Scripture - Jeremiah 29:10-14
Jeremiah 29:10-14, New Revised Standard Version
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
As I was preparing to write the sermon for this week, I took a quick scan through my files to see when the last time I preached from this passage - and March 15th, 2020 came up...the last in-person service we had before the world shut down. We were in the middle of a series based on the book God Unbound by Elaine Heath and were starting to do some beautiful deep work together about the tradition behind our tradition, about how understand the story of our lives in light of the story of God’s work in Christ and in the world, and the whole book is about using wisdom from the book of Galatians to invite the church to follow the Holy Spirit's leadership beyond buildings and programs to join what Jesus is doing in the world.
And then….the pandemic started. Everything got tossed up into the air, out the window, and there was little solid ground on which to stand.
That Sunday was one of the rare times when I trashed the sermon I had written in favor of something different - and this scripture passage was the one I felt led to share.
So to see it come up again today as the basis of our congregation’s Stewardship campaign - A Future with Hope - made me think about the incredible journey we’ve been on together over the past 20 months with the pandemic...and even longer with our discernment about our denominational relationship...and the challenging work we’ve done for over two years.
Because it has been tough - we've all been impacted by loss, isolation, disorientation, wanting and yearning for the familiar. There are emotional and psychological wounds that many of us have experienced over the past 18 months and that we continue to carry because of the upheaval in our lives and because some of what we held as sacred and certain we could no longer cling to in the same way. With things as mundane as being able to go to the grocery store and get toilet paper - when the staples we rely on aren’t on the shelves - flour...carrots...all unpredictable...and how that connects in with our greater supply chain issues. Or how housing prices have skyrocketed, making it difficult for people who are working hard to afford homes and apartments and leading to greater instability and insecurity. Most of us had our basic needs threatened at some point over these nearly two years - physiological needs for rest and shelter and access to food...safety needs like health and emotional well-being or financial security...love and belonging needs as we isolated from one another. That’s a lot for us as a people to carry...certainly a lot for us as individuals...and we’ve been carrying it for so long to a greater or lesser extent that this disorienting experience is going to leave its mark on who we are for a long time...nevermind the fact that we’ve had almost 770 thousand deaths in the United States related to COVID and the amount or grief we as a people are carrying. Also nevermind that during this time we saw threats to our democracy and extreme racial tension.
And that’s where we enter into our Old Testament text - from the prophet Jeremiah, which might seem a little bit counterintuitive for us this morning as we think about Stewardship and celebrating lofty goals and new beginnings of this Community Church….but if we think about our story - the journey we’ve walked, the challenges we’ve faced, the disorientation and wilderness wandering and having to piece life back together after it’s been torn apart - it’s not a new story. It’s a story we see right here in the scripture passage - Jeremiah is speaking these words to the Jewish people after they had been wrenched from their homes and forced into exile by the Babylonians. They were living in a strange land with strange people with strange customs. Their whole sense of who they were as a people had been shattered. They couldn’t worship God in the Temple. Life as they knew it would never be the same. Their world had utterly changed. They missed their former life, they desperately wanted to go back to what was familiar and “normal” -- I don’t know about you, but that desire really resonates...especially navigating those early days of the pandemic.
Jeremiah, however, tells the Israelites -- cautions them, in fact -- not to end the exile too early, not to rush back to “normal” life without learning the lessons that emerge when one adjusts to new things. Jeremiah tells them to ground themselves in Babylon, to root themselves there - I want to read for you now the portion of scripture that immediately precedes this passage, from the same chapter, starting in verse 4:
4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
Jeremiah says, yes, things are going to be tough - for a long time. Anyone who promises you a different outcome, is giving you false hope and is stringing you along. What God wants for you is to live here. Grow here. Build here. Plant gardens here. Marry and have babies here. Seek this community’s peace and welfare - there are things to learn here...there are things to do here. And I will be with you - and I know the plans I have for you - for your flourishing and your prospering and to give you a future with hope.
