Simple Acts of Faithfulness

103810542Sermon for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time …. Photo by Sami Sarkis, Getty Images …. Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem …. –Ruth 4:11

From among the Bible readings suggested for today by the Revised Common lectionary, I’ve chosen to prepare a sermon on the text Joy read. The Book of Ruth doesn’t get much attention in the Church. It’s a short book. It records no mighty acts of God. It contains no critical information about the political history of Israel. Some of you may have read the book of Ruth in Sunday school, or heard Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi in a study of women in the Bible. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some of you are unfamiliar with the story.

Here’s the basic plot. After years of homesteading in the hills of Moab, all of the men in an Israeli family die. Naomi, the matriarch, decides to travel west out of the hills, across the Jordan River, and back to the family village of Bethlehem. Her sons’ widows are native to Moab, and Naomi releases them from their responsibility to her. But Ruth stubbornly refuses to let go – once a daughter, always a daughter. Proclaiming her undying love, Ruth leaves familiar surroundings to travel with her mother-in-law to a strange new land.

In that land, Naomi relies upon the generosity of her nearest male relatives to provide food and shelter, for the clan is the social security system of that day. Furthermore, the family law of ancient Israel dictates that the men of the family hold a council to determine what will happen to Ruth. One of them will be obligated to marry her, and raise children on behalf of her dead husband.

Now, raising children who technically belonged to another man is not a profitable business decision. The cost is great, and the financial reward is nothing. A man might not be very anxious to add such a responsibility. So Naomi creates a plan for moving the process along.

The climax of the story is commonly called “the scene at the threshing floor.” It holds all the drama of a Hollywood movie. It includes a secret rendezvous in the middle of the night between beautiful but vulnerable Ruth, and powerful but lonely Boaz. It implies the opportunity for a throw-caution-to-the-wind, passionate encounter. But that’s not what happens; something else happens instead.

Throughout the story, each character faces at least one key moral decision. “At each of these points in the story,” says commentator Edward Campbell, “a moment of choice is presented . . . . At each of these points the choice is made in favor of what righteous living calls for.”[1]

In the spirit of righteous living, each of the characters contributes important gifts to the health and happiness of the family. Naomi’s gift is compassion for her daughter-in-law, seeing her not only as a meal ticket, but also as a human being who deserves security and love. Ruth’s gift is her openness and honesty, her choice to be vulnerable with the man she loves and has chosen over others. Boaz’s gift is undemanding protection, not exploiting Ruth, but rather doing what is right according to the law of God, and the customs of the community. Each gift is simple, which is not the same thing as saying each gift is easy or without cost to the giver. Each gift constitutes a simple act of faithfulness that honors God, and has positive and long-lasting impact on future generations.

Today’s special emphasis gives us another lens through which to appreciate this message. We’ve recognized new fifty-year members, and called to mind other living members whose membership spans up to eighty-nine years. As we do that, we can’t help but think of all that has transpired through those years, both good and bad, and be impressed by the perseverance of so many people. In some places, it’s not popular to recognize the tenure of members, and to some extent I understand these sentiments. God doesn’t grant grace according to a system of seniority. You’re no more precious to God because you stayed rooted in one community all your life, and no less precious because you moved around. Even so, at the heart of our 50-year-member recognition is the conviction that there’s something important about consistently giving ourselves to others in relationships of love, giving ourselves to participation in a community of faith, giving ourselves in offerings of time, talents, and treasures, simple acts of faithfulness that honor God and have positive and long-lasting impact on future generations.

There are, of course, different seasons of life, and many valid reasons for not giving ourselves. A period of poor health keeps us from worship, education, or service. Unexpected bills keep us from offering more financial support. Responsibilities of all kinds at work and home divert our attention from the church’s amazing mission and critical ministries.

Still, I have a recurring fantasy about what would happen if each and every able-bodied and moderate-income member of the church adopted the rule of threes:

  • Attend worship here (or while traveling) 3 times/month;
  • Participate in a study or service opportunity 3 times/month;
  • Pledge 3% of income to mission and ministries of the church.

It’s three threes, a trinity of trinities, if you like, a spiritual discipline, a fitting honor to the apostles and saints who have come before us and gifted us with this community of faith. If we all made such a commitment, then, I believe:

  • The traffic and parking problems around our facility would tell the community that Presbyterians are especially committed Christians, and the church’s moral influence would be strengthened.
  • Expensive marketing campaigns would seem less important because the unchurched would begin to follow their Presbyterian friends to church. Children and youth would have an example set for them with greater impact than any curriculum resources, because when it comes to faith formation, more is caught than taught.
  • Special fundraisers would no longer be needed; we would have adequate resources to accomplish our God-given mission to be Christ for the world today.

Today, I’m grateful for the example of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. I’m grateful for the model of widow who bet on the sufficiency of God’s grace, and offered her two small coins. I’m grateful for our 50-year members, and all of you who choose to show up here at worship, and give your time, talents, and financial treasures to this community of faith. These are your simple acts of faithfulness that honor God, and may God bless them for the common good today, and positive, long-lasting impact on future generations. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

[1] Edward F. Campbell, Jr., “Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary.” Vol. 7 in “The Anchor Bible,” ed. W.F. Albright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975, p. 132.

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~ by JohnH1962 on November 10, 2015.