Sermon transcript for November 4, 2012
“Kinship” Ruth 1: 1-18
All Saints Sunday—November 4, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
The reading today from the Book of Ruth contains this beautiful story of a bond and covenant between courageous women. “During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man and his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab.” (verse 1 CEB) It was a time of hardship, and the decision to leave home for Moab was life changing. In this foreign land the sons of Naomi and Elimilech take foreign wives, Ruth and Orpah. Elimilech dies soon thereafter, leaving Naomi a widow. In turn Naomi’s sons die leaving her daughters-in-law widows as well. In a patriarchal culture this creates even greater vulnerability for them and they are forced to make difficult decisions. Like many immigrant families they find themselves facing numerous hardships and losses.
Hearing that the drought in Judah is over, Naomi decides to return home to the land of her people. This decision forces the daughters-in-law to make their own tough decisions. Naomi encourages them to return to their people but Ruth refuses and vows incredible allegiance to her mother-in-law, in words that are often quoted, she proclaims,
“Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” (vv. 16-17, CEB) So Naomi returns home and she returns with this unlikely companion, a Moabite woman, a foreigner, a widow, and an outsider who represents the people who have been the enemies of Israel.
This story and the celebration of All Saints Sunday teach us something about the power of kinship. Kinship causes us to do extraordinary things that we would not do otherwise. Ruth is fiercely and completely committed to her mother-in-law and this commitment is spoken beautifully in words of covenant that say, “My relationship with you transcends everything else.”
On the list of persons we are remembering is Rebecca Graham Ferris. Rebecca and her family had deep roots in this church. In her later years Rebecca met Walter and they fell in love. During their short but fulfilling marriage they traveled all over the world. They love to dance and be together and they had wonderful stories of their life together. Walter died a little over a year ago. Walter was a “cradle Catholic” and even considered the priesthood when he was young. He loved the church and he and Rebecca come to Belmont one Sunday and go to the St. Henry’s on the next.
One Sunday, when Walter was 92 years old, he decided to join Belmont and sometime during the last hymn he started down the aisle. I did not know he planned this and I did not see him, even though he waved to get my attention. The hymn ended and Walter never made it all the way to the front. I gave the benediction and walked to the back. After service the Randolph’s said, ‘Ken, Walter wanted to join the church today, but you didn’t let him.” So that afternoon I called him to apologize. He had a wonderful sense of humor and he said, “Well I’m kind of slow; maybe I should have started down the aisle during the middle hymn.” I assured him that we would gladly welcome him the next Sunday.” I talked to him before the service that next Sunday and I said, “Walter, you can join the United Methodist Church if you want to but I suspect you will always be a Catholic at heart.” He smiled but did not respond. Walter did not join us because he loved John Wesley or because he liked my sermons. He joined because it was the ultimate sign of his deep love for his dear Rebecca. When he died his service was at the Catholic Church and this United Methodist Minister offered the message of faith. Kinship can cause you to do extreme things, like becoming a United Methodist when you’re lifelong Catholic, or following your mother-in-law homeward, not knowing if you, a Moabite, will be welcomed.
At the heart of kinship we come to understand the meaning of obligation—obligation not in its negative connotation, out of a rote and sterile sense of duty or guilt, as in, “I feel obliged to do this even though I do want to.” But I’m speaking of obligation to the other, born out of compassion, empathy and caring. Obligation that arises out of the human bond and a desire to do for the other what is right and good. We see this sense of obligation between Naomi and Ruth. We see it lived out among the saints of this church as well. (Deep Symbols, Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation, Edward Farley, “Obligation” pp. 42-44)
Our nation is starting the slow recovery from another national disaster and we hold the people whose lives have been upended, from Cuba to New York and New Jersey, in our prayers. Natural disasters are times of great hardship and suffering but it is during these times of extreme need that we finally get it right. Persons reach out in love and compassion to anyone and everyone in need, and they do without asking if the person is Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Moabite, a Democrat or Republican, because it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our response and our sense of obligation and kinship overrides our even our deepest prejudices.
