Saturday, December 27, 2014

Soul Support

Luke 2:22-40
December 28, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 2:22-40

The Gospel of Luke is structured as a biography of Jesus and follows the literary conventions of the time. As you might expect then, after the prologue, we have the birth narrative, which you heard on Christmas Eve, then the stories of infancy and childhood, which foreshadow the life of Jesus as an adult. Aside from Matthew’s account of the visitation of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents, Luke’s gospel is the only one that includes any stories of Jesus from his infancy and childhood. Listen for God’s word to you in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verse 22-40.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Those of you who were with us on Christmas Eve will probably always remember it because of our special guest – a bat. He flew in before the service began and swooped around the sanctuary, then we didn’t see him for a while. I was hoping that the bat had taken advantage of the escape we offered by opening one of the windows up there.

But if he did fly out of one of the windows, he must have decided it was not where he wanted to be, because right as we began communion, that bat started swooping around the sanctuary again. He was diving down low toward the pews this time, and I was impressed that the congregation managed only to flinch, and not scream, as we waited for the bat to land.

He eventually did so and wasn’t seen again until after the service. After you all left, I wanted get rid of the bat -- permanently. So, in order to make sure he wouldn’t come back, I caught him, baptized him, confirmed him, and let him fly out the door. Now he won’t be in the building again until Easter.

I think that’s pretty funny but it is only funny because anyone who has been around church much knows that there is more than a kernel of truth to it. One of the more pernicious side effects of Christianity having become the civic religion of the United States in the last century is that baptism and church membership, once a powerful and potentially risky decision, has become for many people a pleasant but fairly meaningless tradition. Worse, for many more people, baptism and church membership, are mere empty rituals, not only devoid of meaning but actually superstitious nonsense.

It is an odd and sad truth that whenever Christianity is the ascendant religion in a country, fully supported by the majority of people and the government, the individual Christian’s commitment and faithful observance and the church itself, seem to be sapped of any strength and power. If you don’t believe me, review your history of Western Civilization, or visit churches in Switzerland.

The paradoxically good news in that reality is that the less we are truly a “Christian nation” the more we can take seriously our own faith commitment. After all, there is no social stigma whatsoever for a child who is not baptized or an adult who is virtually unchurched. There is no community critique of those who do not go to church, even those who are members of a congregation! So any active effort that people make to connect to the to the faith community and to participate in the expressions of our faith commitment may be taken to be sincere and genuine. Given all that, I’m overjoyed when couples ask to be married in church, and when they bring their children to be baptized.

I think we all understand that the world has changed since the 20th century. We know that family mobility and the demands of careers have changed how families interact with faith communities. Regular church attendance, once defined as attending almost every Sunday, is now defined by most people as attending about once a month. So we hope that when couples come to us for their wedding, or a baptism, that they will connect with church, but we know it won’t be like it was in the old days.

Since we have the privilege of baptizing young Alexander today, the little vignette we’ve heard this morning from Luke’s gospel is rich with meaning for us as a faith community, In this story we get to see the convergence of two expressions of faith.

Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents, are models of commitment, faithful to the covenant and observant of Jewish law. The law of Torah commanded that a woman who had given birth needed to be ritually purified in the temple by bringing a sacrifice of two doves.

The law of Torah also commanded that the firstborn son is dedicated to the Lord, to God. That child belongs to God. One practice was that the parents would bring the child to the temple and literally hand him over to God. Then, they would offer five shekels to redeem him, to get him back![1]

Mary and Joseph brought the sacrifice of two doves, for Mary. But they made no redemption offering. Jesus belonged to God, they knew even then. Their presentation of him demonstrated that knowledge.

Those two people at the temple, Simeon and Anna, are also models of faith and commitment. Simeon’s blessing of both Jesus and his parents, and his oracle that in this baby there will be salvation, light and glory, are an outpouring of the joy he feels. He was drawn to the temple by the Spirit, and he has been waiting all of his life for this moment. Now, Simeon holds in his arms the salvation of the nations, the light of the world, the glory of God.

But then Simeon adds a less than joyful prophecy –through this child, there will be some who rise and others who fall. There will be those who oppose him. And Mary, his mother, Mary’s heart will be pierced by this. It is a prophecy no mother would want to hear.

Anna, too, has been waiting, serving, and praying for so many years. She echoes the blessing that Simeon has offered, praising God for the gift of holding this child, the redemption of all of Israel. Mary and Joseph, understandably, were amazed. Even with all the unexpected and surprising things they had seen, they were not expecting that!

