Friday, November 7, 2014

All That the Lord Has Spoken (Exodus 19:1-9; Ruth 1:15-22) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

There is a long time rivalry in college basketball between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.  A story is told that at one of the games between the two schools, an elderly woman was sitting alone in the Rupp Arena, in Lexington KY, with an empty seat next to her.  A stranger approached her and said, "Ma'am, I have rarely seen an empty seat in Rupp Arena, let alone at a game between these two teams.  Whose seat is this?"  The woman responded that she and her late husband had been season-ticket holders for 28 years, were loyal supporters of the Kentucky Wildcats, and the seat had belonged to him.  "Well, couldn't you find a friend or relative to come to the game with you?" the man asked.   "Not tonight" she replied. "They're all at my husband's funeral.”

Honoring promises and commitments, maintaining loyalties, is fundamental to what it means to being a human being, as well as to the normal functioning of a society.  Broadly speaking, we are members of a social contract between government or the state and the individual.  It is a tenuous agreement framed in the rule of law.  This social contract sets forth the rights and freedoms of the one and the many.  We individuals agree to surrender certain freedoms and to submit to the authority of government in exchange for securing economic, political and social order, preserving basic freedoms and rights, and guaranteeing protection from danger, both from within and from abroad.  This social contract is fundamental to the stability and welfare of our nation.  

I think of a classic contract, our United States Constitution and Bill of Rights – “We the people of the US in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” 

The social contract or covenant between government and people, is great in theory, until we get down to debating specifics about how much power the government has, what is legitimate power and what is over-reaching power, and what individual freedoms and rights should be protected.   Our democratic system works pretty well when people voluntarily, by their moral will, are committed to and obey the laws of the land. 

But public trust in our government and in politicians is extremely low today as we know.  And if a majority of people were to violate the social contract or break the covenant, our way of life, as we know it, would vanish.   We could not hire enough cops to protect us.   I also think of the current ebola scare.  Here is an illustration of the social contract debate between the personal freedom and rights of returning health care workers vs the health and safety of the public. 

Which leads us to our biblical lessons that describe two different covenants.   In our story from the book of Exodus, Moses is leading the Israelites in their flight from slavery in Egypt, and after three months in the wilderness, they reach Mt. Sinai, in the south-central Sinai peninsula.  And there God makes a covenant with the people of Israel.  God instructs Moses: “Tell the people you have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself.  Now if they obey my voice and keep my covenant, they shall be my treasured possession of all the peoples of the whole earth, a holy nation.  And in response the people reply – “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  On that day, on a mountain in the wilderness, a sacred covenant between God and the people of Israel was established.

In the book of Ruth, we hear a narrative of both personal tragedy and hope in God.  We meet a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi.  Naomi and her husband, Elimelech depart from Bethlehem, in Judah, because of a famine in the land and make the sojourn to the country of Moab, known today as part of modern Jordan, to begin a new life.

Sadly, tragedy strikes the family.  Naomi’s husband, Elimelech dies, and then some years later, her two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, who had married Moabite women, also die.  That left Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.  Naomi tries to persuade her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and Orpah decides to return home.  But Ruth is determined to stay with her mother-in-law.  She loved her and was committed to her.  Ruth pledges her loyalty in the famous words from this story: “Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”   And God's purpose for the future of the people of Israel unfolds as the story of Ruth continues.

Commitments and promises!  People make commitments to the constitution and to this nation when they join the military.   We make commitments to our family, to our spouse, to our children and grandchildren, to friendships, to our jobs, to the community in which we live, to creation, to care for the environment, in which God has placed us.   We make a commitment as citizens on election day coming up on Tuesday November 4.

Think of someone who made a promise to you and kept it?  How did that impact you?  Think of someone who broke a promise to you?  How did that affect you?   Think of a promise you have kept.  Do you recall a promise you have broken? 

Scripture is clear that making and honoring our commitments builds character, the character God desires for each one of us.  And despite our instant gratification culture, character takes time to build.  And because of the choices we make, it takes more time for some than for others.  Honoring commitments builds endurance and discipline and trust and patience and faithfulness.  Honoring commitments speaks volumes about our values and about our faith. 

Yes, you have broken commitments and promises in your life.  And so have I.  That's when we fall to our knees, confess to God and to the person our contrition, ask for forgiveness and pray for God's help to make it right.  Now that's character.   And we turn to God because God is merciful and His mercy can change our lives. 

According to the Bible, honoring promises is the secret to a joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful life.  It is not necessarily the easiest path, but it is the right path.   It is the difference between depth and shallowness in a person.  It is a key spiritual value.    Yes, some people today are afraid of making promises.  Is our society becoming commitment adverse.  I sometimes wonder.   

Like Octavio Guillen and Adriana Martinez who came to America from Mexico.  Octavio popped the question and Adriana said yes. That was in 1902 when they were both 15-years-old. But one of them couldn't quite decide, so they kept putting off the wedding day. They finally got married in 1969 when they were both 82.  It took Octavio and Adriana 67 years to decide to get married.  Now that is a long engagement.

God wants His people, God wants you and me, to be people who make and honor commitments and promises.   Romans 6:13 says: “Give yourselves completely to God, every part of you.  You want to be tools in the hands of God to be used for His good purposes.

God has made an everlasting covenant with us, with you and to me.  John 3:16 says:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

And as believers, we, in response, make a promise to Christ.  For instance, when you join the church, you make a promise to Jesus Christ and to your spiritual brothers and sisters in the congregation.  You answer four questions – Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior?  Do you trust in Him?

Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word and show his love? Will you be a faithful member of this church, worshipping regularly, giving of your time, talents and money in Christ’s ministry, seeking the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?  It is a covenant between you, God and the people of God to witness to Christ in your daily life.

Why be committed to God? Because God knows what’s best for our lives, because God has shaped us  for His purpose, because commitment expresses our gratitude to God for our salvation, because our character is forged and formed by the promises and commitments we keep, and because God promises to reward commitment.  Yes, God will bring us blessings and benefits, when we put God first and seek his will in our lives.

Marie Florian, a Stephen Minister from Eaton Rapids, MI makes this promise to those to whom she ministers.   It is truly a beautiful covenant.  “I’ll do my best to listen, should you want to bare your soul, while you sort through facts and feelings; Yes, I’ll gladly play this role.  I’ll be a friend to count on and I’ll try to understand.  You are a sacred trust to me, while you’re placed within my hand.  And should you need reminding, just to set your heart at ease, your words are very safe with me; you can say whatev’er you please.  Don’t feel you are a burden, for I want to share your load, and together in the valley we’ll seek for a better road.  I give my solemn promise that I’ll hold you up in prayer; I’ll lift you to the throne of God, my friend, I truly care.”

Today is our Day of Commitment to God, our congregation and the community for 2015.   Jesus asks us to commit not only a portion of our money, but beyond that, our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls, our abilities and talents and our prayers and faith.  May we, like the Israelites on Mr. Sinai, declare these words - “Everything that the Lord has spoken we shall do.”  Amen!

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