With Rev. Greg Morisse, and in conjunction with Ellie Richardson and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, I have been developing updated Boundary Awareness Training Modules on specific topics of interest to pastors in our conference. The first two (Clergy with Spouses and/or Children, and Digital Media) are now being tested and reviewed. Future modules will include Sabbath and Self-Care, Politics, and Single Clergy.
You may view the current versions of Clergy with Spouses and/or Children and Digital Media by using the links below.
In recent months I’ve had occasion to consider best practices in associate staff ministry several times. First, in the context of the new clergy group I facilitate which is predominantly associate pastors; second in the interfaith religious educators group I meet with in my city; third in the context of the boundary awareness training groups I co-facilitate for our conference.
It was surprising to me to realize that I’ve spent more time as an associate pastor than as a solo or senior pastor. This has not been a matter of feeling called to associate ministry. Instead, with each search process I’ve balanced the available positions with my life circumstance in determining which call to take. At the beginning of my ministry I was the full time breadwinner while my husband was in graduate school. The full time position available was an associate position. When our son was born, we both worked 3/4 time serving as a solo pastor. I later served as a full time interim senior pastor. More recently, I’ve served as a half time associate pastor while my husband works more than full time. This choice has made possible more time with our son, as well as additional paid and volunteer ministry. I am the denominational counselor to UCC students at Harvard Divinity School, a boundary training developer for our conference, and a climate activist. I foresee a return to full time solo/senior ministry in the future.
I’ve reviewed this list of positions simply to show that I’ve seen both sides of the associate and senior coin and feel allegiance to both types of positions. Thus when it comes to best practices, I’m more likely to lean into best practices for any pastoral position, whether associate or senior. I have also experienced the challenges and the blessings of both solo/senior and associate ministry.
It’s fascinating to look back and compare the challenges and blessings of associate ministry and senior/solo ministry. In my current associate ministry, I am blessed that the buck does not stop in my office. I am not the only pastor able to or expected to respond to a pastoral emergency. My schedule is lighter and more flexible than it has been in full time or solo positions. I have very specific responsibilities and when I go beyond those responsibilities it is usually by my own choice to take on a project that I am passionate about, and I do so with the collaboration and support of my colleague. However, I very much miss preaching weekly, and the spiritual and scholarly discipline that requires. I am also aware that I am not the primary vision casting leader, and on the rare occasion when my sense of vision for the congregation varies from my colleague, her vision is the one we pursue. She has final day to day decision making authority, although our congregational polity brings congregants into most of the big decisions. The power dynamics in a multi-staff context are also complicated, and I have less influence over those dynamics as an associate. Finally, in associate ministry, my professional satisfaction is closely intertwined in my relationship with my senior pastor.
The interview process for an associate position is one moment when we can get a sense of what we are getting into. I suggest talking to someone who has served as an associate with this particular senior minister. What is the level of trust and support I’ll receive from this senior minister? How does the senior pastor cast a vision, empower the full team, and manage power dynamics?
In the interview process, I would ask a senior pastor and their reference these questions:
How involved will you be in my day to day ministry?
Do you want someone to direct, or someone with whom to collaborate?
Will you listen to my opinions?
Will you have my back?
Will you honor confidences I share with you?
What follows are my suggestions for associate ministry based in my own experience in multiple settings. Asterisks indicate these are suggestions for solo/senior pastors, too. I’ve noted where these suggestions come from specific books or resources.
*Get a life. This is a word from Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute and means, have a robust personal life outside of your professional setting. Practice both sabbath and self-care, and attend to relationships outside of the congregation.
*Get support. My clergy covenant group has saved my spirit, kept me in ministry, and showed me what beautiful ministry looks like. My spiritual director reminds me I am a beloved child of God and a minister with a lifelong colleague, no matter what my current ministry setting is or what challenges I face in ministry. Therapists have helped me figure out how my family history influence my reactions and responses in ministry.
Stay in your lane. In my own time as an associate this has been the most challenging thing for me. When I perceive a ministry need that is not being addressed, I want to step up, but I need to check in with the senior pastor before doing so. When people in the congregation ask me for my opinion about something, I always have an opinion, but sometimes the best response is, I support the senior pastor on this. When congregants ask me to function in ways that are in the senior pastor’s job description, not mine, I have to set aside the ego bump I get from the invitation and remember not to overfunction.
Sam Sanders of NPR recently shared in a podcast episode his daily prayer: “Lord help me find my lane, Lord help me stay in my lane, Lord help me move in my land at the appropriate speed.” (It’s Been A Minute, April 17, 2018)
Have professional projects where you can fully lead, and about which you are passionate, outside of your congregation. This is especially important if you are often feeling a desire to move out of your lane in your ministry setting.
Lead where you have the opportunity to lead. Many associate ministers are specialists. For example I am fully authorized to lead the children’s programming at my current church so I do my best to lead this program area well.
*Stay on your side of the triangle. Bowen Family Systems Theory describes relational triangles. (http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/about_vcfs/the_eight_concepts_of_bowen_theory/ ) As I understand it, I am not in charge of other people’s relationships. I do not try to fix other people’s relationships. I attend to my own relationships. The senior pastor may need to set behavioral norms between other staff members but the senior pastor cannot fix other people’s relationships. I also cannot fix anyone else’s behavior.
Margaret Marcuson writes: “Here is the heart of what it takes to sustain leadership. We move from the impossible – controlling others – to the merely difficult- managing ourselves.” (Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry This book has an excellent chapter on navigating ministry triangles.)
*Don’t triangulate. When people come to you with a complaint about another person within the system, help them find ways to express their concern directly the person. Don’t do anything with what they’ve told you.
