Sermon: “Abraham’s Call…and Ours” (Genesis 12:1-9)

Hear these words from our reading this morning:

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your own country, your kin, and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you. I shall make you into a great nation: I shall bless you and make your name so great that it will be used in blessings.’…Abram, who was seventy-five years old when he left Harran, set out as the Lord had bidden him….” (Genesis 12:1-2, 4)

What’s so remarkable to me about Abraham is the depth of his faith.

I mean yes, of course, it’s the voice of God he hears telling him what to do, and so, as the story tells it, there is no hemming and hawing with Abraham about what he just heard and how he is called to respond, or when.

You and I are used to living in a world where we often aren’t so sure that a voice that leads us can be counted on to be a voice from God.

But in the Bible, at least this morning, that’s not up for discussion.

God calls Abraham to go to a land he will be shown in due course, and he does, and from what we can tell, he does it pretty much right away, packing up his family and heading due south, out into the wilderness.

If the story is new to you, then it might be helpful to know that when you put it in context, Abraham hears God’s voice, and the sense of his breaking with everything he had known or understood before is actually even bigger.

A few weeks ago, we considered the story of Ruth in some detail. And while Ruth’s faith was remarkable, part of the point, surely, was that she was looking to find her place in a community that was not hers by blood.

And the abiding challenge of her story is a challenge to communities of faith—a challenge about whether we are prepared to welcome the stranger any better than the people of Bethlehem initially welcomed Ruth and Naomi.

By constrast, this morning, Abraham, who comes perhaps 1000 years before Ruth, has no community to join.

If you want to get technical about it, Abraham lived actually before Judaism. Hebrew religion, even in its earliest form, did not exist.  There is no chosen people yet. That story comes later.

What’s more, as far as we know, Abraham wasn’t directly related to Adam or Noah or anybody else who might have told him about God.

Abraham was born in what is now Iraq….and he’s being sent out into a literal and figurative place of Only God Knows Where.

So his trust in this…voice…is truly remarkable.

This week, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review about how companies define their core values.

And I learned that one of the really provocative questions that you can ask of an institution is this:

“If circumstances changed and actively penalized us for holding [a particular] core value, would we still keep it?”

The article goes on to say that “A company should not change its core values in response to market changes; rather, it should change markets, if necessary, to remain true to its core values.”

In the end, our values are who we are.

Now it’s entirely too slick to say that what Abraham does in this morning’s Scripture is simply to change markets in order to stay true to his core values.

But the deeper point is that Abraham hears God’s voice and he is transformed, even fearless in his willingness to shed every security in order to stay true to that voice.

He finds a deeper vision for his own life, and for the good of all people, and that vision makes him ready to face anything and to risk everything.

And if you look at Scripture as a whole, he’s not alone…even if he was alone in his generation.

John the Baptist was someone like that. So was Jesus. And so was Paul.

And there are so many who have come since then, people of all faiths, and truly in all walks of life.

And so, I think the point for us is that, while the work of finding a deeper vision for our lives is challenging work, it can be done.

We can do it.

We can learn to see our lives in terms of their deeper contributions and their moral insights…and the things we do to live up to those insights, however small or large those things may be.

About fifteen years ago, there was a brief boom among many different faith traditions about hosting programs on writing what was called a “moral will.”

It was about writing down for posterity what were the ideas and the responsibilities you considered most important in your life, and why you thought they mattered, not just for you, but for people in general.

I was never part of an actual group that developed their moral wills, although I hope I will be sometime, and if you’d ever like to find out more about it, please let me know.

But in learning about it, what was interesting to me was how hard it was for a lot of people to think that way, at least at first.

Maybe unless you hear that booming voice from the heavens, like Abraham did, it is harder to recognize when you’re acting out of your own core values…your own deepest principles.

Maybe the call to drop everything and head to the land that God will show us doesn’t unfold quite in the way the story says, at least for most people, most of the time.

How many times does life actually challenge us to cross some sort of line in the sand?

And yet, isn’t it common to look up suddenly one day and find ourselves somehow situated in a world we never fully realized we were traveling to?

Friends, there is good news.

