an eddy in the bitstream

Category: religion


This sermon is from November 9, 2003, on the book of Ruth. I had a meaningful phone conversation with John Linton the day before that helped me unpack this one.

Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Ruth. It’s a love story, really. Ruth lives in Moab with her husband and her husband’s family. Her husband is Jewish. When he dies, Ruth decides to return with his mother, Naomi, to Bethlehem in Israel. Naomi tries to convince Ruth to stay in Moab, but in a beautiful and moving speech, Ruth vows to stay with Naomi forever. “Where you go, I will go,” she says, “Your people will be my people and your God, my God.”

All that happens in chapter one. There are three more chapters filled with intrigue and suspense and beautiful images, including a provocative midnight encounter between Ruth and her husband-to-be, Boaz. The story culminates with Boaz pledging himself to Ruth and buying back the family farm, and Ruth bearing a son named Obed.

The story of Ruth is about chesed. chesed is the Hebrew word that is often translated as ‘steadfast love’ or ‘fidelity’ or even ‘mercy.’

chesed is crucial to the preservation of the ideals of family and the nation of Israel. It is through the faithfulness and kindness of Ruth, her chesed, that salvation comes to her, and her mother-in-law Naomi, and ultimately to the entire nation of Israel and the world. Because Ruth’s son Obed has a son named Jesse who has a son named David, the great king of Israel, who in turn is an ancestor of Jesus.

So there is a certain tidy familial economy in this story that some Christians like to focus on: without the faith of Ruth, there is no King David, without whom there is no Jesus. This same reading tends to view Ruth’s chesed as a kind of duty and to hold her up as a moral example of someone whom God blesses because she has done her duty.

I don’t like that reading, because it makes it seem like Ruth and her story exist only to have a baby, a certain very important baby in Judeo-Christian history. This is the same kind of reductionism that certain teachings about Jesus’s mother Mary can fall into. I don’t like those either.

It is possible to read the book of Ruth as if it is government-sponsored media, a prime-time family drama meant to inspire the Jews to great acts of sacrifice in the name of the family and the nation. As you might expect, I don’t like that reading either.

I hear something else going on in Ruth. The first thing I notice is that while Ruth is the central figure in the story, she is not Jewish. This casts her chesed, her acts of kindness, loyalty and fidelity into a very different light. The key thing about chesed is that it is free. chesed is like a strong desire for someone. You show chesed for someone else the way you show love and devotion for someone. The text is very clear that Ruth is not Jewish but that she becomes Jewish through her chesed. It is as if Ruth is adopted, not just into Naomi’s family, but into the family of Israel. She is a foreigner who acts with loyalty, and it is her loyalty, her faithfulness and not her ethnicity, that identifies her as part of the Jewish family.

The second thing that I notice about the text is that God is not a character. God is referred to several times, but unlike other books of the bible, God never makes an appearance, or sends a message, or communicates, really, in any explicit way with the other characters.

If we read the bible everywhere as if it was about Jesus, I have to ask: who acts like Jesus in this story, if God is not there to do it explicitly? You might think it was Boaz, who responds to Ruth by honoring her and redeeming her and the family. But I think it is Ruth who acts the most like Jesus. She initiates the commitment. She is the first one to say to Naomi, I will be with you always, lo, even unto the end of the age. And unlike the disciple Peter, she is good to her word and doesn’t desert Naomi when things get tough. It is Ruth’s act of love and fidelity, her chesed, that inspires Boaz and redeems everyone.

I like this reading, of the foreign woman as the Jesus figure. But that reading still seems a little too moralistic, as if we have simply replaced the moral imperative of ‘do your duty’ with a kinder, gentler moral imperative of ‘love one another.’

Today’s texts could be read as moral examples: be like this, and God will bless you. Be faithful to your human commitments — family, the church — and God will bless you. God rewards those who are faithful to God. There’s a problem in my mind with that reading: the implied opposite. If bad things happen, if the curse comes instead of the blessing, it is the fault of the faithless human beings. Your child died because you failed to pray; you lost your job because you didn’t give enough money to the church; you ended up in hell because you didn’t have enough faith. We learn from the book of Job that that kind of faith, the faith that says God rewards and punishes based on how good we are, is a false kind of faith. It is the kind of faith that props up governments, institutions, even churches, but it is a false kind of faith.

