Saturday, December 1, 2018

Taking a Break

This Sunday, December 2nd, Beth Menhusen, the Associate Pastor at Christ UMC is preaching.  So, I'm taking a week off from writing my blog, but check back next week for some new reflections.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

"Let God Be God"


            This is the fourth and final sermon in our series, “Them.”  In this four-week series, we have focused on the importance of social justice for God.  Again and again and again, God calls his people to be instruments for social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  Over the course of these four weeks, we have examined “them’s” – groups of people who are marginalized in our society and how God calls upon his people to work for justice for these marginalized people.

            This Sunday, November 25th, we complete this series by examining one further marginalized group and what it would mean for them to receive justice.  This group is LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered/Transsexual, plus others, such as asexual or questioning, who feel they should be included in the LGBT group).  Although the LGBT+ group has made significant strides towards achieving justice, they continue to be marginalized in some significant ways—especially within the Church.

            Christians are deeply divided over these questions of human sexuality.  There are a few, scatted Biblical passages which appear to prohibit same sex relationships.[1]  Much of the division between Christians centers on how we interpret these passages of scripture.  On the one hand, based primarily upon these scriptures, some Christians believe that LGBT+ practices are sinful and inconsistent with Biblical teachings. 

Yet, there are divisions even among Christians who agree that LGBT+ practices are sinful.  At the extreme is a group who believe that LGBT+ persons should be excluded from the sacraments and life of the church.  Even further to the extreme are persons and congregations claiming to be Christians who believe that LGBT+ persons are sub-human and that “God hates fags.”[2]   

A second group is less extreme.  Although this group of Christians believes that LGBT+ lifestyles are sinful, they also note that everyone is sinful in some way, and they suggest that LGBT+ persons are no more sinful than everyone else.  Representative of this perspective are David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.  In their book, unChristian, they take a position that homosexuality is sinful, based upon the condemnation of homosexuality in those scattered passages from scripture.  Yet, they hasten to draw a distinction between a “sin” which they hate and the “sinner” which they continue to love.  The two authors quote Shayne Wheeler, a pastor, who says, “The Bible is clear:  homosexual practice is inconsistent with Christian discipleship.  But there is not special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not special righteousness for heterosexuals.  For all of us, the only hope for the fracture of our soul is the cross of Christ.”[3]

            On the other hand, many other Christians, do not view homosexuality as “inconsistent with Christian discipleship,” at all.  For Christians in this group, the authority of scripture is just as important as it is for Christians who condemn homosexuality as sinful.  However, this perspective interprets the scriptures differently.  While these scriptures condemn homosexuality, it is clear that these scriptural passages are not focused on a mutually affirming, loving relationship between gay men or women.  For instance, two of the passages in Genesis 19: 1-11 and Judges 19: 22-26 are about gang rape as acts of violence towards strangers.  Certainly, Christians would condemn these acts as evil, regardless of whether it was homosexual or heterosexual rape.  Similarly, in two of the passages from Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1Timothy 1:10) there is debate among Biblical scholars concerning whether the specific terms used by Paul should be translated in a way that implies homosexual behavior.

            My own personal opinion is that the Bible does not condemn mutually loving and affirming relationships between LGBT+ persons.  First, as noted above, it is clear that the scriptural passages are not even talking about a mutually affirming, loving relationship between persons.  Secondly, there is no “red thread” running throughout the scriptures which consistently condemns LGBT+ people.  Instead, the vibrant “red thread” running throughout the scriptures is the call to love one another, as exemplified in 1 John 4: 19-20,  “We love because God first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

            These issues are certainly confusing, and Christians may disagree on the proper interpretation of scripture.  My denomination, the United Methodist Church, will try to resolve these questions once and for all at a General Conference to be held February 23-26, 2019.  As we reflect in advance of the General Conference, my proclamation this Sunday will be grounded in a passage of scripture from the Gospel of Matthew:

He [Jesus] put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So, when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”    
Matthew 13:24-30

            Since these issues are so confusing, then perhaps we would do well to remember that only God is in a position to judge.  In this parable, Jesus argues against building up boundaries, in order to have a “pure” community of faith.  Rather, we should leave judgment of who is good and who is evil to God.  In other words, we should let God be God.  We should see the Church as open to all people—both sinners as well as saints.  So, without pre-judging where or not LGBT+ people are sinners or saints, Jesus says that the Church should welcome and love everyone.

