Nov. 1, 2009
"Moving Forward with God"
Rev. George N. Miller
"Go back!" These words are spoken 12 times in the first chapter of Ruth. But Ruth chooses instead to press on-wards, and as she travels forward to her destiny, she and the people of God would never be the same.
Good morning and greetings. It’s an honor to be here today. I give thanks to God, this church, your pastor and the search committee.
I’m originally from Long Island and have lived all over the country, currently residing in Grand Rapids, MI. So stories involving travel have a special place in my heart.
The last church I was at last closed in July, and I’ve been in the Search and Call process. It’s a unique time. The first few weeks were spent creating a personal profile, looking through church listings, reading e-mails.
Then things slowed down, and there hasn’t been much else to do but wait, and pray; wait, and catch up on TV shows; wait, and sleep, and wait some more. Ya’ll get the idea.
During all this waiting I’ve done some major fall cleaning, donating, recycling and throwing objects away.
I can’t believe how much I’ve held on to. Not just suits that no longer fit, but items with emotional and historical symbolism. You know what I mean: a broken coffee cup that was a gift from my sister. An address book that was my Grandpa’s.
All these items from the past crowding my present, that are in some ways holding me up from my future. Why? Why am I holding onto them?
My subconscious is also doing it’s own fall cleaning. 3 weeks ago I dreamt my friends moved away to get their PhDs. I was invited to go with them, but with all their classes and homework I didn’t see them that much.
I woke up emotionally charged. My dream’s meaning was so clear: I felt like everyone else had moved on and I was stuck in the past, clinging to the what-were-bees instead of actively pursuing the what-can-bees.
So imagine my delight when I looked at the suggested readings for today. The first one listed was Ruth, about a person who lost everything, was given the chance to go back to the security of her past, but instead said "No, I will move forward, and I will go with God."
That morning, I believed God was speaking directly to me through this scripture, but more then that: I felt as though everyone who is present today was ministering to me and continuing my healing process.
God is amazing. And God is so good. Can I get an amen? Amen indeed.
Let’s a take a look at today’s scripture. It begins with sorrow and loss. A famine causes a family to move. Naomi’s husband dies, then her sons.
Imagine being Naomi. Gone is the man she was supposed to grow old with. Gone are the sons who were supposed to care for her in her old age.
Gone are the chances of having grandchildren. Losing the present is bad enough, but just as painful is losing the future that was yet to be.
The famine in Bethlehem has ended, giving Naomi a reason to physically leave her sadness behind. So she begins to travel with her daughters-in-law.
Three widows who’s only bond is the men they have lost.
But eventually Naomi stops and says "Go back. Go back to the security of your mother’s home. Go back and find yourself a nice man to marry. Go back and don’t go with me." After much weeping, one of the women does go back.
But Ruth chooses to stay.
Almost 3,000 years before Gloria Steinem and Women’s Lib, Ruth decides that instead of going back to become someone’s possession, she would instead press onward to an uncertain future where the only guarantee was that life would be different and difficult.
She bravely says to Naomi "I refuse to go back. I am going ahead, with you. I will stay with you, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God."
By choosing to move forward, by choosing to journey with the God of freedom, justice and new beginnings, Ruth was making a choice to unstick her feet from the security of sameness, propelling her and the people of God into the future.
For it was Ruth who became the mother of Obed. Which makes her the great-ancestor of Kind David, of a carpenter named Joseph and a man we know as Jesus Christ, bringing salvation not only to her family but to the entire world.
On a more personal note: Ruth gave Naomi the grandchild thought to have been lost forever.
And so Ruth becomes a symbol for us that as safe as staying in the past may seem, we are meant to be ever-forward moving people, traveling with God.
Scripture testifies to this. As does the life of Jesus, as does our denomination’s history.
Look at the Creation Stories: there’s a process. God does not see a dark void and poof!- there’s creation. No. First God says "Let there be light." Then as each day unfolds God does something else new: sky and waters, birds and fish.
Even the creation of humanity is a multi-step process involving mud and breathe, sleep and surgery.
Think of Exodus. God frees the Israelites and when they came across an impassable sea, God helps them cross over. When they express a desire to return to Egypt, God finds a way to sustain them so they could press onward to the Promised Land.
Again and again the Bible introduces us to people who opt for the uncertain future rather then a pacifying past. This culminates in Ruth’s descendent, Jesus Christ.
When John called for redemption, Jesus stepped up to be baptized. While in the wilderness he moved beyond temptation.
Jesus didn’t minister to the woman at the well by sitting amongst broken tea cups but by being out and about, going where the people were, pushing their comfort zones, all for the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Even when moving forward lead to a cross, Jesus found a way to do it, didn’t he? He could have said "No thanks", went back to living life as everyone one else did, maintaining the status quo.
But he didn’t. Jesus moved ahead. And even the cross couldn’t stop him, as Christ arose on Easter Sunday and on Pentecost his Spirit fueled the beginnings of the Christian church.
As memory-keepers of brave folk like Ruth, we are all called to be forward moving people as well.
Our denomination’s history verifies this.
When those in Europe felt persecuted, they moved onward to the Americas. When Antoinette Brown felt a calling to ministry we become the first church to ordain a woman.
And when the first person of color was elected as President of the United States, we claimed that it was in a UCC church that he worshiped and came to his own understanding of social justice.
As individuals we should be proud that we can call bold women such as Ruth as one of our own.
As Christians we should never forget that our Savior moved forward at all times, for your sake and for mine.
As members of the UCC we celebrate that God is Still Speaking and that we are encouraged to move ahead even when others want to dig their heels into the past.
From Creation to Exodus, from Resurrection to Pentecost, God moves forward in a spirit of newness, taking the past, bringing it into the present to bless the unknowable future.
We are invited to make that journey with God. To honor and respect our heritage, but to not be enslaved to it.
We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be active particpants, stepping into the future of God and of God’s people.
When we do so, who knows what we’ll help give birth to, who knows what future blessings will be traced to our bold acts.
Because when we decide to move forward with God, we are stepping into a future rich with possibilities; a future in which we have a chance to become a better version of ourselves.
Yes, when someone takes the uncalculated risk to move ahead, there will be risks and losses. Those are guaranteed.
But there is also the possibility of gains, of spiritual riches, and of creating a more healthy and inclusive community.
Of discovering that even though the world may say "no" God finds a way to say "yes."
In conclusion, as we are forever in the presence of our founding church family, and of the likes of Jesus and Moses, Naomi and Ruth, who all found ways to walk along, sail upon and march into the currents of change.
They were most certainly nervous and afraid. But they were never alone; for they were with God.
And as we move into the future, we are not alone either, as their memories linger with us, ushering us further into the future of God’s Kingdom in which there is freedom and justice for all.
"Go back"? No, we can’t go back. Because we have been called by God to move ahead.
We may not always know where we are going, but we know where we have been, and we know just who’s we are.
And that is enough for anyone to take the first step.
Let us give thanks to the Spirit that guides us, Christ who walks beside us and God who calls us into being better people.
Amen and amen.