On learning from the wildflowers

And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, my translation)

In my sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I suggested that when Jesus says do not worry (v. 25), we might quite naturally reply, “okay Jesus, but…how??? How do we not worry?”

And I suggested that this question is perhaps answered (at least in part) by Jesus in v. 28, when he says, consider the lilies. Or—since the word translated “lilies” could also be translated “wildflowers,” and the word often translated “consider” or “see” is really quite a strong word that comes from the same root as “learn” or “disciple”—examine the lilies carefully, or learn thoroughly from them. Jesus says, learn from the wildflowers

I was aiming for a 7-8 minute mini-sermon, so I wasn’t able to go into much detail about what it might actually look like to learn from the wildflowers. But I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too! 

How do we learn thoroughly from the wildflowers—or at least take some steps in that direction? These are some of the things I think about:

  1. Spend time in nature

It’s good for the soul!

In some ways, this is more accessible for some than others. But around the Seattle area, at least, even if it’s hard to find time (or transportation, etc.) to get out to the bigger woods and mountains, there are so many gorgeous local parks. 

I saw an article a few weeks back—in a Seattle-based newspaper or magazine, I forget which one—about beautiful places to visit in South King County. I was both amused and offended that some people responded with the “laughing face” emoji! Their loss. South King County is full of beautiful nature-y places. It may not rival Issaquah or Woodinville as far as forest-to-urban-space ratio goes—but we’ve got our share of parks and walking trails, and they’re lovely.

Anyhow, I realize it’s December and we’re far past peak wildflower season, but I think it’s worth getting out there anyway. Jesus may have chosen wildflowers as an example of a created being that’s short-lived but beautiful—but I wonder if he was just looking around for inspiration and chose what happened to be closest to him as he was speaking: birds and wildflowers. He probably could have picked any number of organisms, some of which we still see in winter. 

Let’s get outdoors this winter and see what we can see. I like (or at least I want to like?) the Scandinavian saying, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This might be more true some places than others. But in the Seattle area, it sounds about right. The weather rarely throws conditions our way that a few layers, a raincoat, an umbrella (to hell with umbrella shame!), and some gloves can’t handle. 

I think our souls need time outdoors—even if it’s a neighborhood walk or a visit to a local park more often than a hardcore hike. Even if I’m mostly just noticing plants in random people’s front yards in Normandy Park (seriously, does everyone garden there?) rather than truly wild wildflowers. There’s something to learn from it all.

  1. Pay attention to indigenous wisdom

What better way to learn from the wildflowers than to learn from the people and communities who have been learning from the wildflowers for years and centuries longer than I have?

I went to an art and holiday gift fair at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center last week (very cool!), and I got to hear quite extensively from a mother-daughter duo who make all sorts of medicines and salves from Devil’s Club. Before that conversation, I had only known Devil’s Club as a “do not touch!” sort of thing. But apparently its roots and stem have healing qualities. 

Talk about learning from the wildflowers. Sometimes we only see one side of something (or someone), but there is so much more to it (or them) than that.

Indigenous communities often have so much wisdom about these things. We are surrounded by plants that might be able to help heal us if we knew where to look and what to do. 

Even beyond the realm of herbal medicine, plants have so much to teach us about, well, pretty much—to borrow a phrase from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—life, the universe, and everything. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out…Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

Plants have been here longer than we have, and they’ve had time to figure things out. I like that. I’d also highly recommend Braiding Sweetgrass in general, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Kimmerer models learning from plants so brilliantly.

  1. Grow plants

Nothing makes me pay attention to plants like growing them does. Whether it’s a hanging basket with some flowers, a railing planter box with a few herbs, or a full-on garden, we learn so much from growing (or at least attempting to grow) plants. 

We learn their names, their seasons, their preferences. We get excited about each new leaf, each new bud that we hope will open into a flower (and maybe even become a fruit). We gain a deeper appreciation for each part of the plant that we get to eat. 

Growing vegetables helps me appreciate where my food comes from, and how long and arduous a process it often is. It has been kind of funny and kind of weird, in the last few weeks, to see sugar pie pumpkins selling for $2 each at the market…after I spent literally 5-7 months growing a handful of them at home. 

Anyhow, I know gardening is more accessible to some than others. But many of us can grow something, even if it’s just a basil plant indoors on the windowsill. And I think it can help us pay attention.

Not a wildflower, but kind of a cool fungus…what might we learn from it?
  1. Appreciate plants for who they are, not just how we might use them

I was walking with a friend in the woods recently (Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, to be precise), and I appreciated that there were various signs along the trail, pointing out different kinds of plants. But I also noticed something about these signs. They were all about what people—mostly settlers, I think, not so much indigenous people—like to use these plants for. I felt the gorgeous alder trees being reduced to cabinetry before my eyes.

I found myself wishing there were also signs about the ecosystem, the interactions among plants and animals, the life cycle of the trees—or something, anything, about the plants around me that didn’t reduce these living beings to the ways humans have used and monetized them.

This may seem at odds with what I was saying about indigenous communities’ knowledge of healing uses for local plants like Devil’s Club. But I think there’s a difference between knowing and appreciating the gifts a plant has to offer, versus only seeing that plant as something to use—and often something to use to make a profit. It’s a different kind of relationship. And I think the difference is important.

I want to learn to appreciate plants for all of who they are, not just how they might be used.

  1. Look to plants as signs of how we’re doing

I recently saw this NPR article about some of the ways in which rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities in South Carolina. 

For one thing, I had no idea that there was a community of descendants of enslaved Africans who have a (badass computer scientist) queen. That’s cool. 

I also learned about ghost forests. Apparently, when sea levels rise and begin to flood into salt marsh areas (a la Where the Crawdads Sing), the salt water slowly kills the trees there, leaving chalky white dead tree skeletons behind. According to the article, this has been happening for a long time, but its pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years. 

Ghost tree forests are kind of alarming. They’re a strikingly visible sign of the damage that has been caused and will continue to be caused by rising sea levels.

And they’re another reason, I think, to learn from the wildflowers—to examine the plants around us and learn carefully from them.

Plants can help us know how we’re doing. If native plants that have thrived in a place for who-knows-how-long are being killed by salt water, or are otherwise not doing well, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s a sign that our relationship with the natural world around us has gone awry. It’s visible evidence of injustices that need to be righted so that we all can thrive—plants, animals, and humans alike. Learn from the wildflowers.

These are some of the things I think about, some of the ways I’m trying to hear Jesus’ words about learning from the wildflowers. It’s all a work in progress, for sure.

What does learn from the wildflowers mean to you? What does it look like in your life, in your community? I’d love to hear!

Who can add a cubit?

And who from among y’all, by worrying, is able to add one cubit to their stature? -Jesus (Matt 6:27, my translation)

Now that I’ve spent a minute reflecting on Jesus’ words about how worry (or at least the bad kind of worry) doesn’t add single hour to anyone’s span of life, I have a small monkey wrench to throw into the whole situation. The original Greek text doesn’t actually directly say anything about lifespans, or about time.

Instead, it uses a word often translated as “stature” or “maturity” (although it also could mean “age”), and a word that means “cubit,” which is a length of measurement around 18 inches. So, what Jesus literally says in Matthew 6:27 is less can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?—and more can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature?

I suggested in my post last week that there are productive kinds of concern, for ourselves and for our communities, that might add something to someone’s life—and that these are the kinds of concerns we want to direct our efforts toward, rather than spinning in circles of unproductive, immobilizing kinds of worry. I suggested asking ourselves, is it adding an hour to someone’s life?

I fully believe all that. And I think can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? is probably a reasonable idiomatic translation of Jesus’ actual words. At the same time, though, I think it’s also interesting to consider what Jesus’ words might imply if we translate them more literally. 

Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature? In this case—assuming we’re talking about adults and not kids—the answer really is a firm “nope.” There are things we can do that might add an hour to someone’s life—but there really isn’t much we can do to add 18 inches to our height. 

Of course, many of us probably wouldn’t want to be a foot and a half taller, anyway. I’m about 5’6”, and I have no particular desire to be 7 feet tall. 

But there are other aspects of who I am that I sometimes wish I could change. 

Jesus’ question about adding a cubit to one’s stature helps me think about these things. There are so many aspects of who we are that we can’t change. Not just height, but other aspects of physical appearance as well. And not just physical appearance, but personality traits, gifts and passions, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, cultural background—just to name a few.

As a swimmer, for example, I might wish I had bigger hands or feet so that I could swim faster, more easily. I don’t exactly want Michael Phelps’ size 14 feet or (totally bonkers) 6’ 7” wingspan—but maybe something a little more in that direction.

Or, as a slightly more serious example, I might wish I thought faster on my feet. Sometimes people associate this ability with intelligence—even though it really implies nothing of the sort.

We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. We all have an interest in some things and a lack of interest in others; preferences for some things over others; natural abilities toward some things, while other things we can perhaps learn over time but with difficulty.

Of course, some of these things are influenced by culture, society, family, upbringing. I’m not trying to say they’re purely genetic. At the same time, many of these childhood influences—the aspects of our surroundings that made us who we are—were out of our control. They’re things we can’t go back and change. They’re built into us, sometimes so surely it feels like they might as well be genetic.

I wonder what life would be like if we really knew that we can’t change the things that are core to who we are. And, really, if we found that we didn’t actually want to change these things.

I think of this quote from Black mental and emotional health advocate Yolo Akili: “Sometimes I wake up and have to remind myself: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. I have patterns to unlearn, new behaviors to embody, and wounds to heal. But there is nothing wrong with the core of me and who I am. I am unlearning generations of harm and remembering love. That takes time.”

I like how Akili puts it. There is nothing wrong with the core of who I am. There is room for growth and change—plenty of it. But there are also things I can’t change, and don’t want to. There is a basic beauty and wondrousness to who I am. As the psalmist puts it in the Hebrew scriptures, I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

I don’t need Michael Phelps’ foot size or wingspan or unusually flexible ankles or any other of his physical characteristics that are uncannily well-attuned to moving quickly through the water. I can just enjoy swimming at whatever speed I’m able to swim at.

And I don’t need to impress people with how fast I can think on my feet. I can learn to appreciate that one of the gifts I bring to a group is a slower-paced thoughtfulness, wanting to consider as much information and as many angles as possible before weighing in with an opinion or making a decision. (For more on this, I liked Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)

We can’t add a cubit to our height—and maybe we weren’t meant to. Maybe we weren’t meant to be taller or shorter, or more extraverted or introverted, or louder or quieter, or more quick-thinking or deliberative, or bolder or gentler, or more planning-oriented or spontaneous, or different in any other way from the way we are. Maybe we’re meant to be exactly as we are.

And our communities, whether or not they know it, need us to be exactly who we are. Our strengths fill in for one another’s weaknesses, and our communities need all of the different gifts each person brings.

We might not always be who others want us to be, or what they project onto us, or what they expect from us. We can’t please everybody. We are always “too [insert adjective here]” for somebody.

But in the end, as Jesus says, all our worries about these things can’t add a cubit to our height. We can learn to be considerate of others and attentive to our impact on a community, while also staying true to the core of who we are. We can, to borrow Akili’s words, unlearn the patterns we need to unlearn, embody the new behaviors we want to embody, and move toward healing the wounds we need to heal. And we can do all of this—maybe we can only do all of this—while knowing that there is nothing wrong with us. 

Like the birds and the wildflowers that Jesus goes on to talk about in the next couple of verses, we too have been created wonderfully and beautifully. We are unable to change—and, at our best, we are uninterested in changing—the way we were made to be.

Does this resonate? Hit a nerve? Do you wish you were a cubit taller, or had size 14 feet? Feel free to drop a note!

Is it adding an hour?

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? -Jesus (Matt 6:27)

I’m still teasing out all the random thoughts I had while preparing a sermon a couple months ago on Matthew 6:25-34, the passage where Jesus tells people not to worry and such. So, after some speculations about God as our heavenly mother, and some reflections on birds and value and climate change and hierarchies of species, maybe it isn’t terribly surprising that I find myself circling back to, well, worry.

Jesus asks, can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? To which the answer is meant to be, “nope, not really.” Or something like that.

What’s striking to me, though, is what Jesus’ question seems to imply about what worry is, and what worry is not. Or, what some good kinds of worry might be, and some not-so-good kinds. 

I think Jesus’ words about worry not adding a single hour to our span of life can help us understand—a little more clearly, a little more specifically—what he means when he says “do not worry.” Out of all the things we might think Jesus is telling us not to do, what is it that he is actually telling us not to do? 

Here’s one way of answering this question: Jesus is telling us not to engage in the kind of worry-ful activity that does not add a single hour to our span of life—or, I would add, to anyone else’s span of life.

I think there’s a difference between an unhealthy, unhelpful, un-life-giving, spinning-our-wheels kind of worry that doesn’t actually benefit anyone, versus a productive (or at least potentially productive) kind of worry that might actually help someone. This latter kind of worry is the type that might actually contribute to our own wellbeing, or someone else’s wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the community—that is, that might actually add an hour to someone’s life.

This feels important to me because I think it’s possible, for many of us, that we could hear Jesus say “do not worry,” and we walk away thinking, well, then, I’ll just go on my merry way as if there isn’t anything legitimately worrying, terrifying, awful, unjust, or otherwise deeply concerning in our world. As if it’s okay that a white dude can walk into a crowd of protestors, kill two of them, and be acquitted for it. As if it’s okay that a black dude was hours away from being executed for a crime he did not commit. 

(Don’t get me wrong—I’m thankful and relieved that Julius Jones’ death sentence was commuted; at the same time, he never should have been sentenced to death in the first place. And while we’re at it, can we get him out of prison for the crime he didn’t commit, and can we provide some semblance of restitution for the nineteen years he’s been unjustly imprisoned?)

I don’t think Jesus is telling people not to do anything about issues that we find concerning. I don’t think he’s saying “don’t worry about it” in the sense of “everything’s fine,” or “that doesn’t concern you,” or “it’s not your problem.”

Jesus was always concerning himself with other people’s business. He was always eating with people, talking with people, listening to people, paying attention to people no one else paid attention to, calling out leaders on their hypocrisy, touching oppressed people’s lives in healing and liberating ways. I don’t think he wants us to do any differently.

I also don’t think Jesus is telling people not to plan or prepare for the future. This feels important to me as someone who likes to plan—and who sometimes gets the impression that some Christians think things are more holy if they’re spontaneous, as if the Holy Spirit only works on a whim and not also through thoughtful preparation.

When Jesus says “do not worry,” I don’t think he’s necessarily against us making choices, making moves, exercising agency, hustling, working, strategizing, scraping together, making ends meet. These are the kinds of things, after all, that really can perhaps add an hour to someone’s lifespan—ours, or others’ in our communities. 

In a similar vein, I don’t think Jesus is saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. I’m thinking of things like grocery shopping, cooking, supporting local restaurants, exercising, eating healthy foods, resting, playing, doing all the things that make room for us to flourish. These, too, are things that just might add an hour to our lifespans. And that is good.

Worry might be involved in some of these things. We might worry about the fate of a death row prisoner, and so we call or email the governor of Oklahoma to advocate for his sentence to be commuted. We might worry about someone else’s wellbeing, and so we text them or send them a card or bring them something they like to eat. We might worry about our own wellbeing, and so we decide to make a change, like walking more, or having a salad with that frozen pizza (a purely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with what my husband and I ate for dinner tonight). These are all good, productive things. 

