A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 12, 2019
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. Her husband, Elimilech, and then their 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 or walls. 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 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 instructions of her mother in law and does a prudent and wise thing.
In this case, she is out-obedienced by her sister in law, Ruth. Ruth, who decides that true obedience to her mother in law is to disobey her instructions to return to her own people, to stand with with her mother in law, to embrace the challenges to come so that neither of them will be alone.
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 not to 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 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.
But God won’t be limited by our ideas of people we think we don’t need.
Isn’t that how we do it? We decide that we’re good with the people we already have. Or with the people who are like us. We can’t imagine that we might need “them”, those “other” people who speak different languages or who grew up in Moab.
Naomi tries to suggest that to Ruth. “You should just go home with your people. I’ll go to my people.”
Ruth sees a different way. Sure, everyone could go back to their own clan. That’s what Orpah chose to do. But we never hear about her again. Maybe it was all fine for Orpah—hopefully her family took her back in, and they made it through the famine. But Orpah drops out of the narrative at this point.
Ruth refuses to do go back.
‘Do not press me to leave you’ she tells Naomi,
‘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.’
Ruth chose to stay with Naomi, making sure that neither of them had to make that journey by themselves. Ruth chose to stay with Naomi, recognizing that while the journey would still be difficult together, it might just be impossible alone.
I used to hear Ruth’s pledge “your people shall be my people” as if she were renouncing her own Moabite people. Throwing out her University of Washington Jersey because she’d moved to Boise and was now required to wear the BSU blue and orange, as it were.
But I hear it differently today. Now I hear her saying, “there is no longer us and them. There is no longer my people and your people. We are all each other’s people.”
Because her next line is “your God is my God”. And when we sign up for Naomi’s God, for the God we worship and serve, we become a part of God’s family.
And if God wants to welcome Moabites to the family, who are we to tell them to go back to “their” people?
If God wants to continue to challenge our understandings of who, exactly, God considers to be our siblings, then who are we to tell them they are on their own and that we don’t matter to each other?
Robert Alter, in his translation of Ruth points 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 who we’ll encounter next week, is the perfect illustration of a flawed human being.
The Book of Ruth 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. 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.
It’s on us to fix the systems of the world that leave people hungry, refugees, in chronic poverty. It’s on us.
The session has voted for us to embrace the denomination’s Matthew 25 vision for the church. Based on the story where the Son of Man comes in his glory to judge the nations. He separates people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The people sent to eternal punishment didn’t welcome the stranger, didn’t clothe the naked, didn’t care for the sick, didn’t visit the prisoners.
Whether they are sheep or goats, however, none of them had any idea that they had seen Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison and they ask him, “Lord, when did we see you?”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus was born because his refugee, least of these, foreigner 10th great grandmother was once hungry and people gave her food. It’s that simple. And that simple act is that important.
We are a Matthew 25 congregation because we want to be challenged to love ‘the least of these’ as Jesus calls us to do, (and to recognize how we are sometimes also the least of these). And because we recognize that sometimes there isn’t a ‘bad guy’ in the story, and people still have difficult lives. And we are called to love.
“Individuals who choose to love can and do alter our lives in ways that honor the primacy of a love ethic. We do this by choosing to work with individuals we admire and respect; by committing to give our all to relationships; by embracing a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on the planet. Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions.”
The Book of Ruth lays out a love ethic too. Your people will be my people. It’s a book that refuses to let tribalism win.
Are we willing to lean in to love? To welcome and help people from Moab, or the other political party, or the person asking for money on the corner? Are we willing to dismantle the systems that oppress people because of the color of their skin? Are we willing to help people climb out of poverty?
To live into love is not easy. Or maybe, as our benediction says, “it’s all that easy and it’s all that hard”.
And here is a link to the Immigrant’s Creed we spoke after the sermon. By Jose Luis Casals.