Sunday, October 20

2 Samuel 5:1-5 

Honest souls wrestle with biblical texts. This is especially true as we carefully make our way through the Hebrew Scriptures. Violence fills many of these pages, making lots of their stories NSFFG (not suitable for flannelgraph). So we never heard them in Sunday school, nor, tellingly, in our lectionary readings. 

Our Scripture this week in 2 Samuel describes the fruition and fulfillment of God’s work and promise, but ugly, violent stories surround these texts, begging the question, “How is all this horrible stuff happening right beside all of the holy stuff?” The chapters before David’s anointing in chapter 5 would make the Godfather blush. Yet, in the midst of this mess, the Scripture writers, and the community that has held onto these stories, invite us to see God at work. Can we? Let’s try.

In today’s reading, David is anointed (v. 3). This is only a reaffirmation for David and those of us reading along; we remember that he was anointed as a shepherd boy. He has carried this identity long before it is outwardly confirmed. David has a long journey to make before being inaugurated, a long journey that is made in the midst of intense political calculation and injustice, involving paranoia and hiding, killing and dealmaking, compromise and more killing. Yet, even as he navigates all of this, David faithfully trusts in something higher and holy. 

Day by day, we seek to live more fully into our kingdom callings within the messy imperfections of a fallen world. But even in the midst of all that we must navigate, we too can trust in something holy. 

Consider

What makes being a disciple a “messy” process for you these days? What glimpses of the holy do you see along your way? 

Pray

God, help us stay faithful to your call to follow. When life is most challenging, may your light guide us to stay the course. Amen.

Saturday, October 19

Mark 3:31-35

In P. D. Eastman’s beloved children’s book Are You My Mother? a tiny bird hatches out of his shell while his mother is away from her nest. The story follows the plucky hatchling’s search for his mother and his identity. Predictably, this search takes him to all the wrong places. 

Twice, Mark opens a section of his Gospel with the comment that Jesus returns home to Capernaum, where he is met by multitudes (2:1; 3:19-21). The crowds are so great and the stories so astonishing that Jesus’ family comes to pull him away from the ruckus, fearing for his sanity. When his family can’t get to him, the multitude informs Jesus: Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you (v. 32). Jesus scandalizes the crowd by responding: Who are my mother and my brothers? (v. 33) Perhaps this validates his family’s worst fears: Jesus doesn’t know who he is. He’s lost his mind. 

But this interaction becomes a teaching moment. Jesus turns to the crowd, saying: Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (v. 35). Jesus redefines our identity in terms of our relationship to God, his Father, and turns the expectations of his world and ours completely upside down. Jesus is establishing a new family for his followers, a new identity in which they are brothers and sisters with him in the family of God. Jesus knows who he is. He is his Father’s son. Jesus, and only Jesus, is truly and fully whole. We are the confused ones, not who God intends us to be. Until, like the bird in Eastman’s story, Jesus gathers us as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Mt 23:37b). Then we become more truly and deeply ourselves, doing the will of God, who is our Father.

Consider

What does being a brother or sister to Jesus mean to you? Does the phrase “brothers and sisters in Christ” mean that same thing? 

Pray

Creator God, we confess that we don’t always want to be brothers and sisters to everyone around us. We want to be first, favored, privileged. Forgive us and gather us all to your breast. Amen.

Friday, October 18

Ruth 1:22

For millions, Jerusalem is the center of the world. This is the city David built, for which the Jews mourned in exile. Jesus prayed and wept over Jerusalem. The prophet Ezekiel reimagined this city as the place where God’s divine glory would be displayed among the nations (Ezek 47). Yet in spite of this, the little village of Bethlehem could make its own legitimate claim to be the true center of the world. In the humble, hidden ways of God, the lives of four women who were ancestors of Jesus point to Bethlehem as the place where all of our stories find their center.

Matthew’s Gospel lists Ruth, Tamar (Gen 38), Rahab (Josh 2) and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) among forty-two generations of Jesus’ ancestors. Including women in this recorded genealogy of Israel’s Messiah was unheard of, and including these women was stunning. Ruth the Moabite, Rahab the Canaanite, Bathsheba the Hittite, and perhaps Tamar, are not Jews. Ruth, Tamar, and Bathsheba are widows with unusual relationships with their children’s fathers. Rahab is a prostitute. How do these women connect us all to Bethlehem? 