Abraham was seventy five years old, and already a transplant to a new community far from the city of his birth when, one day, he heard the voice of God.

With every reason to stand pat and stay planted, he moved forward into the great unknown, and he did not hesitate.

And the point is, with God’s help, and the love of Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can let go of whatever insecurity, whatever worry, whatever reluctance might prevent us, and learn to go without hesitation out into the land that God will show us.

And a great nation may spring forth from our courage.   Amen.

Sermon: “The Fallout Shelter” (Genesis 6:9-22, 8:6-13)

The first year I was in divinity school, I lived by myself in a remote, rambling old house at the end of long dirt road.

There’s a lot of backstory to my being in that place.

But what I’ll say today is that I was very glad to be there, and my being there came at one of those times in life when I felt like the quiet would do me good.

And in many ways, over time, it did.

But not at first.

The house was full of furniture under slipcovers that had been there since the previous owner had closed it up for the winter in 1982 and not come back, and so it was hard to stay there and not feel like someone would see eventually the kitchen light on and call the state police.

Worst of all, that dirt road was long enough, and remote enough, and the house was big enough and creaky enough, and I didn’t have a television, so that at night, when there was a breeze coming over the mountain, it could get just a little spooky.

And it was on a night just like that when I discovered that the house had an abandoned fallout shelter.

Did anybody here have a fallout shelter at some point?

I only knew about them from those black and yellow signs that you used to see on buildings in Manhattan.

My dad grew up with someone whose family built one during the “Duck and Cover” era, and he remembered going down there to play and seeing shelves floor to ceiling with Chicken of the Sea and Spam and Army surplus MREs.

I’d heard about that. But that was all I knew.

And then one night in February, I realized that I was feeling unusually cold in the house. I went over to the thermostat and turned it up…the furnace didn’t kick on…so I went into the basement.

And it was there with my flashlight that next to the furnace that I noticed a door I hadn’t noticed before.

It opened into a cinderblock passage, just wide enough for one person, leading away from the house.  

About twenty feet later, it opened into a room that was maybe just a little bigger than the Church Parlor. Along every wall were shelves, or the metal brackets that had once supported shelves. In the middle of the floor was an old chair.

And I realized that I was standing under the hill beside my house.

Well, I was not standing there long…I can tell you that.

But in a place that was so remote to begin with, so set up for solitude, there was something about that room itself that was just so afraid. 

I was spooked. But the room itself was fearful in a way that I have never been.

And the more I thought about it, the sadder it seemed.

It meant that this rambling old colonial farmhouse that had started as a pleasant weekend getaway had been reimagined as someone’s final retreat at the end of the world.  It was hard to know what to make of that.

Now typically, when we talk about the story of Noah and the ark, we tell it as a story of God’s judgment upon the wickedness of humanity, but also of God’s tender care for the one righteous man who is left on earth.

And with all those animals, gathered two by two and stacked inside the ark, there is possibility that God is anticipating a re-launch of Creation—but if you read the story closely, you will notice that God never exactly promises that.

God promises that Noah and his family – and the animals – will all escape the flood.

Noah builds the ark, and God personally shuts the hatch as the rains begin.

But if you were Noah, you would have heard that final click with no guarantees about the future.

Maybe God’s plan was that going forward, Creation itself was going to be a smaller proposition—that from now on, Creation was to be limited to this ark, all alone, riding the billows of a formless void.

This floating fallout shelter was all that would be left. And actually, it seems as if, somehow, Noah is o.k. with that.

I say that because while it’s important to speak of Noah’s great faith, it’s important to name at least the possibility of his fear. It’s important to name the possibility that his dream is simply that he will escape the world as it falls apart, taking only his family with him, with an all you can eat animal buffet lining the shelves along every wall. The ultimate man-cave.

And aren’t there times when we want to do that too?

It’s a good weekend to ask that question.

This is a weekend when so many people in our community are just returning from special places—from refuges and retreats of all descriptions, places where “I’m soooo sorry, but there isn’t any cell reception, places where life in all its complexity can’t get to us for awhile.

Thank God we have those places. That’s what Sabbath is all about, and we live in a world where Sabbath is harder and harder to claim.

