This is the message for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 5 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY. The Scriptures are Ruth 3: 1 – 5, 4: 13 – 17; Hebrews 9: 24 – 28; and Mark 12: 38 – 44.
When I first started my lay speaking career, the styles of two particular pastors guided and influenced me. The first pastor whom I ever really had the chance to observe was Will Cotton, the pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Odessa, TX; the second was John Praetorius, the pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, MN.
While there were common elements in the styles of these two Methodist preachers, there were also a great deal of difference in the two. The thing that I first noticed about Will and his preaching was that he never used a written sermon. Every sermon that I saw and heard him give was delivered without the benefit of written notes. Later, I found that he did write out his sermons but then put the essence of the sermon to memory. He could do that because his background coming out of college was in drama and music. He used his music background in a number of ways, by singing in the choir and later by creating what became known as “sermons in song”, where he would use a number of songs and hymns to emphasize the points in the Scripture for that particular Sunday.
John Praetorius was also a very good singer (it is not a job requirement but it always seems as if pastors must also be able to sing), but his background and his path to the pulpit were a little different from that of Will. Will wanted nothing else than to be a preacher in the United Methodist Church while being a preacher was often the furthest thing in John Praetorius’ mind.
I have always maintained that it was family pressure that forced John to attend law school after graduating from college. And it could be that was the case (he never disagreed with me when I have said this in the past). Because the one thing that John did not want to do when he graduated from college was go into the family business, being a preacher in the Evangelical United Brethren church and later in the United Methodist Church. Not only were John’s grandfather and father preachers, they were also bishops in the old EUB church and he was bound and determined that he was not going to be a preacher. So he went to law school and became a rather successful prosecutor in Bloomington, MN. But somewhere along the way to court and judicial success, John found something missing and he decided that preaching was where he needed to be.
But John’s law background helped because his sermon preparation took the form of an oral brief and instead of a script such as Will would prepare, John prepared an outline of key points that emphasized the Scripture that he was preaching from each Sunday. John also outlined his Scripture readings, sermons titles, and hymn selection a year advanced, putting those items to paper and providing a worship schedule that he stuck to.
I quickly learned that I was never going to be a preacher in the style of either Will or John. Were I try to be anything like either of them, I would have failed for I cannot sing like either of them, nor do I have the organizational skills of John or drama training of Will. But I have my own sense of what is needed, choosing to use wherever possible all three Scripture readings in my sermon each Sunday.
To compare my style of preaching to any other preacher, especially with two preachers whom you have never met, is like comparing apples and oranges. The same can also be said about comparing one’s personal relationship with God with that of another person. Each is unique and is fitted to the style of the person. The only common thread among us all is that we have a unique relationship with Christ as our Savior.
We have to be careful that we do not give the impression that our relationship with God is the only right relationship and that others are less because of their relationship. And that is the point that Jesus was making in the Gospel reading for today.
Jesus compares the percentage contributed by the rich and the poor to remind us that God measures not how much we give but how much we retain. Those with greater income have an obligation to return a larger percentage of it to God’s work. John Wesley’s famous exhortation to give all that you can was matched by his similar exhortation to earn all you can, doing so in a manner that did no harm to other workers and not at the expense of others and to save all you can.
The challenge for any church is to find ways to do that. Unfortunately, too many churches have, in my mind, have become like the scribes of Jesus’ day. The scribes of Jesus’ day were teachers of the law, often dependent on people’s gifts for their support. Some, however, overstepped the bounds of humility, piety, and dignity by flaunting their position of respect and trust. They sought the glory that belonged to God and even took advantage of widows who helped feed and support them.
The churches today, as churches since the beginning of the Christian era, have always been charged with the care and feeding of those less fortunate. The church has and should be seen as a sanctuary, to offer protection for those who need it.
In verse 3: 1 of the Old Testament reading for today, Naomi returns to the subject of security or rest, which she first addressed in Ruth 1: 9. In the first instance, she asked God to provide her daughters-in-law the “rest” or security of marriage. Now she was determined to seek this rest for Ruth. For many women, marriage was the only security they had in the Israelite. As was noted last week, the family was the only security that many people had in the society of the Old Testament. Without a family, Ruth and Naomi had no security and no hope for the future.
