Sermon from July 31, 2011

Ruth & Naomi:

Faithful Love: A Risk Worth Taking

Ruth 1:1-18; 3:1-5; 4:13-17

And thereto I pledge thee my troth.

Troth.  Some of you said that when you were married.  Troth.  It makes intimacy in marriage magic, but marriage or a sexual relationship is not required to experience it.  It is available to all, manufactured by none, needed in every human soul, every human relationship.  Troth.

Husbands and wives do need it.

Children and parents need it.

Workers and supervisors need it.

Clergy and laity need it.

In the acclaimed foreign film, three seasons, a series of vignettes about life in postwar Vietnam, characters named Hoi, a bicycle rickshaw driver, and Lan, a prostitute need it.

On their mission trip to inner city Cincinnati a few weeks ago, Tyler and Andrew and the children of Bethel Church needed it.

When famine hit, and they were brutalized by circumstances beyond our control, Ruth and Naomi, two women, a mother in law and daughter in law, needed it.

Today, we’ll hear about all of them and troth.  Troth is an old English word meaning loving faithfulness or faithful love.  It is loyalty.  It translates the Hebrew word hesed, sometimes rendered lovingkindness.  To you the beloved says I am pledging my loyal faith, my faithful loyalty, my hesed my troth, my lovingkindness.

This faithful love transcends marriage but perhaps the best way to explain it is through something I generally share with couples of all ages who come to me to be married.  Love is one of those words that can mean lots of different things.  Most couples want a marriage based on love.  But I explain three different kinds of love.  1st there is love if…  It is conditional.  I’ll love you if you do this, if you do that, and as long as you perform I’ll love you.  If you don’t, I and my love are out of here.  It is all based on the character and performance of the other person.  That is not troth; that is not hesed; that is not what Ruth and Naomi are about.  2nd there is love because of… It is better but still inadequate.  It says I love you because… Then it lists all the good qualities about the other person, all the things they do and are to deserve your love.  Again it is all based on the character and performance of the other person.  I give couples this hypothetical example, ok you say you love her or him because the person is beautiful.  Well what if he or she were in a car accident and no amount of plastic surgery will put the persons face back together the way it was, does that mean your love is over?  Something to think about.  The third kind of love is unconditional.  It is unconditional positive regard.  It’s not based on the character and performance of the person loved, it arises from the will of the person doing the loving.  It gives 100% no matter what.  It gladly receives whatever the other person gives, but still loyally gives 100% no matter what.  That is troth, that is hesed; this is what the story of Ruth and Naomi is all about.

Now by definition, it is risky.  You see if the person loved knows that the faithful love and loving faithfulness of the other person is coming their way no matter what, unconditionally, it is easy to say, hey whoa, I’m going to take advantage of this and get away with whatever I can get away with and suck the other person dry.  That’s when things get abusive and unjust.

And yet, this is what I want to suggest today.  In an unjust and brutal world, loving faithfulness and faithful love toward others is still a risk worth taking.  Think of the 48 or 50 or so people you deal with most regularly in your life – people connected to you by the ties of family or work or friendship or other things, some people you choose to deal with others you have no choice.  Within them think of the ten-twelve people in your life upon whom you have the most influence.  Think of those people.  This is what we learn from those ladies, Ruth and Naomi: loving those 10-12 with faithful love, loving faithfulness IS A RISK WORTH TAKING.  How or why is it a risk worth taking?  Three quick observations from the book of Ruth:

First, it’s a risk worth taking amid unfaithfulness and troubling circumstances.  Just a few weeks ago I was listening to someone else’s fathers day sermon, and this person was talking about the contrast of being a good dad in the midst of a society in which it seems there is this endless parade recently of men behaving badly.  Then it was Straus-Kahn and Rep Weiner.  Now it is Rep Wu also.  And yet when has men behaving badly not been far from the news.  Fortunately there is not a lot of that in Ruth but there are troubling circumstances.  We’re still smack dab in the middle of what is being named the great recession.  This week I was talking with a young woman just outside our back door and I was struck just how difficult life can be for normal people.  She described daily life as a pressure cooker.  Zero help from the father of her children, yet here she was with this young daughter trying to carve out a safe place and time just to come and be calm and talk – just to find a moment of hesed, unconditional positive regard in the midst of a brutalizing society.  It is difficult for us to imagine how difficult it was for two unattached women to make it through a famine in the ancient near east, or how dangerous and bone wearying was the work Ruth did in her gleaning in chapter 2.  And yet this hesed is everywhere she seems to be.  When I was a child I remember one of the first camping trips we went on as a family was probably to my parents the camping trip from you know where.  We ended up one night in this dinky, probably smelly tiny rented cottage because the weather was so horrible.  They put two suitcases up on their ends to make a little table and we played a family card game of fish around it.  As a vacation it was a stressful awful disaster.  Yet of all the moments of deep unconditional love, loving loyalty, hesed I’ve received from my parents, I would not trade that one for anything.  Loving fidelity, faithful love is a risk worth taking, especially amid unfaithfulness and troubling circumstances all around.  When it is all said and done, it is that to which we cling.

Second, faithful love and loving faithfulness are worth the risk within the covenant community. It was interesting this story takes place during a time period of the judges, when it says in one place that society and culture really were crumbling around an individualistic me-oriented ethic that says, everybody does what is right in their own eyes.  No shared community values, just looking out for number one.  And yet, Ruth and Naomi’s challenges and the poignant love story that develops between Boaz and Ruth do not happen in a vacuum.  So in 4:14 the community around them recognizes God’s blessing in this situation and is uplifted.

