Friday, November 27, 2009

Advent 1

The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when one of his political opponents demanded he commit troops to a particular action.  ‘God is on our side, Mr President’, the man told him.  ‘We can’t fail’.  To which Lincoln replied, ‘Sir, I’ve never been concerned with whether or not God is on our side.  God is always on the side of holiness.  My great concern is whether in the light of history we will be shown to have been on God’s side’.

Today as Christians we begin a New Year of the Lord, a new Anno Domini on the Church calendar that works on a different time frame from the rest of the world, the time frame of salvation history, God’s time.  The readings from the Bible swing wildly back and forward from the end of all things to the hope of new beginnings, the hope that this year will belong to God, that it will reveal God’s presence in history and in our own lives.  We have entered Advent time, the time of waiting for God’s purposes to be revealed, the time of waiting for justice, of waiting for God’s promises to take on human flesh and blood, the time of waiting with held breath for Mary’s ‘yes’ which allows the Word of God to take root and grow in time and history; our own ‘yes’ that God’s purposes and promises may gestate and come to maturity in the world around us.

Today we pinch ourselves awake.  Have we got too comfortable?  Have we fallen asleep through the long countdown of Sundays after Pentecost, the so-called ordinary Sundays of teaching and preaching, miracles and meals and confrontations on the fateful journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.   Has church become routine, a spacer to keep the weeks from sliding into each other, a spiritual vitamin pill, an hour a week’s break from reality, a gossip with all-too-familiar friends?  Zen master Dogen used to teach his disciples that the correct frame of mind to cultivate is that of the instant between sliding off the back of a horse and hitting the ground.  No time to prepare.  No time to change your mind.  No time even to think. Just be ready ... ‘thump’ .... Advent is the instant in which your world changes – are you ready? ... ‘thump’.  Hope so.

Today’s readings present us with a bewildering mix of images.  The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple that for righteous Jews was the centre of God’s presence in the world.  Is it the end of all things or the beginning?  What do we make of echoes of Luke’s apocalypse in the great events of our own time?  The signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, the distress of nations confused by rising global temperatures and sea levels.  The heady mix of anxiety and over-reaction, denial and head-in-the-sand politicking.  Like every generation before us, we see the great events of our own time mirrored in these ominous-sounding lines.   Advent is the sound of gears grating, of out-of synch calendars readjusting.  Hold the Christmas cards and the fake Santas, don’t break out the tinsel too soon.  Advent reminds us that all time belongs to God, that human history with its stress and violence is critiqued by eternity, that salvation history comes to its conclusion in and through the appalling and heartbreaking strife of human competitiveness, conflict and over-consumption.

And Advent says, ‘are you awake yet?  Look – history itself is pregnant with the power and the purposes of God.  Just look at the contradictions in the world around you, look at the contradiction between the glossy advertisements for fashion and electronic gadgets and overseas travel - and the reality of children in our own wealthy country going to school without breakfast because dad lost his job in the economic crisis, children in remote communities growing up without the prospect of ever going to school, ever getting a job or ever escaping the squalid environment of the town camps.  The escapist fantasy of overconsumption for the comfortable middle-class versus the escapist reality of alcohol abuse and glue-sniffing for the desperate poor in the next town or the next street.  Look at the contradiction of values laid bare when wealthy developed nations like our own invest vast resources in making sure the poor of the world never even get here to make a claim on our underdeveloped compassion.  Look at the contradiction between God’s promises and the reality of the world we live in, the contradiction between God’s promises and the hard-hearted way we actually live.  All time belongs to God, yet most of the time you’d be hard pressed to see any sign of it.

Yet Advent says, ‘look, time itself is ripe to bursting, ready to split apart and reveal the power and justice of God’.  Advent critiques the non-arguments of the climate-change deniers and the self-serving arguments of the do-nothing-until-the-rest-of-the-world-does brigade.  Advent makes the claim that the demands of justice can’t be put off, and the even more startling claim that the signs of God’s breaking into human history are all around us if we care to open our eyes.