Of course, when it comes to the length of a life, there are so many things we have little to no control over. But there are some things that just might add an hour. And there are other things that definitely don’t.

There’s a kind of worry that can motivate us to go and do something good. And there’s a kind of worry that can immobilize us—a kind of worry that does nothing to move toward justice, nothing to concern itself with others’ wellbeing, nothing to prepare for the future, nothing to take care of our own wellbeing. A kind of worry that doesn’t move toward health, wholeness, flourishing—that doesn’t strengthen us or strengthen our communities.

I think Jesus calls us—as much as we’re able, which is different for everyone—to let go of our immobilizing worries, and to take hold of a kind of healthy concern for ourselves and our communities. The kind of concern that moves us to do good. 

I think Jesus invites us to be people on the move—toward justice, peace, honesty, relationship, health, community. And maybe sometimes, by moving in these directions, we just might add an hour to someone’s life.

More valuable, or just different?

This little cutie pie was chillin in our tree a few months back and let me take her picture

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? -Jesus (Matt 6:26, NIV)

I was surprised to find, while reading Matthew 6:26 in its original Greek, that the word translated as “more valuable” (NIV)—or “of more value” (NRSV), or “more important” (NASB)—is one that I was taught simply meant “differ.” We might read Jesus’ question as: Are you not, rather, different from them? 

I thought this was interesting. But I also remembered that there’s also another passage where Jesus says we’re more valuable than many sparrows. I thought, maybe the Greek is more clear in that passage—which might suggest that this one should be translated as it usually is. 

So I looked the other passage up. It’s Matthew 10:31: So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (NIV). It turns out, though, that here too the word translated as “worth more” is the same word used in Matt 6:26—the one that could be translated not as “worth more” or “more valuable” but just as “different.” 

Same thing with the similar stuff Jesus says in Matt 12:12 (How much more valuable is a person than a sheep?), Luke 12:7 (Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows), and Luke 12:24 (And how much more valuable are you than birds?). It’s all the same Greek word.

I’m not saying there aren’t potentially some good reasons to translate this word as “more valuable.” But does seem interesting that it could be just “different.”

I think about the idea that humans are “more valuable” than birds or sheep or other creatures, and I wonder if it plays into the global climate crisis we’re in—that is, into the damaging mindset that has gotten us here. I wonder if it isn’t terribly helpful to keep thinking of the world as a hierarchy of species, where humans are more valuable than other creatures—to keep thinking of humans as if we are separate from the rest of the created world, as if we are better, as if we are free to do whatever we want without considering its impact on other species and on the land.

Yes, humans are valuable. And so are birds. And so are wildflowers, and so is every other aspect of the natural world that surrounds us. And the reality is that we are all dependent on one another. We all flourish together, or none of us flourishes. 

Humans are different from birds; we are different from every other species, just as each of these species is different from one another. But we aren’t part of a special privileged class of species that isn’t affected by the earth’s sickness. We are affected—especially the materially poor among us, and especially communities of color.

I think about the biblical creation story. I used to think God only declared creation “very good” after God made humans (Gen 1:31), which meant that humans were especially awesome. Now I see that when God declared creation “very good,” God wasn’t just talking about humans. God was speaking of the whole world and all its beings as a collective whole—not just humans, but also plants, animals, sun, moon, stars, water, land. A unified, interconnected, interdependent whole. This is what was—and is—“very good” indeed.

God is the creator and the good caretaker of the birds, and the waters, and the plants, and the humans—of all God has made. All of these creations are gloriously unique, each different from the other. Does one have to be called “more valuable” than another?

Each species has different needs, different gifts, different challenges, different kinds of goodness and beauty to offer. God sees and honors all of it. God feeds the birds and God feeds the humans, in the different ways we need to be fed, the different things we hunger for.

Certainly humans have different needs from those of the birds. But is one better, or worse? Worth more, or less? It seems like a bit of a human impulse to label things in this way—and perhaps especially the impulse of a certain kind of human who has lost a sense of connection with the natural world.

But we are not disconnected from the natural world. Living as if we were has brought us to the precipice of a terrifying new era of natural disaster. There may still be ways to walk back from this precipice—but we’ll need to make some deep changes to our ways of thinking, our ways of being, our ways of relating.

Maybe we can start with rethinking the hierarchies we’ve created among species. We can learn to see humans as an interdependent part of the natural world, not separate from or better than the rest of it. We can learn to see ourselves as different from birds, but not necessarily more valuable.

And maybe, in so doing, we can learn to see the God who loves and longs to take care of us all—of the whole “very good” creation God has made.

Y’all’s heavenly…mother?

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. -Jesus (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)

Or, in my translation: “Y’all, look at the birds of heaven, because they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and y’all’s heavenly father feeds them.”

The “birds of heaven” thing might sound weird. But the word usually translated as “air” when it comes to the “birds of the air” is very closely related to the word translated as “heavenly” when it comes to God, the heavenly father. 

So I’m not sure which is weirder: writing “birds of heaven,” or translating the same word two different ways within the same sentence.

Alternatively, since this word for “air” or “heaven” could also be translated as “sky,” perhaps we’re talking about the “birds of the sky” (makes sense)…and God the “sky father” (atypical of Christian language). I’ll just leave that there. 

Anyhow, since we’re talking about God our heavenly (or sky?) father, let’s talk about what this father God does, according to Jesus: God is the one who feeds the birds. 

As Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, he wants his listeners to know that they have a God who pays attention to the birds, a God who takes care of the birds—and, to be specific, a God who provides food for these birds.

I think it’s interesting to think about God as one who feeds. 

The God of the Bible has both masculine and feminine aspects—or something like that. It’s clear, at least, that both male and female humans were made in God’s image (Gen 1:27). 

But when you try to get into any sort of specifics about what those masculine and feminine aspects might be, it starts to get kind of dicey, kind of fast. It’s hard to talk specifics without wandering haplessly into the realm of gender essentialism—the idea that men always have one set of characteristics and women always have another. I’m not about that. 

So I guess I’m not really into descriptions of God that try to specify which aspects of God, exactly, are more masculine, and which are more feminine. I think the concepts of masculine and feminine are culturally determined; they’re defined very differently by different communities in different places and times.

At the same time, I recognize that, in most times and places and cultures, the work of food preparation—of cooking and serving food to families and communities—has tended to fall primarily to women. I think about this, when I think about God feeding the birds.

It strikes me that, while Jesus does use the word “father” to refer to God, really, his point is not particularly to masculinize God. His point is to put words to the kind of parent/child relationship he has with God: Jesus is a child of God, family of God, kin of God. Jesus is as intimately connected with God as a child to a parent. 

I don’t mind picturing God as an awesome (heavenly) father figure who loves to cook up meals of seeds and worms and such—generously offering food for his family, the birds, to eat.

On the other hand, I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jesus that the women in his world were usually the ones responsible for meal prep. Could God, then, be a (heavenly) mother figure just as much as a heavenly father—cooking up delicious meals for her family, the birds, to enjoy?

I feel like this adds some texture to the image—a different angle, and a little more fullness. We can picture God as an awesome (heavenly) mother figure who loves to provide nourishing meals for her (avian) family. God is doing “women’s work” here; why not imagine God as feminine? 

I wonder what insights, thoughts, or feelings this kind of image might evoke. How might it help us relate more fully, more wholeheartedly, to the fullness of who God is? How might it change our view of the God who is Jesus’ heavenly parent, and ours—of the one who takes care of the birds, the one Jesus invites us to trust for our own care and nourishment?