The covenant community provides a form for loving faithfulness to take on meaning.  Its like love is gelatin and the covenant community is the mold that gives it shape and substance.  The mold by itself is like an institution without love, just an ugly shell.  But everybody just loving and believing whatever suits their fancy at any given moment does not hold a society together and it does not make a church.  It’s like pouring a pitcher of hot gelatin all inside a refrigerator and expecting something beautiful to form.  Yet with a form what develops is something beautiful and a blessing beyond itself.

Loving faithfulness and faithful love within a covenant community is worth the risk because there is a balance there between freedom and responsibility, and also between the individual and the society.  Victor Frankel once said that there should be a statue of liberty on our east coast, but it should be flanked by a statue of responsibility on our west coast.  Ruth took personal responsibility to glean in the fields and seek protection from Boaz.  She didn’t think that Naomi’s people owed her a living and she never defined herself as a victim.  And yet she and Naomi also claimed the full extent of the protections ancient Israel’s culture afforded the poor and weak, through gleaning and the mechanism of the redeemer kinsman.  Loving faithfulness and faithful love also enabled Ruth to strike another healthy, life-giving, life-improving balance.  She freely chose to give of herself without obliterating herself.  When Jesus would later teach about taking up ones cross losing oneself, to love others as you love yourself, this is the balance he had in mind.  How will you strike this balance within covenant community with your 10-12?

Tyler and Andrew, two of our youth, experienced this patient balanced loyalty, this hesed, in the covenant community of a Cincinnati church called Bethel working with a group of children a few weeks ago.  Tyler tells the story this way: “Now for the part that really had the largest affect on me and opened my eyes.  When our group arrived at Bethel, the kids, at first, were quiet and a little bit shy.  There were about as many of them as there were of us, and it seemed as though this was going to be a moderately calm place to be stationed.  And boy, was that impression wrong.  After being at the church for about a half an hour, it was apparent that some fo the kids and some of our youth had attached themselves to each other.  The boy that I grew closest to was a five year old boy named Zahqua, or as we grew to call him, Z.  Zahqua was arguably the most energetic, off-the-wall, loudest kid at Bethel.  Perfect, a five year old version of me.  After the first day on-site, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to handle a whole week with Z.  Going in, I knew I didn’t have the patience.  But I quickly found out that above all other reasons, the reason God sent me to Cinicnnati that week was to meet Z and have him teach me how to be patent with people.  The event that week that I felt closest to God was when it was raining on Wednesday.  Z loved playing outside and was distraught that he couldn’t go out that day.  He sat alone in the corner, upset and crying.  I went to comfort him, telling him that there were still plenty of games to play inside, and the other kids wanted him to join them.  He disagreed, saying, “Nobody asked me to play.”  But then, the little boy named Tyler who was playing ladder ball with Andrew came over to us and asked Z to come play with him.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone’s face light up as quickly and as brightly as Zahqua’s did in that moment.  That event really opened my eyes and let me see what God was doing in all those children.  They were just little kids, but they were capable of the greatest love and compassion I’ve ever seen in any person. (hesed, loving loyalty, faithful love, like Ruth gave to Naomi, and Naomi, Boaz and Ruth shared together)  After spending four days with those kids, I really learned a lot about myself and the way God works in every day events and every single person.  It’s kind of ironic.  Early in the week I was complaining about a video in a museum taking too long to start playing.  Somebody said to me, ‘Patience is a virtue.’  My response was, ‘I know, and it’s not a virtue I ever plan on having.’  But by the end of the week, I obtained that virtue, and I think it still shows.  God turned me into something I’d never thought I’d be in a million years: patient.”

Notice how when the gelatin of unconditional love is shared within the mold of covenant community, everybody’s life is improved somehow?  Loving faithfulness, faithful love is worth the risk within covenant community.

And finally, loving faithfulness, hesed, troth is worth the risk with gratitude for God’s unconditional positive regard as the source of all of it. In some ways all of us are Ruth’s – strangers, aliens in need of grace.  When Boaz fulfilled his duty as redeemer kinsman it was primarily out of family loyalty and romantic love and it would’ve been beautiful simply in that way.  And yet the way the book of Ruth is written, the way God hesed is mentioned at just the right times, it all points to the greater hesed, the greater redemption that would be accomplished by Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz’s descendent Jesus.  Even in the midst of hardship, within the covenant community, the source of all love is God.

Think of your 10-12 people upon whom you have the most influence in this world.  Unconditional positive regard, troth, covenant keeping loyalty, loving faithfulness, hesed.  As I mentioned in the movie Three Seasons, in postwar Vietnam, Hai is a bicycle rickshaw driver, Lan a beautiful prostitute, both with deep unfulfilled desires and hopes for a better, more noble life.  Hai wins a local bicycle race and with the money buys a hotel stay for Lan in a beautiful downtown place.  Instead of using his power and wealth to utilize her in the normal way, he simply gives this to her as a gift.  At first she is skeptical thinking he wants to control her and use her in a more sinister way.  When it becomes apparent that that was not his motive, it begins to transform her, making it impossible for her to return to a life of prostitution and she figures a way out beyond what she thought was possible [Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (Riverhead Books, 2008), pp. 96-98].

Unconditional positive regard, hesed, troth, real love.  Think of your ten-twelve.  Who in that group is Lan to your Hai, Hai to your Lan?  Hai and Lan, Andrew, Tyler and Z, Naomi, Ruth and B.  It was unconditional positive regard, it was faithful love from the heart of God.  They needed it; they saw it; they lived it.

Will we?

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

July 31, 2011

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