Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
There are a lot of books saying that all of us are totally formed by the time we have left kindergarten. However, there is a lot to be said that our final formation comes once we survive High School. These mornings readings are all about being in the in crowd. There are some that read the Old Testament and say that it is all about Israel. God is only about the Jews no one else is of importance to God. You have to be one of the popular kids, the in crowd for God to care about you. So how about all of us that were members of the chess club and were never cheer leaders or someone very popular. Does God care about the geeks, nerds, tomboys, cheerleaders, mean girls, foreigners, gamers, hipsters, hippies, troublemakers, peacemakers, class clowns, arty intellectuals, gangsters, "ghetto kids", stoners/slackers, girly girls, scenesters, scene kids, punks, skaters, hipsters and emos? Does God only care about the preps, the Jocks, and the mean girls?
Does God care about everyone or just a few is a question that is still very relevant today, but the reality is that the Bible shows us both sides of the equation. In Ezra and Nehemiah, we find God only interested in one nation and one people. God only cares about the popular kids. Nehemiah is against intermarriage and talks in terms of a pure nation. In other words, you should never date outside your clique. The cheerleaders can only date the Football players.
Then along comes the wonderful book of Ruth that blows up the whole idea of only the popular kids are interesting to God. God only cares about one group. Ruth shows us that even before Jesus God was never that way.
As we finish the bruising and constant battle between two groups who almost seem to hate one another called the elections we suddenly find out that God loves both sides. The election cycle is a little bit like high School, there is the same name calling and group think and need for popularity happens every election cycle. Instead of the popular people against the nerds, we have the Democrats against the Republicans with a dash of independents. We never get that far from High School.
Two ways of understanding God's call to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah stand in tension with one another several times throughout the Hebrew Bible. One set of eyes sees the call to Abraham and those who followed as calling them to be leaven in the large loaf of all humankind. God promises Abraham that through him, "all the families of the world will be blessed." (Genesis 12:3) The prophet Isaiah picks this vision up much later when he writes that God says it is too little for the people to follow God just for themselves but reminds them they are called to be a "light to the nations." (Isaiah 49:6)
The record of the Hebrew Bible, from this point of view, shows God constantly reaching out not to a particular nation, but to all human beings, seeking reconciliation and renewal.
Alongside this view of the mission of the Hebrew people, however, lies another strand which tends toward an exclusivist understanding of God's covenant with them. Perhaps the best examples of this vision are recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah where an emphasis is placed on the importance of the purity of the returning exiles. Intermarriage, for example, is banned. God has made a covenant with Israel, and therefore a special relationship exists which is not available to other people and may be stained by too close contact with other nations.
The little book of Ruth stands firmly in the inclusivist camp in the history of the Hebrew people. Despite its placement in the canon at the time of the Judges, many scholars assume it was written in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah precisely to raise a voice for inclusion in the middle of a very nationalistic period in the history of Israel. The end of the book gives its agenda away by noting that the whole point of telling this story is that Ruth, born in Moab, is a foremother of the great King David. The big neon sign is there flashing, "See, even David was not of pure blood!"
So, Ruth gives us the opportunity to speak about the fact that God keeps calling people from the most unexpected of places into the great promise, despite the efforts of those who think they are the only ones called to keep others out. If a young Moabite widow can find a place in the royal bloodline, whom else might God have the audacity to invite? Scripture keeps expanding the image of who a neighbor might be, not just in the life of Jesus, but long before.
Yet we do Ruth a disservice if we say her story is only a symbol for a larger Theo-political historical argument. For she also gives us a very intimate example of what Jesus meant by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We have heard her words at so many weddings that undoubtedly most casual worshippers assume they are part if a poem spoken by a woman to her lover. They are much more powerful when one considers they are spoken by a woman to her mother-in-law. She doesn't address a sister here or a best friend or even her own mother. She tells this foreign woman, to whom she has no legal obligation following the death of her husband, that she will die before she allows herself to be parted from Naomi. Ruth and Naomi do not share the same gods or the same genealogy or the same nationality, and yet Ruth loves her deeply and opens herself to expanding her own understanding of religion, family and nationality by entering this committed relationship.