But there’s a big difference between going somewhere to disconnect and going somewhere to reconnect, and in our haste to get away, I’m not sure we always see that distinction correctly.

Along those lines, sometimes as I drive by those beautiful houses in the Greenwich backcountry, I wonder what it’s like for the families that live there.

Are those houses full of life and laughter, places to unwind and to reconnect with those we love at the end of a long day? Are they places where people gather, or where something creative has the space it needs to happen?

Or are they more like Noah’s ark, each one a place where someone has retreated to for safety from the world…a place to live cut off but secure, a table for one at the world’s most opulent fallout shelter?

I know someone who lived with his mother in a big old house in Hyde Park, Chicago. And things had gotten so bad between them at one point that for several months they communicated only by email, even when they were both at home.

They lived under the same roof, but each was riding the billows of the storm in an ark built only for one.

I don’t know what you call that. But you don’t call it being saved–salvation. You don’t call it election. You don’t call it being chosen.

The Bible’s vision of the world – God’s vision of the world – is always about not just us but others, too. Our faith is an extended argument that human flourishing is only possible in community. And so community making, and community keeping are the work of faithful people.

Maybe you can say that by loading his family into the ark, Noah is taking a stab at community keeping. Keeping his family afloat and all that.

To me, that’s not the important moment. To me, the important moment comes later.

Because at a certain point, the waters receded.

At a certain point, the ark came to rest.

The sound of the waves became the sound of the wind, and the movement of the hull grew gentle and then stopped.

But the ark, we’re told, had no windows. There was only the hatch that God had closed.

And so at some point, Noah has to decide if he’s willing to open the hatch and see what’s what. He has to decide if he’s going to stand pat or go all in.

For me, this is when Noah shows the greatest and most important kind of faith.

Faith is not when he goes in the ark. It’s when he steps out of it. It’s when he steps out into an empty, soggy world and begins to remake human society as best he can with the people he’s got and whatever tools are at his disposal.

That’s when his faith triumphs. That’s when our faith triumphs, too.

It’s not about being righteous enough that we get priority boarding on the ark; it’s about being faithful to great work of community making and community keeping, using whatever tools are at our disposal.

As another school year, and a program year begin, it’s a good time to ask ourselves if we’re going to stand pat or go all in.

This church could be an ark, or a fallout shelter—a place to retreat from our fears. Or maybe, like that old farmhouse where I used to live, it will be a pleasant weekend getaway.

But it could be much more.  And faith tells us that it should be. 

It could be the place where, with the help of God, we decide to get down to business.

A place where we learn how to change the world, one family at a time, one Bible study at a time, one office at a time, one mission trip at a time, one credit card statement at a time, one Youth Group meeting at a time, one phone call at a time, or one prayer at a time.

Is now the time?

Open the hatch, there, Noah, and see for yourself.

Welcome home, church.

They’re Diverting This Plane Because…WHAT?!

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Are you following the sudden rash of airplanes being grounded because travelers are fighting over the right to lean back their seats?

That’s right. Not only are people fighting over the right to lean back their seats to the point that flight attendants are getting involved–they’re fighting over this to the point that pilots have started diverting entire planes.

Apparently, there is now a device you can purchase to prevent — physically prevent — the passenger in front of you from being able to lean back his or her chair. But this has caused only one of the recent groundings. The others are from plain, old fashioned disagreements.

Is it just me, or do you read stories like this and wonder how, on earth, it could possibly have come to this?

Compared to many in our congregation, I travel rarely. Maybe some of you saw that special gizmo in “The Sharper Image” catalogue or some other place and thought, “A-ha, my traveling problems are solved at last!”

But speaking for myself: I cannot imagine how I would respond to the news from the cockpit that our flight was being landed in some in between place because two grown adults could not handle a disagreement about their chairs. And I cannot imagine how much worse I would feel had I been responsible for such an event.

Call me an optimist, but I like to imagine that the shouting stopped and the loud, profuse apologizing began.  

One of the great challenges of our times, I think, is not only discerning right from wrong; it’s also discerning what matters from what does not. I cannot say why this seems to have gotten harder than it used to be. Life’s little aggravations aren’t supposed to undo us in this way.  It’s sad to see how easily we give in to impulses that seem beneath us.

