If you can remember back that far, we had a sermon series on the book of Ruth last summer, so instead of boring you all with the details of the background of Ruth today, I’m going to give you a pop quiz to see how much about Ruth you remember. First, we hear the names of two countries in today’s reading, Judah and Moab. What was the relationship between these two countries like? It’s complicated. The people of these two countries considered themselves distant cousins, of a sort, but they were usually fighting amongst themselves. And the Israelites had a bad origin story about the Moabites, claiming they were descended from an incestuous relationship between Abraham’s nephew Lot and one of his daughters. Did the Israelites and the Moabites worship the same god? No, and this is one of the points of contention between them. Why would an upstanding man from Judah take his family to live in Moab, then? There was a famine in Bethlehem, but we don’t know why he chose Moab instead of another country. Perhaps he’d heard there was food there. What does the name “Bethlehem” mean in Hebrew? House of bread. Oh, so the author of the story of Ruth is saying that there was no bread in the house of bread. That’s a funny play on words to describe a serious situation!
Lest we think that migration due to a famine or some other inability to get food is a problem for long ago and far away, in order to set the stage for our story of Ruth, I want to tell you a true story, in the present time, about a family in Venezuela who was hungry, and what they had to do to survive. Because of the political and economic crisis in that country, this family, whose last name is Gregorios, could not find enough food to feed their baby girl. They knew that Peru was welcoming refugees, and so they walked. They walked 950 miles over mountains in blazing sun and bone-chilling rain, arriving exhausted and with sores on their feet, simply to find food and safety, which was given to them in Peru. They were given temporary shelter in a Lutheran church in Peru, as well as help in navigating the immigration system. And this family is only a few people of more than 600,000 Venezuelans making the dangerous journey to find food and safety in a country that will welcome them. https://lwr.org/story-hub/hunger-drove-venezuelan-family-peru-and-you-were-there-greet them?fbclid=IwAR1ssyUYwWfA6dKu5mBwyv2esnN7moIADbwJzAuGpe2AEBhI9SP9k5JB9nA
Another story, one that hits a little bit closer to home. A widow in Guatemala had a husband who came to the United States to find work because the crops failed and they had no food, and he died from an infection while in the U.S. He had borrowed thousands of dollars to make the trip here, and when he died, he left his family back home in debt. Two of their sons died in Guatemala of malnutrition-related illnesses. The widow pulled her third son out of school so he could work in fields that were growing and help to pay off the family’s debt. If the debt isn’t paid, the lenders will seize the family land. The widow does not want to see her remaining son leave for the United States, but there is little hope for them in Guatemala, since there is no food, so she will allow him to go. She says that food simply doesn’t grow in Guatemala. But, in contrast to Peru, the U.S. will not welcome these immigrants, despite the fact that climate change that we have helped to cause is what is causing the drought in Guatemala. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/opinion/guatemala-migrants-climate-change.html
The story of Naomi’s family migrating to Moab in search of food continues today. We don’t know how they were welcomed into Moab, but evidently it wasn’t too bad, even though they were Israelites, because they were able to live there for many years, and Mahlon and Chilion took Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. This Israelite family assimilated into life in Moab. But then, disaster happens. Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, had died earlier in the story. Ten years after the two boys got married, both Mahlon and Chilion also died. And there were no children from either marriage. So now, Naomi is left with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. She is grief-stricken, and she decides to return to her homeland that she left long ago. And she has heard that the Lord has finally considered the Lord’s people and given them food.
Well, you know the story. Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to turn back. Orpah finally relents and returns to her people, but Ruth clings to her. Where once Naomi was the immigrant, facing a new life and a new people, now their roles are reversed, and Ruth is the immigrant, the foreigner. Hearing Ruth’s vow to cling to Naomi makes me even more impressed with her. Ruth does not seem to care that she will be an immigrant, that in the rest of the story she will be called, “Ruth the Moabite,” to remind Naomi’s people that she is not one of them. Even Naomi does not seem to appreciate Ruth’s presence until she begins to bring grain back from Boaz’s field. None of this matters to Ruth. Her call is to stay with her mother-in-law no matter what. Those of you mothers in the congregation who have daughters-in-law: you may or may not have a good relationship with them. But think for a moment: in a similar situation, would your daughter-in-law show this kind of devotion to you? If you were all alone in the world and decided to move to a different country, would your daughter-in-law come with you to care for you?
I love to tell the story of how, when my parents were first married, they were searching for a place to worship. And they went to one congregation where the pastor preached that “Ruth was a good woman because she knew her place.” And my father’s response was to say that they were never returning to that church, because, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to that crap.” I love telling this story, first of all, because it gives you insight into the type of man my father is. But secondly, it is to show how wrong this pastor was: Ruth did not “know her place”. Her place, according to the world around her and the Israelite community that she was traveling to with Naomi, was to go back to Moab and remain with her family, worshiping her gods, until they could find another husband for her. But Ruth rebelled against that for love of her old and bitter mother-in-law. She returned with Naomi and became part of the Israelite community in Bethlehem. She married an Israelite man and became a mother. And her great-grandson was King David. And much further on down the line, her descendant was none other than Jesus.
We never know what role any individual human being may play in our world history. We never know what God has in mind for any one of us. We do know that God crosses boundaries, especially human-made ones, to show us that God loves all of us. I think this story of Ruth should motivate us to treat immigrants more kindly, if the fact that our own ancestors were immigrants does not move us to help. We should also consider that we might be in the same situation one day. Climate change is happening. We are feeling its effects already here in the United States, in the form of heat waves, longer summers, more rain than usual or punishing droughts. Sea levels are rising already in places like Miami, and the permafrost in Alaska is thawing. It may be that one day we, or our children or grandchildren, will be migrating in search of food. Will other countries welcome us? Or will they turn us back, as we have turned back so many, claiming that we don’t “know our place” and should go back where we came from?
The ELCA, at the Churchwide Assembly this past summer, declared itself a sanctuary denomination. We are still hashing out what that means in our individual contexts. At the minimum, it means that we will show concern for immigrants and their needs. God commands us numerous times in the Holy Scriptures that we are to show kindness to the foreigner and the alien, and more than that. Leviticus 19:33-34 tells us “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Jesus takes up that command in Matthew when he says, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. . .just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The story of Ruth shows us one example of how ordinary people lived out the command to show kindness to the alien and the foreigner in their daily lives, and her story continues to be a model for us today. How will we Christians here in the United States respond to those who come to our country searching for food or fleeing from violence? Will we write letters to those in power, urging them to change our laws for the better? Will we give money to organizations that are on the ground, helping those in need? Will we volunteer to help refugees and immigrants better assimilate into our communities? Or will we fall prey to fear of the other and tell them they should go back to their countries, where they face certain death? What would Jesus do? His words ring out, haunting us: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Amen.