            During my meditation on Sunday, I intend to distinguish between three important terms concerning the Church’s stance towards the LGBT+ community:

1.      Welcoming/Accepting.  In this position, the church welcomes and loves LGBT+ people, but at the same time it judges their lifestyles as sinful.  So, the attitude is one of welcoming and loving LGBT+ persons because “we want you to get better.”  This position is exemplified by Christians, such as Kinnaman and Lyons, who claim that homosexuality is sinful, but then insist that it is no more egregious than other sins which “straight” Christians commit.

2.      Affirming.  In this position, the church not only welcomes the LGBT+ community, but it also celebrates those persons and who those persons are, even if they are different from the rest of the congregation.  This perspective could be grounded in Matthew 13:24-30 and 1 John 4: 19-20, which to repeat, says:  “We love because God first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 

3.      Reconciling.  The reconciling position accepts everything held by the Affirming position.  But, in addition, it recognizes that historically the Church has done much harm to LGBT+ persons and to itself.  In recognition of this history, a Reconciling community of faith seeks healing and transformation of animosity into a loving relationship among all God’s children. Authentic reconciliation requires working for justice and full inclusion of LGBT+ communities, both within the Church and within society.  I believe that this perspective is also grounded in Matthew 13:24-30 and 1 John 4: 19-20.

In my assessment, my congregation, Christ United Methodist Church, has moved well beyond Accepting and is now somewhere between Affirming and Reconciling.  In my proclamation, I will challenge our community of faith to become a Reconciling congregation.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 25th, as we reflect on justice for the LGBT+ community, both within the Church and secular society.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

         Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] These passages are Genesis 19:1-11, Judges 19:22-26, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10.
[2] Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas best epitomizes this extreme view.  See their website:  http://www.godhatesfags.com/.  (Here, a caveat is order:  Many other Christians—including myself—do not think that Westboro Baptist and others who share their beliefs are actually Christian because they fundamentally oppose so much of Christ’s teachings.)
[3] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 2007), 97.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Facing Big Troubles"

            This is the third week in our four-week proclamation series, “Them,” which focuses on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society.  We began this series on “All Saints Sunday,” a Sunday set aside to remember our deceased loved ones.  In that context, we looked at how we sometimes marginalize those who are grieving the death of a loved one.  Although we rally around our friends and family for the funeral or memorial service, afterwards we quickly return to our normal routines, emotionally abandoning those closest to the deceased, as they continue grieving and adjusting to life without their loved one. 

            Last Sunday was Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to remember and thank all of our military veterans who have served and sacrificed for our country.  In that context, we looked at how, as a society, we frequently fail to provide the resources which veterans need when they are discharged from the military and return to civilian life.  For instance, in Nebraska there are 7,467 veterans who live below the poverty line and are at risk of being food insecure.[1]  As a country, we have failed to care for our veterans after their service; marginalizing and ignoring them, instead.  Similarly, as a country we marginalize the mentally ill and elderly by failing to make desperately needed healthcare resources available to them.

            This Sunday, we turn our attention to another marginalized group within our midst:  the poor and hungry.  To ground our thinking about justice and the hungry, I have selected the story of the woman with the expensive ointment, as told in the Gospel of Mark:

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.  But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

            While dining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman of the household anointed Jesus’ head with a costly bottle of “nard” – a costly oil.  The woman’s gesture is tremendously generous, as she breaks the jar and empties its entire contents of oil on Jesus’ head.  In Hebrew tradition, kings were anointed for leadership, signifying that they had been chosen by God.  (See, for example, the story of Samuel anointing Saul to be king in 1 Samuel 9:15-10:1, and also the anointing of David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:1-13.)  By anointing Jesus, the woman conveys her believe that Jesus is the king of Israel; the chosen Son of God.  Since the bodies of kings were anointed at their death, Jesus also sees a foreshadowing of his own death in this ritualistic anointing with expensive oil. 