They prepare us for the irregularity of Jesus’ birth and the scandalous inclusiveness of Jesus’ message. These unlikely women, their children, and their stories lead us to the stories of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the magi who make their way to meet Jesus in Bethlehem. Jesus is born outside the norm. He lived among Gentiles in Egypt and probably worked alongside Gentiles at Sepphoris, the new Roman city near Nazareth. 

Ultimately, Jesus welcomes outcasts, touches untouchables, invites children into his arms, and leads sinners to his table. Irregulars, outsiders, and outcasts fully share in God’s redemptive plan. While we await the New Jerusalem, we celebrate God’s hidden glory, which shines from Bethlehem upon all us irregulars.

Consider

Why does God love and use so many who are considered outsiders?

Pray

God, thank you for loving, forgiving, and including us all. Amen.

Thursday, October 17

Ruth 1:19-21

A decade can go by in a blink, and ten years can feel like a lifetime. For Naomi and her former neighbors, ten years must seem like the latter. When the women last saw Naomi, she was a wife with young sons. Now she is widowed, childless, and returning with her Moabite daughter-in-law. Moabites were particularly despised enemies of the Israelites. Their women were accused of seducing Israelite men into Baal worship, representing sins against God as well as the community. 

Age, loss, and life in a foreign land have changed Elimelech’s widow. “Could this be Naomi?” the women ask. She responds, “Naomi means pleasant. Don’t call me that. Call me Mara, my name is Bitter.” She explains, The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me and has brought calamity upon me (vv. 20-21). 

Naomi continues, “YHWH has brought me back empty… YHWH has dealt harshly with me” (v. 21). In a world where wealth and sons are signs of God’s favor, why has Naomi suffered such losses? The book of Ruth provides no answer to that question.

As Katherine Doob Sakenfeld notes, in Ruth, “God does not have a speaking role.” People talk about and pray to God, but God is silent. The silence of God is what’s so difficult for us to understand. Why did Naomi suffer so? Why the Crucifixion? Why the Holocaust? Nevertheless, God is not completely hidden. We read that “YHWH had considered his people and given them food” (1:6). And in the end, YHWH made the barren Moabite Ruth “conceive, and she bore a son” (4:13). God’s action may not satisfy our fevered questions, but when seen through eyes of faith, God’s action assures us that God sees and hears our anguish. 

Consider

Where were you ten years ago? Are you where you expected to be by now? Where will you be in the next ten? Will friends and family recognize you? 

Pray

Risen Lord, Lamb of God, you know the bitterness of God’s silence. Be with us in our darkest nights. Hold us close until dawn comes at last. Amen.

Wednesday, October 16

Ruth 1:15-18

What are the conversations like in Naomi’s household as resources and hopes dwindle? What do they say as they consider leaving Moab? What’s discussed when the jungle looms before them? At Naomi’s second urging, Orpah changes her mind, kisses Naomi goodbye, and trudges back up the path into Moab. After watching her go, Ruth stands her ground, and makes a vow: Do not press me to leave you…Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (v. 16). When we hear this vow in wedding ceremonies many don’t realize it was first made by a non-Israelite daughter-in-law to her husband’s mother. 

The relationships between mothers and daughters-in-law are almost universally regarded as difficult. In some cultures, a daughter-in-law is in actual servitude to her husband’s mother until the older woman’s death. It’s reasonable to believe that Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law is highly unusual. 

Probably all of us have made some type of vow—intentional or not. I won’t ever do that to my children! When I grow up I’ll never treat them like my parents treated me. As Daniel Bagby once pointed out, our lives may be shaped by vows we’re not even aware of having made. A boy who heard his father teased about driving an old car vowed to himself that he would never be embarrassed by his automobile. He becomes an adult who keeps trading cars because he’s never satisfied with the one he has.

