Part of God’s Family

Just to get things rolling…here’s the first sermon I preached at Arlington Temple back on June 30, 2013.

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18

Today I want to tell the story of two women, and how they became part of families they never knew they had.  One of those women is Ruth.  We just heard the beginning of her story.  The other one is me.  That’s because I think it’s important for you all to know who this new person up here is claiming to preach God’s word to you, and why I’m here.  But I hope that as I tell the story of these two women you will realize it is about all of you, too—men and women, young and old.  I hope that this will be a story about the different ways God calls all of us to become part of a new family.

I like to think of the passage we just heard from Ruth as a call story.  I don’t think it’s usually thought of that way.  After all, Ruth never saw the hem of God’s robe filling the Temple like Isaiah.  She didn’t hear God ask, “Whom shall I send?” like we sang earlier.  Ruth wasn’t struck down blind on a road somewhere like Paul.  Ruth didn’t see a burning bush, and there was no angel that visited her in the night.  She didn’t even get the simple clarity of a direct instruction, like when Jesus tells his first disciples to follow him and they drop their nets and follow, no questions asked.  So you might say that as a call story, Ruth’s story lacks a certain pizzazz.

But still I think Ruth’s story is a call story, because in it I see something of my own call story.  I realized that one day in seminary.  I had an assignment for one of my classes to write about my call to ministry and how it related to a biblical call story.  At the time I had never done that before.  And so I thought, and as I went through the mental checklist of good biblical call stories—Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Matthew—none of them seemed to help me say what I wanted to say about how I had felt God pulling me in a certain direction.  But around the same time that I was thinking about this we were translating Ruth in my Hebrew class.  And so there I was sprawled on the floor of my apartment one day with Ruth open in front of me and I thought, well, that could work.

Ruth never got some big lightning-bolt sign from God.  But neither did I.  And the amazing thing is, even without that, Ruth followed.  Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi back to Judah, where she had never been and where she didn’t know anyone and where, as a Moabite woman, she was sure to be disliked.  Why would Ruth do that?  What made her go?  Even when her sister-in-law Orpah turned back, what made Ruth go?  It was a relationship.  Ruth realized she was part of Naomi’s family, and her call was simply to act like it.

This wasn’t a traditional family.  These weren’t two women who you would expect to call each other family.  One was an Israelite and one was a Moabite.  As a rule, Israelites and Moabites didn’t like each other much.  They weren’t supposed to be hanging around each other, let alone marrying each other. Sometimes the two groups went to war.  And yet this unlikely duo head off to Judah with nothing but each other.  Ruth’s call from God that she followed all the way to Judah wasn’t a lightning bolt.  It was a relationship.

You know, when I started with this whole assignment of relating my call story to a biblical one, I thought of it mostly as a formality.  I knew the elements of my own story.  Every pastor has multiple versions of their call story on hand, so you can be ready to whip out the right one depending on whether you’re talking to the Board of Ordained Ministry or someone in line at Starbucks who innocently asks what you do.  So I thought all I had to do was make my story sound a certain way that the professor wanted it.  But as I wrote that paper something happened.  I began to believe it.  I began to believe that Ruth and I had more in common than I had ever realized.  Because the thing is, the best words that I have to describe why I became a pastor and why I’m here in front of you today are words about family and relationships.  And not just any relationships, but relationships that just a few years earlier I would have never expected to be a part of.

I grew up going to church.  I went to Epiphany UMC, just a few miles down the road in Vienna, almost every week from the time we moved down the street when I was two until the time I went to college.  And I liked church probably more than the average teenager.  I liked that people knew me and valued my gifts and I liked having opportunities to serve others.  Once a while our youth group went into DC and gave out hotdogs to homeless people in parks and outside Metro stations.  Those were meaningful experiences for me.  I never really got to know any of those people we fed, though.  I also never seriously thought about going into ministry.

So when I got to college, becoming a pastor was the farthest thing from my mind.  I wanted to study international relations, and I wanted to do something awesomely international, like being a Peace Corps Volunteer and living in a hut for a couple years.  Then I wanted to maybe be in the Foreign Service or work for an organization like USAID or do some sort of international human rights law.  Ironically, some of those are things that also could have led me here to Rosslyn for a time!

But in college a couple of things happened.  Like I said, there was no one lightning bolt moment, just a couple of things.  One was that I took a human rights class my first semester and we read part of a book by Desmond Tutu.  I had never heard of Desmond Tutu.  We were reading about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid ended.  We just read a chapter of this book for class, but I was so fascinated by it that I read the whole thing that winter break.  And I thought, here is someone who is doing all the kinds of good things that I want to do in the world—but he is doing them as a priest.  He’s doing them in the name of God.  I began to think that my faith was inseparable from all the other things I wanted to do.

Another thing was that I took my first religion class.  It was an Old Testament class, and frankly I expected it to be a little boring.  But that professor brought the Hebrew Bible to life and I fell in love with the Bible for the first time.  For the first time it wasn’t just something I was supposed to read to be a good Christian; it was a wonderful collection of stories and humor and drama and challenging words from prophets who felt such a fire in their bones that they couldn’t do anything but speak out.

