Your People Will Be My People (Ruth 1:6-18)

Naomi and Ruth by Chana Helen Rosenberg, 2017

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye, and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (New International Version)

Every time I read this account of Naomi and her daughters-in-law I’m reminded of my Dad because this was his favorite Old Testament story.

Dad was a lifelong farmer, and so, always related to the agrarian society of ancient Israel. But what really resonated for him in Scripture was Ruth’s response to her mother-in-law: “Your people are my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

My father did not want to be a farmer. He wanted to go to college and become an engineer. In fact, without my grandfather’s knowledge, he was accepted to a university and secured an on-campus job. Yet, when Grandpa found out, he was less than pleased because Dad was needed on the farm during the depression era.

So, Dad, although he could have went to college, decided to stay on the farm. And the reason he decided to do so was not because he got his arm twisted, but because of the story of Ruth. He made the decision to stick with farming and never looked back. My Dad died ten years ago and is buried in the same cemetery as his father.

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi, 2001

The biblical character of Ruth is a solid example of one who was cognizant that she was part of a larger whole – that, although she was indeed an individual with personal choices, the decisions she made impact a much wider community. I believe Ruth discerned that the Israelite community understood this truth, and she wanted to be a part of it.

It is rare, in this age of extreme individualism, that people willingly give themselves to do what is best for the group, the family, the neighborhood, the faith community, the nation, and the world. There is a tendency to view things very narrowly in terms of what’s in it for me and ignore the rest.

So, I invite you to consider becoming ever more aware and connected to the communities around you. Discover the issues, problems, joys, sorrows, celebrations, and challenges they hold. And give yourself to the great struggles of that place. Jesus said:

If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will destroy it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25, CEV)

The One who is concerned to save the entire world only tolerates disciples who share his care for the entire human family.

Therefore, we ought neither to participate in nor support causes, activities, or speech that is harmful to others. Instead, we should find ways of using our particular gifts and abilities to serve the common good of all persons. We need more commitment and love, and a lot less anger, divisiveness, and hatred.

Grace and humility will always serve us, and others, very well. Judgment and pride, not so much.

Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. (1 Timothy 6:18, CEB)

How, then, shall we live?

Your people will be my people.

Can you imagine a world in which all persons ascribe to this?

May it be so, to the glory of God.

We pray to you, Lord God, for all people everywhere:

For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.

For our community, the nation, and the world;
For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.

For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.

For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.

For the peace and unity of the Church;
For all who proclaim and seek the Truth.

Hear us, Lord; For your mercy is great. Amen.

Think of the Needs of the Group (1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1)

Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well.

With that as a base to work from, common sense can take you the rest of the way. Eat anything sold at the butcher shop, for instance; you don’t have to run an “idolatry test” on every item. “The earth,” after all, “is God’s, and everything in it.” That “everything” certainly includes the leg of lamb in the butcher shop. If a nonbeliever invites you to dinner and you feel like going, go ahead and enjoy yourself; eat everything placed before you. It would be both bad manners and bad spirituality to cross-examine your host on the ethical purity of each course as it is served. On the other hand, if he goes out of his way to tell you that this or that was sacrificed to god or goddess so-and-so, you should pass. Even though you may be indifferent as to where it came from, he isn’t, and you don’t want to send mixed messages to him about who you are worshiping.

But, except for these special cases, I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it, and he blessed it!

So eat your meals heartily, not worrying about what others say about you—you’re eating to God’s glory, after all, not to please them. As a matter of fact, do everything that way, heartily and freely to God’s glory. At the same time, don’t be callous in your exercise of freedom, thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free as you are. I try my best to be considerate of everyone’s feelings in all these matters; I hope you will be, too.

It pleases me that you continue to remember and honor me by keeping up the traditions of the faith I taught you. (The Message)

“To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

Andre Gide

Extreme individualism wants what it wants and doesn’t give a thought about anyone else – which is why we always have such a peck of trouble in the world all the time.

We need to get a phrase into our language which will become a continual mantra we say and observe:

Think of the needs of the group.

Christianity is a religion of community, of being attentive to and meeting one another’s needs, and of caring about the common good of all persons throughout the world. Christians dishonor their Lord and buck their spiritual tradition whenever they go rogue and base everything they say and do on what sort of advantage it is for them without considering others.

Yes, believers in Jesus have freedom in Christ. The cross has released the shackles that kept us in sin’s bondage. But, no, that doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, whenever we want. That’s the way individualism looks at it. That’s not how a communal people, the church, are to look at it.

Freedom hinges on two very important and seemingly small grammar prepositions: from and to.

