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Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Right Of Redemption…Is Yours

Jeremiah 32: 1-15

Charles J. Tomlin, June 27th, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 12/20


Jeremiah 32:1–15 (NRSV): The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; 4 King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face and see him eye to eye; 5 and he shall take Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall remain until I attend to him, says the Lord; though you fight against the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed?” 

6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 

9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

This is a story about hope; that is ‘buying’ or ‘purchasing’ hope.  What can that mean?  

Of course, we live in a world where it you can buy almost anything.   If you have the money, good credit, and the desire, you can buy all kinds of stuff; practically anything you want.  And you don’t even have to leave your home.  Just ‘click’ and a couple of days later, it will be on your door step. You can buy friends; many people you might call ‘friends’ can be bought with money.   You can also buy power, prestige, sex too.  We see too much of that, don’t we?   You can even buy more money too.  As my Dad always said, ‘If you’ve got money, you can make money.’  

The sky’s the limit to what people can purchase and own today.   But of course, there’s an illusion here too.  As the Beatles used to sing,  ‘Money can’t buy me love’, no, no, nooo!  In other words, even in a ‘money, money, money, rich man’s world, there are still some very important things money can’t buy.  

Besides, ‘true love’, money can’t buy things like time.  You might extend your life by having resources that money can buy, but you still can’t extend your life by one single millisecond.  Also, you can’t buy things like peacetalenttrue friendsexperiences, happiness or truth, and you can’t really buy hope either.

But, even though you can’t actually buy ‘hope’, you can, as the prophet Jeremiah is instructed to do, buy something that reminds you to have hope, points to hope,  symbolizes hope, or gives you a hope for the future,

In fact, you might not actually get to have this future, as is what happened in Jeremiah’s case, but he still was able have hope, whether or not this hope was ever actually realized in his own life.  Now listen to this:  He might not get to have what he hoped for, but he could still have hope.

Now, I know that’s bit complicated, so let’s try to look closer. We must think about what this means, because if we ever need to know how to find anything, we need a way to find and have hope.  



Interestingly, this biblical story that teaches that a word of hopefulness came in a moment of great ‘hopeLESSness.   

This ‘word’ came to the prophet during during the siege and eventual downfall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.  Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzer II had Jerusalem surrounded with his army and was going to invade and destroy the capital city, taking its key inhabitants into exile.  

All this happened because the of Israel, King Zedekiah  was preparing to align with Egypt, which the prophet of God had advised against.   

It was in this period of impending doom, which took about three years to finally take place, God commanded the prophet Jeremiah to do a very strange thing.  He was to go out and purchase the ‘deed’ to some of his relatives land in the countryside of the land of Benjamin, where Jerusalem was located.  

Then, as a result of this transaction, probably made when property values were plummeting, Jeremiah would be able to take this deed with, when he was taken away into exile in Babylon. 

This deed would be mean much more just a deed to land.  This would become a constant reminder to him that one day, the people, his people would return.  Life was falling apart now, but one day, ‘houses, fields, and vineyards’ would be ‘bought again, in the land’ .  

Do you see what God was doing, through Hanamel, Jeremiah’s uncle?   God was making this material deed to property, not only a deed to a piece of land, but this was to become a deed to hope.  

We certainly all need ‘deeds’ to our hope, too, don’t we?   Hope is the one thing that a human being has a hard time living without.   

As Victor Frankl, the famous Jewish psychiatrist, who survived the senseless horrors of the Holocaust wrote from his own experience, ‘The one who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’  In other words, when we have hope, we can withstand almost anything.

We need reminders that we can have hope, even in the midst of difficult times, that one day, this will all be over.   We especially have needed this in times of this Coronavirus, haven’t we?

As we watch the end of life, as we have known it, we need to find hope that someway, some day, we will survive, and life will return to some kind of ‘normalcy’.  

If you saw the play, “Hamilton” that last year, was released to stream on the  Disney Channel, perhaps as a token of hope too, you will recall that in that musical, King George of England shows up a couple of times.  Hearing that the colonies have decided to break away from with a Revolution,  He sings a funny song.  He sings, alone and straight to the audience;

‘You'll be back, soon you'll see,  You'll remember you belong to me.  You'll be back, time will tell,  You'll remember that I served you well.’   Perhaps you saw it.  It was hilarious.

Not long after that, during the beginning of the Pandemic, an Episcopal Priest in Deep South Georgia, watched the musical with his daughter.  The talented pastor and priest got then wrote and performed a parody on this song, singing to the spiritual exile that he, and his own congregation at St. Ann’s Church in Tifton, we’re in, like we’ve were in.

He sang, “You’ll be back, soon you’ll see, Just remember how it used to be.You’ll be back, time will tell, when we’ve kicked this virus back to Hell!

You should go to YouTube and watch it.  When Rev. Lonnie Lacy sings and even dances all dressed in his high, holy, Priestly garb it’s so ridiculously funny; it’s humorous, it’s hilarious, but most of all, it’s very, very, HOPEFUL.

I especially love one line he sings about the future:  “When we finally open the door, and get back together, we’ll BE BETTER THAN WE EVER WERE BEFORE.    

