of great respect, a man, wealthy, in the prime of life, and religiously observant.

A cynic might say that in going to him on the threshing room floor, then, Ruth has nothing to lose, while Boaz has everything to lose—and perhaps that’s true.

On the other hand, the difference in their power abides with them in the darkness of that night, and come the morning, had Boaz decided to act as if nothing had happened—and simply ignored Ruth—well, there would have been no court of appeals for Ruth to turn to.

If by chance she became pregnant, the minute she began to show, they would have run her straight out of town for good.

Ruth would have known that all too well. And so it is brave that she goes.

Why does she?

She goes because in a world where so often, power and privilege come with the right to tell the story the way it suits the powerful few, Ruth is bold enough, loyal enough, and caring enough to imagine a different story.

As someone who gave up the protections of her own tribe to come to be with a foreign people and to see herself under the watchful eye of a foreign god, Ruth is uniquely well-positioned to see some things about tribes.

Specifically, she sees with remarkable clarity that tribes and their customs—their stories, their roles and responsibilities—offer a measure protection and predictability in a confusing world.   Thank God they do.

But Ruth also sees that those roles can prove confining, and that all stories have their limitations, and that being one of the privileged insiders means coming to see the world in a certain way…and feeling free to ignore the people and the situations that don’t fit into that worldview.

Now, there is more to Boaz than that. She sees that.

But she also knows that despite whatever chemistry there is between them, if she sits out on the front porch waiting for Boaz to show up with a dozen roses, she will be waiting a long time.

Boaz does not seem to know any stories like that. He does not seem to see the world that quite that way.

In a deeper sense, that’s just it: Boaz cannot wholly know just how his own lenses have shaped how he has come to see the world.

And so Ruth dreams of a new prescription, a different kind of story, not only for herself, but for Boaz, and Naomi, and for all of them.

So often, we speak of faith as a kind of patience – as a way of enduring with hope that things will be made right in God’s time.

Some of religion’s toughest critics have called faith an “illusion” or the “opiate of the masses,” precisely because it can so easily be misused as a way to keep things safe, tidy, and predictable—which is the way that all tribes like the world to be.

But this morning’s Scripture reminds us that, sometimes, God’s time is now.

At its best, our faith is a constant reminder that the world we see is not all the world there is, and that the path toward human wholeness is a path of engagement and encounter.

Whatever our stories may be, all Creation is part of God’s story – and that the role God has asked us to play is a role far greater, and far richer, than the expectations of any human tribe.

God’s love is unfailing and unchanging. But at its heart lies the promise of new possibilities for all of us.

You and I know that over the last few weeks, the world had reverted to many of its own – our own – most destructive and most tribal impulses.

In the last few days, the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has raised over a quarter of a quarter of a million dollars on the Internet. Sad to say, this is not a reflection of our nation’s commitment to due process – the comments left by visitors on the website are, frankly, a cesspool of every conceivable prejudice, and their glee is unmistakable.

Never has our need to imagine and work for new stories, and a broader understanding of fairness, been more urgent.

Sometimes, I worry that the only thing white Americans actually like about living in a pluralistic society are Mexican food and jazz music.

And if, from time to time, it so happens that we inhabit the same space, even so, let’s not pretend for a moment that we live in the same world.

Except that, as faith reminds us, we do.

We live in God’s world.

And if our tribes tell us how it is that we might coexist, and get along enough to live side by side, God’s word points to something much harder and more profound: it says that we are to learn how to live together.

We are to learn how to be part of one another’s stories, and to seek a new prescription for the lenses of our tribes.

That’s what Ruth did. In a world where people would have been all too ready to label her a shameless gold-digger, she was brave enough to act as Boaz’s one true love, and to rewrite their stories.

What can you and I do to rewrite the stories of who we are and what we owe our neighbors?

How can we come to see the things our own lenses may distort or even hide?

These are the questions of Ruth, and Ferguson, and even the Heathen School in nearby Cornwall—the questions of every era of American history, and every community. Port Chester and Stamford, Bridgeport and Greenwich.

Let’s ask those questions with hope and humility, remembering that it was the Congregationalists of Connecticut who, two hundred years ago, built a school for boys from all over the world, hoping to share the saving love of Jesus Christ.

And let’s remember that it was other Congregationalists of Connecticut who burned that school to the ground.

But let’s ask the questions.

And may the story of Ruth and Boaz remind us that new answers and new stories are always possible, if only we find the courage to help write them.

Amen.

