Rainbows are a meteorological phenomenon, circles of color that appear as light is refracted, reflected, and dispersed in droplets of water. Rainbows appear in the sky after a rain and on the driveway when I give my dogs a bath. Are they miracles? Yes, I'd say. As much as the rain, the wind and air to breathe are miracles. As much as pigmy goats and jellyfish and golden retrievers are miracles. As much as live oak trees and morning glories on a fence.
Creation is the miracle, not the rainbow itself. The story gives creation shape, so we can think and talk about it, rather than be completely lost inside it. The story is the human method by which we find our feet and voice. It gives us a direction in which to move. This is your Bible from its very start, the pre-history of Israel. The composers are pouring the footers, if you will, upon which to build the history they are about to tell, beginning with Abraham: the story of God and the people of God, always in pursuit of God, even when they are running away as fast as their feet will take them – and even when their feet aren't moving; when they are fleeing only in their thoughts and dreams.
Early on, they need some definition to this one called God. An impossible task. They do their best. So, Genesis.
All our words are small and wrong. Five – it only takes five biblical chapters for the Creator of the universe to regret not stopping with the creeping things. Five chapters. Twelve generations of humans, give or take a handful. I always remember Hannah F. telling me, “Oh, I’m a handful.” God knows we all are.
Genesis 6 reads: 6 The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth— everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.” Divinely- driven genocide. Genocide by natural disaster.
Only “genocide,” while an awful word, is in this case too trifling a word, as “genocide” refers to the systematic killing of some people group or certain people groups – not ALL. Not “every-single-human-save-one and his family” (“not related to Noah” is hardly a people group) “plus every single plant and animal.” What's the word for that? I don’t know that we have one. Annihilation. Obliteration. Extinction.
Which makes me wonder, once again, who first thought this would make a good children's story?? A nursery decorating theme? You know it well enough, how all the animals but the dinosaurs showed up at the dock and lived on the boat with Noah and his family for weeks and weeks on end. It rained, while the entire world was flooded and every living thing was drowned. After a time he started sending doves away and finally one came back with an olive branch. And then another didn't come back at all, so Noah knew the water was receding. And then the scene Greg read to us just now, God's promise not to do that again. Annihilation. Obliteration. Extermination. THAT – for which we have no words.
The story is full of problems, literary and otherwise. It may well have been adapted from another the Hebrews had heard from their neighbors – the Sumerians, they were called. You may know their book The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first written-down stories found so far. (It's linked to this sermon as posted on the website.) My Sunday School teachers are turning over in their graves right now, if they heard me say that. But does borrowing a flood story mean this one was not inspired? I would say not.
They were preachers after all, storytellers explaining the meaning of why life turns out as it does. And for them, life had turned out in exile – exile in Babylon, a long, long time and place from Noah. In a time and place where the Hebrews were pretty sure their days were numbered. Writing down their history, believing that soon there would be no one left to tell it. Their history with Yahweh, the Creator God. From Adam unto Noah. Noah unto Abraham. Abraham to Samuel. Samuel to David. David unto Cyrus the Great. My seminary professor said, if it weren't for Babylon, Genesis 1:1 would read, “In the beginning God created Jerusalem.”
For all I don’t know about the story of Noah, here’s one thing I do. The Noah story pours one footer upon which the entire Bible rests: God is dependable. Before chapter 9, the Creator God has been a little unsteady, acting on impulse more than purpose.
In Genesis 9, God makes a promise. Translations that use covenant are tricky. Covenant suggests an agreement between parties. Noah agrees to nothing. God promises. Noah hears it. The rainbow is a reminder, for whom? for Noah? For God! Because God's gonna need it, right? There's gonna be a next time. 5 “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature…. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The rainbow is for God, not us.
God can be trusted – at least to keep this one, very limited, very specific promise. Certain weapons in the arsenal are now de-commissioned. Total annihilation, specifically. Oh I can still do it, the Creator says, but from this day forever, I promise that I won't. There will surely be a next time. Before the chapter's out, in fact. It's Noah. Noah – who was the best of the species in chapter 6, remember, the only one God didn't regret having made.
It reads like Noah planned it. He steps off the boat, plants a vineyard. He harvests the grapes and makes the wine. He ends up roaring drunk and buck naked in public. The text gives no more detail than that, only that his sons are mortified. They make a plan to capture him with a robe, the way people catch a bat in the house, only without actually looking at him. You know their mama sent them!
But that, naturally, is not the worst thing Noah did. The next day, in his hangover shame, when he might have been humble, Noah is horrible. He blames the youngest son for the whole incident and curses him and his descendants forever. Because, as we know: People. Sometimes. Are. The Worst.
Another footer is poured right there, by the way, with Noah's curse. That youngest son is Ham, the father of Canaan. We'll get to it later in the fall, how the geo-ethnic map of the Old Testament is being drawn right here in the names of Noah's sons and grandsons. Noah may be the next time, but he is hardly the last time in the story, that God needs God's own reminder that God promised not to drown them. Or toast them. Or wipe them off the face of the earth in whatever ways God fantasizes about exterminating us, until God sees a rainbow somewhere. And God sighs and thinks, “Aw, dang. I said I wouldn’t do that anymore.” Of course I know how silly it all sounds, even assigning all these little thoughts and feelings to God. But we only have the words we have to get our heads and hearts around it.
And, were we driven finally from our home and believed our days were numbered, would we look back and hate God for abandoning us, or would we see how God had given us every opportunity to turn ourselves around while we made other choices? That's what Israel decided, there at the end of all things: that God could have and didn't, when God got fed up with people every next time after Noah.
The promise is VERY specific. It must not be generalized, in two ways in particular. God does not promise NOT to get angry again, just to stay God’s own hand when selecting retribution. And secondly, the God who promised never to annihilate us altogether, did NOT promise to keep our hateful hands off each other. Humankind hasn't invented a weapon yet we didn't eventually use. We could annihilate ourselves and the creation in an hour. Or take the slower boat we're on right now, environmental self-destruction. In either case, the planet will most likely recover. But I figure whatever humans who survive sooner or later will start throwing rocks at one another, until they build a catapult.