This is what Jeremiah’s ‘DEED to HOPE’ was all about.   It’s was God’s way of pointing Jeremiah, and all the people, to the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of hope.    This ‘pointer’ to hope comes across distinctly, not only as something we human’s can have, but hope is something we ‘must’ have; in words ever American would clearly understand, Jeremiah’s uncle tells Him, hope is a ‘right’; ‘the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ (Jer. 32:7)

Did you catch that: ‘THE RIGHT…IS YOURS!.   ‘Right’ is a special word, full of meaning for us.  

Next Sunday is the 4th of July, when we celebrate our country’s independence.   It was an unforgettable day of hope when our American forefather’s believed, risked their lives, and were willing to ‘pay’ for with their lives, if necessary, for what they believed was ‘THE RIGHT’ of a people  to have FREEDOM.   Freedom was their HOPE.

As we all know, Freedom is core value that the American Declaration of Independence and the US ‘Constitution’ is about.  These great documents , along with the Bill if Rights, were their ‘deeds’ to hope, and are still deeds to hope for millions. 

Interestingly, our American forefathers had different interpretations about their hope of freedom, just like we still do do, but they all shared the same basic, core deed of hope, which was based upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’  

It was James Madison who especially wanted to underscore American freedom called, The Bill of Rights, which began with the right of religious liberty.  This was especially important to him because early Baptists were being persecuted and jailed for their religious beliefs.  Madison wanted to underscore that ‘right’ as primary among all others.


Like Jeremiah, we humans have a ‘right’ to hope.  ForJeremiah this RIGHT was realized in Purchasing a DEED to family land, which could be redeemed or claimed when he returned from impending exile.    

That word ‘Redemption’, is an word seldom heard in polite conversation, yet is is everywhere, especially in books, and the movies.    In our minds, redemption is primarily a religious expression, going back to God redeeming Israel from slavery in Egypt or Jesus redeeming the world from our spiritual slavery to sin.  But in an increasingly secular world, it’s also important for us to gain an even bigger picture of human redemption.  In other words, redemption isn’t only religious idea, but it’s a human need, which is why it’s also part of religious hope.  


We human beings are religious creatures because we find ourselves in constant need of ‘getting our best lives back’.  That’s where the actual word ‘redeem ‘, comes from.  It literally means ‘to buy back’, as in purchasing a human being from slavery and setting them free to be who they can and should be.  

Speaking of redemption at the movies, which often refers to that fictional happy ending we often see, where everything gets back to normal after a crisis.   Finding Altamira, is a recent movie, based on the life of 19th Spanish archeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola.   While exploring a cave With his young daughter, she accidentally stumbled upon cave paintings that went back 30,000 years.  But when he attempted to report the discovery to a anthropology conference in Portugal, he was discredited as fraudulent, mostly because of professional jealousy.

 Sautuola went home broken, but was able to prove his finding was not a fraud, but it was too late.   It was only after his death that the Anthropological society came to ‘redeem’ him and his discovery as one of the archeological discoveries in Spanish history.   

Redemption was too late in Jeremiah’s life too.  But on the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction, God promises that someday, in the future, redemption will come.   God instructed Jeremiah to buy ‘hope’ through the purchase of deed of trust that one day, after time in exile; because Jeremiah has purchased ‘rights’ to this land, he can return, and will get back to his homeland again.   

To those who have faith in Jesus Christ, we too gain the ‘right’ to hope.  It is a ‘deed’ or right to hope that one day, in God’s future, we can fully redeem.  And as Paul calls it in his letters, we have a ‘down payment’, a guarantee.  When we receive the Spirit in our hearts, as we come to know God’s love, we have obtained the promise of new life and renewed hope. 



Finally, by purchasing a deed to family land at Anaototh, Jeremiah is told that now, in his own hands, he holds the ‘deed to hope’.   The ‘right’ of ‘redemption’ belongs to him.   

We too, must do our own part in purchasing hope for ourselves, making sure that it happens in our hearts even when it’s not happening in the world around us.   

We certainly can’t always change our circumstances, can we?   Sometimes we have to live in a kind of spiritual exile, away what we should have a right too.   Think about it.  When we become sick, we can’t wait to be ourselves again.  We are in ‘exile’ away from our best selves.  It also happens when our worlds are turned upside down, for whatever the reason.   

Whether it the illness of a loved one, a job loss, a problem in the life of a child—-for many reasons, the stability of our lives can be threatened and it can feel as if we are living another life, away from what we had hoped or expect.  We  live in exile, but we have to find a way to have hope, that one day, we can return to life we need or have dreamed about.  

But to participate in this hope, we must find ways to hold on to hope, to keep hope alive, or make hope happen, like cooking ‘from scratch’ rather than only living from a ready-made recipe.  

Going back to the story of the life of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the archeologist from Altimara, Spain, it’s what he did after he came home devastated that was most important.  The grounds for rejecting Marcelino’s findings was that there were no candle light smoke stains in the cave. Had the paintings been genuine, it was argued, ancient people’s would have had left evidence of candle fire on the dark cave ceilings.  When this doubt was raised, Marcelino had no reasonable counter response.  But when he got home, he didn’t give up on his belief, and finally found a proof, when he realized than animal fat used candle oil would not had left any smoke detectable stains.  