I wonder how spiritual life is different when we remember that God is as feminine as God is masculine. I wonder what this might mean for women—and for people of all genders, and for churches as a whole. Maybe we’d picture God differently; maybe we’d picture God a little more fully.

Thoughts? Feelings? Accusations of heresy? I’d love to hear!

Worry can be good?

When I was studying Matthew 6:25-34 to preach on it (see the post below for the full passage…and mini-sermon), I looked up the Greek word translated as “worry.” I wanted to see where else this word is used in the New Testament. I was surprised to find that it can be used in a positive way.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens church communities to human bodies, full of different parts that all function together as one complete, hopefully-healthy organism. At one point, while fleshing out (pun intended) this metaphor, Paul writes, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor 12:24-25, NIV). 

The word translated as “concern” in this passage is the same word translated as “worry” in Matthew 6. That last part of 1 Cor 12:25, literally translated, could read something like this: “the parts should be the same worried on behalf of one another”—or, slightly more natural-sounding, “the parts should be equally worried for one another.” Paul wants the different parts of body—that is, the unique and diverse set of humans who make up the faith community—to be worried about one another.

In another of his letters, Paul writes—this time to the Phillippian faith community—that he hopes to send Timothy their way soon for an encouraging visit. And Paul wants them to know that Timothy is hella dope (as the kids these days might say). He says of Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (Phil 2:20). 

As you may have guessed, this word translated as “concern” here is also the same one that means “worry.” Timothy worries about the Philippian Christians’ welfare. And Paul considers this a praiseworthy thing.

It’s easy to say that worry is bad, that people of faith should not have worry in our lives. If we trusted God more, we wouldn’t worry.

At the same time, though, as people of faith, our first—maybe only?—job is to love God and love people. We want to love others, to care about one another as humans, to be concerned for one another. And when we care about one another, sometimes we worry about one another’s wellbeing. I think that’s all okay. That’s all good. 

When we hear Jesus say, then, in Matthew 6:25, “do not worry,” it seems important to remember that the sentence doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just say “do not worry,” period, with no context around the instruction. Rather, he goes on to say, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” 

It isn’t a general, across-the-board, “worry is bad; let’s get rid of it.” Jesus doesn’t guilt-trip worriers—which would really just give them another thing to worry about: that all their worry isn’t pleasing to God.

Instead, I think, God offers a hope of redirecting our worries. God offers a hope of being part of communities where all our needs are provided for, because we’re all sharing what we have with one another as we’re able. 

Perhaps if we were all equally worried for one another (as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 12)—or if we all had as much genuine worry for one another’s welfare as Timothy did for the Philippians (from Phil 2:20)—then, truly, none of us would need to worry about our own clothing, or food, or where these things will come from. These things would be provided for in the context of a community full of mutual concern.

Maybe worry isn’t always bad. Maybe worry can be good—when we’re worried on behalf of one another, looking out for one another in community, sharing our concerns and our joys with one another, genuinely caring for one another. 

Have you seen worry be a good thing? Other thoughts or quibbles? Holler in the comments!

Learn from the wildflowers: a mini-sermon on Matthew 6:25-34

Wildflowers from last week’s trip to Maine.

Thankful for the opportunity to give another short sermon at Lake B a couple weeks ago. I’m always glad to have opportunities to preach – but really I’m mostly grateful to have been pushed to think a lot about this text.

Matthew 6:25-34 was actually one of the texts that I came up with as part of a group brainstorming session around a sermon series on uncertainty. I wanted to hear someone wrestle with Jesus’ words. How dare Jesus tell people not to worry – in the midst of all the brutality and poverty and Roman occupation and violence of their day? And what might this passage possibly have to say to us, in our own time of brutality and mind-blowing wealth inequality and oppressive governments and violence?

I wanted to hear someone wrestle with it – but I didn’t really want that person to be me. But here we are!

Thankfully, this is another one of those group sermons in which three people reflect on the same passage. I’m so glad to have Michelle Lang-Raymond and Paul Kim as awesome partners in the conversation. Check out the service here, if you like; the three sermons start around 19:49.

Anyhow, here’s the text, and then the sermon. Feel free to holler with all your worries – okay, fine, maybe all your thoughts about worry? – in the comments. (I also had so many random thoughts while studying this passage that I’ll probably be posting more reflections on it over the next few weeks, so…you’ve been warned.)

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 

28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” -Jesus (Matt 6:25-34, NRSV)

Jesus says, “do not worry.” Awesome! I hear that, and I immediately stop worrying about all the things I’m worried about. I’m done with worry, forever. Sermon over.

Just kidding. For most of us, I think, it’s not that easy. But this is how scripture passages like ours this morning in Matthew 6 can come across, sometimes. 

There’s a more recent-ish name for this sort of thing: toxic positivity. When people say things like, “don’t worry”; “don’t be so negative”; “think happy thoughts”; “look on the bright side”; “everything happens for a reason”; or, my favorite, “well, it could be worse…”

People call this toxic positivity because these kinds of statements tend not to be actually helpful for people who are going through difficult things. Life is difficult, and many of us have real worries – worries that don’t just magically go away if someone tells us not to worry. Even if that someone is Jesus.

So, if Jesus isn’t just dispensing toxic positivity here, what is he doing? How is this scripture good news?

I think part of the answer involves whom these words are for. 

Jesus’ words here are part of his Sermon on the Mount. Just a few moments earlier, in this sermon, Jesus said, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Matt 6:19-21).

And then, right before our “do not worry” passage, Jesus says, “you can’t serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).

Jesus isn’t just saying “don’t worry” in general. He’s speaking to a particular kind of worry, here: worry about not having enough material stuff. What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?

He’s speaking about material stuff, and he’s speaking to a particular group of people: people who have enough stuff that it’s easy to want to store it all up, to want to gain more and more of it so they can stockpile the extra – storing up treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy.

I don’t think Jesus is speaking here to people who are struggling to pay rent or utilities bills, or to buy groceries. He isn’t telling these people “just don’t worry!” – at least not without also doing something to take care of their needs. 

I think Jesus is mostly speaking here to those who have plenty, but who still worry. As we tend to do. After all, everything in our society is geared toward this kind of continued, ongoing, chronic worry. Everything in the systems we live in tells us: Don’t be content with what you have. You need more. Look, that person has more. Don’t you want what they have? Keep working longer and harder to get more. Don’t complain or question the system. Keep storing, keep stockpiling. Keep accumulating. Never be content.

This is the fuel our society runs on. And it’s also killing us.

When people who have bought into this system take a step back, and begin to follow Jesus into a life not so focused on storing up material stuff, these people are freed to live bigger, fuller, more interesting and beautiful lives. As Jesus says, life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 

It’s not only that, though. The other thing that also happens, when people who have more than enough learn not to worry and stockpile, is that their extra resources are freed up. Their resources are no longer hoarded for themselves alone but are freed up to be shared with their community. 

And, in this way, the whole community begins to find that their needs are met. The whole community begins to find that – in reality, not just in a toxic positivity kind of way – no one needs to worry about not having enough material stuff.

All this not worrying, of course, is easier said than done. How do we make this transition, from stockpiling for ourselves to sharing generously with others? This can apply to anything we have, really – whether that’s money, food, or clothing, or gifts, skills, or insights, or a listening ear, or whatever it may be. Everyone has something to offer.

How do we learn to live in this not-worrying, interconnected, generously sharing, giving and receiving, mutually thriving kind of way? 

Jesus says, look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field – lilies, which could also be translated as wildflowers. 

Living beings like birds and wildflowers are exactly the kinds of things we tend to ignore when we’re focused on striving to build up wealth beyond what we need. Birds and wildflowers are the kinds of things we tend to overlook and undervalue while we’re busy running around in circles on the capitalist hamster wheel. 

Jesus sees the birds and the wildflowers, and he invites us to see them, too. 

