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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Try Serving

Hello? Answering God’s Call, sermon 3 of 5 in a series for Stewardship season, preached Sunday October 22, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


Children’s Context

1. Is worship LOUD or soft?

2. Is worship FAST or slow?

3. Is worship silly or serious?

4. Is worship something we do TO God, or something we do WITH God?

5. Is worship HAPPY or SAD?

6. Is worship for some people, or for EVERYBODY?


Children’s Scripture Psalm 150

1 Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise God in his mighty firmament! 2 Praise God for his mighty deeds; praise God according to his surpassing greatness!

3 Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp! 4 Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! 5 Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise God with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!


Children’s Sermon

Yes, worship is all of this, when we do it well!


Context

A clear theme through Scripture is that God loves us. When we believe and trust God’s love, we are more likely to respond with love, for ourselves and to others. But God’s love is not always obvious, and we aren’t always very good at recognizing it. What does the love of God look and sound like? How do we look and listen for God? How do we recognize God’s presence, hear God’s call? And if we aren’t sure if something really is God, then what?


This is week three of our Stewardship series called, “Hello? Answering the Call of God” We are hearing 5 stories about God's loving presence revealed in some unique way, and how we humans maybe notice or ignore, receive or resist God’s call.


Two weeks ago, Moses faced a terrible injustice being done to his people and ran. God called to him from a burning bush and pushed him into a dangerous political situation to free God’s oppressed people. Moses resisted… why me?, is it really you God?, they won’t believe me, I’m not good at this, send somebody else. God sent Moses anyway, and we too are called before this God of awe and wonder, called to worship God and trust and follow this God’s vision for justice, freedom, and peace.


Last week, Caitlan wondered with us why God callsus to learn and follow commandments. At some point, we think rules are just to keep us out of trouble. Later, we hope following rules might earn us some reward. But this God calls us to obey commandments not just to avoid punishment or get rewards, but to grow something beautiful together, a God-like community. We are called by this God to group up, to learn about and practice holy community, and then take that gift to the rest of the world.


Today, we are reading Ruth 1. We just read Ruth 1:1-6. Let’s pray and keep reading in Ruth 1 to verse 19.


Prayer for Illumination


Scripture Ruth 1:7-19a

7 So Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way (headed) back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you to your (own) parents’ house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead, and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your (future) husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.


10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you, to your people.”


11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Do I still have sons (from) my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your (own) way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you refrain from marrying (until) then? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they all wept aloud again.


Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law has (headed) back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”


16 But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you, 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 (shall be) my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”


18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 (And) the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem…


The word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God!)


Sermon Try Serving

I’ve had couples ask me to use this scripture when presiding at their wedding. I make sure to tell them the vow part is between two women, a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law, after the groom has died. They usually change their minds.


All of this was in the time of the Judges. What that means is we are in between the times when the people of Israel were just one big nomadic family, and much later when they became a united nation-state under Kings Saul and David.


There are a lot of criss-crossing terms here. First Israel. Jacob was renamed Israel when Jacob wrestled with God. Jacob had 12 sons (and who knows how many daughters). A younger son, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his brothers, and became Pharaoh’s VP. When the famine Joseph predicted came true, Egypt welcomed Joseph’s family… dad, Israel, and the brothers and all their families to live beside them and share the storehouses of food Joseph had helped the Egyptians save.


Israel was just a guy. The people were known as Hebrews. Then came a Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph, who enslaved all the Hebrews. Moses led them out, through the wilderness toward a promised land. On the way, in the wilderness, there were a few generations of Hebrew people promising to worship and obey God, meanwhile complaining and betraying God. The Ten Commandments are given by God to Moses for the people. Moses dies, and Joshua leads the Hebrew people into the promised land.


As they spread out across the land, it takes a while, but the land gets divided into 12 regions. The people become known as Israelites, and they settle into 12 regions named for 12 descendants of Israel, 10 of them direct sons of Israel. One son, Levi, didn’t get a region. His descendants would be priests, or Levites, and his descendants got a few cities of refuge, sanctuary cities, and houses of worship, including the future temple. Another son, Joseph, did not get a region, but his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh did. So we are back to 12, 10 named for sons of Israel, and 2 named for grandsons of Israel through Joseph.


The city of Jerusalem is a little below the middle of all that in the small tribe of Benjamin. The city of Bethlehem is just south of there in the big tribe of Judah. Moab was beyond the 12 tribes, farther southeast, on the other side of the Dead Sea.


Remember, Naomi’s husband had a family identity, Ephrathite, meaning descended from Ephraim, one of Joseph’s sons. They had been living in a different region though, in the tribe of Judah, the town of Bethlehem. But they left there and went to Moab.

They came to Moab when there was a famine across the tribes of Israel. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies. Her two sons marry foreign wives but die before having children.