It is this kind of moralistic reading, the reading where we hear “do the right thing and the right thing is this,” that turned me off to Christianity many years ago. It feels too simplistic to me, and somehow sinful, to read the bible as if it were a collection of stories that were supposed to instruct and inspire me to do the right thing. While I don’t doubt that it is possible to read the bible that way, and that it is in fact *easier* to read the bible that way, I don’t think it is ultimately faithful to the spirit of the bible to read it that way. The bible is at its best, and I would argue, becomes the word of God, when it tells on itself, when the bible deconstructs itself. So I’m looking for the crack, the chink in the armor of the text that points out a backwards way of reading it. Because at least for me, the hardest part of being a believer is not doing the right thing, or even avoiding doing the wrong thing. No, the hardest part of being a believer is learning to receive in the spirit of humility and trust. Learning to receive, whether it be forgiveness, or a blessing, or simply a really good sandwich that someone else has prepared for me.

It is much easier to receive in the sense of being owed, of meriting whatever it is I am being given. “I deserve this promotion because I have worked hard. I merit this blessing because I have given so much to the church. I am owed this because I have given that.” That kind of receiving comes out of fear: fear that maybe I don’t really deserve what I am being given. Fear that it will be taken away. Fear that I will be exposed as not being worthy of the gift. And learning to live *not* out of fear, but instead out of trust, seems to me to be the hardest thing.

Ruth feels to me like someone who lives out of trust. What if Ruth had acted out of fear? She likely would have stayed with her people in Moab and never gone with Naomi. She would not have risked the embarrassment of going to Boaz in the night. Her trust isn’t just blind optimism either. She is newly widowed, probably in a lot of grief, and she makes this incredibly brave vow never to leave Naomi. Why such attachment? I don’t know. The story doesn’t say. Maybe it’s as simple as Ruth loved Naomi.

What the text does say is that everyone who heard the story of Ruth was impressed by it. That tells me that I am not alone in thinking Ruth was doing something unusual. Ruth seems to live in a place I’d like to get to: she acts with hope and trust, not fear and not optimism. She displays an incredible amount of trust in going with Naomi in the first place. She’s in a foreign country with foreign customs. She must rely totally upon the kindness of strangers. Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. The Jewish law proscribed that during the harvest, poor people could follow the harvesters and glean the grain that was left behind in the fields. Ruth takes the initiative and goes out gleaning to support herself and Naomi. While she is gleaning in the fields of Boaz, the owner himself shows up and after hearing from his workers the story of Ruth and Naomi, he offers her protection and invites her to glean in his fields for the duration of the harvest.

A kind of romantic tension emerges with Boaz and Ruth. In my mind, Ruth shows the most trust when at Naomi’s direction she goes at night and in this strange encounter with Boaz, basically says, marry me. Read it. It’s pretty racy, as my mother would say.

The images of the harvest and gleaning in the fields get at the the kind of trust I am trying to describe. It’s the kind of trust that a farmer or gardener must have. You put the seeds in the ground; you water them; you weed the soil. You do the work, knowing that all you are really doing is just making it easier for the growth to happen. You don’t make the seeds grow into something good and beautiful. You can’t make the sky rain or shine, you can’t control the blight of insects or disease. But you can do the work, knowing that ultimately the outcome of your work is totally out of your control.

And then there is the harvest. You receive back so much more than you have put in. You do all the work in the hope that it will pay off, but you are not guaranteed anything. You, the farmer, you can’t make a deal with God where you put in your 80 hour weeks and God rewards you with a good crop. No. There’s more trust in the relationship than that.

I think Ruth, and Naomi and Boaz are great examples. Not moral examples, in the sense of embodying the best principles of their culture and time, but great human examples, in the sense of acting out of trust and love and fidelity.

Hard work to bring in the harvest. The hardest kind of work, really, at least in the spiritual sense. Like coming to the table where the meal has already been prepared for you. You can’t do any work to make it happen; you can only learn to receive it in a spirit of humility and trust.

Why I Hate Matthew

Below is the text of a sermon I preached on November 3, 2002. It was the Sunday just after Paul and Sheila Wellstone died, suddenly and tragically, in a plane crash, just before the election. That election was important because President Bush was beating the war drum and Wellstone, a hero of mine, was an outspoken opponent of the war. It was very hard, at the time, not to see something nefarious in his death and how it affected the election.

What’s missing from the written text is that in my delivery near the end, I started to cry and had to stop. I recall feeling vulnerable and making a half-serious joke about hating that moment, which in the moment gave everyone a little relief from laughter.

I was thinking about that moment this week, as I’ve been doing some writing about shame. I wanted to make sure I had not lost this sermon, so posting here now.

Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

I can’t really talk about today’s text without talking about the irony I feel at the very fact that I am up here. After all, I have studiously avoided preaching or even attending a bible study in the five years that I have regularly attended the House of Mercy. So I chose to make my debut with a text that is, on the face of it, plainly opposed to the idea that anyone in the community of Jesus should stand up and teach the others. I could say that I volunteered to preach on this text to save our usual preachers the indignity of squirming their way out of the implications of this text for their chosen vocations. But that would be a lie. I’m not particularly altruistic or selfless. I resemble more the Pharisee than I do the disciple of Jesus.

In fact, as I read over this text for the thousandth time this afternoon, I realized that I have chosen to do a very stupid thing in trying to preach on it. Very stupid in the sense that whatever I say is going to be tainted by the text itself. Usually it’s the other way around, that as a preacher, you try and get out of the way of the text and make yourself invisible. It seems that with this text, however, that to do it justice is to stand and take the bullet, to step in the way of the oncoming train.

Soren Kierkegaard says that irony is the boundary land between the ethical life and the religious life, so if that is true, it seems to me that in order to understand this text, and to try and hear some good news in it, we must venture through irony. We’re no strangers to irony here at House of Mercy, but I’d like to make a distinction when I talk about it tonight. I don’t mean the kind of hip, cynical irony that I, like some of you, tend to banter around. That’s the kind of cheap, imitation irony that is really just a mask for fear. No, the kind of irony I’d like to look at in this text is the irreducible kind, the kind that is a real, inscrutable tension that can’t be passed off flippantly, or resolved by clever words, but must be lived out and experienced, because it is ultimately emotional and relational.

If verbal irony is when you say one thing and really mean another, the emotional irony I’m talking about is when you say one thing is true, and the opposite thing is also true. This is a paradox, a little like the Tom Waits lyric, “I’m glad that you’re gone, and I wish to the Lord you’d come home.”

You see, I’m deeply afraid of this text. I’m afraid because I know that I resemble more the person who does not practice what he teaches, who loves the place of honor at the banquet. I would be just tickled to have people call me ‘rabbi’. I am afraid because I know that inevitably this means that I will be humiliated. Perhaps this is the moment when it comes to pass.

So if you will pretend with me, just for a moment, that I am not doomed from the start, and that maybe there is some good news, even for me, in this text, let’s dig in.

The gospel means good news, but most of the words in this book are bad news, particularly for the Pharisees. Matthew’s Jesus is not a nice person. He’s constantly antagonizing the Pharisees, who don’t seem to have done anything to provoke Jesus, except to simply be who they are. I didn’t know much about the Pharisees when I started writing this sermon; maybe you don’t either. Here’s a little history.

The Pharisees were a group of Jews who first emerged more than 100 years before Jesus was born. Most of what we know about them comes from the Christian scriptures, where they are always depicted as sanctimonious hypocrites, legalistic, and cold-hearted bastards. They are always portrayed as the opposite of Jesus.

The other place we hear about them is from the Jewish historian Josephus, who claimed that the Pharisees were popular, faithful scholars who valued tradition and the sacred texts, simple living and ‘cultivated harmonious relations with others.’

It’s hard to understand how these two descriptions can be about the same group of people. What’s more interesting, I think, is that the Pharisees were probably the most liberal of the Jewish religious sects. They had the most flexible interpretation of the Jewish law, they believed in both divine providence and the free will of human beings, they believed that a person’s soul survives death and is punished or rewarded, in the resurrection of the body, and that the messiah was a son of David.

The Pharisees were, in other words, right on the same page with Jesus.

In today’s text we can see that Jesus thought so too. Jesus begins by saying, in verses 2 and 3, that what the Pharisees say is not in itself wrong.

At this point, I feel pretty suspicious of Matthew. It feels like the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel account is as venomous as the Pharisees he criticizes. In fact, it feels to me that Jesus and the Pharisees are more like feuding brothers, or quibbling siblings, or quarreling lovers, than like bitter enemies. It feels like Jesus might have some more, unspoken feelings toward the Pharisees than just animosity.

At least, those feeling are unspoken in Matthew’s gospel. It’s interesting to compare Matthew with the gospel of Mark in this regard. Matthew mentions the Pharisees more than twice (29) as many times as Mark (12). But in Mark, Jesus feels as much grief as anger. In Matthew, the explicit grief disappears, and we are left with all anger, all the time.