While it was too late to prove these findings to the Anthropological Society, it became a proof in his heart.   He believed in his heart that this was one of the greatest findings in the world, whether the Society accepted them or not.    Interestingly, after a similar finding surfaced in Southern France, not far away, the head of the Anthropological Society finally came to validate Marcelino’s claim, but unfortunately, Marcelino’s wife had to receive the acknowledgement.  Marcelino had already died.  But he didn’t die in defeat.  He lived the remainder of his days knowing in his heart that his discovery and his life’s work was not in vain.

We too must find ways to connect the hope we have, which we aren’t always able to validate in this world, except by faith, and through the proofs we have in our hearts.  This doesn’t mean we can find hope in just anything, or that it doesn’t matter what we believe, as long as we believe in something.  True hope is validated, not only by what’s in our heads or hearts, but also through the greatness of the faith, the community, and the truth that we are connected to.    

In January of 1943, three months before he was arrested and subsequently killed by the Nazis, the Lutheran Pastor and young professor of theology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote these words about Christian hope and faith when times are dark. He wrote:"...There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative." 

Bonhoeffer wrote these words some 67 years ago.  They were written in response to a dark and tragic moment in his own life, and in human history too.  Bonhoeffer wrote a deed to hope, even Ashe faced certain death in a Nazi concentration camp, still challenges us buy a deed to hope too.  Even in difficult and dark times of disappointment, we must still dare to trust and believe that God’s love will one day overcome the darkness, no matter how devastating is the darkness is, which we now may face.  Like Jeremiah, it signing this deed of hope in the dark, that can sustains us and give us the promise of our hope.   Amen.


Sunday, June 20, 2021

No God...Except In Israel

2 Kings 5: 1-15

Charles J. Tomlin, June 20th,  2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 11/20



“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”  

     This final theological point wasn’t made by a prophet or preacher, but made by a military commander leading one of Israel’s opposing armies.  It’s still quite disturbing and disruptive to hear, especially to contemporary minds.  Naaman, the army commander was an elite, a military strongman.  He made judgement right after he was miraculously healed from a terrible, deadly skin disease; probably leprosy.

It’s hard enough to wrap our minds around any kind of miracle, even though miracles are supposed to hard to understand.   That’s why they are called ‘miracles’.  They don’t just happen, at least not normally.  But what makes this story even more difficult, is that man who has just been healed by Israel’s God, is the enemy.   

You normally want your enemy dead, don’t you?  That’s what enemies are for, right?   When you are at war with someone, you’re urge is to kill, or at least, to capture and conquer.   If the enemy is sick, you especially wouldn’t work for their healing.  You would do everything you could to get rid of them.   In this case, you would, at the very least, just allow them to ‘go quietly into that dark night’.

But just the opposite is happening in this story.   The flow of everything that happens, you could say, seems to be going in the wrong direction.  This big military macho-man has won many victories, some even against Israel.  Why would he be the one who is helped and healed?    In fact, in one battle, he captured a little Israelite child.   He has now enslaved her as his own spoil of war.   That’s enough already to wish him dead, isn’t it?   For a northerner, Naaman would be comparable to someone like Robert E Lee.   If he’s fighting to make get more slaves, the people being forced into slavery would probably hope him dead too, wouldn’t they.  Wouldn’t you?   

This little slave girl should be secretly working against this big guy too?   She should be feeding him poison or doing something, right?   But no,  instead, she’s the one who starts the ball rolling in his direction, enabling him to find help and healing, do you see it?  She’s the one who first mentioned the possibility of going to Israel to be healed.  She suggests to her mistress, perhaps the commander’s wife: If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.”     

Here, again, you can see first-hand what many people don’t like about the Bible.  It’s disruptive, counter-intuitive, even threatening at times to how we expect life to be.   We get used to how things are, don’t we?   That’s why we’re conservatives, and mostly republicans too.   It’s sometimes why people become Christians too.  Instead of having a hope of what might be, what new, strangely different redemptive thing God could or will do, our greatest hope is often to keep things just the way they are.   

Besides, when you come to a story like this, it confuses you about who is in and who is out.   That’s why people don’t like to read the Bible, at least not too closely.   We can’t control where the Bible goes, what it says, or what it tells us to do.  

Sometimes, people tell me they ‘liked’ my sermon, like I’m supposed to be preaching something they want or like to hear.   They don’t get it do they?   I’m not called to preach what you’d want to hear.  I’m preaching the Bible and what we all need to hear.  The Bible’s full of stuff  I don’t like to hear too, let alone preach.  Some people even try to read the Bible from an archaic translation to make sure they don’t understand too much.  

Having to listen try to figure out a story like this is why some church members don’t come to church too.  I mean, people come to church expecting God to pat us on the back and tell us how good we are doing, exactly who the enemy is,  what we should like, or who we should hate, who’s got it all wrong, and who’s got it all right, but instead, what are we asked to open our ears too?   You and I come here today, and we have to entertain a confusing, complicated and conflictive story like this.  It’s a story about a deathly diseased killer and a little girl who was forced into slavery.  But Instead of watching her work against her master to get free from him, she is working for his benefit, trying to help him heal.  Just what kind of story is this?  It goes against the grain of only Israel Lives Matter, doesn’t it?  It even goes against the grain of any suggestion that only Christian, Jewish, Arab or American lives matter, too.    It dares to say, out loud, EVERY LIFE MATTERS!