Look at the fig tree, Jesus tells his disciples, and learn its lesson.  Learn to recognise the signs of renewal and hope.  A few weeks ago I read the story of two primary school children living in Victoria, in the area destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires last February, who have begun to photograph the bush around them as the blackened stumps burst into green flame.  Their work is being published as a calendar of hope.  In the same way the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the holocaust of the Babylonian invasion in 587BC says, in this wasteland, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are empty and desolate you will once again hear the sound of laughter, and songs of thanksgiving.  The blasted stump will sprout again, the green shoots of irrepressible new life will reveal God’s promises and God’s good purposes.  As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it succinctly when he says that as Christians, we are prisoners of hope.  We are prisoners of the future, oriented towards God’s future and the justice God promises.  There is no other Christian way to live.  To be Christian is to notice the dissonance between what is, and what God promises, and to proclaim that God gets the last word.

But Advent starts with a warning.  Don’t get sucked in, don’t go with the festive season flow, don’t over-indulge or you’ll miss the good bit.  Advent calls us back to live in the in-between times, with integrity, clarity, compassion and to substitute true worship for idolatry.  Jesus tells us, “be on your guard, in case your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares”.  It’s not just a case of avoiding the office Christmas party or not overdoing the rum in the Christmas pudding.  These words from St Luke’s Gospel remind us of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Gethsemane, the night he woke his disciples and pleaded with them to pray not to be overcome with inertia.  It’s one of the strongest and most startling images in the Gospel, the image of the great day that catches you unexpectedly, that suddenly closes on you like a trap while you were distracted by the tinsel and the fairy lights.  It’s not just a risk for those men and women who followed Jesus in his earthly ministry, it’s a danger for us, if we pay more attention to the agendas and the enticements of our own culture than to the signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

At the beginning of Advent, the beginning of a new year, we are shaken awake with a warning.  Watch your step, because there are traps!  In fact there are lots of different traps in our culture but they have one thing in common, which is to distract us from what is important, to turn our attention from the core of our own identity.  Trapped in the superficial and failing to attend to what is truly urgent, we find ourselves trapped in opposition to justice and the reign of God.  The gospel warns us not to be bloated with indulgence - again, it’s not just about the plum pud, it’s about filling ourselves up with distractions and failing to be filled with the Holy One of God; about filling ourselves up with more stuff than we need while others lack the bare necessities of life; about filling ourselves up with details and plans and busyness, and remaining empty, hungry and thirsty for the justice and mercy of God.  Hollow out some empty space in your life, make space for others, and make space for God’s Word to grow in you.

Advent sends us back to the beginning as disciples, back to the apprenticeship of our faith.  Are we ready to begin?  Are we ready to learn how to listen, how to be receptive to new ideas, to acquire new habits of hospitality and generosity?  It is time to re-commit ourselves to the discipline of discipleship, to make a new year’s resolution to put aside timidity and luke-warmness, to put aside self-serving versions of our faith that claim God as being on our side, and to decide that, this year, and in the light of history, we will be found to be on the side of God.


Reign of Christ

One of the most significant circumstances of a person’s life is what country you are a citizen of.  If “home”, according to the famous definition, is “the place where when you go there they can’t throw you out”, then that’s even more true of the country you call home.  Citizenship gives you both rights and obligations, the protection of a legal code, a certain basic set of entitlements – and clearly your life chances are hugely affected by which country you have the citizenship of.  Being an Australian citizen – whether by accident of birth, or by deliberate choice – brings with it all the advantages of being at home in a country with a stable system of government, a high standard of living, good basic medical care and education.  A country where freedom of movement and freedom of speech are taken for granted, where federal, state and local government provide a huge range of services to protect our health and well-being.  Some of us, of course, have dual citizenship – we may be at home in more than one country and so we have different rights and obligations in each.  Interestingly, until 2002, Australian citizenship was held to be incompatible with the adoption of citizenship anywhere else – Rupert Murdoch, for example, had to relinquish his Australian citizenship in order to further his business interests as an American.  Citizenship affects every aspect of our lives, imposing responsibilities and obligations as well as conferring entitlements – for example we have to vote, to participate in some way in the public debate –being a good citizen means being informed, participating in community life, respecting the institutions of our country.  Being a good citizen also means reflecting on the decisions and the actions taken in your name. 

Today, the last Sunday of the Church year, however, as Christians we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question about citizenship.  Are we citizens of Australia, or citizens of the kingdom of God?  Can we hold dual citizenship?  Or does our citizenship of God’s kingdom call our national allegiance to account?

