Finding God in the Least Expected People (Sermon Notes)
This is the second sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 20, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.
One of the many names we won’t be calling our church is “House for all Sinners and Saints.” Cool in its own way, but it’s taken, and kind of famously so, by this rising star of a pastor-writer named Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s the tattooed, cursing, cross-fitting, former addict, Lutheran pastor who was on Fresh Air the other day. I read Nadia’s new book last week. It’s called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. And I may have got the book because she’s this mini-celebrity now, but I finished it because I have a lot to learn from her as a pastor.
You see, each of her chapters is kind of an abridged set of sermon notes. Interesting insights about the Bible, some stories, thoughts about living well. But each chapter is also tied to a person who Nadia thought was too broken, too criminal, too put together, too annoying, too unlike her to be someone she could love, someone she could learn from. And yet it’s these people, the people she calls the accidental saints, that God keeps using to tell her the truth about herself and about life, that God keep using to save her, that God uses to show her how loved we all are despite how screwed up we are. It’s these people that God uses to show her how significant we are, despite how stupid and random life can seem. It’s these accidental saints that show her how joyful life can be, even when there seem to be funerals and failures and futility around every corner. She keeps finding God in all the wrong people.
We’re in the second week of this series we’ve called “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” We decided to spend this fall on something the church world might call whole-life discipleship. How can God matter in all of life – work, people, play, politics, you name it? And how can God in the picture of all things inspire us, bring us an increase in purpose and depth and joy? There are these intriguing little stories Jesus tells called parables, and there is this warm, earthy Jewish biography called Ruth that we’ll read, and together we’ll see where they take us. Because this is what we do in this space on Sundays – try to give voice to our most authentic stories and questions, and read these old texts that people have found valuable in for centuries, and make space to see what inspiration and what practical living comes of it.
And today we’re going to talk about the way God most often seems to find people when we don’t especially know how to find God, or maybe don’t even know if we want to. It’s the way God uses least expected people to tell us the truth we most need to hear.
When we started last week, we met a middle-aged woman named Naomi who had lost everything, and her two foreign daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth, who’d lost almost as much at a young age themselves, and we asked if we could really find joy and gratitude in all circumstances. Let’s pick up their story for a bit. This is the first of the two excerpts on the inside flap of your program. From the first chapter of Ruth:
Ruth 1:6-18 (NLT)
Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.
But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.
“No,” they said. “We want to go with you to your people.”
But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.”
And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi.“Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.
What an intense scene! Famine and death are everywhere. In ancient agrarian cultures, these are the two great losses – loss of food security, and death of the young. And in this patriarchal culture, early loss of husband or sons is the greatest loss of all. Because it is untimely death that also ensures impoverishment. This is why Naomi heads back home to Judah in search of food. And it’s why she tells her daughters-in-law to go home and remarry and start a new life while they still can.
Shockingly, they say no. They’re loyal to Naomi. Perhaps they admire or respect or love her deeply. Perhaps they too have heard that life in Judah might be better than in their homeland of Moab. Who knows?
But this provokes Naomi to tell them the bitter truth she understands about herself. She says, I am too old. I will never again have a happy future, but even if by some miracle I do, it will be too late to be of any use to you. My god has given me his fist, perhaps your gods will treat you better. Go home. Naomi’s story is that her life is bitter, but theirs doesn’t have to be. Leave her alone.
And it’s a convincing story. Orpah leaves.
But Ruth says no. She says, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” I’ve been to a number of weddings where these words were read, one where they were in the couple’s vows.
And you can understand – there’s this intensity and partnership and loyalty in this promise. You could do worse for a wedding vow.
But this is not a wedding, of course. This is a young widowed woman telling her bitter mother-in-law, “You. Are. wrong.” My future is with you. Your god, your people, your land is where we’ll find goodness. I am not going anywhere.
I have never experienced famine or exile but I have needed people to step up and show me where I was wrong.
One of them was an early voice teacher and musical director, a guy named Steve Denson. As I came of age and got ready to move out of my parents’ house, I had a promise and things going for me, but there was a lot about my life that was not good.
I had a string of dating relationships, every one of which ended in some kind of awkward mess. I didn’t know how to be a boyfriend, and really didn’t know how to be a friend. My inner landscape was a mess as well, and I had the beginnings of what was looking like it could become a life-destroying addiction, if something didn’t start to change.
But the thing that was going best in my life was singing. And so the summer I graduated high school, in addition to waiting tables at Denny’s, I tried out for a summer community theater production of the Gilbert and Sullivan show Pirates of Penzance. And the director of this play took a risk on me and cast me as the pirate king.
