A sermon preached at Southminster’s Sabbath Service on November 22, 2014
Tonight we are at the end of a church year. Each liturgical year starts with the first Sunday of Advent, so this is New Year’s Eve for church.
A time to pause and reflect on the year that has been and a time to consider what we need to carry with us into this new year. And what to leave behind.
You’ll be reading the short book of Ruth next month in your Year of the Bible readings. And Ruth is a good bridge from one season to the next. This past year, we’ve heard the stories of the ancestors in faith, the patriarchs of Genesis, the wanderings of the Israelites, the settling of the Promised Land and the time of the judges.
This story, we’re told, takes place during the time of the judges. A famine in the land caused Naomi and her family to leave the Promised Land and go back across the river to Moab, modern day Jordan. Elimilech, and then his sons, die, leaving the women in Moab. Moab is home to Ruth and Orpah, the young widows. But Naomi was from Bethlehem, across the Jordan River, in the land of Judah.
We’re reminded the issue of immigration, migration, and refugee status is not, ultimately, one that can be controlled with political statute. When people are hungry, in danger, fearing violence, out of options, and unable to see hope in the Promised Land, they flee. Borders become meaningless lines on a map when survival is at stake.
This story also reminds us of the vulnerability of women in many parts of the world, even today. Naomi and her daughters had no hope on their own.
Naomi has nobody in Moab to whom she can turn for help. Her only chance is to get home to her people and to throw herself at the mercy of her kin in Bethlehem.
So she tries to send her daughters in law back to their own families, knowing they have a better chance to make it if they are with their own people, in their own land.
Perhaps she also knows that just as she has no chance in Moab, where people judge the refugees from Judah, so also do her daughters in law have no chance as Moabite refugees in Bethlehem.
Naomi’s cries ring somewhat overdramatic in my ears, but her reality is not my reality. A widowed refugee in a foreign land, no sons to care for her, no grandchildren to inherit the family name, no social security or pension benefits.
No wonder she’s a little freaked out.
We wish Orpah well as she returns to her family. We totally understand why she sees her best hope involves returning to her family, not becoming a refugee in another land.
And we’re left with Ruth and Naomi. Two women who decide, as they watch their future collapsing in a fiery pile of smoldering rubble, to let go of the ashes of those dreams, and head off toward whatever is next. Together.
Have you had to do that before? Watch your future change dramatically in an instant, through sudden tragedy, or diagnosis, or larger economic or political factors, leaving you a refugee in what you thought was your home, your own life now unrecognizable?
I think of that when I see refugees on the news or refugees at the Post Office. Nobody plans, as a child, to grow up to be a refugee. Nobody ends up on that path unless it is the only path they see in front of them.
What must it be like to be in Somalia one day and Boise the next?
I had a friend in Atlanta who was a refugee from Somalia. Her name was Hodan. She fled her home and country as a child. I met her when she came to speak to one of my classes in seminary. She had with her a plastic grocery sack. In it was the entirety of her possessions she was able to take with her when she fled. Inside the bag there was a plate, and a few other things.
I will never forget seeing how much she had let go of by seeing the few things she had held on to.
With everything that she’d let go of, though, she never let go of gratitude. She was grateful in everything. She was grateful to be in America, even without her family, at that time still in Somalia. She was grateful to be alive. She was glad to have opportunity and to be able to share what little she had with others in need.
She was one of the happiest people I have known.
I’m sure there were also moments of despair and fear and worry and loss. But day in and day out, her orientation was to gratitude.
I’ve been thinking of what Naomi and Ruth had to let go of as they moved forward in their journey.
Naomi was willing to let go of her daughter in laws, hoping they might find new hope somewhere else.
Ruth was willing to let go of “home” in order to stick with the woman who had become family to her.
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
After Ruth’s plea, Naomi lets go of what she thought was the best plan for Ruth, and agrees to stay together.
The women likely thought they were letting go of a future with the security of children, grandchildren. Certainly their dream of children in Moab, sons of Mahlon and Chilion, was dead. Let go.
I hate to give away the ending to the book, but let me just say Ruth does pretty well for herself. As we get into Advent, you will see Ruth’s name in the genealogy of no less than Jesus of Nazareth, through King David, her great grandson.
To read Ruth’s story, however, we have to let go of some things too, like our expectations that God’s family tree would be full of muckety-mucks and big wigs.
Instead, King David’s grandmother is a refugee from Jordan.
It is as if every time we decide who is in and who is out, God comes along and invites someone else to join the party. God makes us care about the widows and the people on the margins by putting them smack dab in the middle of our family tree.
And here we are, still talking about this poor, widowed, childless woman from the wrong side of the river all these years later because God won’t be limited by our ideas of people of whom we think we can let go.
At the end of this liturgical year, as we prepare for the feast of Thanksgiving and the season of Advent, I invite you to further consider what is yours to let go of for this coming season, year.
And consider what is yours to keep. What has God gifted you with that the world needs? Is it your voice for justice? Your heart of compassion? Your energy for service? Your vision of a better world? Your gratitude that invites others into thankfulness?
Find those things and hang on to them.
But let go of the things that won’t bring you life anymore. Like the leaves let go of by the trees—they were important for a season but they no longer fill that purpose—what do you need to shed in order to stand waiting, ready for the next season God is preparing for you?
Blessings to you in your time of waiting this coming season. Amen
(Title of the sermon is borrowed from Macrina Wiederkehr’s poem The Sacrament of Letting Go).