The very name we give to this Sunday – “Christ the King”, or “The reign of Christ” – tips us off that we are in explicitly political territory, the this-worldly arena of compromise and conflicting loyalties.  So does our reading from St John’s Gospel, which describes the confrontation between Jesus and the Roman procurator, Pilate, in the most politically charged language.  Here Pilate three times finds Jesus innocent, but passes the death sentence anyway in order to pacify the mob, mock the Jewish leaders and protect his own job.  John's gospel makes it crystal clear that the arrest of Jesus and the trial before Pilate were not religious but political crises.  Jesus' trial and execution by the Roman authorities are a clash between two kings and two kingdoms – and they pose an active challenge to us, two thousand years later.

Historian Jaroslav Pelikan points out what the obscure provincial governor Pilate himself, if only he could have known about it, might have found a maddening paradox – of all the famous Romans, none of them, not even Julius Caesar or Cleopatra’s ill-fated lover Marc Antony are as universally known and recognised as Pontius Pilate, whose name is read aloud every time Christians recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed – and who shares this distinction only with Mary, the mother of our Lord, and with Jesus himself.

According to Luke’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus is greeted in overtly political language by his mother, who exults that through him God would “bring down the tyrants from their thrones”.  In Mark’s Gospel, the very first words Jesus speaks are to announce that “the kingdom of God is at hand”.  In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus announces, “blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is for you!”  In contemporary Aussie, the nearest equivalent might be for Jesus to say “blessed are you asylum seekers, because you’re the Australians of the future!”  Today’s reading takes us to Jesus’ trial and execution, and the consequences of this sort of political rabble-rousing are made utterly plain.  Jesus is dragged to the Roman governor's palace for three reasons, all of them political: "We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King" (Luke 23:1–2). In short, he is being arrested as a political criminal.

Inside the praetorium, Pilate interrogates Jesus to find out what sort of threat, if any, he poses. “Well?”, he demands, “are you what they say?  Are you really the King of the Jews?” Jesus sort of explains, sort of evades the question: “my kingdom isn’t of this world”.  “So you are a king then?” – you can just about hear the scorn – but at the same time, Pilate is still probing.  Jesus is clearly a religious fruitcake, Palestine produces this sort with monotonous regularity.  Boring, no doubt – but is he dangerous?  “Yes”, says Jesus.  “You’re right”.  According to the Gospel-writer, Pilate does his best to treat Jesus as a harmless crank, roughing him up a bit and quietly letting him go, but the Jewish leaders have whipped up the crowd into such a frenzy that Pilate begins to fear for his job, even his life – and so gives in to their demands.  Modern Biblical scholars aren’t so sure - pointing out that Pilate was a ruthless, pragmatic Roman military leader who thought nothing of mass crucifixions to discourage peasant uprisings, and suggesting the Gospel writers find it convenient to let Pilate off the hook and blame Jesus death on the Jewish religious leaders.  In one sense, it hardly matters.  Jesus’ alternative vision of how life should be has come smack up against the brutal realities of the ancient patronage society, where maybe two thirds of the land and wealth are enjoyed by one percent of the population.

When Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, he doesn’t mean that it is just spiritual, he doesn’t mean it’s just about the life after this one, about heaven, not earth.  He means it challenges the legitimacy of the kingdoms of this world precisely because it offers an alternative vision of what this world should look like.  The Gospel account makes it perfectly plain that Jesus’ enemies understand this all too well.  If Jesus is a king, if the kingdom of God is the way Jesus describes it, then he is absolutely clashing head-on with Caesar as Lord.  The two kingdoms are incompatible.  The sort of Christianity that spiritualises that away is missing the point.  Jesus’ agenda really is dangerous and subversive.  Pilate is right to do away with him.

In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world weren’t. If God was in charge, and not Rudd or Turnbull, not the Taliban or Al-Qaida, not even Barack Obama.   Absolutely nothing would be like it is now, every single aspect of life would be turned upside down.  Total disruption. If God was in charge, the economy wouldn’t work, for a start, because instead of an economy that guaranteed the best of everything for those who could afford it, we’d have one in which the basic needs of all people came first, in which the welfare of all and the flourishing of the planet itself came first.  Instead of normal war and business-as-usual ethnic cleansing we’d be plagued with endless peace-making, pointless outbreaks of people being able to see one another’s point of view, mercy instead of revenge, generosity instead of greed, asylum seekers would be greeted with compassion and hospitality instead of being shunted out of sight and locked up in an Indonesian prison, public housing and support for the most vulnerable would come ahead of tax breaks for the wealthy, care for the environment would come ahead of playing party politics.  The Hebrew Bible has a marvellous word for this subversive view of reality, shalom, or human well-being.