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An Easter Sermon: “Do Not Cling To Me”

Recently, I learned that there is a semi-official name for that area at the airport just on the other side of security – that spot where you can put your shoes and your belt back on, your keys back in your pocket, and your phone back in your hand.

It’s called the “recombobulation area.”

I hope that is true, because that’s exactly what it is.

And I mention this because there is something recombobulating – recombobulatory? – about Easter Sunday.

The energy, the festivity, the reemergence of bright colors, the pulse of new life in old, familiar hymns, the flowers along the road which always seem to blossom right on cue – these things all add up, and it is hard not to feel lifted by it, even pulled back together again.

The world is re-emerging, recombobulating, and maybe so are we. On Easter, we agree that, at the very least, we will take re-emerging under advisement.

And so, on Easter morning, we eat chocolate for breakfast and hope the cat won’t make a mess of that awful plastic grass, we throw on something colorful from the back of the closet, and we head out the door to church, hoping that Easter’s age old messages of hope and of life abundant and life eternal are all true.

You can’t help but wonder what the disciples, the alumni ofthat very first Easter, would make of it all.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find it hard enough to understand the appeal of Peeps all by myself without imagining trying to explain it to Saint Peter.

But more than that, I wonder how it would sit with the disciples, particularly because this day that so many of us find so deeply recombobulating was, for them, just the opposite.

By and large, for most of them, the empty tomb was not when the light bulb about the resurrection went on. For all appearances, to most of them, the empty tomb was no miracle. It seemed more like the final insult to Jesus.

According to John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene goes out at first light to attend to the sad work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial.

But when she arrives at the tomb where his body had been hastily taken on the eve of the Sabbath, she sees that the stone before the entrance has been moved away.

She assumes the worst.

Mary runs to Peter and reports, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him,” (v. 2).

They run and go see, and sure enough, it has all the marks of a desecrated grave.

And for most of them, that was the story of Easter. At least, right then it was. It looked like not only was Jesus dead, but that even in death, he had not been left in peace.

It was a depressing coda to the collapse of all their plans, all their dreams, all the hopes they had placed in this remarkable man who was now gone.

John tells us that a few — well, one of the disciples, sees and believes.

But whatever disciples make of the stone, and the linen wrappings left behind, and the head cloth strangely, even daintily rolled up and placed to one side in the tomb, the bottom line for most of them have to the scene is simply to shake their heads and start walking home.

And Mary Magdalene seems to represent what they’re all feeling, only more so, because now that she has been the bearer of the bad news, she just totally falls apart.

She’s like someone who has a bad day at work and makes itonly as far as her car in the office parking lot before she loses it completely.

The way John’s Gospel tells it, she’s so focused on Jesus that she doesn’t even register that she’s talking to angels, and then, actually, to Jesus himself.

Jesus approaches, and she assumes he must be the gardener.

But then he calls her by name, and suddenly…she realizes. It all falls into place.

She realizes that the man she’s talking to is not the gardener, but Jesus….that he’s there before her, and that he is alive.

She seems to grasp intuitively that, if he is alive, it is not because there has been some sort of mix-up on the cross or some sort of switcheroo, or that he’s managed some sort of hair’s breadth escape from death.

He is alive because he is the Son of God, and so, as the Apostle Paul would write, his death has been swallowed up in victory.

And in a moment, there in the garden, Mary Magdalene gets all this in a flash.

And this is where the story gets really interesting.

Because if what the story was about was simply recognizing that Jesus was – is – the Christ…if the purpose was simply coming to that flash point, that light bulb moment, then John should have ended this scene right there.

But he doesn’t.

So if that isn’t the story right there, then the point must be a slightly different point.

So…yes, John says: Mary gets it. Or does she?

If we look more closely, we have to wonder.

Because instead of embracing her, or drying her tears, or reaching to take her hand—all those tender gestures we might expect—Jesus all but jumps back and snaps at her, “Do not cling to me.”

Did she rush forward to hold him? Did her face bloom with joy as she reached out to take his hands in hers? Did she moved to drink him in for just a moment? Did she fall to her knees, as if to wipe his feet with her hair all over again, in a reprise of that scene of great tenderness?

The story doesn’t say. And yet, whatever gesture provoked it, it must have taken her aback when Jesus says sharply, “Don’t cling to me.”

And it’s hard to understand even now.

Yet if there is something recombobulating in this story, not only for Mary Magdalene but for us, it is to be found in something beyond simply believing that Jesus is risen or that he is the Christ.

John wants us to understand what that means.

And just to be clear, part of that is what it does not mean:

Because the point is not that Jesus will now pick up where he left off, resuming his ministry as it was before he was so rudely interrupted.