This is not about national or religious politics alone, but about two people reaching beyond artificial barriers to love one another. Their example calls us to expand our understanding of neighbor, but first it was simply two women taking care of each other. Perhaps they speak to us across millennia to remind us that God changes the world most often two people at a time.
The “in group” and the “out group” we find in High School repeats itself again and again in our lives. We see some of the same thinking in the Bible. In some passages the Jews who are the inner circle when it comes to God. But in stark contrast to that there is the wonderful book of Ruth. The book of Ruth is all about including others. The book of Ruth shatters the whole High School view and calls for us to include everyone.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
If you want a great examination of the reality of High School, you only need to view once again ’The Breakfast Club’. You could have picked any film from director John Hughes’s canon, but this one reigns supreme. Five high schoolers—the jock (Emilio Estevez), the punk (Judd Nelson), the geek (Anthony Michael Hall), the popular girl (Molly Ringwald) and the outcast (Ally Sheedy)—bond over one day’s detention and realize that maybe they’re not all so different after all. In the end they are all together.
There is also the classic John Hughes film 16 Candles” in which Molly Ringwald stars in as a misfit teen whose 16th birthday is completely ruined when her parents overlook her in favor of her sister's upcoming wedding. Add to that an endless string of humiliations, from bullying classmates to an insufferably horny geek who won't leave her alone. It is another quick plunge into High School thinking.
Another film is Pretty in Pink where once again John Hughes found his muse in Molly Ringwald, here playing the confident and cool Andie, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for Andrew McCarthy's preppy (and rich) Blane. The mismatched pair's chances at true love are tested by Blane's snobby friends and Andie's awkward best friend, Duckie (Jon Cryer). Clique warfare is starkly illustrated by the way that Blane and Andie are treated by both sides.
The great Boston politician and former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, once said that all politics are local. Ruth and Naomi may be reminding us that following God is about the little picture as much as the big one.
Why was Ruth moved to say to Naomi that not only would she travel with her, but that she would now worship Naomi's God? Perhaps she and Naomi had had many theological conversations while baking bread, but it's doubtful Ruth's conversion came from intellectual stimulation. More probable is that she saw in Naomi a love and loyalty that moved her to want to know more about Naomi's foundations of faith. Conversion comes most often not from convincing the head with astute arguments but living love.
Louis Sachar's marvelous book for "tweens" called Holes (and the recent movie of the same story) presents two traveling companions with much in common with Ruth and Naomi. Zero and Stanley are two teenage boys incarcerated in a prison camp for adolescents. On the surface, they come from different worlds. Zero is black, homeless, illiterate and small, and therefore an outcast even in prison. Stanley is big, smart, from a good home, and innocent both of his crime and of the larger world, and that makes him equally an outcast. Through a desert journey, Stanley and Zero come to see not only what they have deeply in common with one another, but also how they need each other for both survival and redemption. Many of the youth and their parents in our congregations will know this book well.
One of the most hopeful stories to come out of the 2000 Olympic games tells of two friends, Esther Kim and Kay Poe, both competing for one spot on the US Tae Kwon Do team. Each battled through their respective bouts until Poe dislocated her kneecap while winning her semi-final round. Kim and Poe were to fight in the final round, and Poe said she would fight through her injury. Kim said it was not fair for her to fight a wounded opponent, and so she forfeited the round, and therefore the spot on the team, to her friend. Poe asked her not to do this, but Kim insisted. Kim was reported to have said, "It did hurt, but winning a gold medal isn't everything. There are other ways to be a champion." In the end, the IOC also sent Kim to the Olympics as an alternate out of respect for her generosity to her friend.
As the mother of three adopted children whose race is different from mine, I occasionally am asked why I didn't adopt a child of my own race and national origin. I know interracially married couples sometimes get a similar question. I often respond with words I heard Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund once use in a speech, "Aren't they all our children?"
