Hello, Reservoir friends of many ages, so glad to be with you.
Last week on Juneteenth I talked about freedom as one part of the Christian story of salvation. I want to follow up this week inviting each of us to get a little more free personally, maybe to get free from some dreams that aren’t a good fit for us, to get free for the glory of just being a person, a good person.
To help us stay alert and awake, I’m going to have a few call back lines, where I ask you to repeat after me. And kids, I’m counting on you to lead the way in this, since adults sometimes are too shy with our voices, alright?
So let’s practice with the first one. Can you say: Let’s get free?
And can you say?It’s good to be a person.
Alright, we begin with the Bible’s story of Ruth.
Most Saturday mornings I have a group with some of you and we spend part of the time studying the Bible together, being honest with our questions and reactions and seeing how it speaks to us today. A few weeks back, we were ready for something new, and someone suggested the four chapter story we call the book of Ruth. We finished it yesterday, and mostly we loved it. So I’m going to start the sermon telling you all about it.
In the first chapter, we meet three women having a really bad day.
Sometimes, everyone has a bad day. Can I hear you say that?
Well, Ruth and her mother in law Naomi and her sister Orpah had had a lot of bad days. Their husbands had all died – all three of them. And it hadn’t rained enough all year, and there was very little food growing, and they were very hungry. So Naomi, the mother in law, decided she would go back to her homeland called Israel. And her two daughters in law would go back to their homeland called Moab. Maybe the two of them were young enough that they could start over with their lives. And maybe Naomi was old enough that people would feel bad she was all alone and take care of her.
And so Orpah went home, but Ruth said this:
Ruth 1:16-17 (Common English Bible)
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.
17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”
We don’t know why Ruth said all this. Did she really, really love her mother in law Naomi? Was she afraid of being alone without her? Did she not like her sister, or her hometown very much? Did she find Naomi’s faith and Naomi’s God especially inspiring? This was the God Jesus loved and talked about too.
We don’t know.
But we know there are times in life when we decide who we’re going to be loyal to, who are our ride or die, in it for life people. Sometimes those are spouses, parents, kids. Sometimes they are friends. But we need at least one or two of them.
Our dreams in life can’t ever just be about us.
No one does well alone. Can you say that with me? No one does well alone.
The story continues. Ruth and Naomi go back to Naomi’s hometown and they get by picking leftover crops at a farm owned by Naomi’s cousin Boaz. One way faith in God was present in their public life was that farmers of Israel weren’t supposed to pick all of the crops at harvest time but leave enough left so that nearby people who didn’t own land could come and pick the extras, people like Naomi and Ruth. Because every society needs to make sure that there’s enough for everybody. And that everyone has the chance to work and feel proud of themselves, and everyone has the chance to eat and be healthy.
Well, when Boaz saw Ruth picking in the fields and heard people telling stories about what she was like, he decided he liked her very much. And when you like someone very much, you’ve got three choices.
You can be too scared to make a move. Which happens, no shame in that, but you don’t usually make a new friend that way. You certainly don’t start dating or get married that way, and Boaz is looking for love, looking for a life partner.
Another choice is you connect with the person but not build a good relationship. You can think only about yourself and only about tomorrow, and just try to get what you want from the person and move on. Or you can think only about the other person and be nice and serve them but not look after yourself and your needs. This doesn’t make for good relationships.
What Boaz does, though, is the third choice. He gets to know Ruth, tries to grow a relationship that will be good for both of them. We read this.
Ruth 2:14 (Common English Bible)
14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here, eat some of the bread, and dip your piece in the vinegar.” She sat alongside the harvesters, and he served roasted grain to her. She ate, was satisfied, and had leftovers.
They share their first meal together. They talk. They keep getting to know each other. The details of how they do that are kind of interesting. You can find them in Ruth chapters two and three if you want. But both Ruth and Boaz look after themselves and their needs, and they also really get to know and care about the other person. This is where good relationships come from. In good relationships, both people always matter.
Can we say that? Both people always matter.