If it didn't have such poor cultural reference, I'd title the story, “Fresh Off the Boat.” God is so ready to start over with Noah and his people. Not unlike with Adam. Good food and incentives against murder – I think that’s a perfect first page of a covenant. With the good news and promise of God that what comes from God is good. And the understand- ing that what we offer back to God and to one another – well, that is up to us. And God is with us in the consequences, be they joy or tragedy. Would you pray with me?
Heaven All the Way to Heaven
Power, prestige, and possessions: these three make a person rich these days. And not just rich – good. In our world, the poor aren't just poor; they are bad. They could be better, if they tried. But they don't, so they are a problem. Dangerous, even. A burden to be borne. A threat to be managed.
Heroes are not people noted for their fidelity or courage or sacrifice, but rather for their personal success, calculated by personal worth. A lifetime of personal success counts as a far greater achievement than a lifetime of public service. Jesus has something to say about this, friends, about what we treasure, as individuals and as a culture – a faith culture, that
is. Jesus has something to say about our treasures, about what our treasures in this world have to do with our lives in the next. If we have ears to hear him, life here can be heaven – all the way to heaven. Likewise, if we do not, there will be hell to pay, all the way to hell.
Interesting, isn't it, that the Bible calls him a “rich man”? It might have called him a pious man, a righteous man, a faithful man. He was all of these. Why rich? Because he never chose the treasure of heaven? In Mark 10 he comes to Jesus for spiritual direction, not financial advice. Jesus is a rabbi, after all. Not the chair of the stewardship committee (nobody ever called pledge Sunday their favorite Sunday of the church year).
We all prefer that our religion and our money be kept separate. We all get mixed up sometimes. Forget that Jesus is God, Lord of heaven and earth – and every pocket, wallet, and bank account therein. Like all of us on certain days, the rich man doesn't know what he doesn't know. He falls on his knees believing Jesus has the last piece to the puzzle of his life, only to discover his life is not a puzzle after all. It cannot be figured out. It cannot be guaranteed by following certain rules.
“Following Jesus is not a salvation scheme,” Richard Rohr writes,“where Jesus pays off a debt on our behalf, to a peevish God who must be bargained into loving us.”
The rich man asks for eternal life. But what is it that he wants? To live forever? Or to live differently? Jesus' answer goes to both: Stop counting on everything you count on now,
he says, and count on me alone.
What’s the best way to not count on money? Get rid of it? That’s why I don’t have ice cream and chocolate at my house – best way for me not to eat it. But I do have money. More than enough. Money I haven’t given to the poor.
Like Final Jeopardy, which I almost named this sermon, is the invitation to bet everything on Christ alone. Sounds so good at church, but crazy everywhere else. Does the chance to have everything make having nothing worth the risk? Depends on where you start, of course. Some people on Jeopardy can afford to bet $1. Others bet the pile. Thus, Jesus' metaphor about the camel and the needle, the most debated line of the story – but only by rich Bible readers, people hoping to give away as little as possible and still slide under the wire as faithful.
Generally, the interpretation goes, “If Jesus can be shown to be speaking metaphorically, we are released from the commandment to divest completely.” I've yet to hear Bible readers wonder, “if we can't give everything might we at least give something?”
We are dualists, remember. We think almost exclusively in terms of either/or. The rich man can only ask for what he knows the words for. He can't name what he truly wants.
You know that sensation, right? Being hungry for something you can almost taste. He knows what he wants is spiritual. He's waded in the ways of God enough to know that there are deeper waters still. He is ready to meet Jesus, he thinks. He is not. But no one ever is.
Nothing he has known or done or gained so far will make this next step any easier, the call to follow Jesus. “To leave everything” is how his disciples tell it. Everything. Not just money. Everything. Privilege. Everything. Everything this world counts as useful for becoming someone worthy.
Relationships, jobs, and houses. They are not small things in this world. They are everything we do to become our best selves. The Bible says Jesus looked at him and loved him, which I also get. As I sit and write this, my son reads me a list of personal qualities on which he must rate himself in applying for a job:
It hurt my heart and made me love him extra, watching him agonize with the pressure to please people he doesn't even know. No wonder the rich man is sad. Sorrowful, some translations say, which I like because it sounds sadder than sad. Is anything in all the world more disappointing than finding that your very best is not enough to please the one you most hope to please?
It means everything to me that Jesus loved him in his disappointment and his sorrow, that moment when he realized he was never going to be rich enough or pious enough or good enough to get from God what he wanted. Instead, he was going to have to let go of everything that had made him feel safe so far. And that seemed impossible to him.
Jesus knows how hard a thing he's asked of us: to trust that which we cannot see, at least not the way we see our privilege and our things, which we can flex at a moment's notice and change our situation. Yet, love us as he does, the Lord will not do business with us.
Come face to face with Jesus, this story says, and you will find out that there are no deals to be made. Not only are your power, your prestige, and your possessions not worth a dime to God – neither is your righteousness.
Who doesn't long to be loved for the good in us? Ben used to say, “You are a good cooker, Mama.” We'd laugh, but inside I swelled. I want to be thought a good mother, a good preacher, a good pastor, a good friend, a good person. Pleasing God and certain people matters to me. Religion has codified and spiritualized the human ache to be loved for being good.
I really, really get this guy. I am sure he probably wants to give away his possessions and hates himself for being too weak to do it. And walks away sad, realizing that coming face to face with Jesus is itself a kind of death, most certainly a loss. The loss of a worldview in which everything he thought was true, isn't. Enlightened by the presence of Jesus, not even words mean the same thing – words like “treasure” and “riches.”
Treasure in heaven, Jesus said. How do you spend that? It's harder than hard, Jesus tells his disciples, for rich people to believe what I'm saying. Power, prestige, and possessions are the determinant forces in this world, actually and symbolically. They allow us to change our lives, just because we want to. Just think about how significant that is, how that separates us from most people on earth. To let go of the power and privilege and opportunity we wield, almost without thinking about it – it feels positively impossible. Jesus says exactly that. Humans can never do it. God can. In us, God can.
Like the rich man, the disciples have the loss ringing in their ears, not the privilege. What about us? the disciples want to know. And rightly so. “We have given up everything” – which is an interesting foreshadowing in the story, since so far they've given nothing compared to what they will. Jesus reassures them, “You will get it all back, in treasure and in trouble both.” Ah, that’s not true, I think again, remembering all the people I know who are yet to be paid back in either.
