Sermon Delivered 11/11/12Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Before we reflect on today’s scripture passages, I want to remind you of one of the rich moments in scripture that we were not able to attend to last Sunday. Last Sunday we heard the story of the healing of Lazerus, and there is a line in that story that is so intimidating that it often gets skipped over.
Do you remember what Thomas said after Jesus told them that – now that Lazerus was dead – it was time to go to Jerusalem? He said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas the doubter, Thomas the cynic, Thomas the realist; Thomas is the voice of raw, unmeasured faith and costly discipleship.
We remember this little, easily forgotten, line today because of the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. For in this story, Ruth is with her mother-in-law because Naomi’s husband and sons have all died. Naomi returned to her ancestral home, which had been in a famine when she left, and Ruth went down to Bethlehem with Naomi to die as a poor beggar.
Ruth was a foreigner. Ruth was not a member of God’s chosen people. Ruth had no rights or privileges or resources – except for the wisdom of her mother-in-law. So at first Naomi encouraged Ruth to glean from the fields. She knew the laws and the customs, and farmers were obligated to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that the poor could have something to live off of. Wouldn’t that be an interesting way to conduct business in this day and age? Well, not only did Naomi know about gleaning, she also knew that the law provided for a man to marry the widow of a next of kin relative.
So Naomi arranges a love connection, they have a child, and all’s well that ends well. Not only that, but this child becomes Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. And the line of kings continues all the way to Jesus – the One who will offer redemption for all people for all time.
That’s a neatly wrapped package, but did we miss something there? The redemption of all people, even of creation itself, came through the actions of two beggars – a widow and a foreigner. Wow. Talk about power made perfect in weakness.
Make no mistake, that is what this passage is about – power, weakness, and restoration.
I know a woman who lives in Richmond, Virginia, named Martha Rollins who heard this story in church one Sunday, just like we did today. Martha was in her mid to late 50’s and had a modestly successful antique store in a trendy area of town. She heard that story and realized that it was her story, and that she was Boaz – a person of power and influence.
Martha decided to teach someone how to refinish some furniture. Then she decided to open a second location in an impoverished area of town, and use it as a training center to help more people have a skill and a venue for earning a living. That was over fifteen years ago.
Since then, Boaz and Ruth has grown into a corporation that supports a cottage industry of five separate companies that develop life skills and empower people who are on the bottom of the pile. Not only that, it is all located – very intentionally – in the worst part of town.
People like Martha are intimidating to me. In the face of such a force of love I may even feel powerless. How could I ever devote that kind of time and energy? Where would I ever come up with those resources? Are these the questions you ask? Or, perhaps it comes to you in a different way. Maybe you just think something like, “Thank God for people like that! We need more of that kind of thing in the world!”
If that is what you are thinking, you might be standing on the edge of transformation. You might be standing on the edge of restoration. There might be a project that God has in mind for you, and your hands may have opened – just slightly – to receive it.
I will leave that up to you and God to wrestle with. Some of you already have your hands full. In fact, today after church we will have a meal and roll up our sleeves to prepare some items for our Christmas gift basket ministry. While we do it, please remember – every bag you stuff and toy you place is a part of the restoration of humanity that God has accomplished through Jesus Christ.
And there’s the kicker that catches us in our reading from Hebrews today. This passage tells the story of the crucifixion not by what physically happened, but by what followed – by what resulted, by what matters about that moment in time for this one. The thing is, this passage reminds us that sin has been dealt with – once and for all! Yes, we still sin. Yes, we still need to confess. No, we do not need to live in fear!
Jesus is coming back, but it is not to condemn. Certainly this can be understood as telling us what will happen after we die. Possibly this could even describe some impending day of judgement. But what if it is also describing the way that we can live in the here and now? What if the second coming and the restoration of humanity happens in our hearts and minds and in the quality of our relationships? What if the second coming of Jesus happens when we let go of power in order to be wed to the powerless?
What would it even look like if we decided that the building we call the church is nothing more than a window that looks into and out of the Kingdom of God?
I must confess that I am not exactly sure. I’m not exactly sure because that would involve a vision of every one of our lives. It would involve a vision of every relationship and every chance encounter. It would involve a vision too big for me, but one that is just right for God.
Still, Jesus makes the point of the hypocrisy of the scribes in the market place. In that time and place they held authority, and they spoke for God. Hypocrisy is the easiest target for those who feel like the church no longer connects with their needs. Until or unless there is some final restoration, the church will always be filled with hypocrites. It is, after all, the best place for us to be. It is the place where we at least have the opportunity to realize that we are selfish, vain, and insincere and still be loved.
But Jesus is not simply taking shots at the easy targets. Jesus is demonstrating the problem of power, and the resourcefulness of faith. The widow gave from her poverty. It hurt her to do it, and the scribes upheld the system that made it so.
Tsk, tsk – shame, shame.
Meanwhile the economic engine of a global economy shifts gears this month to prepare for the final push of sales that justifies the existence of almost every system of governance, commerce, and social contract on the planet – Christmas! Goods and services dependent on slave labor and bent on making us feel superior (or inferior as the case may be) are being loaded onto trucks as we speak.
Of course we cannot just put a spoke in the wheel of progress. That would be disastrous. We can, however, consider the power of our dollar and the public witness of our practice. Some of us will be doing this more specifically on Wednesday nights in Advent, and you are of course invited to join, but all of us can consider the choice of the widow. All of us can consider the cost of our faith. All of us can make choices that put us together with Thomas, and Ruth, and a nameless widow who all decided to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And all of us will find restoration and life, even where we expect only certain death.
In the beginning of the movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s character is giving a pre-battle speech. He says, “Three weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line. Stay with me. If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled; for you are in Elysium, and you're already dead! [The soldiers laugh] Brothers, what we do in life, echoes in eternity.” Then he turns to his captain and says, “At my signal - unleash Hell.”
Like those soldiers, we are also expecting certain death. I believe that God is saying to us today, “Imagine that you are held in my hand every moment of every day, because you are. Live as a member of my kingdom, because it has come. Show the world that eternity has already begun, not by enabling, but by empowering those who are weak. Jesus was the signal. I have unleashed Heaven!”
And may the grace, mercy, and providence of God be abundant in your places of need, in your places of excess, and in the love you demonstrate in every relationship and ever chance encounter you God gives you. And to God be the glory. Now and always. Amen!