As the story continues, Ruth and Boaz decide they want to get married, and eventually they do, and they have this baby who has another baby who has another baby, who becomes the most famous king ever in the history of Israel and an ancestor of Jesus. So all along this has been the story of the great-grandparents of one of the most important people in the whole Bible.
But the way all this happens is really old-fashioned and complicated. Too old and complicated to get into today except to say that it all revolves around this word “redeemer,” which is used seven times in the third chapter of Ruth and 13 times in the last chapter of Ruth.
There, that was me saying redeem seven times, but Ruth says it 13 more times, like here:
Ruth 4:14-15 (Common English Bible)
14 The women said to Naomi, “May the Lord be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel.
15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.”
Why is she so blessed? Why is daughter-in-law Ruth better than seven sons? Because grandma Naomi has been redeemed.
What that word redeem means is to see and honor the value in a thing or a person that other people are calling useless. It’s to treat a piece of land or a person, but especially a person, like they matter, like they’re valuable, like they are worthy of a hope and a future and a legacy.
Ruth matters. She is worthy of a future and a hope and a legacy.
Naomi matters. She is worthy of a future and a hope and a legacy.
We all matter. Everyone matters. Can you say that with me?
And what is so beautiful to me in the story of Ruth is everyone realizes just how much they matter. Ruth and Naomi’s circumstances have told them their lives don’t matter very much, but they find out that they do – they have just as much value!
And Boaz has kind of been told by the world that his life matters more than other people’s – that he can have more wealth, more stuff, more dreams than others. He realizes that his life matters, but it doesn’t matter more. His good is bound up with other people’s good. Everyone deserves to experience the glory of being a person – no more and no less.
And we all experience the beauty and freedom of being a person when we are all sharing that experience together.
I want to bring this home in the second half of the talk with one no and two yeses.
Here’s the no.
The NO: Enough with the Bee-Hags…. (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals)
A Bee-Hag is a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. A while back, Jim Collins, a business writer, said that to be successful, companies need big, hairy, audacious goals – they inspire focus and loyalty and enthusiasm and all. And maybe this is true – our church has BHAGs, like representing Jesus’ beloved community for us all, or helping reform Chrisitan teaching and practice for our generation. And All.
But in our church, a couple decades ago, we were sometimes encouraged to come up with our own BHAGs every year and pray they’d come true. And for some of us, sometimes, that was awesome. But for others of us, not always.
Twelve and a half years ago, I’d been praying that I would become a public high school principal before I was 40. It was part of my sense of life mission around being an educator and a leader and all. And then a few years ahead of time, I applied for one of these jobs and I got it, on my first try.
And because I had this BHAG about what this would mean for me and others, and because other people in my life and heard me talk about this and prayed for it or were at least supportive of the idea, when it happened, I was like:
Look, God has opened the door. My dream is coming true!
And in some ways it did. I became a high school principal at age 36, I did a few good things in my stint at that school, it prepared me in some new ways for my current job and calling as well.
But the move into that job while my kids were just three, five and eight years old pulled a lot more of my energy away from my family’s life. There were ways that both they and I and my wife suffered from that. And I didn’t see that coming, at all.
My BHAG got so large for a minute that it overshadowed the needs and priorities of the people I love most in the world, the people to whom I most owe my time and attention and integrity. And that hurt them and it hurt me too.
So I’ve been on a journey of repentance ever since then, making sure my kid’s and my wife’s dreams matter at least as much as my own.
Our society is full of narcissists who get rewarded for their big egos, their big, hairy, audacious goals they have for themselves. While they live with too little accountability, too little integrity, hurting the people around them. Truth is getting called on more and more of them these days.
Last month I heard for instance about another influential Christian leader I knew who was admired for his big personality and big gifts and big, hairy, audacious goals even while he was hurting people and not being held accountable.
These days, I’m like enough with the BHAGs. We don’t need so many personal big, hairy, audacious goals that center the needs and interests and power and dreams of the one with the goal.
Life’s not all about me. Can we say that together?