Freedom always involves two elements:

  1. Freedom from what hinders or oppresses us.
  2. Freedom to become who we are meant to be.

In Christianity, believers are saved from sin, death, and hell – released from guilt and shame. There is redemption from the pit of despair. The bonds that hindered are now broken through the cross of Christ. The power of the world, the sinful nature, and the devil are taken away.

Yet, in no way does that now mean that we now get to do whatever we want, as if we’ve finally outgrown childhood and parental authority.

The extreme individualist Christian looks at freedom solely from this vantage. As a result, such a person considers the church as nonobligatory, involvement in issues of justice as optional, the use of personal funds and resources as discretionary, and accountability to others as arbitrary.

Such individualism sees Christianity as a fire insurance policy from hell, and a ticket punched for heaven. Until Christ returns, the reasoning goes, I can do whatever the heck I want. It’s my life, not yours.

Christians, however, are still servants. Whereas we were once enslaved to the dark forces of this world, now we are slaves to Christ. We exchanged masters. Satan is no longer the deceitful and lying task master over us. We are now under new management and have a new Master, the Lord Jesus. We’ve changed allegiances.

And now, submitted to Christ, we embrace our mandate of freedom to become whom we were always meant to be: At peace with our Creator and in harmony with all creation. We are now free to enjoy right relationships with God and others, to walk in faith, hope, and love, and to bless both the church and the world.

The Christian’s freedom came at a price: the very blood of Christ Jesus. Therefore, we are not to abuse that freedom by focusing solely on our freedoms from all that once bound us. We are also responsible and accountable for using that freedom in going to the world and proclaiming the gospel in word and sacrament, as well as loving God and neighbor.

Freedom is only freedom when it has the well-being of everyone in mind.

Think of the needs of the group.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father: Help us to live into the freedom you have brought to us. May we exercise our freedom, with the heart of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, to serve your purposes. Unite us, protect our sacred liberties and rights, and defend us from every evil. Strengthen your people as a foundation of moral clarity, justice, love, and gospel proclamation. Grant all this by the power of your Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

Deuteronomy 9:1-5 – A Reality Check

Jordan River by Ilan Szekely, 1944

Listen, Israel! Today you will cross the Jordan River to enter and take possession of nations larger and more powerful than you, along with huge cities with fortifications that reach to the sky. These people are large and tall—they are the Anakim. You know and have heard what people say: “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” Know right now that the Lord your God, who is crossing over before you, is an all-consuming fire! He will wipe them out! He will subdue them before you! Then you will take possession of their land, eliminating them quickly, exactly as the Lord told you.

Once the Lord your God has driven them out before you, don’t think to yourself, It’s because I’m righteous that the Lord brought me in to possess this land. It is instead because of these nations’ wickedness that the Lord is removing them before you. You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Common English Bible)

When my kids were small, I dealt with the issue of sharing, as every parent has to do. Once, two of my girls were fighting over a doll. As I entered the room, one of them quickly said, “She has my doll!” So, I sat her down with me and calmly asked, “Whose doll is it?” “It’s mine!” my daughter cried.

I asked again, “Whose doll is it?” Again, the answer came, “It’s my doll!” I asked yet a third time, “Whose doll is it?” Because this was not our first rodeo together about fighting over dolls and toys, my daughter bowed her head, gave a big sigh, and quietly said, “It’s God’s doll.”

“Yes, it’s God’s doll,” I said. “God is just letting you borrow it for a while and expects you to take good care of it and share his stuff with others.”

Kids often need a reality check of where things come from and who really owns it all. Many times, adults need the very same reality check.

We big people grow up and tend to think we are bigger than we really are. Over the years, we gain misguided notions of our possessions and accomplishments. We believe we did it all through our own skills and character.

Maybe you recognize some of these common notions about our life, work, and ministry:

  • “I worked a long time for my money. I’m not giving it to so-and-so.”
  • My church has a lot of people because we preach the Bible, not like other churches.”
  • “The government takes too much of my hard earned money.”
  • “Here, you can have this couch. I was going to throw it away, anyway. My couch is a nice new one.”
  • “I made a lot of sacrifices for my job. I’m not letting anyone steal my position from me.”
  • “I raised my kids and they’re all doing very well in life. They wouldn’t have made it without me.”
  • “Hey, that’s my yard. Your dog can’t be on it.”
  • “This is my time.”
  • “It’s my car. Don’t touch it.”
  • My way or the highway.”

Those are actual statements Christians have said to me over the years. In their extreme individualism, they believed they were the masters of their own goodness and achievements. In other words, they gave themselves more credit than they really deserved.

A person is proud and selfish not for pursuing their own good but for neglecting their neighbor’s.

It’s far too easy to chalk-up our positions, titles, degrees, jobs, and the good things which come with them as of our own doing. We then believe we are the true owners of all our stuff. Some can even take the next step of believing that if others would just do what I do and think the way I think, then all would be well in the world.

