Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor
Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC
November 4, 2018
This Is Our Story!
A man was walking down the beach, enjoying an afternoon vacation stroll, when he heard someone screaming. Looking around he saw an obviously distraught woman kneeling over a little girl. The man quickly determined the child had swallowed something that had been blocking her airway. Racing toward her, he grabbed the child by the heels and gave a few quick thumps to her back. Sure enough, the child started to sputter and cough and spit a coin onto the sand.
“Oh, thank you, sir!” cried the grateful mother. You seemed to know exactly what to do. Are you a doctor?”
“No, ma’am, but I am the chair of the stewardship committee of my church” (Stewardship of Life).
Last Sunday I spoke about William Barclay’s three stages of discipleship: need, gratitude and loyalty. I would submit these categories also work as stages of stewardship. The joke I just told is all about need. The man on the beach immediately figured out that the little girl was in need, and that he needed to be needed! And so do we all as God’s stewards on this consecration Sunday.
Our lectionary reading for the morning is also a story about need. It is the exquisitely beautiful tale of Ruth and Naomi. The Book of Ruth is about the length of a modern short story. You may last have heard these lines read when you attended a wedding, because Ruth’s famous speech to her mother-in-law has become a great favorite.
But in any case, when the first chapter of Ruth opens, we learn that 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, “when the judges ruled,” there was a famine in Bethlehem, the place ironically named “The House of Bread.” And so Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons set out to find food. The family settled in Moab, and there the sons took Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah. While it was not forbidden for Israelite men to marry Moabite women, these women would have been regarded as aliens, as outsiders.
And so during the passage of time, Elimelech and both of his sons died, throwing their wives into chaos. Without their providers to care for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law become women of dire need: facing lives of poverty and destitution. Because Naomi was past childbearing age, there would be no obligation by male family relatives to marry her. So Naomi’s only option was to return to Bethlehem and try to sell her husband’s land and eke out a living from the proceeds. And so thinking not of herself, but of the welfare of Ruth and Orpah, Naomi gives them a word of blessing as she tells them to go back to their families in Moab: “Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.” One commentator has said that because of her selflessness, we can tell that “Naomi’s God is an inclusive, expansive God, even in the midst of suffering and want” (Kathryn Matthews Huey, Weekly Seeds, “Wherever You Go”).
So here we have an old, desperately needy woman with an uncertain future encouraging the people closest to her to leave her side. Orpah, we are told, cries and follows Naomi’s instructions as she returns to her people in Moab. But Ruth, Ruth is another matter. While Orpah says goodbye, Ruth clings to her mother-in-law. She absolutely refuses to leave Naomi alone and makes the speech that brides and grooms have been moved by for generations:
Do not press me to leave you or 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–there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!
Need is the floor, is the foundation of stewardship. The second stage of stewardship that we want to address this morning is that of gratitude. Ruth pledges to stay with Naomi out of gratitude for what her mother-in-law has meant in her life. She is thankful for the older woman’s example, for all that she has been to her.
My opening joke was about a little girl. This one is about a little boy who sort of gets mixed up about gratitude:
Mr. Green peered over his fence and noticed that his neighbor’s little boy was in the backyard filling in a hole. Curious about what the youngster was up to, Mr. Green asked, “What are you doing, Jimmy?”
Tearfully, little Jimmy replied, “My goldfish died, and I’ve just buried him.”
“That’s an awfully large hole for a goldfish, isn’t it?” Mr. Green said.
Patting down the last bit of earth, little Jimmy replied, “That’s because he’s in your cat” (Stewardship of Life).
Clearly Jimmy wanted to do right by his little goldfish, to honor the memory of his pet. But somewhere along the line, he became confused about the meaning of generosity and how best to show it.
To return to our scripture lesson, our text from Ruth has often been cited as an example of profound loyalty. While Naomi’s decision to let Ruth and Orpah lead their own lives is remarkable, Ruth’s refusal to acquiesce to her mother-in-law’s wishes has been called “downright heroic” (Kate huey). For by pledging her faithfulness to Naomi, Ruth has chosen the most uncertain future. By going with Naomi to Bethlehem, Ruth knows that she will be a stranger in a strange land, an uprooted woman. She will be going to a place that will regard her as a foreigner, as an immigrant, as a woman of different customs and traditions. One scholar has said that “leaving Moab, Ruth would not only face a language barrier, a food barrier, a social etiquette barrier, and a religious practice barrier; she would also face the subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that she was ‘not one of us'” (Gary Charles). If there was ever anyone from away, it was surely Ruth.