So, hearing this, you might not want to see where this story ultimately ends up.   It’s not simply trying to get us to love our enemies, but it’s headed where some modern minds really don’t want go.  It’s a story about who God is, and how God is at work beyond our little world, our part of the neighborhood, or even beyond our way of seeing God at work in our own religion too.   Our guest preacher today is a foreigner; no, he’s also the enemy who ends us telling us all who God really is.   That’s the great surprise of this story.   The truth about God doesn’t end up coming from a friendly face or a friendly voice, but it comes the enemy; one of the least desired people in Israel’s neighborhood.  And we’re just getting started.   I told you this text is disturbing.  

What is most disturbing about this story is not only that an enemy is healed and helped, but that this enemy is telling us who our only, one true God must be.   Who does Naaman think he is?  He’s an outsider, a non-believer, who’s now reminding them—-and us to—we who are God’s people, what is the first and most important of all the Ten Commandments: “You should have no other gods before me”.  This is the truth God requires from us, Israel’s enemy says.  How dare him?   Who made him the preacher of the day?  Who let him in the door and allowed him to stand in the pulpit and preach?   I’ll tell you who did.  God did.   This is God speaking God’s truth.  God is reminding Israel and reminding us of the most important truth and it comes through an enemy, an outsider.  Though Naaman, God reminds us we can only build our lives and our hope upon him.  Only this God, Israel’s God, is the one, true and only God.   

All this sounds very restrictive, exclusive, narrow-minded and intolerant, doesn’t it?  We don’t like a God who demands such single-minded allegiance.  We want to put other gods up there too; God, but also country, and then comes family, of course, and then comes our bank accounts.   We gotta live, don’t we?   

Now let me interject that the bank account problem shows up right after this text when the prophet Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, working against the prophet Elisha’s wishes, runs after Naaman right after he’s just been healed; right after the prophet refused to take payment or the credit.  Gehazi overrules Elisha and accepts a small fee.   Then, because of his disobedience and greed, suddenly, the leprosy that left Namaan jumped straight on Gehazi.  His skin suddenly turned ‘as white as snow’.   I’m going to spare you of any more details, but just remember this;  it’s the one and only true God that Namaan preaches.  This means that no other god, no other god you go after, or no other god you create in your own mind, is allowed.   There is no cure in any other.  There is only disease, destruction, and death.  

So, this whole story hits hard; right between the eyes of our own ways of seeing things.    This story reminds us how jealous, how demanding, and just how restrictive, Israel’s God is?   But, again, why is this ultimate truth about God coming clear to us right here; from a stranger, and from a foreigner?   Why is Naaman the one who preaches this truth?   




         We only understand when we see just how desperate Naaman was.  He was a leper; a lonely, quarantined, dying man, seeking a cure for his terminal illness.    I mean, in this story, when he goes to the prophet’s house, Elisha won’t even go out to greet him.  We can certainly feel that kind of pain since Covid 19, can’t we? This also tells us two other things;  This leprosy was real and even the prophet didn’t actually have a sure cure within himself.  Only God could cure this.  

         So, it causes us to ask ourselves too, what kind of ‘hurt’ will we suffer in life, that will finally bring us to seek the one and only true God?   We all suffer in life, and many times, we will get through those difficult, painful times.   We’ve got all kinds of modern medicine that offers either a cure, or can help us live with what we’ve got.    All these wonderful ‘miracle drugs’, can do wonders for us.   We depend on them.   We save or keep insurance so we can one day afford them.   We demand good health care so that, when we do get sick, we will have them available to us.   It makes us feel more secure.  Sometimes it can even make us feel invincible too.   

But then one day, the doctor looks at us an says, what I’ve heard doctors eventually tell every patient they have,  ‘There’s nothing more we can do.”   Nothing?   “I’ve done every test, I’ve given every medicine, and we’ve tried every single treatment, and now, a good doctor, if he’s honest and direct, might finally say,  “You’re in God’s hands now!”   

         The truth is, however, that we were always in God’s hands, or at least, we can say that we were always on the ‘terminal’ list.  It’s not something we like to think about, but the Bible---especially in the days before medicine and all the false security that it sometimes gives---these stories in the Bible that are so raw and real, remind us of how life really is.  It reminds us that we all have a condition that we can’t get over, without God’s help.  It’s called being ‘human’.   This is bold, barefaced truth right at the heart of the story of Naaman.  A very strong, big man is humbled and forced to face his own mortality and humanity.   He might be the winner of many battles, but now, he is facing a battle he can never win and a ‘hurt’ he could never heal on his own.   






         What makes this story even more disconcerting, and humbling too, is that the real hero and helper to this big, strong fellow, wasn’t a doctor nor even the prophet healer, Elisha himself; but it’s all goes back to the little slave girl.   We don’t even know her name.  Naaman probably didn’t know her name either, until he came back home a new man.  But it was this little girl who dared to get beyond any hurt feelings toward her master, who was still her enemy, and she offered him a chance to find help and healing too.   

         When you see what this little girl does, you realize immediately, it’s not something we would have done in this situation.  If we were in her shoes; if we were captured and made into a slave, or if we had a chance to let this man die, that could help us, and our whole country too, would we have done what she does.  