I came to appreciate this director so much, that when I moved two hours north to go to college, I figured out a way to get my school to pay him to be my voice teacher and he agreed to do it. We spent a lot of time together that year – there were the regular voice lessons, and he was also trying to start a new classical vocal ensemble, and I was one of the singers that joined him to put together and perform in this small concert series around the holidays.
And things were a little awkward. He had a physical disability that was prominent, but that he didn’t talk about, and I didn’t really know at that age how to appropriately ask him what it was. He had a hard time walking and had some significant limits to how he could move his arms and hands and fingers. He’d insist, though, on playing the piano as I’d work on a piece, even though his disability made it hard for him to play more than a note or two at once. Though he said he had once been quite a piano player.
Not everyone took this man seriously. My parents didn’t. They wondered why I had chosen him as a voice teacher, and I have to admit that Steve didn’t always impress me either.
I remember there was this one time I was working on a Schubert art song, called “An Die Musik.” It’s an ode to music. And in it, the singer finishes his line while the pianist goes on and plays this six measure conclusion. And we were practicing the song, and I finished my bit, and then there was my teacher, fighting his way through the final piano part, the bits of it he could manage with his limited dexterity, and I was thinking something like, “Come on. The song’s over. Let’s get back to the top and keep working.” And I was looking away, I think, fidgeting, clearly impatient for him to finish up.
And he stopped, and he stared at me, and he said, “Don’t ever disrespect the music like that. The song is over when it’s fully over.” And then he showed me, one note at a time, why the piano part was so critical to this song, and I realized he really understood this music so much more than I did. And he loved it so much more than I did, and he was conveying that understanding and love to me, and insisting that I get it. That I not be a diva, full of myself, but that I love and give away the music. That was a big lesson for me as a performer. Don’t use the music to serve your ego, but use yourself to serve the music and the audience. That impacted my singing, probably my preaching too.
And all year, it was like this, this man telling me the truth about myself. The hard truth that I was kind of full of myself, that I was this little diva in the making, but that he wouldn’t put up with it. But the harder truth too that, like every person alive, there was something extraordinary and exceptional about who I was made to be. This man really believed in me. He’d travel an hour to meet me for lessons, I only realized later at some real cost to his physical comfort. He’d find me recordings to listen to, would insist I practice properly, and would stretch me to do things as a singer that I didn’t think I could do.
Like Ruth with Naomi, Steve said, “I see more in you than you see in yourself.”
And at time when I was pretty unmoored, when there wasn’t a lot in my life that was very happy, that meant the world to me.
God wants to tell us the truth about ourselves. When we’re full of ourselves, too self-occupied and self-important to pay attention to the rest of the game, God wants to call us out. And when we’re discouraged and start to disqualify ourselves from a life of joy and purpose, God wants to encourage us and tell us the truth about who we really are.
And God can tell us these things however he wants, but it usually happens through another human being. Another person who – whether they realize it or not – God is sending our way to say the thing we need to hear. To tell us the truth for a change.
My voice teacher Steve Denson telling me both to get over myself and to believe in myself.
Ruth telling Naomi she will not leave, Naomi’s god and her land and her life is where Ruth’s going to find her hope.
And sometimes this truth we need to hear about ourselves is so important that it’s part of our salvation. It can rescue us from the dark places we go to on our own.
Let me tell you a story about people telling me the truth just this week, that was a lifeline to me in a dark space.
We have an intercession team at this church, folks who pray for me and my family and our church leadership and this whole church every day. They take turns praying for us during these services as well. And now and then I meet up with the leaders of this team, my friends Connie and Dorothy, to catch up and talk about our lives and the church and to pray.
And this happened this past week. And I asked them, as I do, were they or the rest of our intercession team getting any sense of what God might be doing in our church or saying to our church. And at first they didn’t have a lot to say other than that there was an awful lot of hope.
And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting, because it’s easier to me to get worried or get discouraged than it is to stay hopeful.”
I talked to my spiritual director afterwards. A spiritual director is someone who is kind of counselor and mentor for the spiritual life. And he works with a lot of pastors, and he’s said to me, “Oh, Steve, this is a thing with pastors. Worry and discouragement.” Because senior pastors, we’re have this thing in common with all of you who have started an organization or business of any kind, or who have been a senior manager or CEO, in that we have to think about numbers and budgets and vision and direction, and it’s easy to worry about those things. But my spiritual director was reminding me that on top of that, pastors listen to a lot of pain and problems. So you can live in this kind of perpetual second-hand grief.
Now, let me clear, this is not to get you all worried about me. I’m kind of an emotional guy, so that’s just my reality, and I like to be authentic with you, because I think that’s healthy for all of us that you know I’m not faking anything. But this combination of angst and despair that most pastors wrestle with is a dark place, because it calls into question hope.