When Jesus says “consider the lilies,” or “see the lilies,” in our translations, that’s actually a pretty strong word in the Greek. It could be translated as “examine carefully,” “observe well,” or “learn thoroughly.” Jesus says: Examine the wildflowers carefully. Learn thoroughly from them. 

Jesus invites us to consider: what might these wildflowers have to teach us – the ones who don’t toil or spin and yet are clothed so beautifully? What can we learn about value? About trust? About connectedness with the living beings around us? About worth, and worthiness? About beauty? What can we learn about growth? About how to live as part of the natural world? About how to live sustainably?

Spending time in nature often tends to bring a sense of peace – reminding us of beauty and wonder, of a world bigger than our worries. I think Jesus knows this as he invites us to consider the birds and the wildflowers. 

And I think Jesus also means to redirect our attention from the places it often tends to go. Jesus helps us sit at the feet of different teachers from the people people in our society tend to listen to. He invites us to learn – to learn thoroughly – from the natural world, to let the birds and wildflowers teach us how we might live.

In the midst of devastating climate change, I think Jesus invites us to stop living as if we aren’t dependent on the health of the earth, as if we aren’t impacted by the earth’s sickness – that is, by the sickness humans and our profit-obsessed systems have caused, through all of our competitive striving, through our obsessions with stockpiling money, no matter what the cost.

Jesus knows there are real, legitimate things to worry about. He says, toward the end of our passage: tomorrow will bring worries of its own. 

And he also says this: today’s trouble is enough for today. He says, in effect, be present in this moment. Be present with today’s troubles. Don’t turn away from today’s suffering – in our world, in our communities, in the lives of those we love, in our own lives. Be present, today. 

And Jesus also says this: seek first the kingdom of God. He says, in effect, I’m building a different kind of kingdom. In this kingdom, you don’t have to keep striving for more. In this kingdom, we look to the birds and the wildflowers to teach us how to live. In this kingdom, we don’t stockpile but we share – and as everyone shares, everyone has enough. 

Jesus invites us to join him in this kind of kingdom – in this kingdom of peace, this kingdom of sharing, this kingdom of justice.

Look At Us: a short sermon on Acts 3:1-11

Thankful for another opportunity to join an awesome team of preachers at Lake B and give a mini-sermon on Acts 3:1-11. Here’s the passage, and then the sermon text is below!

(Or if you prefer to listen/watch, the worship service is on YouTube here, and my part starts around 34:00. Stick around for David Meade and Michael Won’s sermons too if you have time!)

Acts 3:1-11 (NRSV):

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

The book of Acts is kind of a wild book. We’re only at the start of chapter 3, and already Jesus has been taken up to heaven, after telling his followers to wait for God’s promise. Then Pentecost came, tongues of fire and all, and Peter gave a sermon about how all of this was fulfilling what the prophet Joel said, a really long time ago, about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh. The people who heard were cut to the heart, and three thousand of them were baptized that day. 

Then they all got to the messy and interesting work of figuring out what all this means in daily life, figuring out what difference it makes that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, eating together, praying together, worshipping together, sharing material stuff, making sure everyone’s needs are met, and generally living simply and gratefully and generously and joyfully. In our competitive, greedy, often violent world, this is radical stuff.

In the middle of this description of the new community that is being formed, we read that “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (That’s Acts 2:43.) Our passage today gives us a glimpse of one of these wonders. In the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a man who has been lame from birth – or, literally translated, lame from his mother’s womb.

When Peter and John heal the lame man, they’re doing the same kind of work Jesus was doing throughout his life. Jesus was always healing people of all sorts of ailments, and casting out demons, and doing all sorts of wildly miraculous stuff that left the crowds astonished and amazed, and that often left the people who experienced these miracles praising God. 

This is one of the things that characterized Jesus’ life on earth. As Jesus puts it when some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to him to say, “soo…are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or is another coming?”, Jesus says, “go tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (That’s in Luke 7:22). Jesus is like, this is what’s going on. You can see it for yourselves. Nuff said. You tell me if I’m the one you’ve all been waiting for, or not.

Jesus’ work involved curing people of their ailments. But it wasn’t just that. It was also, at least as importantly, the work of justice. Jesus’ work involved teaching people to live really different kinds of lives, together, in a world that’s often harsh and brutal, where people are often cruel, caught up forcefully and sometimes unquestioningly in systems that deal death rather than giving life. Jesus came to bring a fuller kind of life, marked by love and community, and by the kind of equity and justice that has to happen if real love and community is ever going to come into being.

And so, when Peter and John interact with the lame man outside the temple, they aren’t just there to instigate the kind of miracle where this man’s feet and ankles are strengthened. They’re also there to instigate the kind of miracle where a new kind of community is being formed – one that couldn’t have existed while the lame man was still outside, excluded from worship, relating to others solely as one who needs something, rather than as one with something to offer.

Peter and John are there to look this man in the eye, while others rush by him, in their very busy and important lives, on their way to do very busy and important things, like go to worship. There’s a lot wrapped up in eye contact, or lack thereof, sometimes. When someone makes eye contact with us, it can help us feel included in a group. It can help us feel like people like us and care about us and value our presence there. And when someone withholds eye contact from us, it can make us feel excluded, rejected, or invisible. When this happens repeatedly over time, it can make us feel less than others, or even sub-human.

Peter looks intently at this man, and when the man doesn’t return eye contact – whether that’s because he feels ashamed of his position, or if he just isn’t used to people paying attention to him, or for whatever reason – Peter says to him, “look at us.” He says, in effect, John and I see you. And we want you to see us.

This is part of how real community forms: we see others, and we are seen. We want to know others, and we want others to know us – beyond the basic visible facts, like what we look like, or where we’re located, or what we’re doing for work. Peter can see all these things about the lame man. But he wants to know who he is on a deeper level. He’s saying, in a sense, the things I can see right now – the fact that you’re not able to walk, that you’re located outside the temple, that you’re dressed a certain way, that you’re begging – these things don’t tell me everything I want to know about you. Peter looks intently at him, beyond the things that would normally keep people who are entering the temple from being friends with someone who is begging outside the gate. 

Peter and John are there to invite the man into a new kind of relationship, of knowing and being known – the kind of relationship where we see one another eye to eye, as equals.

They’re also there to say, I know what you’re expecting to receive from us, but that isn’t what we have to give. When Peter says “I have no silver or gold,” more literally, from the Greek, he’s saying something like “silver and gold do not exist for me.” I kind of picture him saying, what even is silver? What even is gold? What are these things supposed to mean? What even is this system, where some people get to go worship in the temple while others are left outside? Where some people have gold and silver and can give alms as they wish, while also keeping all the power for themselves and not really changing anything?

Peter says, there’s something better. There’s something that can go beyond just helping you get through the next day, although that’s important too. There’s something that can actually bring into being a new and flourishing kind of life, for all of us, together. There’s something that can shift the power dynamic here, so you don’t have to keep on being the needy one, but instead you can enter the temple, we can all enter the temple together, and we can worship God together as equals. There’s transformation. For all of us. And we all need it. 

This is all a continuation of the work of Jesus, right? Really seeing people, and not being afraid to see people’s pain and vulnerability. Being brave enough to let other people see us, to be humble and vulnerable and needy. Making eye contact with people whom others exclude and dehumanize. Looking beyond the surface level, to know people and let people know us. Working relentlessly and radically toward building a community of people who operate as equals, across all sorts of human-made walls, like race, or class, or social standing, or ability or disability, or gender, or sexuality.