But that future with hope starts in doing the hard work of building life in a strange and foreign place.
Building life in a strange and foreign place - isn’t that what we all saw at the beginning of the pandemic? People singing across alleys in neighborhoods. People making lunches for kids because they knew that with school closed, the kids would be hungry. People looking to support local businesses because they knew the challenge of staying afloat. Even the earth and wildlife reasserting itself in cleaner air and greener spaces as we paused and looked toward building meaningful connections with each other to help us get through.
The pandemic revealed so many lessons for us about building a just and equitable society - some of which we’re still trying to learn. We learned about health and wellbeing, checking in with each other, about how to work together and how we need each other and the deep ways that physically being able to gather together is part of what it means to be human.
And we - as the Chebeague Community Church - did that work so well. The church has played a huge part in keeping this community moving forward during the pandemic - all while we took a huge leap of faith in stepping out into a new future apart from the United Methodist Church. We stepped up to be a network of support for this community - whether that was through tangible needs like food or meals or a fiscal home for on-island testing and vaccination clinics or whether that was through meeting needs for support and encouragement through writing cards and gathering for worship or in smaller groups for prayer and honest sharing. We held sacred space for people to share and process everything from how to respond to racial injustice and continued divisions in our country and how do I navigate my friends and family who believe differently from me and how are we going to heal from this collective trauma we’ve experienced -- the church has been the place where those conversations and wrestlings and wonderings have happened. What a gift to have a place where we can share in this way with one another -- and what a gift that we can appreciate together - as we see how faithful God has been with us and the blessing we experienced even in the midst of this disorienting time...and how faithful God will be. And as we continue to emerge from this phase of the pandemic and we can be a place of hope and healing for all of us as we find ways to bear witness to the pain and challenge of this time, as we address the mental health crisis the pandemic has revealed, and as we begin, with God’s help, to put the pieces back together again.
Even in the midst of crisis, God says to us, “I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
We were sent out in exile - and have come back in reunion - and again and again we come back in homecoming to this place to be sent out into the world to be a people of hope and healing.
That’s what this stewardship campaign aims to do - to help us continue to be a place of hope and healing for this island and beyond - as we dedicate a portion of what God has placed at our disposal for God’s use through the church, pledging our gifts for next year.
You all have a pledge card - and on one side there is financial information, and that is important for us as well. We do rely on financial gifts from this island for our operational expenses - for our programs, for staff, for things like heat and lights and insurance and property taxes. Nearly all of the money we use to operate the church on a day-to-day basis is from individual givers - not from grants or investments.
The other side...is blank. That’s because it’s going to be where we write what other gifts we want to give to God. Maybe you’re being led to offer 2 hours per week in service to the church. Maybe you’re being led to dedicate some time to knitting some prayer shawls. Or calling people in the hospital on behalf of the church. Or spending more time learning about the Bible with others in the church. Or collecting items to help refugees enjoy their first Maine winter. Or organizing a mission trip or service opportunity.
So while one side is for our financial gifts to give to the church next year -- the other side is for what else we want to lift up for God’s use in the coming year.
I’m going to give you a few minutes to fill out the card - and when you fill it out, you can come forward and place it in the basket up front here. For those of you who are here digitally, you can either take a picture of the card and email it to the church, message it to me, or you can mail it back to us. We’ll end with a prayer, dedicating all our gifts for God’s use in the world.
[couple minutes for folks to write those things - place in basket - prayer at end]
Because a Future with Hope isn’t just built with dollars and cents. But with Prayer. Study. Worship. Advocacy. Mission. Children. Teaching. Gardens. Potlucks. Prayer Shawls and Prayer Flags. Art. Poetry. Music. Helping. Caring. Sharing. A Future with Hope is built by creating a shared life....by creating a home base from which we do mission in the world...by creating and holding sacred space together.
Let us pray.