The scriptures close this episode with this line: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Here is where this story, I think, becomes most poignant to us today. Isn’t that what we wish for every child? We want every child to grow, and become strong, and be filled with wisdom. We want every child to feel and know that the favor of God is upon him or her.

When we baptize Alexander in a few minutes, in some ways we re-enact this story. Now, I can pretty much assure you that Alexander is probably not going to be burdened with the kind of expectations that Jesus was! He is very special and much loved, but not the savior of the world. But when we baptize him, we are making the same kinds of promises to him and for him.

In baptism, we saying certain things to Alexander and about Alexander. We are saying to him, before he can even understand fully what it means, that he belongs to God. We are saying to him that we will do everything in our power to make sure that he will grow, and become strong, and filled with wisdom. We are saying to him that we are intent on sharing our faith with him and teaching him to know and love God, who loves him already. We are blessing him, as Anna and Simeon blessed the infant Jesus. And we are blessing his parents too.

We are also making promises about this baby. As a congregation, representing all Christian congregations everywhere, we promise God and Alexander’s parents that we will support and nurture him and them as they endeavor to raise him in the light of God’s grace. And Elizabeth and Christopher are promising their son, the church, and God that they will do so, and will make every effort to keep these pledges. It is not a thing to be taken lightly, to make this sort of promise to a child, to one another, and to God.

We are saying, along with all of this baby’s family, that we want him, and all our children, to have a life that is not only happy, but also to have a life that is meaningful. We want him, and all our children, to know the joy of participation in a faithful community, to reap the unseen rewards of charity and generosity, to build the courage gained in a struggle for justice, to experience the simple peace that comes from knowing that we are loved, unconditionally, eternally, and without regard to merit.

We promise to be Alexander’s soul support.
We know that there will be challenges, for every life has them;
and when those challenges come, we will be rooting for him.
We know that there will be moments when others oppose him even though he is in the right,
for it always happens; and when it does, we will be on his side.

We know that there will be times when he is judged;
we promise that if we should ever appraise him, love will be the measure we use.
A time will likely come when he struggles with belief, or with faith;
we promise that in those times, we will believe and trust on his behalf.
We know that as he grows, he may go far away from us and if he does, we will go with him;
whenever he comes back to us, we promise that he will be welcomed home.
We know that we cannot protect him or his parents from everything.
We can, however, assure him, in this ritual and in our prayers and actions,
that no matter what he does, in all his days on this earth, he will be loved.
We pledge and affirm to this child, and to his parents, as we pledge and affirm to one another and to God, that what we offer, in every way we can offer it, is to be soul support,
a life-giving community demonstrating faith, joy, and love of neighbor;
teaching him above all and in every moment, an unshakeable love for our loving and merciful God.

[1] In another tradition in the book of Numbers 3:11-13; 8:16-18, the Levites (a tribe of Israel) take the place of the firstborn.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Surprise of Love

Ruth 4; Luke 2: 8-16
December 21, 2014, Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Ruth 4
1 Meanwhile, Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there. Just then, the redeemer about whom Boaz had spoken was passing by. He said, "Sir, come over here and sit down." So he turned aside and sat down. 2 Then he took ten men from the town's elders and said, "Sit down here." And they sat down. 3 Boaz said to the redeemer, "Naomi, who has returned from the field of Moab, is selling the portion of the field that belonged to our brother Elimelech. 4 I thought that I should let you know and say, ‘Buy it, in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.' If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you won't redeem it, tell me so that I may know. There isn't anyone to redeem it except you, and I'm next in line after you." He replied, "I will redeem it." 5 Then Boaz said, "On the day when you buy the field from Naomi, you also buy Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead man, in order to preserve the dead man's name for his inheritance." 6 But the redeemer replied, "Then I can't redeem it for myself, without risking damage to my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself. You can have my right of redemption, because I'm unable to act as redeemer." 7 In Israel, in former times, this was the practice regarding redemption and exchange to confirm any such matter: a man would take off his sandal and give it to the other person. This was the process of making a transaction binding in Israel.
8 Then the redeemer said to Boaz, "Buy it for yourself," and he took off his sandal. 9 Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, "Today you are witnesses that I've bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10 And also Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, I've bought to be my wife, to preserve the dead man's name for his inheritance so that the name of the dead man might not be cut off from his brothers or from the gate of his hometown—today you are witnesses." 11 Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, "We are witnesses. May the LORD grant that the woman who is coming into your household be like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you be fertile in Ephrathah and may you preserve a name in Bethlehem. 12 And may your household be like the household of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the children that the LORD will give you from this young woman."
13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. He was intimate with her, the LORD let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi, "May the LORD be blessed, who today hasn't left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. 15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She's better for you than seven sons." 16 Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. 17 The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They called his name Obed. He became Jesse's father and David's grandfather. 18 These are the generations of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron,
19 Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 21 Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, 22 Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

