Several weeks ago, I was called by a local funeral home to officiate at a service for someone who was unchurch. I do those services not just for the money. I have met many people through the years in their time of need. Many consider me their pastor, but they have never entered this church building. It is not that the unchurched do not believe. It is that they do not believe in the institutional church. They believe there is a lack of love and a surplus of arrogance within the church. In other words, they do not want to be judged by church members. (That is a dangerous game because the faith was never meant to be lived out in isolation.) That was the story of this couple.
When I got the call, I was told the deceased was fifty-eight years old. That fact alone grabbed my attention. That is too young to die in our modern world. However, there was more to her story, then her age. When I got to the funeral home, I talked to the deceased’s sister. I had met her in the past at a similar occasion. She gave me a hug and told me the story. Her sister was fifty-eight years old. Her husband was eighty. There was a twenty-two-year age gap. I tried not to act surprised, but the sister said, “She had to marry an older more patient man because she was bipolar.” Her sister’s first husband walked out because he could not handle the instability. She said her eighty-year-old brother-in-law was good to her sister. He was patient and kind. He made sure she took all her medications. He made sure she made all her doctor’s appointments. He offered her a stable home and, most important, he made her happy. She was the happiest when it was just the two of them. I processed that information for several hours.
About fifteen minutes before the service, the deceased’s husband came up to me. He wanted a few minutes. We went off to a side room and he told me about his wife. She liked a good garage sale. She liked to play keno. She loved family activities and she made up excuses to get everyone together. Then, he reached deep into his heart and pulled out those painful words, “I am an alcoholic.” However, he had not had a drink in twenty years. She was the one who got him to stop drinking. She was the one who got him to go to meetings. She was the one who made him accountable and gave him respectability. He stopped drinking to help her. I processed that information for the next few minutes. Can I be honest with you? I am still processing the information.
I thought about how critical everyone must have been when they got together. There was a surplus of issues. There was the age issue. There was the mental health issue. There was the drinking issue. There was an abundance of issues, but they loved each other. Their marriage enhanced and improved both of their lives. They led with love. It is the story of Ruth. Two broken people trying to survive in this harsh world, desperate for love. Can I ask you a question? How broken are you? Occasionally our lives break, and we desperately need love. That takes us to this morning’s scripture lesson.
We find ourselves today in the Old Testament Book of Ruth. (Ruth 1:6-18) Tradition tells us Ruth was written by Samuel. However, that authorship has been questioned. It is named after the main character. Ruth and Esther are the only two books in the Bible named after women. The events of Ruth occurred during the time of the judges, between 1000-1400 BC. That period is not remembered in a positive light. It was a time of both moral and spiritual decline, as well has national disunity. However, it was a time of political peace between Israel and Moab. Ruth reminds us of the power of love. That is what we find in our scripture reading for today.
We find ourselves today in the first chapter of Ruth. In the opening verses of that chapter, we find the old familiar theme, life is hard. A famine had come to the land, and many were forced to relocate to survive. One of those individuals leaving was a man named Elimelek. His name means “My God is King.” He is married to a woman named Naomi. They had two sons. The family relocated from Bethlehem in Canaan to Moab to survive. In time, their two sons grew up and married two Moabite women. (You know what they say about Moabite women!) Their wives’ names are Opah and Ruth. The future looks bright until the unthinkable happens. Elimelek and his two sons die. Unable to own property in their society, the three widows are forced to find a way to survive. There is no other way to say it. Life is hard.
