There are certain questions that always seem to arise from folks both inside and outside the church about matters of faith and belief. Questions about the existence of God are always popular with the youth. “Who made God?” The best answer that I have ever heard was given by a youth advisor who responded: “DuPont, they made everything else!” “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” is a query raised by young and old alike. I get variations on: “Am I a Christian if I don’t believe in the virgin birth?” all the time.
There are always questions about the Bible: “Why is the God of the Old Testament seem so violent?” You know what I am talking about, don’t you?
As we raise our questions, I wonder what questions God would have for us? I wonder what questions the Bible raises for us to consider? The passages that we have read today carry on, I believe, a very lively and heated discussion- asking the question: “What kind of people are we going to be?”
Remember, the Bible is a collection of books – it is a library of narratives, traditions, interpretations gathered over many years. The Biblical books as we have them reflect communities reinterpreting their past as they seek a faithful present identity. I don’t want to forget that this is a sermon not a lecture – but it is important for you to know that while the readings from Nehemiah and Ruth describe different historical moments in the life of Israel – Ruth is set in Israel before the monarchy begins. The final verses of the book point to King David. Nehemiah is set in Jerusalem after the Jews come home from exile. The city needs to be rebuilt and the community reformed.
But really, Nehemiah and Ruth are competing for the soul of Israel: “What kind of people are we going to be?” Are we going to be a xenophobic, nationalistic, nativist – closed society only for Jews? Nehemiah is harsh – no inter-marrying. Sounds like the policy of Bob Jones University not too many years ago when they banned inter-racial dating. Nehemiah calls for the exclusion of Ammonites and Moabites from the assembly of God. He doesn’t like foreigners. Nehemiah pulls out an obscure biblical story of a time when the Ammonites and Moabites did not meet the children of Israel with bread and water. It is the same kind of biblical misuse that led the Dutch Reform church in South Africa to justify Apartheid. It is the same kind of biblical mischief that the Nazis used to claim some kind of “Christian” justification for the final solution. It is the same kind of scriptural abuse that causes many to exclude God’s children of different sexual orientation. It is the same kind of evil that causes radical fundamentalists to terrorize, based on interpretation of this or that text about who are the enemies of God.
Nehemiah lifts up this one story that you can find in Numbers 22 – and gives it the status of divine law. Did you hear verse 3? “When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.” That is horrific. Nehemiah blames those “foreign women” for King Solomon’s sin. It was “their” fault. So add “misogyny” (hatred of women) to Nehemiah’s list.
This is heavy stuff, contemporary stuff. And if we read the Bible as direct propositions from God – we are in a real pickle.
So thanks be to God for the story of Ruth. The author seems to answer the question “What kind of people are we going to be?” in a different manner. You see, Ruth is a Moabite, a foreign woman. Nehemiah would have banned her. She would have been seen as an evil influence – an outsider, an illegal alien – just wanting to go where the food is. Now I admit that our present issue with immigration into the United States is complicated, there are lots of sub-issues- but a warning – listen carefully to the language used by politicians and pundits – particularly the ones who carry a religious or quasi-religious mantle, who seem to have a simple and direct answer for the issues that confront us. Likewise, there are many who blame Islam, or who blame gays, or who label liberals and condemn conservatives – all in the name of racial or political purity. The question is raised to us: What kind of people do WE want to be? What kind of nation are we?
Ruth – a Moabite becomes the mother of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, who is the ancestor of Jesus. You just never know what God is up to. I get chills every time I read that. GOD does not discriminate. God has no purity laws. God doesn’t give a hoot about who you date or who you fall in love with – (other than God wants you to discern deeply your own motives for any relationship). Rather, God’s delight is in the outsider, the marginalized – again and again and again and again. God reminds the Jews time and time again – “Remember when you were outsiders and I called you to be a people – be especially hospitable to the wanderer and the foreigner.”
In the book of Deuteronomy (11:26), Moses gives a speech to the children of Israel. He proclaims: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse.” He throws down the gauntlet: “What kind of people are you going to be?” “Who are you going to serve?” “How are you going to present yourself before the world?”