The most subversive, most provocative political act you can carry out, is to pray the prayer that Jesus taught his followers: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.  People who pray this prayer, and who live the same way they pray, have an agenda that says the way things are is not how they should be.  An agenda that says: “God sees things differently, and so do I.  I beg to differ.”

It’s a dangerous prayer – nothing short of an oath of allegiance for prospective immigrants to the kingdom of God.  And if you pray it you’re claiming citizenship of a kingdom that critiques all the other affiliations and loyalties of your life.  Yes, you can hold dual citizenship, in fact, citizenship of God’s kingdom makes you a better citizen of Australia because, every now and then a good citizen needs to say, very clearly, “I beg to differ”.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pentecost 24

A young woman who was heavily pregnant with her first child once confided in me how well everything was going.  She said ‘I’ve been nauseous for the last six months, my back aches, I’ve got sweating and hot flushes and strange cravings’.  Really strange cravings – nothing as normal as chocolate or Chinese food at 10pm, what she wanted to eat was rubber.  She told me she managed to restrain herself from actually taking a nibble, but used to surreptitiously sniff the rubber thongs in aisle 13 at the local supermarket.  She’d asked her doctor what it all meant, and he said to her, ‘it means everything is just fine.  It means everything is going just as it should.’

When Jesus uses the metaphor of birth pangs for the signs of the times in our Gospel reading this morning, it makes sense.  Wars, rumours of wars, and terror.  Earthquakes, famines, bushfires and mudslides and tsunamis.  Wild political theories, weird religious cults.  Alarm over climate change.  Financial and economic meltdown.  It might look like everything is falling to bits, it might look like the end of the world but believe it or not this is normal.  I rather like the translation of Eugene Peterson in his Bible paraphrase, “The Message” – ‘this is routine history’. 

I remember when I first became a Christian - not as a child or a teenager but as a young adult in the early 80s and I started really reading the Bible and I came across this passage in Mark’s Gospel.  It was just a bit scary – I thought to myself, ‘but this is exactly what’s happening right now’.  And over the years I began to realise that every generation in history has seen their own time mirrored in these verses.  Which just goes to show that what we experience as threatening and ominous really is at some level, ‘routine history’.  And of course I came to realise – as no doubt you have also noticed – how often throughout history manipulative and unscrupulous so-called Christian leaders have exploited the anxiety of the times by proclaiming ‘this is it’ – ‘this time the end really is nigh’.

‘No’, Jesus assures us.  These things are just signs that you are living in routine history, where human goodness and evil struggle against each other, where natural events take a terrible toll, where you need courage and compassion to live your life with optimism and integrity.  Theologian Karl Rahner makes a useful distinction between real Christian eschatology – a word that means thinking about the goal of history and our own personal existence – real eschatology and fake, sensationalist predictions of the so-called end-times.  Lurid predictions of the future, he points out, don’t actually have any real connection with our present.  They just leave us feeling vaguely unsettled.  Real eschatology affirms that our lives have a direction and a purpose – we don’t just go round and round in an endless cycle of days and weeks and years but are drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of our true identity – real eschatology is concerned with how the final fulfilment of the world and of our own selves can transform us in the here and now.  Rahner points out – as Jesus also does – that the end of all things is necessarily hidden, but assures us that what is hidden from us is precisely what is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In other words the end of all things is exactly the fulfilment that is promised in the here and now, in which we are already present to God in Christ.