Ruth makes an utterly unexpected vow of loyalty to Naomi, Naomi’s people, and Naomi’s God. What a risky commitment she makes. But what a difference it makes as well.

Consider

To whom or what are you most loyal? What vows, spoken or unspoken, control your life? What vow do you still need to make?

Pray

God, help us believe that our first loyalty should be to you. Help us in the hard work of being faithful. May our trust in you deepen as we live in such a way that others want to know the God we serve. Amen.

Tuesday, October 15

Ruth 1:10-14

Naomi has set her face to the west. She is going home to Bethlehem, widowed and childless after more than a decade in a foreign land. She has no idea whether she will be welcomed or rejected. The road home is a footpath through the jungle-filled wilderness of the Jordan River Valley. Stopping on the path, she pleads with her daughters-in-law, repeating the words, Turn back, my daughters, and voicing her belief that the hand of the Lord has turned against me (vv. 11-13).

Naomi has no future in Moab. With no family to supply husbands for her daughters-in-law, she is the end of her line and at the end of her rope. While the future for Orpah and Ruth is bleak, it is not hopeless. They have families to return to in Moab. Yet they have a decision to make, too. Surprisingly, both Orpah and Ruth want to go with their mother-in-law. 

What about Naomi makes them cling to her despite her destitution? What about their past experiences make them reluctant to go back home? Scripture makes no judgment on Orpah’s decision to return. For a moment this family holds one another, caught between the graveyard behind them and the jungle before them. 

At some point in our lives, and maybe more than once, we come to a place where we lament with Naomi, the Lord has turned against me. We, too, are caught between a graveyard and a jungle. Like Naomi, we must leave our losses in Moab. We must set our face toward the jungle and walk through it one step at a time. As it turns out, Naomi’s story will be a prelude to the story of Jesus’ birth. Because we know that story, we can trust that God is still working to redeem us, and our world. 

Consider

When in your life have you walked through the jungle? How has God been at work in subtle or hidden ways?

Pray

God, we are so often afraid. Help us continue to walk in faith even when the path is tangled and hard to see. Amen.

Monday, October 14

Ruth 1:6-9

Three figures huddle on a narrow footpath, indistinguishable in their robes and veils. Scant provisions and meager belongings lie in bundles at their feet. Behind them is the dusty village that was once their home. Before them is a jungle-filled valley. Naomi, the eldest, is leaving her losses in Moab and heading home to Judah. The younger women, Orpah and Ruth, must decide whether their futures lie west, in a Judean exile, or east, with their people and the traditions they know. Childless and homeless, they weep at this silent crossroads of their lives. 

Go back each of you to your mother’s house, Naomi urges. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me (v. 8). This Judean widow, facing a long and dangerous journey, releases her daughters-in-law from any further obligation to her.

The Hebrew word hesed translates as “kindness” or “kindly,” and describes that extraordinary behavior that includes loyalty, faithfulness, and loving kindness. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld describes three characteristics of hesed. First, this action taken on someone’s behalf is essential for their survival or well-being. Second, only the one who takes this action is in a position to save the person. Finally, hesed takes place only within the context of a positive relationship. Naomi does all she can for her beloved daughters-in-law, then commits them to the hesed of God. 

The central characters in this book each display hesed and present the intersection of God’s provision with human action. What if Naomi had not released her daughters-in-law to make their own decisions? What if Ruth had not insisted on making her home with Naomi? What if Boaz had been disinclined to welcome a barren widowed foreigner into his community and later his home?

Consider

When have you been the recipient of hesed? When have you extended hesed to someone else? How is God’s providence dependent upon our hesed?

Pray

Merciful God, open our eyes to the opportunities to participate in your provision for others. May we demonstrate hesed to them. Amen.

Sunday, October 13

Ruth 1:1-5

When viewed from outer space, the earth has a deep gash running from the foot of Mount Hermon on the Lebanese-Syrian border into the Dead Sea. This gash is the Jordan River Valley. Three millennia ago, this valley was an extension of the Syrian-African Rift Valley with its thick and wild jungle. It lays between the drought- and famine-stricken hill country around Bethlehem and the fertile mesas of Moab. When Elimelech immigrates to Moab, he takes his wife and two sons through this valley in hopes of a better future on the other side. Years later when Naomi returns to her homeland, she faces the jungle as an aging woman without a husband, sons, or any hopes for a better future.