Nor will he now unleash the angelic armies in Heaven and lead them in retaking Jerusalem, and then the world, thus turning out, after all, to be the divinely appointed general the disciples had been hoping he might be.

For a moment, when he says “don’t cling to me,” it’s tempting to think that he’s decided he doesn’t even want disciples, anymore –that he’s buying back the stock and taking the whole enterprise private again.

But the harder truth is that Jesus tells Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me,” not because he loves her, or any of the disciples, any less, or because wants any of them to love him any less.

It’s because what their love will look like now is poised to change.

He’s teaching her – showing her – and ultimately all of them, that they are being called to live in a new way.

Maybe it’s helpful to note that when the Gospels speak of “life,” especially “new life,” they use more than one word to describe it.

Most typical is the word, bios, which is the root of words like “biology” or “biography.” It means physical, bodily, individual life – what it is that medicine helps to heal and maintain.

But John’s Gospel uses a different word when it talks about life.

He uses the word zoe, and “zoe” refers to something larger than our physical lives – it points to life in general, and to “life” in the sense of “vitality”, as we mean, for example, when we say that someone has “come alive” or even that someone is “the life of the party.”

And the spiritual meaning of that distinction is important for John.

He’s saying that what matters is not, actually, our personal, physical lives, but that deeper sense of participating in life itself – that what matters is to come alive…not physically, per se, but spiritually.

The distinction is helpful for us this morning because what does Mary cling to?

She clings to the bios, the physical life of Jesus.

But as Jesus goes to rejoin the Father, he’s saying that what matters now is his vitality – his zoe – that sense of him that abides when someone else comes alive.

Because what’s going to matter now is not more teaching, another exorcism, another nighttime walk on the Sea of Galilee, or what have you. That was important, and it remains important. And yet, at this point, that is all bios.

What’s going to matter now is how the disciples live into and extend the redeeming work of God throughout the world. How they participate in God’s zoe.

 What matters now is that they need to join together to continue a work, a zoe, that has now grown beyond what the physical frame of one man could ever carry out.

 If God’s healing and transforming love are to reclaim the whole Creation, its power must be loosed by the committed work of a whole people.

Its vitality is found in lives that have come alive.

And so, if God calls Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, it is because he is calling her, pushing her, even compelling her to take on that next phase of God’s work.

And, of course, he is not just talking to her. He is talking to us, too.

Notably, she returns to the disciples and tells them, “I have seen the Lord.” It’s a testimony to her encounter to the risen Jesus that surprises and astonishes them, but most of all, it is testimony that prepares them for their own encounters in the following days.

Last Sunday afternoon, Grace and I were reading her children’s Bible on the porch of the Parsonage, which I am surprised and delighted to tell you was actually her idea.

And after the story of the Tower of Babel, and David and Goliath, and then Jonah and the whale, she got very excited and said, “Poppy, can we please read another fairy tale about God?”

So what is it that makes this story about Mary and the risen Jesus in the garden something more than just another fairy tale about God?

It’s only more if it prepares us for our own encounters with the risen Jesus, as Mary’s testimony did for the other disciples.

It’s only more if it calls us to join the work and life of Jesus in seeking and serving and sharing the redeeming love of God.

It’s only more if we respond to Jesus’ call to come alive.

We live in days when many seem to have forgotten that. Days when many seem to prefer the simplicity of a carefully defined structure and of a checklist of beliefs that affirm your right to belong, and even to call yourself “Christian” at all.

But I’ve always thought that Jesus was calling us to something that is much, much greater, and much, much harder, precisely because it resists structures and checklists and easy ways of proving who is inside and who is not.

Jesus is calling us to our own experiences of encounter, and Jesus is calling us to point other people, not to the truths we hold self-evident because of our encounter, but always to point them toward their own encounter, counting on their truths to meet ours, and for the way forward to be something we find together, with the grace of God.

And to meet God in the mix of it. In the zoe that supports and sustains us all.

Easter reminds us that no matter how well we think we know Jesus, no matter how deep our commitment and love may be, he is always calling us into new situations, new challenges, and new places where we might encounter him anew…places where we will find capacities within ourselves we never dreamed possible.

It is only when we do not cling to him that we come to know the life he gave his human life to offer for us all.

And so this morning we remember the lesson of Mary. The lesson of Easter. The lesson of an empty tomb and a Lord who remains to be found among his people and the work they continue in his name.

Easter is a call to live on the other side of security, recombobulated and repurposed, and finally ready to be on our way.

 Alleluia.