WHAT I DID FOR LOVE
The Bible is bound together as one book, but it is really a collection of 66 very different books, each of which tells us about God and God's people in its own way. The book of Ruth is in the Bible because it tells the story about one of the ancestors of Israel's greatest king, King David. It is important for Christians because King David is in turn the ancestor of Jesus Christ, and Ruth appears in the genealogy of Jesus.
That is not as normal as it might seem. Ruth is from a nation near Israel called Moab. Israel did not allow for intermarriage, and especially the people from Moab...Moabites, they were called...were despised. And yet here we have a Moabite woman who becomes part of the lineage of King David and then Jesus. What's that about?
Well, I think it's about the key theme of the entire Bible, which is found in Deuteronomy chapter 6...You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. All the technicalities of law fade into the background when the banner of single-minded love of God flies high. That's what the Hebrew Scriptures have always said and when those words became flesh in Jesus Christ, that's what Jesus tried to show by his life, death, and resurrection.
Ruth the Moabite gets to be part of the most important lineage in salvation history because she was a woman who knew that singleness of heart. The story as we pick it up is that Naomi is an Israelite woman who goes with her husband to the land of Moab because there was famine in Israel. They were refugees, basically. While Naomi and her husband are in Moab, their two sons marry Moabite women. One is Ruth, the other Is Orpah. Then tragedy strikes the family and all the men die. Naomi loses her husband and her two sons.
When she hears that the famine in Israel is over, Naomi makes plans to return home. Before she leaves, she bids farewell to her two daughters-in-law, telling them to go back to their homes and to find other husbands. But the two women say they want to stay with Naomi and go to Israel with her. That's where we pick up the reading. Naomi pushes them harder, explaining there is no way they will find husbands with her. At this urging, Orpah does say goodbye and return home. But Ruth stays. And it is in the words of Ruth as she decides to stay that we see the heart that convinced God to put this foreign woman in the lineup.
"Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." That's it. That's the heart God is looking for. That is the kind of love that God is talking about all through Scripture. It's true that Ruth's love at this point is for Naomi rather than for Naomi's God, but God knows that is a small step. Once we can manage that sort of love and faithfulness to another human being, it can be transferred to God.
God is not looking for a general preference from us. God is looking for single-minded devotion. Kierkegaard wrote that "The will of God is to will one thing." And that one thing is this devotion that cares for nothing else. Ruth willingly leaves her country, her family, her culture...everything to go to an unknown land. The only thing that matters is her relationship with Naomi.
That's what Jesus is pressing for in the New Testament passage we read. People are ready to get up and follow Jesus. He doesn't jump up and down and say, "Hurray! New members!" He tries to put them off...he tests their devotion. He reminds the first follower that Jesus himself is homeless...unlike foxes who have holes and birds who have nests, Jesus is a wanderer and doesn't know from day to day where he will sleep. Do they want to be with him enough to endure discomfort? Others put family responsibility and concern first...nope, says Jesus. That's not it. So much for Jesus as the family values guy. But I really don't think Jesus is wanting people to disregard duty and courtesy to family members. I think Jesus is questioning where their priorities are. I think if these would-be disciples had answered Jesus as Ruth answered Naomi, he would have said. Go bury your dead, say goodbye to your family and come and follow me. But because their first concern was to do something else, Jesus saw that their priorities were out of order.
This is the perfect weekend to talk about this because we have just celebrated Veteran's Day. The attitude that God is looking for is the attitude of the faithful soldier who promises first to be faithful to country before ever knowing what that country will ask. The choir anthem coming up puts it another way... "Yes is the answer. What's the question going to be?" That is the attitude of the good soldier. That was the attitude of Ruth. And that is the attitude that Jesus is looking for in disciples. If we have to know what is going to be asked of us before we decide, then our relationship with God is not yet strong enough.
Time and time again in my life, God has withheld blessings from me until I offer my willingness to accept even the worst that I can imagine. Not because God wants to give me the worst, but because God's blessings turn to curses if I don't already have that single-minded attitude in my heart. The most recent experience of that for me was in making the decision to leave Florida and come up here. The day before I was to fly up here to see if a move would be possible, my District Superintendent in Florida dangled this fabulous Florida church in front of me. It had several thousand members and a salary of over $60K.