The book of Ruth is a historical drama set during the era of the judges, when Baal worship and shrine prostitutes occupied the Promised Land. Israel’s twelve tribes fight their indigenous neighbors and their tribal kinsmen with increasing and often unreasoning brutality. In contrast, Ruth’s setting among the landowners and peasants of Bethlehem conjures scenes of nature’s bounty, pastoral beauty, and civic order. Ruth is a love story that still sparkles after three thousand years. The central characters are quietly heroic and gently romantic.

But Ruth isn’t found in the Hebrew Bible for its literary or dramatic value. The book considers the relationship between God’s providence and human action as characters respond to natural disaster, death, destitution, and despair. Ruth describes a short but significant episode in the long story of God’s redemption. God transforms a woman from the kingdom of one of Israel’s most ferocious enemies into Jesus’ ancestor. As people who hear news of destruction and loss on a daily basis, we need to hear the promise of this ancient love story.

Consider

In what ways have you seen God at work in the aftermath of a disaster?

Pray

God, we are surrounded by loss. Our devices scream with news about disasters, destruction, and death. Help us trust that you are with us. Strengthen us to be faithful witnesses to your gracious mercy and steadfast love. Amen.

Saturday, October 12

Mark 12:28-31

As Jesus travels with his disciples, he frequently finds himself confronted by opponents who want to argue or trick him into a
sound-byte he’ll regret. 

But after a brief dispute with the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in personal resurrection, a scribe appears to ask Jesus a life-sized question that does seem rooted in sincerity: Which commandment is the first of all? In response, Jesus quotes the Shema that we’ve been reading this week: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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 (vv. 29-30).

 Not only was this the Israelites’ most notable law; it was also their most notable prayer. They offered it each morning and evening. If possible, this becomes the final prayer a Jewish person will offer before they die. 

What might happen if our greatest law became our greatest prayer? We might understand that the commandments God gives us are not mere prohibitions, but pathways to a relationship with the One who envisions a community we have yet to fully see. Imagine praying with the guidelines God offers that could make our worship more intimate, our relationship with God more devoted, our interactions with our neighbors increasingly kind. 

We pray to the one God who is sufficient, strong enough to help us in everything we have to face. When God’s rules become our prayer, our living grows more inspired. 

Consider

What do you find yourself praying throughout the day?

Pray

God who gives us all that we need, teach us that it’s to whom we pray that makes all the difference. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Friday, October 11

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

I heard about a preacher who asked, “Are you listening?” throughout his sermons. I’ve never done that. What if no one answered? If that happened, move to the benediction as soon as possible.

Hear, O Israel is more a command than a question (v. 4). The Deuteronomy writer is calling Israel to attention. This phrase indicates that the Holy One wants the undivided focus of the hearers. With these emphatic words, I picture the people snapping to attention.

What does God want listeners to hear? First, they need to know who God is. The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (v. 4). This is no wimpy God shuffling around at the edges of our lives. This God demands to be heard and to be central in our stories and experiences. What we can’t do is turn God into one among many that we revere, paying our respects once in a while then going about our own business. 

No, Deuteronomy tells us, You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (v. 5). In other words, when we say, “I do,” to this God, we love God with all that we are. This is not a marriage of temporary convenience. It is a commitment of our whole selves to God for our whole lives. 

When we love God in this way, the community that surrounds us will feel the impact. We will think about God when we are awake and when we go to asleep. We will tell our children and our friends about this First Love of ours. God tells us to keep reminders around to help us remember our most essential relationship. Hear, O Israel are not just ancient words directed at others, but words that include us, the new Israel, as the people of God. 

Consider

J.B. Phillips entitled a book, Your God Is Too Small. When are you tempted to treat God as smaller than God is?

Pray

God, we adore you. You are beyond our understanding, but your immense love and grace are wide and near enough to hold our heaviest challenges, burdens, pasts, and futures. We are grateful. Amen.