*Generational Loyalty This concept relates to the idea that parents must be on the same page with each other in terms of their decision making and then present a united front to children. In the congregation, generational loyalty means that disagreements between senior and associate are processed behind closed doors. When the door is open, both show outward facing support for the decision made. Whomever is leading a particular effort, the other follows their lead. We do not speak badly about one another with members of the congregation. We do not let congregants draw us into listening to negative commentary about our colleagues – we ask the congregant to take the concern directly to the colleague. Additionally, generational loyalty means that the senior and associate give each other heads up about potential problems or conflict. As Kevin Lawson and Mick Boersma say, “We are family first, not just leaders of an organization….A radical love for one another, even if there are hard things to be faced and worked through, must characterize our relationships together on staff.” (Supervising and Supporting Ministry Staff: A Guide to Thriving Together by Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma) In another book of their books, Lawson and Boersma write, “As an associate, when you recognize the benefits that can flow from a good working relationship with your supervisor, the logical question to ask yourself is, what can I do to help bring this about?” (Associate Staff Ministry: Thriving Personally, Professionally, and Relationally Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma)
To the extent that I am able I try to show collegial support and grace to my colleague behind closed doors as much as in public. For an interesting contrasting perspective on what to do with triangulation and generational loyalty, see Doug Bixby’s Navigating the Nonsense: Church Conflict and Triangulation.
*Go overboard on communication and transparency. My first senior pastor made this a clear requirement of my position by telling me never to surprise him. I work very hard to inform the senior pastor of what is going on in my ministry area and what I am sensing within the congregation.
*Document. Because it’s always a good idea.
*Game face / positivity Once the door is open, I put my game face on. For example: there is a very important Christian holiday that involves a special service. In one setting where I served as an associate, I did not like the senior pastor’s design of this service. I expressed my opinion behind closed doors, realized that it was outside my lane to design or critique this service, trusted that the deacons and the senior pastor had consulted, and painted a smile on my face for the duration of the service.
*Stay calm. Take a breath. Say a prayer. Think big picture even if you aren’t the painter of the big picture. Take notes for later. “In any crisis, our own response contributes to the outcome.” (Marcuson)
*Integrity and Ethics At the same time, I am not obligated to behave in a manner that goes against my own sense of integrity and ethics. In such a moment I have many resources available to me, within the congregation (the pastor staff relations committee or moderator) and in my judicatory.
*Tend one’s own relationship with God and celebrate a larger sense of calling. Ministers are ultimately called by God to do ministry; the ministry of a specific time and setting is subordinate to God’s calling. “It seems that for real thriving in ministry, nothing is as foundational as the quality of our own relationship with God.” (Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma, Associate Staff Ministry: Thriving Personally, Professionally, and Relationally)
Use the time to learn for the next ministry setting. Some folks have stayed in the same associate ministry setting for their entire multi-decade career. God bless them for their fortitude and patience. Even as I revel in the blessings of my current associate ministry setting I am simultaneously filling in the gaps of my experience and knowledge in preparation for a future call. I am adding to my professional network and profile.
As you consider an associate position – whether you feel “called to the second chair” or your current situation matches with such a position – I pray that you will be as blessed in your ministry as I have been.
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him
20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Surely, Lord, you are in this place.
The Charles River, and its watershed.
Surely, Lord, you are in this place.
The land of the Mashpee Wampanoag.
Surely, Lord, you are in this place.
The city of Newton, place of both abundance and need.
Surely, Lord, you are in this place.
This sanctuary, with these your beloved children.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, in this time, in this place. Amen.
On Wednesday of this week, on the most beautiful spring day, between snow storms, I walked this place, this neighborhood. We are in a beautiful neighborhood, you know? And on Wednesday, the crocuses were still out and the forsythia had bloomed overnight, the daffodils were starting. I even saw three or four pioneer tulips. The sky was cobalt blue with whispy clouds, the air was crisp but not cold, children were playing in the park and people were out talking to their neighbors.
I walked down toward the church and was excited as I am every time to glimpse our shiny solar panels turning the sun’s good rays into electricity that powers every switch in our building. And I thought about our boiler, which is aesthetically speaking quite ugly but hiding down there in our basement is a thing of high efficiency beauty. And I thought about our Level III Green Church certificate and I was mighty proud of this church, I tell you. Mighty proud.
And this naturally led me to think about Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 Episode 9. Actually, everything gets me to thinking about Star Trek. In college my idea of a good time was to watch Star Trek with friends, and heaven help us John and I have been watching the entirety of Next Generation with Zac, including recently Season 7 Episode 9. What, the plot of “Force of Nature” is not something you have memorized? Let me just tell you: it’s the climate change allegory episode, although IMDB says it’s about a problem with the warp drive. To the Enterprise crew’s shock and dismay, two scientists from an isolated world prove beyond a doubt that using warp drive to zip across the galaxy at high speeds will lead to devastating subspace rifts. Their planet, is already on the verge of being uninhabitable. And so, the Federation issues an immediate directive: no more warp travel in fragile corridors. No more warp travel over Warp 5 except in emergency. The Federation takes immediate and clear action and saves the galaxy once again.
I love Star Trek, I tell you.
The episode ends with Captain Picard staring wistfully out at the stars, waxing eloquently: “I’ve charted new worlds. I’ve met dozens of new species. I believed that these were all valuable ends in themselves,” Picard says. “And now it seems that all this while I was helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear.”
The episode aired in 1993. You know, five years after climate scientist James Hansen told the Senate that global warming was increasing, was human caused, must be addressed in order to preserve a habitable earth.
In a hit-you-over-the-head reference to emerging climate change science, the writers of that episode declared when the science is clear, you must take decisive action. I love Star Trek. It’s so perfect.
Except it wasn’t.
See, this radical change in how the Federation would travel through space, this sacrifice for the sake of neighbor and creation? It’s a footnote in two more episodes – when the crew chooses to break the new limit – and then, magically, in the next Star Trek series they changed the angle of the warp nacelles and magically solved the problem with technobabble.
In Star Trek, all you have to do to solve an existential crisis is to make a minor tweak to the engines and then never think about it again. You can save the galaxy and miss the big picture; you can travel at warp and skip all the intersections.
Let me confess that I’ve spent a lot of time in Star Trek land –
Land of the simple fix,
Land of, if we just do this one simple easy discrete thing, everything will be fine, for everyone.
In my early days of climate activism I was drawn to climate work because of the risk to everyone, vulnerable populations, poor folk around the world.