If you use your sanctified imagination, you can see the three widows standing there. Each one had to decide for themself. The famine had eased, so Naomi had decided to return home. Her decision made logical sense. I have never met a person who did not want to go home when life was hard. Her home was Bethlehem. The problem is her young daughters-in-laws. Their home was Moab. The hardship of each death had forged a bond between the three, but time always moves forward. The women are crying, because they are desperate, and their futures were uncertain. The women are crying because the women will never be together again. The mother-in-law looks at her daughters-in-laws and encourages them to stay in Moab. It is their home, and they are still young. There is still time to start over and find a new husband. That is not Naomi’s story. She sees herself as old, unattractive, and barren. I do not want to sound critical of Opah, but she decides to stay in Moab. It was the logical thing to do, and no one has ever criticized her. However, her departure only emphasizes Ruth’s loyalty. Verse sixteen is one for the ages. Ruth says to mother-in-law, Naomi, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” It is an incredible piece of scripture. She stayed not just because she was loyal or faithful. She decided to stay because she loved her mother-in-law. She was led by love. Never underestimate the power of love. It is safe to say Ruth made the right choice because she would become the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus. You do not need to be a Biblical scholar to know the truth.
Love is one of the great themes in the Bible. We should not be surprised because First John 4:8 says, “God is love.” Jesus, the incarnation of God, said love is the most important commandment. Jesus said, we are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Mark 12:30) Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:31) Jesus said, love is the trademark of the Christian faith. (John 13:34b-35) Jesus said, love is full of mercy. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus said, love is absolute perfection. (John 15:9-17) Jesus said, we must love our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48) Jesus said, love unites us with God. (John 14:15-21) The Apostle Paul (5-67) in First Corinthians 13:8 says, “love never fails.” Love is not just found in the story of Ruth. It is one of the great themes in the Bible. However, it is not just found in the Bible.
Psychologists tells us love plays a major role in our society. Here are their reasons they say love is important:
- Love connects us to other people
- Love helps us understand ourselves
- Love motivates us
- Love reforms us
- Love is the greatest feeling
- Love offers us hope for the future
Love is important! Please do not misunderstand me. Love is not just accepting the person as they are. Love wants what is best for someone else in the long run. True love is honest and brave. Sometimes you must tell a loved one they are foolish or wrong. Have you ever been honest with a loved one?
During the 17th century Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was an English general and statesmen. He once sentenced a soldier to be shot for his crimes. The execution was to take place at the ringing of the evening curfew bell. However, the bell did not sound. The soldier’s fiancé had climbed into the belfry and clung to the great clapper of the bell to prevent it from striking. When she was summoned by Cromwell to account for her actions, she wept as she showed him her bruised and bleeding hands. Cromwell’s heart was touched, and he said, “Your lover shall live because of your sacrifice. Curfew shall not ring tonight!” It is not just true of ancient lovers. It is our story as well. Love has saved our lives. Take an inventory of your life to this point. Who helped you more? The person who loved and sacrificed for you or the person who criticized and reprimanded you? The answer is obvious.
Her name was Norma Marcum. Through the years, I have told you about her. She was a parishioner of mine in Kentucky, yet she was more. She led with love. I never question her love for me. She was important to me when I felt alone. I remember the day she saved my life. I was driving home from school overwhelmed by life. I was in debt. I was behind in my studies. There was only sickness at home. I was tired and hungry and felt completely defeated. I drove to Mrs. Marcum’s house to tell her I had decided to quit school. When I walked in her back door, she knew something was wrong. She listened to my tale of woo as she smoked another cigarette. (In Kentucky, at that time, you were required to consume tobacco in some form. They consider tobacco consumption a sign of a real American. It was their cash crop.) When I had finished talking, she simply shook her head and took another hit on her cigarette. She got up, made me a sandwich, and poured me a cup of coffee. She sat across the table from me and looked in my eyes. She stretched out her hands and held mine. She said, “I do not know how to help you, but listen to what I am about to say. Russ, someday you are going to be a great man. Go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow, get up and try again.” Then, she smiled and gave me a hug. I did as she requested. I do not tell you that story because I think I am a great man, you know better. I tell you that story to say Mrs. Marcus saved my life because she loved me. Love is powerful! Can I ask you two questions? How many times has loved saved you?
How many times have come to church broken? The Christian faith is all about love. We love because God loved us first. Jesus led with love, and we benefitted. We do not just come to church to see friends. We come to church to be reminded of God’s great love for us. Do you remember what David said in the thirty-sixth Psalm? “How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!” Never forget! God loves you!