Journey of Faith - Part Two
This is the second sermon in a series titled “Journey of Faith.” My first sermon was on calling. We looked at the call of Matthew and talked about finding the connection between the world’s greatest need and your greatest joy. Greg Garis, our Interim Presbytery Exec. Followed it with a sermon on Jacob wrestling with God. He reminded us to Go for it, and claim the blessing that comes from wrestling with God even if we walk away limping. Today we are considering the story of Ruth and Naomi as well as one of the earliest confessions of faith in Christian tradition.
As we continue in this journey together, let us pause for a word of prayer. Lord, silence in us all competing thoughts and concerns, that nothing ring true in this place but the sound of your light in a darkened world. And Lord, if there are any words spoken or considered that are not in keeping with your truth, strike them quickly so that the only thing that takes root in our hearts is your word…that it may bear fruit in due season. In the name of the Judge who is the Redeemer, amen.
I love candles! I always have. Something about the dancing light of a candle has always fascinated me. Growing up in the South, it seems that citronella candles have always been a part of my life. My favorite candles were the ones in our sanctuary, growing up. I can remember my brother and sister and I trying to blow from eight rows back on the side section to make the candle flicker. Of course they knew that it was the air conditioning draft that made it do that. But they timed it so well that for years I really thought we had made it flicker!
Candles are also a reminder of God’s presence. That is why the ancient Hebrews kept an oil lamp burning in the Temple, and that is why the light from our candles is processed out at the end of the service. It has been said that “all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one small candle.” The best example I can think of for this is inside of a cave. For those of you who have been spelunking, you know that inside a cave is a place of consummate darkness. Without any light you are completely blind. The darkness is so real that it has a heaviness to it that you can almost feel.
Naomi knew what that felt like. She fled her homeland in a time of famine only to loose her husband and two sons. How do you like that? You give up everything to take care of those closest to you, and for what? In Naomi’s world her son’s wives were bound to her, and she knew that she would be a liability to them so she sent them off. But Ruth did something spectacular. She said, “No. I am yours and you are mine. Everything you value is what I value. Your people are mine, and your God is mine.” This, most likely, is a death sentence, and Ruth knows it. They have no assets, no property rights, and no resources. They have nothing but the rumor that God has remained faithful to God’s promises to Naomi’s people. Ruth is not simply saying, “You do not have to die alone.” She is saying, “I am going to die with you because I have bound my life and my fate to yours.”
For light to enter darkness there must be some level of sacrifice. A candle is burned to make a flame, and it becomes something more than it could have been by being expended. Even a flashlight requires a battery to be used up. I wonder though, when you do not see the transformation, does it mean as much? Do we, perhaps, have a sanitized view or concept of sacrifice today? Webster’s Dictionary defines sacrifice as 1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar 2 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost.
The Bible is full of sacrifices demanded by God that include people, animals, and produce. The smell is said to please God’s nose. The Bible also contains commentary against it, saying “I demand obedience not sacrifice” and “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
What’s going on here? The point of sacrifice is not ritual appeasement but about orientation. Obedience is sacrifice if the result is fulfilling God’s will instead of our own. That’s why we have Ruth. She’s kind of like a sign post to remind us where we are and where we are headed. You know, they have those outside of caves in National Parks, and many of them also have a book to sign in and out in case you get lost.
Things can get distorted pretty easily in a cave. When you sit still and quiet, there is virtually no sound, no wind, and absolutely no light. That’s how we feel when we are in the grip of despair.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a guy who knew about that. He was a clergyman in Nazis Germany who opposed Hitler and helped form a group of group of congregations to speak out against him. Their words are the ones known as the Theological Declaration of the Barman in our Book of Confessions today. Bonhoeffer died in a concentration camp, but while he was there he continued to teach about Jesus and his love. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer talks about the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is forgiveness without anything else connected to it, no love, no responsibility, no response at all. Cheap grace is the attitude that says, “It is easier to gain forgiveness than permission.” It is self-centered, and self-administered. Costly grace, on the other hand, comes from God alone. Though God has paid the price, and it is freely given, it means nothing to us if we have not truly confessed our sins and if we do not respond by a deeper faith, a changed way of doing things, and involvement with others who are trying to do the same thing (that’s the church, friends). Costly grace means that because Jesus paid the price we can be transformed into something greater than ourselves, like the flame of a burning candle spreading light to all the world!
It means that we can have the same mind as Christ Jesus! By the way, the word translated as “mind” is “phroneo.” It literally means to be being disposed (used) in the same way as Jesus! Who, according to this early hymn of the church, did not exploit (use for himself) grace, but instead gave it away.
The text says he was obedient unto death – even death on a cross! Do you know why that matters? It matters because in Deuteronomy it says that a person who dies hanging from a tree is cursed, cut off from the people, cut off from God! That’s why the Romans used crosses! They wanted to say, “God can’t help you now!” And that is exactly why Jesus took up his cross, to say, “There is no curse, there is nothing that can be put on you from the outside, that can separate you from me! For you are my beloved."
I once heard Jean Matasume Ashe, the wife of Arthur Ashe, speak at a symposium on art and faith. Arthur Ashe was the first African American to succeed in professional tennis. He was not aloud to practice or play on the courts of whites as a child. Trgicly he contracted AIDs from a blood transfusion and died. Mrs. Ashe is a photographer. In reflection upon her life she said, “Isn’t it amazing that to get an image entirely dependant on light you have to go into a place of total darkness? And isn’t that what the cross was all about?”
Friends, here’s the good news, through our sacrifices and in our times of sharing we become light to one another! I have seen you do it. I have seen you sit with one another in hospitals. I have heard your stories of tutoring children, and the legacy of service to the community that flows from this place! Through Christ we do not just offer companionship but the very presence of God. So, I ask you, will we keep this legacy alive? Will we continue in the journey that requires sacrifice? Will we give up our advantages to be with someone in their adversity?
I have heard it said that Christian faith is like bacon and eggs. The chicken was involved in your breakfast. The pig was committed to it. We may feel like an old stump of a candle, but we are truly more like the refillable kind; and our refill comes in the offering of ourselves for others. In our journey of faith we can’t get very far without surrendering our current position. But the beautiful thing is this: through Christ giving is receiving, obedience is sacrifice, and every step into the heart of darkness is a chance to shine more light. This does not happen just anywhere. It happens here, around this table, in this place; and it shines into the darkness beyond, and the darkness can not overtake it! Thanks be to God. Amen.