A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 6, 2017
Ruth 1:1-19a GNT
The month of July was a month of journeys for me. That was the way I chose to spend much of my sabbatical-vacation time.
For those who might be interested (and those who aren’t interested can nap or meditate for a couple of minutes), my journeys began with a Route 66 road trip with our soon-to-be, 11-year-old grandson, Josiah. Early Sunday morning, July 10, he and I set off from Brentwood to Chicago, where we spent the night in a guest room at the Quaker House in Hyde Park, a place where I had stayed some 14 years ago while I worked on my doctor of ministry degree. After a day of fun in Chicago, we found the “Begin Route 66” sign on Adams Street in downtown Chicago, and drove every mile of Route 66 across Illinois and into St Louis, where we enjoyed another day of fun before returning home.
The following weekend, Mary Lou and I journeyed to Townsend, and on Sunday morning we attended the outdoor “church of God,” better known as Clingman’s Dome.
The next weekend Mary Lou and I both drove to Brentwood where we spent the night with our daughter’s family. The next morning we flew to Colorado where we journeyed through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Four Corners (the only place in the country where four states come together at one point), journeyed through Mesa Verde National Park and toured several cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people, and journeyed up to Pikes Peak, which boasts an elevation of 14,115 feet and the highest railway in the world. Then on the last day of our Colorado journeys, we toured Castlewood State Park. During the month of July, I drove over 3,600 miles, not counting the flight miles to Denver.
To say that I enjoyed all of these sabbatical journeys would be a gross understatement. During that time I saw some breathtaking natural landscapes, beautiful wildflowers, and captivating wildlife, including elk, deer, moose, longhorn sheep, a coyote, and a black bear.
But as rich as those experiences were, they were made all the richer by having a companion to journey with me. Had I taken all those journeys alone, the experiences would have been oh, so much poorer.
That is a point that came home to me this past month – life experiences and journeys are nothing apart from the relationships with those who journey with you. How fortunate I was to have perfect traveling companions for all my sabbatical journeys. Josiah and I were alone on the road together for a total of 1199 miles, spread over four days. Not once during that time did he whine or complain or object to any suggestion I made. He was the perfect traveling companion, and I told him so a number of times. The Route 66 journey was made so much richer because of his presence and the close relationship that we share.
Likewise, the other journeys I enjoyed were made so much richer by having Mary Lou as a traveling companion and the relationship we share. I wouldn’t even have thought about heading to Colorado alone. Though the Colorado landscapes are breathtaking, the journey was much more rewarding for having her along as a traveling companion.
Well, there is a deeper truth at work here, a truth we see in the beautiful story of Naomi and Ruth. Now, we cannot be absolutely sure that this story is 100% historic fact, in every respect, at least. Nevertheless, the story is true in many ways.
A curious thing about this little story is it is one of the most widely drawn from passages in marriage ceremonies. But the story is not about a husband and wife, but about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
For today’s purposes, Ruth and Naomi find themselves on a journey. They had found themselves in extremely difficult circumstances. Naomi had lost her husband and both of her sons to death. Ruth had lost her husband as well, who was Naomi’s son. They were left to fend for themselves as two widowed women in a foreign land.
So together Naomi and Ruth decide to set forth on a journey to Israel, Naomi’s homeland, in hopes they can start a new life there. That is what they do – they journey to Bethlehem together.
But the important point not to be missed today in this delightful story is the relationship that binds Naomi and Ruth together. Though they were not blood kin, these two were inseparable. “Don’t ask me to leave you! Let me go with you,” Ruth pleads. “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried. May the Lord’s worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!” What beautiful, powerful words!
As a side note, in the first church I served right out of seminary, it was surprising to me that two of the most active members who attended church together were a mother-in-law and daughter in-law. Like Naomi and Ruth, Vada and Melva had both lost their husbands (the father and son), but their relationship was so good that they continued to live in the same house, attend church together, and travel together. I remember once when I was visiting in their home, they gladly told me of their recent journey together to Hawaii. A modern day example of Naomi and Ruth, they were.
Relationship – the journey to Bethlehem would have been nothing apart from the relationship that bound Naomi and Ruth together.
And that is the way with the journey of life. The one essential thing, the bottom line in the endeavor of life, is relationships. If we don’t have meaningful relationships and traveling companions, then the journey of life means nothing, or “isn’t worth squat,” if you will pardon my language. As Henri Nouwen put it, “Friendship has always belonged to the core of my spiritual journey.”
And so, it seems to me that one of the most important tasks that fall to all of us is to cherish, nurture, be grateful for, and to strengthen all the relationships in our lives.
What does this mean? It means to make a friend we have to be a friend. It means truly loving those around us and letting them know we love them by all we do and say. It means being kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more understanding, and more helpful.
The importance of relationships and companions on the journey becomes all the more apparent every time we lose another beloved member of this United Church, as has been the case the past two weeks with the untimely passing of Delores. Delores’s passing has affected all of us who knew her. This experience has caused us all to realize just how much Delores and our relationship with her meant to us. It has reminded us of how important are those personal encounters – those parting words and parting hugs. Did we share a hug the last time we were together? we are wont to ask ourselves. Did I say “I love you”? upon parting? Did that person really know how I felt about her or him?
And then on the happier side, the importance of relationships and companions on the journey of life became apparent yesterday as we celebrated the marriage of Rachel and Corentin. I know how much they appreciated all the United Church members who came to celebrate with them and congratulate them on this joyous milestone of life.
We have heard it said, “Life is about the journey, not the destination;” or something like that. Such is true. Life IS all about the journey. But the journey is meaningless apart from our companions who journey with us and the relationships we share along the way.
So may we determine that we are going to be more mindful of, more grateful for, and more considerate of the relationships of all those important people in our lives with whom we share this journey of life. May it be so. Amen.