“Your People are My People;” Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34; November 4, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

 “Your People are My People”
Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today’s scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible comes from one of the shorter, books in the canon. The Book of Ruth is unique in a few ways. It is one of only two books in our Biblical canon that is named for a woman. The other one is the Book of Esther. Also throughout the text, God’s action is hidden. God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of love shown towards one another.[1] Though the passage today is often quoted in weddings, the love in this book is that between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Naomi and her family had come from Bethlehem to Moab.  They were Jewish, worshiping the Hebrew God. They were foreigners in Moab, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women.  Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were local but also outcast because they had attached themselves to this family of strangers.

And then, Naomi’s husband died. Her son died and then her other son died. Her life was surrounded by tragedy and disaster. She was childless, a widow, and a foreigner. Any one of those things would’ve set her on the outside of acceptability in her time and community, but all three left her utterly hopeless. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were also childless widows, but they could go home, they could move back to the homes of their parents, they could start over again. There was no promise that Naomi would have a future.

The emotions at the core of this story of tragedy and disaster are not foreign to us. We needn’t look beyond our nightly news to know that there are things that can happen in this world that will plummet our lives into darkness. There are things that can and do happen that radically alter our chance at the futures we have planned for ourselves. Hurricanes can wreak havoc on communities. Winds and waves can destroy long-standing homes.

In our own lives we have our own experiences of pain and uncertainty. Famous New Yorker, humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God. When we experience a sudden end to relationships, destruction of possessions, or loss of occupation, we may feel like the ground has been pulled out from under us. What will become of us if we lose the people and things that we rely on? How can we go forward?

In the face of great loss, Naomi thought her only way forward would be to go it alone. Sure, she was doomed, but she did not want this sorrow and despair to be the burden of anyone else. Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave, to set out for a new future, to find stability in the home of their parents. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, pleaded with Naomi, saying she would stay with her. But she could not ignore Naomi’s advice. She must leave. She must find a new beginning for herself.

Ruth could not be persuaded. Knowing the hopelessness of Naomi’s situation, she was simply not willing to leave her. Ruth stood beside her and said “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In any future these two women could imagine there would be consequences for Ruth for following Naomi so loyally. By following Naomi to Naomi’s home, Ruth would become the outsider. By following Naomi, Ruth tied her fate to that of her mother-in-law. Certainly this was not an easy decision. But it seems for Ruth, there was no other decision that could be made.

This story of Ruth and Naomi is not an isolated example of a mother and law and daughter-in-law sticking things out together.  This story is an example of how God calls us to stand beside those in need, even when, and especially when, this relationship carries no apparent reward for us.

A few years ago I was working with “Group Workcamps,” a company that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

It made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed. All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving youth the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ and with one another. The point was serving God, through serving people.

Ruth promises her mother in law, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This loyalty and faithfulness is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers. “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the disciples to fish for people. [2]  “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the rich young ruler to give up his possessions.[3] “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking a man to disregard worldly obligations.[4]

Jesus requires that we follow with the heart and faithfulness of Ruth. We are God’s people and God wants God’s people to be our people. We are to care for those in need even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s “weird.”

This faithfulness is exactly what our New Testament Lesson commands us to do. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. We show our love of God, by taking seriously our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [5]

Naomi released Ruth. She said that Ruth needn’t worry about her. She would find her own way. Ruth needed to make a new future for herself. Naomi knew she would only hold Ruth back, she would be a burden. You can hear in Naomi’s questioning a tone of “why would you even want to be with me?” “what’s in it for you?” “What will become of you?There was nothing in it for Ruth. There was no benefit to Ruth linking her fate to that of her mother-in-law. But Ruth simply could not leave Naomi to a surely doomed fate.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a weird thing to be doing. It’s inconvenient. It is counter cultural, it is counter capitalist, it is counter common sense. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we take a step back from our plans for our own future, to make sure that there will also be a future for someone else. If we love something else in this world with all our heart and mind and strength, our relationship with God will suffer. Our neighbor will suffer.

What would it look like in our lives for these stories we hear on the news to be more than statistics and body counts? What does it look like to love these people as ourselves?

If we are able, we can donate money towards relief efforts, maybe giving support to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the Red Cross. Or we can remember those closer to home by providing continued relief for those who suffered from the flooding several years ago. In our prayers we can lift all who are affected by Hurricane Sandy, remembering the names of those who we hear about on the news, and giving voice to their stories.

What does treating all people as God’s people mean to you when it comes time for Tuesday’s election? What does it mean for you to vote as someone who loves neighbor as self?

We can come to the polls informed about each candidate, and the impact their policies, practices, and attitudes will have on this country, state, and community. We can pray for those who are elected, praying for God’s will to be accomplished through the leaders who are chosen.

What would it look like if treated even those with disagree with as God’s people, as our people?

We can listen, even if we don’t like what we hear. Though we must stand on the side of justice, it is more important that we stand on the side of compassion. We can extend love rather than further disagreement. We can be present to them in times of struggle.

If we do all of these things, will it be weird? Will it be inconvenient? Will it be God’s will?

God desires for God’s people to be our people, and for us to love each other as we love ourselves. May we do so each and every day. Amen.

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4