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God wanted me in New England. I also knew that the minimum wage for pastors up here was $22K, and at least in Florida anyone transferring into the Conference automatically went to minimum wage. I had been struggling financially since entering ministry with debts from seminary and divorce and I can tell you that "Blessed are the poor" was not a comforting verse at that point. Thinking about a probable pay cut of 8-10 thousand dollars did not help my mood. During my entire flight from Florida to New England I blasted God with everything I had for making me go back to poverty when I could have lived comfortably in Florida for the first time in many years. I ranted, I cried, but it all did no good. I knew in my heart that the riches Florida offered would be full of worms if that's not what God had asked me to do.
Just as the plane was landing in Manchester, I let go and said, "OK, God, you win. Whatever it is, I will come here. Whether it's the far reaches of Maine or the inner city, whether it's minimum salary or whatever, I will come here if you open the door. BUT," I said. "Do not expect me to go around preaching any abundant life sermons, because I have no idea what that's about!" It was a concession of sorts, but not exactly a joyful one. If I could have slammed the airplane door, I probably would have.
10 days later, the night before I was to fly back home, Ed Claus called me to tell me I had been appointed here to St. John's. In the District I wanted, in the kind of church I wanted, at more than 10 thousand more in salary than I was making at the church I was leaving in Florida. On the flight home I said, "OK, OK, I'll preach the abundant life sermon...which was my last sermon in that church in Florida." And I could give you other instances.
The point is that for God to bless us, we have to be willing not to be blessed. And we have to prove that willingness by what we do. We have to show by our actions that all that matters to us is what God wants...to say with Ruth, "Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people." Like the soldier, it is our "yes" to God before we even know what the question is going to be. There are times when that doesn't seem safe. I was so sure in coming up here that God was ready to sell me down the river. God, forgive me. Forgive my lack of trust in your goodness and love.
That attitude is what stewardship is all about. People are always arguing about whether stewardship is about money alone or also about giving time and talent and gifts. Well, I think that's a false question. Giving any and all of those things are merely expressions of stewardship. Stewardship itself is the attitude that makes giving of all types not only possible, but joyful. If you give...even if you tithe, which in Biblical language is the giving of ten percent of your income...you still might not have the attitude of a steward.
If you give as payment for services rendered, you develop the attitude of entitlement not stewardship. If you give to cover the church's overhead and expenses or as dues for membership, you end up with the attitude of ownership rather than stewardship. To truly see the abundance of God, we have to give with the attitude of a steward...the attitude that gives up all control of all resources to God alone, knowing that in recognizing God as the owner of all things, we have participated in an essential truth of the universe. That is reality, and the closer we live to reality, the better life works. You can argue that reality is different, but the laboratory of my life and the lives of many others will poke holes in your theory.
This morning we wade in the riskiest waters of all as we ask you to pledge actual dollars that you have earned to the work of God in this place. We ask you to make a pledge because your promises are the way we decide what goes into the budget and what comes out. If you don't promise it, we're still grateful to receive it, but important ministries will have been axed because we didn't know the money was going to come in to cover it. What you pledge is private. Only God, our financial secretary, and treasurer know who gives what. I don't even know. The finance committee only gets totals.
This is hard...but the attitude of the steward says simply "Yes, Lord. Yes is the answer, what's the question going to be?"
I will leave you with my story from this past Friday. I got my pledge card in the mail and went to fill it out. A certain amount had been floating around in my head for a few weeks, but before writing that down, I sat down with my calculator and did the math. The amount I was thinking about was more like 15% than 10%, so I figured out 10% and wrote it on my pledge card. Then I went into my chapel to pray about the campaign. "God," I prayed, "speak to people's hearts and let them know what you would have them give." God just cleared his throat. "But, God," I complained, "that's more than 30% of my raise next year." God cleared his throat again. I hate that. So I got up and changed my pledge. It's hard for me, too.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me. Now that's stewardship.
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson
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