Then, Naomi has lost her husband and sons. She decides to wander back home when she hears the Lord has again given food to the tribes of Israel. Naomi tries to push her sons’ wives to go back to their parents’ homes in Moab. The custom was, if a son dies, another son would have children with the widow of the brother to continue the brother’s line. But Naomi had no other sons. She didn’t even have a husband. Even if she did quickly find one, and even if she was able to birth a son, it would be 20 years until that son was old enough to marry these widows, and they would be near the end of their birthing years. It made no sense for these widows of her sons to linger with her. They still had time to make a family, but not if they held to Naomi.


Orpah and Ruth have a tough decision to make. There is no obvious solution to becoming a growing family with Naomi. She has no more descendants, and no husband. If they linger near her, they risk being unmarried and childless themselves, which in that time and culture, was a major economic hardship on women and was often viewed as a curse of God.


Naomi loves them enough to push them away and send them home. It will still be hard for them to remarry, but there’s a better chance of that than staying with Naomi. Orpah cries, and hugs, and turns to head home. Ruth cries and hugs and holds on. Naomi pushes Ruth again to follow Orpah, return to her own parents in Moab and try to start again. Ruth will not. She holds onto Naomi and renews her vows.


See, when Ruth married Naomi’s son, he had told her how some back in Israel cursed the people of Moab. Moses had warned the people “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam to curse them.” It was considered shameful and traitorous to some in Israel if an Israelite married women of Ashdod, Ammon, or Moab. Their children who looked different and often spoke in mixed languages were considered an abomination to some. Some Hebrew priests would attack the men, pull out their hair, and make them take a public oath, in the name of God, to reject their foreign wives and any children from them, and never again marry outside the people of Israel.


Yet, Ruth remembers how her husband did not hold those prejudices and married her anyway, and included her in the family, how he learned some her language and customs, and how he taught her some of his own language and customs. She will always be a Moabite, but her husband, and mother-in-law, didn’t curse her for that, or make her hide it. They welcomed her and included and loved her.


See, Ephraim and Manasseh were children of Joseph to his Egyptian wife. When Dad, Jacob, Israel was dying and giving his double blessing, tradition said the eldest should get it. But Jacob had been the younger and had tricked his brother Esau and father Isaac for the blessing. So Jacob, Israel gave his double blessing not to the oldest, Rueben, or any of the older sons, but to Joseph, the one rejected, outcast. That’s why TWO tribes are named for Joseph’s Egyptian children, as a double portion of Israel’s blessing. Ruth’s husband came from one of those tribes. There was some stigma on him because of his Egyptian heritage. There was some envy on him because of the double portion. But that made him more tolerant, accepting. It might be why they could move to Moab and marry Moabite women.


Ruth knew some back in the lands of Israel would say the husband of Naomi died because he ran away from the lands of Israel to the cursed land of Moab. Ruth knew some back in the lands of Israel would say the sons of Naomi died because they dared marry foreign wives. Naomi was going back to that kind of racism, xenophobia, and judgment. Ruth knew Naomi and she would suffer that when they returned. But she also knew Israel did not hold that kind of prejudice or hatred of the other. Some of the tribes of Israel did, and did so in Moses’ name, or even God’s name. But Israel had adopted and welcomed as his own the Egyptian children of Joseph.


Despite the risks and rejection, Ruth insisted… “Do not press me to leave you, 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. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

We celebrate Ruth’s risk and devotion. We celebrate her sense of commitment to face judgmentalism at great personal danger, and to hold onto God-given connections despite others' rejection of her. We know Ruth’s path is difficult but the more holy path.


Too often, people are divided by human-made boundaries, and those on the other side are avoided, shunned, judged, hated, or even attacked because they look different, speak a different language, or worship differently. Jews, Christians, Muslims are all children of Abraham, yet, almost every war for 2000 years has been a result of human made boundaries, assumed land ownership and control, and attempts to purify our land from the other, and protect our land from being invaded by the other. Even the newest war between the well-armed nation-state Israel and the scrappy small Islamic faction of the Palestinian people Hamas is once again a denial by those in power of the common ancestry, and a refusal to make peace, live with one another, and share.


Later in Ruth, Naomi finds a descendant, Boaz, who can inherit her family’s property. Boaz is second in line though. He goes to the primary descendant, and offers him the right of first refusal. The first in line says, “yes, I will redeem it.” Then Boaz reminds him, with the land, you also get Ruth, the Moabite, and the primary descendant rejects the inheritance, saying, “I cannot redeem it without damaging my reputation and my other properties.” That fear and judgmentalism and prejudice, just as Ruth imagined, are very much present. Boaz though looks past those stupid practices, and claims the inheritance, and from that counter cultural, peacemaking, inclusive act came the branch on the family tree that became King David, and later Jesus of Nazareth.


If we are going to worship the one true God, the God of Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, the God of Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and David, the God of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, we cannot fight our sisters and brothers over our hand-drawn boundaries and lands. We cannot attempt to maintain national or religious purity. We must create a world where all God’s people can move freely, grow, share, and intermarry, without judgment, fear, or violence. That is the holy branch on our family tree. That’s the path on which Jesus was born and walked. That’s God’s loving call for all God’s people. Will we answer?


To God be all the glory and honor, now and forever more… Amen.


Charge


Benediction

Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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