            Yet, some of Jesus’ followers scold the woman for “wasting” the precious oil by anointing Jesus.  They believe that the woman should have sold the precious oil and given the money to help the poor; perhaps by providing the poor with food.  Jesus defends the woman and her gesture.  He says, “…you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”   

            This phrase, “you will always have the poor with you,” has sometimes been a source of confusion for Christians.  Does Jesus really mean to say that there will always be poor and hungry people among us?  Does that mean that Christians are not expected to help the poor and feed the hungry?  Occasionally, some Christians will make that argument.  But, the claim that Christians are not expected to help the poor and hungry is a gross misinterpretation and a false teaching. 

            In uttering this phrase, Jesus is citing a passage from Deuteronomy 15:11. The full verse is as follows: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”  When read in its entirety, this verse actually underscores the vital importance for persons of faith to help the poor and hungry.  Jesus is not excusing his followers from caring for the poor and hungry.  Instead, Jesus points out the importance of timing.  Although Christians will always have the poor and hungry to care for, there is only a short window of time in which Christ will be present as the Son of Man.  So, even though the expensive oil could have been sold and the money given the poor during normal times, these are not normal times.  Instead, this is the moment in which Jesus is with the disciples and the moment when the woman might make this generous gesture.

            I purposively selected this scriptural passage as my text for a sermon on the hungry because I think that it exposes an important temptation which middle-class, American Christians must confront.  It is interesting that Jesus words, “you will always have the poor with you,” have sometimes been mis-used as a rationale for doing nothing to help the poor.  When we reflect carefully, what emerges is an underlying assumption that a problem is not worthwhile to address if we cannot completely solve it.  Think about it.  If we provide a meal for a hungry person today, is that action any less meaningful if there will be hungry persons a thousand years from now?  Is the hungry person any less fed today, if another person is hungry a thousand years from now?  The answer is, of course, no. 

            Still, those of us who have worked at soup kitchens and food pantries know how hard the work is.  Even for those who are passionate about helping the poor, the work can lead to:

Ø  Frustration
Ø  Burn out
Ø  Depression

It seems as though helping the poor is always a case of three steps forward and then two steps backward.  Before long, one wants to throw up one’s hands and give up.

            In her masterful text, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Sharon Welch argues that, since it has power and privilege, the American middle-class assumes goals in life will be realized.  These assumptions lead to a paralysis of will when faced with complex social problems that cannot be solved individually.  She writes, “It seems natural to many people, when faced with a problem too big to be solved along or within the foreseeable future, simply to do nothing.  If one cannot do everything to solve the problem of world hunger, for example, one does nothing and even argues against partial remedies as foolhardy and deluded.”[2]

            Welch elaborates further on this insight when she writes:  “It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work,  excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts.  When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one’s family.”[3]  Welch makes a good point.  It is easy to give up on meaningful social change, when we already live the good life.  The middle-class get to live their lives of relative ease, regardless of whether or not we institute needed social change that will alleviate hunger.

            It is unchristian to give up on social change that will feed the hungry, provide homes for the homeless, and health care for those who suffer physically and mentally.  Jesus does not ask us to eradicate hunger, but he does tell us to work hard to feed those who are hungry today.  We must also learn to see our work as part of a greater whole.  We are not the only ones working to end hunger and alleviate poverty.  We have predecessors who came before us and we need to acknowledge that we are building upon the foundations that our predecessors built for us.