But neither I nor the organizations I joined were listening to, or partnering with, any of those people. Not with Native Americans working to save the water sources on their land nor the women walking miles to get water in West Africa. Not with folks advocating for cleaner and more frequent buses in Four Corners nor with those whose backyards were bisected by leaky pipelines. Because I was working on fossil fuels, carbon parts per million.
I think in the last couple of years I’ve, at the risk of an overused phrase, woken up a bit. Seen that in this particular time and place I also need to be thinking about and working on racism, about land use, about militarism, about poverty, about water rights.
I was at a racial justice retreat for the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC last year when a certain prophet, a woman of color from Western MA, helped me see how the climate movement is seen by some folks. We were talking about the conference’s most recent conference email. All that’s ever in there is climate this, environment that. That’s all this conference thinks is important she said. We were sitting there at a racial justice retreat sponsored by the conference to help launch racial justice trainings, but around the room there were nods. She was not the only one who felt there was some tunnel vision. I tried, stumbling, to express that one of the underlying reasons I was committed to climate action was because of racial justice. It didn’t fly. The folks talking about climate were not the folks showing up at Black Lives Matter rallies or Poor People’s Campaign events. We weren’t working intersectionally. We were traveling in separate ships at warp speed.
I am increasingly converted to what Dr. Barber calls the moral fusion intersectional movement building that works across communities and causes for the greater good.
Just one example:
Puerto Rico, post Maria, exists at the intersection of
The most intense hurricane ever
A new tax bill that taxes Puerto Rican goods at foreign good rates
An island wide blackout 7 months later
So an intersectional response has to deal with economic justice, racial justice, and climate change.
At the Revolutionary Love Conference at Middle Church, I learned about Middle’s Puerto Rico response. They are both doing hands on repair work and fundraising – and installing solar panels in partnership with local folks (you know, the only spots not in blackout last week). Most of the folks in leadership from Middle are Puerto Rican or have relatives there. And of course, they’re doing their work in the interior of the island, so that they can be Middle in the Middle.
You heard the scriptural basis for Middle in the Middle in our text:
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
I want to get to the place where my climate action is intertwined with my solidarity with Black Lives Matter; where I show up for the Poor People’s Campaign both to protect our planet and to call for a living wage; where I protest a pipeline as much for its impact on the neighborhood as for its carbon emissions.
Because, it really is true that if we cut carbon emissions to zero, poor and vulnerable people are going to be stuck in the same place.
The next steps in the climate struggle are deeper than how many cities will choose 100% renewable electricity.
The next questions are more complicated and require something more of us.
The next steps connect the dots of systemic racism and economic inequality to the health of the planet.
Love and justice exist at the intersections. It is complicated, though, and occasionally overwhelming. There are soooo many crises in our world – and we have to connect the dots between them?
It was much simpler when I could just keep saying 350 over and over again.
But. The good news is right there in our text:
19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.
God is greater than our hearts; God is greater than our confusion; God is greater than this complexity; God is greater than all of these problems combined.
Put another way – in a verse that stood out for me in Jen’s Bible study this week from Matthew 19: The disciples, asked, Then who can be saved?”
26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
At this moment, we may be beyond the easy fix.
But we’re at a moment where by working intersectionally, it is possible we might live into a world that is a bit more just for everyone, all the same. We are building the world we want to live in.
We will do everything we can,
We will love our neighbors as Jesus commanded us,
We will abide in him,
We will take care of creation while standing in solidarity with our neighbors,
We will notice the intersections,
And we will hope that nothing is impossible with God.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
On a blustery bitter cold winter morning, he was driving down Centre Street to pick up a friend in Watertown Square, and as he came down the bottom of the hill, just out here, his car began to sputter and bump and clatter and generally make terrible noises. He hit the turn signal and slid onto Church Street where his car came to a stop and would not start again. He popped the hood and tried to figure out a solution on his own, to no avail, so he reached for his cell phone to call a tow truck and his friend, waiting at the bus stop. He managed to get through to AAA but then his cell phone battery was as dead as the car.
But, he was across the street from a church. Not a church guy, really, but, any port in a storm. So he made his way into our building, walked down the hallway until he found me, in my office. I was meeting with someone but we were both willing to pause our conversation to help this man in need. He used my phone to make a couple of calls, and at some point I invited him to wait in the chapel, where he could see his car and the tow truck when it came.
It took a long time, that tow truck. I went in and out of the chapel to check in. Eventually his friend walked from Watertown Square to join him in the wait.
They asked me about food. Did we have a food pantry here? We get this question all the time, Tasha, Susan and I, from visitors in varying states of need. So I gave them my well prepared response: we support two food pantries and a community supper, we collect food for them but those seeking food need to go to Arabic Baptist or to Brighton Allston Church. We do not have a food distribution here. Did you need that information? I can give you info on all of the local food pantries and community suppers, we have all that on a hand out. But, in the middle of my speech, the tow truck pulled up and he thanked me for letting him wait in a warm place and I wished him good luck.
Last Thursday, I met him again. He was walking across our parking lot as I arrived. Oh, hey there, friend, how are you, I asked? We chatted for a moment, laughing about AAA. He pointed over to where his car was parked, working fine now. And then he said, would you tell me again about your food pantry?
I started my prepared response: we support two food pantries and a community supper, we collect food for them but we do not have a food distribution here. I was ready to keep going but he said, oh, that’s great, I wanted to know because I’m going to the store to get food to drop off. Tell me, he said, what’s most needed?
Context – shifting.
I had written his entire story in my mind. He was supposed to be on the receiving end. He was supposed to need my help. He was not supposed to be the one practicing compassion, gratitude, generosity. It took me a moment to shift the context, to say, come on in and let me show you the wish list.
Our passage this morning starts this way:
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
They were startled and terrified. He was not supposed to be there. He was dead. They’d seen him on the cross, and they knew where he was buried. Most of the Easter resurrection appearances start this way: with those who were closest to Jesus, his dearest friends, who had spent every waking moment of three years with him, not being able to recognize his risen self. A risen Jesus was so out of context their minds could not reconcile it. Their eyes were playing tricks on them, it was an optical illusion.