     So, what she does wasn’t very patriotic.   She’s doing something that most would suggest she could at the very least, have left alone.  At most, if she had the chance, she could have saved a lot more lives by making some move against him.  Well, maybe she’s too young to understand politics.  Maybe she’s too naive to understand the art of war.    Maybe she’s just plain ignorant of everything the world thinks is important.   Whatever she is, or wasn’t, here, at first glance see appears like a dumb little girl responding from her heart, rather than taking too long to think about what she just did.

         But when you think about, it is from this kind of loving, merciful heart that any kind of help comes to any of us, isn’t it?  In the midst of a war, a battle, or in the midst of a tragedy, it’s the Red Cross, the Blue Star of David, or maybe even the Red Crescent, that often stands for helping hurting people.  They each stand for the kind of faith in God that calls for caring and compassionate respond to human hurt and need, whoever they are.   

     Besides, are these flags, symbols, religions or gods really in competition with each other, or are they pointing to different v cultures based upon the same God behind all our human differences and misunderstandings?   You don’t think about those differences when you hear the call of the very God who moves us beyond ourselves, our own points of view, or our own religious understandings, so we can grow in our understanding by reaching out to respond to the need, hurt and pain of another human being.   

If every religion, including our own, thought, believed and acted like this little Israelite girl, having a religion that always chooses to care over conceit, I don’t think any religion would have to rule over the other.  We’d just decide to let God be true, as Paul said, and then let us all be ‘liars’.  In other words, we’d come to understand that the true God can’t be found in fighting over personal beliefs, because the true God remains bigger, unexplainable, and finally incomprehensible to all of us.  This is what makes God, God, and not us, or our beliefs.   

No, the true God can only be found by the actions of love, kindness, and help given to another human being in need.  This is what the little slave girl understood.  It is this very healing love that put Naaman on the right path, even before he was healed of his leprosy.  How this little slave girl acted, is how this story is calling us to caring, missionary action, which isn’t simply to preach, but to reach out and bring ‘truth’ into the world; just like Jesus said, even by loving and caring for the enemy,  even doing good for them.   Naaman was put on the path of finding the true God, through the actual feelings, actions, response and help that was placed into the heart of this this little Israelite slave girl   When we find God here, in her heart, I think we know not only ‘who’ this God of Israel is, we will also know something most important about ‘what’ this God of Israel is like and what he wants to do in and through us.




    The healing that comes to Naaman wasn’t only a physical cure of his leprosy, but it was a spiritual cure of his heart and in his soul.   That’s what his full and final acknowledgment of Israel’s God is about.  That’s also what Naaman’s willingness to humble himself and to wash in Israel’s waters is about.  God wasn’t just healing Naaman’s body, nor was he trying to introduce him to Israel’s natural resources.  The prophet was God’s instrument to bring saving light and insight into Naaman’s mind, heart and soul.

     Her name was Dorothy.  During the first day of speech class, the teacher was going around the room, having the students introduce themselves. Each student was to respond to the questions "What do I like about myself?" and "What don't I like about myself?" 

Nearly hiding at the back of the room was Dorothy. Her long, red hair hung down around her face, almost obscuring it from view. When it was Dorothy's turn to introduce herself, there was only silence in the room. Thinking perhaps she had not heard the question, the teacher moved his chair over near hers and gently repeated the question. Again, there was only silence.

Finally, with a deep sigh, Dorothy sat up in her chair, pulled back her hair, and in the process revealed her face. Covering nearly all of one side of her face was a large, irregularly shaped birthmark - nearly as red as her hair. "That," she said, "should show you what I don't like about myself."

Here was a young lady devastated by her hideous birthmark.  She was desperate for indiscriminate love.

What does healing mean, not just the healing of a body from a terrible birthmark, or even leprosy, but the healing of a heart from hate, from hurt, or from even deeper and darker dispositions?  Can we say what healing means and how ultimate healing comes to humans in both body and spirit?  Healing can be complicated.  Healing can also be very simple.

Which brings us back to Dorothy, the student with what she did not like about herself - her large, irregularly shaped birthmark  covering one side of her face.  What could bring healing to her?

Moved with compassion, the professor leaned over and gave her a hug.  Then he kissed her on her cheek where the birthmark was and said, "That's OK, Honey, I think you're beautiful.". 

Dorothy cried.   Other students gathered around her and were offering their comfort and hugs.   As she dabbed the tears from her eyes she said, "I needed someone to hug me and say I’m OK.  My mother won't even touch my face."

Dorothy,  like Naaman, had not only a physical ailment, but also bore a layer of inner pain deep within.  She was desperate for a healing love.

The way of healing can be complicated, but the process of healing begins very simply.  Naaman’s healing began deep in the compassionate, caring, loving heart of mercy of a little slave girl.  

While the words of this ancient text don’t and could never tell us everything about what hurt we might be going through, nor does it give us detailed prescriptions for our healing, it does point us directly to the greatest healer.  So, If you are hurting today, as Naaman did, do what God asks you to do.  Obey and follow his indiscriminate loving voice.  Wash yourself fully and completely in the cleansing waters of Israel’s grace-filled Love,, made crystal clear through Jesus Christ.  See what healing comes to you, both in your body and in your soul.  Amen.


Sunday, June 13, 2021


 Ruth 1: 1-18

Charles J. Tomlin, June 13th, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 10/20


Some of the most popular music comes out of places like Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas.   It is Country music that is best known for colorful lyrics.

 Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who served until 1980, was a country music fan.  He delighted in recounting the titles of his favorite songs.  

Among them were, "When the Phone Don't Ring, You'll Know It's Me,"

"Walk Out Backwards, So I'll Think You're Coming In,"

and "My Wife Ran Off with My Best Friend, and I Sure Do Miss Him."

These gems were found in an album titled   "Songs I Learned at My Mother's Knee, and at Other Joints."

One very sentimental and popular country song by Michael Martin Murphy, written back in 1987 was entitled, "A Long Line of Love."  It tells of a young man who is getting married.  His sweetheart asks him if he thinks they can make it.  His answer is "I come from a long line of love."

Then he talks about his parents' marriage and his grandparents' and at the end of each refrain he sings, "Forever's in my heart and in my blood...I come from a long line of love."

I’m not trying to be flippant or frivolous with you, when I say that that Jesus himself, comes from a long line of love.  Now, of course, we might not even know about this story of Ruth had she not been the great grandmother of King David, the most important King in the Hebrew Bible.  This relationship to David also makes Ruth one the ancestors of Jesus.  Interestingly, Ruth wasn’t born Jewish.  She was a Moabite who had converted through marriage. But that’s getting ahead of the story.  


The story of Ruth began when a Jewish family of four, the husband, Elimelech; the wife, Naomi; and their two sons, had to leave Israel because of economic difficulties. They were like so many immigrants today, who have to move because of natural or economic problems in their land.    In this case, as it was often in the ancient world, a  famine had spread throughout their land, and food was scarce.    So Elimelech and Naomi packed up a small U-Haul and moved to Moab (part of today’s Jordan), where there was more food.

Not long after Elimelech died unexpectedly, both sons had married local women in Moab, but then tragedy struck again.  Both Naomi’s son’s died.  All this happened within a relatively short span of time.  

As you can imagine, Naomi was devastated.  Opportunities for women in that day and time were practically non-existent.   Naomi was left all alone in a foreign country.   All she had left were two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.  How would she and how would they survive?  Naomi expressed it most tragically: ‘the hand of the Lord has been against me’.

While this is certainly not a desirable idea to entertain, it’s certainly how life can seem sometimes.   Jesus himself, the most beautiful of all humans beings who ever lived upon the earth expressed the same kind of feeling,  My God, why, why have you forsaken me!”    Although we now know that God didn’t forsake Jesus on the cross, but that God was in Jesus on the cross, we can also know that God wasn’t against Naomi either.   But it certainly can seem that way.   There are many times in life it can seem to be, just as Helen Reddy used to sing with her child, “It’s you and me against the world!”   It can indeed seem, especially when bad things happen to us, that life is stacked against us or is caving in on us and that nobody cares.  

While we can all feel this way, especially when tragedy strikes, this is certainly not a place we need to stay for long.   The human spirit needs to see, know and find purpose in life, no matter what happens to us.   We need to be able see make meaning, see hope and to find purpose, especially out of the most tragic things that can happen to us.   However, trying to find a purpose or meaning does not mean, like some say, that ‘everything happens for a reason’.  

We hear well-meaning people say something like this often, don’t we?   It might even seem that Naomi is saying something like this too, when she said, ‘God’s hand was against her’.    I know that by saying that God is doing this, we often try to say that God is in control, that God cares, even when it doesn’t seem like it; or that life can go on and we can still find hope, even when bad things happen.   I think those things all be true, but it still isn’t true to say that everything happens for a reason. 

While there is certainly an ultimate purpose to life discovered the God of the Bible; namely, that God creates life and life is good and can be wonderful and purposeful, this doesn’t mean that there is a purpose for everything under the sun.   While Ecclesiastes does say rather poetically that there is  time for everything under the sun’,  it doesn’t say nor mean there’s a reason for everything.   There’s a big difference in saying that.   Even when Ecclesiastes says there is a ‘time for everything under the sun’, it leaves out a lot of things too.   There certainly isn’t a good time or reason for sin, for rape, for incest, for abuse, for murder or for hate, is there?   These things, and many other things happen, just like the death of a child are things that can happen and do happen, but these kinds of happenings can’t be made to be reasonable or God’s plan for what is supposed to go on under the sun.  

What we all know is part of God’s plan is freedom.   Adam and Eve where given great freedom when God created the world and said, ‘here it is’!   “You can have everything but this one tree!”  That’s mine!  But it you try to make what’s mine, thine, bad things can and will happen.   What this story means is that since humans, like life are created to be free, life must also be allowed to be random, have the freedom to choose, in a way that allows for accidents to happen.   The story of the Bible is not a story of a God who ‘controls’ the world, but it’s the story of this God who creates the world freely, then interrupts and disrupts things from time to time, to keep the world going in the in a free, good, and ultimately right and just direction.    In other words life in this world must have freedom because this freedom is what allows life to have such great potential and possibility.   As a philosopher once argued years ago,  after a great earthquake flattened the city of Libson: ‘This is the best of all possible worlds’.   In other words, you simply can’t have a physical world in a physical universe unless it is allowed to quake and stay in balance.  

