Today is one of those days that a preacher typically gets frustrated with when it comes to sermon writing.
On the one hand, it is the first Sunday of the season of Lent, and it’s good and right and important to start strong in this holy, liturgical time of the year—and especially since we have what I hope is an intriguing Lenten display in the Gathering Area.
On the other hand, as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) February is when we consider and take up a special offering for the relief, refugee and development mission organization connected to our denomination called Week of Compassion—which is compounded this year by our church’s decision to take a longer, more intentional focus for that offering by expanding it to “WeekS of Compassion” and having set a goal for our church to raise two thousand dollars for that offering.
And then, on the third hand! Today is Valentine’s Day which makes for an assumed expectation that all preachers are going to run with the whole “lovey-dovey-ness” of God and Jesus, and ride that obvious and easy metaphor until we all want to choke on our candy hearts.
So if you’re keeping track, that’s three hands, which means: I as a preacher have to make a choice, or we as a church are all going to be here awhile. So I am going to let you decide what I am going to preach on. All those who think I’m seriously going to let you decide what I preach on, raise your hands!
Now in the hands of a lesser preacher, today would be frustrating! But not me!! I have no problem tackling all three because truth be told, they all really can and do come together. And to be honest, I think it is Godly providence that these three focuses have merged onto one Sunday for they all can provide a method of intentional focus for the high calling that we as Christians have been given by Jesus, which is to love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Valentine’s Day is all about love. Lent is a time of drawing closer to the divine and unconditional love that Christ has for us—even to the point of death on the cross. And Week of Compassion is a ministry in which we can put our love of God and love for neighbor into concrete, life giving, life transforming action.
All these can merge together on one Sunday, in one normal length sermon, because they are simple everyday ways of life we are called to live.
For decades Week of Compassion has sought to equip and empower churches to help in the effort of alleviating the suffering of others through disaster response, humanitarian aid, sustainable development and the promotion of mission opportunities. The focus is that we as Christians in the body of Christ are called to work with global communities in an effort to positively impact lives all over the world; to accompany people during the time of their greatest need; and to share good news with our sisters and brothers when hope is needed most. Check out this video for a broader perspective on Week of Compassion.
The theme for this year’s Week of Compassion offering is “Where you go, I will go…” and is derived from the story of Naomi and Ruth where we find the lives of foreigners intertwined and doing what Week of Compassion seeks to do.
The story of Ruth begins with a family of Israelites facing a time of famine, and making the decision to move away from the town of Bethlehem, which is ironic because Bethlehem literally means “House of Bread.”
The mother in the family is Naomi and she travels with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab in search of a better life. Naomi’s two sons marry Moabite women —Orpah and Ruth, but her husband dies there. Then, about 10 years later, both of the sons die and Naomi is left with only her two daughters-in-law.
This is where the story’s main focus begins to come into perspective, but we will get to that in a few moments as there is a particular perspective that I want us to bring to the rest of the story.
If you saw the Akron Beacon Journal last weekend, you might have read the three part series on generational differences between Baby Boomers, Gen Xer’s, and Millennials. I read this series with great interest because I am a Gen-X pastor who is called upon to minister to all of these different generations, while at the same time I am a father who is trying to figure out how to raise the next generation—Generation Z as the Beacon Journal series referenced them. Different generations have differences—it’s always been this way, and always will be. This was even true when it comes to Naomi and Ruth. You might think of Naomi as a member of Baby Boomer Generation, struggling to make it, while Orpah and Ruth are Millennials in this story.
Naomi decides that her best bet is to move back to Bethlehem where she can rejoin her extended family. She begins her journey with Orpah and Ruth, but then realizes that these Moabite women will not be welcomed in her home and will have a better chance at remarriage if they return to their homeland. So she says to them, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”
Naomi knows that her relatives in Bethlehem have a negative view of immigrants— views like they don’t pay their taxes, they bleed the welfare system dry, they take jobs away from natives, and so on. Deeply entrenched prejudice about race and ethnicity is an ancient emotion, and multiculturalism has not yet become a movement in Judea. So she sends her beloved daughters-in-law away, because she wants them to be spared this kind of discrimination.
Orpah, perhaps understandably, kisses her mother-in-law and returns home. But Ruth surprisingly clings to Naomi and refuses to leave her. “Where you go, I will go,” says Ruth to Naomi; “where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” And with that said, they go, together.
This Baby Boomer Naomi refuses to be intimidated by a town that is full of racial and ethnic prejudice. This Millennial named Ruth makes a bold statement of faith and turns away from a culture in which women are considered to be nothing without a husband. Both commit themselves to moving in a new direction, trusting completely in Naomi’s God— the God of Israel.
Naomi is no washed up Baby Boomer. Ruth is no mere Millennial. Both are living forth as those who make up a greater generation—God’s Generation—a generation of people not bound by the idiosyncrasies of age, a generation not willing to conform to a status quo, a generation that spans generation after generation because the beginning and the end of this generation is the same source—God our Creator, Christ our Savior. And this bold faith pays off.
As the story goes, the God of Israel smiles on Ruth’s determination to follow Naomi to Bethlehem, and in time Ruth meets and marries an Israelite named Boaz. Together, they have a son named Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse and the grandfather of King David. Ruth—a foreigner—contributes to the bloodline that will eventually produce a child in the house and lineage of David, a child all of us know as Jesus—the one who unites us all, one to another.
God created us out of love; Christ saved us with love— all so that we could love one another as we have been loved.
As the church, today, we are one generation: God’s Generation. Together, we are called to be open, equal and inclusive of all of God’s children.
There was a time when women were told to stay home. There was a time when blacks were told to stay separate from white. There was a time when those who marched to a different drum were told to stay silent.
These were voices of one generation telling another to do such things so that the status quo would not be upset. But those who make up, and are part of God’s Generation—from Ruth and Naomi to present day— welcome every voice that wants to join in praise of the God who sent Jesus to save us. Every voice is welcome, and every voice is needed: Moabite and Israelite, male and female, Red State and Blue State, young and old and middle-aged, Baby Boomer, Gen X-er, and Millennial, Silent Generation, Generation Z. As the one people of God, this is how we are called to live—as those who are: open, equal, inclusive, and loving.
So may we, during this time of the Week of Compassion special offering, recommit ourselves to follow in the example of Naomi and Ruth.
May we, during this season of Lent recommit ourselves to being the church that seeks to bear more and better fruit for the Kingdom of God.
And on this Valentine’s Day, may we strive to love as we have been loved by our Creator and Savior—as those who have done nothing to deserve such love.
Today, this season, this offering is another opportunity for us to not just be generations of Baby Boomers, Gen X-er’s, and Millennials, but rather one generation—God’s Generation of faithful followers, at work in the world, sharing and living the Good News of reconciliation, justice, healing, and wholeness. Amen.