Strained, toxic, lethal.
Fragile, hostile, disrespectful. Fleeting, controlling, intimidating.
Violent, dependent, dishonest. Rude, crude, and unacceptable.
Such are the gloomy descriptors of many current-day relationships between spouses and family members, boyfriends and girlfriends, roommates and significant others, acquaintances and next-door neighbors, co-workers and classmates, politicians and citizens.
But in the Kingdom of God, where unconditional love abides, the Lord calls us to something more healthy and holy in our human affairs and associations, and Jesus Christ sets the example. For her part, the Holy Spirit implores our active participation in redeeming the relationships of the world through Christ, and by grace, the Spirit enables mutuality of affection for all Creation.
Thanks be to God, some of our relationships are mutually affective – vigorous, healthy, life-affirming, and regularly yielding fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, even as other, less-ripe relationships pit us against ourselves and put us at each other’s throats.
Our fearful, broken relationships are a miserable witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its pulsing drumbeats of humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation; grace, peace, and community.
To be sure, notable exceptions exist. Relationships forged in unconditional love, mutual care, and shared concern – many of them on display right here in this faith community – give honor and glory to the Lord in whose image we each are made.
But deep physical and emotional wounds still fester within our relationships on both sides of the walls that define this piece of sacred ground.
And now comes the gift of Lent, an intentional time to repent of rowdiness and shenanigans that destroy life and sour rapport.
Now comes the gift of Lent, a hallowed and consecrated season of turning toward decisions and behaviors that affirm life and nurture relationships.
Now comes Lent and my new sermon series, “Called to Repentance: Working on Our Relationships.”
As we once more make way toward the Cross of Good Friday, let us hold fast to those thriving relationships of healthy, authentic commitment. In full assurance that our sin and brokenness get nailed to that Cross in Christ, let us admit to associations where commitment is sorely lacking. As we wait for Easter and its full assurance of release from death, let us walk from the Tomb in stronger, closer, more committed connection with the Lord and one another.
“Commitment” and “relationship” seem like old-fashioned ideas these days. The fast pace of life, time’s many demands, and a huge world of possibilities make commitments to anything or anyone feel like relics of a bygone era. And a nonchalant “like” on Facebook or string of Snapchats passes for a committed relationship. No wonder why so many folks are feeling so lonely, disconnected, and downright depressed.
A commitment is a choice – a free exercise of your time and effort – to bind yourself to something or someone outside of yourself and to stick with that some-thing or some-one no matter what.
Commitment often comes at a high price, but commitment also brings blessings that cannot be found any other way. Which brings me to our Scripture lesson this morning –the Old Testament story of two women, Ruth and Naomi, who could have parted company but who remain committed in their relationship with one another and find themselves blessed by sticking together.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, listen for the word of the Lord.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land.
And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.
When they had lived there about 10years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food.
So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
“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. The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”
Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said,
“Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying?No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live. 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!”
When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women of the town said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them,
“Call me no longer Naomi. Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. (Ruth 1:1-18, 22)
What a pathetic pair of sad-sacks they were that day – Ruth and Naomi – as they shuffle into Bethlehem looking like 40 miles of bad road.
People feel sorry for them, but Naomi wants nothing of their pity. What she really wants is for the gawkers to get as angry with God as she is. And so she tears into Almighty God with the fury of a woman scorned:
“Time was when my name meant ‘Pleasant,’ and I used to be a pretty pleasant person, too,” Naomi laments. “But that was before God messed with my life. Now just call me ‘Bitter,’ because that’s what I am, and it’s all God’s fault! God is to blame for moving me from Pleasant to Bitter. So come on, folks: Let’s shake an angry fist at Almighty God!”
So much for putting a positive spin on the God whom Ruth just promised to worship.
But in her defense, Naomi is just about as empty as empty can be. To riff on an old Paul Simon song, “Empty as a pocket, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose.” God is deep in her doghouse, and Naomi surely isn’t looking to God with much hope. But then comes that last verse: “The barley harvest is beginning.”
The very stuff of life – barley and wheat – is coming in from the fields to the little town of Bethlehem, a name that means “The House of Bread.” The bakers of Bethlehem soon will be firing up their ovens, and emptiness and scarcity soon will be turning into abundance and nourishment.
Even now, as Ruth and Naomi pass through the city gates, grain-laden donkey and ox carts are already snaking their way through the narrow streets of Bethlehem.
As wooden wheels passed over rough cobblestones, kernels of grain are already starting to fall from the wagons and onto the streets, and the crunch-crunch sound of grain kernels are popping under the sandals of Ruth and Naomi.
Crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch: The sound of emptiness soon becoming abundance, the sounds of pain and death about to give way to hope and assurance. In the midst of Naomi’s great sorrow and intense anger, God lets the crunch-crunch sound of barley be heard. Don’t count out God just yet, Naomi. Something more is in the works, so stay tuned.
“Death and decay in all around I see” go the lyrics of an old hymn.
And the news on any given day presents us with enough sorrow and mayhem to undo us all. The whole of creation started out so full but now often turns up so empty. And then death comes calling – intense, personal and heart-breaking.
But in and through it all God remains God, and long about the time you conclude that it’s all over and there is no hope, suddenly barley crunches under someone’s foot, and we begin to suspect that there may yet be a second act to Creation’s drama. You begin to suspect that the God who created us for fullness will not be content to leave us in emptiness.
Ruth will become a distant relative of a man named Jesus. Many years later in Bethlehem – the House of Bread, from the unlikely location of an animal’s feedbox, the sound of a crying infant will be heard. And for those with ears to hear, there’ll be a sense that night, too, that God is indeed still around, truly still aiming things to move from emptiness to very great fullness.
Even if for today we feel sad and empty, angry and bitter, lost and alone, disconnected and disaffected, the barley harvest is beginning, and Bethlehem’s Bread of Life – by Jerusalem’s Cross of Hope – will surely wipe away every tear and bless us with fullness of relationship.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah foretells as much:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. (Isaiah 42:1-9)
For that just is the Word of the Lord – ancient words, ever true!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, February 26, 2023, the first Sunday of Lent at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the firstof his Lenten series, “Called to Repentance: Working on Our Relationships. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, Scott Hoezee, and Gene M. Tucker inform the message.