            Further, to work to end hunger must also entail doing more than the ministries of serving others by working in soup kitchens or food pantries—as important as those are.  A justice issue also arises when we fail to provide food for the hungry.  This is especially true in the domestic United States, which is the richest, most affluent country in the history of the world.  If we are truly concerned about the hungry, then we will be wise stewards of our American citizenship encourage our policymakers to provide more and more assistance for the hungry, until we have eliminated hunger in our country.  In addition to writing our legislators, this also includes financially supporting groups like Bread for the World, a faith-based organization dedicated to urging our nation’s decision-makers to end hunger at home and abroad.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 18th, as we reflect on justice for the poor and hungry.  As part of my reflections, I intend to challenge our congregation to fast for 12 hours this week, in solidarity with the poor and hunger.  Even if you cannot attend our worship this Sunday, I challenge each of you, my readers, to commit to a 12-hour fast sometime this week, in solidarity with the poor and hungry.  During the service, we will also be receiving a special offering for the work of Bread for the World.  Again, if you cannot attend our worship service, I encourage everyone to financially support Bread for the World.  You can contribute directly online by going to their website, http://www.bread.org/, and clicking on “Donate.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

           Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] Bread for the World, “Ending Hunger in Nebraska [Fact Sheet],” accessed online at: http://files.bread.org/state-fact-sheets/2018/nebraska.pdf?_ga=2.232057567.1560806623.1542495758-1360249376.1541692227, 6 September 2018.
[2] Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Revised Edition (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000), 17.
[3] Ibid., 41.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

“A Biblical Vision of Economic Justice”


            This weekend at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we continue with the second in a four-week proclamation series focusing on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society.  Running again and again, like a red thread throughout the scriptures, is the claim that God calls his people to be instruments of social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups:  the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow.  Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our marginalized groups, today? I think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but I would also add groups, such as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.

            This week, I want to explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the Hebrew Scriptures—or Old Testament.  (Next week, in the third proclamation in the series, I will explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the New Testament.) 

            My scriptural text for this week comes from Leviticus 25.  The vision of economic justice developed in this passage is grounded on the notion of sabbath.  In the Genesis 1 Creation story, God is busily engaged in the work of creation for six days, but on the seventh day, God “rested from all the work that he had done.  So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) This scripture establishes the recurring pattern of work and rest “as woven into the very fabric of the universe.”[1]

Based upon this scripture, Jewish law established the seventh day—the sabbath—as a day of rest for all persons and their animals. It became codified as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:8-10)

Clearly here, the seventh day is set aside as a sabbath—a day of rest—for the Jewish man and his household.  In Leviticus, God takes this provision for a household sabbath and expands it as a framework for social justice.  There are three foci for this expansion in Leviticus 25:  (1) a sabbath rest for the land and nature; (2) the redemption of property in the year of jubilee; and (3) freedom and release for slaves in the year of jubilee.  In my proclamation, I will focus on the first two of these three foci.

The first focus is a sabbath rest for the land and nature:

Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.  ~Leviticus 25:3-7

Every seventh year, the land—and, the rest of nature—is to be given a rest.  The land is to lie fallow.  During this year of rest, the land and the ecosystem which it supports is given an opportunity to rest and renew itself.  During the year, the landowner is prohibited from making an exclusive claim on anything that happens to grow and bear fruit on its own.  Instead, this fruit is available to anyone who wishes to harvest and eat it; the landowner, his slaves and laborers, sojourners in the country, livestock, or wild animals are all equally free to eat any fruit that happens to grow.

            Later in the chapter, God promises to provide an abundant enough harvest in the sixth year, so that the owner and his household will have sufficient food during the seventh year of fallow and rest.  God promises that the harvest in the sixth year will be so abundant that there will be food left over for even the eighth and ninth years, if needed.  (Leviticus 25:20-22)

            The second focus is on redemption of the land in the year of Jubilee.  The year of Jubilee occurred once every 50 years.  It represented a “sabbath of sabbaths.”  That is, seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, or 49 years.  The name “jubilee” comes from the word for “ram,”[2] because the advent of the year of Jubilee was announced by blowing on a trumpet or ram’s horn.  Then you shall have the trumpet [or ram’s horn] sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet [or, ram’s horn] sounded throughout all your land.” (Leviticus 25:9)  The year of Jubilee led to a radical re-calibrating of the economy by requiring the return of property to its original owners:

“In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.  When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” ~ Leviticus 25:13-17

In the year of Jubilee, all land and possessions are returned back to their original owners.  Leases and sales of land are terminated because everything is returned to its original owners.  Thus, the value of property should be calculated, based upon how imminent the next year of Jubilee will be.  If Jubilee is in the distant future, then the prices should be raised because there are many years of harvest before the land must revert back to its original owners.  However, if the Jubilee is imminent, then prices should be lowered because there are few years of harvest before the next Jubilee.  In essence, the purchase of land is essentially the sale of a certain number of harvests on the land, until it is returned to its traditional owners.  