One of the greatest challenges in crossing borders is dealing with differences in language. When the war in Iraq started earlier this year, one of the issues that military planners struggled with was how the American soldiers would be able to communicate with the local Iraqi citizens, since very few Americans know how to speak Arabic. But shortly before the conflict began, army researchers developed a portable, handheld translator device. The so called "Phraselator" makes it possible for a soldier to speak into the unit and say something like, "Do you know where Saddam Hussein is?" Immediately the translator converts those English words into Arabic words which are projected through a speaker on the device. The army has a program with a code name of "Babylon," where the goal is to make it possible to immediately translate a speaker's words into any of the world's 6,700 languages. At present, the only limitation of the device is that it can only go from English into other languages. It cannot currently receive foreign languages and convert them into English. The Phraselator is about the size of the common PDA, and it weighs less than 1 ½ pounds. Although the device cannot spontaneously translate foreign words into English, it does have the capability of recording what people say so that later translation work can be done.
When the United States was in its earliest days, there were two major political parties. The Federalists, with John Adams as their standard bearer, advocated a strong central government. The Republicans, in contrast, rallied behind Thomas Jefferson and promoted the importance of states' rights. As immigration began to increase substantially in the first years of the nineteenth century, the Federalists hurried to enact the Naturalization Act. The law raised from five to fourteen years the length of time that an immigrant had to live in the United States before he or she could become a citizen and thus be eligible to vote in elections. Historians today generally agree that the purpose of that legislation was merely a Federalist ploy to counter the success that the Republicans were having with attracting new immigrants to their party. Even today, foreign immigrants are often by judged by how they will help or hinder particular political agendas.
Those who are from other lands often do not get to enjoy the same liberties offered to those who are native born. During the presidency of John Adams, the Congress passed the Alien Enemies Act, which empowered the president to confine and deport aliens of an enemy country during a time of war. Those aliens were offered no recourse in American courts, and the president did not have to offer any justification for his actions. If, for instance, the United States found itself at war with Spain, the president was permitted to deport any Spanish person in the nation whether there was a reasonable basis to do so or not. In many respects, the Alien Enemies Act was an early forerunner of the current Patriot Act, which permits the federal government to detain aliens with virtually no legal protections.
What would happen to the biblical story if free migration of individuals and groups had not been possible? The story of Ruth and Naomi would never have happened. The story of Abraham and Sarah journeying from Ur to Palestine would have been impossible. And the saga of Jacob and his family settling in Egypt would never have happened if free migration was not an accepted practice. Those, of course, are but a few of the biblical examples. Catholic bishops in Tucson, Arizona and in the Mexican city of Hermosillo, Sonora, have called on the United States and Mexico to recognize international migration as a basic human right. Furthermore, the bishops are urging the government to grant amnesty to all aliens who have entered the United States illegally. The bishops' pleas are in response to the increasing number of deaths in the southwestern deserts as desperate Mexicans attempt to enter the United States, often only to perish due to the heat and lack of water. Also, the bishops recognize a renewed hostility against Mexicans by those who live near the border, with many ranchers and other property owners aggressively tracking down those Mexicans who attempt to cross into the United States.
Those who are considered to be outsiders are often provided with fewer rights than those who belong to the inside group and control the reins of power. Iran's parliament approved a bill late last year that would provide equal amounts of compensation in "blood money" to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The move was meant to ensure the rights of various religious minorities. Blood money is the compensation that a convicted attacker is required to pay a victim or a victim's family. Before the law was adopted, if a Muslim man was killed, about $18,750 in blood money was required to be paid to his survivors. But if a Christian, Jew, Zoroastrian, or a woman of any religion was murdered, the required blood money was only about half that amount.
Ruth demonstrates that true love, or charity, involves a personal commitment to another in need. In Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, John Bossy observes that at the beginning of that period, "charity" generally referred to the state of love or affection which was expected to exist between fellow Christians. But by 1700, Bossy observes, "charity" had primarily changed in meaning from that personal involvement in loving another person to an institutional means of carrying out that love. The word had ceased to carry any connotation of a bond between people. In other words, "charity" no longer was something that you participated in. Rather it was an outside entity that engaged in charity in your stead or on your behalf.
It's helpful to remember that throughout most of Christian history, North Americans were outsiders. Although most of the important biblical and theological works that we are aware of today are written primarily in English, German, and French, those languages were all latecomers in the overall history of Christianity. In fact, almost no Christian teaching existed in any of those languages prior to the sixteenth century. Christianity did just fine without Russian or French for about half of its history. English, German, and Spanish had no role in Christian churches for almost two-thirds of the faith's history.
