Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
November 4, 2018 –Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost
“Wherever you go I will go,” Ruth proclaims to Naomi this morning. These are among the most powerful words in the Bible…in my humble opinion.
It is a statement of loyalty by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. Such loyalty is not automatic and should come to us a bit of a surprise. But it is more than that. Let us look at the context, what happened before the statement is made.
Historically, we are in the time that Israel is a loose federation of tribes to protect them from invasions from hostile tribes. So we find the book of Ruth in our Bibles between the Book of Judges and First Samuel.
It is not an entirely lawless time, but we are out on the frontier. Security is from day to day, and people we do not know are not assumed to be friends.
Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, live near Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah, but they have to emigrate to Moab when famine strikes Israel. They take their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, with them.
Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi alone with her sons. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Even then, we read, people tended to build their demographic…as we are wont to refer to cultural identities today…to mirror, if not match…the families around them.
See how authentic the Bible is? Take just a moment in our meditation here and see how real this ancient, ancient Word manifests itself in our lives today.
Amazing. Don’t miss the amazing things about the truth we read in stories that have been handed down now for 90 generations.
Then the sons die, leaving Naomi, the Bethlehemite widow, alone in a foreign land with two Moabite daughters-in-law.
To say things have gone from bad to worse is a bit of an understatement.
At long last, news arrives that the famine in Judah has ended and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. Knowing how it has been for her to live as a woman in a foreign land, she releases Ruth and Orpah from any obligation to her.
“Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home,” she tells them. “May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.”
They protest, but Naomi speaks more firmly. “Why would you come with me? [I am old and cannot hope to find a husband to protect us.].... It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
Orpah leaves, but Ruth lingers. Naomi tries to run her off, but that is when Ruth protests, concluding, “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
Naomi shrugs and lets her come to be with her, in spite of the fact that it makes no sense. It is obviously not the easy thing…or even the logical thing…for her to do.
She does not want to be a millstone hung on another’s life and she doesn’t need one – the foreign widow of one of her sons – to make her chances even worse.
What good can possibly come from this? But she is powerless to stop this stiff-necked, do-gooder, Moabite daughter-in-law. They go …together. May God go with them.
I think this is a story we can find ourselves in…if we just work at it a little bit. Maybe we all find ourselves these days in a bit of a foreign land.
It is just a little harder for us to tell the Moabites from the Israelites than it would have been for Naomi and Ruth…or their neighbors in Bethlehem.
Koreans said about American troops when I was there, we all look alike…we all have round eyes and big noses. But the cultural differences can be even more significant than the physical ones.
It’s like the difference between the Koreans and the Japanese. They all had almond-shaped eyes and small noses…as I saw them…but if you were on a USO field trip with Koreans in the party, you knew when you were getting close to Japanese tourists.
The Koreans would start talking in a vehement whisper, literally spitting their words out…words that you were pretty sure meant that they felt what they said as they gestured and spoke rapidly.
Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945 and they ruled with a harsh hand, cutting down every tree, reducing Koreans to slave labor and speaking to them, for the most part, more cruelly than they treated them.
If you looked in the direction they were gesturing you could see Asians who dressed a bit differently. The Koreans and the Japanese only agreed about one thing: the Chinese were worse than either of them.
There is a saying in foreign policy circles that if the Japanese and the Chinese ever formed an alliance they would rule the world. But don’t worry: It will never happen.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is questioned by another faithful Jew. The interrogator in this case is an expert in the law and he has heard Jesus parry and thrust with Sadducees and Pharisees over giving unto God that which is God’s and resurrection of the dead.
The knowledgeable bystander asks a simple question…but it is a deep question: What is the greatest commandment?
There can be only one answer: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
He is quoting, of course, from the Shema, Israel’s sacred prayer of the Passover celebration in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’
It is a home run, as we Americans might say…especially Red Sox fans. But he does not stop there. He is an itinerant rabbi from the hill country in Jerusalem…a country boy from Shelby in Washington, D.C…a flatlander in the Flathead.
He adds that the second most important commandment is much like it, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.”
I like to think that Jesus would have looked the law expert in the eye as he said that, the way I looked people in the eye when they first heard I had become the pastor of a little church in Huntley, just east of Billings and they asked me, “You?!”
I’ve told you that at first it hurt when they said that, maybe a little like the sting the lawman meant to lay on Jesus with his question.
But then I found my voice and I began to look them in the eye as I answered their one word question and said, “It can happen to anyone. It can happen to anyone.”
Jesus simply said, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe it was his way of putting on a cardigan and singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
So here we are in the land of e pluribus unum…out of many, one…as the Founders like to refer to their country…an early forerunner of “Won’t you be my neighbor?”…looking at each other to figure out whether we think immigration or Russian interference is the greater threat to representative democracy.
I recently finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. I have to tell you that at the end of the book I liked Franklin both more and less than I had before.
He was a genius and a charmer, self-absorbed and irresistibly curious about the world around him…a writer and a scientist and a statesman.
He was the only American founder that had a hand in all of our founding documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
After the Constitutional Convention a woman asked him what kind of government they had created, he said, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
The things that make us one are always more powerful than the things that pull us apart and the one thing that makes us one this morning is…Jesus.
So let me ask you just a few questions as we prepare to go back into the world and solve all of its problems by 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday.
If you are a Republican and Jesus was waiting for you when you got home from church and he said he was running as a Democrat, would you vote for him?
If you are a Democrat and he was waiting for you to tell you he was running as a Republican, would you vote for him?
Would you campaign for him? Go door-to-door for him? Tell all your friends that he was the one who could save the world from itself today?
On the other hand…if Satan was waiting for you to tell you he could sweep your party, just to its greatest electoral victory in history…would you invite him in?
If the answers to these questions are not Yes, and Yes and No, maybe we should skip the football games this afternoon and have a good think with ourselves and about ourselves.
If our answers are Yes, Yes and No, we should ask ourselves if Jesus hasn’t already been through enough …or why we don’t think Jesus is more important than all that.
This is a way, of course, for you to figure out who your God is. Everyone has a God. For some it’s money, for others power, for others addictions.
But of all the gods you can pick, the God of the Bible is the kindest and most loving of all. The rest take something from you. Your job, your health, your family, your life.
But the God of the Bible only asks you to love the truth and love your neighbor. That’s all, and you can end up loving your life, too.
We are all Americans and we have been blessed more greatly than we could ever hope. Most of all we have been blessed with each other and a common dream.
It has always been this way. As we will see next week, Naomi helps Ruth find a nice Jewish man for a husband and she has a son, Obed, who has a son, Jesse, who has a son, David, who will be the greatest of kings and whose line will one day give us Jesus.
That same Jesus looks his learned interrogator in the eye this morning, after the man has told anyone with ears that this itinerant rabbi from the hill country has answered better than his city slicker power broker friends.
“Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said…to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important.
We are all Americans. So as we wait for our votes to be counted, may we, with Ruth, say, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God…. May the LORD do this to me and more so if even death separates us as human beings.”
May we say, with the high powered lawyer, to love God with our heart, mind, and strength…and to love our neighbors as ourselves is vastly more important than anything else we can do…says infinitely more about us than anything that might come from our lips.
Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through me this day? Amen.