Choosing to be together

One Hundred Chrysanthemums, Keika Hasegawa, 1893

A sermon on Ruth 1.15–18, for Pioneer Ocean View United Church of Christ, San Diego, Calif. upon the occasion of the return of its settled minister from sabbatical.

Shoutout to Rev. Rachel

An Episcopal priest I follow, Reverend Rachel Kessler, said this week that if there is ever anything that makes her consider giving up on ministry, it is when the balance in her work shifts “from more about proclaiming the good news to like, trying to keep an institution alive.”

And while I haven’t been doing this ministry thing very long, I think I know where she’s coming from—I think I’ve felt that before.

Relationships and institutions

When I first moved to San Diego, I worked for a government agency that ran career centers all over the county—we provided job training programs, scholarships for continuing education, things like that to help folks who’d had some bad career luck find their next move.

After a few years, the “new job smell” started to wear off and I’d reached that point in my career where every day felt like a Wednesday. Things got rote, and honestly, I was starting to question how long I could sustain that kind of big institutional work.

Then one week, a city council member who represented one of San Diego’s historically disenfranchised districts called on us to meet with her and some of her constituents about concerns they had regarding the career services in their neighborhood.

So I put on my little suit and tie and drove over, and when I got there… it was a little more Parks and Rec than West Wing, if you know what I mean. We met in a small room at a small park with a bunch of folding chairs in a circle over linoleum flooring that was probably as old as I was.

The meeting started and it turned out to be less of a “meeting” and more of a listening session. We heard from these constituents about all the ways our agency was doing their community an injustice; about all the ways we’d failed to serve them equitably; about the racist experiences they and their loved ones had at our centers… It was rough. Really, really rough.

But it was also… true.

These constituents were proclaiming something like the gospel to me; they proclaimed that they and their loved ones had worth; that they mattered; that they deserved dignified, equitable services; and that they would hold my feet to the fire until I made sure they got those dignified, equitable services.

I did my best to listen respectfully, to answer questions in a way that showed I cared. But like, let’s not kid ourselves—“I did my best,” as a 22-year-old who’d thought he was going to a fancy government meeting, was not all that great.

We talked about a few little next steps my agency to serve them better, but if I’m honest, I left that meeting knowing my ideas for like, better flyer distribution would not solve the greater problems they were calling to light.

After the meeting, something drew me to give two of those constituents—two of the more upset ones—my phone number.

We stayed connected, they made sure I got those initial ideas worked out, all that. But what was far more important than any project being completed was the relationship we built.

For the following 5 or 6 years, these community members stayed in touch, didn’t give up on me even when my solutions were pitiful and inadequate, and kept giving me opportunities to see things from their view, from their perspective as should-be-beneficiaries of our services.

Time went on and we were able to do bigger and better things together; their insights led to me getting a chance to renovate the center in their community, to hire more front-line staff, and to really fundamentally transform the way our team, from leadership to the front line, talked and thought about the people they served.

The work they led me to brought me back to life.

My week-long Wednesdays became at least like, Thursdays, because I wasn’t just designing programs and fundraising and procuring janitorial services for the sake of an institution anymore; I was serving people I’d come to love—people I was in a relationship with, no matter how contentious those relationships could be or how tough it was when the truth-telling was truth-telling about me.

The institution could die and the relationships would still be there, and more importantly, so would the truth that the institution was learning to proclaim because of those relationships. And that, ironically, is what kept my work on the institution alive.

Ruth and Naomi and the institution of God

Those kinds of relationships are what come to mind when I read our scripture this week.

The little line of poetry we just read is right at the opening to the book of Ruth. In Jewish canon, the book of Ruth accompanies the festival of Shavuot, a fall harvest festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah—God’s law to guide God’s people. The “institution” of God, if you will. 

It’s also the story of the first “immigrant” to Israel, Ruth. She’s the first person to say “I don’t just want to live among the Israelites; I want to be one of them; I want them to be my people and their God to be my God. 

Just before the lines we read, we’re introduced to an Israelite woman, Naomi, and her husband. Israel experiences a famine, so Naomi and her husband move to a land called Moab, and their sons marry Moabite women. Then all the men in the story die–just like a good Disney tale, it starts off with a tragedy–and only the widows remain. The famine ends, so Naomi decides to venture back to Israel and  be a widow among her own people.

She tells her daughters-in-law not to follow her because she knows life is tough for foreign widows in Israel.

Or at least, she starts off as describing it like that, talking about how she had nothing to offer them in Israel and how they would have a better future in Moab, but I’m not convinced it was really about that.

You see, after all the logistical stuff, Naomi says—and I quote—“no, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then she weeps with them, and tells them one last time to shoo.

Now that doesn’t sound to me like she’s speaking from practical concerns about being a widow in Israel, about how her daughters-in-law won’t find anyone to marry in the new land. That sounds more like when I don’t see hope that things will get better so I just kind of want to give up and not deal with people who are trying to cheer me up; when I’m sad and want to wallow instead of heal.

One of the daughters-in-law follows Naomi’s imperative to leave her alone, but the other, Ruth, doesn’t.

Instead, Ruth commits to a life of loyalty to her mother-in-law. She insists on being one with her, on adopting her traditions and people and home and God.