And I'm too afraid to call my own privilege “blessing.” I've given next to nothing on account of faith – and yet. Yet I have seen and I have tasted of that life that money cannot buy. I know for sure that there's a way to walk through this world cut loose from its threats. Poverty and weakness are nothing to be feared. If we fail at everything this world considers useful, God counts no difference anyway: not between the rich and poor, nor the righteous and the wrong; not between the weak and strong, east and west, Christian and Hindu, refugee and citizen, sober and addicted.
All that counts is how we choose to live, once we've met Jesus face to face, once we've heard we have a choice to walk from here to heaven, loved for being – and nothing more than that. Would you pray with me?
Where Your Heart Is
One of my part-time jobs in seminary was taking care of two little boys named Michael and Brian. They had a giant dog named Winston and about 5,000 Star Wars toys. One day when I was there, Winston ate one of Brian’s Happy Meal X-wing fighters, and Brian cried and cried. Trying to comfort him, Michael said, “It’s okay, it was just a little one.” To which Brian said, “Yes, but it was one of my favorite little ones.”
Almost every English rendering of Matthew 6 has left me feeling just like Brian – like I’m not allowed to have more than one favorite thing. That I have to pick, or Jesus is going to pick for me. Just like Winston – spoiling all the fun. Or, maybe not.
Treasures. When Jesus talks about them in the Sermon on the Mount, he’s not talking about trinkets and toys. He’s talking about the things we bet our lives on; the things we live with, like we can’t live without. Money, or wealth, is Jesus’ word for it – “mammon.” Security.
On what form of security do you bet your life: money? work? reputation? power and influence? Honestly, I’m not sure what the Sermon on the Mount sounds like, adjusted for our own time and place. We aren’t much like those Galilean peasants who first heard him preach it. We aren’t poor, oppressed, occupied by a foreign government. At face value though – it seems to me – he wants anyone with ears to hear to consider what we treasure and ask ourselves, simply, would you bet your life on it? I’ve no commentary to guide me in these thoughts.
I’ve not studied half enough to preach this week, but the idea of treasure has surely been on my heart and mind. We’ve had a slightly scary week, my best friend and I. [Note: Pastor Annette’s husband was in the hospital for several days. He is doing fine now.] Our life together is a precious treasure, and I’ll not believe God would make me choose. I don’t even know myself apart from him. But I know that our life together rests in our life in God, the greater stream of the life of the Almighty, and that in that stream our little life together is but a bitty rivulet.
Our marriage; our family; this church; this country; this planet; this century – all just tiny teacups of time in the ocean of eternity. And money something way less than that. Possessions, careers, and politics – something smaller still. And one slightly scary week – or year! – is but a hiccup to eternity, where life and love persist endlessly.
Consider where your treasure lies, Jesus says, because your heart lies there too. Not a particularly Christian thing to say, in that all religions have some version of the same. Yet, who doesn’t struggle to remember? – most especially on days that take a sudden turn.
I know the larger Sermon on the Mount text is about realizing that the kingdom of God is here and now; that it is possible to live joyfully in the midst of scary circumstances; that it is possible to develop hearts and minds that love what God loves, the will to do what God wants done in this world, and not feel as if we are being denied some good life we might have had if Jesus weren’t so demanding.
The sermon on the mount is about asking us to realize God asks us to choose – not as a vindictive commandment, but because God loves us, knows what’s best for us, and wants us to be happy, to have joy and to love this life, however tiny a life it is in the greater stream of things. And putting our whole hearts into what will never make us happy, Jesus says – kindly, it seems me – is a dumb plan.
If my dog Scout finds some good treat on the floor, a strawberry or cheese cube, she’ll pick it right up and eat it. But if it’s something really yummy – a good chew bone or an almost empty peanut butter jar – she’ll wait until no one is around before she takes it from the floor and then goes and hides to eat it, where she seems to believe the other dog can’t see her, plain as day. It’s just too good a treat to be true, so she treats it like it isn’t.
That God loves us the way the Bible says God loves us is a hard thing to believe, so we love lesser things rather than be disappointed. We disappoint ourselves rather than be tricked or cheated and then made a fool of, forgetting once again who it is we follow. “Despised and rejected” is how Matthew and the others describe it. We want Jesus, but only the clear and well-cut parts.
Too bad life isn’t like that. We can look a whole lot better outside than we really are on the inside. But that isn’t living, that’s pretending. We want in the stream, remember. The panic and plunder are flotsam on the way, but they will not drown us nor save us. They cannot.
I’ve not studied half enough, friends. But one thing was clear as a bell to me this week. The treasures of our lives aren’t things, and no money in all the world could ever buy or replace them. They are love and life, and they come from God alone.
Would you pray with me?
From Full to Empty to Full
Four days after my first baby was born, I called the doctor's office and asked, “How do I know if my milk has come in?” Claire, the nurse, said, “Sweetheart, if you don't know – it's not in.”
Let me just say: on day five, I did not recognize myself. Anyone who has ever nursed a baby, farmed the soil, or simply lived paycheck to paycheck, knows the ticking anxiety of forever cycling from empty to full to empty to full again. For new mamas, it takes hours to go from empty to full and minutes back to empty. For workers, days or weeks to earn what is gone before bills are paid and the fridge refilled. And for the truly marginalized people who can only dream of paycheck to paycheck – widows, fatherless and foreigners, the Bible calls them – “full” is a word their mouths may have never even tasted.
The book of Ruth is the story of Naomi. Naomi is a critical tributary to the story of the people of God – from Israel, to Jesus, to all of us here and now. A story that flows incessantly from fullness to emptiness and back to fullness again. In Naomi – and Boaz – the story is driven, as the Bible always is, by their audacity to resist the places assigned them by their time and place, as they act out the crazy, risky faith that the people God ends up praising have been acting out since the beginning – whether pious, religious people, approved or not.
Farmers hoped for seven plentiful harvests out of ten, according to one commentary I skimmed. In seven good years they could save enough to survive the other three, so long as no two bad years happened back to back. Two years of drought equaled famine. Not a few farmers would have gone under – thus, the right to redeem law – and poor people starved to death outright.
At the end of chapter two, we know Ruth has worked through both the barley and wheat harvests in a time of plenty. She and Naomi will eat for a year at least – a little longer if they are frugal. No small accomplishment given where they started. But not where Naomi had hoped to be, all these weeks after Ruth had found this particular job. It seems only Boaz has no idea what Naomi's been up to all along.
