Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon: “Who’s Carrying You?” (Matthew 20: 1-16)

Our Scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and it may be helpful to know that it’s part of a longer section in Matthew of the things Jesus taught his disciples as they are traveling toward Jerusalem for what will be Jesus’ final, culminating ministry there.

The cross is not all that far away.

Now, of course, the disciples don’t know that. But Jesus must, at least on some level.

A few verses beyond our reading for today, he will ask the sons of Zebedee, who are two of his most loyal disciples, if they can drink the cup that he is to drink…and then he will instruct all of them that whosoever would be great among them will be a servant.

And so there is a quality of final instructions to the teaching he is offering. There is a lot more teaching to come, of course, but this seems more designed for the men and women who have followed him most closely—it is, to some degree, the advanced training…the train-the-trainers kind of teaching that will equip them to carry on the work of spreading the Gospel even after Jesus is gone.

Whether the disciples see that coming or whether they do not, Jesus wants to make sure that they are as ready as he can get them.

And so he tells this strange story of a householder with a vineyard, who keeps hiring more and more day laborers, beginning before dawn but continuing right through happy hour.

It’s almost like the householder keeps driving through the center of town in his pickup truck, and whenever he sees more guys standing around on the same corner, he tells them to hop in the back and that he’ll zip them out to his vineyard to help for the day.

The interesting part comes when it’s finally quitting time, and the whole crew lines up to be paid.

What emerges is that the dawn crew, which has been hard at it for a full day, somehow decides that, if the last to arrive are going to get a full day’s wage…well, that must mean that everyone’s getting a raise.

Have you ever opened a pay envelope and seen a number there that was lower than the one you were hoping for?

Because that’s what happens—not that the first crew had had its hopes up for very long.

But it doesn’t take long, does it?

It doesn’t take long for that hope and delight to surge within us, and once it does, even if it’s only for a second, then coming back down to earth can be a real crash.

One of the most cruel things I ever experienced was listening on my car radio to an afternoon DJ hold a call-in contest for a “100 Grand.”

And when the winning caller was put on the line, they told him congratulations, that he’d won “A 100 Grand” and asked him what he was going to do with it.

He was in tears, overwhelmed and thrilled in the moment. “Oh man,” he said, “you don’t understand….I have this crummy old truck and all this back rent….”

And I’ll spare you the details, but just tell you that the joke was, of course, on him.

The “100 Grand” they were giving away was a “100 Grand” candy bar. So much for that new truck…..

And I can’t tell you what the man said, but I will tell you that it wasn’t “Ha ha ha, I guess you got me. Good one.”

Like most of us, it didn’t take him long to go from delight and gratitude for a wonderful gift and into feeling resentful and angry at being cheated.

If you think about it, that’s what Jesus is getting at in this morning’s parable.

Because nobody is being cheated. Everyone is receiving a fair day’s wage, and they’re all willing to work it, and they get paid the agreed amount at the agreed time.

It’s just that….those guys? They’re making out like bandits here, and I was schlepping around in the noonday sun….and…hey….

I think it’s that “hey” that Jesus is most interested in.

It’s that “hey” that makes this a parable about our spiritual lives.

And I think Jesus is interested in that “hey” because he knows that soon enough, he will be gone. (At least in human form, anyway….)

And he because of that, he’s taking a look at these people around him, these regular human people whom he loves and knows so well.

He knows that very soon, they will be the ones to carry the work forward.

And what’s going to happen then?

Are they really ready to be the church? Ready to carry the Gospel….ready to carry the cross?

Or have they gotten so used to being carried by Jesus that they’ve forgotten the part about carrying others until they, too, can stand for themselves?

Those are big questions.

But in a funny way, so often, acting on our faith…being God’s people out in the world…comes down to tiny moments—things that happen in a flash.

Little moments when the big questions and our grand intentions touch down, and the wheels either get some traction and move forward, or they just keep spinning.

And that’s what it means to say that it’s that moment when we say “hey” that Jesus is most interested in.

Because it’s a moment like that, when we were suddenly hoping for a little extra and don’t get it that fairness becomes personal for us.

I don’t know about you, but there are times for me in this phase of my life when Liz will come home, and I’ve had a long day that I want to talk about, and you know, she walks in the door and puts her bag down, and takes off her Principal shoes with the heels, and she smiles, and I’m like (MG: big breath in)….and right at that moment, the girls tear into the room, shouting and grabbing at her and wanting her to come look at something or go draw with chalk in the driveway even though it’s raining…and I’m like “O.k., well sweetie, I guess I’ll see you….”

And it’s a moment like that when love and marriage and family become personal for me in a whole new way.

Because it’s in moments like those that I have the choice, right? The choice about how I will respond.

And so much of the challenge of discipleship is in how we decide to respond, and about the work we do on ourselves to respond in the moment in one of the ways Jesus would have us do.

When the grand aspirations of our faith become personal—those are the hardest times. And maybe also the holiest ones.

When it’s not really about loving our neighbors, but more about loving the guy who trims the tree on your side of the property line without asking.

Or when it’s about walking the second mile with someone who is still too caught up in his or her own situation to notice just how far you’ve gone above and beyond, much less to thank you for it.

When fairness means that maybe someone else got a little better than they deserved, while you received no more than you deserved.

Moments like these show what it really is for us to be followers of Jesus.

And these are the moments when our lives speak – preach – to all who will listen.

It’s true, of course, that so often, we cannot help how we feel.

But with God’s help, and in God’s time, we can come to feel differently, and to see our lives in connection with the lives of so many others.

The world can, in the best sense, become something we take personally.

And with God’s help, we can learn to see life in terms of the generosity of the giver who gives all things, and to rejoice that in God’s vineyard all are invited to toil and to receive.

Amen.

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.

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.

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.