Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ruth

Caring vs Rules: A Sermon for Proper 27B, Pentecost 24 (8 Nov 2015)


A sermon offered on Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B, Track 1, RCL), November 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 . These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)


The Widow's Mite by RembrandtI get letters. Sometimes they’re really nice letters. And sometimes they’re not. Today, I want to tell you about a letter and how it caused me to rethink the two stories of women in today’s lectionary readings: First, the end of the story of Ruth from the biblical book named for her, and second, the story of Jesus watching and commenting upon the sacrificial giving of a widow in the Jerusalem temple.

The Book of Ruth is a very simple story. As Dr. Alphonetta Wines, a Methodist theologian, has said:

The genius of the book of Ruth begins with its literary simplicity. In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child Obed brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned out to be a blessing for generations to come. (Working Preacher Commentary)

It’s simplicity, however, obscures for us its very radical messages: one of hope for women in a patriarchal society where the rules are all stacked against them, and another for inclusion of the stranger and the alien for it tells us this foreign woman, Ruth the Moabite, was the great grandmother of Israel’s King David and, thus, an ancestor of his descendent whom we believe to be the Son of God.

The story of the widow in the temple is another study in simplicity. Jesus is in the temple teaching, very clearly teaching against the scribes whom he criticizes for their opulent and self-serving ways. Having just criticized the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses,” he watches this particular widow turn over to those same scribes everything she possesses. Jesus seems to praise her for giving “out of her poverty . . . everything she had,” while criticizing wealthier donors who merely “contribute out of their abundance.”

This story has been used countless times a “stewardship sermon” text to encourage sacrificial giving by modern Christians. However, while I certainly want to encourage your generosity to the church, I think that’s a misuse of the text. Elsewhere, Jesus has encouraged such giving (as when he tells the wealthy young man to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor”) but I don’t believe that that is his intent here. Rather, in this story he is (I believe) teaching a lesson about two approaches to religion, a lesson also taught by the whole story of Ruth.

I came to this conclusion on Friday. Two things happened on Friday. The first was my practice of reading every morning from Daily Office lectionary; the second was the letter I just mentioned, which was delivered to the church office by our mailman on Friday afternoon.

The Daily Office Old Testament readings for the past couple of weeks have been from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah telling the story of the return of Jerusalem’s exiles from Babylonia and their rebuilding of the Temple; the Gospel readings have been from Matthew’s Gospel. On Friday, the latter was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, while the lesson from Ezra told of the sacrifice made in thanksgiving for the completion and dedication of the restored temple:

At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. (Ezra 8:35)

In my Daily Office meditation on Friday, I wrote that the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story from Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is a striking illustration of two very different understandings of religion: on the one hand, religion as rules; on the other, religion as caring.

In our contemporary society and for the past several years, it’s been fashionable amongst some people to make a distinction between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Those who study modern religion, such as the Pew Institute, even have a classification, “SBNR,” as one of their demographic categories, the “spiritual but not religious.” That distinction, I think, is what is addressed by our bible stories today; I don’t think Ruth or Naomi or Jesus or the widow in the temple would ever make that distinction, however. They would never divorce spirituality from religion. They might, however, make a distinction between these two kinds of religious practice: religion as rules versus religion as caring.

You know that I love looking into word origins, what is technically called “etymology”. Usually when I do this in a sermon I ask you to consider the original Greek of the New Testament, or the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but today I want to look at the English word religion, its root and derivation, and what we mean by it. If we look in the dictionary we will find that it is defined as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, offers this definition: “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, as part of their web presence, has a really good subsection for reporting religious news from all over the world. On the homepage of that religious news section, the BBC includes this statement:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (BBC.co.uk)

Notice what is common to all these definitions: beliefs about gods (or at least the supernatural), regulations of conduct, and ritual ceremonies. In other words, they are all about religion as rules. Only at the end, and only as a optional element, does the BBC definition include anything about morality or social behavior or anything that could be called “religion as caring”.

These definitions apply fully to the conduct of the scribes Jesus talks about in the Gospel lesson: they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and . . . for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” They also apply to the Israelite society into which Naomi and Ruth come from Moab, a patriarchal society dominated by religious regulations, the Law of Moses, which denied independent livelihood to women. Beliefs, regulations, rituals: religion as rules.

The first recorded use of the word religion in the English language was in the 12th Century to describe the state of life of those bound by monastic vows and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, but in both uses the emphasis is on religion as rules. Our word religion derives from the Latin word religionem which Roman philosophers, such as Cicero and Lactantius, used to connote a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods; St. Jerome used it in the Latin vulgate translation of the Bible to render a Greek word meaning “religious ceremonies” (threskeia, Acts 26:5 & James 1:26-27).