Here’s a better path toward being a person, better than more and more striving toward personal goals. Two yeses for us.
The 1st YES:
Dedicate your life to redemption stories. Stories of your own redemption. Stories of other people’s redemption. Stories of the redemption of people and places and all of creation.
Dedicate your life to redemption stories.
Redemption again is where value is uncovered, honored, and preserved.
When you redeem a can for the five or 10 cents you can get back for it, you’re not rescuing the can, you’re not making it valuable. No, you’re taking the value it already has – it’s worth five or 10 cents, and it can be turned into another can at the recycling center – and you are honoring and preserving that value, rather than just throwing it out, despising its value, and hurting the earth.
Ruth and Naomi bond together in this story in scripture because they are determined to preserve the value of their lives and legacy. They matter. They have the right to survive even after all their bad days and maybe even to flourish again. And they know they can uncover, honor, and preserve their value best if they stay in it together.
And Boaz, unlike another character in the story, realizes life is not just about the maximization of his own value. It’s not about maximizing the profits off his farm or about pursuing his needs or his goals apart from the value of the land and people and creation all around him. So Boaz focuses a lot of energy on honoring and preserving Naomi’s value and Ruth’s value, deciding that his good is going to be connected to their good.
We all get free together.
People who dedicate our lives to redemption stories don’t ignore our own needs, our own worth, our own rise in the world. Because we know we have value, we have stories that need telling, worth that needs uncovering and sharing.
And people who dedicate our lives to redemption stories don’t really have too much time for personal BHAGs, at least the ones that are all about ourselves. Because there’s too much beauty, too much worth, too much value in all the people and places around us – value that’s worth celebrating and protecting and honoring.
So the first yes is redemption stories. And here’s the second yes:
God sees the depths of you.
And who you are and who you are not is more than enough.
Can you say with me? I’m more than enough for God.
Yeah, that’s hard for some of us today. Because we’ve been criticized again and again. Or maybe some of you are like me, and we were taught that God is always frustrated with all that we aren’t, or that God will really love us or be proud of us some day in the future, when we’re better than we are today.
But that’s not true.
This spring, I was carrying some heavy burdens, feeling a lot of stress around some things going on in my life. And I was speaking with an older, wiser friend of mine who suggested we pray.
And he had a prayer book with him called the Book of Common Prayer, and he opened it up to where you see two Psalms from the Bible – Psalm 130 and 131. And in that book, the titles of the psalms were from their first words.
So one psalm was called: Out of the Depths. It beings:
“Out of the Depths….”
Psalm 130:1 (New Revised Standard Version)
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
And praying just that one line kind of opened things up to me, like God sees me, God hears me right here, right now. All my depths – my deepest thoughts, my deepest yearnings and hopes, my deepest stresses, all seen and known by the living God.
And then the next Psalm was just called “God, I am not.” It begins like this:
“God, I am not….”
Psalm 131:1-2 (Common English Bible)
131 (God, I am not) proud;
my eyes aren’t conceited.
I don’t get involved with things too great or wonderful for me.
2 No. But I have calmed and quieted myself
like a weaned child on its mother;
I’m like the weaned child that is with me.
“God I am not….”
I am not wise enough to know all the answers.
I am not strong enough to fix everyone’s problems.
I am not compassionate and dedicated enough to be the perfect dad or husband or pastor or friend.
God, there is so much that I am not.
But guess what, as that very person – not so many things – God welcomes me to calm and quiet myself with God, to let God be a loving, attentive mother who says,
It’s OK, Steven. You can just be with me. It’s OK. I’m here for you. I can help.
Friends, for the parts of ourselves that are hurt or stressed or overwhelmed, this is our salvation, to know that we’re not enough to be in control and we’re not enough to be independent and we’re not enough to fix everything, and that’s the way it’s meant to be.
We are creatures, not creators. We are children of God, not God. And that’s just the way God meant it to be.
Our little old, incomplete selves are more than enough for God.
So we can let go, and settle down, and live our little lives best we can in peace.