             Obviously, this periodic re-distribution of property back to its original owners has the effect of re-calibrating and equalizing the economy.  Those who have accumulated excess wealth and affluence have it taken from them, while those who have become poor have their lands returned to them so that they may begin again on more equal financial footing.  Poverty and economic marginalization become temporary, instead of permanent and generational.

From God’s perspective, the theological rationale for both the sabbath year and the Jubilee  year are grounded in the fact that God actually owns the land and ecosystems.  As God says:

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.  ~ (Leviticus 25: 23-24)

 Since the land and all of Creation ultimately belongs to God, human persons are not the owners but, rather, the stewards or caretakers.  We care for the land by observing the rhythm of six years of production, followed by a seventh year of rest.  Further, since the land ultimately belongs to God, then humans cannot own it permanently.  Instead, the true owner—that is, God—requires that all land be returned to its original families once every 50 years.

            As far as we know, the Israelites very seldomly—if ever—observed a sabbatical rest year for the ecosystem or a Jubilee year in which the economy was re-calibrated.  Despite the Israelites' failure to implement God’s economy, this passage is still important for informing our understanding of how God calls us to work for social justice.  The Jubilee plan reminds us that God makes a preferential option for the poor and marginalized in any society.  In any economic system, there is a tendency to overlook and forget about those who have become poor and marginalized.  That is, the poor and marginalized can become invisible to those with financial possessions.  However, the power of the Jubilee plan is that it periodically re-calibrates the economy and makes visible those who are powerless.

            This Sunday, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day—a day we set aside to remember and honor those who have served and made sacrifices for our country.  We usually honor our veterans with flowers and parades and special recognition at public events, such as ball games.  But, do these forms of recognition really honor our veterans, if we don’t support them with real programs that will enhance their lives and help them flourish, after their time of service has ended?  Rather than having a parade, wouldn’t it be better to work to improve our veterans’ access to quality mental healthcare, especially for those who suffer from PTSD?  Rather than having a special moment of recognition for veterans at ballgames, wouldn’t it be better to work with unemployed veterans, helping them to find a job or develop new work skills that would make them more employable?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 11th, as we celebrate Veterans Day and reflect on the implications of the Biblical vision for economic justice.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] “Origins of Shabbat,” ReformJudaism.org, accessed at https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/shabbat/origins-shabbat, 10 November 2018.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Commentary on Leviticus in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.


Saturday, November 3, 2018

"Them"



            I have returned after my two-week study leave.  This weekend we begin a new series entitled, “Them.”[1]  In this four-week series, we will focus on the importance of social justice for God.  Again and again and again, God calls his people to be instruments for social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups:  the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow.

The Bible is absolutely strewn with the language of justice, for instance Jeremiah 22:3 says, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” Zechariah 7:9-10 says,Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’”

And these are just a couple of the examples, but the literature goes on and on. Clearly this kind of justice weighs heavily on God’s heart as he repeatedly called these groups out specifically. Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our top four marginalized groups? We think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but we also added to the list such groups as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.[2]  Over the next four weeks, we will focus on  what it means to work for social justice for marginalized groups in our contemporary context. 

This Sunday, November 4th, is traditionally “All Saints Sunday” within the United Methodist Church, as well as many other denominations.  On this Sunday, we remember and give thanks for all of our family and friends who have passed away, with special attention devoted to those who have died within the last 12 months.  During the service, there will be opportunities for us to lift the names of our loved ones who have died. We will also celebrate the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper, remembering that our celebration is just a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet with Christ and all of our loved ones.

