For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Lydia Shiu, click HERE.
Hey, it’s been a while. I’m Steve, if we haven’t met, or if you’ve just forgotten that I’m around. I’m one of our pastors here at Reservoir. Thank you so much for your support in letting me take some extra time off after eight years into a delightful run as a senior pastor here. I took a month to take it easy, enjoy time with my beloved family, and get some time to myself. It was really refreshing to catch a break. If you have a chance to take even a few days off for rest and reflection after the year we’ve all been through – hey, even a few hours here and there, I highly recommend that. If any of you ever need some ideas on how to take a break for personal renewal, or maybe how to do that in your mid-life years in particular, let me know. I’m always game to help with that kind of thing.
All to say, though, it’s great to be speaking with you again. I’m looking forward to today, as well as to some preaching I’ll be doing this summer starting next week. I’ll write a little bit about that in this week’s newsletter, coming to your email on Wednesday.
Also, Happy Pentecost Sunday today! In the Christian calendar, Pentecost is a commemoration of the time when Jesus’ first followers experienced a captivating, powerful sense of God’s presence with them not long after they lost God’s presence among them through the person of Jesus. Jesus had said
after I go, things will get better, not worse. I will be with you through an Advocate, a Comforter, a Strengthener, a Truth-Teller, an Encourager,
literally as one who comes alongside, in Greek the Paraclete, which is the unseen Spirit of God. And Pentecost remembers a significant time Jesus’ first followers knew this was so.
Pentecost was a holiday already, though, 2000 years ago. In Hebrew, it’s called Shavuot. And Shavuot, in the Jewish tradition, is also the celebration of the presence and gifts of God through two other means. Shavuot remembers the gift of God’s law, the Torah, to Moses in ancient times. Thank God for words to live by, for guidance for a healthy, just, good life. And it remembers the gift of food – Shavuot was a spring harvest festival. Thank God for food to live by.
So Happy Pentecost to you today. And happy Shavuot!
This year, on Shavuot/Pentecost, I have on my mind the beautiful story of the Bible’s book of Ruth. I love this little book. Back in 2015, we did a whole multi-week series in this book – it was a project Will Messenger worked on with me. You can still find it online deep in our sermon archives. Ruth is a short book – you can read it easily in a sitting – and it’s got tragedy, redemption, great characters, sex and romance, surprise twists, and all kinds of beautiful and wise things it can illuminate when read well. But today, on Pentecost, there are three reasons I want to center this story.
One, it’s like the original Pentecost book. It’s an old, old story set around the time of a spring harvest and still read today in many Jewish communities around this holiday.
Two, the original Pentecost is a celebration of the giving of Torah, the articulation of Law by which people would find health and order and justice and life. It is the celebration of the command to live in what was meant to be the original expression of Beloved Community in our faith traditions. But Ruth messes with what law means in really interesting ways.
The little book of Ruth pushes creative tension into the Old Testament’s account of what to do with law.
See, in the Torah, there’s this bit of boundary marking about who can or can’t be at worship in the temple. And after the requisite comments about crushed testicles and other issues (I kid you not!), we get this:
3Ammonites and Moabites can’t belong to the Lord’s assembly. Not even the tenth generation of such people can belong to the Lord’s assembly, as a rule,
4 because they didn’t help you with food or water on your journey out of Egypt.
That is some serious shade cast on other ethnic groups. If it sounds like someone’s grinding an ax here, well it’s because they are. These two ancient nation-states didn’t help us out, so they are never welcome in our house. And we’ll be tracking lineage, 10 generations deep. That’s extreme.
But this thing with the Moabites doesn’t go away. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, Israelite men who marry Moabite women are publicly shamed and commanded to divorce their wives. There are beatings, brawls over this thing.
This strand of tension in the Bible reminds us that long standing conflicts with near neighbors do not heal easily or quickly. Time does not heal all wounds. The pain and bitterness and grudges and inequities and perpetuation of harm that flows from injustice can keep cursing down to the 10th generation and more.
Think of Israel and Palestine, and what’s happening this spring.
Think race relations in this country, and race-based violence, as we remember the murder of George Floyd one year ago.
One way out of the plague of memory and resentment is separation, exclusion, barriers. Torah prescribes this for the Moabites, delineating who’s right, who’s wrong, and how to achieve safety and justice.
But then we get Ruth, which is a celebration of intermarriage between Jewish men and the most remarkable Moabite women, one of whom becomes the great-grandmother of the greatest ever king of Israel.
One lesson of Ruth for Shavuot is that legal and moral, ethical matters need to be worked out not just with principles in mind, not just abstractly, but in real, earthy detail, humanely, with specific people and places in mind.