Luke 2:8-16
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Friday night, the worship team had our annual Christmas celebration. It’s a wonderful time that we share – the opportunity to be together just for the purpose of being together – no rehearsal, or planning, or work of any sort – just sharing in good food and fun and conversation. Well, okay, we also have some good wine.

Anyway, this year Bob and I had the fun of hosting, and it was a great time. After everyone had gotten something to eat, we had a music exchange, which was fun, and then we got to visiting. Somehow, we started sharing how the various couples in the group had met. It was fun, and often funny, to hear those stories. And one thing that struck me was how often the stories involved something unexpected.

Not one couple who shared their story that night expected that they would end up married to each other! Not that it doesn’t happen – I know there are some of you who were meant for each other, who met and knew this person was the one even as children. But so often, there is a surprising or unexpected aspect to love stories.

The love story in Ruth is that way. Certainly, nobody in the first three chapters of this book thought that the return to Bethlehem would result in a marriage. Nobody could have imagined that Ruth would marry Boaz, Naomi’s distant relative, or that they would have a son who would be the grandfather of King David. Nobody would have imagined that Ruth, this foreigner, would be named in the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. It’s the stuff of novels and romantic movies! Who’d have thought that this bitter hunger that Naomi had would be fed with such generosity and love? Who’d have believed it? It all came about in the most unexpected way.

The first chapter, the first Sunday of Advent, we met Naomi, a widow from Bethlehem, living in Moab with her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, both also widowed after Naomi’s two sons had died. Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem and tries to turn Ruth and Orpah back to their homes. But Ruth won’t go. She returns to a place she has never been, and provides a sense of hope to the despairing Naomi. In the second chapter, Ruth gathers grain in the fields, following the reapers, and does so in peace, thanks to Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. In addition to hope, she brings peace and plenty to Naomi. In the third chapter, Ruth seeks out Boaz on the threshing floor, and there he promises, before the morning breaks, to find Naomi’s nearest kinsman, and redeem the family farm.

In this fourth chapter, Boaz, observant of custom and law, seeks out the kinsman and makes the formal offer – there is a piece of land to be redeemed, and this relative has first right of refusal. At first the kinsman says he will take the property, redeem it in the family name. But then Boaz tells him, “Oh, by the way, Ruth comes with the deal. You’d need to marry her.” It isn’t really explicit in the text, but certainly Boaz knew exactly what he was doing, making this kinsman an offer he was sure to refuse!

Every chapter of this story contained a plot twist, and this chapter is no different, for at the end of the tale we find out that this marriage generated not only hope and peace and joy and love, it also results in a child, Obed, the joy of Naomi’s old age, the grandfather of David, the king of all Israel, and the ancestor of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, of the house of David. It is a story filled with word play, with reversals and surprises – turning and returning, covering and uncovering, loss and redemption, bitterness turned to sweetness.

Through it all, God’s lovingkindness and steadfast love endure.

Similarly, the appearance of the angel to shepherds, for any reason, was a complete surprise to everyone. It was particularly surprising that the angel was announcing the birth of the Messiah – to shepherds! The children’s program had it right – they weren’t expecting that!

One of the favorite lines in that script last week, according what I overheard from certain small people, was when the angels heard that the Prince of Heaven was to be born in a stable. They were shocked! They answered: “In A STABLE? Surrounded by animals? Filled with hay? Filled with poop?”[Shout out here to the boys who joined in on this line during the actual sermon!]

What on earth could God be thinking? And then, if you recall, just like the account in the Bible, the angels came to sing of Christ’s birth, not to kings and presidents, but to shepherds, because, like the script said, “Those dudes could do with some cheering up."

