Sermons That Work

The Family Album, Proper 23 (C) – 2001

October 14, 2001

Today, let’s talk about family albums, including the one all of us share. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A prized possession for many families is their photo album. I am sure that many of us have photo albums, or collections of slides or videos, that are important to us. A family album can include several generations, and bring to mind relatives and places we can hardly identify. “Oh, that’s my grandmother’s cousin, the one who died in the First World War,” we might say. The same album may hold photos that flood us with memories. “Oh, that was the Christmas when I was ten years old and got a train set, the set that’s up in the attic now.”

To browse through the family album can be a moving experience, and for several reasons. First, if your collection of photos is large enough, and goes back far enough, it is sure to include at least one real character. Every family has some, and certain families seem to specialize in them. Then, too, browsing through the album can be bittersweet. A picture of your great-grandfather when he was younger than you are now can tell you something of how short life is. Photos may show us with people we were once married to, but are no longer. They may portray a beloved child who grew into an adult with no sense of direction. An old family portrait may show a group of relatives who can never come together again in this life.

There is also something just plain unique about the family album. These photos are precious to us because they represent people with whom we share flesh and blood, name and ancestry, bed and board. They are not just any people; they are our people.

But to a stranger they are only a bunch of pictures. Unless, of course, they get that stranger talking about his or her own family. Then the grandmother fishes into her purse, the grandfather reaches for his wallet, and suddenly another bunch of family photos appears, with in-laws to be talked about and babies admired.

Today we do what we do every Sunday: we browse through the family album of God’s people. That album is the Bible. Like any self-respecting family album, it includes some real characters. Unforgettable ones like Jonah and Peter and Mary Magdalene. And browsing through this album can also be bittersweet. Adam and Eve get kicked out of the garden. King David takes another man’s wife and arranges the husband’s murder. People make life miserable for the prophets, who in turn are quick to tell them off.

There is also something just plain unique about this album. To us, the portraits it contains are not a bunch of strangers. They are people with whom we share a common life. They are our family. Sometimes their exploits make us blush, sometimes they make us cheer, but we cannot disown these people without disowning ourselves.

The Bible is a family album like any other, yet one feature makes it stand out. It is that the bittersweet does not remain forever. Yes, there are tragedies: anguish, violence, folly, and all the rest. But what’s odd is that, more often than not, out of the muck grows new life. The disasters are real, and they hurt, but they do not have the last word.

One album page that is before us today starts out happily enough. There’s a picture of Elimelech and Naomi, shortly after their move from Judah to Moab. With them are their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. In the next picture, though, Elimelech is gone, Naomi is a widow, and the boys are fatherless. The boys grow up and marry local women, Orpah and Ruth. But eventually Mahlon and Chilion die also, so that now there are three widows left. The future appears bleak for them.

Old Naomi decides to return home to Judah, and advises the two young women to go back to their families and look for new husbands among their own people. But they want to go to Judah with her. Naomi is able to persuade Orpah otherwise, but Ruth insists on remaining with her mother-in-law, come what may.

Ruth has no ulterior or hidden motive in doing this. Life with Naomi will be hard, for she is a poor widow, consigned to the margins of society, and there in Judah, Ruth will be far from all that is familiar to her. But Ruth is devoted to her mother-in-law. It’s not that Naomi is always easy to be around. She sometimes vents the misery she feels over the loss of her husband and her sons. Yet Ruth remains loyal to her.

In time Ruth does find herself a husband in Judah in a most unlikely way. You can read about this yourself, and if you do, I think you will be delighted. The Book of Ruth is an enjoyable short story. The final photo on the album page shows the wedding of Ruth and Boaz. Everyone lives happily ever after.

But something more remains to be said. Many of the people in Judah looked down their noses at Moabites. They considered a marriage like that of Boaz and Ruth to be, well, not quite kosher. By way of rebuttal, we hear that Ruth and Boaz had a son named Obed, who in turn had a son named Jesse. This Jesse had a son named David, whom God chose to be Israel’s king.

King David with a Moabite ancestor! Maybe those Moabites aren’t so bad after all! But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Turning to another section of the family album, we find that many generations later, a descendant of King David named Joseph took as his betrothed a woman named Mary, who gave birth to a child named Jesus.

All this requires a bit of flipping in the album, but it’s worth knowing about Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and what it led to generations later at Bethlehem. As we go back for a moment to the snapshot of Ruth trudging off into the distance after Naomi, we can pause to draw courage from her example. The next time our loyalty invites us somewhere our self-centeredness would not have us go, we should consider that following our loyalty may, like Ruth’s decision, make a unique contribution to the salvation of the world in ways we cannot begin to understand.

That loyalty should have such an important role seems natural enough. After all, when everything’s said and done, the world’s salvation is nothing less than the love story of a family, told in an album that has room for all our portraits.

I have spoken these words to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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Christopher Sikkema


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