Pastor Paul E. Hoffman
Midweek Lenten Eucharist, Lent 1
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the hallway by the main office, there is a piece of art, a gift from the estate of Paul and Ruth Manz. It is flanked by a simple placard that says, Mary and Elizabeth, artist unknown.
There they are, faithful women, in near-fetal positions, nestled like twins in a womb, held in a circle of God’s enveloping love. It turns out that this is a case of mistaken identity.
Today’s texts, as well as the first promise of the baptismal affirmation liturgy, call us into just such a circle of God’s enveloping love. It is a simple, though not easy, invitation: to live among God’s faithful people. It is an identity we are invited to embrace, and there is no mistaken identity about it.
Each text in its own way gives witness to both the joy and the task of living among God’s faithful people. Ruth is challenged by a trial too great for her sister-in-law, Orpah, to leave her own land and people and strike out in a way that she perceives is faithful – the way of care and compassion for an elder whose prospects are as good as dead.
The psalmist paints a cheerier picture of life among the faithful. It is almost a dance – a joyous and messy frolic – oil running down the beard and robes of Aaron.
Paul being Paul gets more cerebral, comparing our kinship with one another to a human body, driving home the point that we are not clones, but more like complimentary organs whose individual functions contribute to the health and well-being of all. And then Paul, again being Paul, adds a coda to his body-symphony reminding us that whether we are a hand or a foot, a heart, a lung, or maybe even an armpit, it is always a gift to let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another, and so on.
Finally, Jesus comes in like a closer. Love one another as I have loved you. That’s all. Actually, not quite. Bear fruit that will last. There you go. Love one another a Christ loves you. And bear fruit that will last.
Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism? To live among God’s faithful people? Think carefully. Because while one day it may be as joyful as a dance of oil running down the beard and onto the collar of one’s robe, the next it might be as complicated as being ripped from your home and people to follow a relative that you hardly know but who seems to have some sort of hold on you. Living among God’s faithful people can be as beautiful as a body working together in perfect harmony and as disastrous as fruit you thought would last that is rotting on the vine.
The Bible is a great book and all, but one of the things it continually lays before us is the bane and the blessing of life together in the body of Christ. It might be everlasting. But it’s not always beautiful. Or accurate. And rarely what we planned.
Just last week our administrative assistant, Cha, discovered – through some research on the Internet that that really isn’t Mary and Elizabeth in the artwork that hangs outside her office at all. On the artist’s website, it clearly identifies the women as Ruth and Naomi.
But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ruth and Naomi or if it’s Mary and Elizabeth. Because either way, they are part of a larger story. They are part of the story of living among God’s faithful people. And so are you. So are you.
That picture is the picture of all God’s faithful people. You’re in that loving womb-like bubble of God’s unending love. And I’m in there, too. And whether that is Mary and Elizabeth or Ruth and Naomi, the grace of God is surrounding them like the oil that runs down the beard of Aaron and onto the collar of his robe. In that amniotic grace of God, the waters of baptism pulsate with life that is as ancient as Eden and as recent as the morning news.
To promise to live among God’s faithful people, as Ruth and Naomi did…
To promise to live among God’s faithful people as Paul imagines us doing as a body working in perfect harmony with itself….
To live among God’s faithful people, as Jesus calls us to do in deep and abiding friendship with one another and with him…
To live among God’s faithful people is not so much a commitment that we are expected to try to live up to as it is a way of life into which our baptism invites us. God desires so deeply that we come inside the picture where Ruth and Naomi are recalled, where Mary and Elizabeth are, where Esther and the woman at the well and Aaron, Moses and Miriam, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Augustine, Luther and Calvin, the hymn writers George Herbert and John and Charles Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, George Floyd, the faithful of this and every place whose songs still resonate deeply from these walls each time we lift our voices to join them…
That is the picture into which God invites us. And it is an amazing picture of an even more amazing grace, where charity and love prevail, if only we will let it.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.