Greater measures must be taken. Her instructions to Ruth are meticulous, the same as for a bride on her wedding night. (Remember what you know about Rachel’s and Jacob’s wedding night – Jacob was surprised.) Once he puts it all together, Boaz is astounded. “It might have been awhile,” as Lisa said in Bible Study on Thursday, and I nearly fell off my chair. He cannot believe she'd choose him over a young man, rich or poor.
It may have been awhile. But he's thought about it all the same. Enough to go find out there's a nearer kinsman than him with the right to redeem. Naomi would have known so too. And no
doubt would have known the other one wasn't as good a prospect as old Boaz. Much pillow talk ensues. Ruth makes a very generous offer.
This phrase “spread therefore thy skirt over thy handmaid” is one of the many double-meaning Hebrew words in the story that Boaz himself has already used in chapter two. When he meets Ruth for the first time in his barley field, he blesses her, saying, “a full reward be given thee by the God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to take refuge.”
“Spread thy skirt.” “Under whose wings.” Again, friends, this is quite a story. Maybe his feet really were his feet, but the word used here for feet is singular, a word used only one other time in the Bible – in poetry, in describing what body parts an angel’s robe covered.
And if Ruth was going over just to talk, why does Naomi have her prepping like a bride and waiting until Boaz has turned out the lights?
The Bible is bawdy. In its time and place, the moral point to be made wasn’t chastity. I have the sense that the hilarity of the story is how slow Boaz is to see what joy has been offered him and the honor with which he receives it. And so the story gets more hilarious. In the outdoor light of day, sober old Boaz couldn’t see what Naomi was trying to say. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Anyway, Ruth gets into bed with Boaz, making a very generous offer simply by her presence. And Boaz, having thanked God for this blessing, promises her the moon and all its stars, ending his speech with “now, just lie down until the morning.”
Aye, yai, yai, yai! – Prince Charming and his promises! My husband says I don't like men. I wish he was altogether wrong. There are so many men I don't like. I love them with the love of the Lord, of course.
There’s lots of story here that I’m not brave enough to tell, Friends. The fact is this: Boaz can promise Ruth whatever he wants, but he's beholden to her for nothing, save in the eyes of God. Not in the next minute. Not when the sun comes up. He pays her, for heaven's sake! Which may not be creepy, but most certainly is if he isn't a good guy. When chapter three ends, he can walk away like it never happened. If she breathes a word against him, he can ruin her with a single word. She could not be more powerless.
Naomi has put her in a precarious position, to say the least. Already a widow and a foreigner, she may now also be pregnant. Naomi appears willing to sacrifice Ruth – her fidelity – for this crazy scheme of hers. She has enough not to starve – for now anyway. Is it greedy for her to want more? For her to want to be NOT THIS POOR? Chapter three begins with the sentence “I need to seek some security for you.”
The fact is, there was NO security for a foreign widow in that time and place. Without a plan, Ruth is a dead woman walking. What we know from the last verse of the book of Judges: Israel is a dead country walking. Neither Ruth nor Naomi has any legal, social, economic or legal recourse besides this right to redeem law – and they have their wits. At least, Naomi does. Naomi, the Israelite, acts in her own best interest here – from outside the system that claims to know what is best for Israel.
So these are the last three scenes of the book: a bedroom, a courtroom, and a birthing room. Two are the jurisdiction of women. One, of men. At the gate (in “the courtroom”), the fate of women is to be decided – and they are not allowed to be there. They can only do what they have the courage to do in the spaces where they can move.
No less than Boaz at the gate, Naomi maximizes what power she possesses. Hard as it is to say, her hope is to sell Ruth to Boaz. She's hardly the first or the last. People make choices every day that we cannot imagine having to face: which of their kids to feed? Do you feed different ones on different days so they all starve slowly or feed some enough and let the other starve? People really are this poor. People really are this desperate. And people like Boaz – people with so much power and influence – make decisions every day that have life and death consequences for people like Naomi and Ruth, in the places and in the spaces where those poor people, those desperate people, are never present.
So Boaz goes to the gate – no doubt with a bounce in his step that morning! He finds the near kinsman and gathers ten men – “elders,” the Bible calls them. They make a synagogue – ten Jewish men – enough to make decisions for the community. They will decide Ruth's fate. Boaz will lead them. He offers Elimilech's property to the one with first right to redeem. I will redeem it, he says. Everyone does as Boaz wants (once Naomi has let Boaz know what he wants, of course). Except Boaz has stacked the deck, if you will. “Oh, one more thing: it's a package deal. You take the property, you get a Moabite wife too.”
“No deal,” says the near kinsmen. “I take her home and my family will cut me off. You take her.” Easy enough to judge him; but those were the times. Are you as brave as you wish you were?
Of course, this is exactly what Boaz meant to happen. Nobody expected him to want Ruth. But when HE bought her, what could they do? He's Boaz. Nobody will stand up to him. Whatever hesitation still grips their hearts, they TALK the talk we've watched Boaz talk since chapter one: the language of the Bible about welcoming the stranger. “May she come into your house and build the house of Israel just like Rachel and like Leah,”
And sober old Boaz, isn’t he something! All we could hope for and more. A promise-keeper, first of all. And not quite but almost as tricky as Naomi. He tricks that entire courtroom into doing exactly what he wanted them to do – technically, what Naomi wanted him to want them to do. But neither Naomi nor Boaz could’ve done without the other for this story to turn out as it does.
Boaz and Ruth marry. His words to her are the ones we ought to use at weddings! The birthing room is full of women, who say that Naomi has a son from a daughter-in-law who is more to her than seven sons.
And then, as the story goes, “And Naomi took the boy and laid him to her breast and nursed him.” The same Bible readers who insist that Ruth and Boaz talked all night, read “nanny”
here or “godmother.” It's the word for wet-nurse. For breastfeeding. It must, for the poetry to work. This little boy, Baby Obed, he is the one who brought her back to fullness. As her friends say, “He shall be unto thee a restorer of life, and a nourisher of thine old age.”
By his ever-empty little belly and his always-hungry little mouth, Naomi – who was once full then empty – is made full once again. Just like Israel shall be full. Just like all of us who choose to draw life from the Source of all that lives, The One whom back in chapter one Naomi called El-Shaddai, the Almighty. Or, as it might also be translated, “The Breasted One.”