2000 years later we have retold the resurrection stories so many times but it still shocks us when he shows his hands and feet, when he joins them for a fish dinner. Is he incarnate again (eating fish), is he an apparition (he comes in through a locked door)? Some hear the story metaphorically, others are attached a literal telling – some of us look at the story they way the optical illusion of the wine glass / face in profile works. One day we see bodily resurrection; the next we see a moment when their memory was so strong they thought he was in the room.
Recall that this happened, according to Luke, the evening of the same morning when the women found the tomb empty. The evening of the same afternoon that two followers hearts burned within them, from the risen Christ’s teachings. It’s the same day. It’s just three days after the cross, three days after trauma. These are traumatized people. And Jesus stands before them, alive but scarred, and says, peace.
Maria Theresa Davila says, “Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to see his wounds is meant to show God’s salvation, a salvation that did not require the decimation of opposing armies or a the spilling of blood in a coup. God’s salvific activity in the resurrection embraces and transforms unjust suffering so that the work of building communities of justice and beauty within history can continue. The work of building the beloved community takes place within history and within our wounded bodies.” (Quoted in Podcast for a Just World)
He says, Peace, and he eats a meal with them. And he says, you are witnesses. From there, the context shifts from grief and defeat to hope and victory over death.
William Barber has a couple of words on Easter. He says, “If you mess around with the resurrection and the kind of love that flows out of the resurrection, it will radically reconstruct your way of thinking.”
Encountering the risen Christ brings about a context-shift in Jesus’ followers. They have been fearful followers of a small town preacher killed atop a Roman garbage heap; now they are pioneers of the Way of a risen Lord. They have been in a state of desperate, scared, grief and now they are in the context of new possibility. They have been focused on their own inner circle and now they are invited to turn outward to spread justice and mercy, not just with those few thousand Jesus had encountered, but with the nations.
They had to choose to change their context. After the fish supper, after Communion on the Emmaus road, after breakfast by the sea. Turning to each other, they didn’t ask – have we all experienced a mass delusion? No, they asked each other: will we be witnesses? Will we proclaim defiant hope? Will we teach that oppression, death and empire lost, that love and justice will ultimately prevail? They did this as people who witnessed the cross and met the risen one. They did this as people who saw the wounds, saw his hands and feet. Dr. Barber says, “Hope without going through the cross is optimism, not hope.” They had to choose to context-shift.
Beloved, the same choice is before us: the choice between an inward focus and an outward focus. The choice between despair in the midst of late winter blizzards and tweet-storms, and deliberate hope. The choice to huddle in a sanctuary or to be witnesses to love and justice.
We are Easter people. Our context is hope. We choose to be witnesses.
Thoughts for Families with Younger Children about Holy Week
I shared these thoughts in an email to parents at Eliot Church in preparation for Holy Week:
Carolyn Brown has a wonderful suggestion for you to use at home next week: a family observation of “Jesus Week” complete with simple activities and Bible stories to read together. Find it here.
A word on Good Friday. In my personal opinion, it’s not “good.” There’s debate about the origin of the name – it seems to come from a variation of “God’s Friday” or a German term with a meaning closer to Holy Friday. A pastor friend of mine goes so far as to call it Bad Friday. It is certainly a day to be deeply sad about Jesus’ death. But with young children we always want to preview the surprising, amazing Good News of Easter. Easter tells us bad news is never the last news.
If your kids are wrapped up in the sadness of the story, perhaps do something with them to re-enact some of the compassionate parts of the Holy Week story. Mary anointed Jesus with ointment; you could rub their hands with lotion. Jesus taught the disciples to wash each other’s feet; would your kids wash your hands?
If Easter seems mysterious after the cross, celebrate the mystery. Yes, it is a mystery. It’s amazing. We don’t have to understand it to appreciate it.
If you want to think more about how to talk with your kids about Holy Week, I suggest reading some of Carolyn C. Brown’s work. I like her book, available on Kindle for instant reading, Sharing the Easter Faith with Children. It has age specific suggestions. The following are from her blog and from her book. (She speaks of going deeper into Good Friday with kids – I would not suggest that for our younger kids! But she has great language for answering questions that might come up.)
“Good Friday is often the very last day of the church year when we expect and plan for children in the sanctuary. The story we tell this day is so filled with violence, evil and death which we barely understand ourselves, that we hardly know how to share it with children. But, it is the heart story of the faith. Indeed, it is impossible to jump from the Palm Sunday parade skipping Good Friday and going straight to Easter joy without wondering what the big deal is. When our children walk through the crucifixion story with us, they make sense of the whole Holy Week saga and they are prepared to face the violence and evil that they will surely encounter in their own world.
At first children need to hear the Passion stories with the Easter stories. For preschoolers the first story goes something like, “There were people who were angry with Jesus. They were so angry they killed him. Jesus’ friends were so sad. They cried and cried. But God had a wonderful surprise. On Easter Jesus was alive again. His friends were very, very, surprised and happy!” They really follow the emotions rather than the facts of the story. Every year as the church walks through the story, children add more details. They slowly collect the list of people who contributed to Jesus pain and death. In their adolescence they begin to identify ways they betray and deny God’s love.”
“Especially on Good Friday, children gain more from hearing and pondering the story than from hearing theological explanations of its significance. Sacrifice, mercy, grace, salvation, atonement, etc. are abstract words that very quickly lose them. By exploring the details of the story, they will come to some of the same ideas theological vocabulary attempts to express. ”
“Adult worshipers know that the crucifixion is not the final word. Children, especially those who may be hearing the details for the first time or may have not heard the story for a year, may not. These children are often upset by the thought that “they killed Jesus.” So, clearly point out to them that things looked really sad and hopeless on Friday, but God had a wonderful surprise waiting for Easter. Encourage them to come back on Sunday to hear about that surprise. Even whisper an “alleluia” together or write “alleluia” in small letters in the palm of young hands at the end of the service to remind yourselves that something wonderful is coming.”
