Sermon November 8, 2015
Ruth 1:1-18, Mark 12:38-44
“Pay it Forward”
I went to visit my parents last month and spent some time cleaning out their attic. I brought down several boxes of pictures. My dad is the only one of his generation in a fairly small family. He was identifying people in pictures and I had this sinking feeling that people would be lost when my dad dies. We didn’t know much of our extended family, but I was very close to my grandmother and that relationship profoundly impacted who I am today. The opportunity to love and be loved by my grandmother is one of the greatest gifts in my life. Our conversation in text study this week gravitated to generations taking care of each other. How many of you grew up in families with multiple generations in one house? I would love to hear some of your stories. One of the gifts of the church is that it is a truly intergenerational place. We have the opportunity to know and love several generations in one place. In an era when families live in several states, this is a gift.
This week I heard that StoryCorps has a project coming up called The Great Thanksgiving Listen. They are working with educators to get teenagers to interview grandparents and other elders to capture their stories. How many of you have ever heard of StoryCorps? StoryCorps is an American non-profit organization whose mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs. We have our own version of StoryCorps here in the form of the Sharing Our Stories series that Beth Benderman has put together. Beth wanted to help our youth and older adults connect. She knew there were some amazing stories there and she wanted to build relationships and help those stories continue. We have had three Sharing our Stories forums so far: In February, we had members tell stories for Black History Month, in May we invited Authors to tell stories, and in October, we invited Long Time Members to tell memories of the church through the years. Tom Stuart is also helping us capture stories in his work on our church’s history. It has been fun to learn about the origins of this church. Knowing where we came from inspires us to carry on the legacy that has been entrusted to us.
I took a class on Biblical Storytelling in seminary where we learned Bible stories and told them. It really helped bring the stories alive. The oral culture is diminished in this age of technology. We rarely get together and just talk to one another. One of the richest parts of my work is hearing stories and having real conversations whether they are one on one or in small groups. This afternoon Albuquerque Interfaith will be here to do a training event to show us ways for us to communicate about the things that really matter to us. I know some of you are planning to be there. I welcome anyone who has interest in this because I believe it is a vital way for us to engage and move forward. We need to take the time to really know each other, to listen to one another and that will lead us to care for one another in powerful ways.
The story of Ruth and Naomi begins with a famine in the land. Naomi’s husband and her two sons have died, leaving behind three widows. Naomi decides to return to her homeland in search of food. Widows were the poorest and most vulnerable in that society. Naomi tells Ruth and Orphah to return to their homes, but Ruth who is a Moabite chooses to go with her Hebrew mother-in-law knowing that she may not be accepted in Judah. We don’t know all the reasons she goes, but the word hesed is used. Hesed means steadfast love. It is often a word used to describe the way God relates to people. Ruth insists on staying with Naomi. Ruth’s statement to Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” is often read at weddings to illustrate the loving commitment that the couple is making to one another. The most powerful way to illustrate the love of God is through relationships. My best glimpses of God’s love have come through people who have shown profound love to me.
Both of the readings today feature women who are living their faith in concrete ways. God is not mentioned in this passage from Ruth, but God is visible in the love between Ruth and Naomi.
In text study someone asked if the story of the woman and the two coins was about paying it forward. I found myself wondering if both of these are examples of women showing us how to pay forward God’s love. In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, "You don't pay love back; you pay it forward." Ruth shows us how to pay it forward through relationships and caring for someone she loved. The woman in Mark’s gospel pays it forward by giving away all she had. This story is another one that is easy to write off and say, “that’s not me. I could never give away everything I have.”
But think about it: how do you show your love? When we love, don’t we do tangible things to show we care? Don’t we find ourselves giving what we have to show our love? How do we show that we love God? Don’t we do that with concrete acts of love and giving to the people around us? When we give to the church, isn’t that a way of saying we love God and we want to live that love in real ways?
The church becomes a vehicle to express our love for God. Here we offer our gifts and talents and discover that we can build something lasting as we come together. We are building a community that heals and transforms.
The woman in Mark made an impression because she gave out of her poverty rather than from her wealth. She discovered that giving would set her free.
Henri Nouwen tells a story about a woman brought to a psychiatric center. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin, which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear. (http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2006/06/First-Unclench-Your-Fists.aspx#c5xMLTmdUiC50Ytb.99)
Both Ruth and the woman in Mark trusted that they could take the next risky step and God would be with them. There were no guarantees that if Ruth followed Naomi or the woman gave her coins away they would be ok, but they took that big, scary step anyway trusting in more than themselves. I wonder if that is what holds us back sometimes. We know that trusting in ourselves is risky and we assume that must be what it is like to trust God. But the risk these women took was a risk of paying it forward and giving what they had for the ones who would come after them.
Many of us know the phrase Pay it Forward from the movie by the same name. The movie teaches us to do three good deeds for others in response to a good deed that one receives. In this way, the practice of helping one another can spread through society, at a ratio of three to one, creating a social movement with an impact of making the world a better place.
But the roots of Pay it Forward go back much further. It was used in a play from ancient Athens in 317 BC; however, the text of the play was lost and it was only recovered and republished in 1957.
The concept was rediscovered and described by Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Webb dated April 25, 1784:
“I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands... This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pay_it_forward)
What we do as people of faith is a kind of paying it forward. We are embracing the love of God and rather than holding on tight, we are releasing it into the world. That’s what the life of faith is all about.