Our beloved nativity scenes show Baby Jesus surrounded by clean respectable people. Mary is all tidied up so you’d hardly know that she’d just been in labor. The shepherds and sheep look freshly washed, the barn and manger like someone came through with a broom and a liberal dose of Murphy’s Oil Soap. You’d think that Jesus just appeared there, all swaddled up and fragrant with that sweet milky baby aroma, placed gently in the manger after everything was cleaned up.

But God doesn’t work like that, waiting to enter into our lives once we have everything all tidied up. God doesn’t postpone loving us until after we’ve done the right thing, as Ruth did, or after we’ve come to adore Jesus like the shepherds. No, the surprise of God’s love is that we aren’t expecting it, and, if we are honest, we sometimes have a little trouble believing it.

It isn’t that we don’t want to believe it – after all, what a great thing, that someone loves us just because we are alive! But our experience teaches us that this really isn’t very probable.

We can talk about loving each other unconditionally, but truly, most of us can think of SOME condition in which we could stop loving another human being.

But God’s love isn’t like that. It isn’t based on what we do, or who we are, or where we live. God’s love story with us is all about the unexpected. The birth of Jesus breaks into our worlds, messy and disorganized, unprepared as we may be. Jesus comes to us in an unexpected way, to unexpected places, Jesus shows up among the lowly, the humble and the outcast.

Jesus shows up in places that are, well, filled with straw and poop and disrespectable people. Maybe we’d rather not think it about it quite that way. We are, after all, nice folks.

We clean up our houses before company comes over. We get out the good china and put clean sheets on the guest bed. We would rather not have anyone see or know about the disreputable or untidy parts of our lives, or even of our past. When Jesus shows up, we would prefer that he not see the grime, not smell anything stinky.

But God doesn’t usually come by way of the front door. God shows up in our lives in surprising ways in unexpected places and circumstances. The grandmother of King David was a Moabite woman. Her husband was the son of a Canaanite woman, a prostitute. From the House of David came Jesus, who was born to a peasant woman in an obscure village, and whose birth was announced to men who were literally outside – outside of the socially acceptable world, outside of the norm, outsiders in every way.

It may be surprising, the way God turns up, not at the center to tidy up the living room, but at the fringes, to disrupt our comfortable lives. Jesus comes, Immanuel, God with us, comes to uncover what is least acceptable about us and then redeem it through love, love that is surprising, unexpected and undeserved.

There’s an old Christmas carol, written by the same poet who wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Christina Rossetti describes that unexpected love –

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

In a few days, we’ll gather here again to hear once again how love came down at Christmas.
May we once again be delighted and surprised, in reverent awe and unspeakable joy at the surprise and wonder of this love which comes, and may it be born anew in each of us.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Peace, Plain and Simple

The Gleaners, Jules Breton

Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet

Ruth 2, Matthew 1:18-25
December 7, 2014, Second Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry
Ruth Meets Boaz

2 Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”3 So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4 Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 5 Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” 6 The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”[a]

8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 May the Lordreward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” 13 Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied.19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.”[b] 21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” 23 So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.

As I was working on the sermon early Thursday morning, I opened a new tab on my internet browser to look for a quote about peace at a site called “Inward/Outward. Not finding exactly what I wanted, I went on to another part of my work. Sometime in that process, I looked back up at my browser tabs. That tab for Inward Outward said, “You searched for peace.” You searched for peace. Yes, yes I did.

Peace is the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, and we’ve heard two stories that may seem a fair distance from that theme. After all, Ruth gleaning in the fields and Joseph being visited by an angel – the two stories don’t even go together well, much less illustrate what we typically imagine when we think of peace. We should have doves and peace marchers, anti-war demonstrations, peace treaties and peacemakers and peacekeepers.

A peasant woman from Moab in an obscure Palestinian village, in a story that dates to 500 BC, and an equally common fellow in that same village 500 years later – what have these stories to do with peace? These are not peaceful stories. Disaster lurks at the edges of both narratives. In the first tale, the potential for disaster, for violence, for misery, comes from sources external to Ruth. In the second, the story of Joseph, the potential for disaster, violence and even death, rests within Joseph’s heart. In both, the power and wisdom of God and of God’s faithful people are the instruments of peace, plain and simple.