So Naomi gives in and lets Ruth come along.

The two show up in Israel, poor as dirt.

For the sake of time, I have to abridge a really great story here–you deserve to read it for yourself some time–but it ends with a rich farmer, Boaz, marrying Ruth and committing to share his fortune with her and Naomi.

It ends with Boaz entering in relationship with Ruth.

And in the end, the legend has it, Ruth and Boaz wind up being the ancestors of King David. In Christian tradition, we say that makes her the ancestor of Jesus, too. 

All because of the relationship Ruth committed to have with Naomi; because Ruth wouldn’t let Naomi leave without hearing that she was loved. And because Ruth was willing to insist to Boaz that she, too, was worthy of love.

Relationships and institutions (revisited)

In preaching class, one of the things they tell you is you’re supposed to lean into the “we”s and “I”s, rather than the “you”s. You’re supposed to share a message that’s as much for yourself as it is for your congregation.

But I failed my preaching class, and I am going to break that rule, because I think it’s important to truth-tell with you a little bit about what I’ve gotten to witness in my time here at Pioneer Ocean View.

I have seen you all provide extravagant welcome—truly, over-the-top extravagant. Like, you should be a commercial for the UCC.

For weeks, I could not stop telling people about the extravagant welcome basket gggg gggggg brought me on my first day.

When new folks arrive, I’ve seen you walk up here to steal the microphone just so you can thank them for coming and make sure they know you hoped to get the chance to talk to them at Toban later.

I have heard your young people share stories of older folks in the church serving as surrogate parents for them, dropping off warm meals and comforting gifts when they were stuck at home with COVID.

Early on, I heard about the bento lunches you all support with Kiku and couldn’t stop smiling. There is something equally touching and hilarious to me about the fact that this meal for elders is prepared, so often, by folks who are even elder-er than the recipients!

And speaking of meals: I have literally never been to a church that does their after-worship fellowship as extravagantly as you do. As much as I keep hearing about the fact that you used to have an even more abundant Toban feast… I have a hard time believing it gets better than this!

And I can’t move on from all the meals stuff without mentioning the time a teenager this summer told me how he got to learn to filet tuna from your resident professional chef during bento box prep.

He thought it was the coolest, so did I. I’ll confess I was a little jealous… that’s the kind of intergenerational experience you remember for a lifetime.

(I should also confess that the nonprofit fundraiser in me thought, man, what a fundraiser opportunity—sushi lessons from a pro!).

In all of that, plus in the many lovely coffee dates and dinner chats I’ve gotten to have with you all, I’ve seen something really special about your intergenerational relationships.

I’ve heard young people talk about Pioneer Ocean View as a place where they find elders who look like them.

I’ve heard elders talk story and share the kind of history you don’t find in textbooks.

I’ve joined board of trustee meetings and board of ministry meetings and board of I-don’t-remember-what meetings and church council meetings where you all spent hours talking about the future of the church and what the church should be mindful of and what the church should be excited about and what the church should be investing in and what activities the church should do to bring more people in on Sunday mornings. I have heard you think about org charts and treasuries and the longevity of your church and the ways you’ll care for this institution so it stays around for the next generation.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that that last part is something which gives me just a hint of worry—something, if I may be so bold as to suggest it, that I hope you steer clear of:

I think, sometimes, our anxiety about the future of our church institutions… I think it blocks out from our vision the importance of the underlying relationships that give this institution a reason to exist.

I do this often myself; I mean, I spend most of my week worrying about things like the sustainability of the nonprofit where I work and the nonprofits I consult for.

But as we learned from Ruth and as I learned from my constituents, the route to institutional sustainability is not through endowments or through convincing more people to do a thing that is barely working for the folks who currently show up. It is through covenantal, truth-telling relationships.

I think you all are already starting to recognize that, for what it’s worth—you’re starting to feel the glimmers of where your relationships can grow even deeper, even more true.

The Spirit is already playing—even if quietly in the background—what will soon be the new soundtrack of your sanctuary.

And that’s not me trying to be woo woo and prophetic or anything, to be clear. Remember, I was a Southern Baptist.

No, that’s a logical conclusion I make from observing the reality of a church that is starting, slowly, to name bigger dream together.

It’s what I observe when I see ggggg ggg delicately arranging a “pray” ground for kids who hadn’t come in years. Preparing for relationships that are yet to form.

It’s what I observe when ggggg ggggggggg and I are talking over coffee, and this idea for a Story Corps session comes up, and her eyes light up thinking about the existing relationships that can grow deeper.

It’s what I observe in church council meetings when ggg ggg invites us to meditate on who is called to lead the future of the church; whether it’s us or someone else.

So I have hope that you will stay this course, lean into relationship with one another, prove my worries all silly non-sense.

In the spirit of World Communion Sunday and of Ruth and Naomi, I have hope that you will choose to be together.

I have hope you will speak truths to one another. I have hope you will have contentious conversations and joyful conversations, truth-telling conversations where you proclaim to one another the good news that God always has more to pour out among us, conversations where you decide, even when you have no good reason to, to be each other’s people, to call the same place home, to live and die together, to be one another’s people.

Because that stuff—that’s what makes a church worth keeping.