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Worship Theme: Focused Love Finds a Neighbor

Sermon Theme: You Are a Gem

Today’s reading from Ruth 1:1-19a shows us that whether in good times or bad, “you are a gem” by your friendship and by your faith.  July 10, 2022.

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Splat, phwock, splat, phwock! His knee-high rubber boots squished into, then pulled out from the muck of the pig pen with every step. Cap pulled down on his brow, tufts of curly, gray hair protruding out the sides and back, four days of beard stubble, a dribble of saliva on his chin, he squints as a sunbeam shoots from the gun-metal sky like a yellow spotlight. What in the world? That sunbeam caused something near the center of the sky to sparkle. “That’s odd! That’s weird!” he muttered to himself. Other than dumping feed into the trough for the hogs that wallowed in the slop, he rarely swung open the gate to plod through the mud and manure. But here he was, crouching in his crusty overalls to get a closer look. A gem! Really? Myths from a century and a half ago told of miners who had scoured the hills around his farm for precious gems, and rumors still crept into coffee conversations at the local diner, but that all sounded so crazy. Yet, with his thick gloves grasping the gem, rubbing off the goo, seeing it burst to life with sparkling light, it hit him like a slap on the side of the head. “From living near poverty all these years, I am now … I am now … rich! You are a gem.

By your friendship

Some of you have experienced the heart-wrenching loss of a loved one or have gone through marriage struggles or lost a job or wrestled with debt or faced difficult career decisions. Those are times when loneliness can press on the heart like a heavy barbell on the chest with no spotter.

Talk about loneliness! You caught the storyline in today’s first reading, right? Because of famine, an Israelite man moved his family east to the land of Moab. He died, and his sons, who had married Moabite women, did, too. His wife, Naomi, was left without her two sons and her husband. There are people who can identify with her pain. Not so obvious is the fall-out for a widow thirty-one centuries ago. There was no Social Security System. Her husband, Elimelek, had no pension plan. Naomi couldn’t cash in his life insurance policy or draw on her own investments. Her only means of support was family, but her relatives were back in Judah, and her sons had died. All that was left was begging. But there stood her daughter-in-law, Ruth. She, too, had lost her husband, but she was willing to travel and share with Naomi a hand-to-mouth existence and the emptiness of childlessness. More than that, Ruth was willing to listen, to offer a shoulder to cry on, an arm to lean on.

Do you think Naomi and Ruth ever had any fun? Isn’t it possible that they had a few chuckles over showing up at a party wearing the same-colored robe or deciding what hairstyle might be in or baking bread and realizing that it wasn’t the Sabbath, and they could have used yeast? Don’t you think they laughed when they started to hum the same tune or started a sentence at the same time with the same words? Surely, part of the reason Ruth told Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay” is that they enjoyed each other’s company. The church term we often use for this is “fellowship.” Ruth’s friendship and fellowship with Naomi sparkled like a gem in good times and bad.

If someone asked you, “What’s the value of being a Christian?” your testimony would spill from your lips like an overloaded custard turtle sundae on a ninety-degree day, “In a word, Jesus! He has given me certainty and contentment in my relationship with God. I’ve got nothing to fear, even though I should when I look at the messes that I’ve left on the trail of my life. But he has lifted from me the burden of a guilty conscience by a flood of his own blood, washing my sins from God’s sight.” There’s no better reason for rejoicing. But there is an addition to the benefit package of Jesus’ saving us. He brings Christian connections into our lives, friends who care for us, who are there for us to listen, to offer a should to cry on, an arm to lean on. I see here today folks who offer others a ride to worship, write encouraging emails and texts to those who need a boost, lend an ear, spend time in prayer for others. In a world growing muddier and muckier with head scratching wrong choices regarding right or wrong behavior, with media spin that makes our head spin, with greed pressing on all sides and flaring on the inside, you are a gem, sparkling with Ruth-like friendship for people around you.