The root of the Latin word religionem, however, was a matter of some dispute amongst those same Roman writers. Some believed it came from the verb religare which means “to bind up,” which is what rules do. Others, however, argued that it derived from relegere meaning “to read again” or “to read carefully,” that it is related to the word religiens meaning “careful”, the opposite of negligens, or negligent. This second derivation suggests that religion is less about rules than it is about caring.

The beliefs-rules-and-rituals understanding of religion is the way a lot of people, like the temple scribes and like early Israelite patriarchal society, understand religion. When this is our understanding, we end up following rules that lead the grossly over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock described in Friday’s Old Testament reading, we end up following rules that leave widowed women unable to provide for themselves, and we end up with religious leaders who make a show of their piety but who “devour widows’ houses.” Religion, understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies, produces such results . . . and it produces that second thing that happened on Friday, this letter delivered to the church office by our mailman that afternoon. [Note: the letter may be viewed here as a PDF file; the highlighting is in the original as delivered.]

In the November issue of our parish newsletter, we published an article about applauding during worship services which my colleague, the Rev. Peter Faass of Christ Church, Shaker Heights, had written. In it Fr. Faass commented that he invites applause when introducing married couples and, in that, made oblique reference to the fact that following this summer’s General Convention the Episcopal Church now offers marriage to same-sex couples. He recommended, however, that most of the time applause should not be offered during worship because what we do in the liturgy is not done as a performance for the congregation, but rather as an offering to God. What Peter suggested was that

instead of applause it would be best to offer a moment of silence after a pleasing offering; a moment when we may reflect on the gifts God has given to the person who is offering them up in the liturgy. In that silence let’s offer thanks. In that stillness let’s hear God’s applauding approval. [Note: Fr. Faass’s entire article can be read in PDF format in the parish newsletter here.]

Apparently we have a neighbor who reads our newsletter and who often drives by our building because that’s who this letter is from. In it, our neighbor takes us to task not only for Fr. Faass’s points, but also for our sign on which we have, from time to time, put the statement which has become a sort of unofficial motto of our diocese: “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

The letter begins, “It seems that Episcopalians are proud of being Episcopalians, but ashamed to be Christian. That explains why they find it so easy to stray from Scriptures, and hold so tightly to ‘tradition.'” The writer condemns us as “heavily influenced by popular culture” and then goes on to proof-text from Scripture why, in our correspondent’s opinion, same-sex marriage is contrary to his understanding of religion citing particularly the story of Adam and Eve. He then suggests that Fr. Faass is incorrect about God’s applause saying, “It may very well be that God is not only not applauding, but is sickened by ‘the liturgy,'” and he cites the prophets Amos and Isaiah who condemned the festivals, sacrifices, and assemblies of unfaithful Israel.

With respect to our sign, our neighbor informs us that “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions” is simply not true, that there are, in fact, human beings whom God not only doesn’t love but whom God positively abhors. He cites one of the Psalms for this proposition.

This [the letter] is religion understood as that which binds, religion as rules; this is Scripture understood as a set of binding regulations proscribing behavior, prescribing some rituals and prohibiting others, and denying not only basic dignity but even the love of God to many of God’s children. This is the religion of the temple scribes.

To this sort of religion, Jesus contrasted the religion of the widow in the temple. No law, no rule required her make her offering of “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” This is not her tithe (that would have been paid at a different time and in a different way). This is not a sin offering or a burnt offering (that would have entailed the sacrifice of some animal). This is nothing more nor less than a gift of thanks, given “out of her poverty” because she cared for the God on whose blessings she depended, because she cared for the faith that was in her. Because she cared, she gave; “out of her poverty [she] put in everything she had.” This is religion as caring.

I could answer this letter. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes that when Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16) he didn’t put any qualifications or restrictions on that statement. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes with our parish patron, St. Paul, that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) I could do that. I could answer this letter, but I think the better response is for us as a church community to continue doing what we are called to do, to continue living a religion that emphasizes caring rather than rules.

Our correspondent admonished us that it is incumbent upon every Christian “to set the good example of following after Christ,” and he referenced the Letter of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jm 1:27 NRSV) What James is saying is that religion is caring, and the Episcopal Church could not agree more strongly!

Imagine how different this world might be if the caring, rather than the binding rules aspect, were the general understanding of religion! If we understood religion to mean “caring,” rather than “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” I really don’t think there would be any people who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” When the story of Ruth is understood not as a story about the rules of ancient Israelite society but, as Dr. Wines suggested, as the story of “a blessing for [all] generations to come” . . . when the story of the widow in the temple is understood not as a story about following the rules of stewardship, but as a story of giving as an act of caring . . . when the whole Bible is understood not as a book of rules and regulations, but as a collection of stories about God’s love . . . then it is clear that, contrary to our neighbor’s letter, Episcopalians do not “stray from Scripture.”