Despite all of those formidable challenges, loyal daughter-in-law that she is, Ruth presses on. As our passage for the morning ends, we read that “When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.” And so in that moment, Ruth gives Naomi a precious gift–a stunning statement of faithfulness and courage….in the midst of our stewardship campaign and as we commemorate All Saints Day, Ruth offers to us a marvelous example of saintly stewardship–promising lifelong support and care for this woman who is not even her own kin. The loyalty Ruth pledges to Naomi clearly “puts many marriages to shame.”
And what is more, by figuratively casting her bread upon the waters, by going with her mother-in-law back to The House of Bread, Ruth becomes a blessed woman. She will eventually marry a new husband, Boaz, and Naomi will become a grandmother. And as time unfolds, Ruth will become the great-grandmother of King David, Israel’s greatest ruler. “No wonder, then, that Ruth’s name means beloved” (Kate Huey). But the turning point of her life and of Biblical history lies in Ruth’s brave decision to put herself second. She was an outsider, a foreigner no more.
The story of Ruth and Naomi is a tale that turns on need and gratitude but especially loyalty. During last year’s stewardship campaign, I told a joke a week for four weeks. I had a joke for you last Sunday and two so far this morning. Here is #4:
Pastor Quickie was on his way back to the parish from an extended out-of-state trip. Eager to be home before dark, he was traveling well above the speed limit. Pastor Quickie was pulled over by a state trooper. The officer was not impressed by his explanation or his collar and asked, “Do you want me to give you a little sermon about your driving, pastor?”
“Oh, skip the sermon,” said the flustered pastor, and just take up the collection” (Stewardship of Life).
Every Sunday morning here at Hammond Street Church, we take up the collection. But what we’re really talking about on this Consecration Sunday is taking up an offering: making a pledge to the ministries of this congregation for the coming year. Each week you have heard and seen the presentations from our stewardship committee about the life of HSCC. We have been shown in word and pictures and music what constitutes the Hammond Street “story.”
About six years ago, a young man whom I shall not name visited our church. He told me stories of a tough childhood, of being homeless in Portland, of crawling behind a convenience store and trying to wrap up in a plastic bag and a piece of cardboard in the midst of a rain storm. Like Ruth and Orpah and Naomi, this young man knew what it felt like to be “the other.” On top of his daily struggles at home, he was badly wounded during military service in Afghanistan. This person came to Bangor with hopes of leading a new life.
After getting to know this new resident for several weeks, I gave him a few dollars out of the discretionary fund to get some household supplies. The day after I gave our new friend a check, he stopped by to show me several of his pen and ink drawings. He had genuine artistic talent. And then this man from away, this “foreigner,” this “immigrant” did something that truly shocked me. He handed me a paper bag and said, “Here is your lunch.” I have been in the ministry since 1970, and I thought I had seen it all. Never once in all those years has anyone to whom I have given financial help ever returned to help me. The simple lunch my friend had bought with his food stamps was better than the one I had brought for myself! As I communed on the ham sandwich and orange juice, I was again reminded of the striking power of selfless example.
During our Maine Conference Annual Meeting three years ago, we installed the Reverend Deborah Blood as our Conference Minister. I remember well what Deb said at one point in her sermon: “None of us is from away. We are all at home. We are all children of God.”
In terms of our campaign theme, the sequence goes: your story, my story, our story. This past week I thought about that as I had dinner with a retired couple who were members of Hammond Street for several years. They have moved far away, to another state to be closer to family. But they have not forgotten the power of our faith community. When this husband and wife arrived at their new home, this couple said they looked and they looked, but they could never find another Hammond Street Church.
I hadn’t seen these beloved people since they moved away two years ago. When I laid eyes on that dear wife, she grabbed me and said, “You changed us, man! You will never know!” It wasn’t me. It was all of you. For you were the people who drew them close. It was you who became their nearest and dearest. She was right: I didn’t know what it felt like to be homesick for this church. So my heart went out to them as they talked about the long drive back to their new community. They cherish being with their family, but oh how they miss being in our midst every week!
As we make our pledges this morning, I hope you will think prayerfully about need and gratitude and loyalty. Because it is those qualities which bring a church to life and change lives forever.
I know what those good people were talking about, because Hammond Street Church changed my life. What about you?
Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty