Thursday, August 30, 2012

Doing Compassion

James 1:17-27

            The oldest manuscripts (for instance the Muratorian Fragment from 170 A.D.) that we have of the scriptures do not include the Letter of James in its contents.  Martin Luther has famously called James the "Epistle of Straw," evoking the image that it blows away in the wind when it is examined too closely.  And honestly, it is light on what actually makes the gospel, gospel.  It makes a couple of passing mentions of Jesus.  And it runs counter to the message we hear from the Apostle Paul, "For by grace your have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that none may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9)  No, instead we hear in the Letter of James, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:17)  So James, poor maligned James what are we to do with you?

            It would seem by some reasons, you should not be included in our Bibles.  But then why is it that Bible after Bible that buy or receive from parents, teachers and pastors have this "book" named James after Hebrews and right before 1 Peter?  Why has this book remained in our canon, the contents of our Bibles?  I could be cynical and say it only because some long dead men declared that it should be, but I truly do believe that would only be a discounting of how the Holy Spirit guided the Bible to become the book it has become.  It's here for a reason.  It's scripture for us because it has something very important to say about our life of Faith.  It's hear to say that the Word of God has come into the world to dwell richly within in us and call us to a life lived out in tremendous displays of compassion.  The Word of God dwells within us to move us into ever greater acts of love and sacrifice. 

            I want to take a moment and talk about a word that I just used – compassion.  Compassion is a word that has taken a few hits in recent years.  It has been weakened to refer mostly to the pity we might have for someone who's having a tough time in life.  We think of compassion today, and we think about someone who has had a really bad and we say, "There, there.  Everything is going to be alright."  More over, in recent years we've even had the development of the term "Compassionate Conservative" which describes a fiscally conservative person who cares for people in their plights.  Yet the response to people's plights too often in recent years has been, "I'm doing this thing that may hurt you, because it will be good for the whole and even you in the long run."  And that's fine.  The voice that says, "How do we help people change rather than enable behaviors?" is a good one in the political sphere.  Yet, when we begin to talk about who our God is and what our God does in this world, we have to be willing to delve deeper into what this word "compassion" means to God.

            Compassion means much more than feeling deeply sorry for someone else and their plight.  We can actually get deeper into what compassion means to our God when we look at the word's counterpart in the German language, Mitleid.  In German, that literally means with-suffering.  As the theologian Douglas John Hall writes in his book The Cross in Our Context, "To feel compassion, deeply and sincerely, is to overcome the subject/object division. it is to suffer with the other."  How do I know that that is what God means when compassion is used to describe God?  It is because, when I look upon that cross from which Jesus hung, I see that God has made the ultimate, grace-filled decision to come down from heaven and be with the creatures and creation that God has made in the midst of all of our pain, all of our suffering, even in all of our death.  Our God is compassionate because our God comes to where we are, in our suffering.  And then God lifts us up into new life, never abandoning us.

            The wonderful gift that the Letter of James gives each and every one of us is that it describes how this new life that we have in Christ must be a reflection of the compassion that our God has shown us.  Does James describe the pure perfect Christian life as one where church is never missed on Sundays, where only best clothes are worn, where you put on display to everyone else how good of a person you have been from day to day?  NO! In fact, the Letter of James expressly warns against that kind of behavior!  No, instead James paints a picture of the life of faith as one where we have true compassion for those who suffer – that we suffer with them.  Being a "doer of the word," means being someone who loves, cares, and stands with the other, because our God loves, cares, and stands with us.

            You might ask, "But Pastor are we also not to worry about how purely we are living?  Aren't we not to be stained by the world?"  Well, I say to you if an unstained life means that you care first and only for the purity of your morals, then you misunderstand what James is saying about the purity of religion.  Being unstained by the world means constantly remembering who you are as a person that God has done tremendous things for.  "Unstained" is not permission to distance yourself from the messiness of the world we live in.  "Unstained" keeping that identity that God loved you so much that God died on the cross to bring you up out of sorrow, sin and death as you engage and seek to suffer with world around you.  And if you read the Letter of James you will see over and over again that the works that James is calling us to are indeed works of true compassion.  The letter is filled with calls to care for orphans, widows, the poor, and the hungry.