That doesn’t make routine history any less dramatic or frightening when you are living in the middle of it.  In our wealthy country we sometimes feel insulated from the things we read about in the newspapers or see on the TV news.  Human nature being what it is, it’s easy to look at the signs of economic prosperity, public buildings, freeways, fast electric trains, brightly-lit shopping centres, well-equipped hospitals – and see in all that a guarantee of security, even a sign of God’s blessing.  But we need to notice that Jesus’ unsettling words in today’s Gospel reading are actually a caution against this kind of thinking.  Just before this, at the end of chapter 12, the disciples have been oohing and ah-ing at the Temple.  Remember that these men and women were from Galilee, a rural backwater, and that most people in ancient societies never travelled far from home.  According to Mark’s version of events this is the one and only time Jesus and his disciples ever travelled to Jerusalem, for the great Passover in which the city filled with gawking tourists and country bumpkins alike.  The second temple, begun back in the sixth century before Jesus and splendidly completed by King Herod the Great was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  The disciples are understandably awe-struck by this symbol of religious and cultural magnificence – and Jesus says to them, ‘you think this is something?  It’s all going to come tumbling down’. And of course we know that about 37 years later, following an ill-judged uprising, the Temple was in fact razed to the ground by the Roman armies of the Emperor Vespasian.  I think Jesus is cautioning us against taking ourselves too seriously.  Don’t put your trust in share markets or building funds because they will collapse.  Don’t put your trust in charismatic religious leaders because they like the sound of their own voices a bit too much.  Don’t get seduced by grand churches or cathedrals, because their stained glass windows are useless unless they succeed in pointing you to a reality beyond themselves.

And then Jesus starts talking a bit of reality to the disciples.  Remember, this is the last week of his life.  Even now, they don’t get it.  In a week’s time they are going to be running scared, scattered and shattered by the knowledge of their own failure, wondering whether their faith in Jesus was ever anything more than a mirage.  And Jesus needs to give them some words of comfort ahead of time, some words to strengthen and give them hope when they remember them in the dark days ahead.  And what are his words of comfort?  ‘Oh, and you yourselves – you’re going to be beaten up and arrested and put on trial.  There will be betrayal and cowardice and you will be reviled by just about everybody.  But don’t worry!’

Specifically, in the context of Mark’s Gospel written for a Christian community living through the war years of 64-70 AD, or perhaps just after, these words seem to reflect the reality of the terror of those years.  Like the rest of the Jewish population, it seems Christians faced the choice between fleeing the reprisals of the Roman armies or joining a futile resistance.  According to the ancient historian, Eusebius, most Christians fled but perhaps some joined the revolt against the Romans, sure that this was how they could be most faithful to Jesus’ message of liberation and the incoming reign of God.  Later again, Christians would be specifically targeted in the pogroms of the Emperor Nero and around 90 AD would come the final break between Christianity and Judaism. 

Jesus knew there were dark days up ahead for his followers.  Yet he also knew what we now know – that in the days and weeks after his own death his disciples would experience the life-changing reality of his resurrection life.  We know this for sure, because we ourselves are the evidence that they were transformed from a frightened and bewildered group of individuals caught up in events beyond their control, into a powerful and coherent witness of hope.

The gospels are very clear that this group of men and women were not very special.  We know they had difficulty hearing what Jesus was trying to tell them.  We know they were self-centred and afraid to commit themselves to Jesus’ costly way of love – just like us.  We know that Jesus’ prediction of suffering and strife came true for most of them.  But the promise of our own final transformation is also guaranteed in this little group of frightened country bumpkins who did listen, and who were faithful, who experienced the truth of the resurrection and who changed the world.

Because you and I are also disciples, and we live in our own time of challenge and suffering.  These things, as Jesus assures us, are not the end but they are the beginning.  The beginning of the gospel, the beginning of the salvation of the whole world, the beginning of the inbreaking of the reign of God, the beginning of the church.  And beginnings do involve pain, as any woman who has ever been in labour will be glad to affirm.  But beginnings are also alive with hope and possibility. 

Faithfulness to the gospel does not insulate us from suffering, but draws us deeper into the heart of it.  In every age there is evil to be confronted and goodness to be discerned and encouraged.  In every age there is catastrophe to be faced with courage, and joy to be celebrated.  In our own lives there is both heartache and blessing.

Jesus’ promise is not that we will be kept safe from the tribulations of routine history, or of our own lives, nor that we will be carried through it so it doesn’t really affect us, but that we will be transformed by it.  I remember former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser getting into trouble – and in fact becoming famous for the snobby-sounding utterance “life wasn’t meant to be easy”.  It’s half-true, and that’s the problem.  But as he explained years later, he had been quoting a line from the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: "Life wasn't meant to be easy, my child, but take courage: it can be delightful!"  It’s precisely in the struggle to be people of both realism and hope that we experience grace, and that we are transformed into who God intends us to be.  It’s the same promise that we hear in Revelation, chapter 21: ”And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (21:3-4)

My friend, who eventually had a beautiful baby boy after an epic 24 hour labour, would surely agree.




