Monday, May 03, 2010

God Has a Story, Too

“God Has a Story, Too: Do they all Live Happily Ever After?”
Ruth 4:1-17
Greenville College Chapel
May 3, 2010

Some of us are glad we never have to repeat adolescence. For me, the worst part was trying to figure out how to engage in building a relationship with someone of the opposite sex without falling completely on my face. Somehow or the other the toxic mix of teenage hormones produced a combustible effect whenever I tried to figure out how to be sauve and debonair. That is why I depended on my friends, like Mark Skaggs, to help me by participating in what usually turned out to be disastrous amorous adventures.

Mark and I became friends because we were the two male outsiders in the percussion section of the high school band. The only difference was that I was a complete and utter nerd while Mark could at least fake being cool. On the infamous trip to San Antonio in the spring of 1974, while the rest of the drum section was engaged with a strange smelling weed, downing a variety of hard liquor, and testing out a collection of Cuban cigars, we were simply looking to bag a couple of dates back to our room. This, however, didn’t work out so well since the aforementioned remaining members of the percussion section were busy filling the room with a combination of marijuana and cigar smoke laced with the distinct odor of Jim Beam and Johnny Walker.

So it was that we decided to try again when we returned home and my parents granted me the use of our house for a day while they ventured off to some area minister’s conference. The plan was quite simple: pick up of the ladies in question, followed by a bit of romantic music played our favorite rock group, Chicago, while sitting out on the screened-in porch enjoying grilled burgers and franks. The first part of the plan was sure to impress, given the fact that Skaggs owned a gorgeous 1969 Yellow Mustang, complete with oversized enging. That car looked and sounded of brute male testosterone. When we drove down the street beautiful women would come running out of their houses yelling, “I want to ride! I want to ride!” The second part should have been easy as well. Haul over Mark’s oversize speakers and hook them up to my turntable and, then, get the charcoal going on the grill outside.

The problem was, though, that I had never actually been allowed to start a fire on my father’s precious grill—I had only watched him do it. And I knew that anything that demanded mechanical ability or the use of one’s hands usually ended in disaster for me. So, I decided to make sure that the charcoal would light. I emptied the entirety of a bag under the metal grill and soaked it with a portion of a can of gasoline my dad had out in the garage for use on the mower. As I bent low over the grate to apply the match to about ten pounds of blackened charcoal, I remember hearing this incredible “whoosh” all around my head and literally leaping back from the force of the flames. Fortunately, my oversized aviator glasses protected my eyes. But the first thing I noticed was this incredible stench as Mark came running out of the house and threw a towel over my head. My precious locks of hair that usually fell down over my collar had been deeply singed and were still smoking. Worse yet, my eyebrows were pretty much missing. Not being able to see myself as others might, I couldn’t understand why my friend, Mark, was on the ground laughing like a hyena. “Hartley!” he said. “You were on fire, man! And your hair is a mess.”

What were we to do? We had to pick up the women in a few minutes and I looked like something out of a Boris Karloff horror flick. I will always be grateful to my friend, Mark Skaggs, for his attempt to restore me to manhood. He carefully clipped away my singed hair and even tried to replace my eyebrows with my mother’s meagerly collection of women’s cosmetics. He was laughing so hard, though, that when he tried to redraw my eyebrows with a pencil the line went up and down in dark jagged lines. Even his muscle-car Mustang could not salvage our long-awaited rendezvous with the first-chair clarinetist and flautist. They would spend the evening trying hard not to laugh at me or Mark’s version of how I tried to prepare for our “hot date.”

Well, unlike my experience, Ruth’s story ends, not in disaster, but with its exact opposite: complete and total restoration. Having taken the road less traveled and followed Naomi back to her home in Bethlehem, having slogged away in the field day after day, and having risked everything on the threshing floor, at long last her hopes and dreams were coming true. Perhaps challenged by her courage and his lack of it, Boaz had made his way into town the next morning and confronted a nearer kinsman, much as Ruth had bravely challenged him. Though the unnamed man had been enamored of the opportunity to acquire additional property, when he heard that Ruth was part of the deal, he balked. For the first time in the entire story, a man takes charge, receiving the other’s sandal as a physical representation of agreement to the deal. And, before numerous witnesses, we are told, Boaz proclaimed to all his intention to make Ruth his wife.

Some might be tempted at this point, to view the story as setting to rights the true patriarchal nature of society. How odd it must have seemed to the original readers to have these women as the central actors in this historic narrative. But, now, at long last, has emerged a masculine hero on his white horse. Yet, we are surprised that the narrator frames the ending of the story with as much care as its beginning, choosing to focus on Naomi, instead of Boaz. For this is a story of redemption not only for the younger woman, but primarily for the older one. In fact, we are told that, “Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.” To which the women in the neighborhood proclaimed not, “A son has been born to Ruth,” but, “a son has been born to Naomi.” This woman who had once self-proclaimed that she was changing her name to Mara (“bitterness”), has now been redeemed and restored, herself.