The story of Ruth reminds us that kinship is more than blood ties. Kathleen O’Connor writes us that “this God does not belong to one people alone but gathers peoples into this wide family.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 246) This story and the celebration of All Saints remind us of the importance of relationships centered in God and not in our narrow understandings of relationship. Ruth would marry Boaz and become an ancestor to King David, and according to Matthew’s gospel, a foremother of Jesus. Jesus’ own genealogy is a theological statement that speaks of a wider understanding of kinship.
And it is through Ruth’s faithfulness that God works to bring hope and redemption to God’s people. Hope arises out of this broader understanding of kinship. As we read the names of these dear saints, we are reminded of our deep love for one another in this family we call Belmont. These names represent some of our finest; people who have lived as an example of compassion, people who by their example have shown us the way of life through Jesus Christ. We miss them, but like Naomi and Ruth, ordinary saints, they continue to inform and transform how we live and think. As we hear their names we offer thanks for their continued witness among us. And as we come to this table to break the bread and drink from the cup, we are aware of our kinship with a communion of saints here and elsewhere, known and unknown. As we think of them may the hope which comes to us as a gift from God, spring up in us and give us new purpose!
Sermon transcript for October 21, 2012
Living God’s Dream--A Widow’s Gift
Mark 12:28-34; 38-44
Belmont UMC—October 21, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
We know these texts. In the first part of this reading Jesus reminds us of the Great Commandment—to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The other story is one we heard in Sunday School and we probably called it the widow’s mite but maybe it should be the widow’s might, for it describes a woman who understands the power of a life centered in God.
This story of the widow’s gift seems foreign to us, doesn’t it? We live in a world that has a different way of seeing things. In our world bigger is better. If you do well in this life you are rewarded with material rewards. You get the corner office with a great view. You get leather seats and more horsepower. You get your name on the sign out front.
We like bigger things. The young man at the fast food restaurant asked me, “Do you want to supersize that?” I never know how to answer this question with a simple “yes” or “no,” and I ask something back like, “Do you feel it needs to be bigger than it is? Do I look like I need more fat and calories?” I get blank looks in return. We like the supersized life, the trophy house and the bank account to match. “The one with the most toys wins.” We want to the white light of success to shine brightly on us.
We get bragging rights when we are successful--especially, if we started out life without the marks of success. You have all heard my log cabin stories, haven’t you? We’ve come a long way from those simple days on the farm.
And I’m not putting success down, by the way. I want all of you to excel and do your best in whatever you are endeavoring to do. But I would caution us not to measure the life of each person by how much they have obtained. For if we do we will never understand a gospel story about a poor widow who gave a small gift, but Jesus said she gave more than anyone else. The other caution we have with this text is that most all of us are rich, by the world’s standards. And we may need a little spiritual healing to be able to see through the eyes of Jesus. That would be true for me, I confess.
The story in Mark 12 is a story of contrasts. Jesus is sitting in the temple, people watching. And this is what he sees: scribes marching in with great fanfare. They like to walk around in long robes (Some of us on the chancel could get a little uncomfortable here. I think robes are supposed to make us look less adorned and act as equalizers, much like a high school graduation robe does, but we have gotten away from that idea. They do keep us from adorning ourselves in other ostentatious ways. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a preacher behind a large pulpit, wearing a Porter Wagner inspired jacket, addressing the congregation as, “Dearly Besequined!”). But the point is that is that Jesus notes the scribes’ desire for attention and they yearned for the seats of honor. He sees them march in with great fanfare, dropping their coins in the coffers with loud clanking sounds as if to say, “Look at us; look what we have done.”
And Jesus notes that these same men take advantage of widows. In Jesus’ day the widows and orphans represent the most vulnerable of society. They are signaled out in the Torah and in the Book of Acts as those who were dependent on the kindness and compassion of the religious community.
Jesus sees rich people coming in and dropping huge sums of money, and it was all very flashy, very attention getting stuff.