            Will any of these works of true compassion save you?  Absolutely not.  But you have received the tremendous work of God's compassion throughout your whole life.  And I do think that begs the question:  How will you respond to the compassion that God has for you?  You have been made holy by a love that knows no bounds or depths.  God doesn't want our piety and our purity.  God wants us.  God wants us to be people who go forth bearing this good news to whole world, so that others may too see the boundless compassion that God has for the whole of creation.

Ruth: A Story of Life, Loss, and Faith

Ruth: A Story of Life, Loss, and Faith
Summer Pulpit Exchange 2012

            So who here has a brown or browning lawn?  Who here has fields of corn that are beginning to wither up because rain has decided to take a vacation this summer?  Who here is beginning to wonder and worry about what this year is going to bring, or maybe more accurately, not bring?  I know that I have been simply amazed driving to and from La Crosse and seeing all the grass and fields turning brown as if it were preparing for winter.  I heard that this summer nearly 2/3rds of the Midwest is experiencing drought this summer.  This is definitely looking to be a lean year.

            I come to you all this day to present to you all one of my favorite stories of the Bible and say a few words.  Way back in May, I decided on the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.  This story begins with a few words that I think we all can somewhat identify with this summer.  "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land..."  This is what sets the context for our story this morning.  Naomi has found herself in a foreign land, because her husband decided to move to where there was a possibility of food.  Only now, her husband has died.  She is a widow whose sons have even died, and she is only left with two daughters-in-law. 

(read Ruth 1:6-22)

            By all accounts of what we know about Ancient Middle Eastern society, being a widow was hard.  But being a widow who is the mother-in-law of two widows must have been worse.  So not only is Naomi grieving the death or her husband and her two sons, but she is also being faced with the prospect trying to provide for her life and the life of Ruth and Orpah without status and without claim to property.  She in final talk with these daughters-in-law even counts herself amongst the dead.  Naomi feels as if there is no hope for herself, and that's why she even decides to change her name from Pleasant to Bitter.  Naomi literally means pleasant in Hebrew.  Mara literally means bitter.

            Yet in all this bitterness a glimmer of something wonderful begins to shine.  We get to meet Ruth.  We get to meet someone who either loves Naomi so much as a mother or feels a dutiful commitment to her that she cannot turn away and leave her.  Ruth clings to Naomi.  Ruth will not abandon her.  This makes me think.  What are the things we will cling to in our lives?  What would be so important to us that we would never let that go? 

            Whatever the answers to those questions might be, I see something yet still in these opening verses of Ruth's story.  Clinging to Naomi is also clinging to Naomi's God.  A huge part of what Ruth displays is that what is important to her is her faith in God.  She puts total trust of her life in her God, even if her God only seems to deal in bitterness.  But is God only a god of bitterness and sorrow?

             Even though the answer may seem to be yes, based upon our story so far, I'm certain that the answer to that question is indeed, "No."  Ruth and Naomi are on a journey, and that journey is not over yet.
Sing verse 1 of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Read Ruth Chapter 2:1-13

            Who here has ever been so hungry that your only chance for food comes from picking up the leftovers from a field that has just been harvested?  This is such the situation that Naomi and Ruth find themselves in.  Naomi is a widow without place or power.  Naomi can't even have children, so the prospect of re-marrying is off the table for her.  Ruth is also a widow, but she is a foreigner.  The only hope of a meal is literally picking through the leftovers, going through someone else's trash essentially.  Their journey has taken a bitter turn indeed, but Ruth does not waver in her commitment to stand by and care for Naomi. 

            I recently had the pleasure to accompany some youth from the Blair-Taylor area on a Youthworks mission trip.  We went to Heart Butte, Montana.  Now the thing about Heart Butte you must realize is that this small town rests in the middle of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.  If you were only to look around, you would see that life in the town of Heart Butte is not an easy one.  In our time there, the marks of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, addiction, and abuse were easily seen.  Yet, one thing struck me as I reflected on what we were doing there painting houses, cleaning up yards, and working with children in an afternoon Bible school:  We may not have fixed everything for these people once and for all time, but in our service, they at least were able to see that they weren't unloved.  That they weren't forgotten.  That they still somehow mattered.  And when we were helping one particular family, the grandmother said, "Thank you so much for helping.  I don't know if I could ever have begun to do these things.  You all make me feel like I still matter in the world."

