Sunday Sermon

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17;  Psalm 127;  Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12:38-44

UNLESS THE LORD BUILDS

     The Bible repeats a refrain that is carried in the Psalm for today.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” This time of year, I find myself in a meditative mood.  I’ve brought in those plants I intend to winter over and am letting the rest go.  Even the indoor ones are resting.  Some of them will bloom again at Christmas.  Unless the Lord builds the house…  If we are putting an effort into something, don’t we want to build with the best materials?  I do.  In the Spring I will go to Lowe’s to replace what has been lost in the winter.  Their plants are sound and reliable.  Of course, I know how to choose hearty stock as well.  I have been choosing and learning how to choose for decades now.

     I have been building my house to live in for decades too.  I usually start out with mixed good and shabby materials but have shopped around and have learned to make better choices with time.  Every house I have lived in has been gradually improved. I have learned to prioritize my projects unless something breaks down ahead of schedule.  It is surprising how nice a home becomes over time with continued planning and remodeling.  I have become a very patient builder, thinking months and years ahead.  Because I invest in my homes, I can ask a good price for them.

     I am trying to model for you the patient building that the Lord does throughout a lifetime when we do our best to live according to the plans laid out for us in Scripture.  Quiet, thoughtful remodeling is going on all the time to meet the challenges of a life that is always changing.  Some of the changes have required me to learn new ways of thinking, of responding to the challenges of keeping communities going.  I have not been interesting in changing things to suit me, but with facing the latest crisis honestly together with my friends, going forward together.  We will do what we can as well as we can.  Others might do better, but if they don’t offer to help, we and they will never know. Each person brings something valuable to the mix. Some have been here a long time and know how to get things done, where to look for the switch that shuts off the ceiling fan in front of the choir loft that freezes out those who sit in those pews.  Others have lots of fresh ideas but not much experience with building.  No problems, we have others who have that knowledge.  Year after year we take the mix of people who are willing to help and build with them. Given the changing leadership, our building is different from year to year, but its my job to keep us building.  We are not just keeping up this property, we are building the relationships we need to keep up this community, year by year.  

     I use the image of the patient builder who uses what comes to hand to increase my patience with the process because I have noticed that God is extra-humanly patient with me.  God has no reason to be more patient with me than with us, so I imagine that getting the church built on some hidden schedule or agenda is not a priority with God.  The priority Jesus revealed to us is valuing every person and his gifts, finding ways of bringing each into community with us using all the resources of our Faith. So, while I am keeping the building going, I am always keeping my eye on the builders, making sure they have what they need.  It is a job as complex as it sounds. It is complicated enough to keep me interested and well-occupied--for decades now.  Sometimes I get very tired after a big push and must rest more than I think I have time for, but its all part of the project. Even God rested on the 7th day.  

     On the other hand, I must be ready to move when things have suddenly started happening.  My Mom always said that we “have to strike while the iron is hot”.  Being a priest of the Church has enticed me to grow to meet the current need. No one likes to grow, really.  It means change and change can be challenging.  My computer is constantly changing with new updates so that I must learn how to use it again and again.  It makes me wonder what the next generations will look like who will have grown up accustomed to constant change, rather than to resisting it.   

     It is clear from the gospel for today that making the appearance of relationship with God is not going to do it.  Those who made a big show of religion in the gospel are warned, and I hear that as a warning to us as well.  The warning extends to all our charitable works, as well as to our labor.  It is not enough to “End World Hunger” which, BTW is an impossible goal so long as people have freedom to choose.  People will use their power to control in ways that hurt others.  Our hunger is much greater and a larger problem than lack of food. If we walk with the Lord in our endeavors we will pray, observe, learn and grow in our efforts.  The Lord is a careful builder, using the work of ministry to build us up as ministers, as Jesus did his disciples.

     St. Peter learned more about sin and the need for forgiveness on the night of Jesus’ trial than he had in a lifetime, just as St. Paul did on the road to Damascus.  By loving and forgiving them, continuing in relationship with them, Jesus led his disciples into ministry that changed the world.  I have told you before that the Rich Young Man made his mistake when he turned away from Jesus.  If he had stayed to hear more, there would be a different story told about him.  A good example of this is in the first lesson.  Naomi’s family moved to Moab in hard times.  While living there the hard times moved to Moab, and Naomi lost her entire family, except for her daughters-in-law.  She was openly bitter about it but did not turn away from God or from her roots.  Her return to her home in Israel is as much symbolic, as much a journey of Faith and the heart as it is a historical journey. When she arrives home, Naomi uses the provisions made in the Old Testament for widows to reclaim her abandoned family residence, to support herself and Ruth by gleaning the fields and to present the young widow to her nephew Boaz.  These provisions were intended to help all those who had suffered such losses.  Response to the needs of widows and orphans was required in Scripture of all faithful people.  Jesus often criticizes pious behavior in the gospels that covers neglect of justice issues like those illustrated in the story of Ruth who becomes a foremother of King David.  The fate of a nation pivots on the faithfulness of those who cultivate relationship with God.  Boaz shows himself to be a faithful man by attending to providing for widows, building for the future through his faithfulness.