But even that does not end this rather strange tale, for the narrator concludes of the child: “They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David,” (4:17). And then we are allowed to overhear in a final text which we did not read this morning, a recounting of the connection between this David and the generations extending back to Perez, the child born to Tamar by her father-in-law, Judah. It is almost as if the writer is seeking to reassert the scandalous nature of the connections that bring together these women who have survived by their wits, relying even on sexual craftiness when necessary. Think of it! Because of the role of tracing one’s genealogy in the ancient world, and particularly in Israel where proof of pure blood was considered essential by some, this “ending” to a tale would have been the ultimate insult. That such a book even made its way into the biblical canon must signal something very important to us.

For the reality is that, though unmentioned, the real power behind the scenes, the real director of this story, is none other than YHWH, the God of Israel, himself. That David, the one whom the Bible describes as “a man after God’s own heart,” could have come from such poor and scandalous circumstances surely says something about the way that God works. Ruth, as important as she is to this story, then, is relegated only to the role of lead actress. The curtain rises and each player comes forward to present herself and to bow, linking hands one with the other. But, then, the line parts in the middle and the actors and actresses step to the side as the unseen and unnamed director is acknowledged because, “God has a story, too.”

And the wonder, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, is that the story doesn’t end there: not even with Ruth, not even with David. For linking the Old and New Testaments together is this hinge we call The Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 1, in which the scandalous lineage is extended both backwards and forwards to include, not only Ruth and Tamar, but Rahab the harlot and Bathsheeba, one of the victims of David’s greatest abuses of power. And, the gospel writer tells us, from these lives, from these stories, God has woven a tapestry beyond belief. For, you see, Ruth’s story and Rahab’s story and Tamar’s story and Bathsheba’s story lead us invariably to another scandalous young couple in another out-of-the-way place in a world that still believes that God should work amongst the rich and the powerful in spectacular ways for all to see. But there, in Matthew 1:16 we are told that God’s story moves not in palaces of kings but in the midst of the everyday mundane life of a poor peasant girl from Nazareth, whose name was Mary. And, like Ruth, she will have to risk everything whenever she chooses to say “yes” to God. But, my friends, her “yes” will have historic consequences for all of human history. For, when Mary chooses to bear the Christ-child, God’s story intersects with our story.

You know, when Wilson Hogue took the reigns of the new Free Methodist College here in Greenville near the end of the nineteenth century, he knew that perhaps his most important faculty appointment would be the person he chose to head up the Religion Department. For that task, he turned to a poor itinerant pastor out west in Oregon who had taught himself Greek and was hungry to further his education. John LaDue packed his wife and everything he owned to head to the Midwest, where he would have to work harder than any man should on starvation wages. In 1894, he made a total of $400--$300 of which came from his full-time teaching post and the rest from pastoral responsibilities to which he was assigned. Within ten years, he had earned an advanced degree from the famed University of Chicago and began to be called, “Rabbi,” by the many students who sat at his feet and came to love him. In 1918, when the Spanish Influenza swept across this nation, John’s wife died caring for their ailing daughter. Brokenhearted, he dove back into his teaching responsibilities in an attempt to assuage his grief. By 1923, he was worn out, so friends, alumni, and students raised enough money to pay for his way to Palestine, to see the Holy Land, during his lone sabbatical. You can read the journal he kept over in the archives situated in the basement of Ruby Dare Library.
LaDue believed in studying history carefully to see how God was at work in and through the church and he knew that our perspective is oftentimes distorted. He wrote of the First World War which was center-stage for the Greenville community and the rest of the nation for much of the second decade of the twentieth century: “What an end it is towards which the purpose of God is moving. This present colossal European contest with all its mighty implications is but a mere local incident in His all embracing cause.” Though he later would return from the Middle East, his health remained in poor condition and by the mid-twenties, it was clear that someone would have to replace Greenville’s first Religion Professor.

That someone proved to be none other than Wilson R. King, a proud alumnus of G.C. who had won honor as a scholar-athlete. King served with distinction during a time of division and fissure in American Religion. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, he sought to steer a course between the twin specters of theological liberalism and fundamentalism which threatened to engulf Protestants in both open and covert warfare. Calling for a radical combination of a critical, inquiring mind, with a warm and compassionate heart, Dr. King inspired a generation of students through the thirties, forties, and fifties of the last century.