One more topic: older children may want to know, why did Jesus die? And younger children may overhear “____ killed Jesus” and ask you if that’s true. There’s a common approach that might work in response.
Again, I quote Carolyn Brown, this time from her book:
“Why Did People Want to Kill Jesus? The first question children ask upon hearing that angry people killed Jesus is “I thought everyone loved Jesus. Why did people want to kill him?” How could the people who welcomed Jesus with a palm parade on Sunday want to kill him on Friday? They need the answer to this question before they can pay much attention to the rest of the Holy Week stories. When one four-year-old asked his assembled class that question, a wise classmate replied, “Because Jesus told them they had to share and they did not want to.” He was on the right track. …Jesus made the religious leaders of Jerusalem very angry and uncomfortable. (Note: The most significant thing about these angry leaders is not that they were Jewish, but that they were religious leaders whose authority and vision were being questioned. To avoid suggesting to children that Jews were/are responsible for killing Jesus, use terms like religious leaders or church leaders. *Reebee adds: and remind children that Jesus was Jewish and deeply committed to the Jewish faith.*)….In summary, Jesus did and said things that angered the religious leaders of his day for some reasons that children can understand. He broke their rules. He “acted out” in the Temple. He associated with unacceptable people. He told the leaders off in public. These are infractions children can understand in the present and which they can grow to understand more fully as they mature.”
Okay parents – this might have been a long email, but – I’ve got to use those books somewhere! Want to talk more? Let me know….
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘
20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;
24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “
The story of a rebellious child, and a loving parent.
The feast awaiting him, when he makes his way back home.
It’s among the most treasured stories in our culture.
Many of us have it memorized from reading it over and over again.
Prompted only by the very first line, we can repeat the tale in its entirety.
That first line:
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…”1
For those of you who have not read this story over and over again at story time to small children, I will let you in on the story of Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind
his mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are. And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things. “And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper.
And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat
so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.
But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go we’ll eat you up-we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!” The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.
No matter where you go.
No matter how long you’re gone.
No matter what you do.
If you turn around,
If you come back home,
the feast will be here
waiting for you
and I’ll be here, too.
That is Max’s mother’s message for him,
And God’s message for us.
I can remember hearing that story when I was a child in the 70s.
I remember thinking what fun it would be to sail in and out of weeks and to dance a Wild Rumpus.
But mostly, I remember the smell of good things to eat.
I knew exactly what Max’s supper smelled like (macaroni and cheese, with baked cinnamon apples, as I recall.)
But as an adult, more and more I wonder about Max’s mother.
Every parent has been Max’s mother. Maybe our child has not gone to bed without his supper, but we have been frustrated, we have yelled, we have said NO to our children, we have stomped down the stairs and given our own selves a time out.
I thought about denying it. Since Zac and John are not in the sanctuary to disagree, I thought I could claim to be an entirely unruffled parent. Able to put up with anything, a beatific smile on my face throughout.
On the other hand, that’s not the ideal either, to tolerate anything.
One of a parent’s jobs is to set limits. Food, clothing, shelter, love, and limits.
(A wise woman writes: parents have five jobs – beyond providing for kids’ food, clothing and shelter. The five jobs are affirmation, information, clarity of values, anticipatory guidance, and limit setting.2)
Limit setting is part of our job. Sometimes, the hardest part.
And pushing the limits, to figure out where they are, is a child’s job. It’s part of growing up.
Max, you see, is a beloved child, creative, playful, energetic. But on this night he has gone wild. It is time for dinner but he is running all around, knocking things over, tripping over the dog, he can’t settle down, it’s getting unsafe. And mom says, that’s it. She sets the limit. And he stomps away and slams the door and bangs around in in his room.
But mom is close by.
She is, perhaps, sitting on the stairs, running her hand through the dog’s fur, taking deep breaths, listening. She knows supper is almost ready and she can hear the rest of the family setting the table. She can hear the timer go off on the stove.
She is waiting. She listens to him, at first he is banging and harumphing around, still angry.
Then she can hear him climb up onto his bed, and start to bounce.
Then she hears the bouncing slow. And the room grows quiet.
She runs downstairs and ladels out a bowl of food and grabs a glass of milk and gently, gently waits.
Where, when Max returns he finds his supper, waiting for him. Still hot. And with it, someone who loves him best of all.
When Max returns, she is so glad. She is so glad. This is the moment in the story when mom knows that Max knows he is loved, no matter what. This is the moment of the mother’s great joy. There will be more joy in heaven…
If you come back home,
the feast will be here
waiting for you
and I’ll be here, too.
The metaphor will never be perfect, because no human parent is as perfectly loving as God.
But still, from the father, who, filled with compassion; ran and put his arms around the son and kissed him –
The father who brought the best robe, and threw a great feast when his son returned –
We learn about God’s love, and God’s joy.
God’s love that means the table will always have a place for us.
It is not that God has no expectations of us.
It is not that God sets no limits, teaches no lesson.
It is that God always expects us to come home.
It is that God is so joyful when we take our seat at the table.
There will be more joy in heaven….
I talked to a lot of people this week about Jesus’ parable of the squandering son, the resentful son, the compassionate father and the great feast (aka the Prodigal Son). Most folks resonate with the older brother and find it hard to forgive. A few folks have known the younger son, not yet back from the distant country. And some of us have been the grieving parent, waiting and hoping.
This is what is true. This is the good news:
God stands at the gate watching for all of us.
The lost sheep.
The resentful brother.
The wild child in the wolf suit.
The regretful mom.
We have only to turn, to step toward God, to step away from resentment, fear, and hunger.
And God will run to meet us,
Just as we are.
God will welcome us to the feast,
Which is incomplete until we arrive.
There is no more joy in in heaven than when all the guests have arrived.
And if we do not see God standing at the gate,
She has sent all of us an invitation to the feast,
By way of her son Jesus.
The best party is the one with everyone you love, at the table.
The most delicious feast, is the one held in the place where someone loves you best of all.