Worse yet, events like these suggest that maybe we don’t see others, literally and figuratively, as fellow travelers in the way we once did.

That’s why community, in all its complexity, is so important for us. It reminds us that the world is something that we share, that few of our claims on it are absolute, and that most of the time, if we work together, we can get all get where we’re trying to go.

Whether it’s the community of an airplane cabin, a neighborhood, a book group, an office, or a home, our life together that reminds us, simultaneously, that who we are as individuals is supremely important, and also that each of us is only a small part of something far larger.

I hope that as our church begins a new program year, you will find ways to explore how God is calling you, specifically, to invest your time and energy. And I hope you’ll have moments when you feel the beating heart of something greater than you, or any one of us.  I hope that I do, too. 

When that happens, then, sort of like they say on the airlines, “wherever it is your travels may lead you,” you might just find the peace that passes all understanding.

 

See you in church,

The Labor Day Letter I Wish I Could Send To My Church

Dear Friends,

It’s 6:45 on the evening of Labor Day.  Many of our members are getting set for the second week of school, and some of you are probably running back and forth between the burgers on the grill and continuing coverage of the U.S. Open.  If history is any judge, others are slowly making their way back to Greenwich after another summer in a beloved second place — if that’s you, I hope the traffic through Norwalk isn’t too bad.

In the next few days, you’ll be settling back into your “home” routine, and soon enough, everyone’s calendar will start filling up again.  Halloween candy and decorations are already on the shelves at the A&P — and then it’s the familiar sprint to Thanksgiving, then Christmas.

At church, we’re hoping to see you, too.

But statistics tell us that we won’t see all of you.  On average, across all denominations and across the country, after about six weeks out of the habit of going to church, the likelihood that you’ll return diminishes significantly.

Because you’re gone, we won’t know if it’s something that’s changed for you about our church specifically, about church in general, or about your relationship with God.

All lives have seasons, and sometimes it’s only time away that reveals to us that we are in a new one — the silence of a house now that everyone has left for college, the career that still asks so much when what it offers now doesn’t seem like enough, the end of a marriage or the death of a parent, or the pull of a new dream.  Did some powerful voice speak to your life this summer, and maybe point you in a new direction?

We’d love to hear about it.  You know, if only there were some sort of convenient weekly meeting at a set time and place where we might encounter each other…but I digress.

Most of the time, our curiosity and concern get politely postponed. When we call to check in, people tell us that they’re just so busy but look forward to getting back soon, and thank you for calling.

When you say that, we know that you’re breaking up with us.

There’s a world of difference between “we really must get together sometime” and “let’s have lunch on Tuesday,” isn’t there?

Maybe you’re trying to let us down easy.  Or maybe you aren’t quite ready to admit to yourself that the landscape has shifted.

You wouldn’t believe the number of people who never take their leave, but who just send an email to the church office asking to be removed from the email list.  And the newsletter database.  And the stewardship campaign.

If that’s because, say, caring for an aging parent is wringing you out to dry in every way, by all means, let me know. Let me be your pastor and walk with you through this season in any way I can.

But if it means that, without ever quite saying so, you’ve discovered that golf or little league is your greatest Sunday commitment, then how God fits into the rest of your week is a question only you can answer. Even so, I’d love to help with that, too, if I can.

We want to honor our relationship with you as your life changes.  We also count on you to honor your relationship with us. We can’t make you and would not want to, even if we could.   But we hope you will do right by a community that, at some point, seemed to mean a great deal to you.

So don’t feel guilty or dive out of sight whenever you spot me or the Senior Deacon in the supermarket.I have a different idea: if summer has taught you something new — about yourself, about your family, or about God — and you know you won’t be back, let’s have an exit interview.

I promise that I won’t try to convince you to stay if you promise to tell me honestly about how you’ve encountered God at our church, and what memories are sacred to you, as well as what’s been, well, profane.  Or just blah.  Help us with your wisdom, even if it is just for one last time.

Not sure if you’ll be back? Let’s have that talk, and agree about a sabbatical for you, with permission for me to call at some mutually agreed upon point, even if it’s just to wish you godspeed.

