Sunday, November 8th, 2015 – Sermon on Ruth 1(1-18)

You can listen to this sermon here.

Ruth 1:1-18
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not press 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. 17 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!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

On Friday, I received a phone call from someone. She was calling for a family member, and she wanted to know more about the possibility of having a wedding here at St. John’s. The bride and groom come from a Baptist church, but it’s too small to have a wedding in. And sharing that bit of information, she asked, “Do you welcome outsiders to your church?”

And that word outsiders. It just hung in the air for me. She didn’t say non-members or people from a different denomination. She said outsiders. Do you welcome outsiders to your church of insiders? And I said, “Well, of course we do. But we don’t think of them as outsiders.”

After the phone call, I couldn’t help but wonder…what do we need to do so that no one has to ever ask that question again? What do we need to do so that the Northfield community never has to wonder if they are welcome here?

Insiders and outsiders. That has been the religious question. Are you on the inside with God or are you on the outside. So much of Scripture, so much of religion is about insiders and outsiders. And apparently, not a lot has changed.

The book of Ruth is full of people who not only felt like outsiders, but who were outsiders to each other.

The story begins with Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons. The whole family is from the town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, which means ‘house of bread’. But they have to leave their home because of a famine.

Which is ironic. I mean, you know things have gotten bad when you have to leave your home named “House of Bread” because there isn’t any food there. So, this famine forces them to pick up and leave behind their home and become refugees – not unlike the Syrian refugees of today. They’re forced to relocate to another country. That alone is a terrifying thought.

But to make matters worse, the place they relocate to is the country of Moab. Which is enemy territory. There was this great feud going on between the two peoples, such that the Israelites weren’t supposed to associate with Moabites. In fact, both groups are descendants of Abraham, but the Israelites excluded the Moabites from the assembly of the Lord. The Israelites said, “We’re the insiders. You’re the outsiders. You’re not welcome here.”

And now, Naomi and Elimelech and their sons, Israelites, are turning to the Moabite people for refuge from famine. And I bet they feel like the outsiders now. And they see the people they excluded in an entirely different light. Because now they need them for their very lives – for their salvation. Will the Moabites welcome outsiders?

Apparently, they do welcome them – because Naomi and family get to stay. But it isn’t long before tragedy strikes. Elimelech dies. Now, not only is Naomi an outsider, a stranger in this foreign land, but now she is a widow too.

But she still has her sons. They meet Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, and they get married. I wonder how Naomi felt about that. Her two boys marrying Moabite women.

About 10 years later, tragedy strikes again. Naomi’s two sons both die. And now, not only is Naomi is an outsider and widow, now she’s childless. No sons to depend on, which makes her incredibly, incredibly vulnerable. And her daughters-in-law are in a similar situation – widowed and childless. These women who used to be so different from each other are now all too similar.

So now, it is just Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. They used to be strangers. They used to be outsiders to each other, but now they were all each other had left. So it is just the three of them. And now word on the street is that the famine in Bethlehem is over. Naomi can go home! She doesn’t have to live in a foreign land anymore.

So the three set out for Bethlehem…but now there’s a problem. Ruth and Orpah are Moabites. If they go toBethlehem…well…then they would become the foreigners. The outsiders. Does Bethlehem welcome outsiders?

Even though the Moabites welcomed her, I get the sense that Naomi isn’t so sure about her people, the Israelites. Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth to go back. To go back to Moab, their homeland. They’ll be better off there. They won’t have to be strangers and outsiders there.

In fact, Naomi even says this, “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” May God treat you as you have treated me, she says. Do you see what Naomi is saying? She’s giving God some advice. Hey God, you should be like Ruth and Orpah – who welcomed me when I was an outsider. Treat them as they have treated me. Welcome the outsider, God!

Ruth and Orpah don’t want to leave Naomi. And so they go back and forth arguing about it a bit. And did you notice what Naomi refers to them as? She calls them her daughters. Three times! Not daughters-in-law. But daughters. So much for being outsiders and enemies. Love has taken over.

