Who am I if I’m not who I was?

Ruth 1:1-6,15-17                                     August 28, 2011

 I’m curious if we have any Elvis fans here this morning. Raise your hand if you would consider yourself a fan of Elvis!

I’m not a big Elvis fan, but I have always been fascinated by the following that he developed and the fame that he picked up throughout his career. To be honest, I’ve never really understood how a guy in a white leisure suit turned into such a rock star!

He’s like the icon of the American dream; fame, fortune, notoriety; he had it all according to how our world judges worth and value.

We drove through Memphis a few years ago, and we pulled into Graceland, Elvis’s mansion where he lived and died. We decided not to buy tickets to get in, but even from the parking lot you can see that the Graceland mansion is the culmination of the American Dream.

Every year, thousands of people go there to pay homage to the King of Rock and Roll.

I’d guess that many go to Graceland just for a glimpse of a different life; a glimpse of where fame and fortune can take you.

I have a feeling that’s also the reason that so many people take it upon themselves every year to put on their own white leisure suit and impersonate Elvis from one stage to another, all around the world.

There are even fanatics who proclaim that “the king” is not dead, that they’ve seen him in truck stops and deli marts all through the south.

Well, whatever else we say about Elvis, we have to admit he’s got a devoted following.

His biggest fans are bound and determined to keep his memory alive.

When a loved one passes on, there are good, constructive, healthy ways to honor their memory.

But I’m not sure the Elvis fanatics are the best ones to learn from!

I think Ruth and Naomi are better teachers.

 We might not be facing the death of a spouse and our sons like Naomi did, but the end of summer is a good time to talk about transition nonetheless.

I’d like to suggest this morning that there are at least 2 ways to order your life in a time of transition.

The transition might be something like going back to school, or changing schools, or changing jobs. It might be more personal, like failing health, the loss of a loved one, or a diagnosis you were completely unprepared for.

The kind of transition I’m talking about this morning is anything that has you asking the question: “Who am I, if I’m not who I was?”

“Who am I, in this new place; this new stage of life; this foreign land?”

I’m sure there are many more ways to approach these questions, but this morning I want to talk about two.

The first one is denying what has happened, and living like it hasn’t happened or doesn’t matter. In some small way, fanatical Elvis devotees are a good example of this. Some act like he’s still alive.

“Denial” ain’t just a river in Egypt! 🙂 It’s not just for fanatics, either.

It can be as ridiculous as thinking you’ve seen Elvis walking around at Wal-Mart; or it can be as close to home as pretending like someone’s comment wasn’t hurtful, when it was.

It can be as funny as gyrating around on a stage in a sequined leisure suit thinking you’re pulling off the Elvis Act, and it can be as serious as putting a diagnosis, or a loss of life, or the loss of a job completely out of your mind.

It’s true, it can help you cope for a time, but it’s easy to stay there too long, getting nowhere.

Denial of the past leads nowhere except denial of the present.

And when you deny your present reality, you deny the future as well.

Like the Drama illustrated; it’s easy to join an adventure at the beginning, when everything is new and fresh and exciting.

It’s much harder to stay the course once the novelty has worn off.

It’s true in Marriage. It’s true in our career choices.

But nowhere is that truth more evident than in church!

Almost every adult here this morning, if not every adult here this morning, is here because of a choice you made earlier in your life. You made a commitment to Jesus.

You found your place in God’s story, and one way you’re acting on that commitment is by gathering with this body of believers on a regular basis.

For some of us, the novelty has worn off long ago. For others of us, it’s still fresh and new and exciting.

Some of us are jaded towards the whole thing; to the point that faith seems like an elaborate Elvis impersonation; where we’re all just trying to convince ourselves and everyone else that Jesus isn’t really dead! You might keep showing up, but you’re not really here.

This mentality is a kind of denial. You’re denying the present moment of its fullness.

In the story of Ruth, this would be Orpah; the daughter in law who chooses to go back to who she was, free and clear of previous commitments, denying who she was, and who she might become as well!

We can’t blame her; we do it almost every Sunday. We go back to our homes and our gods, free to be who we were before church happened.

The hard thing for me is that there is no judgment in this story for Orpah.