Feeling like you know you’ll be doing something else on Sundays, but can’t imagine family baptisms, weddings, or funerals anywhere else?  Let me tell you what to expect if the pastor you contact turns out to be someone after I’ve moved on.

Because in all those situations, the life of the congregation will be moving on, too.  New stories, new situations, new leadings from God will shape our imagination and our life together.

But if you’re moving on, and so are we, that doesn’t mean that we can’t help each other move forward into whatever God has in store for us both.  And we should.

Somehow, that seems like the Christian thing to do.

Be in touch,

Max

Sermon: “Honor Thy Foremothers” (Ruth 4)

Before we get to the concluding chapter from the Book of Ruth, this morning, I want to read a few paragraphs from a wonderful book by the naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, called When Women Were Birds.

It may be helpful to know that she is from one of the oldest Mormon families in Utah – in fact, she is a close relative of Mitt Romney’s.

Through her book, I also learned that Mormon culture takes a great deal of pride in the strength and courage of the pioneer generations, and that, kind of along those lines, since the 19th century, Mormon women have been urged to keep journals, with an eye toward preserving the history of God’s saving activity in the lives of their families and in the Mormon community at large.

So here is the opening of Williams’ book.

She writes: “I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. 

“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”

I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals.

A week later, she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.

On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family room. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.”

What follows is Williams’ attempt to understand the meaning of such a carefully, even lovingly preserved silence.

Were the journals three shelves of false starts, or a triumph of privacy—a refusal to be known…maybe a refusal to participate in the Mormon project of documenting where the family story and God’s story seemed to intersect?

It’s a mystery.

Toward the end of the book, Williams observes, “My mother chose me as the recipient of her pages, empty pages. She left me her ‘Cartographies of Silence.’ I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing.   But I can imagine.”

To me—and maybe to you, too—this resonates so deeply with the Book of Ruth.

Because Ruth’s story is remarkable. We’ve talked a lot about her character and her courage. But not for nothing, her story is remarkable simply because it’s like a set of ancient journals – a piece of the pioneer record – that has managed to survive.

So many human stories are lost—actually, if you think about it, almost all of them are…and especially the stories of women. But we have this one.

Amid vast cartographies of silence, the voices of Ruth and Naomi, and then Boaz, too, ring out and echo back through the canyons of history.

If nothing else, they remind us that human lives, ancient or modern, are so very far from tidy. Which has to offer hope for us all.

But the question lingers: why did this particular story manage to survive, with its twists and turns, its unlikely heroines, and their risky strategy for claiming a more secure place in their community? Is Ruth really meant to be a role model?

The silence returns at that point – we cannot say for sure.

But some say that the point only becomes clear in the story’s last two sentences.

Ruth and Boaz have a son, named Obed—named, unusually enough, by the women of the town.

The story says: “Naomi’s women neighbors gave the boy a name: ‘Naomi has a son; we shall call him Obed,’ they said. He became the father of Jesse, David’s father.”

(It’s interesting to note that they speak of the boy as Naomi’s son, when, of course, Naomi is not related to little Obed by blood at all. Maybe that points to some dawning awareness in the community that a deeper kind of moral logic is at work in these events, and that somehow, in this case, motherhood and redemption are intertwined in ways that need to be accounted for.)

In any case, then the story goes on with a more formal genealogy, which the language of the King James Version characteristically describes as a series of “begats”:

“Now these are the generations of Pharez,” it says, “Pharez began Hezron, and Hezron begat Ram, and Ram begat Amminadab, and Amminadab begat Nahshon, and Nahshon begat Salmon, and Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David” (Ruth 4:18).

It’s not poetic, but it packs a wallop.

Because what it reveals is that Ruth is the great-grandmother of the greatest king in the history of Israel—the great-grandmother of the man that tradition held wrote all the psalms, and conquered Jerusalem and made it the geographical heart of Jewish civilization, who brought the Ark of the Covenant to live there forever, and who united the kingdom…and so much more.

David is a figure perhaps second only to Moses in the history of the Hebrew people.

And so, this kind of last-minute revelation is immensely important.

