Sermon: Proper 27 / Pentecost 24 RCL B – “Selfless”

There was a boat way out in the Pacific ocean that encountered a horrendous storm in the middle of the night and the boat ended up being capsized. Near by was an island and when day break came there were two men lying on the beach – the only survivors. As they pulled themselves together they discussed what they should do and concluded that they should pray – go figure.

However, the first man got the idea that perhaps one of them might be more righteous than the other and that God might hear the prayers of one over the other, but maybe not both if they stayed together, so the first man devised the plan where they would split the island and each was to stay on his side without coming on the others. The second man calmly agreed, they shook hands, and went their separate ways.

On the first night, the first man prayed for something to eat. The following morning he came into the most remarkable grove of fruit trees imaginable, everything a person needed to keep alive. Not only that, a small cove on his side of the island provided an abundance of fish that he easily caught with his bare hands. For the second man there was nothing. He did find an old piece of nearly rotten fruit on the beach that he managed to choke down, but it was hardly enough to keep him alive.

Several weeks later the first man decided that he did not want to be alone on the island, so he prayed that the Lord would send him a wife. That night there was another shipwreck and the lone survivor was a beautiful woman that washed up on the shore. They were perfect companions and got along famously. For the second man, again nothing. He couldn’t even find a volleyball that he could name Wilson. Perfectly dreadful were his conditions.

The months went by and the first man and his wife decided they might try and pray to be rescued and wouldn’t you know it, the following morning a boat floated up in the cove. It was all gassed up and ready to go, so they swam out to it, fired it up, and headed off. Suddenly there was a voice from heaven, “Are you going to leave the other man behind?” “Sure,” said the first man, “Look at him. He is obviously some heathen. Here I have prayed and received everything I asked for and he has received nothing. He must be some great sinner to be in such rotten shape. I see no need to save him.” “On the contrary, he has also had everyone of his prayers answered, even though he prays the same thing everyday, and if it weren’t for his prayers – none of yours would have been answered.” “Oh,” says the first man, “what was his prayer?” “He prayed that all your prayers would be answered.”

These days, with regard to self, we hear many terms. There is of course the selfie, but there are things like self-care, self-esteem, and self-love, but a “self” word that I heard while growing up seems to have fallen out of favor, because it means taking any of these “self” concepts too far, and these days much seems to be about doing just that. The word is “selfish.” It occurs when self, I, becomes the most important object of our affections and actions. There is nothing wrong with loving self – “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” – but it seems we can sometimes forget that first part of loving our neighbor and become selfish, where we always place our own needs, not only ahead of those of others, but instead of the needs of others.

Today, we read the end of the Book of Ruth, when Ruth takes Boaz as her husband and by doing so cares – yes, for herself – but also for Naomi, her mother-in-law. Yet the story does not have a happy beginning.

Due to a famine in the land, Naomi, her husband, and two sons moved from Israel to Moab. The sons married Moabite (gentile) women, Orpah and Ruth. Yet, Naomi’s husband and two sons died, leaving the women with no real way to care for themselves. So Naomi told her daughter-in-laws to return to their people where they could find new husbands and be cared for. (Sorry, ladies, at the time, a woman needed a husband in order to care for her.) Orpah returned, but Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Those are words that you may sometimes hear at a wedding, but here Ruth is vowing herself to Naomi and is looking outside of her own needs to those of another. Orpah was not being selfish by returning to her people, but Ruth was being selfless, by considering how her actions would effect Naomi.
Through her selfless actions and love of Naomi, Ruth was able to gain a husband, Boaz, and provide for the needs of them both.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we are provided with the genealogy of Jesus, and there are very few women mentioned, but Ruth is one of them, as she is the great-grandmother of King David, whom Jesus descended from. Ruth is memorialized and plays a part in the salvation of us all because of her selfless act.

Today in our Gospel, Jesus is witness to another selfless act, as the widow places all she has in the temple treasury. Jesus said of her, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

At the time in the Temple complex, there were thirteen jars used for collecting various offerings. Some were for the upkeep of the temple, others were to pay for sacrifices, and still others were used for alms, money used for the care of others. The context of our Gospel seems to imply that the woman gave not for herself, but for others. Not only did she give, but she gave selflessly everything she had. Although not named like Ruth, the widow with her two copper pennies is also memorialized for her selfless act.

A young brother and sister both have a very rare blood type. It is determined that the sister will need an operation and will likely need a transfusion. Because of the rare blood type, they turn to the young boy and ask him if he would be willing to give blood for his sister. He thinks about it for only a moment and agrees. As the procedure begins the young boy is nervous, but brave. Because of his age the doctors keep a close eye on him and notice that he is quietly crying. When asked if he is in pain, he says, “No.” But then asked, “How soon before I die.”

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

There are many ways to “lay down ones life,” but all of them require that we first lay ourselves down to lay down and set aside our own needs for the needs of others and to allow the Word of God to work through us. In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis writes, “He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.”

As we seek to serve Christ, let us learn to be selfless in our giving and look to the common good. St. Francis of Assisi writes, “Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” Ask for this gift, this grace, so that you may love, not just self, but all.

Let us pray: O Dearly beloved Word of God, teach us to be generous, to serve You as You deserve, to give without counting the cost, to fight without fretting at our wounds, to labor without seeking rest, to spend ourselves without looking for any reward other than that of knowing that we do Your holy will. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

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