     I have always found it interesting that this story has Ruth put herself in a compromising position.  She and Naomi rely on the good upbringing of Boaz to keep Ruth from serious harm.  I believe Naomi knew Boaz well enough that Ruth was not going too far out on a limb.  “Uncover his feet” is a biblical euphemism for making a sexual move on Boaz.  She went to him for the purpose of propositioning him, relying on him to do the right thing.  It was a harvest feast and there had very likely been excessive drinking.  It is possible that Boaz was drunk and found a willing woman lying next to him.  One he didn’t want to turn away.  The next morning, he began the process of making her his wife.  

     Now I have read between the lines on this story trying to imagine what might have happened.  I presume that Naomi introduced Ruth to Boaz as soon as she moved back home because Ruth helped to glean his fields.  He was able to observe Ruth and Naomi, their love and care for one another for quite some time.  Boaz took long enough about it that Naomi was moved to more drastic measures.  He knew that relations had an obligation to family to care for widows and orphans.  He was probably taking his time deciding what he wanted to do about it.  I imagine that Naomi noticed Boaz enjoying Ruth’s charms more than once.  There was also another male family member with a closer relationship who had a prior claim.  Boaz got that man to release his claim on Ruth so that he could marry her.  I believe Naomi simply nudged matters along by having Ruth approach him on the threshing floor.  Ruth probably wouldn’t have gone along with the scheme if she wasn’t interested in Boaz.  I believe that Naomi was helping nature take its course with two young people who were already willing.  This story illustrates that those who are faithful may unwittingly lay the groundwork for the purposes of God.  When God’s will for us is woven into our spirits so that we want to do what God asks we may serve the purposes of God.

      It took me a long time to move to this place of wanting to do what God commands, for my own sake.  I like the person I have become with the love of God working on me for a lifetime.  In my mind God has been working me like kneading dough.  My daughter learned to make homemade potato dumplings from my mother.  You start with 10 lbs. of potatoes, egg, water, a little flour, salt and work the dough until it is silky.  Then we made little rounds of dough and wrapped up apricots and prune plumbs in them, cooked them in boiling water.  The process takes about half a day.  We sprinkled the finished dumplings with sugared, buttered bread crumbs.  So yummy!  The point is that you have simple ingredients.  You take your time to making it so it’s just right.  The result makes all the effort worthwhile.  It cannot be rushed.  The recipe is so old and unique that there are no shortcuts for it like prepared pie crusts or fillings or icings.  We make them entirely from scratch and start in early afternoon if we’re having them for dessert after dinner.  

     The life we make as we walk with God is much the same.  The recipe is so old that I find myself reading it over and over, experimenting to get the right texture.  I’m not done working the dough until I get the desired result.  For me this work brings peace and quiet flourishing. It can’t be rushed because everything we do in ministry moves at the pace of human men and women who must be persuaded, encouraged, and listened to, with the Scripture to guide us.  That is what Jesus is doing in the gospel today—guiding us, encouraging us to look beyond appearances and things done for show, to look for what is real.  That poor widow showed more real faith than most of us, and he drew attention to her to teach his disciples.  Jesus taught us to take a hard look.  

     Most people think I am nice, that I don’t really get all the stuff going on around me.  Trust me, I do.  At one time my peace depended on avoiding the wrath of a volatile Mother.  I still walk into the Church and listen for the texture of feelings in the house.  I always knew what was up at home and never lost the ability to find out or the will to resist harmful forces.  From necessity I learned low-key ways to do that.  I choose to live with forgiveness and to let go of hurt and anger.  I choose to work with people day by day as Jesus did.         

     People may give the appearance of doing the will of God without the substance.  God is not fooled, even when we are.  Jesus always looked for how people tended to those less fortunate for signs of their faithfulness. Nothing is owed to the poor except for what God requires.  Our response to issues of justice for those less able to represent themselves shows our faithfulness to the purposes of God.  Those who don’t have time to notice the situation of those who like the widow in the gospel are giving their last coin, often neglect the requirements of justice.  Jesus looked at how people related to the poor for evidence of their faithfulness to the purposes of God.  We learn faithfulness from God and show evidence of it in how we care for one another.

     St. Paul holds Jesus up as an example of self-sacrifice.  I like this image of Jesus entering the sanctuary of heaven to make sacrifice on our behalf. Anyone who loves knows that sacrifice for one another is a daily chore that has a large part in shaping the persons we are becoming.  I imagine Jesus making daily sacrifices on our behalf to help us find within ourselves the salt we need to live well.  I imagine him laying out the plans, directing the materials needed for building and spending time with each construction worker. We need courage to dig deep, knowing that God will support our efforts.  Having good materials and a Master builder of God’s own choosing, we cannot fail to build well.

Sermon for 25 Pentecost 2018 by The Rev. Deborah T. Rankin