This is true when it comes to border policies and policing. It’s true when it comes to things like family rules and company policies and practices as well. How do we do right by people? How do we heal wounds? How do we achieve justice? We need law and principles, but we can’t only follow them in the abstract. We have to love and honor the real people and situations in front of us that we’re dealing with today? What do dignity and love and justice and healing look like on the ground?
And that could have been the sermon. Padraig O’Tuama has a whole book out about this. It’s called Borders and Belonging. You can check it out if you like.
But there’s something else I feel we’re supposed to see today as we finish our series on Listening to the Spirit. Which is that Ruth is also a book about the creative leading of the Spirit of God in daily life.
There are these three moments in Ruth where three different people say or do something utterly surprising, achingly beautiful, and powerfully transformative. Let’s read each and ask – why did this happen? And how did this happen? And what does this show us about how the Spirit of God speaks to and leads you and me?
First, there’s Naomi. Naomi is a middle aged Jewish woman, widowed before her time. As a result, she finishes raising her two sons as a single mom. They grow up in Moab and marry Moabite women, this big no-no in the tradition, we heard. But after they marry, they each die young as well. And now Naomi has two Moabite daughters-in-law, trying to survive a famine together. In a patriarchal age, in which widows often faced destitution, you’d think Naomi would cling to her daughters-in-law, try to ride one of their coattails into a better situation.
But instead she does this.
8 Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me.
9 May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
Naomi thinks everyone will be better off in their own homeland. Dissolve this mixed family, go back as a beggar among her people, and let her daughters-in-law start over. That’s one way of reading the scene.
But another is to see in Naomi this extraordinary, self-giving, sacrificial love. Longing to see her daughters-in-law flourish, she encourages them to move on without her. It’s like: if you love somebody, set them free. In a way, it’s this extraordinary moment of love and courage. Where did this freedom come from?
One daughter in law, Orpah, says a tearful goodbye, but the other, Ruth says: no way, we’re family now. My life is bound to yours. Let’s do this together. We get this in the text.
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.
17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”
18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.
Ruth is the woman who helps care for her in-laws, even though they’re not her parents. She’s the busy woman who makes time to visit her parents, and sing through the window while they’re in lockdown during COVID. She’s the loyal friend, the loyal spouse who hangs in through sickness, mental illness, turns of fortune. Ruth is this paragon of love, to the degree that her words get used sometimes in wedding vows. And as the book, she will become a paragon of courage and boldness in different ways as well.
She, a Moabite, is the rare person in the scriptures who is called an Eshet Hayil, a woman of valor, like the highest compliment you can give a woman in this tradition.
How does she live this way? Where does this love and courage come from?
The last, the third main character we meet is a Jewish landowner, and distant cousin of Naomi’s. His name is Boaz.
When Naomi and Ruth return to Israel. Naomi sends Ruth to glean in his fields – to pick the extra harvest that Jewish law prescribed landowners to leave behind for those who had nothing. It’s a practice of Beloved Community that was baked into the law, that people with access to capital recognize their privilege and good fortune, and make sure it benefits those without capital as well. It’s like the obligation of a business – not just to its profits and customers, but to the broader community, and to the land, and to the native peoples of the land in which it operates.
Anyway, Boaz meets Ruth and doesn’t just encourage her to keep gleaning in his fields. He goes out of his way to ensure she is protected against any possible sexual harassment and is empowered to thrive. Here’s one bit from Boaz.
8 Boaz said to Ruth, “Haven’t you understood, my daughter? Don’t go glean in another field; don’t go anywhere else. Instead, stay here with my young women.
9 Keep your eyes on the field that they are harvesting and go along after them. I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you. Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs and drink from what the young men have filled.”
The language is lifted out of the ancient times of the story, but Boaz emerges as what Richard Beck calls a “man of valor”, a Gibor Hayil. And it’s cool that what makes a man of valor is not wealth or power or skill in war, or any other ancient patriarchal archetypes. What makes a man of valor in Ruth is doing the right thing with your privilege, is generous and fair labor practice, is just and kind and appropriate relationship with women.
Boaz goes on to follow his culture’s laws of goodness toward one’s distant in-laws, and through a kind of hot nighttime rendezvous, ends up becoming Ruth’s husband as well. It’s a great story, but it starts with Boaz meeting Ruth when she is most vulnerable and determining to be safe and tender and just and kind.
Where does this all come from? How is this man led to be so good?
I think what’s playing out in this story for each of the three main characters are the same things that play out in our own way in all our lives. So let me highlight three things that I think can lead us toward listening to and flowing with the movement of the Spirit for us, today.
First – We’re all playing improv, all our lives, all the time.
Ruth is set in hard times. In the Bible, it comes right after the book of Judges, which tells the story of a hot mess of just about every kind of suffering and violence known to our species. No one’s living their best life, getting their dream job, married to their soulmate, or in any other way, living the dream.