If you remember the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, Ruth has allied herself with Naomi. Where you go, I will you. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God. Ruth, the foreigner, the immigrant, the vulnerable widow, returned with her mother in law to Bethlehem. At the end of last week’s story, there was this simple sentence: They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Because they are penniless and in need of food, Ruth asks if she can glean in the fields. Given permission by Naomi, she goes into the barley fields to glean – to pick up the stalks of grain that are left behind by the reapers. In our dining room at home, we have an antique print of Ruth, gleaning in the fields. Ruth is lovely, serene, a peaceful countenance in a pastoral setting. It is reminiscent of the work of Jules Breton, or Jean Francois Millet, two famous painters of French peasants, whose names you may not know but whose works would be familiar to you. Their renderings of gleaners from the mid-1800s are romantic and beautiful. The subjects take on a luminous and heroic appearance, strong, muscular men and women, bending over to pick up the golden stalks of grain in the slanting sun at close of day.

In this case, art does not imitate life. The reality of Ruth’s work of gleaning was anything but romantic. “Gleaners came from the ranks of the poorest, landless peasants, and often were made up of the weakest members of society – women, children, the elderly and the handicapped. The gleaners followed the harvesters to salvage for their families the last kernels of grain missed by the reapers. This was backbreaking, tedious labor – scrounging for tiny morsels of grain amidst the dirt of the earth. Gleaning was often what stood between the peasant and starvation.”[1] While the poor did this work for a bit of bread, they were watched over by the owner’s employees, in Bible times, and guarded carefully by soldiers in later centuries. They were free to glean – but they could not take anything that had not fallen to the ground.

The law of Moses, God’s commandments, instructed faithful Hebrews to be sure to leave something for gleaners. It was their livelihood, all they had. There was no social safety net, no food pantry, no place for the needy to turn. So this is the work Ruth is doing, at the close of day. Not only is the work physically demanding, the location makes the worker vulnerable, especially if that worker is female. Like many young women in our own time, Ruth was not safe, out in the world on her own. She had to rely on someone other than herself for safety and for peace.

In our chancel drama, Naomi refers to the possibility that Ruth would be “bothered” if she went to a field other than Boaz’s. In more modern translations that conversation is more explicit. “The Message,” puts it this way - Namoi says to Ruth: “You'll be safe in the company of his young women; no danger now of being raped in some stranger's field”

For Ruth, a vulnerable immigrant in a strange new world, doing what she could to find sustenance for herself and Naomi, peace came because her kinsman Boaz offered protection and support. No matter what Ruth’s inner state was, no matter how much peace she had in her heart, for true peace, she had to rely on the encircling care of community and kin. For her daily bread, Naomi relied on Ruth’s willingness to provide. Ruth, in turn, counted on the generosity and kindness of her kinsman, Boaz.

Joseph, on the other hand, had inner turmoil to deal with. He was engaged to Mary, part of a legal contractual agreement that bound them together with the same ties as marriage. This was a covenanted relationship, the betrothal. And Mary was pregnant. Not by him.

Couples couldn’t just break up and give the ring back, like today. They would have to divorce to end the engagement. Like Boaz, Joseph was a righteous man, who followed the law of God. His range of options regarding Mary were fairly limited - if Mary had been unfaithful to him, and all the evidence pointed to that, the law gave him two options – divorce her, or stone her to death. His plan was to quietly divorce Mary.

Joseph went to sleep, stomach churning, mind racing. That is, until the angel came. Matthew’s telling of the tale is spare and terse. This is his only reference to the birth of Jesus. There are no shepherds, no innkeeper, no angel choirs, no oxen. This story we told the children is all Matthew has to say about baby Jesus. He starts with “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place.” He tells of the angel’s visit, then closes with this: “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn't have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.”

End of story.
(This is why on Christmas Eve we use the reading from Luke!)

Joseph really was between a rock and a hard place. Neither of the options before him was good. But then came this angel, a vision in a dream, to give him counsel, and to give him the unexpected news that the baby Mary would bear would be the long-awaited Messiah – the anointed one. This baby would be Immanuel – God with us. This baby would be Jesus – the Lord saves!

So Joseph did what God commanded. Imagine the sense of peace he must have had, once he had made the decision – the decision to obey God, and to protect Mary in her vulnerable situation.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, 500 BC, Boaz has become aware of Ruth. The lovely part of this story is when Boaz discovers who Ruth is; he makes sure that she is protected and provided for. He insures that she will be safe, and that she will take home plenty of grain. She takes home about a bushel, an unexpectedly large amount for a gleaner. That must have been when Naomi came up with a plan.

