St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 24, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Green

Marissa Tweed


Called to Chesed

Good morning. It's a joy and a privilege to be back with you all this morning. When I think about internship I give thanks for the time we spent together and the ministry that we shared. I think of you all often, and I'm grateful to be here with you this morning.

In our readings for today we heard what may be a familiar passage to some of you, especially if you attended the Ruth bible study that some of us gathered together for last year.

In this passage, we hear that there's been a famine in Bethlehem (which, to the storyteller's credit, is a bit ironic since Bethlehem literally means "house of bread"). Elimelech's family is forced to flee from their home to live as refugees in the enemy territory of Moab. And if living in Moab wasn't bad enough, within a few years Elimelech and his sons are dead, leaving Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law defenseless and vulnerable. In that patriarchal society, to be widows, especially childless widows, meant that their very lives were in danger.

So in the midst of incredible pain and despair, grieving the loss of her husband, sons, and livelihood, Naomi sets out to return home to Bethlehem. Along the way she realizes she has nothing left to give to Ruth and Orpah and pleads with them to return to their home in Moab. She blesses them: "May the Lord deal kindly with you." Naomi wishes this blessing upon them even though she feels like the Lord has turned completely away from her.

"May the Lord deal kindly with you." I'd like to go deeper into this blessing. The phrase deal kindly with is only one word in the original Hebrew text, and that word is chesed. In the words of Old Testament scholar Caroline Lewis, if you're going to know one word in the Hebrew language this is the one to know!

There is no equivalent word for chesed in English. It's roughly translated as faithfulness, steadfast love, mercy, or perhaps at best, loving-kindness. Often it is described as a characteristic of God, but may, at times, also be reflected in human relationships.

Naomi is wishing this same chesed for her daughters-in-law that she feels the Lord had failed to give to her.

Surprisingly, however, it is Ruth who ultimately displays the loving-kindness that Naomi yearns to experience from God. Ruth could have turned away, but instead Ruth clings to her, vows to accompany her, shows steadfast love to her. Ruth demonstrates the Godly characteristic of chesed by her actions.

A theologian once explained, chesed is not something people feel. It is something people do. I came across a story this week that I think illustrates this well.

As a UN agency worker was walking through the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a letter was handed to him. Carefully handwritten in blue ink and almost perfect English was a young man's plea for help.

21 year old Ahmad writes in the letter about how he and his family were forced to flee their home in Syria two years ago...that they suffered greatly from what he describes as catastrophic air raids, bombings, tank strikes, sniper shootings, and killings everywhere.

...Before that, he and his sister were studying English literature in Damascus.

He writes, "We were outstanding students at Damascus University. We have lost our dreams and ambitions. This long period of false promises has made us hopeless and despaired. My sister has spent three bitter years without her studies—she sheds tears day and night. Both of us have lost the most precious thing in our life. We are helpless—no one supports us.

He continues, "We address you and everyone as representatives of humanity, justice, and civilization to help us by any possible means to get rid of this bad situation. Aren't we human beings? Are we only born to eat, drink, and sleep? Aren't we worthy of an honorable life?"1

I think of the many young adult refugees for whom this pain is a reality. I think of the families living in tents with only what they brought on their back to support them. I think of the over 400,000 Syrians stranded in their country who are eating grass and leaves because there is no food and the government has blocked all entry into the cities.2

And I wonder to myself, how could I possibly begin to understand this pain and suffering? How could I ever make a difference? What could I do, what could I possibly do?

I have to admit sometimes it's just easier for me to turn off the news. It's easier to close out of the online articles I'm reading. It's easier for me to insulate myself, to think about the problems in my own life, to create realistic buffers between my world and that unbearable world that others are struggling to survive in. Perhaps at times you have felt like this too...

But the moment we numb ourselves, the moment we disengage from the suffering of others and the world around us, we separate ourselves from a healthy spirituality. In the words of Pastor Dennis Jacobsen, "To no longer be able to cry about the daily horrors [we] encounter is a sign of spiritual death. It is a psychic numbing, an emotional distancing, an unconscionable removal from the lives of those who suffer."3

We are called not to turn away, but to stay connected, to spiritually cling to those who are suffering, to show loving-kindness, through prayer and solidarity, and perhaps even by other means as well.

Ahmad's letter went viral last year and ended up inspiring a college student in London to respond. A young woman by the name of Clare Hanley sent Ahmad a reply with her own carefully written letter, along with 12 cherished books from English literature: authors like John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. Her letter spoke words of kindness and compassion. Of well-wishes and blessing. Of solidarity and companionship. She ended her letter with, "Do not give up hope. All my love, Clare".

According to the UN, Ahmad responded to Clare's letter and books with gratitude and disbelief. He said, "I was surprised that someone on the other side of the planet cares about my situation, it eased my suffering and brought some joy to me. I would like to thank her for this kind gesture, maybe she has no idea how much happiness she gave me and my sister...maybe thank you is not enough. I am amazed that someone who is not related to me in any way would feel concerned."

This passage from Ruth today speaks to us of the importance, sometimes to the point of life and death, the importance of showing loving-kindness to one another. It helps us to think about how ordinary people can change the course of history by acting out of kindness and love. Perhaps Clare didn't alter the course of history outside of Ahmad's world, but she certainly altered the course of "his-story."

God's love is in the blessing. God's love is in the ordinary ways we practice chesed with one another, with those near and far.

As God's people we are called to love faithfully, to love beyond expectations, beyond societal norms, beyond boundaries. We are called to love boldly, and perhaps even love unexpectedly. How might the actions of Clare and Ruth inspire you to express chesed to others in your own life?

Clare offered a glimpse of chesed, in a letter sent thousands of miles to say "you matter" "don't lose hope," "all my love is with you."

Ruth offered a glimpse of chesed, in shared tears, in a warm embrace, and in a vow of loyalty and companionship.

As Christians, we believe God offers us the greatest glimpse and fullest revelation of chesed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Jesus is the full embodiment of what it means to love unconditionally, faithfully, steadfastly, whole-heartedly. Jesus in his teaching, preaching, living, loving, dying, and rising shows us the true meaning of chesed, and summons us to reflect that into all corners of the world.

We are called to show this loving-kindness to the world because we are claimed by a God who has shown this loving-kindness to us first. Who again and again, reaches us in our despair. Who doesn't turn away, but clings to us, vows to accompany us, shows us steadfast love. Who acts through what may be unexpected people or unexpected means to show us that love...and then call us to do the same.

Amen

 

 

1 http://www.buzzfeed.com/richardhjames/read-this-students-letter-to-the-syrian-refugee-who-told-the#.vjo2YrBOn

2 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/starvation-in-madaya-syria_us_5692931ce4b0c8beacf76a9e

3 Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing, 3.

 

 

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