Replacing King, the professor committed to inductive Bible study whose curmudgeonly ways had sustained him when under withering theological attack, would require someone like David, after God’s own heart. So, in 1957, back onto campus walked the winsome, young Jim Reinhard, behind whose eyes framed by those large horn-rimmed glasses, beat the heart of a giant. I can’t imagine anyone not loving the one we called “Jimmy”. He poured himself out for his students and developed with his wife, Marilyn, the COR trip that most of you students have taken. While away on his sabbatical pastoring a church in Evanston in the late seventies, he was tempted not to come back to teach. The people there loved the way he cared for and challenged them to follow the gospel. Teaching large classes here was draining, as John LaDue had learned, and Jim knew there would be a price to pay. But come back he did and poured his heart into every class he taught. And many of my younger colleagues like Brad Shaw, Randy Bergen, Karlene Johnson, and Scott Neumann got to sit under his teaching as a result of that painful decision.

But, on Good Friday, 1993, Dean Richard Holeman called to tell me that Dr. Reinhard had suffered another heart attack and to put him back in the classroom in the fall would be impossible. Would I consider coming back after 14 years away? I was mighty comfortable in Toronto. Life was good. My family was happy. We had what I still think is one of the greatest congregations of loving parishioners, representing over thirty different ethnic groups. Six years in Canada and a year in England had allowed me some distance from the narrow American provincialism I had so longed to leave behind. But, to make a long story short, it quickly became clear that the call of my alma mater was the call of God.

And so, I returned. I was scared to death. When I had arrived on campus as a student in the mid-seventies I was something of a caricature later portrayed best by Dana Carvey with his character, “Garth,” complete with the long hair and the drumsticks protruding from my back pocket. Sitting there in 222 Hogue Hall, I felt like an intruder. That, after all, was Dr. Reinhard’s office and there was a hundred years of teaching in the department to try and live up to. Students quickly learned that I was no Jim Reinhard. I wouldn’t think of trying to skate down the aisle in chapel and I was never known to bring balloons or dress up like a clown.

But, as I reminisce a bit here on this beautiful spring morning, I’m reminded that my former teacher and colleague, Dr. Royal Mulholland, has now been retired long enough that most of you have never had one of his classes. And it was Royal who told me about one of his early chapel addresses which incorporated language which some found offensive and even moved some Board members to call for his firing. But I also know that one of Royal’s students, Aaron Cobb, is taking a job this summer as a Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University. And, Aaron got turned on to reading philosophy because of Dr. Mulholland and my former colleague, Dr. Craig Boyd. And, heaven knows, how many other countless alums there are out there because of Royal’s and Craig’s passion for philosophy and the liberal arts. The great Art Holmes, former professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, once said that his goal was to produce a hundred Christian philosophers for the academy and the church and, as a result, his legacy continues on even today. So, I figure if I can just hang in there like Drs. Mulholland and Holmes, something good is bound to happen.

But, in the end, you see, it’s not really about me at all. Because one of these days, even if I stay here for the rest of my career, somebody else is going to inhabit my office and pick up right where I left off and the institution will be better for it. And, I will eventually take my place out there in Montrose Cemetery, a few blocks west of where I currently live. You see, eventually, every professor at Greenville gets a permanent sabbatical and never has to worry about reading a paper ever again. Perhaps I’ll get lucky and someone, maybe you, will occasionally dredge up a story about old Prof. Hartley or maybe my grandson, Tristan, will come back here to try and figure out what attractions this place had for me. I don’t know. But I do know that my story is being carefully interwoven with that of others here, in this place. And when I have a cup of coffee with my friends Joe and Jeff or sit down to discuss literature with Brad or Christina or Lesley, I sense that there is something much bigger at work here than them, or me. Was it simply chance that brought me here or something much greater?

The apostle Paul tells us that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. And I happen to believe that this work of reconciliation will go on, whether I am a part of it or not. But, my friends, what a privilege it is to be a part of this cosmic plan and this grand adventure! It’s a story that reaches back into the very mists of time. It’s a story that reaches its zenith in the events which we have so recently celebrated in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, it’s a story that reaches even into the nooks and crannies, the crevices and cracks of a little Midwestern town that fails to register nary a “blip” on the radar of most of the rich and powerful.

So, here we are, headed into the homestretch at the end of another academic year. And I want to encourage you to not be afraid to throw a little gasoline on the academic pyre. Sure it’s risky and sure your hair may catch on fire. But, just like my friend, Mark Skaggs, you’ve got a lot of us in this community who are prepared to douse the over-exuberant flames and to trim the locks of your scorched intellectual head. So, like Ruth, our semester’s heroine and example, commit yourself to the dangerous journey to the threshing floor and the risky business of transformational learning. And don’t worry about the consequences, since God may have something much more exciting in mind than even you can imagine. Because after all: God has a story, too.