            And maybe that's where this story of Ruth and Naomi is going.  Maybe their journey is taking them to a place where they can see that they aren't forgotten and are taken notice of and loved.  And that's the great thing that Boaz does for Ruth and Naomi.  By taking notice of Ruth, Boaz says to her and her beloved mother-in-law, "You are worthy of love and compassion."  In effect, Boaz says to them, "I see you.  I have not forgotten you."

            That is one of the most powerful things that our God does for us.  Our God has indeed made a claim upon us and our lives in our baptisms, and God has said to each and every one of us, "You are mine, and I will not let you go."  Life indeed can take us down some bitter roads.  But we have that promise that God will be by our sides every step of the way.  That doesn't mean that it's all feather pillows and gumdrops for us for the rest of our lives, but it does mean that even in our darkest times our God gives us tremendous hope of new life.  God will be with us on our journey.

Sing verse two of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Read Ruth 3:1-13

            Okay.  Sometimes feet are just feet.  We have come to the part of out story which Ruth and Boaz finally have their midnight encounter.  Could you heavily sexualize what is going on here?  I suppose you could, but I think you would be missing the point of this scene.  This midnight encounter is not in the Bible so it can be more exciting to read.  Rather than call this a tawdry scene full of innuendo,  I see this scene of Ruth coming to Boaz in the middle of the night as a scene of intimate love and affection that goes far beyond sex.  What Ruth does here for Boaz is care and comfort him and show him that she is as committed to him as she is committed to Naomi.

            So often in today's world we can get caught up in only thinking about what we can get out of relationships.  And this certainly goes beyond our romantic relationships.  We want our friends to show us a good time.  We want our friends to help us make more money.   We want our friends to help us advance along our career paths.  We want friends so that they can add something to our lives.  And it seems to me that that is an awfully selfish view of friendship and romantic companionship to only think of the other as a means to an end.  It seems to me that we should spend time considering what we bring to the relationship, how we can make someone else's life better.

            That's what I see Ruth doing here.  I see her finding a way to comfort and care for Boaz in his weariness.  You could make a case that Ruth is scheming with Naomi to get her proverbial slice of the pie, but why does Boaz consider what Ruth does here as loyal service?  Boaz reckons what Ruth does as loyalty, because even with all the other options of young men available to her, Ruth cares and comforts Boaz.  What she does is love and care for another. 

            It seems to me that Ruth's love and care is a reflection of the love and care that our God has for Boaz and has for us.  I think that's what steals Boaz's heart in the end.  He sees God's steadfast love in the face, hands, and feet of Ruth.  Is that not what we should show forth in our lives?  Should we not show forth the steadfast love that God ahs shown us?

Sing verse three of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Read Ruth 4:9-12

            In the end, the story works out.  Naomi and Ruth have been welcomed into a new situation in which they will be loved and cared for.  Even though Boaz uses the traditional language of ownership, he takes Ruth as his wife with heart and eyes wide open happy to love and care for someone who loves and cares for him.  And Ruth and Boaz conceive a Son.  Do you know who that Son is? The son is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, who the Gospels of Matthew and Luke trace Jesus' lineage to.  And that Son, would be the Son who give everything, even his own life, so that the whole world might be redeemed and know the depth of God's love.  You see in the end, this story is a story about faith.  It's a story about what God is up to in the world.  When we see what God is up to, that God is in the business of giving love and forgiveness to the whole, we see that the one who we trust is the one who gives us hope even in the midst of bitterness, sin, and death.  We see that our God has not and will not abandon us.  We are God's own children and there is no power in heaven or on earth or above earth or below earth that can separate us from that love.  Our journey is a journey of faith in the one who gives us life.

            Faith is not simply the unwavering belief that God is going to make everything better in our lives.  Faith is the trust that the one who made us and gave us the breath of life is the one who will love, guard, and guide us even through the bitter twists and turns of life.  Faith is clinging to God even when it might seem easier to turn away forsake the journey.  Faith is something that calls us to love and care for others in our life.  Faith is that life centering trust that no matter what may happen to us, our God loves us and always will us and will bring us into new life, even through our death.

Sing verse four of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"