Our calling as “Episcopalians [who] are proud of being Episcopalians, [and who are positively delighted] to be Christian” is to demonstrate, to live out, and to invite others into what our new Presiding Bishop likes to call “the Jesus Movement,” a religion of caring, not a religion of rules. Like the widow in the temple, we are called to give out of our poverty all that we have and all that we are, and to invite into our self-giving not only those who are like ourselves, but also and especially those are different, the stranger, the alien, the one who is not like us, without regard to his or her social status, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, or anything else because nothing “in all creation, [is] able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” because “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”



A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Feet? – From the Daily Office – March 25, 2014

From the Prophet Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 52:7 (NRSV) – March 25, 2014.)

Sandaled FeetIt may be pedestrian of me, but I can’t stop thinking of the messenger’s feet and whether this passage of Isaiah is really very well chosen as the Old Testament lesson for Morning Prayer on the Feast of the Annunciation! Reading the rest of the lesson with its message of redemption and salvation, one can see why it is set out in the special set of Daily Office readings for this feast day, but I can’t get my mind off the feet.

I’m part of a weekly bible study group that, a couple of months ago, read through and discussed the Book of Ruth. It was news to one of our members that the term feet was used there (when Ruth uncovers Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor) as a metaphor for male genitalia; so . . . now when we encounter the word in any other context, the question “Is this metaphorical?” always pops up. I don’t believe Isaiah is being metaphorical in that way here.

What occurs to me about the passage is another question, “Do archangels even have feet?” We know that seraphim do because of Isaiah’s description in Chapter 6: “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.” (Isa. 6:2) Artistic renditions of the Annunciation seem generally to show at least one of Gabriel’s feet, but then Gabriel is generally depicted in human form which I’m not sure is all that accurate.

In my two favorite pictures of this story, those by Fra Angelico and by Sandro Botticelli, Mary does not seem very interested in the messenger’s feet (or foot). In the former, she looks absolutely distracted and doesn’t appear to be looking at the archangel at all. In the latter, apparently recoiling from the message, her gaze is downcast, but she seems to looking at her own feet rather than Gabriel’s; perhaps she is contemplating running away.

The feet of messengers also have a bit of walk-on part in the regular lessons for Tuesday in the third week of Lent. In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus sends the Twelve out in pairs to preach his message but tells them, “If they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk. 6:11) And, yes, bible study partner, Jesus is using feet metaphorically, but not in that Book of Ruth way. Here, as in Isaiah’s prophecy, the metaphor is the message; the messenger’s feet are the foundation of the good news. They can be appreciated for their beauty or rejected and turned away.

When I think of feet, of looking at feet, of considering the appearance or beauty of feet, I remember a bit of verse by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Your Feet:

When I cannot look at your face
I look at your feet.

Your feet of arched bone,
your hard little feet.

I know that they support you,
and that your gentle weight
rises upon them.

Your waist and your breasts,
the doubled purple
of your nipples,
the sockets of your eyes
that have just flown away,
your wide fruit mouth,
your red tresses,
my little tower.

But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon the wind and upon
the waters,
until they found me.

(From The Captain’s Verses, 1952, English translation 1972)

When we cannot fully appreciate the message, when it confuses us or appalls us or frightens us or overwhelms us, we can at least focus our gaze on the feet of the messenger and, perhaps, eventually lift our eyes to view the fullness of the Good News which walks upon the earth and the wind and the waters until it finds us.

So, I think, yes, the Old Testament lesson is really well chosen for this, the Feast of the Annunciation, and it doesn’t really matter whether archangels have feet. After all, it’s a metaphor.


A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Climax on the Threshing Floor – From the Daily Office – May 23, 2013

From the Book of Ruth:

At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ruth 3:8 (NRSV) – May 23, 2013.)

Stained Glass of Ruth and BoazThere are some parts of the Bible that I am thankful I don’t generally have to read aloud in public. The story of Ruth seducing Boaz is one of them, especially this verse. I get to this verse and I’m “laughing out loud” – I mean, really, I’m like LOL! A guy falls asleep on his threshing floor and wakes up to find a woman “lying at his feet,” and not only that, he finds that she has undressed him!
The whole thing is simply ridiculous, especially with that “fun Bible fact” that adult class Sunday School teachers love to share with their students:

Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s “feet” (or the place where his feet are), rather than his “nakedness,” but the word translated feet is also commonly used as a euphemism meaning “private parts.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II, pg 926)

Everyone giggles like school girls.

What is this story doing in the Bible? What are we to learn from the Book of Ruth? I’m no scholar and I haven’t studied the text extensively, but I think what the book and this tale of seduction is all about is the redemption of everyday life. The book is a story of secular redemption focusing on a Jewish tradition of property restoration – it is, in that sense, about Naomi (Ruth’s Jewish mother-in-law) getting her family property back. But as a “sacred” text it is an allegory for the redemption of God’s People through the actions of an outsider; Ruth is a Moabite, a non-Jew, a member an ethnic group specifically excluded by Jewish law. It teaches us that no one is excluded from God’s universe.

