Why Commitment Matters
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Ruth 1: 6 – 18. Focus on the necessity for commitment and why steadfast love matters to people and churches. Check out Rasaan and the choir as they sing: Trading my Sorrows.
We’ve been talking about the importance of money for the past several weeks but today I want to talk about something far more important than money. I want to talk with you about why we exist, why we are here. I want to talk with you about commitment and why it is so important.
I also need to thank Rev. David Baer of the Highlands Presbyterian Church for the insights and ideas in this sermon because they original came from a sermon he wrote on this passage entitled: Love that Won’t Let Go.
When I think of commitment I think of people like my parents who have been married for over sixty years. I think of how my mother took care of my father when they were younger and he had lost his voice, and felt as if he was worthless as a preacher and how my Dad now takes care of my mother as they grow older and her memory fades.
I like how David put it: “I saw them making way for each other as though they were dancing to a tune only they could hear, moving graciously together and never letting go. Some people just know how to hold on.”
That’s what the book of Ruth is all about. It’s about hanging on. It’s about commitment.
The story begins with a number of reminders about the fragility of life. Naomi leaves the land of Judah with her family to escape a famine, and so they become economic refugees, settling in a foreign land. There her husband dies, and although her two sons manage to marry women in that country, they also die, apparently childless.
As a widow without any male family members to provide for her, Naomi has to return to her homeland. And Naomi feels the pain of what has happened acutely. “Bitter” is the word she uses to describe how she feels, and she feels this bitterness so intently that when she arrives home in Bethlehem, she tells her family to stop using her given name, Naomi, which means “sweet,” and to call her Mara, “bitter,” instead.
She feels this bitterness as an abandonment by God. God promised her ancestors blessing and abundance, but instead she has experienced loss and dislocation. The only semblance of family Naomi has left are her two daughter’s in law – Ruth and Orpah, but she asks them to leave her as she has no sons for them to marry and no hope of taking care of them financially.
Now Orpah takes her mother-in-law’s advice and returns to her home and kin but Ruth hangs in there with Naomi. Why?, because she loves her! And she holds on fast to Naomi and refuses to return to her homeland.
The text says that Ruth clings to Naomi, and she solidifies their relationship by making vows of her own: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!” she says. “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.”
And it’s this commitment and promise that changes the course of Ruth’s life. She is all in. She has committed herself to a future with Naomi. Just as we are committing ourselves to each other and to our financial future here in Hackensack.
What’s especially remarkable is that she’s not getting or asking anything in return.
If you haven’t heard of Emily Rapp you should. She is creative writing professor who wrote about caring for her little boy, who had Tay-Sachs disease – a fatal disease. At the time, there had been a lot of buzz over another mother’s memoir, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, whose author wrote about pressing her kids toward a successful future. For Emily Rapp’s son Ronan, no such future existed. She knew he would not live beyond his third birthday. She writes:
Ronan, a name which means samurai without a master, won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss.
Rapp couldn’t prepare her son for a successful life. All she could do was love him fiercely, without conditions, without an agenda. “The only task here is to love, and we tell him we love him, not caring that he doesn’t understand the words. We encourage him to do what he can, though unlike us he is without ego or ambition…”
I would walk through a tunnel of fire if it would save my son. I would take my chances on a stripped battlefield with a sling and a rock à la David and Goliath if it would make a difference. But it won’t. I can roar all I want about the unfairness of this ridiculous disease, but the facts remain.
What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go. … Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.[i]
There is so much we simply can’t control. We don’t choose our children’s illnesses or our own. The ground we walk on shakes when we hear a diagnosis, lose a job, or go to war. But what Emily Rapp, Ruth, and my folks did choose was to hold on, to love someone without letting go, through disease, grief, and trauma.
And what both the book of Ruth and the story of Emily Susan Rapp show us is that there is a love and commitment that will not let go. It’s the kind of commitment we need to offer each other here today. We are in this thing called the church together. Together, through good economic times and bad we are a family of faith. We need each other. We can’t control how the markets go. We can’t control who comes and who goes, but what we can do is hold on to each other and to choose to love and not let go.
The Hebrew language has a word for this kind of love. It’s called chesed. It is the kind of love that will not let go! And again and again, throughout the scriptures, chesed is the word used to describe the kind of love that God has for us. So what we have here is the story of a God who loves and won’t let go. And the reason the book of Ruth is so important is because it tells a story about faithfulness in human relationships that will not let go and by doing so it gives us a glimpse into the kind of love God has for us.
Love that is far greater than a tithe. Folks we are in this together and if we have the kind of love that Ruth and Susan Rapp had then our witness to Christ here in our community shall never die. Amen
[i] Emily Susan Rapp, “Notes from a Dragon Mom.” NY Times, Oct 16, 2011, SR12.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/notes-from-a-dragon-mom.html?