One of the most difficult things about loving those that are closest to us, is that it is very difficult to hold our anger and our grief together at the same time. And yet, not to do that is to be dishonest about our experience. The thing that is hardest about loving our families, friends, and partners, is that we have expectations of them, even if those expectations are never said out loud. Expectations that they will act toward us, will love us, just like we want them to. Sometimes, even needing to say things out loud is the biggest disappointment, since we really want those closest to us to read our minds.

I wonder if Jesus and the Pharisees are a little like brothers. Jesus’ chief complaint wasn’t that the Pharisees believed the wrong thing, but that they were obsessed with believing the right thing, and their obsession was getting in the way of their ability to love other people. Maybe he was most upset that they weren’t loving him the way he wanted them to.

You should know that I am the eldest son of four siblings. I have one brother. Like most brothers, we fight. Mostly, we fight because we are alike. Our biggest fight is over religion. The irony here is that we both grew up hating the Pharisees. And now, there’s a little bit of that sanctimonious pharisee in both of us.

I love my brother. I love him dearly. And no one makes me as angry as my brother. I think we know this about each other. I get angry at him, mostly, because I want him to be more like me, to see things more my way, to agree with me. He doesn’t. He has a profound experience of life that is all his own, and it is not my experience. Last spring he was here in town, and we had a very nice conversation. It was nice because I felt like both of us were able to say things about how we really felt to one another.

I’m always a little shaky, talking to those closest to me about how I feel. Because it requires me to not be smart, at least with my head. Instead, I have to talk out of my gut, which I’m not particularly good at. I feel weak. This is one of my identifying ironies, that the thing that is most important for me to do is the thing that I resist the most.

I wonder if this isn’t true in Matthew’s gospel as well. Jesus and the Pharisees were both steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. If family is at the heart of what it is to be human, then dysfunctional family, and particularly fraternal rivalry, is at the heart of the Jewish scriptures. Think of all the stories about feuding brothers. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and most famously, Joseph and his many brothers. (I’m aware that in the Jewish scripture, sisters are painfully absent from these stories, which is no doubt the subject of another sermon).

These brothers suffer jealousy and rage, and compete for what they perceive as limited resources: for attention, love, honor, and inevitably, the blessing of their father. Some of the most famous characters in the Jewish scripture are also the most reprehensible: they lie, cheat, steal and murder their way through the bible, all so that they get the blessing, which is really another way of saying, so that they can inherit the power and love of their parents.

This is a really complicated subject: family, and inheritance, and blessing, and God. It’s complicated for me because of the story of my family. Maybe it’s complicated for you too. I’m going to very intentionally sidestep it and avoid it here, because I don’t know how, in the space of 10 minutes, to broach what is really at the heart of the human experience. This is where I become especially weak.

What I would like to broach, though, is this question: how can we hear some good news in the midst of such a difficult subject? I think I can hear the echo of a way, a signpost, in this text. It isn’t so much what the text says, but what it doesn’t say. I’m interested in the subtext, the context.

I’d like to suggest that the world of Matthew and the Pharisees is more like a sibling rivalry than a fight between the forces of darkness and light. Maybe with that metaphor, we can relax a little about the words that Matthew uses, and instead see them in a bigger emotional context. We can relax because we can identify with what it’s like to be in a struggle with someone that we deeply love. That kind of struggle is complicated. It resists easy answers. It resists cheap moralizing, because it’s a struggle that demands honesty and an honoring of both sides in the struggle.

The first half of the text is basically Jesus saying everything that the Pharisees do wrong. The second half is Jesus talking to his followers about how they should behave differently. The translation ‘you are all students’ in verse 8 is literally in the Greek, ‘you are all brothers’. Don’t worry so much, Jesus seems to be saying, about who is going to be first, who is going to be the favorite, who is going to be the blessed one. There is only one blessed one, and that is Jesus himself, the “greatest among you” who “will be your servant.”

It’s almost as if Jesus is aware of the sibling rivalry, and that he wants to diffuse it. I wonder if maybe Matthew has one intention, and Jesus has another. Here’s what I mean by that.

The first time Matthew mentions the Pharisees in connection with Jesus is immediately after Jesus first calls Matthew to be his disciple. Matthew says that the Pharisees ask Jesus disciples why he is eating with “tax collectors and sinners”.

To my ear, that is a strange phrase. Tax collectors and sinners. It immediately makes me suspicious, because Matthew was a tax collector.