But the biggest thing was that during the time that I was in college, I got involved in the community in Williamsburg and traveled some and I met people.  There was A’sheanna.  She was my little sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters.  She was in kindergarten when I started going to visit her at school once a week.  I helped her read and she let me play jump rope and freeze tag with her and her friends at recess.

I met Maung.  He was one of the sushi chefs at the college.  I tutored Maung in English as a second language for a while.  He hooked me up with free veggie rolls.

I met Helen.  She was a woman whose house we painted on a spring break mission trip to Asheville with the Wesley Foundation.  She was 85 and she still volunteered in the community several times a week.  She also sang and danced with us as we worked.  Helen was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever met.  She told us that she didn’t plan on going to Hell, but if she did, she would find a little corner to be by herself and just be happy now and then.

And there were others, people who came into and out of my life more quickly.  There were nursing home residents who told good stories.  There were homeless people who I actually got to share a meal with on a trip to a soup kitchen rather than just handing them a hotdog.  There were people in other countries who welcomed me into their homes as a complete stranger.

These people were Naomi to me.  They were people I never would have expected to know, but at some point, I realized that my lot was cast with all of them.

Junior and senior year of college I worked at my church’s Respite Care program, which was a day care for elderly and special needs adults.  Respite was an odd mix of people if I ever saw one.  The participants ranged from disabled eighteen year olds to 90 year olds with dementia.  One day I was sitting around the lunch table at Respite and I looked around and I saw Josie, a nervous old woman with Parkinson’s disease.  I saw Denny, who couldn’t talk, but who howled with laughter whenever something funny happened.  I saw Maureen, who was the most cheerful blind quadriplegic you’ve ever met in your life.  And there were a handful of caretakers and college volunteers.  I looked around that table and I was able to formulate this thought that had been developing for some time—this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.  This is what Jesus was talking about. Because we are all so different, but we’re a family.

So that was how I found myself at the end of college, part of this big, beautiful, diverse family that I never knew I had.  It was my family because it was God’s family.

In a way I think Ruth was lucky.  Ruth may not have had a lightning bolt call moment from God, but she knew what she had to do.  She knew that Naomi was headed to Judah and that she had to go with her, because that’s what being Naomi’s family meant.  But it was a long time before I knew what that meant for me and most of the time I think I’m still figuring it all out.  All I knew was that now that I knew who my family was, I was supposed to keep actively being part of that family.  Maybe that would mean doing some sort of social justice work outside the walls of the church.  Or maybe it would mean working inside the walls of a church and throwing the doors open wide.  It was a while before I decided that pastoral ministry was where God wanted me, but to me this is the best combination of it all—I get to work with you all to welcome and serve our sisters and brothers in God’s name.  And so here I am.

I did tell you at the beginning that this was supposed to not just be a story about me, but about all of you.  I believe that God calls us all to different tasks and in different ways.  Maybe some of you really have had that Damascus road experience where all of a sudden everything changed.  Maybe others of you, like me, have felt yourself gradually and haltingly pulled in a certain direction, and looking back you see God’s hand in that.  Maybe some of you are still searching not only for what your call in life is but also for the One who is calling you.  None of our stories are the same.

And yet I believe that no matter what the specifics are—no matter whether they involve fire and booming voices or just that still small voice, no matter whether they point us to pastoral ministry or the secular business world or government work—to be a Christian is to be someone who God calls, over and over, to rethink the idea of who our family is.  It happened to Ruth.  It happened to the crowds who were told they must “hate” their father and mother and wives and children in order to be a disciple of Jesus.  And it’s something even Jesus has to rethink in his own life and ministry, when someone tells him his family is waiting to speak to him, and he responds, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

I hope that here at Arlington Temple we will be able to continually challenge each other to think of ourselves as part of God’s family in new ways.  I’m new here, but I have an idea of what God’s family might look like here.  I know it will include DC natives and people born halfway around the world, federal workers and people who sleep on the street, students, businesspeople, people we meet at Appalachian Service Project.  Any one of those people may be your Naomi or mine.

The question is, once we’ve seen who our family is, what are we going to do about it?

We could be like Orpah.  We could kiss Naomi and sadly go along our way back to the same life as before, to live comfortably in Moab among all our familiar people and places.

Or, we could follow Naomi to Judah.

I don’t know what that means for you (though I hope you will tell me) and I don’t yet know what that means for us.  But I’ll tell you what I think it means for me: it means to be a pastor and a Christian who does her best to make sure the doors of the church are open to all; it means to try to seek out people who may never have felt like they were part of anyone’s family and let them know that they are part of God’s and of mine.  It means to stand up for the people the world calls the least of these, because they are my brother and sister and mother.  It means to remind you all of who your family is and to let myself be reminded by you, too.  And it means to work with you all to love and serve our brothers and sisters in this city and around the world.

I can’t wait to see where that road to Judah will take us.

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