In our mobile society today, we sometimes might fail to appreciate how difficult it must have been for people like Naomi and Ruth and their families to move their homes from one place to another. For many years, American workers didn't give to much thought to relocating from one place to another for their work. The assumption was that their company would more than adequately compensate them for the journey. Today, however, many employees report that whereas they used to be compensated for moving costs and offered cash incentives to relocate, today many businesses offer workers little or no assistance with their moves. Apparently companies are trying to control their costs, because according to the Employee Relocation Council, the average cost to move an employee who owns a home is $60,831. If the employee is a renter, though, the cost is only $18,564. Overall, top-level executives still seem to be offered top-of-the line treatment when it comes time to move. But middle-level and lower-level workers tend to be given much less. In many cases, the company merely offers to rent a truck for them and expects the worker to do his own packing and moving. The result of all that is that more workers are thinking longer and harder before accepting the invitation to accept employment in a new town.
Even though Naomi gave Ruth the opportunity to excuse herself from any further commitment to her mother-in-law, Ruth determined that she did not want to opt out of serving Naomi. In the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, citizens there are able to opt out of military service by paying the equivalent of $550. It seems that the Kyrgyzstan parliament took that action simply to legalize what was already being widely done. For many years, residents of that Central Asian country have offered bribes to avoid having to serve in their nation's military. The $550 amount, however, is no small price tag in that relatively impoverished land, where the average wage is about $30 per month.
The story of Ruth's decision to serve Naomi while Orpah decided to part ways with her mother-in-law is perhaps a commentary on how we are often faced with circumstances where we must decide whether helping others is our highest goal, or whether seeking our own comfort and security is what is of paramount importance to us. There is an ancient Jewish story about a righteous rabbi who was given a tour of both purgatory and heaven. First, when he was taken to purgatory, he heard all kinds of dreadful, mournful screams coming from the poor, tormented beings there. As he drew near and could see what was going on, he saw that they were all sitting around a huge banquet table. The table was filled with exquisite silverware, china, and abundant portions of all kinds of delicious food. But as the rabbi looked closer at the people in purgatory, he noticed that all their elbows were inverted, so that they weren't able to bend their arms and bring the food to their mouths. Next the rabbi was taken up into heaven, where he heard laughter and sounds of joyous celebration. The rabbi was astonished, though, when he looked at the people in heaven and saw that the exact same scene that he had just observed in purgatory. The table in heaven was similarly set with fine silverware, china, and much delicious food. Everything was the same, including that the people in heaven also had inverted elbows. The one difference, though, was that in heaven, instead of each person vainly struggling to help themselves, each person used their disfigured arms to feed his or her neighbor.
For centuries, Protestantism was a phenomenon that was located almost exclusively in Europe and North America. As far as Protestants were concerned, the rest of the world were outsiders to their faith. In 1800, only about one percent of all Protestants lived outside of Europe and North America. A hundred years later that number had risen to 10%. Today somewhere around two-thirds of all Protestants live outside of Europe and North America. The Protestant family has managed to cross borders in ways that at one time might have been thought unimaginable.