Would you pray with me?
In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr tells of walking down a sidewalk in Albuquerque where homeless people congregate and also write graffiti on the sidewalk. One day, in beautiful script he saw this poem, “See how foolishly man guards his nothing. Thereby keeping us out. Truly God is hated here.” They do see us, you know – hurrying by, avoiding their eyes. Going to our lunch meetings. Or shopping. Or sightseeing in a city.
We see them. They see us seeing them. And the Lord sees us all. We have decisions to make, Friends, about how we shall live alongside these neighbors. Neighbors, some of whom are literally starving for things we regard as so much trash.
Shall we, like Naomi’s kinsman Boaz, use the power of our privilege in ways that reflect we have actually read the Word and take it seriously as light and guide for the faith we claim? OR shall we also, in our lives and in our life together, prove the poet correct – as we so carefully guard our nothing, while the desperate watch and wonder what exactly we mean when we claim to know the Lord.
Let us pray:
May our confidence in your providence grow so deep and wide in us, O God, that we cling to nothing that our neighbor needs. Open our eyes to worldly privilege and forbid we ever name it blessing. When we draw upon it, Lord, may it be for justice and not for our own self-interest – as Jesus taught us with his own life. Amen.
Just a reminder: Ruth is not stealing from Boaz. The law of Israel allowed the poorest of the poor both to work in and eat from another man’s fields, by virtue of their poverty. By the same law, Boaz was required to make allowance for the poor to work and eat from his farm.
Deuteronomy 24:19-22 reads:
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.
21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.
22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
Just three years ago I had the most interesting conversation about this exact thing. Carl and I were on vacation in Costa Rica and took a day trip into Nicaragua – about a four-hour car trip, something like driving between Bloomington and Bloomfield on Hwy 45. Beautiful drive, terrible road, lined with farms and a small village every few miles. Along the highway, between the farm fencing and the highway, every half-mile or so, a mule or pig or a cow would be tied to the fence. Just one, with an ordinary rope. No farmer in sight. I asked our tour guide, Sandino, about it, “Why do they tie their animals on the other side of their fence?”
“The animals don’t belong to the farmers,” he said, “they belong to villagers who have no grazing room, only a very small pen attached to their house. They bring them out here very early, let them graze all day and then walk them home again in the evening.”
We also saw mules and horses, tied to fences in a small city park. I found this hilarious and Sandino asked why. “Because Americans would not like it if you parked a cow on their grass without asking permission.” To which he replied, “But it’s grass. People don’t own grass.”
“Wrong,” I said. “In the U.S. we definitely own our grass. We know exactly where the line is between our grass and our neighbor’s grass.” Sandino was positive I was joking. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s like saying you own all the fruit on the fruit tree in your yard.” “Exactly,” I said.
“No,” he said. “The tree belongs to you, but if a stranger walks by and he is hungry, he picks the fruit he needs to eat. And you are happy that he was able to eat from your tree that day.” To which I said, “Now you are being ridiculous. The tree is mine which means ALL the fruit is also mine. If you take my fruit without asking, that’s stealing.” “But it’s fruit,” he protested, “it’s FOR eating!” They have a better grasp of this God-given economy than us, I think. Where food is not first of all a commodity – it is life. Life cannot be withheld by people who claim to know God.
My idea in chapter two is to fiddle with the characters of Boaz and Naomi a bit, listening and looking for anything they might tell or show us about what biblical faith looks like – either in the life of someone as poor and marginalized and bitter as Naomi or someone as affluent and powerful (that is, as privileged) as Boaz.
Boaz’s first words in the Bible are to his workers: “The Lord be with you!” He outs himself as a believer; he claims to know God! Lots of people do. The text tells us Boaz was rich and a prominent leader of the community. Now we have a rich, powerful person claiming to know God. We’re familiar with that too, of course. No one in this country gets elected to high office without claiming some faith in God. But the rest of their lives – and OURS – tells the truth about what they believe. Boaz is interested in the new woman, who we know is Ruth. But he doesn’t. Yet.
The workers brag on her – how strong, how hardworking she is. He notices her, tells his men workers not to bother her. Your text might say molest. He reminds the same men again after lunch, “Yeah, you can’t bother her in the afternoon either. You can’t bother, touch, tease her.” Look at Boaz! Only 3000 years ahead of his time on sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s not a small point, I think. He has political, social and economic power he’s not flexing here – at least not to his own advantage. Holy law says he must let her glean. His world gave him full permission to do anything he wanted to her.
I give Boaz zero points for not being a creep himself. That’s too low a bar to reward anyone for meeting. Especially one who claims to know the holy law. HOWEVER, I give him huge points for not allowing it in his company. Not in the morning. Not in the afternoon. Not on my watch. Go, Boaz! So far, so good. His walk matches his talk.
Second: He’s required to let her glean; he’s not required to feed her too. But lunch time comes along and Boaz notices Ruth has nothing with her to eat. That’s how you know someone’s poor: if they have to work to eat before they can eat to work.
I read an article recently about childhood hunger, about how the shame of having parents who can’t or don’t feed you is worse than the shame of letting people know you are hungry. Boaz knows she’s poor because she showed up to work. He knows she’s poorer than poor – that’s she’s hungry right now – because she has nothing when they stop for meal time. She hasn’t any water either, and he offers to her what his men have carried to the field for themselves. He must have watched her wrap up half to take home to Naomi – and realized all the more, they are starving.
An ephah is almost a bushel, something like 50 pounds. Boaz might have said, “The law let them glean the leftovers. That’s fine, but I’m not running a charity here.” But he didn’t. “Leave a little extra and pretend you don’t notice when she picks it up,” he says; “don’t harass her.” He makes his living farming and yet the holy law seems all up in how he runs his business, in how he acts when he’s at work.
I think it so important to remember, with Boaz as our model, that he is at work! We’re at church. He is not. He’s on a job, making bottom-line decisions, not only about the workers he employs but the poor people in his realm. THEY are part of his bottom-line business decisions on this ordinary work day. He does not yet know who Ruth is – maybe. I like thinking that he doesn’t, that Boaz isn’t operating out of special knowledge but out of his everyday faith, that he has gathered not just the letter of the law but its intent into his heart and mind – the intent that rich and poor thrive together when times are good and they survive together when times are hard. The biblical economy was designed precisely to work that way.