Peter and John continue the work of Jesus in this story. It’s like Jesus died, but in so doing, his spirit multiplied like the bread and loaves he broke open to feed the five thousand, and this spirit fills Peter, and John, and now the lame man, along with so many others we read about as we go on in the book of Acts. The now formerly lame man, filled with this spirit, “jumps up,” “walking and leaping and praising God.” His “leaping” here is a word that can also mean to “spring up,” like a spring of water that bubbles up. It’s the word Jesus uses when he talks with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he says, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (That’s in John 4:14.) The formerly lame man springs up, gushes up, bubbles over with praise, as Jesus’ spirit disperses and spreads and multiplies, and Jesus’ work of love and justice and mercy continues.

This same spirit invites us today to continue Jesus’ work in our lives and communities, together. To learn to trust and rely on one another. To give generously of whatever we might have to offer, and to know that we all have something to offer. To learn to be in unity. To worship together. 

May we, together, as a community, be filled with this Holy Spirit and continue the work of Jesus in our world.

Extraordinary Courage, Extraordinary Kindness

Sharing a sermon from a couple years ago: feel free to listen here, or the text is below! The passage is Ruth 2, where Ruth meets Boaz.

As I reflect on the story of Ruth, I wonder if the world of our heroines, Ruth and Naomi, might in some ways not be as different from ours as it may seem. They may not have social media posts and internet trolls and competing news networks on TV that present very different versions of events, but Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges. They were no strangers to political chaos and troubling news.

In a very quick skim through the book of Judges, which tells us what that time was like, I saw war. Forced labor. Ethnic tension. Repentance and remorse, which always seem to turn out to be short lived. The people of God just doing what everyone else around them is doing. Widespread corruption, and stubbornness about it. People not listening to God. Violence. Poverty. Treachery. Broken trust. More war. Siege. Oppression and distress. Vicious vengeance. Betrayal. Murder. Devaluing and abuse of women. Making and worship of idols. Greed and selfishness. Everyone did as they saw fit.

There were good things too, of course. But there was a lot of evil. A lot of things to be distressed about and overwhelmed by, to be sad and angry about. Do you recognize some of these things? Widespread corruption, lack of accountability, tension between different racial and ethnic groups, devaluing and abuse of women, greed, selfishness? 

Like us, Naomi and Ruth lived in difficult and troubling times. And yet there is something about their story that feels like a bright spot in the midst of the time of the judges. It’s the story of ordinary people  who live their ordinary lives with faithfulness, goodness, agency, integrity, courage, and hope. In our crazy time, and in our own ordinary day to day lives, we need their story. We need the model of these strong women, to spark our imaginations of how we might live our own lives in our own time with the same kind of courage and faith.

This morning we’ll be stepping into the second chapter of this short four-chapter book, and we’ll look at it in three scenes. We pick up Naomi and Ruth’s story after Ruth, despite her mother-in-law Naomi’s insistence otherwise, has journeyed with Naomi back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. When we left off last week at the end of chapter one, Naomi was feeling bitter, like she has nothing. Now the two women have made it back to Bethlehem, still with nothing and no one except each other.

What would it have been like to be Ruth at this time, at the beginning of this chapter, in this first scene? The narrator tells us that there actually is this wealthy man, Boaz, who is a relative and might be able to give her a hand as she struggles to find a place for herself and make ends meet in this new and foreign place. We know that, but Ruth doesn’t know that.

Back in Chapter 1, when the women of the city said, omg, it’s Naomi! She’s back! (that’s a Liz translation), they didn’t even mention Ruth. Maybe they’re not sure what to do with her, how to categorize her. She’s a stranger, a new person, a foreigner, in a place where she doesn’t know anyone and no one knows her. This is an intense time of transition. She’s left everything and everyone familiar to her (except Naomi). She left a culture she knew, and a community in which she had a place.

When Ken and I moved to Pasadena about a year ago, we experienced some of what Ruth might have felt as she left Moab and entered into the Bethlehem community. We left a life we had spent the last several years (eleven in my case and six in Ken’s) building in the Bay area. Work, friends, church, community, commitments. Knowing the best places to get cheap produce. Having a car mechanic I liked and trusted. All of these random things you take for granted when you spend a while in a place. We left all of that familiarity behind, like Ruth did when she left her family and community in Moab and went with Naomi to Bethlehem.

Can you relate to Ruth in her time of transition? Many of us here have recently started a new school year, or perhaps a new school entirely, or a new job, or are new in Pasadena, or in California, or even in the United States, or have undergone a big life change like getting married. These are big transitions. They can be jarring.

In times of transition sometimes we wonder things that maybe we didn’t have to wonder before. Things like, will I make friends, and who will they be? Will I find a church community, and what will that be like? Will I do well in my classes or my work? Will people notice me, respect me, think well of me? Times of transition can be vulnerable times.

For Ruth, moving from Moab to Judah had another layer of difficulty on top of all that, too. It wasn’t exactly like moving from NorCal to Socal…although there are some weird dynamics there too, where NorCal people throw a lot of shade at SoCal and talk trash about SoCal people, while SoCal people don’t really think about NorCal at all, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

But for Ruth, being a Moabite is a little different than for me, moving from the Bay area. There was a lot more historical animosity than that. In the view of the Israelites, the people of Moab didn’t look so good. They had their origin in a story of incest. They had been historically violent toward the Israelites, cursing them rather than welcoming them, and engaging in many battles with them over the years. They were seen as especially arrogant and defiant of God.

And Moabite women in particular were seen as sexually promiscuous and aggressive, sexual predators that posed a very dangerous threat to Israelite men, whom they might seduce and lead into idolatry. I’m sure the anti-Moab sentiment was stronger at some times than others, but on the whole, being a Moabite in Bethlehem is not an easy thing for Ruth. Everyone knows that she’s from Moab, the land of Israel’s enemies. The employee who answers Boaz’ question about who Ruth is, what family she belongs to, her identity, answers not with her name but with her ethnicity. She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from Moab. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s from Moab?? 

Our sermon series is called strong women, but right now Ruth is so vulnerable! She’s young. She’s a woman. She’s only connected with Naomi, in a time when being connected with a man, like a husband or son, meant economic and physical security for women.

She’s a foreigner, an immigrant. She’s from a different ethnicity than the dominant one in Bethlehem. She’s associated with Judah’s enemies. She’s new and doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t know one field from another or who to trust. Can you feel her vulnerability in this time?

If I were Ruth, I might think, all right, Naomi, I came here for you. This is where you wanted to be, and I have no idea what to do here, and no one wants me here. Maybe I should have stayed with my family and my people back in Moab. You even told me, twice, to go back! Why did I come?

I might think, Naomi is depressed. All she does is talk about how cruel God has been to her and how she has no one. What about me? Well, Naomi got us into this situation, so I’ll wait until she gets us out. Maybe I’ll just watch a bunch of Netflix until she figures out what to do. At least that way I’ll be safe and not have to worry about all these things.

That’s not Ruth. Ruth takes initiative, exercising her God-given agency to say to Naomi, hey! I heard your people have this practice of gleaning. I hear people who are down on their luck and don’t have land and money can follow behind the workers harvesting the barley and pick up what gets left on the ground. I’m going to go do that. And I’m going to try to do that not just anywhere, but I’m going to try to find someone in whose sight I may find favor. Someone who will notice me here in this strange place and not just see me as a hated Moabite, but see me as me. Someone who will treat me with kindness and respect. I’m going to get to work. I don’t know if anyone else will treat me with dignity and honor, but I know that I’m worth these things, and I’m going to go look for it.

We feel Ruth’s vulnerability, and we also see her courage, her strength, in the midst of it.

I think God loves that about Ruth. That she takes initiative, takes action, exercises her agency as a human being to see what needs to be done and do it. To go. To try. To figure out how to obtain the things she needs and the things Naomi needs, basic things like food, and more complicated things like kind people, community. To figure out what she needs from other people in this process and to ask for it.