So when I was with Connie and Dorothy, I asked them, “Why the hope?” And they told me the truth they saw about our church – they talked about the new life and enthusiasm ahead once we pick our name. They talked about what we call the fruit of the spirit – the good signs in people’s lives that God is with them and is changing them for the better. And they’re like, “Steve, we see that everywhere.” And they kind of got me going despite myself. And I reminded them of a few of the programs and people I’ve been a part of this year where we saw in our church people discovering the love of God, and the sheer joy of being alive, and the profound gift of community.
And as I talked with my spiritual director later, we talked about this conversation, and we talked about a lot of other evidence I’ve had that Jesus is real and strong and cares about me and cares about you and about this church, and Duane said, this is what real hope is. It’s not an upbeat mood, it’s not wishful thinking in the face of reality.
Hope’s remembering and seeing the truth, and it’s the certainty about a better future that’s grounded in that evidence. I walked away from these two conversations in a profoundly different frame of mind.
I was tired and anxious and discouraged.
And God needed to tell me the truth about myself, about my work, and about this church. So he used Connie and Dorothy and Duane to do it. Without their words, I die a little more last week. With them, I have hope. I live. And I get to share that with you.
Jesus says that what people say and don’t say to one another, what people do or don’t do for one another, is at the very center of God’s plans for life on earth. This is at the heart of one of Jesus’ most famous stories, what’s often called the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Let me read it and make a few connections.
Luke 10:25-37 (NLT)
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
(Yeah, but how does this work? Define for me “neighbor.”)
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Jesus didn’t have to tell a story, of course. He could have just said, “Neighbor is anyone.” And neighboring is kindness and generosity and mercy. That’s what love your neighbor means.
But he tells this lawyer, and Luke tells us, this story. And the hero of the story is famously the Samaritan. Choice words from Jesus. The priest and the temple assistant – respected religious figures from Jesus and the lawyer’s own culture – fail. But the Samaritan – a member of a despised regional culture – is the good guy. The one who sees this beaten, bloodied stranger he’s never met and thinks, That’s my neighbor. And then takes it personally to get this stranger-neighbor back on his feet.
We were doing some cleaning last week and I found this little notebook one of my kids had written in years ago, and there was this one page entitled, “How to Be a Friend.” And it had this enumerated list, that said stuff like 1) Be nice. 2) Be friendly. 3) Be a good friend. 4) Be kind.
And I got a big kick out of it. It was totally sweet and innocent. But man, does Jesus move past that kind of vision of friendship here. His story of how to be a neighbor says things like:
1) Go out of your way.
2) Spend your money on people that will never thank you for it.
3) Get dirty with someone else’s pain. And by the way,
4) You’re going to need to overcome your natural distaste and disgust for some people, because neighboring isn’t just loving those in your tribe – the people like you – it’s loving your enemy. It’s loving the person who scares you. It’s loving the person who’s disgusted by you, or maybe the person that you find disgusting.
That’s where you’re going to find life from God.
God wants us to tell the truth to our friends, like Ruth does for Naomi, because we’re the main way God is going to communicate hope and encouragement and truth to other people.
And God wants us to go to bat for our friends and our strangers and our enemies, because we’re often the way God’s going to save them.
But it’s interesting to me to, that in the early church reading of this parable, they often took it in another direction as well, and said, “My, isn’t it remarkable, how like Jesus this Samaritan is!” Jesus has the Samaritan, at great cost to himself, heal and rescue this half-dead stranger. And isn’t that the heart of the Jesus story – that great as we may seem, we’re all kind of half-dead in a way, but Jesus – at the cost of his own life – is healing and rescuing and enlivening us all.
And in this story, Jesus shows us too that he’s going to do that for us through other people sometimes. Through the Samaritan who loves the stranger. Through a Moabite widow – an image in the story of Ruth – of disgust and poverty – who has the inner strength to tell Naomi the truth. Through friends that remind us to hope. Through a old, disabled, sometimes teased and pitied musician, who shows us how to sing, and how to be humble, and how to believe.
God wants us to find him in the least expected people, and sometimes then to be those people who are the face of God to someone else as well.
- When someone is unexpectedly generous or spot-on truthful to you, receive it. It just might be God in disguise.
- If you need people like that in your life, ask God for them.
- You might need to curate your friends list less.
- Try out regular, diverse community; this church is particularly good at this.
Sometimes this takes moving past convenience. Sometimes even repenting from disgust
- Be that profoundly encouraging, truthful, generous person for someone else, as often as you can.