We spent lots of time on this just two years ago – at sabbath and jubilee times, remember? The seven-year clearance of debt and freeing of slaves, so families didn’t fall into generational poverty. The right to redeem, which Naomi mentions here, will come up in our text next week when Boaz and Ruth are married. No such thing as Bible spoilers, because you’ve read it all.
Boaz carries himself as one who walks as well as talks in faith. His business is his to do with as he pleases, and he pleases NOT to guard it only to himself. Richard Rohr writes that when we find our true center – meaning our soul – we no longer need to guard our boundaries. Boaz seems much at home in his own soul, since the only thing he guards here is a hungry, vulnerable young widow trying to feed herself and her mother-in-law.
The book may be named for Ruth but the story begins and ends with Naomi. And we know, from the end of chapter 1, that Naomi believes herself cursed by God. Abandoned. What can one who feels divine abandonment teach us of faithfulness? I love verse 3 in King James, which reads like this: Ruth came, and gleaned in the field after the reapers: and her hap was to light on a part of the field belonging unto Boaz, who was of the kindred of Elimelech.
“Her hap was to light.” Isn’t that fantastic? Either it means “as luck would have it” or “by the hand of God.” I just love how it sounds. Her hap was to light. Old commentaries do love to argue the point, though. Was it a coincidence or the hand of God? Which is funny to me, given the rest of the story. Why doesn’t it occur to any of them that Naomi is as clever as Jacob? Clever like a fox. Clever like tricky, cunning, conniving, crafty, wily, sly, scheming, and shrewd. Just shy of devious. Barely this side of deceptive.
I’m not a Bible scholar, but I’ve read it dozens of times and I’m convinced nothing in this story is a coincidence. I’m convinced that Naomi concocted a crazy, far-fetched, dangerous plan beginning to end. And that she was as successful as Jacob, as blessed as Jacob, as critical to the arc of the story of Israel as Jacob – even if not as remembered – for her eyes-wide-open courage, in the face of almost impossible odds.
Her intention – it seems to me – when chapter 2 opens, is to NOT live hand-to-mouth, not feed herself for a day, but for her family to thrive. For generations. Because she too has read, or at least heard, the Bible. The same Bible Boaz knows, she knows – the one no part of which describes living hand-to-mouth as God’s will for the poor. The one with the God-designed economy in which rich and poor thrive together as God’s people. Meaning, her intention NOT to starve to death – that’s a faithful intention, a Godly intention.
Of course, she’s not powerful like Boaz. She’s not rich like Boaz. But she is not entirely without resource. Without leverage.
What does she have?
I suggest three things: The first thing she has is a dead husband, two dead sons and no heirs. Which sounds like not much until you add a line of the law from Leviticus 25 that says if a man falls on hard times and has to sell property to survive, that man’s kinsman has what’s called a right to redeem, which means that his kinsman has the right buy the land from the person who bought it from her husband for what they paid for it plus interest, and the person who bought her husband’s land is required to sell it to her husband’s kinsman.
The second thing Naomi has is a daughter-in-law who is young enough to marry, but foreign. And the third thing she has is nerves of steel. Because what she’s about to do is both crazy and dangerous. She lets Ruth think what they need is food. She executes a plan hoping for babies – generations of babies. And for babies, they were going to have to have a husband. A husband, ideally, with the right to redeem Elimelech’s land. No way did Naomi NOT know who Boaz was. No way did Naomi NOT know what he was: rich. And powerful. No way did Naomi NOT know what fields were his. Ruth may have thought she got there by coincidence. No way was it a coincidence.
Of course it was dangerous. Fields were dangerous for young women. Boaz himself says so – thrice in a chapter! Did Boaz already know of Naomi’s plan? I can’t decide. It makes sense to me that Naomi would get the rumor started, about how practically perfect in every way Ruth was, then steer the rumor toward Boaz. Is she lying when she acts surprised to find out Ruth met him? That’s a complicated question in these Bible stories; folks lie all the time and then the text praises them for being so wise and clever. Naomi doesn’t get her due by Bible scholars, but to her friends in chapter 4 she’s definitely a hero.
There’s something so poignant about Naomi working out this complicated, sophisticated plan, all while she is literally without a penny or a piece of bread. I think about what qualifies as hard work in my life and my mind. Yesterday I went to the most wonderful event: International Family Welcome and Orientation. I made friends with an eight- year-old girl named Sarah who was born in Bloomington. She has a younger brother and sister and a much older brother who lives with their grandma in Mexico. She told me her mom works at Texas Roadhouse and her daddy works at Red Lobster, and she gave me the lowdown on why Texas Roadhouse is the far superior place to work. Her mom also volunteers as a translator at her little brother’s pre-school.
I know someone else who works in a nail salon and has breast cancer, who is also being treated for breast cancer. She’s having thirty radiation treatments over six weeks. She’s relieved because she won’t lose her job. She’s worried because she will lose sixty hours of pay. They have a little girl here and parents back home depending on their income. She won’t have side effects because she can’t afford to.
Naomi doesn’t go to the field – which isn’t to say she isn’t working to stay alive. Working Hard. I think she’s busy as a bee, directing the action behind the scenes we are watching. I think she’s putting Ruth in danger with the hope of saving them both. I love that Ruth gets home with half a lunch and fifty pounds of grain – more food than they’ve probably seen in months – but Naomi’s first question is, “Where did you work today? Tell me about the man you worked for.” Ruth gives a full report. Naomi is thrilled with the results.
Go back tomorrow, she says. This is the verse where she is glad to know the field will be safe from sexual predators. Eugene Peterson actually translates her relief with something like, “Yes, go there so we know you won’t get raped at some other field.” Again, is that not a tragically low bar for a workplace? No known predators. Ruth went back every day until the harvest ended, the Bible says. At Boaz’s invitation. Setting the stage for the very, ummm, delicate scene which comes next in chapter 3. Naomi’s riskiest plan so far. Risky for Ruth most of all.
Her stage is set for now. Naomi and Boaz have not spoken yet. But each knows about the other. Ruth links them, innocent as she is to what is going on, beyond the fact that for now they have enough to eat. But she’s a foreigner, remember, a Moabite not expected to know the law like Boaz and Naomi. And in them it holds up beautifully. But there is still quite a bit to tell.