I think God loves that Ruth is not passive. The text doesn’t say this directly, but I see this in the sense we get, that God is ever-present and is blessing the efforts of these women. “As it happened,” she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz. I think that’s a bit of a “wink wink” on the part of the narrator. The field could have belonged to anyone, but it just happened to belong to Boaz. And “just then” Boaz came back from the town to visit his field and his workers.

Ruth had no idea what the lay of the land was like and whose fields she was in, but she “just happened” to come to Boaz’ field, and Boaz “just happened” to come visit the field once she started working, and so she ends up in this situation that’s far better than what it easily could have been. I don’t think anything in this story “just happens.” God is behind it all. God is with her. God blesses her and provides the favor she seeks as she takes initiative and steps out in courage in the midst of her vulnerability.

In this next scene, I want us to shift gears a bit and think from Boaz’ perspective. First Ruth took initiative to get to work and try to find favor, to take advantage of Israel’s God-given gleaning laws and to gather grain as well. Now Boaz takes initiative in noticing and starting a conversation with Ruth.

In these interactions he goes way above and beyond what Ruth asked for. She asked to glean and gather, and Boaz says, yes, you are welcome to glean and gather here (v. 8). But also! Follow closely behind my employees who are harvesting so that you get first pick of everything they leave behind (v. 9). But also! I am not blind to the ways you are vulnerable as a woman, and I am making sure my male employees will not harass you, verbally or physically. But also! Here’s water if you want it (v. 9).

She is taken aback and says, I was looking for favor, but this is much more than I expected to find. Also, do you know I’m from Moab? Why have I found favor in your sight? (v. 10)

Boaz says, I have seen everything you’ve done for Naomi. I know you’re from Moab, but I don’t see you as an enemy. I see how you have suffered the loss of your husband and persevered with strength and courage. I don’t see you as the stereotype of a sexually aggressive, dangerous, idolatrous Moabite woman; I see you as doing what my esteemed ancestor Abraham did, when he left his father and mother and native land and came to a people he did not know before (v. 11). You talk about yourself like you’re a foreigner without value, but you know your value, and I know your value. The way you’ve acted shows that you trust God as a refuge, and I hope you experience that (v. 12) 

Ruth finds comfort in Boaz’ remarkable kindness to her (v. 13).

Then there’s more! At lunchtime he says, but also! Come eat with me, from the good food, bread and wine, the same food I’m eating. Sit with me and my employees, we want you to belong with us and be one of us. Have as much food as you like. You won’t be hungry here (v. 14). Also! Harvesters, pull out some extra handfuls of grain for her to make her work more productive and less difficult and backbreaking, and don’t reproach or rebuke her. Don’t just not assault her, but treat her with respect and dignity, speak kindly to her. Accept her as one of our kin (v. 15-16).

This is remarkable kindness indeed. Think for a minute about everything going on here for Boaz. He heard through the grapevine that his relative Naomi had come back from Moab, accompanied only by a young Moabite woman. And now this young woman just shows up, there in his field. Think about all the things he might have said, or might have thought, or might have done. After all, it was the time of the judges, and everyone did as they saw fit. What might have been a more “normal” reaction from a person of Boaz’ wealth and standing, to a person like Ruth? Let’s think about this in terms of four different aspects of Ruth’s identity that made her particularly vulnerable: socioeconomic status, immigration status, ethnicity, and gender.

Take her socioeconomic status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this poor person think she is? People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Sure, she seems to be working pretty hard now, but she should have worked harder to make sure she didn’t fall into poverty in the first place. She’s taking advantage of the welfare system. I’ll let her do it, because that’s the law, but I don’t like it. I didn’t get rich by taking advantage of other people’s property, why should she? I’ll let her glean, but she’s not of my class, and she needs to know her place. Maybe she’ll move along soon to someone else’s field so I stop losing grain and money on her.

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as someone undeserving of his kindness and respect, because he had wealth, and she didn’t have anything. Instead, he showed her kindness. Treated her as an equal. 

Or take her immigration status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this immigrant think she is? She’s not from here. She looks different, talks differently, smells different, wears different clothes, has a different accent. And here she is, in my field, trying to take advantage of the laws of my country that were set up for my people. She isn’t part of the hard-working Israelite farming families that have lived on this land for generations and deserve to reap the fruits of it. This barley, these resources, are for my family and my employees. 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth with disdain, resenting, fearing, or treating her as an other because she was an immigrant. Instead, he chose to welcome her in, inviting her to eat with him and his employees. He built bridges rather than walls and chose to recognize their common humanity.

Or take Ruth’s ethnicity. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this Moabite think she is? I remember the stories my family always told about the Moabites. Violence, seduction, idolatry, incest, curses, battles. The Moabites have caused my ancestors pain, and my people remember that. And here this Moabite woman is, just casually gleaning away as if her people never did anything to wrong mine. The Moabites have been inhumane to us; do I really have to be humane to them – to her? 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as less than human, assuming the worst about her because of her ethnicity and the rumors he had heard and assumptions his community made. Instead he took the time to see who she really was.

Lastly, take Ruth’s gender.  It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this woman think she is? She can glean in my field, but I don’t owe her anything other than that. How my male employees treat her is none of my business. What happens in the field, stays in the field. Boys will be boys. There’s really not much I can do. Plus, is it really that bad, anyway? She’ll probably be fine. And if not, she can go elsewhere. 

It would have been easy for Boaz to downplay the risks Ruth faced as a woman, telling her it’s not that big a deal, dismissing or minimizing her experience, or recognizing the realities of sexual harassment and assault but placing his concern for his own reputation ahead of his concern for her wellbeing. Instead he chose to take responsibility, not only for treating her with respect personally, but for holding the people under his authority accountable to do the same. Boaz didn’t need a #MeToo movement to recognize the seriousness and prevalence of sexual assault and to do the right thing when Ruth showed up in his field.

Boaz goes out of his way, above and beyond what might have been normal or expected, to use his relative wealth, security, and power to affirm Ruth’s dignity and value. He did this in the midst of a world that, like ours, did not always value people who are poor, or immigrants, or minority races and ethnicities, or women.

In this last scene, Ruth goes into town to meet Naomi, her arms overflowing with an entire ephah of barley. That’s thirty or so pounds. Naomi sees how much she has gleaned – enough to feed the two of them for a couple of weeks! Maybe even, as time goes on, enough to sell the extra and obtain money to provide for their other needs beyond food. 

Naomi could have said, this can’t be. I know the Lord afflicted me and brought me back empty. Ruth, what did you do, steal all this? Or maybe, well, that’s more than I expected, but nothing really matters if I am not able to have sons and continue my family line, and I am too old to have sons, and Ruth is a Moabite and I don’t think anyone here will want to marry her. I’ll take some grain and stay alive, but there is still no hope for me. 

Naomi doesn’t react in these ways. Naomi is overjoyed. She can hardly contain her excitement. Where did you glean? Where did you work? You went out this morning looking to find favor with someone who owns a field, and I was praying about it and worrying about all the bad things that could happen to you as you tried, but our prayers have been answered. God has provided for us, and God has worked through someone, some landowner, to do that. Who is he? May God bless him. May God bless him. God is kind, after all. And Boaz! That’s amazing. He isn’t just anyone, Ruth – he’s one of our nearest kin. If he chooses, he can legally help restore to us our land and our family name. Ruth, stay with him. This is good. You have found a work situation where your risk of sexual assault is minimal, and it could have been very high. Stay there. 

This is a new side of Naomi, a hopeful side. It takes courage, to hope.