Corresponding with our celebration of “All Saints Sunday,” the first focus in our “Them” series will be the ways in which we tend to exclude and marginalize those who grieve the loss of a loved one.  Our scripture for the Sunday comes from the Hebrew—or, Old Testament—Book of Ruth.  The Biblical scholar Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer notes that the Book of Ruth is misnamed.  Rather than Ruth, it is Naomi who is the central character in the story and so the book should have been named the Book of Naomi.[3]

The story begins with Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons moving from their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to Moab, which was a neighboring country.  The family moves from Bethlehem because of a severe famine.  This was a radical move for Naomi because there were always great tensions between the Hebrews and the Moabites.  The Hebrews looked down upon the Moabites and regarded them with great contempt.  In contemporary terms, their move would have been akin to an American family leaving the United States and moving to North Korea.

Ruth and Elimelech settle in Moab with their two sons and start a new life together.  Over time their two sons mature and become adult men.  Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons, eventually marry local, Moabite women:  Orpah and Ruth.  However, tragedy strikes.  All of the men die.  In Biblical times, the loss of a husband or father could have severe consequences for the surviving widow and/or orphaned children.   Unlike contemporary societies, such as the United States, these ancient societies made no provisions for the care of widows and orphans.  In other words, there were no social programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, to provide for widows and orphans.  By law, all the deceased husband’s property returned to his family; again, with no provisions for the wife.  Further, there were virtually no work opportunities for women in these ancient societies, with the exceptions of prostitution, begging, and scavenging.  Thus, many women who lost their husbands were destined to live in severe poverty for the rest of their lives.

The situation facing Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth was desperate.  Naomi becomes especially bitter over the loss of her husband and sons.  Today, we know that bitterness and anger—over the short run—are healthy and just part of the grieving process, especially for someone such as Naomi, who has multiple losses of her husband and sons. 

Naomi learns that the famine in Bethlehem is over.  So, she decides to return to Bethlehem to her family and kinsmen.  Since Orpah and Ruth are Moabite women, Naomi encourages them to return to their “mother’s houses” in Moab and eventually re-marry.  At first, both daughters-in-law refuse to abandon Naomi.  Rather than appreciating the love and faithfulness of her two daughters-in-law, Naomi responds bitterly:

“ ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Turn 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, would 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.’”

In her bitterness and anger, Naomi believes that God is angry with her; that God has turned against her.   She has lost her husband and two sons.  A parishioner, who lost a daughter in a tragic car accident ten years previously, once told me, “Richard, when you lose a child, there is this huge aching hole in your heart and it never goes away.”  This is what has happened to Naomi.  She has this huge, gaping hole in her heart.  Only for Naomi, the huge hole in her heart creates a chasm which separates her from the love and presence of God. 

Although Orpah decides to return to her family, Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi.  So, the two women, Naomi and Ruth, travel back to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown.  Even after returning home, Naomi remains bitter about her tragic losses.  Making a word-play on her name, which means “Pleasant,” Naomi encourages her family to call her Mara (“bitter”) instead:

“‘Call me no longer Naomi,
   call me Mara,
   for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 
I went away full,
   but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
   when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
   and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
 ~ Ruth 1:20-21

These two quotations of Naomi in the first chapter are a form of lament, which is a special type of genre in the scriptures.  There are many different literary genres in the Bible. In addition to laments, the genres include history, poetry,  parables, biography, apocalyptic literature and others.  Laments are passionate expressions of grief, loss, and sorrow.  A lament describes the depth of loss, and it frequently includes an appeal to God to make things right.  In the Bible, laments usually end triumphantly with the conviction that in the end, God will prevail, and all will be well.  Laments can be found in the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, as well as in certain psalms, in some prophetic literature, and in the Book of Ruth.  

            In the Book of Ruth, the laments of Naomi do not include an appeal to God to make things right.  However, as we shall see at the end of the Book of Ruth, God does prevail and all is well.  That occurs in chapter 4.

However, in chapter 1, Naomi’s grief is deep and palpable.  She is bitter and depressed.  There is a huge hole in her heart.  Even worse, Naomi is convinced that God is angry with her and is responsible for all of her misery.  Even with the help of her family, Naomi will still have to deal with the economic hardship brought on by the death of her husband.  Even though she has returned to her family and even though Ruth continues to live with her and support her, in many ways Naomi feels isolated from her friends, her family, and her God.  Naomi is not alone in becoming marginalized after the death of a loved one.