The book of Ruth is all about people doing their best with their back-up plans, and sometimes with their backup plans to their back-up plans, and often with no plan at all! When times are hard, when plans are disrupted, when life isn’t going quite how we hoped it would, what do we have?
I’m sure that you, like me, have had many plans upended this past year. It’s been hard. I’ve been confused and disillusioned and disappointed sometimes this year. But we’re learning that despite our best efforts to control life, this is a normal part of being a human on planet earth.
Most of life is improvisation. It’s how we relate to our friends and family after the mess explodes. It’s who we love, who we commit to, who we will do life with when nothing else makes sense. It’s how we’ll treat our colleagues and our employees and the marginalized and discouraged in our communities when they’re in chaos. It’s our next move when life’s gone off course.
I have less and less confidence in plans any more, and more and more in character, presence, faithfulness, and courage.
Friends, God doesn’t want your life to go according to script. And God can’t make your life go according to plan – that’s not the kind of power God has. What God can do, though, is be with you with perspective, peace, and love wherever you are today or any day. And God can encourage you that if you seek to be a person of character – a person of valor like Ruth or Boaz – a decent, safe, loving person who commits to the kindest, most loving options in front of you in life… God can encourage you that you’re going to find power and joy in that.
Secondly – Every moment, God is offering creative possibilities to us all.
We saw in the text that Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, while improvising their way through strange and hard times, each at different moments find themselves saying and doing brave and kind and good things that turn their lives toward the good, that open up good things in other people’s lives too.
And we asked – where do these ideas come from?How are these folks led to the words and actions that turn their lives toward the best possibilities for them and for others around them?
My understanding, and I believe the best understanding of the Christian faith, is that these impulses, these ideas come from the Spirit of God, who is near to us all, and inviting us every day toward the best, most creative, most loving possibilities for us and for the rest of the world around us. Our future is not pre scripted by anyone, God included, but God is in relationship with everyone and everything God has made, inviting us all toward what’s most creative, delightful, redemptive, and loving. God is doing this pre consciously, or what we call subconsciously, the great majority of the time.
We don’t spend most of our lives, like our Sunday prayer teams at church, consciously looking for a word from God, wondering what God’s best invitation is moment to moment. But on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate that God is speaking to us even when we’re not looking for it. God’s Spirit is with us: inviting us, encouraging us not toward some crazy ideal that’s way out of reach, but to the very best possibility we have in any situation.
So what do I do when I’ve been laid off? When my loved one gets ill? When I’ve been done wrong by the last person I expected that to come from?
What happens when my dreams for my kid die? Or when I’m not where I want to be in life? Or when I’ve been a jerk to the person I love? Or when my mental health has tanked? Or when I’m just having a bad day?
None of these things, none of any of the things you’re facing today, are an out-of-reach, out-of-help place for the Spirit of God. Just as God is the wisest and most loving being in the universe, God is also the most creative and adaptive one, the one who’s always got an inkling of a possibility for what’s next. And if we really believe the Spirit is speaking, that notion is already kicking around your mind somewhere.
Spirit of God is present to you, and Spirit of God has spoken.
Our church’s Christian past, in what was called the Vineyard group of charismatic or renewalist churches, was famous for calling out to God, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and expecting cool things to happen.
But with all respect to that heritage, it’s a weird prayer, as the Holy Spirit is already here. Today we celebrate that the Spirit HAS COME.
So we can pray instead: Spirit, I’m glad you’re here – what are you speaking? My God, what creative best is available right now?
And here’s one way we know which thoughts most connect us with God’s possibilities. By knowing what God loves and longs for for us all.
Which is this:
Third – Spirit of God wants satisfaction, provision, life, joy for you – and for all God’s children – today.
We see in both Ruth and Boaz aspects of the character and nature of God. Ruth in her loving loyalty, in her bold and disruptive and creative moves to bring about goodness and love and redemption. And Boaz in his self-giving love. And in Boaz’s earthy invitation to Ruth:
Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs of water and drink,
we hear a little echo, a little foretaste of the Spirit of God at Pentecost.
God has determined to not be God without us.
Whenever we are thirsty for love, for meaning, for hope, God is eager to meet us.
God has and is more than enough for us all.
When we’re looking for the voice of God, wondering how God is inviting, speaking to us beneath our consciousness, we can ask what idea, what thought, what inclination holds the most promise of life, satisfaction, and joy – not just for me, but for me and others – and we may find ourselves moving towards God’s invitations.
And when we’re looking for the presence of God, wondering how to pray, how to know God is with us, we can take whoever or whatever brings satisfaction, provision, life, and joy to us or those around us, and see that or them as a way God is loving us, as a means through which God is stirring, as a sign of Spirit’s presence and goodness to us all.