Matthew, known as Levi in Mark’s gospel, was probably not the author of this gospel, but I would like to think it bears some of his personality. I have no idea what kind of man Matthew was, but here’s a little thought experiment, a little armchair psychology, based solely on his profession of tax collector. This was the person responsible for carrying out the economic will of the empire. The tax collector represented the economic disparity between the empire and those people whom it ruled; he represented the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’. Matthew worked for the Man, which put him in social limbo. Though he worked for the empire, the empire didn’t really want him. He was a necessary, disposable local convenience. Any other local, with some arithmetic skills and without the strength to resist the will of the empire, would do just as well.

And the Jews, the Pharisees especially, hated him. The Pharisees were about piety and sanctity and purity, and Matthew was a sell-out, a co-conspirator, weakling, unable to resist the lure of a little power and a little coin. So Matthew was really a nobody, not wanted anywhere, a misfit, an outsider. Just the kind of person Jesus seemed to gravitate towards.

I imagine that this gospel was written by a man who deeply loved Jesus, and who was at the same time, deeply ashamed of who he was and what he had done. One of the most common ways that people react when they feel ashamed, is to become angry, combative, belligerent, as if to protect the person inside who feels so exposed and embarrased. I hear that shame in Matthew: polemical, harsh, angry, so critical towards the Jews — his own people who have rejected him, and rejected the person who has taken Matthew under his wing. And because Matthew is ashamed of all that he is and had done, as a pawn of the empire, and because he found in Jesus someone who was not ashamed to call him by name and make him his friend and disciple, Matthew wants to defend Jesus, like a brother defends his brother on the playground. But like Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to his death, I wonder if Jesus really wants a defender.

When I read this gospel, I imagine Matthew puffing out his chest and throwing his weight around, lashing out at the people who he feels are his enemies, the people who hurt him.

All the gospels attest that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees. But Matthew leaves out the grief. He doesn’t hold it in tension with the anger, and I strongly suspect that it was because Matthew himself was so pissed off at the Pharisees.

I wonder if the scene here isn’t more like Matthew and the Pharisees as the siblings, and Jesus as the parent. That’s what I mean about Jesus having an agenda that is different than Matthew’s. Matthew seems to want to just crush the Pharisees beneath his heel; Jesus wants to heal the rift between all people.

Maybe, if I’m more like Matthew and the Pharisees, this is the good news that I need to hear. It’s this: Jesus has intentions that are not mine. Jesus wants things that I do not want. And if like Matthew I feel ashamed of who I am, and want to cover myself with the fig leaf of intellect or clever words, Jesus sees right through that and sees me as I am. And Jesus is not ashamed to call me his brother.

I don’t know exactly what good news to bring to you, other than myself. What I am is full of anger and grief and shame. I know that’s dark, and you’d probably rather not hear it. I would rather not hear it either. But if the gospel is anything, it is the good word that no matter how much we resist hearing it, it will not be overcome. No matter how much darkness we find in ourselves, no matter how much fear, God is not afraid to go in and find us, and to bring us out into the light.

It’s a dark time in the world. I’ve spent the last week especially, feeling sad and angry. I’ve been angry and sad with the world, and angry and sad with God. I think that must be the way it is sometimes with those that we love the most. But like the moment of clarity with my brother last spring, when we laid down our arms and spoke the truth to each other, I have hope that my anger and grief is not forever, that it is not the last word on the subject, that ultimately the last word is God’s, and that it is a good word, a word that welcomes us home, welcomes us to the table, where we eat with our sisters and brothers.

Bart Campolo

[This is a letter I just sent to the New York Times magazine editor. They won’t print it, so I am posting it here.]

I was not surprised to read about Bart Campolo’s move to secular humanism, nor that the evangelical community “has barely noticed.” American evangelicalism has always been less about what you believe and more about how you believe. Evangelical theology functions more as a shibboleth than an orthodoxy.

Bart’s father knew this. I will always remember hearing Tony preach 25 years ago in my midwestern college chapel service. In the heat of his sermon he would say the word “shit” and observe immediately that we were more disturbed by hearing that word than by the poverty and hopelessness he was describing. Words signify which camp we belong to as much as anything.

Those of us who leave the religious traditions of our childhoods don’t so easily leave the psychological patterns those traditions imprint. The toilet paper sticks to your shoe even after the bathroom door swings shut. Noticing that about yourself, and freeing yourself from the endless repetition, is a lifetime’s work. I’m glad if Bart has found a certain relief in his new belief system. He still smells like an evangelical to me.

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