Saturday, November 07, 2009

Pentecost 23

Seventy one years ago tonight was the night that changed the world, the night whose ugly consequences are still unfolding in the world we live in, the night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.  The night on which the Nazi regime in Germany, supremely confident of its power, unleashed a wave of vicious riots against its own Jewish population that by morning had seen the destruction of 267 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses, untold numbers of Jewish homes, hospitals and schools, and left 91 Jewish people dead.  For years, Nazi propaganda had systematically demonised and blamed Jews for the problems faced by ordinary Germans – hyperinflation, unemployment, loss of confidence – the consequences of the humiliating terms laid down at Versailles.  Kristallnacht translated German insecurity into Jewish terror.

It’s not just a German phenomenon.  Human beings react to insecurity by trying to see the world in black and white categories.  When we are faced with situations beyond our control, whether financial insecurity, war or climate change, human beings look for scapegoats, we project the blame for fearful situations onto those who are different from us, whose language or religion are different from ours.  Kristallnacht paints in stark and fearful terms the dilemma faced by human beings who feel powerless in a world of instability and shifting power – how do you feel safe?

Over recent months we’ve seen an echo of this in our own, largely tolerant, country - as the nightly news brings us images of asylum-seekers arriving on Ashmore reef or intercepted by military vessels further north in the Indonesian Archipelago.  It exposes a deep division in our national psyche, a raw nerve we thought had long since healed over.  How welcoming are we?  Are we secure enough to react with compassion to the obvious distress and the basic human need of families, men and women and children forced away from their homes by conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Sri Lanka to soften our hearts? Or will we react defensively, fearful for our economic well-being, our national security?  A caller on talk-back radio last week told us he had a sure solution for the problem of asylum-seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking refusing to leave the vessel and go to the detention centre the Indonesian authorities have prepared for them.  ‘Just tow them out to sea and sink the vessel’, he told the radio announcer.  ‘Then they’ll get off for sure’.  Global conflict, terrorism, global financial crisis, global climate change.  In a world where tens of millions of people are displaced by events beyond their control, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of desperate people see our own country as a safe refuge, how do we ourselves feel safe?

The story of Ruth and Naomi is perhaps a good reminder.  Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, is a refugee twice over.  With her husband, Elimelech, she has fled her home in Bethlehem, a town whose name, ironically enough, means ‘house of bread’, to escape a fearful famine.  Elimelech and Naomi find refuge in Moab, again ironically enough, as Moab was a feared enemy-state, one of the ‘ axis of evil’ states that the invading armies of Israel believed God had ordered them to destroy.  Ten years later, on the deaths of her husband and her two sons, Naomi is forced out of her home yet again.  She wants to change her name from Naomi, which means, ‘pleasant’, to Mara, which means ‘bitter’.  Fair enough, and to make matters worse her clingy daughter-in-law Ruth, also newly-widowed, refuses to abandon her.  It’s hard to imagine two more fragile individuals – the middle-aged Naomi returning to her home country without a husband, and Ruth the feared Moabite, venturing into a foreign country without friends, family or prospects.

Naomi, fortunately, is nothing if not wily.  The younger woman can work, the older one knows the ropes.  She knows, for example, that family obligation is the glue that holds her community together, even for a widow who traditionally was regarded as little more than a liability.  And she hatches a plan.  Firstly, Ruth must go into the barley harvest to glean the stray heads dropped by the young men cutting the standing grain and gathering it together.  This isn’t particularly presumptuous, in ancient societies it was a sort of social safety net, more or less the equivalent of the dole.  In fact the Law of Moses commanded it, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 9 says when you harvest your field you are not to reap to the very edge or gather in all the loose grain, you have to leave some for the poor and the alien – and then in verse 10 comes the reason why: because I am the Lord your God.  The implication is clear as crystal – when you were aliens in Egypt God had compassion on you.  So what do you reckon you should be doing?

So Ruth goes gleaning in the field of Boaz, who Naomi tells her is a relative, and so has an obligation to her.  Here’s something else to notice – Ruth, the foreigner, the enemy alien, actually has a tenuous status in this strange foreign land because she belongs to Naomi.  And she does pretty well because the righteous Boaz not only respects her right to glean but goes further than the Law of Moses demands, telling his workers to deliberately leave some standing grain for her.

