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Sunday, May 26, 2019
Scripture: Romans 12:9-18 & Ruth 1:1-18
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
It’s a common theme in our movies, but it’s not so much in our society – nobody gets left behind. Now, it’s a big concern on any youth mission trip where head counts are constant, but if you’re late to the gate to catch your flight, so sorry! You aren’t getting on board. The flight is complete as it is, and it didn’t need you! It’s such a hugely common theme in movies – that we win as a team or lose as a team – that I couldn’t pick out just one movie.
Hannibal in the A-Team: “We go out together, or we don’t go out at all!”
Sargeant Slaughter in G.I. Joe: “We all go home, or nobody goes home!”
Nick the Fox in Zootopia: “I’m not going to leave you behind. That’s not happening!”
Or, of course, from one of my favorite shows, Friday Night Lights, Coach Eric Taylor to one of his troubled players: “You’re not quitting this team. I’m not gonna let you quit. I know you. You quit this team, you’re gonna hate yourself. You wanna be mad? Fine, go ahead. You be mad – I don’t care. But you’re not quitting the team.”
Underlying all of this is the idea that we believe we are actually better together, that the fighting we’re going to do is side by side not through fists and clenched teeth. One of the major stories our culture tells us is that we need to stick with each other through thick and thin.
But, of course, we tell ourselves other stories, and these stories can’t co-exist well with this theme of “better together.” We’ve gotten really good at telling the story of a divided country. Polls show we now believe that we are more divided today than at any other point in U.S. history since the Civil War. Skimming the channels barrages us with the constant red versus blue narrative (although I just spent a week with pastors from all over the country who claimed they were pastoring purple churches – red and blue together under one roof – so perhaps the news and the reality aren’t quite lining up).
We are also fed a constant stream of choice. Don’t like what you’re eating? Go somewhere else! Don’t like the news? Find a new channel that confirms your preconceptions! Aren’t entertained at the church? Pastor says something that doesn’t sit well with you? Did something you loved change and you’re mad about it? Well, there are dozens of churches! Pick another one that can meet your consumerist needs! After all, society also feeds us the narrative, “It’s all about me!”
But I believe this isn’t the narrative of First Pres. I believe that we are doing some of the hard work to counter these stories in our lives. I believe that we have the stuff to swim against the cultural waters that seek to divide us by politics or social beliefs or race or class. Last week Maddie preached about our first Core Value – that we are Christ-centered – which is the foundation on which everything we do rests. Our second Core Value is my focus this week, and it’s one that gets me fired up and excited. We are better together.
I believe this is a core value that we have a decent track record living out. I also believe it is one that will be a great witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ as we do the hard work of learning how to live into it that much more deeply, particularly in our world that is so quick to divide us into markets and groups that do not actually reflect that complex reality of life together.
So, I want to consider both of our texts as a way of deepening our understanding of what it means to be better together. I’ll begin with Paul’s beautiful exhortation in Romans 12. The way of life Paul preaches is counter-cultural, which is part of the reason that this upstart religion was tolerated for awhile, but as it challenged the social mores of Roman society and threatened to disrupt the ties between civil religion and the state, Christians soon found themselves under severe threat. The first major incident was when The Great Fire of Rome broke out in 64 A.D. and devastated much of the city. Rumors were spreading that Emperor Nero was responsible. (Conspiracy theorists certainly have a point because he used the now leveled ground to build a luxurious palace for himself.) But to lay the blame for the fire somewhere, Nero singled out the Christians. Some were torn apart by dogs, others were burned alive as human torches.
So, besides this over-the-top response from an admittedly crazy emperor, how did others perceive these early Christians? With suspicion, because they were opting out of the normal practices of their society. They were counter-cultural. Roman society was exclusive. Christians were inclusive, which broke the traditional norms of class and gender upon which Roman society was based. By the end of the second century, the Christian apologist Tertullian observed that “They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightaway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lions!’”
Into such cultural waters, Paul urges that these Christ followers be different. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor….Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer….extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
It’s as though Paul is saying, “Folks, we are better together.” But this isn’t just a message for the small Christian community at that time. It’s a message for all who believe that the exhausting work of living for me and mine alone has worn thin, and so it’s a message that is constantly reaching out and inviting and including. In our world, we’re told we should self-identify into our camps and that our camps should start lobbing verbal bombs at each other. But I’m over it. The only identity I want to bear anymore is Christ’s, and in Christ I see this radical and expansive invitation to all who would come. Jesus says, “Come, we are better together.” What a gift that we are a church that believes this, and what a challenge to strive even more to live this beautiful message today.