Ruth’s actions (that of removing the edge of Boaz’s outer garment and lying by his uncovered feet) were a daring and dramatic action that called for a decision on the part of Boaz to be her protector — and likely, her husband.
The two prominent themes of the Book of Ruth are love and loyalty and redemption. Ruth showed her loyalty and love to both Naomi and God as was demonstrated in last week’s reading. The power of redemption is illustrated in today’s reading. As you read the passages that connect last week’s reading with this week’s, you can see the Hand of God acting to redeem Naomi and Ruth from poverty. Through Him, Ruth and Boaz meet and by the presence of the Spirit, Boaz is prompted to fulfill the responsibilities of the “close relative” or kinsman-redeemer (as noted in 3: 9).
The kinsman-redeemer was the “the defender of family rights.” Normally, a close family relative, the kinsman-redeemer was the person with the financial resources to rescue a poverty-stricken family member, stepping in to save that relative from slavery or having to see things to gain the funds necessary to survive. And though he was not the closest relative, Boaz willingly took on this duty. He bought the land that Naomi was about to sell and he married Ruth and carried on the family name through the birth of their son. As the commentary notes, all that he did exemplified compassion and redemption.
Every year at this time, preachers are faced with a dilemma. For today’s Gospel reading is typically used as a call to stewardship, a way of showing that each person’s contribution to the church is as important as the person before them and the person after them. Yet, the majority of preachers whom I have heard or worked with are reluctant to talk about church finances. Perhaps it is too secular a topic to talk about from the pulpit. Certainly, it tends to drive people away; one of the most frequent reasons people give for not joining a church is that they are always asked for money. Another reason that pastors are reluctant to discuss budgets and finances is the trouble that often accompanies it.
Now, unless your church is like the one in Georgia that just recently received a check for $8 million dollars (New York Times, November 9, 2000) or the church in Illinois that owns two operating gas and oil wells, finances are a part of the scheme of things. But the scheme of things should not focus on money but rather what you do with the money and how the money is spent.
A church, just like any other business, must have some idea of what its income will be so that it can plan its coming year. Ask yourself if there is any business that operates on the basis of not knowing what its income will be during the coming year. Ask yourselves what happens to such businesses. I spent most of my high school teaching career in farm communities and I didn’t know of too many farmers that did not plan their crops in advance without some idea of what the market will bring and what the weather is likely to be. Similarly, you don’t take care of your own home without some consideration for what moneys are available.
In the evangelism scheme currently the vogue in the country today, one of the differences between a dying church and a living church is how finances are discussed. If the discussions center on which of the operating bills need to be paid, then the church is not doing well. But, when the discussion is on how that church can better be a presence in the community, whether local, state, or beyond, then the church is growing. I happen to think that Walker Valley is in the latter category.
To redeem means to save, to buy back, to recover. To redeem also means to “make good,” as in “to redeem a coupon.” We can operate in this world more successfully when we operate with a sense of redemption rather than with a sense of condemnation. Having a sense of redemption means that we operate under the belief that we will receive what was promised, as well as having an assurance that even what we have lost by error will be “redeemed.”
The entire Gospel, or if you will, the “Good News” of Jesus is that we can be and have been redeemed. It is God’s will for us, as it was for Naomi and Ruth, that there be an ultimate celebration in our lives, not on-going suffering and sorrow. Our presence as Walker Valley United Methodist Church is meant to give others that sense of redemption, of hope and promise; to be there when others need us.
Our own personal redemption could not have been accomplished where it not for Jesus Christ. It was by his blood and sacrifice that we were redeemed. That is why we celebrate communion, to celebrate His presence in our lives. As you come to the table this morning, be thinking about how you can help others to know that same sense of redemption, of that same sense of freedom that you have this morning. Ask yourself what it is that you can give that will make that sense of redemption which this church offers available to all.