Orpah decides to return home. But Ruth simply cannot do it. It says that Ruth clung to Naomi – which in Hebrew is a word that is reserved for a husband and wife.[1] That’s how close they have become – they’ve become like spouses to each other. These outsiders have become family to each other.

And then Ruth goes with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Bethlehem, now becoming an outsider herself. And not knowing if Bethlehem will welcome outsiders. Or enemies for that matter. Ruth becomes a foreigner, a stranger out of love for her mother-in-law, Naomi.

As the story plays out, Ruth meets a man named Boaz. They get married. And they have a child. Obed. And Obed becomes the grandfather of King David and the great-great-great-great-great…..-grandfather of Jesus. If we look at the lineage of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, you’ll find Ruth’s name there. Ruth the Moabite. Ruth the outsider.

Ruth and Boaz are the great-great-great-grandparents of Jesus. If Ruth had not welcomed Naomi, if Naomi would not have welcomed Ruth…would Jesus have been born?

Consider that for a moment… Jesus is born out of the outsider being welcomed in.

The very presence of God, the very incarnation of God in the world is built on the foundation of welcoming those who are different than us. Those who are seen as outsiders or strangers. The story of Ruth suggests that when we welcome the stranger, like Ruth and Naomi did, we prepare a way for the Lord. When we welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider, that’s when God is born into the world.

And let me tell you, here at St. John’s we’ve been doing that for a long time. Welcoming the outsider.

Did you know that after World War II, St. John’s became a place that welcomed and cared for refugees? Due to the war, over 10 million people were forced to leave their homes and members of St. John’s decided to do something about that. First off, in 1948, we voted to bring the Hungarian family of Josef Varga to here to St. John’s and have Mr. Varga serve as custodian of the church.

Here is what Mr. Varga wrote in a letter to the congregation: We want to tell you all ‘thank you’ for the confidence and trust which you have had in us…Now we are seeing what can be done by a congregation which lives according to the principle of the Bible and which follows in practice the instruction of Jesus Christ.[2]

St. John’s continued to sponsor refugee families, even at one point welcoming 20 new refugee families as new members on one Sunday.

Do you welcome outsiders in your church, she asked me. Of course we do! Not only is it part of our faith, it is part of our history. It is in St. John’s DNA to welcome the outsider. And it’s in our blood. But maybe the Northfield community has forgotten that. Maybe we’ve forgotten that.

We’ve been talking a lot about welcome recently. We’ve been talking about the possibility of making a welcome statement here at St. John’s. A statement that clearly articulates the arms-wide-open welcome that we have here at St. John’s and that we want others to know about. It’s been a good conversation – we’ve heard from many of you who are so glad that we are having this conversation. It’s also been a hard conversation – because it includes talking about welcoming people of all sexual orientations and genders.

I’m so glad we are having the difficult conversations around sexual orientation and gender identity. These are people who have been categorically not welcomed – seen as outsiders – by the Christian church throughout the ages. So I think it is really important that we talk about that. But I also think our conversations around welcome are much bigger than that too. I spoke with someone from our congregation this week who said, “I’m more conservative than others in our congregation. And I’m not sure my conservative beliefs are welcome here.” I bet in some ways, he feels like an outsider here. Does St. John’s welcome outsiders to our church?

I can’t help but wonder…maybe, in some ways, like Ruth and Naomi, we are outsiders to each other. Strangers to one another. And maybe we need this conversation so that, like Ruth and Naomi, we can become like family to each other.

Before the sermon, we sang a prayer that God would gather us in – the lost and the forsaken, the blind and the lame, the rich and the haughty, the proud and the strong. Do you see what we are praying for? That we would be a place where all are welcome.

Does St. John’s welcome outsiders? Yes, of course we do. Though we don’t see them as outsiders. We see them and each other as fellow children of God. This is our calling to welcome the stranger and the outsider, as Ruth did with Naomi, and as Boaz did with Ruth. And when that happens – when the outsider is welcomed in as family, that is when God is born into the world all over again.

Amen.

[1] Alan Storey, http://cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2015-11-01-Alan.mp3

[2] The Book of a Century: 1869-1969, Edna Hong.