Are we Ruth people or Nehemiah people? There is no doubt that Jesus is going to go with his great-great, great, great, great (and add a few more great) grandmother – Jesus has foreign blood in him – he is of mixed race, a mongrel. We proclaim Christ “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords.” It seems clear to me that we are going to be a people of Ruth rather than of Nehemiah.
And I believe you ARE a Ruthian community of hospitality and hope for all. I thank God every day for you and for what God’s spirit is doing among and with and between (and despite) and through YOU. But we can not and will not rest, or pull back, or get narrow and worried, shaped by an attitude of scarcity – there is not enough so we have to cut, do without, charge more.
I believe, I feel it deep in my gut that NOW is the time to think big and push ahead and become even more the community that we believe we are called to be. We must look like the kingdom community we preach to the world. But my words are cheap. Action is what counts and I hope that we will become an even more racially mixed congregation – that we are even more open to sisters and brothers of the full multitude of orientations and gifts and talents and abilities (especially the abilities that we usually put a “dis” before), that we make our space more open to be used by the community – that this building becomes the launching pad of the Kingdom. That this community of faith becomes even more the collection of marginalized radicals (of all political persuasions) that turn over tables, and curse fig trees, and throw really good parties and love each other.
You have shown yourself to be generous people beyond expectation in your hospitality and in your giving patterns. Do you realize that it was less than a year ago when Chuck Smith stood at the Congregational meeting and laid out a most ambitious plan to raise $750,000 to take care of deferred maintenance? After his words, Deanne, leaned over to me and said, “I would follow him off the cliff!” Within 10 months over 52% of the total expected has been paid and the work is all but done.
If we can get excited and share the abundance like that for our building, just think what we can do for our outreach and mission, for our programs and staff, for our children, for our present and our future. What kind of community are we? Well, we are generous and good community and that is why as the Stewardship Season commences I am not worried that you will again do what has to be done to move us powerfully into a new year. There is no other way.
Sure, there are voices within me that I identify as more on the Nehemiah-speak trajectory. John, “you can’t keep asking the same people for more money.” “Shouldn’t the session pull back a bit – and circle the wagons; cut staff, cut maintenance, cut mission.” But the Ruth voice keeps pushing me to “go ahead, be a fool, do the unexpected and ask for more.”
Go ahead and ask generous people to be more generous. Go ahead and ask non-members who love his church just like members do to pledge, to tithe, to make public their support for this church. Go ahead and ask folks who have never pledged before to do so now. What kind of community would we show ourselves to be if we had 100% pledging instead of 66%? If we had our teenage members pledge even as little as $4 a week – that is less than a chocolate chip mocha from Starbucks – $208 a year. I know that the economy is tough and jobs are scarce – and I will not promise that if you make a pledge God will reward you – it isn’t about that. But this I know is true – we are at our best when we are generous, when we are part of something bigger, when we give (even a mite and wee bit more) to the work of God’s kingdom, when we go public and commit and don’t hold back – for where we place our treasure, our hearts will follow.
Go ahead and be bold and tell prospective new members that their financial gifts are a sign of active engagement. Pledging is a vital expression of where the heart is, what the priorities are, so that we can plan and be pro-active instead of reactive.
Sure, God’s kingdom is going to come with or without Forest Hill. But something special is happening here and now – and we will move out into the world in confidence and joy and power. Because we know what kind of community we are; we yearn to follow the master, the lord, the Christ, the one who is out among the people. The one turning water in the finest wine, the one who died for all, the one whose foolishness tripped up the wise. We are going to be that community that offers our best to God’s highest and not back down. To believe that some mystery is at play here – and that our act today, and our actions in the next weeks will bear fruit for the kingdom – no holding back, no exclusions, no litmus tests, just an opportunity to show what kind of people we are. If God can use the desolation of Naomi, Orpah and Ruth and bring to birth a savior, If God can take a famine in the land and use it for abundance, if God can bring a people out exile and rebuild the temple, what can God do with you…with us – this generous and gifted community?
God bless us.
God bless you!
So be it!