"The good family isn't one in which problems don't occur, but one in which the members work together to solve problems as they happen." (Bruno Bettelheim)
"Each of us will have our own different ways of expressing love and care for the family. But unless that is a high priority, we will find that we may gain the whole world and lose our own children." (Michael Green)
"A family is a place where principles are hammered and honed on the anvil of everyday living." (Charles Swindoll)
"Loving relationships are a family's best protection against the challenges of the world." (Bernie Wiebe)
"When you feel that all is lost, sometimes the greatest gain is ready to be yours." (Thomas a Kempis)
"Never look at what you have lost; look at what you have left." (Robert Schuller)
Just as the story of Ruth can be read as a tract against intolerance, a story of a woman crossing human-made barriers, so can the animated film Ice Age be seen. Sid the Sloth finds a baby human whose mother has been killed by sabre tooth tigers. He enlists the help of Manfred the Mammoth. Sid, it seems, has overslept the departure of his family and most other animals, all of which are migrating south because of the advancing wall of ice. Manfred has lagged behind because he prefers to be alone, and this desire intensifies with the attempt of Sid to pair up with him. He very reluctantly agrees to help take the infant back to his people but insists that then they will split up. Soon the two are joined by a third rescuer in the person of Diego the Saber Tooth. He has been sent by the leader of his pack to befriend the pair of rescuers so that he can lead them into an ambush, after which the saber tooth’s will dine on the child. Of course, along the way Diego is won over by his adversaries, discovering that what makes a herd (read "family") is more than belonging to the same species—very similar to what Jesus once said in reply to his enquiring family, "Who is my mother, and…Here (indicating his disciples and the crowd hanging onto his every word) is my mother, and…" (Mt. 12:46-50) Or to Ruth's beautiful words to her mother-in-law, "Entreat me not…"
Ruth and Naomi could be considered as forming a proto-church, anticipating the church at Pentecost when people from virtually every nation heard and responded to Peter's sermon. Jane Parker Huber sees the church as a partnership in her hymn "Called As Partners In Christ's Service." Those called to "ministries of grace" are men and women, rich and poor, young and old—all joining in their service of Christ and neighbor. With words and deeds the partners break down "each wall or fence," this being a reference to the Ephesians passage about Christ breaking down the "wall of hostility" that separated Jew and gentile. In the light of Ruth crossing over the divide between Moabites and Hebrews, those preaching on this passage might want to sing this great hymn of unity in service.
Larry Wood and Rafael Sencion worked together eight years, helping low-income people who lived in hotels to get needed repairs and assisting those who faced eviction.
The city cut some funds, and Larry Wood, who had a wife and a three-year-old daughter, received notice that he would be laid off. Sencion, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was a bachelor. He found it unacceptable that he, who had only himself to support, should continue to work, while a man with a family to support was laid off.
Rafael Sencion did what most people would not consider_he went to the supervisor and told her that Larry Wood must have work. Sencion stepped out of the job.
"There's no way to repay him," Wood said…"He's a true friend. No, he's actually more than that. He's part of my family now." (Friend in need, a friend indeed [Associated Press].
My first ministry was in a Japanese-American congregation in downtown Los Angeles. I was their first youth director. My wife and I, along with another woman married to a Japanese American man, were the only Anglos in this 400-member congregation. The Issei (first generation) service was in Japanese, and the Nisei and Sansei service was in English. It was a fascinating role reversal for us suburban Anglos to be in the extreme minority and gave me an appreciation for the prejudice and loneliness faced by ethnic minorities in a majority white society. At a dinner following my commissioning, my mother learned that she and the man in front of her in the food line had attended the same high school at the same time. When asked if he remembered her, he wryly replied "All you white people look alike to us," something I'm sure he'd been yearning to say for years.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Praise the Lord! O praise the Lord!
People: I will praise the Lord as long as I live.
Leader: Do not place Your trust in men and women, for they will die and their plans with them.
People: Happy is the one whose help and hope is the everlasting God!
Leader: The Lord sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the oppressed and loves the righteous.
People: The Lord will be in control forever. Praise the Lord!
Loving God, we confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. When others try to become a part of our lives, they are shunned. We diminish our capacity for community by notions of self-interest and security. Forgive us, we pray. Help us to not merely welcome the stranger but offer her an invitation. Increase our family of faith that the kingdom of love would prevail over all. Amen.
Almighty God, we make these offerings with the faith and hope that they will be used to advance Your holy community. We ask that You redeem these dollars and cents, that their past work would be superseded by the goodness they will work now, with Your grace. In Christ Jesus we pray, Amen.
God of Life and Love, we thank You for Your grace. We thank You for the community of faith into which You have delivered us, and we thank You for each of the persons who make up this community. The variety of personalities, the multiplicity of character sit is all for our betterment. We pray that You would continue this work of deliverance. Bring more persons into our community and empower us to go into the world and invite them.
We pray that this would not happen in our congregation alone. We pray for the Church Universal: that others would see the light of Christ's love and that it would warm the hearts of all God’s creatures. Let no one be hidden from Your light, O God. Allow no one to be excluded from Your holy community of agape love. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.