It shows us that the story of Ruth and Naomi isn’t just the story of two plucky ladies who make good—you know, the Laverne and Shirley of Ancient Israel. A sweet comedy. 

But I think the story would have been very different if we were told right up front that this is story of the generations before David.  

If we’d known that all along, then the outcome would never have been in doubt, would it?

The character and courage of the two women would have been something deep in their blood we would have been looking for, starting in Chapter One.

Instead, I take the book to be making a much more subtle point.

The fact is, we don’t know what’s in them.

We don’t know what’s in them, because we don’t know what’s in us.

We don’t know what’s in our neighbors.

We don’t know what the future holds for our community, or what role – if any – our people and our place might play in a world where even so much of the near future is, even so, over the horizon.

We cannot know, in the moment, how it is that God’s larger purposes may be coming to fruition right now, or soon, or somewhere down the line, or not at all – at least, not with any easy certainty.

What seems so messy and contingent and partial and temporary may be just that. Or it may be the beginning of something much greater.

Only God knows, and only time can tell.

Indeed, the God whose grace abounds within the world operates silently, even imperceptibly for most of us, at least most of the time.

And the great “ta-da” moments of revelation are only rarely some kind of great uncloaking.

More likely, they are the culmination of so much patient, faithful, courageous diligence—acts and character and witness that lay the groundwork for a future that the workers cannot see…just as the builders of Europe’s greatest cathedrals knew that perhaps only their grandchildren would worship in a finished sanctuary.

So…there are no stories of great-grandma Ruth, sitting on the front porch, rocking baby David on her knee.

Likely, she was not there for that to happen. But her role in his life is nevertheless profound.

Israel needed David. And David needed Ruth—not simply for life itself, but in order to live the kind of life his time in history would ultimately require.

And so the world needs you and me to take our lives seriously, and to use them for the sake of goodness and justice and hope in all the ways we can, even if the culmination of our work remains over the horizon.

More depends upon our doing it than we ourselves may ever truly know.

Finally, I want to say a brief word about silence.

We noted that what is so remarkable about Ruth is how she is not silent—how her story flies in the face of any number of conventions and social expectations for the women of her day. 

Following the example of Jesus, part of our mission as a faith community is to see those people that the rest of the world does not see, and to hear their stories, and to make sure that God’s house is a place where at least some kinds of silence are not golden, much less gospel.

It is our work to make sure that those who find their way here come to feel known and appreciated, and in the end not only transformed by this community, but also an agent of its – of our – ongoing transformation.

That’s our work because Ruth is our story—it’s a perpetual summons to remember that God is at work in the world in ways that, in the fullness of time, prove to be utterly astonishing.

Our faith rests on the stories that affirm this truth going back through the sands of time and right up into our day and right here in our midst.

The writer Terry Tempest Williams opened her mother’s empty journals and saw cartographies of silence.

Ruth calls us, and Jesus calls us, always to be the people who receive stories, no matter how ragged or unfinished or imperfect they might be.

Our Scripture this morning reminds us that with the love of community and the fullness of God’s time, those stories may turn out to be nothing less than the cartographies of grace, itself.

Amen.

The First Day of School

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger and did nothing for you?” (Matthew 25:44)

Dear Friends of Second Church,

This morning was the first day of school, at least for the Greenwich Public Schools, and our daughter Grace was up early.

She’s very excited to be a first grader, and so at least for today, our morning routine was a delightful performance of her independence–clothes on without any “Poppy, not THAT…..” editorializing, breakfast downed, teeth brushed, hair brushed, lunch packed, backpack checked one more time, and off we went.

The lawn outside her school was like old home week for the under-tall, and Grace got right down to business, comparing new sneakers with her friends and telling them all about the raptors she saw a couple of weeks ago at the Stamford Nature Center. (Is it just me, or are children are smarter than they used to be?) Parents with cellphone cameras were everywhere.

It wasn’t until the classes were all proudly marching in the schoolhouse door behind their new teachers that I noticed the few kids hanging back–holding on tight for another minute as mom or dad carefully moved them toward the door, harrumphing them along in stages, like thirty pound bags of flour. And from a word here or there I managed to catch, I realized that they were all “new kids.” New to school, or new to Greenwich, or just new to Julian Curtiss? I don’t know yet. But they’re new.