While I don’t think that this is the only possible world, I do agree that you can’t have a physical world like we now know without allowing for randomness, accidents, the unintentional, or suffering and pain.    You can only invite the potential of great good in our world by also inviting the possibility of what can be bad, and sometimes very bad.   Just like God creates the world out of chaos of nothingness, we humans are called to join with God in this purpose-making and purpose giving.    This means that there’s isn’t already a purpose for everything, but that can join with God in making something out of the worst that can happen.   Life is good, and it is full of great potential and possibility, but we still have to join with God finding or making it happen.      

Now, I know you weren’t in for a philosophical discussion, but what Naomi says forces us to think about it.   Since God is the ultimate creator of life, and everything that is ultimately goes back to God, it can be said that God allows or uses evil to achieve God’s purposes.   We can all understand where Naomi was coming from, but I don’t think we need to stay where she was.   That’s exactly what this whole story is ultimately about.  This is where Naomi was, but it was Ruth’s devotion and determination that begins to take them both to whole new place and gives them meaning and hope that had been lost in all that had happened to them.



WHERE YOU GO, I WILL GO...  (v. 16)

Nothing in this story makes sense, just like nothing in life really makes sense, until you come to what happens next.   Do you see it?   After Naomi suffers so much loss in her life, the only viable option is for her to return to her hometown and hope there would be a place for her somewhere among her relatives.

Thus, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set out for the land of Judah.   But as the three widows began their journey, it occurred to Naomi that it might be better for her daughters-in-law to remain in their own country.   She’s already moved to thinking beyond herself, so now, encourages them to go back home.  They were still young; they could find new husbands and have the security she could not give them.    Naomi loved her daughters-in-law, and she wanted to see them happy.    So Naomi kissed them, told them to go back, as the three women all wept.

However, Ruth and Orpah, her daughters-in-law, still wanted to stay with Naomi. They protested, but Naomi knew they would not be so well accepted by her relatives in her home country.  They were foreigners.  The law was very clear about this.   No Moabite could enter the household of faith even after ten generations.   If her daughters-in-law remained with her, they would never be accepted among her people.   

So once again, Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law to stay in their homeland.  She told them that it was absurd for them to follow her, "Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?" she asked.   Orpah then decided that her mother-in-law was right.  It would be best for her to remain in her own country.   She decides to go back.

Ruth, however, still wants to remain with Naomi.  Ruth loved Naomi deeply.  When Orpah kisses, Ruth hugs and clings.   Then, it is in this context that Ruth spoke some of the most beautiful words in the Bible and in all of literature.  You still hear this text quoted a lot at weddings.  Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law, saying: "Do not force me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.    Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried.  May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" (16-17 NRS)

Here, in these most beautiful words, we find only way any human being can made meaning and purposes, in potentially meaningless, random and accidental world.   Love.   It is with this love story that RUTH responds to Naomi’s tragic situation and it’s also how we are also called to give and make meaning in our lives.   It’s all about love; faithful, loyal, devoted and lasting love.   

Years ago, before I was old enough too young to explain or understand all that life or love was about, there was a great tear-jerker movie that came out in the movies, with exactly this kind of title, “Love Story”.   The movie became one of the most popular movies of all time, telling the story of a couple who fall in love, but their parents didn’t approve.  They decide to marry anyway, making many sacrifices just so they can be together in their marriage, until one day, they discover that Jenny, the young wife can have children and is terminally ill.   But Oliver, the young husband, sacrifices everything to stay with her up until the end.   And when the end comes, your heart breaks too, especially when he gave that finally line that went, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’. 

That movie received a lot of criticism from Christians, because the young people went against the wishes of their parents to get married and most everyone knows, true love means saying you’re sorry many, many times.   But what was true and what came through in that popular book, which became one of the most popular movies of all time, and what caused most everybody in the theaters to cry when it came to the end, was the most important message of life.  Life is still at it’s best, even when it is at its worst, because life is about the faithfulness and loyalty of a love that cares for stays by another, even though the worst possible things that could happen.   In this very tragedy, and in all this hurt, you discover what both life and love is really about.   And that was just in a book or in a movie.

In a simple, but true love story, a three-year-old girl became very ill.  She was so critically ill that she had to stay in the hospital for many months.  In all those months, her mother never once left her hospital bed.  A petite woman, weighing little more than ninety pounds, this mother stayed right with her daughter day and night, displaying an amazing strength which inspired her family and friends.

Eventually the little girl recovered. Once she was home, everyone asked her mother how she had done it.  How could anyone have the strength to do what she did? The young mother smiled warmly, and told her questioners, "She's my child. I love her more than breathing.  She needed me. She needed me as never before. I had to do it. I had to be there for her!" (Rodney Jones and Gerald Uelmen, SUPREME FOLLY, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990), pp. 151-1532).

That's love, isn't it?  It’s the kind of love that makes life worth living.  It’s not the kind of love that says: "I love you for what you can do for me." Or "I'll love you as long as it is convenient." No. It's, the kind of love that says, “I'll love you no matter what. I'll always be there.”   In a world that constantly spins around, sometimes appearing that life goes nowhere, faithful, loyal, and devoted love, is the true ‘cream that keeps coming to the top’.

In the classic Russian novel by Leo Tolstoy, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, a young student murders two people for their money.   He rationalizes his crime by telling himself, first, that Napoleon killed thousands and became a hero; second, that his victims were unimportant people; and third, that he would use the money to further his career for the good of humanity.