            Even today, in 2018, those who grieve and mourn their beloved can become marginalized.  The funerary customs of American society can lead to the marginalization of those who grieve major losses.  Of course, at first, we are very good at rallying around someone who has suffered the death of a loved one.  We send sympathy cards, make phone calls, and drop off food at the home of those who grieve.  On the day of the funeral or memorial service, we rally around those who grieve, trying our best to comfort and support them.  We go out of our way to be sympathetic and supportive. 

            Yet, when the services are over and the body or ashes have been laid to rest, then everything goes back to normal.  We return to work or school.  We return to our routines.  Everything goes back to normal for everyone—except those who grieve the death of a loved one.  These persons are left alone, for the most part.  They must continue going through the grieving process by themselves.  Frequently, they are left with Herculean tasks of disposing of their lost loved one’s possessions and settling their estate.  All of this must be done while trying to figure out a “new normal” without their loved one.

            Frequently, discovering this new normal includes re-negotiating relationships with others.  Over the course of my ministry, many widows and widowers have told me one of the most disappointing aftermaths, following the death of a spouse, was losing the friendships of other couples; relationships which they thought would last forever are suddenly dissolved because those relationships are relationships between couples.  Suddenly, the grieving widow or widower is no longer invited to play cards or go out for dinner because they no longer have a partner.

            In this way, we frequently marginalize those who are grieving.  Whenever we marginalize someone from the rest, we have created a social justice.  Rather than marginalizing those who grieve, disciples of Christ are called to work for justice by including those who grieve.  We can overcome the isolation by freely sharing our love and support.

Our scripture reading provides an exemplary role model for this work of solidarity, love, and support in the person of Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth promises to love and support Naomi for the remainder of her life.  In a beautiful passage from scripture, Ruth pledges her lifelong support and love for Naomi:

‘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. 
 Where 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!’ ~ Ruth 1:16-17

            Naomi and Ruth return to Judah.  As the story continues, Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz.  Eventually, Ruth and Boaz are married and soon thereafter have a son.  Then, the Book of Ruth concludes in this fashion:

“Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” ~ Ruth 4:14-17                                                                         

            The women tell Naomi that Ruth’s son will be to her “a restorer of life;” that is, the son will give new meaning and purpose to Naomi.  The birth of this son enables Naomi to be finally healed from her grief at the loss of her husband and sons.  The birth of this son reverses the emptiness which has embittered Naomi.  The birth of this son enables Naomi to re-connect with others and rise out of isolation and marginalization.  The birth of this son reassures Naomi that God has not turned on her, but instead loves her.  Contrary to its title, the Book of Ruth is really about Naomi and her redemption from grief.  God does not abandon or turn away from Naomi.  On the contrary, throughout the story God is working to redeem Naomi.  God uses the love and loyalty of Ruth as a channel to redeem Naomi.

            In a similar way, when we freely share our love and support and solidarity with someone who is grieving, then, just as Ruth, we also become channels which God uses to bring healing and redemption to those who have a huge aching hole in their hearts.  When we share our love and support and solidarity with those who grieve, then we bring them to the center of our concern and we help them overcome the marginalization, which pushes them to the edges.  This is social justice.


If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 4th, as we remember and celebrate our loved ones who have passed away.  Come and join us, as we lift up our loved ones by name and ring a chime in memory of them.  We will also explore how loving and caring for those who grieve may be a form of social justice, as we seek to break down society’s tendency to marginalize those who grieve.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] The worship staff and I developed the ideas for this series—as well as the name, “Them” for the series, several months prior to the publication of the book, Them, by Sen. Ben Sasse.  We were unaware of Sen Sasse’s forthcoming book when we planned the series.  Therefore, the emergence of both our series and the book with the same title was purely a coincidence.  I have not read the book by Sen Sasse and cannot comment further on it.

[2] The previous two paragraphs contributed by Hayden Florom, Marketing and Communications Director at Christ UMC.

[3] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, Commentary on The Book of Ruth in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 2, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.