Maybe this week, we can all be a little like Max, a little like the prodigal son, and take our place at the table. Look around, see all the tax collectors, and sinners, Pharisees and scribes, folks from the other political party, the other country, the other side of the tracks, convicts and people who smell bad. Look around, see all the beautiful, beloved children of God who sit around the table with us. I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord (Psalm 122:1) because in that house, even I am welcome. And the food is delicious.
Maybe this week, we can all be a little like Max’s mom, a little like the father who had two sons, and prepare a feast that we know God’s beloved children will love. Set aside the rules and focus on mercy, hospitality, love, and grace. Open the door, stand at the gate, and wait with joyful expectation, ready to welcome every beloved child of God home.
If you come back home,
the feast will be here
waiting for you
and I’ll be here, too.
Let us pray.
“We give thanks, O God, that you are waiting for us in your house of love, waiting with the feast and the dance and the song and the great joy. Let us put away our shame and put aside our resentment and put on the festive garments of those who are glad when they are told, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.”3
1 The connection between Where the Wild Things Are and the Prodigal Son was suggested in an episode of the Pulpit Fiction podcast.
2 Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ Go- To Person About Sex, by Deborah Roffman. De Capo Press, 2012.
Audio recording, including the Liturgist’s Reading:
Text: Mark 1:29-39
Mark’s gospel, earliest of the four Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, is not long on detail. We can understand – these were handwritten and hand copied texts, often shared orally. To get to some of the details we have to look at archaeology and historical context; for others we have to compare which verb used in multiple stories implies shared meaning between them. And sometimes, to develop a nuanced story, we use theological imagination.
Today, we’re going to share the same story, told four times, using all these ways to explore its meaning.
Here the story for the first time, as written in the Gospel according to Mark, 1:29-39:
1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue [in Capernaum], they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
1:30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.
1:31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
1:32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
1:33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
1:34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
1:35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
1:36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.
1:37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
1:38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
1:39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Let me tell the story to you again.
Jesus had a busy weekend. You know, he was down by the Sea of Galilee when he called Simon and Andrew and James and John, fisherman, to follow him. They didn’t leave home right away – he went with them into Capernaum, a village on the shore of the sea where Simon and Andrew lived with their families. They took him to their synagogue on the sabbath. And this visitor – he preached, he taught, and he cast out a demon. This would have been enough for one Sabbath, mind you, maybe Jesus thought so , too – because when they left the synagogue that day, they went to Simon and Andrew’s house. Maybe he wanted to rest up.
Their house: some archaeologists say it was right next to the synagogue, “its northern wall right under the synagogue balcony…to the east of the house, just outside the entrance, was a large open area where a crowd could assemble.”1
But there was no moment to rest for Jesus. There, at home, was Simon’s mother-in-law, sick with a fever. This was an ordinary fever, mundane except that fevers killed people pretty often in 1st century Palestine. Jesus went to her and raised her up. That’s what the text says. Jesus raised her up. Now, wait a minute, that’s important: Jesus raised her up – the Greek is Egeiro, and it is the same verb Mark uses for a lot of Jesus’ healings – and it is the same verb used for Jesus’ resurrection. People, it is only a little stretch to say Jesus resurrected her – he restored her to her life and community, “he restored her to her rightful place and role.” 2 And then she stood up, raised and resurrected, to serve. To serve, the verb is the same as the way the angels ministered to him in the desert, the same as the women who ministered to him even to the cross, the same verb – diakoneo – as when Jesus said, I came not to be served but to serve. She was the first to Deacon.
Night came, the sabbath ended, and new crowds gathered there at Simon’s house, but Jesus did not turn them away. The whole town of Capernaum, those who had heard demons were cast out, those who heard this new preacher, those who had seen James and John drop their nets, those who saw her raised up – they were drawn to that extraordinary grace.
It was a busy weekend for Jesus and early that next morning, he tried to slip away, just for a little while, to a quiet place. Don’t we all need a quiet place? A solitary, quiet, wilderness place. Jesus, who could preach and heal and call, also needed to pray. But they drew him back, and the busy weekend continued.
Hear the story, from Simon’s mother-in-law’s view. Now, Mark does not give us her name, but I would like to give her a name, just for this morning. What name will we give this woman? (In worship, someone suggested Orpah -a name from the book of Ruth, and that is what we used.) Here is how I imagine the story might have felt to her:
She woke up that morning with a fever and body aches and a hacking cough, and Simon said: Orpah, go back to bed. I’m going to bring someone who can help.
It mattered that Simon saw her need.
As Orpah lay in bed, in the house that shared a wall with the synagogue, she heard his sermon. Orpah heard that demon shout out. Orpah heard the congregation gasp. And then, this man came to her house. Simon brought the healer to her! It mattered the Simon saw her need. And it mattered that this extraordinary visitor touched her, lifted her up, raised her.
Yes, the fever was gone.
But there was something else happening.
Orpah was restored to her community, given new joy and new purpose.
I tell you she leapt up and started to plan what she could do to follow him. She began to serve, to minister. She set the table and opened the door and made it possible for more people to know him and follow him. Orpah started the first house church, maybe, made this a place for people to gather near to Jesus.
And then, perhaps… Did she empty her shelves and call her neighbors and ask them to bring food and wine? Did the crowds stay there, balling cloaks into pillows, listening to his good news until they fell asleep in the courtyard? In the quiet before the dawn, did she hear him stir? Did she take him water, and figs and olives? Did she point him to the back gate where maybe he could slip out unnoticed? Did she slip back inside to pack her bags, to join Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John on their journey?
She was raised up to serve; she would follow him the rest of her days.
Hear the story once more:
It takes place in a little village of Newton, three highway exits away from Boston.
As soon as she left worship that day, she drove up the hill to see him. He was just out of the hospital. She had organized the whole congregation to bring meals and on this day she brought soup, and sat with him a while. And then there was dessert, and he practically leapt up out of the chair. She took him by the hand and she raised him up. He couldn’t get to the sanctuary so she brought the church to him, restored him to community, healed him.
He sat at his computer, typing. It’s cold up here. Our grandchildren are well. I read a good book that I’ll send you a copy of. How are you? Mundane, ordinary phrases but they translate to something powerful. They were sent to a man behind bars, a thousand miles away. And those words mean: we have not forgotten you. You are part of our community. You are loved, and known, and remembered.