On Friday after work Joe stopped at the grocery store, picked up two pizzas, a bag of chips, and a liter of soda, went to his apartment, and didn’t come out till Monday morning for work. Joe has been wondering why he has been feeling kind of lonely. Fred and Sue bought a place up north to get away from the busy schedule and all the people of the city. When asked what they planned on doing while up north, Sue said they were going to dinner with people in the cottage next door on Friday, on Saturday they had a group barbeque, and on Sunday they were going to help the neighbor clean up his dock. People struggle for more privacy, but if you ask what they’re number one fear is, nine times out of ten they’ll say, “Being alone.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Christian living means coping with one problem after another like Lucy and Ethel trying to wrap chocolates from a conveyer belt that is moving too fast or that being a Christian means facing a pile of toil and tears with the dawning of each day like finding your inbox refilled each day with urgent messages. Christianity is actually a lot of fun.

Though we surely don’t deserve it, in addition to the benefit package of Jesus saving us, God grants us the privilege of gathering with fellow Christians. Perhaps pre-pandemic we too often took it for granted. The “shelter-in-place” mandates may have helped stem some virus-spreading, but they have robbed many folks of a God-designed blessing ever since the Garden of Eden. He never intended humans to be little islands or live in a disconnected bubble. When you check the church calendar on line or peruse the notes in the worship folder, you might not think of the picnic or camp-out or softball games or Mom’s group or young adults connected through Rooted or plans for small groups as all that big a deal. But Christian fellowship and fun, the smiles and satisfaction of shared experiences, enrich our lives and brighten our days. Whether in good times or bad, you are a gem by the horizontal connections, the Christian friendship, you show and share.

By your faith

I realize that some might say, “I don’t feel a great need to participate in church-related activities. I have my friends and family, and we are always busy. In fact, my calendar is so packed that I hardly have time for them much less adding in church stuff. Besides, I have friends who aren’t church-goers who are more than willing to help when I need it and have fun at the drop of a hat.” OK! All understandable, and having non-churched friends is good because you can have an impact on them. But there’s an ingredient missing from those horizontal-connection cookies.

If you read this story too quickly, you might think, “Ruth believed in the same God as Naomi did. What’s the big deal?” It was a big deal when you consider Ruth’s background. She was a heathen, a pagan. Moabite people worshiped the sun, moon, fertility gods, and even sacrificed children to their idols. Then she moved from one pig sty to another by relocating with her mother-in-law from Moab to Israel. This Bible account is plunked right in the middle of one of the most chaotic times in Israelite history. Read the last four chapters of the book of Judges, but not right after you’ve eaten because you’ll be nauseated by the “we’re-gonna-stick-our-tongues-out-at-God” attitudes and filthy behaviors going on. Standing amid that manure and mud, there was Ruth, one in faith with Naomi. And here’s the added shocker of her story. She ended up as the great-grandmother of King David, a direct ancestor of Jesus. Because of the vertical connection she had with God through his promise of a Savior from sin, Ruth’s faith sparkled like a gem.

It would be enough for you and for me to say, “I have a personal relationship with God because of Jesus, and I can stand before him as his dearly loved child.” But God also grants us the privilege of expressing our faith with others. We won’t be singing solos in heaven. Heaven is a perfect, permanent, vertical link with God and enjoying that with others. We get a taste of that right now worshiping together to review and renew in our hearts the only message that will transport us from this veil of tears to where God will ensure unending joy, singing together, praying together, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, which is designed by Jesus to be with others. When you go home, you will not be alone. Jesus promises to be with you every step of the way and so are the hearts of eleven hundred fellow members of Grace church, thirty thousand in fellow Lutherans in metro-Milwaukee, three hundred forty thousand of our Lutheran church body in this nation, to say nothing of the millions of other Christians here and elsewhere in the world.

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:29-31). Those words are not ripped from the news. That’s the apostle Paul describing culture and society twenty centuries ago. Not much has changed. You don’t have to look far to realize that we are living in a moral pig sty. But God covers you in the sparkling robe of Jesus’ rightness. Amid the mud and muck of this world, you are a gem. Amen.

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