Would you pray with me?
Never The Less
Three things are important to know for us to read the story of Ruth and Naomi honestly:
Would you pray with me? Mother God who knows the names, the sins and the heartbreak of all her children, help us find our way through our own history, help us to tell the truth about what we’ve done and what has happened to us, that we might gain the full measure of your grace. Amen.
The book of Ruth picks up the thread left at the end of Judges, in the days when the judges ruled. The same days in which everyone did what was right in his own eyes. The male pronoun which I'm usually good to de-gender – it has to stay here. Food wasn't the only scarcity in those days. Human decency was also hard to find. My NRSV translation titles the last chapter of Judges "The tribe of Benjamin is saved from extinction." A better title might be “Israel uses religion to justify horrific misogyny, genocide, and human trafficking.”
Elimelech, Naomi's husband, was from Bethlehem, which means "house of bread." Only lately, it wasn't. And he had the means, apparently, to move his kids and wife to Moab, where food could be bought.
Now there was ancient bad blood between Moabites and the Ephrathites which you can look up on your own; but, generally, “hungry kids” trumps politics so to Moab they went. Then Elimelech dies and Naomi is a single mom of two boys old enough to marry. And the scriptures say, at least the more truthful translations, that Chilion and Mahlon took for themselves Moabite wives.
And to read that truthfully, we have to know the last two chapters of Judges. Read it yourself before you let your kids read it, because it is the stuff of nightmares. A gang rape so violent the victim dies. The gang is never caught or punished, but a war is fought over who gets to control whose women. 50,000 + soldiers are killed without actually settling the question. Such is war.
The tribe of Benjamin is condemned to extinction. The other tribes regret the decision but won't rescind it. Instead, they kill another town full of people and abduct 4oo of their unmarried girls – which can only mean children – and give them to the Benjaminites. Turns out, 400 wasn’t enough. They send Benjaminite soldiers to Shiloh, where there's a festival – a festival with lots of dancers. Young virgin dancers, they say. They give the soldiers a detailed plan for how and where to abduct the girls and promise to deal with the fathers and brothers afterward.
And I quote, “22 Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have your girls; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.’
“23 The Benjaminites did so; they took wives for themselves from the dancers whom they abducted. Then they went and returned to their territory, and rebuilt the towns, and lived in them. 24 So the Israelites departed from there at that time by tribes and families, and they went out from there to their own territories.
“25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
The fathers and brothers were generous, and incurred no guilt in giving away their girls. “Our bad,” said the Israelites, for failing to capture enough girls at Jabesh-gilead. But here’s what I want you to really hear: “And the Benjaminites took wives for themselves from the dancers whom they abducted.” Mahlon and Chilion took for themselves Moabite wives. When it happens in Nigeria we call it human trafficking. When it happens in the Bible, we call it “saved from extinction.” I will not skim this, Friends. I hate the Bible – on some of the pages – and then along comes a redemptive verse like verse 5. “When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died.” As if the storyteller cannot wait to get this generation of men off the page.
Then there were these three: Naomi, Ruth and Orpah. No sons between them. Yet. And not enough privilege simply to grieve their losses – assuming they were even sad. Afraid, maybe. Empty wombs plus empty bellies leaves them an economic burden. Their world has no reason NOT to let them starve. Naomi imagines her chances are better in Judah. Ruth and Orpah follow at first.
Who can say what's in Naomi's heart and mind when she tries to send them back? Umm, Naomi actually. “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” I'd call that a pretty good summary of the condition of women in her time and place. And many times and places since. The Bible tells the truth about what God lets people get away with, if we have to courage to listen.
That same bitterness is in Naomi when she tries to send Ruth and Orpah home. Have you read what happens to trafficked women who try to go home? Not usually a yellow- ribbons-around-the-oak-tree kind of reunion. Orpah does go, and we never know her fate. To my mind she represents the millions and millions of women who have disappeared from the planet, whose names and selves are known only to God. The FBI does not even keep the numbers on Native American women who have disappeared. (Read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Ginn.)
Ruth, however, will not disappear. There may be no kings on the throne in Israel, but she carries them inside herself. A teensy, tiny ovum that will become the son of her grandson, God's own favorite king of Israel.
Of course, on this day she doesn't know that. On this day, all she knows is that she can starve to death in Moab or starve to death in Bethlehem. Starve to death with people she used to know or starve to death with Naomi. For whatever reason, in spite of what has happened to her, in spite of what the world has deemed to be her place and her destiny, within the very narrow choices available to her, Ruth chooses to take control of her own future. If she and Naomi must die, they will die together.
Solidarity with those who have no hope – that is her choice. But it will not be her fate.
There is no more Godly a choice available to one who claims to know God. What follows is the favorite passage in the book of Ruth: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried – which is ironic, since the context isn't marriage; it's death.
In a world that has made it clear that she and Naomi are worth nothing, she chooses to live as if their lives matter. The world will let Naomi starve and not think twice about it. But Ruth won't. She can’t save Naomi’s life, but she will not allow her to die alone. Ruth's life doesn't matter much to anyone now, but it matters to Naomi. And whatever else the world might say about it – if it bothered to speak at all – Never. The. Less., Ruth's life is still hers to do with as she pleases.
God is hardly named in the story, and yet God is everywhere. In the solidarity and sacrifice we see in Ruth, the one who casts her lot with the very least of these – all the way to death, should it come to that, and all the way to all the abuse and terror and humiliation from here to there. The world can do nothing to Ruth against her will, not if she surrenders herself to it all. Willingly. There is so much story in what the Bible doesn’t tell, so much truth left out because of who didn’t get a voice in the telling. We must learn to read with eyes and ears tipped to the truth those quieter characters have to tell.
At the end of chapter 1, Ruth and Naomi have arrived in a little no-place village called Bethlehem, hoping against hope not to starve to death in the “house of bread." And all the while, they guard the seeds of the very kingdom that has saved us all.
Would you pray with me?
A Triple Redundancy
When we worship together, and when we eat together, when we serve our neighbors, when we speak truth to power, when we offer hospitality to the stranger, protection for the refugee, a resting place for the weary, food for the hungry and shelter for the home- less, when we choose solidarity with the weak instead of the safety of our privilege, when we choose self-denial over self-indulgence, when we do ANY of these, we do them with clear biblical precedent, Old Testament and New. This is the activity, the ethic of the people of the God of the Bible. Because, everywhere, on every Bible page: God. Is. Love. That is the “Triple Redundancy."