We’re going to take a quick peek ahead to the next chapter, while the children are busy upstairs, because it is one of the PG (or R) rated sections of the Bible. The third chapter of Ruth is full of double entendre, euphemisms, and puns. You won’t hear about this in next week’s sermon, with the children’s program and all, but I do recommend that you find Ruth, chapter three this week and read it.

Depending on how you read it, it may be one of the racier parts of the Bible. It is suggestive, to say the least; it’s adult material. After hearing of Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, dress up, put on some nice perfume, and go down to the threshing floor at night. Ruth was to lie down next to Boaz, who presumably had spent the evening celebrating and toasting to the harvest. Ruth does what Naomi says, finds Boaz, and, the scripture says, “Uncovers his feet.” The playful innuendo of the language suggests that Ruth uncovered… uncovered more than just Boaz’s feet. And then, Ruth asks Boaz to spread his cloak over the both of them. And she spends the night there. With him. Under the cloak.

With his…feet… uncovered.

Suffice it to say that in the morning, before dawn, Boaz woke Ruth up and told her to hurry up and get home before anyone saw her and realized she’d spent the night with him. And the actions of the story will eventually lead to Boaz’s offer to claim his place as the kinsman redeemer. We’ll take up that thread of the story week after next.

For now, let’s go back to that barley field. In spite of the vast distance of time between now and then, some things are the same. In many places in the world, it still is unsafe for a single young woman to go out alone. Just this past week a friend of mine lamented, “Why is it that an adult single woman cannot stop into a gas station convenience store without being propositioned by some random man inviting himself to follow her home?”

Then, as now, if this adult single woman is assaulted, the first question many people would ask is “Why was she alone? What was she wearing? What was she doing there?” as if somehow her presence or her dress or her behavior justifies an assault.

It isn’t just young women who are vulnerable. Across our country, people are marching in the streets, and arguing in kitchens, and meeting in churches, trying to sort out what is going on in a country where young black men are vulnerable to such an extent that their parents routinely give them “the talk” about what to do in an encounter with the police. And many, when an unarmed black youngster is shot down in the street, struggle to take in the reality that young African Americans are more vulnerable than their white counterparts.

It’s tempting to descend into the world of political debate, of policy and crime. But we follow the Prince of Peace, not the gods of this world. We follow Immanuel, “God with us” who offers not only personal peace, like Joseph knew, but the larger reality of genuine peace, beyond ourselves. God with us means that we are also called to be channels of peace: for the immigrant, the outcast, the vulnerable, the other.

Ruth, seemingly alone, out there in the barley field at dusk, was kept safe. Of course, the God of peace was with her. But it was because of the protection of her kinsman Boaz, because of the generous wisdom of Naomi, that Ruth could gather grain for bread in peace, could stop and draw a dipper of water in peace, could rest in the shade in peace. She found her security not in pepper spray or self-defense classes, not in staying home with all the doors locked, but in the support and care of a kinsman redeemer, a caring mother-in-law, an adopted faith community.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that we will never be victimized or vulnerable. There is far too much violence and evil in the world for that claim to hold. But we can be assured that we are called to be among the people in this world who help to make safe places for the vulnerable.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that we will never be hungry. There are many faithful people in this world who do without. But we can be assured that we who follow Jesus are called to share our bread with the hungry, to not take every last kernel of grain, to leave some of our ample resources for the poor.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that there will never be war, that there will always be unicorns and rainbows. There is too much lust for power, too much hatred in the world, to be so clappy-happy and blind to the presence of evil and greed.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is the assurance that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, that the bread of life is always available to anyone who hungers for it, that anyone who thirsts may come and drink living water, that anyone who is weary can come to Jesus, and that we can point the way to this table, to this peace.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is that even in dark, sleepless nights of confusion we can trust that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that in Bethlehem, God is working God’s purpose out, and the one who is to be born, who lives within us and among us, is the Anointed One, God with us, through whom the Lord saves us, the wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, the Prince of Peace.

I told you at the beginning of the sermon about my web browser, the tab that said, “You searched for peace.” I did search for peace, as has everyone who ever yearned for peace that passes understanding, the peace of Christ we pray for, the peace we work for. Through Christ, through the promise in Bethlehem, we can find peace. It is in following Christ that we find that peace, plain and simple, and it is through each one of us that Christ’s peace will spread through the earth. The poet Lao Tzu said it this way:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

Let the Prince of Peace come, in all his unexpected glory, and let all who search for peace, find it in him.