And now I turn to Ruth. We need to know our stories, for they define us. We all have stories – as a nation, as a family, as individuals, and as Christians, many of our defining stories are collected in the Bible. One thing I love about these biblical stories is that reading them can open a process of continual self-discovery. Some use the Bible as a dull instrument to drive people into submission and away from their questions, but I believe the Bible yields life when treated with an open heart and mind. It’s filled with stories that challenge and encourage. Its meaning and value continue to translate into new cultures and times and to transform us. So now I want to turn toward the beautiful story of Ruth.
It’s an ancient story, and yet it’s a story that still speaks into our lives. Let those of us with ears to hear, listen to how it speaks to us so directly today. Like most of our best stories, it begins with a problem. There’s a famine in Israel. Naomi and her family seek help from their foreign neighbors, the Moabites. Upon arrival, Naomi’s husband dies. She is vulnerable but strong, and so she makes a new life in a foreign land. Her sons marry Moabite women named Ruth and Orpah. Things settle down for a decade, but then both sons die childless, leaving three widows fending for themselves, a really tough proposition 3,000 years ago. Naomi takes stock of her life and decides it is best to return home – alone – to her people. She is prepared to change her name Naomi, which means “sweet” or “pleasant.” She wants to change it Mara, which means “bitter.” She’s over it, but she figures the best she can do is keep others away from her troubles. She’s going solo. But this is where Ruth says to her mother-in-law, “We are better together!” There is no good reason she should do this. She’s already in her homeland. She’s with her people. Surely she can make a life for herself, but there is something about Naomi and her traditions that has compelled Ruth to leave her own people and her own place to form a bond that goes deeper than blood.
The story takes many more twists and turns, but I’ll leave it there. It’s a story where there is a conscious choice to stay committed through tragedy and difficulty. There is a resolute belief that God has called these people to be together, come what may. It’s not a story with a fast resolution for them. There is still trouble and worry, and yet God meets them there and opens for them a future that would not have been possible had they not made the decision that they are better together. Ultimately, their difficult choice to stay with each other leads to the blessing of the whole community. So this story encourages us to stick through things. There will be things that disrupt the community, but we are better off together in Christ than we are apart.
The story of Ruth is honest about tragedy. We have known tragedy. Every church does. We have periods of growth, and we have periods where it feels like everything is unsure. I came to this church in part because you made the choice that you were better together. I could see it in you. What you have here is worth the hard work of committing to each other through thick and thin. We also experience tragedy and disappointment on a personal level. Life happens. Things change. What we wanted did not come about. Our children we raised as well as we could didn’t go the path we thought they would. Or decades of clean living still did not prevent that diagnosis. You get the picture. Life is filled with critical moments, and when we hit those, we have the choice of clinging to the community or receding from it. In saying that we are better together, we are committing to the idea that I am for you, and you are for me. We are laying all of our identities – social, political, sexual, racial – at the foot of the cross, trusting that it is there that we are made whole together. And we believe that this is not just for us. That means that there is an open invitation to all who are not a part of us to become a part of us – because “we” is a word that has an infinite amount of space in it.
There are some immediate and practical ways we are living out this Core Value. In the coming months you’re going to hear a lot more about intergenerational ministry. We have all the generations here, and we’re going to work to be in ministry across generations. In our world that has divided us into demographic markets, the church is one place where people can actually live life together across the generations. Our children have much to offer us in faith. Our seniors have much to offer us in faith. Empty nesters and overly-busy young parents and young adults and great-grandparents have so much to offer each other. We are better together when people across generations are sharing faith and life together.
Four staff members were just at a conference this past week on this very topic. We also have a learning cohort made up of church members across generations who are taking a look at all we do as a ministry to find ways we can be more intentionally intergenerational. Over time you will see changes and you will be invited to change as well because we believe that God has something great in store for us as we intentionally go this route.
We live in a world of expansive social networks but growing loneliness. We live in a world of prosperity but staggering rates of suicide. We are told that we live in a world of red vs. blue, haves and have nots, citizens and foreigners, but God is calling us to be better, to be different because God created us to be better together. We have all the tools to be better together. Let’s put them to use and see what God does with us. Amen? Amen.