Gracious and Generous God, over and over, we become scattered and separated. Over and over, like a good shepherd, you find us and bring us home. For all the togetherness you’ve granted us at the Chebeague Community Church, thank you. For the gift of faith that gets us through times of separation, thank you. For prayer shawls, our food pantry, our book studies, our times of worship, for encouraging messages and places of connection, for Zoom - we give you thanks. In your generosity and grace, O God, use these gifts we commit to you for the building up of this church...for the building up of this community, so that you might make our separations easier, our homecomings even more joyful, and that we might have a future with hope, built on your great love for all of us. Amen.
Scripture - Philippians 2:1-11; Mark 6:7-13, 30-31
Mark 6:7-13, 30-31
7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is the second week of our Stewardship Campaign - A Future with Hope. Last week we explored what the word Stewardship means - and how we as participants in God’s economy both give and receive - much like breathing, like the very name of God YHWH - what we give out into the world is received as blessing and abundance, just as that blessing and abundance returns to us. We talked about how all that we have and all that we are has its source and origin in God, and stewardship is the management of the resources God has placed at our disposal, and the question sometimes isn’t so much about how much we give to God - because it’s all God’s - but how much do we keep for ourselves?
And we’re having this conversation in the context of one of the most tumultuous periods in human history - where the pandemic continues to impact the lives of millions around the globe, even as we’ve moved out of the challenging period where we were physically separated from one another...and where we face a crisis of catastrophic proportions that affects every human living on this planet, and that is climate devastation. In the Stewardship letter the church sent out almost two weeks ago, we referenced the rhythm of exile and return - of separation and dispersing and reunion and gathering. We’ll explore that rhythm more deeply next week during Giving Sunday and how hope is the thread that weaves it all together.
But this morning I want to explore two passages that evoke this rhythm of exile and return, but include a very important third component that is essential to the nature of the church and is essential in how we understand ourselves as disciples and how we understand the ways we participate in the ministries of this church.
Have you ever been sent out on assignment? Perhaps you’ve worked a job where this was a normal part of a company’s practice - I remember my first job was as a teller for People’s Heritage Bank, and I was mostly stationed at the branch on Forest Ave by the Burger King and Oakhurst Dairy. But from time to time, I was sent out to fill in at the branch further down Forest, or the branch on Congress, depending on who was out sick or what the needs were for the day. It was a job that I could do wherever they sent me, even if the customers were different or the branch was different. I had the skills and was equipped for the work that needed to be done. Or those who have done mission work can also connect with the idea of being “sent” - and I know that there have been many from this congregation and this island who have been sent to Guatemala from this church to work alongside others providing medical care to the vulnerable populations living in the mountains.
In the church, we understand that part of the life of faith isn’t just for our own personal growth and well-being. We’re also a sent people - the word in the church is “commissioned” - we are a people commissioned for ministry; we move out into the world, sent by God, to be a people of hope and healing.
It makes me think of that line from Blues Brothers, where Dan Akryod’s character famously says, “We’re on a mission from God.” As Christians, that’s true wherever we are.
To help us think about this some more, and to connect it back with the language of exile and return that is framing our Stewardship season, I’m going to start with our Philippians passage, with what some scholars believe is one of the earliest hymns to Christ. Paul, the author of this letter, refers to God’s self-emptying love and the choice to be incarnated - born, embodied - as a human being. The word in verse 7 that gets translated as “emptying” is “kenosis” - and it’s a word that comes with it the image of pouring out. In essence, this is a story of exile - a self-exile that God experienced in the person and body of Jesus.
Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Jesus, though divine, denied the privilege that his divinity gave him - saving himself from the cross, healing only the rich and powerful, using his Godhood to curry favor with the empire - Jesus did none of that. God in Jesus became human - exiled from the fullness of divine power - for the sake of radical solidarity and love of humankind. God entered into the reality of human experience in an entirely new way, for the sake of relationship and love. This exile was for the purpose of reconciling all of humanity - all of creation - into God’s own being - a path that let to resurrection and exaltation - a reunion with God not just for Jesus, but for each and every one of us. The Incarnation - the self-emptying love of God in Jesus Christ - brought us into a new unity and experience of life with God. The semantics get a little strange if you think about the Trinity and God sending a part of God’s own self into the world in Jesus and yet Jesus still being fully God and fully human, but the important part for our reflection this morning is while we can understand this on the one hand as a kind of exile that Jesus undertook for our sake, we can also understand it as God’s sending forth - God going out into the universe as a human to demonstrate the extent of divine love and desire for connection with us as part of God’s created world.
God is a sending God - even so far as sending Jesus into the world - to bring -- and to be -- hope and healing for all humanity.
Our Mark passage points more directly at this notion as Jesus commissions the twelve disciples to do the work of proclaiming the kingdom, inviting people to repentance, and healing others. He gives instructions as to what they are to do, what they are to take with them -- even what to do if a village isn’t receptive to them or to the message they have. He gathers them together, sends them out, and then they come back around him to share their experience, to talk about what they did - and to take a rest from their labors before heading back out into the world. Jesus sends his disciples out - separating them from him - for a purpose - and then there’s reunion and rest before the work continues.
I think Sunday worship functions similarly -- it’s the time when the disparate community comes together after having lived out in the mission field for a week - it’s the time when we remember who we are as God’s people...and whose we are -- a time to remember our grounding in God, the source that gives us life, energy, hope, that gives our life together purpose. All that we do is at God’s direction -- on the one hand, it is for us ...but it’s for us so that we can be a sent people, being a people of hope and healing wherever we find ourselves - at home, in our corner of the island, at our jobs, on the ferry or in the grocery store, in our conversations with friends and family. It’s all-encompassing. It all ties in with our life of faith - all goes back to the fact that we are making choices how to allocate the time, energy, resources, funds that God places before us. If we understand ourselves as a sent people - a people on a mission from God to be hope and light in the dark places, to be present to those who are suffering and in pain, to be witnesses of a love greater than we can fathom - we learn how to live more fully by God’s invitation, to align ourselves more fully with God’s purposes, to see everything around us as part of what God has placed under our care.
As a people commissioned for everyday ministry in the world - as people who are sent by God’s blessing - we grow in how we give of ourselves and what we have to this larger picture of God’s kingdom of hope and peace - not just here on this island, but wherever we are...and around the world.
Next week is Giving Sunday - we’ll consecrate our pledge of financial gifts for 2022 together next week...and I want to invite you to spend some time in prayer around this. God of course wants us to be able to have a shelter, to eat, to use these resources to sustain ourselves and our households...and I want to acknowledge that there are lots of ways to give back to the church - but I’m going to challenge you this week to think about being a person sent by the church on God’s mission of hope and healing. And to consider if that changes the way you spend your money this week. Are you using the money that you are responsible for in a way that builds up God’s purposes in the world? What would you change about the way you related to your finances if you could bring them into greater alignment with how God might want you to manage them? Are you sending your money out into the world - through this church or in other ways - to bless others? Where may God be inviting you to grow as you step out in faith to make a commitment to the work of this Community Church - this church that we worked so hard to bring about?
God loved humankind so much that God sent God’s own self to come experience life as one of us to bring hope and healing and wholeness to all of us. Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim this message of grace and new life in the abundance of God’s love.
As we leave this place as a sent people, may we go forth knowing that we live as God’s people, whether we are gathered here in this place for worship, whether we are separate from each other during the week - and that we live as witnesses to God’s great love in all that we do, and may we return again together having been blessed by the richness of God’s abundance of grace and love. May we do this all so that we can grow with generous hearts in our living and in our giving of ourselves to Christ’s work in the world - for the sake of this island and for our world. Amen.
Scripture - Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, The Message
6 1-2 This is the commandment, the rules and regulations, that God, your God, commanded me to teach you to live out in the land you’re about to cross into to possess. This is so that you’ll live in deep reverence before God lifelong, observing all his rules and regulations that I’m commanding you, you and your children and your grandchildren, living good long lives.
3 Listen obediently, Israel. Do what you’re told so that you’ll have a good life, a life of abundance and bounty, just as God promised, in a land abounding in milk and honey.
4 Attention, Israel!
God, our God! God the one and only!
5 Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!
6-9 Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
We’re in the beginning of our stewardship season here at the Chebeague Community Church - like many congregations do during this time of year. We set aside a few weeks at the end of the year to pause and give thanks for God’s faithfulness, to consider what God might be inviting us or challenging us to give to the church in the coming year, and to celebrate generosity. Many churches do it at this time of year because it lines up with the fiscal calendar, and receiving pledges or estimates of giving for 2022 helps with making budgetary decisions. It connects up with the themes of gratitude and thanksgiving - which are on everyone’s minds as so many people make gratitude an intentional practice for each day in November and as we celebrate Thanksgiving Day here in the United States.
But why do churches and congregations call it “Stewardship?” Why not call it a pledge campaign? Or a future giving campaign?
If you look the word stewardship up in the dictionary - I used Webster’s - you’ll find this definition: stewardship is the “conducting, supervising, or managing of something, especially : the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.”
In a Stewardship campaign in a church, we’re taking the time to consider how we as people of faith, manage resources. Money, to be sure, but also time and energy and talents. But the key thing to remember in the word stewardship is not just the word “manage” - but the ownership of the things we are managing. To whom do our resources ultimately belong?
As part of a life of faith, we understand that all of who we are, all that we are giving, everything that makes us has its source and beginning in God. Our money? Not really ours, but God’s. Time and energy? God’s. Talents? God’s. We have been entrusted with these things, to manage and supervise as God invites and directs.
And so in this Stewardship season we do talk about money and resources and stuff so that we can come into a greater alignment with God’s purposes for us and for our relationship with the world around us, including the resources we have at our fingertips.
We see this kind of relationship pointed to in our passage from this morning, a portion of the Hebrew Bible that begins with the “Shema” - a commandment that is translated into English as “hear”. The Shema is “4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” or as we heard it this morning, “4 Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only! 5 Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!”
The command stated that the people should inscribe these words on their hearts, put them on their doorposts, teach them to their children, talk about them all the time - first thing in the morning and last thing at bedtime, out in the streets, in the home, on your hands and foreheads - that this was the one most central thing - that they are to love God with all of who they are because this God made them who they are - this God who brought them out of Egypt, who fashioned them into a people, who was about to give them a Promised Land long hoped for and dreamed for - this God who was the source of their being and the grounding for everything, whose name YHWH - spelled in the Hebrew as Y H W H - is literally like the sound of breath. Normally the name Y H W H is not pronounced; over time, people have added vowels so we hear it as Yahweh or Jehovah - but Rabbi Arthur Waskow invites to experiment to pronounce the word YHWH as it is with no vowels - and what you get is the sound of breath moving out - the movement of air.
Rabbi Waskow writes, “For me, YHWH as Breath of Life is not just a neat understanding of the four-letter Name, but a profound metaphor and theology of God. God as the Breath of Life, in-and-out breath, that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us. Words are physical breathing shaped by our intellectual consciousness into emotional communication...What we do when we pray or study Torah or share words of compassion is breathe our selves into the Breath of Life….Prayer is aimed at what unites each separate breath into a unity of breathing, a con-spiracy of life. The process by which what we breathe out the trees breathe in; what the trees breathe out we breathe in.”