When I was in Washington, D.C. this spring, on my only free day I walked around Georgetown, since I'd only seen it on TV. I saw one-bedroom condos for sale for $1million. Not interested. Then I saw a tiny storefront: Moleskin. Do you know Moleskin? It's paper. Little notebooks and journals. Shelves and shelves of every color and size of moleskin notebooks. I LOVE moleskin paper.
I also love my kids. And I love my husband. And I love my dogs. And I love the gourd vines in my garden. And I love yarn. And I love good food and good coffee. And I love books. I really, really love books. Love love love love love love love. Could any English word possibly mean less, if it renders family equal to paper and gourds? Other languages have lots of words for love, New Testament Greek included. Agape is the Greek word most common for love in the New Testament. Agape has practically become synonymous with Christian love, the love of God acted out in the Christ event. That’s agape. Incarnation – putting off the things of heaven and taking up the form of a slave – also agape.
To read John – to read the Bible, for that matter – we have to get this right. I love paper and I love my husband and I love Jesus is not triply redundant. Framed by agape, Jesus and husband can stay; they are in fact redundant. My love for my husband is redundant of my love of Jesus. But paper cannot remain an object of the same verb. Because if “God Is Love” is our measure for love, then everything must change, including our grammar.
John restates in the third person proper verb form what God has said all along in the first person personal: God calls God’s self “I AM”; John says “God Is." Adding LOVE makes it the triple redundancy. To begin to know God is to know this. To know and believe it, John writes, is to abide therein. By default, how you abide in this world tells the truth about what you know and believe. Either you know God, or you don't, evident in the substance of your life – the substance of God’s love in your life or the absence of the substance of God’s love in your life. The substance of God is love. Love is the substance of God, known in the person – in the event – of Jesus, the Son of God.
Love is not the description of life in God. This is tricky for someone who loves books. Some monks in Pennsylvania wrote a wonderful book called "The Art of Raising a Puppy." Ben wrote a book report on this book in Third Grade. His thesis was that reading this book is nothing like raising an actual puppy. Raising a live puppy is a substantial commitment of one’s life, the commitment of a substantial amount of time-and-energy-consuming activity.
Reading that God is love is nothing like believing and knowing that God is love. Believing God is love is a substantial commitment of one’s life, the commitment of a substantial amount of time-and-energy-consuming activity. God is love must be ethics before it can be theology. God is love is fundamentally what we do. Too easily do we slip into talking and feeling without doing anything at all.
Of the dozens of ways of describing the agape love of God from I John, chapter 4, for today I've chosen two. The love of God is substantive, not descriptive; it is a way of living, not a way of talking about beliefs. And, the love of God is initiative, not responsive; it does not wait for cause to love.
God's love is substantive. We know what it looks and sounds and acts like from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It takes up space. It has energy. It moves. It alters the environment in which it moves. It exerts power. It interacts with other people and with systems. It is visible, audible, palpable. It draws others toward it or repels them from it. People were drawn to or repelled by Jesus. Romans 5:8 reads, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Dying that began when he was born a human, constant dying to the self he was, in order to be like us and for us, all the way to death.
Jesus told of a man beaten and dying on a road. Two very religious men avoided him, for very religious reasons. Theirs was a well-kept theology. Another man, possibly religious, stopped, knelt, doctored, picked up and carried the beaten, dying man to safety. Stayed with him two days. He died to his own plans, as one preacher said. Jesus said he was the neighbor. The original religious question was about the most important commandment, remember? Love, Jesus answered. Loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus says walking by without spitting on the beaten, dying man doesn't really count as loving God or neighbor. What counts? Dying to your own plans.
The Samaritan man – might have been a salesman – died to all the clients he would have had over the next two days. He might have been a professor headed to conference, who died to all the groundbreaking papers she was supposed to present. Or a student, dying to the finals he was supposed to take to graduate. And it's not just plans, is it? If God is love and Jesus is the teacher, we die to a lot more than plans. We die to our preferred idea of ourselves, our identity, our reputations.
Jesus's story of the Samaritan man is picture-perfect I John 4. One man finds another man on the brink of death. He doesn't know him. The bleeding man can't do a thing for the Samaritan. If he could stand, he'd likely have crossed the road to avoid the very man who saved his life. What the Samaritan man does is not rooted in politics, in theology.
For those who make no claims of knowing God, human decency is still at stake when a man lies bleeding in the street. But for those who claim some knowledge of – some kinship with – the Lord, everything rides on whose plans get interrupted next. God's? Or ours? If God is love, all that God does is done in love. From the beginning, including Creation, reality itself is washed through with this love, so that a man beaten and left dead by other men is an affront to the creation, a horror that cannot be abided by anyone who also claims to know of God.
Friends, if God is love, almost nothing else I call love is. To what plans have you died lately? Was it for a friend? Because the Bible says even the Gentiles do that.
God is Love is substantive, not descriptive. And it is initiative, not responsive. We are the man in the street, destined for death. God didn't love us because of what God would get out of the deal. Love is what/who/how God is. Love that did something without any expectation or confidence that the ones loved (us) would ever so much as say “thank you,” let alone stop being a bunch of hateful snots. Here is the love of which John writes in I John 4. And someone else, in Romans 5: God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Love cannot precede God. God cannot love anyone back. God invented Love. It started with God. We cannot help but love God responsively, but we respond by taking the initiative to love others first. Without manipulation. Without expectation. Because whether or not the other is grateful – or loves me back – is not the point. God loves me. I am, we are, fully, completely, perfectly loved already.
God. Is. Love. I can think it through beginning to end. I can barely begin to live it. I love others about as well as I knit right-handed. Slow and clumsy with lots of starting over. And I get tired quickly. I get mad quicker than I get tired. I am a perpetual beginner. Which I suppose, I want.
John wrote in verse 18, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. The root of anger is almost always fear. It helps me to imagine John encouraging us not to be afraid to love poorly, so long as we are loving perfectly, so long as our love for others mimics God's love for us in Christ Jesus. Love that is more substance than description, Love that came to us freely from the first, offered to our neighbors as freely as we have received it from the Lord.
Would you pray with me?