She called him to talk about Sunday School, from two continents, from two generations, they talked about how they would teach this story. What games would use up fifth grade energy and what words would make sense to the fourth graders and which craft wouldn’t take too long to prepare. And what it meant was that the children know they are loved, treasured, nurtured here.
They gathered in the chapel, around the piano, on a chilly weekday evening. They practiced and they memorized and they listened and they sang. They laughed and hugged and held fellowship and made joyful noise. And the words of the song are: Glory be to God.
She arrived early this morning, with gluten free bread and Welch’s grape juice. She smoothed the tablecloth, and took the thick pottery chalice and paten out of their cabinet, and set the table. She invited the servers, pondering who smiles joyfully and who is excited to serve. It translates to: this is the Open Table, where Christ is the host and all are invited to the feast. You are welcome here.
Early this morning, with the sun still low in the sky, they gathered here, together, in this quiet place. It’s not deserted – it is filled with God’s people. They gave up brunch and skiing, the Times, and extra sleep, they braved the cold and the introverts chose to be with people, they all gathered here in this room to pray, to give glory to God, to feast, to be welcomed, to be restored to community, to be healed, to glimpse for a moment the kindom of God.
3Though not quoted directly, other sources of inspiration for this sermon include the Women’s Bible Commentary, Matt Skinner’s Commentary on this passage at workingpreacher.org, and the Feminist Companion to Mark, edited by Amy-Jill Levine.
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Ezra Dyer couldn’t navigate across town anymore. Entirely dependent on his GPS and smart phone, he had an “atrophying sense of direction, an inability to get anywhere without a digital Sherpa. I recently got lost on my way home from the airport….It’s not that my instincts were wrong. It’s that I no longer had any instincts.” He decided to rebuild his navigational instincts and this past summer, Ezra set out on a thousand mile journey with nothing but a paper road atlas and a general sense of where East was. He followed road signs. A couple of times, he stopped to ask directions and actually found himself talking with kind strangers, folks who actually wanted to help, the most helpful of whom had lived in the area long enough to remember how to offer directions. He re-discovered the loveliness of the journey that comes between the starting point and the destination. Sometimes, he navigated by the position of the sun, and sometimes, he drove in star light, with only the exit billboards to guide him. “…Along the way, I reactivated the inner compass that once guided me… [it’s useful], like knowing how to do division on the back of an envelope even though your phone has a calculator. Because I won’t always have an omniscient supercomputer in my pocket. But I bet I can find my way home from the airport.”
Imagine the Magi, wise men from the East, scholars from the place of the sun’s rising, rolling out their charts and maps each night by the light of their campfire. Studying the stars. Awaking to the epiphanai – the revelation, the giving of light. Setting their course. Walking across vast swaths of land with nothing but their charts and the night sky to guide them.
Well, no. There was something extraordinary to guide them. There was the star that rose out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17).
There was the one that Zechariah proclaimed:
By the tender mercy of our God, there was the
the dawn from on high that broke upon them 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide their feet into the way of peace.”
They were guided by a heavenly sign, so clear, so extraordinary, that they knew it was a manifestation of God’s glory. An epiphany of God’s presence. A revelation of God’s good news. An announcement of the Messiah. An unveiling of divinity.
And they were able to follow the star.
Are we able to follow the star? What distracts us? Do we have the skills to navigate the spiritual landscape? Do we even look up anymore?
These magi – maybe three, maybe seventeen – not kings, but scientists, scholars, and travelers – they were able to follow the star for a long time. For two years, historians speculate, on the way to the Anointed One. But they wound up in Jerusalem, city of King Herod, not Bethlehem, city of King David. They stopped nine miles off from their destination. In celestial terms, nine miles wasn’t very far away. But in spiritual terms, the distance from palace to manger was vast indeed.
Imagine, they rode their camels, slept in tents, ate dried meat and fruit and whatever travelers ate in those days, made small talk with each other, unrolled and rolled their star charts, pointed to the night sky again and again – for two years – all the while believing their charts and maps and the star would lead them to the one born King of the Jews. And they were close, and one night they passed by a city gate and read a sign: “King Herod’s palace, two blocks” with an arrow pointing the way. I can imagine one of them saying, “Friends, the Star isn’t telling us to stop here.” And the rest, weary, thirsty: “Yes, but the Star has kept us walking two years. Let’s just check to see if this is the place.”
They walked up to the palace and said, “Ah, this is the place a king would be born.” But perhaps that same skeptical one said, “Something feels wrong here.”
They entered the court and asked Herod, “Where is the child?” And perhaps that same one, watching the barely masked fear on Herod’s face, watching the scribes and servants scurrying around the elaborate coure, thought to himself: “We have navigated by a star, followed the light, sought salvation and hope, sought mercy and love, sought a child. And here is one who navigates by fear and greed. All the people around him gravitate to the sparkle of power and wealth but that is not the star I followed.”
God’s glory may be where we least expect it. In a little town nine miles out from the seat of power. In humble family, and a powerless toddler. In a barn. Held by a day laborer and an unwed teenage mother.
Even scientists, astronomers, magi, wise people, the privileged and powerful – and you and me – can find the glory of God, can follow the star to the messiah, can find the true King, when we recognize, “this kingdom is not like the Roman-sanctioned empire that divides those who are free and those who are slaves, those who are Jews and those who are Greek…men and women.” This kingdom is led by a holy child and founded on justice, equality, and mercy.
The trick is, not getting distracted by the palace.
I am not talking about getting distracted by wealth and power. Honestly, you’re not sitting in a UCC church on a cold Sunday in January 2018 if you have set your sights on wealth, power, money and authority. If your GPS destination is Herod’s Palace, this is not a rest stop on your journey.
Nonetheless, King Herod’s palace draws us in.
There is another way in which even sometimes wise people are distracted and detoured right now by the palace.