He goes on to share an interpretive translation, that says [read from commentary]
What the Shema does for the Israelites - as well as the command to literally surround themselves with its words -- and what it invites for us today, is to consider that place that we have in the grand scheme of things, where we are part of God’s great economy in such a way as what we exhale becomes part of another beings inhale - that the crunch of leaves beneath our feet helps turn them into soil - that our every action ripples out into the world to be received by others - plant, animal, down to the smallest phytoplankton. God suffuses our being, suffuses creation - all that we have has its origin and source in God - and praise God that we are brought into that beautiful cycle of life and death and life again, and that out of that wonderful dance we can love the Lord of God with all our heart, our mind, our soul, our strength, with every fiber of our being down to the very mitochondria within our cells.
Since we are God’s down to the very depths of our being...all that we have has its source in God...and we lift up our selves, our resources, our energies, our talents, our gifts for God’s use in the world. We love God with all of who we are and all that is at our disposal.
That’s not just a personal or emotional or abstract or emotional love - something that we experience individually - but one that is embodied and collective. The Hebrew word that gets translated as soul is “nefesh” - breath...life-breath...throat...something that lives in the body - something that is the passage for nourishment and life...something that calls out and cries out...something that inhales and exhales. It’s a commandment that isn’t just about our own personal connection with the divine, but how that gets lived out in all of what we do - our thoughts, our emotions, our responses, our actions - the decisions we make about how to prioritize our lives, the consequences of how we interact with our neighbors, how we choose to move and carry ourselves in the world, and how we relate to our possessions, our gifts, our talents, our treasure.
So the question as we think about stewardship isn’t just about how much we give to God. It’s not about reaching a benchmark and dusting our hands off because we’ve made it. It’s not about obligation or checking a box. Because it’s all God’s to begin with. The question is - how much do we keep for ourselves?
We are part of God’s economy - one of abundance - that there is more than enough for every living creature - what one gives as unneeded waste becomes necessary sustenance for life for another. What gets decomposed one season is fertile ground for next year’s seed. What we receive in our wealth - not just money, but giftedness, worthiness, belovedness - we pass on in hope to bless and grow goodness, kindness, peace, justice, love -- God’s kindom -- all around us.
We do so at God’s invitation -- in a reflection of the rhythm of creation all around us.
I’ve been using resources from enfleshed lately to prepare our worship gatherings, and these words were from the Invitation to the Offering, and I find them to work well as the conclusion for this sermon:
“Today we can be like the trees, we can be like the phytoplankton, we can be like the mushrooms on the forest floor: we can take what we have been given and offer abundance back to the community of living things….for in our interdependence, we have life.”
As we enter this Stewardship Season let us remember that YHWH - the Breath of Life - gives us life...and that life flows through us and through all that we have to bless the world. Let us be attentive to the ways that we are invited to breathe in harmony with all of creation - to be stewards of all that God has charged us with - using them to be Christ’s body for this island and for the worth - through this congregation at the Holy Spirit’s leading. Amen.
Scripture - Ruth 1:1-18; Mark 12:28-34
Ruth 1:1-18, New Revised Standard Version
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 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, 13 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.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
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!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Mark 12:28-34, New Revised Standard Version
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
I love the pairing of these two passages together - and I think they work so well to talk about All Saint’s Day - and I think it’s neat that we’re talking about saints on Halloween, where kids - and maybe adults - get to dress up as somebody different. A lot of times we dress up as people or characters we admire or want to emulate. With kids it’s a chance to be a hero for a night - or something or somebody really special. There’s a magic about taking on a different persona, even if it’s just for an evening.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really have any heroes. If you were to ask 10-year old me, “Melissa, who is your hero?” I’d shrug and have no idea what to tell you. I didn’t look up to any athletes -- which in retrospect might have been a good thing. I didn’t admire comic book characters or Disney princesses -- again, that might have been a good thing. The stories of famous men and women I might have found inspiring, but again, I wouldn’t have called any of them my heroes. Maybe it was because all those people were so distant and untouchable, and I didn’t connect their stories to my own life.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that I do, in fact, have heroes, but they aren’t famous or athletic and they aren’t made up in some fantasy tale. My heroes are the people who have shown me what it means to live life well - grandmothers and grandfathers, parents, old church ladies and children, community organizers and farmers and authors and friends. Some of these heroes are no longer with us...many of them are. Many of these people I know well...and some of them I have never met. Each, however, has had an impact on my life - how I live out my faith or has given me a glimpse of the person that I want to become. Sometimes that relationship lasted over years, and sometimes it was only for a season.