We all know that in a few days, most of them will be just fine.

But I’ve been thinking about them all day, and thinking about how I can help Grace be one of the kids who makes an extra effort to welcome them.

How do you explain to a first grader about Jesus’ commandment to welcome the stranger? How do we help our children see that building community is about lunch tables and playground games and the look on your face when the teacher picks your partner? And how can we help them learn how sacred it is to do those things with others in mind? Do we do the same sort of things ourselves, so that our children see the lesson often enough to follow our example?

The beginning of a new school year is always a holy moment. Somewhere nearby, moms and dads are praying that their worried new student will settle in, make friends, and begin to love their new life in this new place to which they’ve come. My hope is that, each in their own ways, the children of Second Church will be answers to those prayers.

See you in church,

Ruth: Gold-Digger or One True Love? (A Sermon on Ruth 3)

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Congregationalists of Connecticut had a short-lived dream of Christianizing the entire globe in a single generation.

That dream came about because of the arrival of a young Hawaiian native, later known as Henry, who had signed onto a Connecticut whaling ship when it had stopped for resupply on his island. Little did the ship’s crew realize that they had arrived during a lull in vicious internal wars by different island factions—the kind that made a ticket to anywhere else something very much worth thinking about, and which Henry acted upon.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that Henry stayed with the ship until its voyage concluded in New Haven and was in no hurry to return home.

He was taken care of by a series of students, then boarded with the families of several local pastors, and was converted to Christianity. His story was a matter of great interest throughout Connecticut, New England, and New York.

But he was only the first young “heathen” man – that was their term – to visit Connecticut, and soon it became clear that others were arriving, too, not only from Hawaii, but from all kinds of places.

And so the ministers of the Congregational churches began to imagine what might happen if these young men were not only converted, but then trained as missionaries and returned home to serve.

The possibilities seemed enormous. Funds were raised. Celebrities endorsed. Faculty were hired.

Eventually, buildings for a school were acquired upstate, in the town of Cornwall, which is in Litchfield County.

But after auspicious beginnings and ongoing coverage in the newspapers, tragedy struck.

A local mob attacked, and burned down the school.

You see, some of the heathen boys had taken the idea of Christian brotherhood too far.

“In Christ, you are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free,” it says in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Perhaps with that in mind, the boys had struck up friendships, and then potentially romantic interests, with some of the local girls of Cornwall.

Christianity, it seems, was one thing; racial mixing was quite another.

And so that was the end of that.

I’m thinking of that story today because it can be easy to forget how brave, in its way, Ruth’s visit to the threshing room floor to be with Boaz really was.

Remember: she is a woman in a time when women were viewed as having few, if any rights—and on top of that, she is a woman who comes from another place, where people worship another deity, and she has no one of any standing to protect her, much less vouch for her character, or her purity.

She comes in tow of her “mother-in-law Naomi,” but it’s “mother-in-law” in quotation marks because Ruth’s husband is dead, and Naomi’s husband is dead, and there are no children, and they had been living out there in Ruth’s country, so any notion of the letter of the law protecting anyone from anything was a non-starter.

And yet, as we noted last week, things are not so bad now that they’re in Bethlehem.

Life isn’t easy. But good things are happening.

In particular, Ruth receives generous treatment at the hands of Boaz, a wealthy, well-meaning landowner who was perhaps a cousin of her late husband’s family.

Boaz, it seems, is just one of those pay-it-forward kind of people. He’s been moved by Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, and he treats her not only with generosity, but even more remarkably, he offers her tremendous face-to-face respect.

And in that, of course, he sets the tone for how she will be treated by the community at large.

Ruth is the consummate outsider–a childless, destitute woman of another ethnic tradition. By contrast, Boaz is the consummate insider: a figure of great respect, a man, wealthy, in the prime of life, and religiously observant.

A cynic might say that in going to him on the threshing room floor, then, Ruth has nothing to lose, while Boaz has everything to lose—and perhaps that’s true.