Do you see these three ordinary people, Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi, in these three scenes we’ve looked at, living their ordinary lives with great faithfulness and courage? Do you see Ruth, in her time of transition and great vulnerability, taking courage and initiative? Do you see Boaz, who refused to write Ruth off as a poor person, an immigrant, an enemy, or a woman, but welcomed her into his community, seeing her for who she was, and treating her with honor and dignity? Do you see Naomi, who last chapter wanted to give up on everything, finding new vitality, hope, and sense of God’s presence and provision?

And do you see God, behind the scenes, in everything? God is mentioned directly only through people’s words: when Boaz and his employees bless one another, when Boaz blesses Ruth, and when Naomi blesses Boaz. But God is there, orchestrating Ruth’s gleaning location and the timing of her meeting Boaz; working through Ruth’s extraordinary initiative and courage; working through Boaz’ extraordinary kindness. Do we see God working in these kinds of ways in our lives, or if not, can we take the leap of faith of choosing to believe that God is at work even when we don’t see it? 

In the midst of a time when everyone, and especially the judges, the leaders, of Israel, were doing whatever they saw fit – in a time of evil governments and violence and greed and lawlessness and people not treating each other well – we see Ruth, a poor, immigrant woman, brand new and in transition and on the margins of Bethlehem’s society, exercise her agency as a human being created in the image of the living God; and we see Boaz, a wealthy and powerful man, choose to honor and lift up that agency that Ruth exercises. We see ordinary people taking action and doing difficult things, and God blessing them as they do so.

By the grace of God, may we be people who live our ordinary lives with courage, faithfulness, and agency in the midst of our own difficult and troubling time. And in so doing, may we find the favor of God and be part of God’s work in bringing new hope and life into our world.

How (Not) to Lay Down One’s Life: A short sermon on John 10:11-18

(11) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd places his life on behalf of the sheep. (12) The wage-worker, even, who is not the shepherd, of whom the sheep are not (his) own, beholds the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees – and the wolf seizes them and scatters (them) – (13) because he is a wage-worker and it is not a care to him concerning the sheep. 

(14) I am the good shepherd and I know the ones that are mine and the ones that are mine know me, (15) just as the father knows me and I know the father, and I place my life on behalf of the sheep. (16) Also, however, I have sheep which are not from this court; those, it is necessary (for) me to bring, and they will hear my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd. 

(17) On this account the father loves me, because I place my life, in order that again I might receive it. (18) No one takes it away from me, but I place it from myself. I have power to place it, and I have power again to receive it; I received this command from my father.” -Jesus, John 10:11-18 (my translation)

As I reflect on this passage I’m intrigued by how much Jesus talks about laying down his life. He manages to talk about laying down his life a full five times in these eight verses. 

I used to think I knew a lot about what it means to lay down one’s life. 

I thought it meant a whole of host of things having to do with putting other people’s needs above my own―and, in the process, often ignoring my own desires and gifts and needs, pretending they weren’t there, or thinking they weren’t important.

I thought laying down my life meant things like not weighing in on group decisions, even simple ones like where to go out to eat, because my preferences didn’t matter. Or, washing more than my fair share of dishes, and then feeling resentful that my roommates didn’t do more. Or, not complaining about things that felt wrong to me. Or, lacking boundaries, and not standing up for myself.

Of course, this was all some funky mash-up of what I thought it meant to lay down my life like Jesus, and what the world often expects from women, and what Christian leaders tended to preach about in the contexts I was in, and my own personality and tendencies.

But I share this because I think sometimes we get some ideas about what it means to follow Jesus that aren’t actually in scripture. In our passage this morning there are some things that complicate some of the notions we might have about what it means to lay down our lives.

Just before this passage, in John 10:10, Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 

There are a lot of different ways we might identify with the different characters in the shepherd-and-sheep metaphor in our passage. While it’s not as straightforward as simply saying we are the sheep in this metaphor and that’s it, I do think that identifying with the sheep is one angle we can take. And when we do so, we find that we receive this promise from Jesus: Jesus wants us to have life. Jesus wants us to have life to the full.

If our ways of trying to follow Jesus are making us feel resentful, burned out, or bitter, like someone is stealing from us or destroying some important part of us, that’s not Jesus. If we’re laying down our lives in ways that don’t also bring fullness of life in return—not that it’s easy or problem-free, but that there’s joy and a sense of being true to who we are and what God made us for—if it’s not these things, maybe we’re missing Jesus.

The word Jesus uses when he speaks of “laying down” his life is actually not necessarily about sacrificing, abandoning, or rejecting. It’s a very simple verb that’s translated in a lot of ways, including “put,” “place,” or “lay.” It can involve putting something in a particular location, or placing something before someone, or appointing or assigning something, or establishing something. 

This range of meanings helps me see how Jesus is making this conscious choice, throughout his life, to place his life on behalf of the sheep—to arrange his life on behalf of the vulnerable people, the ones he loves, the ones who belong to him. That’s where he puts his life: with them, in awareness of and solidarity with their needs and concerns. That’s where he assigns his energies, how he establishes his direction in life.

The word translated as “life” here can mean life as in living and dying, but it can also mean something more like the soul, the whole self, the center of inner human life and emotion and personhood. You get the sense that Jesus moves from his very center, from his soul, from his core, to intentionally direct his words and actions toward love, toward justice, toward whatever makes for the wellbeing of the flock.

This is where Jesus wants to place his life: on behalf of the sheep. And he doesn’t leave. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t run away, like the hired hand, when things get hard. Jesus places his life consistently in solidarity with the sheep. 

Just as, toward the end of his life, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, throughout his whole life he set his whole being toward people who were on the margins, oppressed by empire, taken advantage of by corrupt religious leaders.

Jesus arranges his life in this way, and then, in turn, he then receives it again. He says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (v. 17-18). He, too, ends up having life, and having it to the full.

Jesus is very clear that it is his choice, his determination, his own agency that he exercises in laying down his life. It is his choice alone. He says, “no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (v. 18). 

This is a powerful thing. Our world is full of people trying to tell other people when, why, where, and how to lay down their lives.

We see white people trying to tell people of color the proper ways to protest the violence being done to their bodies and communities. We see men trying to tell women that women’s equal rights aren’t worth focusing on or being divisive about, and straight people telling queer people the same about their rights. We see people who have never lost anyone to gun violence trying to tell those who have that the lives lost are a reasonable price to pay for our unrestricted access to guns. 

These kinds of things are not peace. They are violence—violence against the dignity and humanity of people of color, and women, and queer people, and people who are most vulnerable to being victims of gun violence, and people who grieve lives lost.

No one gets to tell someone else how to lay their life down—especially not people with more power to those with less.

As we follow Jesus together, the people with less power in the structures of our society find themselves strengthened to stand up for themselves, and their dignity, and the health of their communities. They find themselves powerful to choose the directions they will orient their lives and energies and talents, to choose the causes they would, or wouldn’t, risk their lives for. 

And the people with more power find themselves realizing that God’s vision is that there be one flock, one shepherd. They learn to stand in solidarity with those with less power. They learn to be part of a community that lays down lives for one another, in relationship, as equals. 

Ultimately, of course, the result of Jesus placing his whole life, all his teachings and healings and words and actions, on behalf of others, is that he does end up laying down his life, as in, dying. He ends up accepting the penalty enacted on him by the state and the religious authorities that resulted from living the kind of life he lived, as he messed with all their systems and oriented himself toward justice at every turn. 

Nobody made him do it. The cross wasn’t a vengeful, violent God taking out his wrath on Jesus instead of us. It was God in Jesus choosing to show the extent of his love, choosing to bear the consequences of a life placed on behalf of the ones who are his own.

The beloved community comes about not through some people setting aside their own needs, dignity, gifts, uniqueness, and full personhood to help others flourish, but through all of us learning how to direct our attention, energy, and power toward the good of one another, toward the good of the whole. And we find joy and life in this process, which doesn’t deplete us, but renews us, energizes us, and gives us back life in return.