Serving God


This is the message for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 5 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Ruth 1: 1 – 18; Hebrews 9: 11 – 14; and Mark 12: 28 – 34.

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The one thing that has marked my career and personal life these past fifty years has been my mobility. As the son of a career Air Force officer, we lived in a number of places and in a number of settings. In terms of school, I went to six different elementary schools, two different junior high schools, and three different high schools. The longest time that I ever attended any one school was just short of two years and those were the two years that I was at Bartlett High School in Memphis where I graduated from high school in 1968.

To some, this was a very negative childhood because it kept me from developing life-long friends, perhaps the central part of childhood. And while it is true that I do not have many friends from my high school and earlier days, I see me life in a different light. For I got to see parts of this country and the world and do many things that others never get the chance to do. But, sometimes when I think about it, and I look at the friends my brothers have from all their time in one place, I wonder if those critics were not correct.

It seems like whenever my family moved from one base to the next, it was always during the school year and I was always coming into a new situation, a stranger in a strange land, if you will. When you move into a new place, you are never sure of what the “rules” are.

But over a period of time, I quickly learned the sense of the new community I was in and, whether I might agree or disagree, I knew what the rules were. But when the community is changing each year, as it was for me, you quickly learn to trust your own path and not worry about what others say and do. If what I knew in my heart and soul is right and that is what I do, then I knew that I would be accepted. But if what I did was not acceptable to the community, well, I was never going to be accepted any way.

In one sense, I can empathize with the story of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah and what they went through, as we read this morning from the Old Testament. In the society of that time, it was up to each family to take care of their own. When the husband died, it was the sons who assumed the responsibility of caring for their mother. Remember that one of Jesus’ last acts on the cross was to transfer the care of his mother, Mary, to his disciple, John.

Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, “Mother, there is your son”, and to the disciple, “There is your mother”; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 26 – 27)

But, as we read today, ten years after Naomi’s husband died, both of her sons died, leaving her without the traditional support network. That is why, in verse 7, Orpah, Ruth and Naomi left Moab where they had been living for Judah where there was food and support. But this support would have only been for Naomi since Ruth and Orpah were Moabites and not Jews. That is why Naomi said to her daughters-in-law they would be better off going back to their own country where they might find support among their own families.

But Ruth, in the emotionally charged response that ends the reading from the Old Testament reading today, declared her determination to remain with Naomi. Her own affirmation of faith is especially striking because it means that in going with Naomi and following the God of Israel, Ruth is giving up all claims to everything she ever knew. Like Abraham, Ruth chose to forsake her family and homeland to follow God.

Why would Ruth do this? It is not stated in this reading but something about the way Naomi lived must have said to Ruth that God was truly the one God.

The theme of the Book of Ruth is that God’s love is open to all, even non-Israelites. God’s plan has always been to bring all the nations of the world to Him. The covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants was so that all nations would be blessed through the nation of Israel.

The Book of Ruth also demonstrates the concept of loyal love, the kind of love that holds its promise. It was that loyalty that Ruth displayed both to Naomi and to God. It is that same loyalty that we sing of in the chorus to Hymn #530, “Are Ye Able?”

It is Ruth’s loyalty to God and her faith in God that could have only come from seeing how God was a part of Naomi’s life. And it will be her faith that is rewarded, as we will read next week.

It is that same loyalty and faith that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel reading for today. The Pharisees and scribes are trying to trick Jesus with their questions about the commandments and the law. What Jesus calls the first commandment, that there is only one God and He is the God of Israel, was the essence of the Jewish faith. The manner in which Jesus made that statement was a summary of the first four of the Ten Commandments. In giving his second great commandment, Jesus summarized the last five of the Ten Commandments, those that deal with the treatment of people.

I found it interesting that none of the commentaries that I have access to make any type of comment about the last sentence in the reading for today. Jesus tells his questioners that they are very close to the Kingdom of God and then Mark (as well as Matthew) writes that they never asked any more questions of Jesus.

In some sense, I think Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees. For this group who were among the most vocal of Jesus critics were also among the most vocal and the most public in their own expression of the belief that there was only one God. But righteousness is only a show if your actions do not support your work. It was almost as if Jesus was saying to this group of questioners, you are close but you still have one step to take.

In Hebrews, the writer has been telling us that Jesus, through His sacrifice, offered more that any worldly priest could ever offer. His loyalty to God produced greater rewards than anyone could imagine. In being loyal to God first, our perspective changes. And how others see us changes as well. The task we face this day is serving God with all our heart and all our soul. If we serve God is this way, there is no way people cannot help but notice and then they began to see God and know God. The question then will be “Are Ye Able?”

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