They weep, she kisses Naomi goodbye, and then she leaves.

It was the expected thing to do; it was probably the proper thing to do.

After all, in Moab, she might be able to find another husband. She might be able to regain the security that had died with her husband. She took the safe road.

We can’t blame her.

But the book isn’t about Orpah; it’s about Ruth.

Ruth, who’s beautifully poetic words continue to be taken out of context and spoken at Christian weddings even today: “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God.”

Ruth shows us the second, healthier, and more difficult way to deal with transition.

Instead of denying the past, she honors it.

If denying the past denies also the future, then honoring the past allows us to fully embrace the future; even though it’s still complete mystery!

You don’t honor the past by jumping ship or aborting mission.

You honor the past by engaging the present; right here, right now!

Change happens every day. Sometimes we choose it; other times we don’t.

Naomi changes her name to Mara because of how she felt treated by God.

The name “Naomi” means “Pleasant”. “Mara” means “Bitter”.

It’s a feeling we can all relate to. When the pleasant life we’ve always dreamed of passes away before our eyes; bitterness can soon follow.

It can settle in like cancer, and consume us from within. The evil of bitterness is that it WANTS to be our constant companion, and it feels so good in the moment.

But the truth is, that holding on to bitterness is like drinking poison in hopes that someone else will die. It does nobody any good; least of all yourself.

…Did you know that the name “Ruth” means “friend”, or “companion”?

Did you know she was a Moabite?

Thank God for the foreigners; the immigrants; the strangers who know how to walk with us.

Thank God for the ones who join together not through biology, but by deliberate choice.

Thank God for the ties that bind His people together stronger and deeper than even DNA. For therein lies our hope and our salvation and our security.

It’s not in a family name or in what we can produce by ourselves.

Our hope, our salvation, and our security; it’s all in God! But we need friends and companions to walk with us through the bitter times, the dark times when all else falls away.

But I’m not done with my Hebrew lesson yet!

In ancient Hebrew (the language the Old Testament was written in), the word for ‘bread’ has the same root as the word for struggle, or battle, or fight.

In fact, in the original Hebrew, the verb forms are identical.

You literally can’t tell the difference between “to fight, to make war” and “to eat, to consume”. Once you learn that, some of the Psalms become much more poetic.

They’re exactly the same word!

You have to figure it out using the context of the sentence.

See, in ancient times…actually, for the majority of human history, and for the majority of the world today, eating is struggle.

Finding food is a battle to be won, and this reality is reflected in the Hebrew language.

It’s a reality we aren’t familiar with, because for most of us, food is something we take for granted. We don’t think of eating as a privilege, or as a right, because eating is as natural to us as the act of breathing.

Well, the word that means bread and that also means struggle is “Lechem”.

And the word for house, or dwelling is “Beyt”.

You put those two together, and you get Beyt-Lechem; or Bethlehem.

House of Bread; or House of Struggle.

So the opening verses of Ruth depict a time when there was a famine in Bethlehem. The house of bread was empty, and Naomi’s life followed suit.

We can learn a lot from this story, no matter what transition you’re facing this fall.

See, in any transition we go through, we have a choice to make.

We can either deny what’s happening and live our life like Orpah, or we can accept the help of the stranger; the Ruths in our lives who are committed to us, not because of biology or DNA, but by their deliberate choice to move fully into God’s future because of the past.

Naomi had to bury Elimelech in order to move on with her life.

Ruth had to bury her husband, Orpah had to bury hers.

They were united by grief if nothing else; but the love that Ruth shows Naomi speaks of a commitment beyond the grief.

And it’s that commitment that brings fulfillment. Not right away, but it does come.

Peace comes to her house because of the faithful actions of Naomi’s companion.

Ruth refuses to be sent back to her people and her gods. Ruth knew who she was in light of her past and her present. She knew that because of the God she now served, and the commitment she had made, there was no way but forward. She couldn’t go back, like Orpah did, denying the past that brought her to this point.

That’s the same choice that’s open for each of us to make today.

Whether yours is a house of bread or a house of struggle, God is with you.

The choice is yours as it always has been; go back to who you were, or live with the question; “Who am I, if I’m not who I was?”

May God bless our journey.

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