We get so scared, angry, frustrated and gas-lit by the headlines that are unable to move forward. Anger keeps us from navigating. The headlines keep us glued to the web rather than moving in the world. Our frustration about all the ways the world is broken keep us from building the kingdom where we can. And King Herod draws our focus continually back to him. Make no mistake, anger is as powerful a form of attention as praise.
Those ancient travelers left the palace with new directions, these from the prophet Micah, to make their way nine miles south. The one with his eyes on the star felt the consolation of being in the right place. And all of them were overwhelmed with joy when they reached their true destination. A palace built of wood and straw; a court filled with the humble; a tiny, powerless, child-king who would show the world the Way of Love.
Perhaps that one skeptical, determined magi had a final word to say to his friends: “We cannot go back to Herod. We cannot be complicit in his plan. We have reached our true destination. Let us…
‘Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for” any of us.’”
Friends, this is our decision, too:
To follow Waze or follow the Way.
To trust the world or trust the Star.
To direct our gifts to the worldly king or to the refugee child
To detour to the palace or to build the kingdom.
To navigate by GPS or or by God PS.
Let us set our GodPS to love, mercy, compassion, justice.
The Star will guide us: if we trust him.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.
2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Eighteen years ago this summer, I got a phone call from my Aunt Catherine. Aunt Catherine was one of the saints who passed this year and we named aloud last Sunday. 18 years ago Aunt Catherine called me – I was 25 and living in Somerville – she called me and told me to come home. Lois needs you here.
When I was six, Lois and Ed Kavich adopted me. They set aside the ease of retirement to raise another child. They re-oriented their lives to journey with me, and I was so blessed. While I was in college, Pop died, leaving Mom on her own. After college, I moved to Boston. Two years later, Mom got really sick and was on permanent dialysis. I would visit for a while, and she would send me back to Boston, back to my new life, back to my new sweetie (John). I would air drop in for a weekend and will myself to think things were okay.
Then Aunt Catherine called. Come home. Lois needs you here.
At 25 I was so angry at my Aunt. At 43 I am so grateful for that phone call.
I went home.
But that’s where the story twists.
I was six weeks from starting grad school. I was pretty devoted to John. So my Mom said, You’re not moving back here. I’m moving to Boston.
Where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people.
Mom became Ruth to my Naomi.
Somehow, in six weeks, we found assisted living, her church helped us clean out her attic and pack, we got her house on the market, John met us at the Manchester airport and packed the car so tight that I had to brace my feet against the back window.
And so we started a new journey together.
This is where the portion of Ruth we read today ends. Ruth and Naomi have committed to each other, and they have started their journey to Bethlehem, together. They have no idea what will happen. They travel only with the promise that they are not alone.
Jessica Tate writes, “This is where we often find ourselves…in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if….our hope will be restored. We are left with simply a promise – a promise that we are not alone. It is a promise that finds incarnation in Ruth. Ruth will cling to Naomi no matter what. She will be with her wherever she goes….This is God’s promise to us, as well – that God will be with us, no matter what…This is how God acts. God clings to us, refusing to allow us to bear our despair and emptiness alone. In so doing, God shows us loving kindness that sows in us hope and fullness, in short, salvation.”1
A former parishioner of mine once said, “God doesn’t send me the abstract miracles that I prayed for as a child. God sends me people.”2 To Naomi, widowed, having buried two sons (there’s no word for a mother who buries her children), homeless, starving, God sent Ruth. Ruth could not magically reverse Naomi’s tragedy – indeed Ruth’s life was devastated, too. What Ruth could do was to pledge to be with Naomi, no matter what. Even though she could have found her own way out of this tragedy, she pledged to stay with Naomi.
It is no small thing that Ruth does, throwing her lot in with Naomi. She could have gone back to her family in Moab. Orpah did, and no one blamed her. But Ruth chose the unknown path, and clung to Naomi, whom she loved. Together, they could journey with courage.
God sends us people. The people who pledge to us that they will walk beside us on the road, whether it be through forest or desert, whether it be through despair or redemption, these are the people who carry us, until the tears are wiped away. These are the saints who bring us the message of hope, that we will get through this life, together, and with God’s grace.
In the book of Ruth, God is mentioned but God doesn’t speak. There is no burning bush, no parted sea.
But God’s true name, God’s true nature, is right there in the promise Ruth makes to Naomi.
In the letter of 1 John we hear:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.
God is love. So, God’s nature is right there in the promise Ruth makes to Naomi:
I will go with you.
You are not alone.
God sends Ruth to Naomi, and Ruth incarnates God’s love.
So here is the rest of the story.
I wish I could say those next four years were perfect for Mom. They were not. Dialysis was hard, Boston was so cold in the winter. And she didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with friends and family from Tennessee. But. She made some friends here, my church really did become her church, my people became her people, she saw the ocean and she saw me graduate and get married and get ordained.
Ruth and Naomi’s next years weren’t perfect either. When Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem, all of Naomi’s family and friends were excited to see her. But still, these were poor widows, without resources. They depended on the generosity of their neighbors. They waited to glean grain from the fields at the end of the harvest. Ruth found a protector in Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s and a rich man who admired Ruth and how she had cared for her Naomi. And Ruth, a Moabite widow, became his wife, became the great-grandmother of David, became the ancestor of Jesus.
I think Jesus inherited something from Ruth. It is all well and good that Jesus called his disciples to follow him; called us to follow him. But the reason Christians have said yes to that call is because Jesus came to us, to share our common lot, to walk the unknown journey with us, to embody God’s own love and cling to us, whatever may come.
Thanks be to God, who sends us people,
and who offers us hope of redemption and restoration and new beginnings. Amen.
Friends, find the people God has sent you. Journey with courage. And don’t give up before God has a chance to show up. Amen.
1 “Between Text and Sermon, Ruth 1:6-22”, Interpretation, 64 no 2 Apr 2010, p 170-172.
Reebee offers two workshops for local congregations and parent groups:
Parenting and Christmas: Some Ideas for Progressive Christians
Bible 101 for Progressive Christian Families
Both workshops are designed to give parents tools they can immediately use at home to nurture their own faith and the faith of their children. To schedule a workshop please email rev[dot]reebee[at]gmail[dot]com.