That’s a pretty good lesson to learn from a story whose climax (pun intended) is a seduction on a threshing floor, as outlandish and outrageously funny as that climax may be.


A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Life Is Like Time Magazine – From the Daily Office – May 20, 2013

From the Book of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ruth 1:1-5 (NRSV) – May 20, 2013.)

Time Magazine cover, December 23, 1929And there you have it, ten years in the lives of six people, and the deaths of three of them, put to rest in five short Bible verses. As Antonio said to Sebastian, “What’s past is prologue” (The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1) and for the author of Ruth apparently not very interesting prologue. The storyteller is (pardon the pun) ruthlessly efficient in his introduction (I assume the author was “he” – maybe not). He clears away the unnecessary detail of sixty “person-years” of life to set the stage for what is to follow.

When I realized that, it hit me pretty hard. I’m sixty years old! Could the sum-total of my life be as easily summarized and shuffled off simply as prologue for something else? I suppose it could, but I would hope not.

Recently I was at a gathering with a bunch of other clergy and at some point during our deliberations comments were made about the use and organization of time; someone else made a remark about how we compartmentalize the different areas of our lives; and then I heard someone say something about a magazine. I have to be honest and admit that (a) I wasn’t paying close attention and (b) I don’t know if these comments were all made in the context of the same conversation. In my head, though, they merged into a rumination about Time magazine as a metaphor for a human life.

I used to be a very faithful subscriber to and reader of Time magazine. I took out my first subscription when I was in high school (1967) and didn’t stop subscribing until I attended seminary in 1991. And before that, my parents and my brother had been subscribers, so I’d been reading that magazine for a long time. It didn’t change much in all those years and I suppose it still hasn’t, at least insofar as the magazine is organized.

The classic issue of Time magazine is a study in compartmentalization. There are “departments” for all the areas of news, or if you prefer the areas of life (although Life is a different, if related publication): U.S., World, Politics, Sports, Lifestyle, Religion, Fashion, Tech, Science, and so forth. Which departments appeared in a given weekly issue depended on what was making news that week. There were always overlaps between these departments, of course, and I suppose the editors would have to determine if a story about regulation of new oil technologies fit better under Politics or Tech or Science; one would guess that the decision would be based on which subject predominates.

Life (life, not Life magazine) is a lot like a Time magazine. We have “departments” – Family, Job, School, Church, Friends, Hobbies, Politics, and so forth – and somehow, like the editors of Time magazine, we decide how all the stories of our lives get organized. We decide what order they are put in and how, like the magazine, they are arranged; we put some things closer to the front cover of our lives, where the public is most apt to see them, and other things we bury in the back pages. Then stories are neatly bound for our presentation of self to the world.

Time magazines were held together with staples through the spines. Sometimes, the pages would come loose from the staples. First, the four center pages would come away. You’d put them back in and hope the magazine would hang together until you finished reading all the articles of interest, but it wouldn’t always work out that way. Sometimes someone would take the magazine apart because they needed a picture for a school report, or wanted to send an article to someone in a letter, or whatever . . . sometimes the staple would get pulled out or work its way out on its own, and then all the pages would be loose. If you weren’t careful, the pages would get mixed up in a mishmash. As you were sitting out by the pool, a breeze would come along and blow them away, and you’d chase them across the yard hoping to gather them all. Some would blow into the pool and get soaking wet; some would blow into the neighbor’s yard on the other side of the fence and you couldn’t get them because of the vicious dog; some would take flight and get caught in the branches of trees. The articles would be all jumbled and some pages would be missing and the stories would be incomplete and not make sense.

And sometimes life can be a lot like that unstapled, jumbled, blown apart, partly missing, chaotic Time magazine, too.

Suppose someone actually did report on everything you did everyday for a week, on every work related task, about every friend or co-worker or family member with whom you talked, on every school assignment, every leisure activity, every television program you watched, on everything. Suppose they wrote it all out, organized it into departments, bound it with a staple, and produced a magazine of your week. Suppose they did that every week. Suppose those magazines were stacked week after week, month after month, year after year. Can you visualize those stacks? Can you see the piles and piles of magazines with your face and your name on the cover like the Time magazine Person of the Year?

Now think about this . . . if Antonio was right that “what’s past is [simply] prologue” and some storyteller were going to summarize what’s in those stacks of magazines, those piles of stories as foreword to a new story, would five verses be enough? Do you think it could even be done in a way that would honor your existence? I don’t.

I think life is a lot more like Time magazine and a lot less like the introduction to the Book of Ruth! And I believe the Author of life is a lot more interested in the stories of our lives than the author of Ruth was in the stories of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion. And for that, I’m grateful.


A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.