But Naomi has an even more cunning plan which, for all the euphemisms and indirect hints, we recognise as nothing less than the instruction to Ruth to offer herself to Boaz on the threshing floor, traditionally a symbol of fertility and a scene of merrymaking and high jinks when the harvest had been brought in.  And it might have been an OK plan except for the integrity of Ruth, and the compassionate integrity of Boaz.  And perhaps the plan of God.

I have to say, I can’t understand the writers of the lectionary who unfailingly leave out all the most exciting bits.  Suffice it to say, in ancient Israel feet are a euphemism for something else – but far from uncovering the feet of Boaz, Ruth reveals her growing understanding of the local customs by delicately suggesting to Boaz that she is available for marriage and inviting him, as her nearest kinsman, to ‘spread his cloak over her’, in other words, to take responsibility for her.  Boaz, as she finds out a few moments later, is actually not her nearest kinsman – Naomi has gilded the lily a bit on that one too – not the relative who, according to the Law of Moses, was sort of obliged to marry the dead man’s widow to ensure the continuation of his lineage.  But the story ends well because Boaz – perhaps influenced just a bit by the fact that Ruth is rather a smasher, again goes one better than the Law of Moses demands, out-manoeuvring the actual next-of-kin in order to marry Ruth, thus ensuring that the great King David would have as a great-great grandmother – and Jesus a great-great-great ...great-great grandmother - a woman who for all time has been regarded as the epitome of courage and loyalty, even if she was a refugee Moabite who God had commanded his people to wipe out. 

So if it’s not ethnicity, or religion, or blood ties, what is the basis of our deepest obligations to one another?

Our Gospel story this morning shows Jesus, in the Temple during the last week of his life, giving us a clue what he thinks the answer to that question might be.  If you thought, when you heard this reading, I’d be telling you that Jesus thinks this widow putting her last 20 cents into the collection plate was a good idea and that you should do exactly the same thing, then you’re wrong because there’s absolutely no indication in the story that Jesus thinks it’s a good idea at all.  Before this lady comes along Jesus has been pointing to a whole bunch of priests, and maybe the odd bishop, dressed up in our long robes looking all holy, and he says to his disciples, ‘watch out for them, this lot exploits little old ladies’.  And when she puts her two little coins into the collection plate and he hears the little chink, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘see, that’s all she had to live on.  The bigwigs – not, in my own defence, just the clergy but in the context of ancient Israel also the professional classes and public servants, maybe merchant bankers thrown in for good measure as well - being socially respectable and outwardly pious doesn’t cost that lot anything at all really, but it’s the poor who suffer from what they preach. 

And when the disciples say, ‘yes, but look at this great church – after all, it’s going to take a fair bit to maintain it and every little helps’, Jesus tells them the Temple doesn’t matter – it’s all going to be rubble in a few years anyway.  Priests come and go – so they tell me – what matters is compassion.  What matters is that God’s gifts are meant for giving back to God – through acts of compassion and justice.  Jesus in this story is telling us that compassion out-trumps religion, that recognising and responding to human need is where God’s priority number one lies.

The point is that God’s perspective on kinship and social obligation is wider than ours, God’s perspective on what matters and who matters cuts right across every human institution.  God doesn’t recognise national boundaries – wouldn’t you think a people whose whole history was based on God’s remembering them when they were slaves in Egypt would have cottoned onto that?  God doesn’t recognise kinship boundaries that include some people and exclude others – wouldn’t you think a people who believed God had created all human beings in his own image would have understood that?  God doesn’t believe in religion when that religion is used as a way of saying that some of us are OK and loved by God and that others are wrong and dangerous and should be kept out.  Wouldn’t you think a people who believe God took on human DNA in Jesus would realise that all human life is holy?

Taking a God’s-eye view of the world we live in means putting compassion ahead of self-interest, ahead of national interest, and especially it means remembering the humanity of those whose difference and whose desperation makes them an object of fear.  It means, like Boaz, going one better than you have to in practising hospitality and welcome.  It means refusing to live in fear, even in a world of danger.  It means remembering that God’s blessings are for giving, never for keeping.  And it means finding your own security in the God who created you.