Most of the story, however, is taken up not with the crime but with the young student's punishment, not from without but from within.   Guilt rages inside him, and his body, mind, and spirit grind away at each other wearing him down.  However, there is a young girl, Sonia, who loves this young murderer.  Hers is a rare kind of love. It is not cheap sentiment.   It’s a love that works positively in and on him.   First of all, her love drives him to confess that he is the murderer.  She tells him he must repent to try and express and resolve his guilt.  He does.  He kisses the ground he has stained with human blood and cries out his confession to the four corners of the earth.

Finally, he is convicted of his crimes and he’s sent off to Siberia, suffering from tuberculosis and pneumonia.  But the story doesn't end there. The girl, Sonia, follows him over the hard miles to Siberia.  Throughout his long nine-year sentence, she stays by his side.  She keeps them both alive by scrounging whatever food she can find. Her love never quits.   

When you get to the end of this great story, you realize that Tolstoy’s novel isn’t just about CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but it’s really about life.   Love is not only what redeemed this sinner, but loyal, faithful and devoted love the only thing that redeems life itself.  



I think that, other than being a story connected with the family tree of a king, that the other reason this very ordinary story is in the Bible is because, love is the only thing that makes life worth living.   We can see in the same ‘determination’ Ruth has to selflessly remain with her mother-in-law, during her time of need, that we see reflected in who Jesus is, what Paul preaches, and what the rest of the Bible is basically about.

            When Hollywood today tells stories of love, I wonder if how much they can still get to this point?   When couples spend all kinds of money to have big weddings, in grand venues, rather than in churches, I wonderful if they understand what love is really about?   Even when couples use these most beautiful words of Ruth in their own wedding ceremony, expressing Ruth’s loyal love,  I wonder if they realize how Ruth had really nothing gain for herself, and everything to lose.   It’s hard to make sense of such dogged, determined, and sometimes dangerous love.   True love is seldom understood, and remains a mystery, until it’s lived out, day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute.   

Later in this story, as it’s told rest of this book, after they get to back to Judah, arriving in Bethlehem, a relative of Naomi's named Boaz noticed the young Ruth gathering grain.  She was different from the other women, more graceful, he thought   Naomi decided to play the match-maker and fixed her daughter-in-law up with Boaz.   When you read story, you’ll find Ruth’s determination showing up again, even in ways that are too R rated for Worship.   I dare you to get you a modern translation and read it for yourself.

But what’s most amazing in this whole story of determined love and loyalty is how meaning and purpose comes from it, to bless the world with hope.   After the wedding, Ruth bore a son in Bethlehem, named Obed, and as you might know, Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of King David, and David was eventually an ancestor of another baby boy born in Bethlehem, many years later named Jesus.    Isn't it interesting that in the ancestry of Jesus there is a Moabite woman, who grew up under another god?   She is here, not only in our Bible, but she is here because of her love and loyalty that transcends all religions, and can even teach Jews and Christians a thing or too about who God is, who humans are, and who Jesus is.   Now, can’t you see, why I say that Jesus came from a long line of love?

Before we go, let me share one more story.   Some time ago, there appeared in Guideposts a story about a woman named Virginia Duran, who was born in a migrant worker camp in central California.  Her father was in jail, and her mother could not afford her. There was a doctor in the area, also named Virginia, who made sure that there was enough food for the young girl and her mother. That's why her mother named her Virginia: after the doctor who helped feed, clothe and pay the rent for them. As Virginia grew, her family moved, so she eventually lost contact with that caring doctor.

Years later, when Virginia was grown, she was visiting Mexico and saw a picture of a poor girl in the newspaper.  At that moment Virginia realized that, if it hadn't been for that one doctor many years before, she could have ended up like the girl in that picture.   So, when Virginia went home she told her sister about the picture.  She had decided that she wanted to do something to help poor children. The two sisters traveled to Mexico and found a dusty village filled with migrant children.  Many of the children's parents were unwed teenagers or alcoholics. Many of the children were also malnourished and sick.  Virginia and her sister helped as many of these children as they could.   Today they have 35 children in their care.

One day, as Virginia was taking care of the children,  she suddenly remembered something she had long forgotten.  Doctor Virginia once told her that she, the doctor, had been rescued by a wealthy woman herself.  That woman had also been saved from poverty by yet another woman, who had been rescued by another woman ” back six generations.  All of these women lived in the west, and all were surrogate mothers for children who desperately needed love.  Interestingly, all of the women were named Virginia.  "You're the seventh in a long line," the doctor told her. "And someday, you'll do as much for someone else." (Virginia Duran, "Someday, You'll Do As Much," GUIDEPOSTS, May 1994, pp. 16-19).

Virginia Duran was in a long line of love.  So was Jesus. So are you and I.   I know a lot of people who talk about love, but what counts is how we show and live it.  This is the kind of love that makes life count and worth living, even can be a very dangerous, difficult and sometimes dissappointing world.   

Do you know about this kind of faithfully devoted, and loyal love?  This is the true love that says to another,  "I love you ”,  “I care about you”,  not only because I need you but because you are you, and because you need me.  I will be with you, wherever you go, even to the very end."   That, is human love as reflected from God's love. This is why, as the human race, even if we don’t realize it, we all come from a long line of love."   Amen.