On the other hand, the difference in their power abides with them in the darkness of that night, and come the morning, had Boaz decided to act as if nothing had happened—and simply ignored Ruth—well, there would have been no court of appeals for Ruth to turn to.

If by chance she became pregnant, the minute she began to show, they would have run her straight out of town for good.

Ruth would have known that all too well. And so it is brave that she goes.

Why does she?

She goes because in a world where so often, power and privilege come with the right to tell the story the way it suits the powerful few, Ruth is bold enough, loyal enough, and caring enough to imagine a different story.

As someone who gave up the protections of her own tribe to come to be with a foreign people and to see herself under the watchful eye of a foreign god, Ruth is uniquely well-positioned to see some things about tribes.

Specifically, she sees with remarkable clarity that tribes and their customs—their stories, their roles and responsibilities—offer a measure protection and predictability in a confusing world. Thank God they do.

But Ruth also sees that those roles can prove confining, and that all stories have their limitations, and that being one of the privileged insiders means coming to see the world in a certain way…and feeling free to ignore the people and the situations that don’t fit into that worldview.

Now, there is more to Boaz than that. She sees that.

But she also knows that despite whatever chemistry there is between them, if she sits out on the front porch waiting for Boaz to show up with a dozen roses, she will be waiting a long time.

Boaz does not seem to know any stories like that. He does not seem to see the world that quite that way.

In a deeper sense, that’s just it: Boaz cannot wholly know just how his own lenses have shaped how he has come to see the world.

And so Ruth dreams of a new prescription, a different kind of story, not only for herself, but for Boaz, and Naomi, and for all of them.

So often, we speak of faith as a kind of patience – as a way of enduring with hope that things will be made right in God’s time.

Some of religion’s toughest critics have called faith an “illusion” or the “opiate of the masses,” precisely because it can so easily be misused as a way to keep things safe, tidy, and predictable—which is the way that all tribes like the world to be.

But this morning’s Scripture reminds us that, sometimes, God’s time is now.

At its best, our faith is a constant reminder that the world we see is not all the world there is, and that the path toward human wholeness is a path of engagement and encounter.

Whatever our stories may be, all Creation is part of God’s story – and that the role God has asked us to play is a role far greater, and far richer, than the expectations of any human tribe.

God’s love is unfailing and unchanging. But at its heart lies the promise of new possibilities for all of us.

You and I know that over the last few weeks, the world had reverted to many of its own – our own – most destructive and most tribal impulses.

In the last few days, the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has raised over a quarter of a quarter of a million dollars on the Internet. Sad to say, this is not a reflection of our nation’s commitment to due process – the comments left by visitors on the website are, frankly, a cesspool of every conceivable prejudice, and their glee is unmistakable.

Never has our need to imagine and work for new stories, and a broader understanding of fairness, been more urgent.

Sometimes, I worry that the only thing white Americans actually like about living in a pluralistic society are Mexican food and jazz music.

And if, from time to time, it so happens that we inhabit the same space, even so, let’s not pretend for a moment that we live in the same world.

Except that, as faith reminds us, we do.

We live in God’s world.

And if our tribes tell us how it is that we might coexist, and get along enough to live side by side, God’s word points to something much harder and more profound: it says that we are to learn how to live together.

We are to learn how to be part of one another’s stories, and to seek a new prescription for the lenses of our tribes.

That’s what Ruth did. In a world where people would have been all too ready to label her a shameless gold-digger, she was brave enough to act as Boaz’s one true love, and to rewrite their stories.

What can you and I do to rewrite the stories of who we are and what we owe our neighbors?

How can we come to see the things our own lenses may distort or even hide?

These are the questions of Ruth, and Ferguson, and even the Heathen School in nearby Cornwall—the questions of every era of American history, and every community. Port Chester and Stamford, Bridgeport and Greenwich.

Let’s ask those questions with hope and humility, remembering that it was the Congregationalists of Connecticut who, two hundred years ago, built a school for boys from all over the world, hoping to share the saving love of Jesus Christ.

And let’s remember that it was other Congregationalists of Connecticut who burned that school to the ground.

But let’s ask the questions.

And may the story of Ruth and Boaz remind us that new answers and new stories are always possible, if only we find the courage to help write them.

Amen.