Friday, November 16, 2012


Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalms 127[1]
There was a time when everyone had fairly the same idea about what “church” is and what “church” does.  I’m afraid those days are gone for good—there just is no generally agreed upon idea in our society about what a church is supposed to be and do.  I think if you asked a random person at the mall to define “church,” you would be amazed at the variety of answers you would get.  Even in the church there is precious little agreement.  If you just look at the churches on television you will find a bewildering assortment that would challenge the most perceptive individual to find what they have in common.  With that kind of confusion, it’s no wonder it’s so hard for churches to thrive—do we even know what it is we’re supposed to be doing?  For some, this is a crisis of immense proportions, because it represents an end of their vision for the church.
Naomi was a woman who had come to the end of her vision for her life. She simply could not see any kind of future with hope for her.  She thought that her life was over and she was going home to die among her own people.  But something happened that Naomi didn’t expect.   Her daughter-in-law Ruth insisted on returning to Israel with her, even though she was not an Israelite.  As it turns out, Ruth became an even more important part of Naomi’s life.  When they returned to Israel, Ruth worked in the fields as a gleaner to provide for them.  Without her, Naomi probably would have been destitute, or at best reduced to begging.
But Ruth became a source of new hope for Naomi in a way that neither of them expected.  They had a relative named Boaz who “took them under his wing” in a discreet sense.  Initially, he did so simply by instructing his harvesters to leave extra sheaves of grain in the field for Ruth to glean.  But Naomi realized that Boaz was attracted to Ruth, and so she began to play the role of a “matchmaker.”[2]  And as a result, Boaz and Ruth were married and had a son named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David, who became King of Israel![3]  When things were at their worst for Naomi, I doubt she could have imagined what God had in store for her.
It is difficult to be the church in this culture.  In spite of the fact that it may seem that we as a culture are coming to the end of a vision—a vision for what the church is and does in our world—I think the Scriptures reminds us that God is not finished with us yet!  And I think what we need is to be reminded of God’s vision for the world and the church.  It is the vision that God is working in this world at no less than “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).[4]  It is the vision that we don’t have to wait for some remote future on a timeline, because “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21); God’s saving reign is working among us here and now.  It’s the vision of Jesus for God’s realm of peace and justice and freedom.  In his vision, this Kingdom of God is already working in this world to make all things new.[5]
In the New Testament, the apostles translated Jesus’ vision into a vision for the church.  And what they articulated was a vision of the Church working the power of the Spirit, giving ourselves away in service and compassion, and living in community with others (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 4:10).  It is the vision of the church as a kind of “sacrament” of God’s presence, God’s life, and God’s grace in this world.[6]  What that means is that the church is the people among whom a hurting world can find “the life-affirming, life-giving love of God.”[7]  It is a vision of a church that serves the last and the lowest and the least, a church that embraces all, even the unlovable, even the “enemy.”[8]  It is the vision of a church that bears witness to new life in every sphere of life.[9] 
There are many in our world who would say that the church has lost its influence in our culture.  And for those people, a small church like this one is probably just a waste of space.  But to take that point of view would be to overlook the vision that drives this and every other community of faith, whether small or large.  It’s a vision of God’s compassion making a real and tangible difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  It’s a vision of God’s peace and justice and freedom shining through all the doubts and negative assessments and worries that may surround our existence as a church in this society.
It’s not easy being a small church in our world.  We can certainly bear witness to that!  It seems like we have to work doubly hard just to keep up—maybe even harder! Sometimes that can be discouraging.  Sometimes it can even be frightening.  After all, how can a little church like ours keep going year after year? None of us knows what the future holds.  Sometimes we may feel like Naomi, as if our hope is gone.  But as our lesson from the Psalms suggests, if the Lord builds the house, it will stand (Ps. 127:1).  Despite all the odds some may say are against us, we still have a God who is faithful, no matter what. And we still have a vision that is alive and well, and it’s our vision that keeps this community vibrant. It seems to me, when you put all that together, it gives us a lot to be hopeful and optimistic about when it comes to the future

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/11/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Boaz, Pillar of Society: Measures of Worth in the Book of Ruth,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 45-59
[3] See Michael S. Moore, “Ruth the Moabite and the Blessing of Foreigners,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60 (April 1998): 217 where he calls the Book of Ruth a “powerful statement about the power of human love” as well as “a powerful theological statement about a God who keeps his promises, a creator who takes great delight in blessing his multifaceted creation, a Redeemer who will use any means—any people, tradition or person—to accomplish his gracious will.”
[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 294-95.
[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 76-85; 98-99; 190-91; cf. also Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 220, 252-54.
[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power 205.
[7] Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 279.
[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342
[9] See The Book of Confessions, Confession of 1967, 9.31; cf.also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340.

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