Spirit of Inclusion


Randall Tremba
 November 11, 2012
 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Ruth 4:17
The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Mark 12:38-44
Jesus said, “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

* * *

The election is over. Campaign ads, phone calls and polling have ceased. Do I hear a “hallelujah?!”

I follow politics closely. I read a lot and enjoy watching campaigns, especially presidential campaigns in part because they magnify our common and conflicting national values and reveal both the admirable and despicable sides of people and groups. And I find all of that quite interesting.

I watched the returns Tuesday night and kept reminding myself to practice what I preached last Sunday. In life and death we belong to God. Be calm. Breath in. Breathe out. In life and death we belong to God. In life and death we belong to God. In life and death we belong to God.

And so it went through a tense night. Through the evening I clung to the belief that no matter the outcome of this election, the sun would rise the following day. I believe that not on the basis of polling, but on the basis of experience and a certain understanding of the ways the Creator governs the universe. The sun and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, on winners and losers. The Maker of heaven and earth is faithful and dependable but not above throwing a few surprises at us now and then.

Speaking of surprises, I was surprised at the number of people and the kinds of people who turned out to roundly support a less than ideal, and somewhat failed, presidential candidate. But from what I can tell, the swell of support wasn’t merely for the candidate but also for the ideals he represented.

As it turns out, many of our fellow citizens perceived this election as a fundamental choice for the kind of nation we have become and aspire to be. As three angry white men bitterly lamented on their respective television and radio shows: our country is lost. We are no longer the traditional nation we once were.

So what kind of nation have we become?

In a word, more inclusive. And that spirit of inclusion, according to one of the Washington Post’s conservative voices, Michael Gerson, was not evident in his own party.

I read Michael Gerson regularly, in part, because he and I graduated from the same college. That would be Wheaton College (Illinois) from which Billy Graham also graduated. By the way I also read George Will, David Brooks and the chronically grumpy Charles Krauthammer. I read them because I like to hear and take into account various views and opinions.

Anyway, here’s Gerson’s reflection on the election results and the failure of his own party to win more votes.

The Romney campaign was a vast machine with one moving part, its economic critique. The next Republican campaign will need to be capable of complex adjustments of ideology, policy and rhetoric. And it will need one more thing: a candidate with a genuine, creative passion for inclusion.

Ironically, that was the party that received the implicit endorsement of Billy Graham with his full-page ad in the Wall St. Journal: VOTE THE BIBLE. As it turns out our biblical tradition has a passion and spirit for inclusion. But even without the Bible, if you pay attention to science and the natural world, you can see the spirit of inclusion in the unfolding of the entire universe with its propensity for greater and greater diversity and wider and wider community as reflected in basic cosmology and ecology.

Plurality and diversity is the key to survival and prosperity in the biological world. Why should it be any different in the human world?

Which brings me to the first lesson for today.

The charming story of Ruth is set in ancient Israel, about 1000 years before Jesus and before Israel ever had its first king.

At the time of this story Israel, like most peoples, was tribalistic. Outsiders were excluded. Marriage to foreigners was forbidden. And then along came Ruth—a despised Moabite from across the river.

But the story of Ruth begins with Naomi.

Once upon a time Naomi and her husband fled across the Jordan River into Moab to find work and food. They became refugees. In Moab, Naomi’s two sons married so called “filthy infidels.” Naomi’s husband died and soon after her sons died, leaving their wives childless widows. One daughter-in-law went back to her father’s home. The other, Ruth, pledged to stay with Naomi.

No, said Naomi, I am going back to Israel. You will have no safety, no life there. Stay in Moab. To which Ruth replied:

Do not press me to leave you
 or to turn back from following you! 
Where you go, I will go;
 where you lodge, I will lodge;
 your people shall be my people,
 and your God my God. 
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried. 
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
 and more as well, 
if even death parts me from you!

At that Naomi gathered the lost and forsaken Ruth in her embrace and together they crossed the river back into Israel where Ruth was a despised, illegal immigrant. To make a long story short, Ruth was eventually accepted, befriended, and married Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman. And Ruth gave birth to the grandfather of King David. How cool is that!

Without the spirit and practice of inclusion, Israel never would have seen King David or the prosperity he brought to their land and people. Ruth was included and just like that Israel was no longer the traditional nation it had been for hundreds of years!

The spirit of inclusion is part of our biblical tradition. Many of my own born-again, evangelical relatives completely miss that in the Bible. You may not know it, but President Obama was weaned on the biblical tradition, including this story about a vulnerable outsider.

No, this story won’t write an immigration policy for our nation. But it does suggest compassion as the way for seeing the other. It’s an invitation not just for governments but for you and me to see “the other” in our world with compassion.

The second lesson for today is also about a widow.

One day Jesus was watching taxpayers present their taxes at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was home of the national treasury and (we might say) the department of health and human services. It wasn’t exactly income taxes they presented but it was the equivalent for that time. And Jesus was following the money.

Jesus watched rich and powerful men put in large sums of money while praying loudly and giving thanks to God for abundantly blessing them. What they didn’t say—but what Jesus did say—was that their riches had been gained from an economic and legal system rigged in their favor and against the poor, especially widows and orphans—representatives of all who are marginalized by any society. The so-called divinely instituted financial system allowed these rich men to foreclose on widows’ homes and take possession. At least that’s what Jesus said.

As Jesus stood with his disciples watching the big, flashy, pious donors, he saw a widow put in her last penny. And Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

I for one do not think Jesus said that with admiration. I think he said it in anger. For he knew, what we have come to know, that political and economic systems can be designed—often in the name of piety and religion— to exclude some from the bounty of a nation in order to secure and embellish the wealth of those who already have much.

No, this story won’t write a tax code for our nation. It does, however, urge us to see the poor with compassion and to act with justice. It’s not just an invitation to governments. It’s an invitation to you and me to see the poor with compassion and to act with justice.

Neither exclusion nor inequality is the way of Jesus. It is not the way of the Spirit. The Spirit of inclusion gathers all people in, gathers us in to live as one. And whether it’s the world, the nation or your own small world, that’s the spirit. That’s the way to live.

The way of Jesus is not a way out of this world. It’s a certain of being in this world. Of being in love. And love takes courage to include all whom God loves and gathers in.