And then an older woman who is a widow, shuffles in. She did not want anyone to notice her, maybe a little embarrassed by the size of her gift. She had no gold or silver, no robes or jewelry to dazzle the eye of observers. She had a couple of small coins—it was all she had. Jesus notes the woman’s gift as the most generous. And Jesus surprises us once again by saying the unexpected.
Mark is very intentional about the placement of material in the gospel and I believe that this story belongs with the first text we read. They are separated in lectionary cycle (they come up in November), but I think Mark intended them to be together. Jesus, repeats the shema, saying it is the greatest commandment, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And then he observes this woman’s gift as an example what the law truly means. Jesus is saying, “This is the commandment, but this (the widow and her gift) is what it looks like in life. “I tell you this widow gave more than all the rest, because she gave all she had.” Not the religious elite, not the strict interpreters of the law and once again Jesus challenges our way of looking at the world.
This may seem to some like a strange choice for a text on a Sunday when we are asked to bring our pledges to the chancel. We would like to see some generous pledges. We hope to increase giving so we can accomplish some great things for God. But my friends, Jesus is reminding us that giving, giving that changes lives, and giving that changes the world, starts with a heart that is in the right place, a heart that is turned toward God. It is not about me, not about you, but it’s about living a life that is obedient and faithful because that life is in love with God, all in, heart, soul, mind and strength. Generosity starts here, in our hearts!
When I was in seminary, a friend was invited to the hills of eastern Kentucky to preach a revival, sometime between the winter session and the spring session. Another student was serving a couple of small churches there and he needed a favor. So my friend agreed to do this. He didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the sermons and he began to regret the commitment, but he did feel it would give him an opportunity to practice preaching. He was promised that he would be fed, his travel costs covered and he would have the guest room in the small parsonage.
As he drove eastward, the temperature was falling, the wind picked up and as he arrived in the small rural community where he was to preach, snow began to fall. It was to be the last gasp of winter and he wondered if anyone would venture out to the revival in weather like that.
On the first night he and the pastor arrived at the little white framed church, they were greeted by an older woman. As she reached out her hand to greet him, he couldn’t help noticing how worn her clothes looked and that she was not wearing shoes. Instead her feet were wrapped in burlap and tied around and around with twine string.
He was disappointed in the small crowd that showed up that night and even more disappointed in his attempt at preaching, but the people were kind and thanked him at the door as they left.
On the way to the parsonage he asked, “Who is that older woman with the worn clothes and burlap wrapped around her feet? What is her story?”
The pastor explained, “That’s Ms. Lottie! Her husband was killed in a logging accident when they were young. She never remarried and she is probably one of the poorest persons in this community. She lives in a little shack of a house down the road. She is very resourceful though. She raises a little garden, keeps a few chickens, and knows where to forge for berries and mushrooms. She is very well loved by the church people and she is one of the most generous persons I’ve ever known. She receives a small check each month, and always puts money in the offering. If she picks berries and makes 5 jars of jam, she’s apt to give 4 of them away because she’s go good hearted. We try to give her things and she always refuses. The only thing the church folks give her is firewood. They wait until she’s asleep and they’ll drive over and put a rick of wood by the house. She says, ‘The Lord provides!’”
Every night, Ms. Lottie was there wearing the same old clothes and her feet wrapped in burlap, and she would greet the two ministers with a smile of gratitude. On the last night of services, Ms. Lottie waited until everyone has left and she approached the seminary student and pressed a small package into his hands. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. He thanked her for the package, later tucking it into his luggage for the trip home.
The week ended and my seminary friend drove back to his room at school. In his room that night he began to unpack and he found the package Ms. Lottie had given him. He sat on the bed, untied the twine and opened the package. Inside was a pair of socks--hand knitted socks. Tears welled in his eyes as he pictured Ms. Lottie standing there with burlap around her feet and she had knitted socks for him.
He said, “I realized that trip to eastern Kentucky was for me, so I could encounter this prophetic and generous woman. And as I sat on my bed that night, admiring the gift, I could almost hear Jesus say, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all who are contributing to the treasury. . . for out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”