That’s pretty much how Lucifer thought about things. And even after getting cast from heaven, he still exists with the delusion that he didn’t deserve it, as if he were above ever getting treated any other way than like God does.

The reality, however, is that everything and everyone belongs to God. The Lord is the rightful ruler of the universe, and we are not. Every good and perfect thing we have in this life is a gift from a gracious heavenly Father.

Stupidity doesn’t come from a lack of brains or smarts; it’s a result of pride taking over one’s thinking.

Indifference doesn’t have its source in a lack of caring; it comes from believing certain people don’t deserve to have my attention, my stuff, or my time.

Arrogance isn’t an inbred personality trait; it’s the logical end of the successful person’s life who is convinced that everyone ought to adopt their particular set of societal mores, cultural values, political views, and personal disciplines.

Conversely, a person in humble circumstances with little to their name is not necessarily lazy or unwilling to work. And when they have giants in their lives, they can trust the God who specializes in taking down the stupid, the indifferent, and the arrogant.

All things are a gift from the Lord, even the difficult people and hard circumstances we face. They are really opportunities for God to show up and give us precisely what we need.

Everything is a trust from God that we are to steward well, whether it is people, things, or money. They are given to us, not because of any superior spirituality on our part or righteous ingenuity, but because God simply gives it. We have what we have because of God, period.

The appropriate way of stewarding our resources, as well as expressing thanks to God, is through sharing our stuff, our money, our time, and our love with others.

Whose life is it?

We do not presume to come to your Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat and drink that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Psalm 127 – How to View Our Work

Psalm 127:1 by Stushie Art

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
    the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has
    his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (New Revised Standard Version)

When my wife was growing up, her family had a prominent portrait of John Wayne in the living room above the television. That picture spoke volumes about the family ethos. They had horses and loved to ride and enjoy the outdoors. Hard work was a daily reality of life, as well as a rugged individualism that often suppressed all else in order to engage in work. 

Doing your best, striving for excellence, and learning responsibility are good things that mature people do every day. Yet, there is a fine line between hard work that provides and enriches, and lonely work that is frenetic and fueled by anxiety about the future.

Today’s psalm gives us a wake-up call. All our work is useless, in vain, unless it is connected to the G-d who gives strength and sweet sleep.

The motives that lie behind why we burn the candle at both ends are just as important to the Lord as the work itself. 

If we independently believe that our life is in our own hands, and we work with worry animating our every job, then we have lost touch with the understanding that it is G-d who ultimately provides us with every good thing in life. 

However, if we begin to relax and let go of our stubborn independent streak, then we work hard with the strength G-d gives and let the Lord watch over us.

Trusting G-d in our work is connected to children being a heritage from the Lord. Children worked with their parents in the ancient world. Fathers and mothers did not go it alone – it was a family affair, as well a community endeavor. 

Whenever we slip into a groove of worshiping individualism rather than simply taking personal responsibility, then we must come back to the inter-dependence that we were designed for as people. 

The ethos the psalmist is looking for is trust in God, reliance on others, and working together for the common good of all. 

Here are a few ways of working together and not carrying the load of work on our own:

Ask for what you want and need to accomplish the task. Whenever we don’t ask, we inevitably go the route of hustling for help through manipulation, guilt, and shaming others.

If someone says, “no,” simply ask another person or persons. Asking once just won’t do. And neither is commanding others to get things done. We have the ability to ask calmly, confidently, and compassionately. Accept the “no” which you might get without retreating back to manipulation. This is especially necessary when it comes to asking family members.

Ask God to help you in your work. Each day as I enter the hospital for which I am a Chaplain, I say a prayer, “God almighty, blessed Father, Son, and Spirit, please go before me, with me, and after me to each patient, their family members, and every team member I encounter today, with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.”

Delegate, if possible. This is not the same thing as barking orders. It is a realization that we are finite creatures with limitations of time, energy, and resources. It’s okay to share the load with others. In fact, most people are more than willing to help, if you and I will just ask. It enables them to feel needed and important.

Be vulnerable and gracious. We all mess up our work, at times. And it’s important that we are own our mistakes without heaping unnecessary criticism on ourselves, or others. Offering an apology, recognizing that you’ve bit off more than you can chew, and admitting your lack of energy are healthy, not sinful. Also, whenever others fall short of their responsibilities, it’s our job to handle it with grace – seeking to understand and help rather than criticize and judge.

Working together, consulting, collaborating, and engaging in fellowship enable us to speak with those who may oppose, misunderstand, or misinterpret us. It’s also a more joyful way to live.

Sovereign God, you created all things and in you everything holds together. Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into disconnection with you and others, nor be overcome by anxiety. In all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.