We in the church have a special word for these kind of heroes -- saints. Saints nowadays typically refer to those who have passed on before us, but in the early church -- every follower of Christ was considered a saint -- and if you read the New Testament, the letters are full of references to “the saints” - “the saints in Jerusalem” or “the saints living at Lydda” or as we find here in our reading from Ephesians - “The gifts he gave were...to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
The saints -- are the body of Christ. Every Christian is a saint...and every Christian is called to be a saint. And every one of us has people who has acted like a saint for us (Christian or not) at different times of our lives - whether that person was an author whose writing impacted you in a profound way and changed your perspective on something, whether that person was a community member you admired and wanted to emulate, whether that person was a family member who always took time for you, or whether that person was a dear friend who walked with you in a difficult season of your life.
We talked about the story of Ruth earlier this summer, when we did our summer worship series on asking questions for transformative community - exploring the final question “where do we go from here?” We explored how committed Ruth was to her mother-in-law Naomi, so much so that she left her homeland, her people, her religion - everything - to be with her. What we don’t often realize, though, in this story is that Naomi has lost everything as well - her husband, her two sons - and while Ruth is young enough to reestablish herself, she chooses Naomi, and stays by her side - and is a reminder to Naomi that she is not alone, that she is worth companioning, that she is worthy even in a culture that would have deemed her worthless because of her circumstances.
There’s a beauty in the relationship between these two women that is life-saving - for both of them. It is the very embodiment of what Jesus is talking about in the Mark passage - “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The church is called to be this kind of community for people. To be a community of saints - not ultra perfect in our piety, not distant and shiny, but down-in-the-dirt, I-go-where-you-go, your-pain-is-my-pain, life-is-messy-and-beautiful kind of saints. The kind of community where when life and death is on the line - metaphorically and literally - we know who we can count on - we count on Christ as Christ shows up in each other in those moments of hardship, in those moments of joy and beauty, in those moments of tender grief, in those moments of fierce love.
I love this quote from Alok Vaid-Menon, who is a gender non-conforming author and performance artist. They shared these words about the world they envision about how people can relate to one another:
i want a world where friendship is appreciated as a form of romance. i want a world where when people ask if we are seeing anyone we can list the names of all our best friends and no one will bat an eyelid. i want monuments and holidays and certificates and ceremonies to commemorate friendship. i want a world that doesn’t require us to be in a sexual/romantic partnership to be seen as mature (let alone complete). i want a movement that fights for all forms of relationships, not just the sexual ones. i want thousands of songs and movies and poems about the intimacy between friends. i want a world where our worth isn’t linked to our desirability, our security to our monogamy, our family to our biology.
To me, this is a beautiful vision of what the church can be - of what the saints can be - of who we can be together and how we can live out Jesus’s invitation to love God with all of who we are and to love our neighbor in the same way. To be that kind of community bound together - as we look for how Christ was embodied to us in the saints of the old - and in the saints of the not-so-old -- as we look for how Christ is embodied for us in the here and now -- and as we look for how Christ will be embodied for generations yet to come. (Spoiler alert...we get to do that - we’re the saints that our children will one day speak of).
We’ll have an opportunity to name those saints in our Communion Liturgy later - but I invite us to take the time to bring to mind a person - or persons - who were saints to you. Perhaps they are from your childhood, or maybe a mentor later in life, or someone who you wish could be that voice of wisdom for you now...maybe someone who represented joy and perseverance or resilience and peace. Bring those folks to mind….and hold them in your heart as we light these candles of comfort and compassion.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.