A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
July 22, 2018
The Book of Ruth begins by telling us the story took place during the time of the Judges, which is the book immediately before Ruth in the Bible. The Book of Judges ends with this: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes”.
It was a time without kings. People were ruled by the judges. Some of the judges were great. Some of them were self serving opportunists. It was a time when people did what they could do, for themselves, to see their own advancement, or their own taxes cut, or their own success.
It was not a time where people looked out for each other, or cared about the common welfare, or welcomed the stranger. Foreigners were enemies, or at best, were people to be ignored. In a world where there wasn’t enough to go around, why would you share what you have with someone you don’t know?
it is into this world that Naomi and her husband, Elimilech, and their family are born. They were from Bethlehem, which means “house of bread”.
But there was no bread in the house of bread. So they become refugees, and head to Moab, or what today would be Jordan, across the river Jordan. And they receive refuge, and a new chance. And their sons take Moabite wives.
For people without much margin, life can be difficult. Elimilech dies. A few years on, so do his sons. And Naomi decides to go back home to Bethlehem, to hope that the rumors she’s heard about a stronger economy and better jobs are true.
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.
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. In any other story, she’s the exemplary character. She follows the direction of her mother in law and does a prudent and wise thing.
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.
Whether it is stated out loud in this text or not, the truth remains, we have prejudices against people.
Because they are foreign.
Because they don’t speak our language.
Because they look different than we do.
Because their names sound odd in our ears.
Because they are poor.
Because they need help.
Because because because.
There is a tension in Scripture over this issue. There are commands to not marry foreigners. There are reminders that if you marry them, you better not worship their false gods. There are chapters and verses all about keeping separate, keeping pure, and keeping away from “them”.
The commands against Moabites are spelled out in Deuteronomy. To the 10th generation, Moabites are to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
And then there is the Book of Ruth. About a poor, widowed, childless, Moabite woman from the wrong side of the Jordan river.
I hate to give away the ending to the book, but let me just say she does pretty well for herself, despite what Deuteronomy instructs. You will see Ruth’s name in the genealogy of King David, her great grandson. And since Jesus is descended from King David, (more than 10 generations later), she is sitting deep in the family tree of our Lord and Savior as well.
As much as we want to keep separate, and not welcome, the stranger because of their differences, we also have to deal with Ruth. Because if it weren’t for her, King David wouldn’t have been born.
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, reminding us that we are the strangers we’re so afraid of.
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 we think we don’t need.
Robert Alter, in his translation of Ruth pointed out that this is a story of good people. There are no “bad guys” in this story. There is no Pharaoh or Babylonian army. In other biblical texts, even the good guys have bad sides. Moses, as you remember, had murdered someone before God called him to deliver his people. David, Ruth’s grandson, is the perfect illustration of a flawed human being.
But this is a story of good people helping other good people make it through difficult times.
I’ve been pondering why this story was written as it was, with no antagonist, no enemy at the gate. And I wonder if it is to remind us of our tendency to look for blame and once we’ve assigned it, to extend our blame to an entire group.
—One horrible attack at Pearl Harbor and suddenly all Americans of Japanese descent should be housed in camps and lose their property, their businesses, their freedom.
—One would-be-shoe-bomber and we’re all taking our shoes off at the airport.
—One terror attack and suddenly all Muslims are terrorists.
—One central American gang murder, and suddenly all undocumented immigrants at the border are criminals and “animals”, an “infestation”.
We are people who excel at lumping people together and then judging them all as one. Let’s face it. It’s so much easier than getting to know a person on their own merits.
This story, other than the part where the men die in the first paragraph, is idyllic and bucolic, where things work out and people survive and thrive. And while I’m glad it all works out for Ruth and Naomi, the truth is that the system that led to their marginalization in the beginning of the story remains in place at the end. They will encounter a kinsman of Naomi’s named Boaz and he will save them. But there are no guarantees that other women will survive economic uncertainty.
And because it is a story of good people helping other good people, we’re reminded that it is up to us, as other good people, to fight these systems that enslave and endanger people.
Perhaps there is no “bad guy” in this story to remind us that there is no one to blame but ourselves, and we are all responsible for the systems that allow some people to thrive as others fall through the cracks. We can’t look for a bad guy to pin this on. Its on us.
Your people will be my people, Ruth told Naomi.
Just think what we could accomplish if we took ‘your people will be my people’ as instruction on how to live with each other.
When we declare “your people will be my people”, we see the face of God in each person we meet.
In the face of every victim of gun violence—your people will be my people.
In the face of every child at the border, wondering where their parents are and why they are in jail—your people will be my people.
In the face of every worker laid off because the economy went overseas—your people will be my people. I
n the face of every man, woman, and child who are homeless and wondering where they will sleep tonight—your people will be my people.
in the face of the refugees, wishing they could be home and hoping they can build a safer life in a new country—your people will be my people.
‘Your people will be my people’ is a promise we make to each other, to offer what we have, knowing that others will also contribute what they have, and in the end, we will have abundance.
Your people will be my people is in direct opposition to the story of the time of the Judges, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes”.
Your people will be my people is a promise that claims that if God’s steadfast love is for us, then it is also for others, and that there is more than enough of God’s love and concern to go around. And through that mutuality, everyone benefits.
When individual self interest meets individual self interest, it’s a pretty sad world. When compassionate concern and love is extended, it cascades out. Love and compassion engender other acts of love and compassion. Faith kindles faith. Concern extended by one person serves as a reminder to others to also extend concern.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land.
Sometimes, like Ruth and Naomi, we find ourselves with judges or rulers who don’t have the common welfare at heart. Or we live in times of famine, or war, or economic troubles. We can’t always solve those bigger, systemic problems by tomorrow. We can remember that there are only our people.
I was thinking about Florence Niba as I read these texts. She came to the US from the Cameroon for education, not because of a famine in the land, exactly. But I suspect her experience here, in another country, so far from her large and beloved family, meant she understood Ruth and Naomi better than I do.
And one of Flo’s many gifts was that she lived by the “your people will be my people” example of Ruth. We, here at Southminster were her people. Her friends at Curves or at the Prison, both places she worked, were her people. Her running friends were her people. Claiming people to be hers was no doubt helpful to Florence as she figured out how to live in a new country and raise her daughter.
But let’s be clear, being claimed by Florence was our gift. We benefitted from knowing her, having her in our life. Yesterday, many of us gathered here to watch her funeral in Atlanta on a livestream. One of the things her daughter Marie said about her in that service was that Florence never complained about the trials or situations in her life, but through it all, she praised God, saying alleluia.
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
We are people who have been claimed as God’s people. May we never forget to claim others as we have been claimed.
Robert Alter’s translation of Ruth is in Strong As Death is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel (New York: Norton, 2015)