[ A sermon given at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, Henrietta NY, on 11/11/18, based on Ruth 4:13-18 and Mark 13:38-44.]
Perhaps all border crossings are dangerous. Will the border officials receive us or reject us? If we make it across the border, will the citizens of the country on the other side welcome us or distrust us? Perhaps they will resent us, thinking we have crossed the border for devious purposes. To steal their jobs. To do violence.
Crossing a national border can be dangerous. I have visited many countries, but I have never crossed a border on foot as a refugee or immigrant. My mother did, though not on foot; it was in a ship from her Italian birthplace to this land of opportunity. She was not quite seven years old. On the Atlantic crossing, her mother got violently ill. Her children and friends protected her, because they knew she might be rejected at Ellis Island. My grandmother didn’t want to tell anyone or see a doctor, for the same fear. And she didn’t speak English. When they arrived at Ellis Island, others schooled her to look healthy and say as little as possible. A kind agent gave my mother’s family passage to this new world. Border crossed. My mother loved to tell me that story and I loved to hear it.
The border before us in Ruth is an ancient one: the border between Israel and Moab. These two little middle eastern countries don’t like or trust each other. The border between them is the lower Jordan River valley, dominated by the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the planet. It is a barrier more daunting than any wall. Yet, in desperate circumstances, people will cross such a border.
It is a desperate time in Bethlehem. There is a famine in the land. One father and mother decide, perhaps for the good of their two sons, to make the dangerous border crossing to Moab, where there is no famine. Their names are Elimelek and Naomi; their sons are Mahlon and Chilion. It is not an easy or safe walk, but they make it. Moab is a land with a different language, culture, and God. Yet they find a place there. They are welcomed. Then Elimelek dies. Naomi is a widow in a strange country, with two sons. She makes a home there. In a decade, her sons grow to manhood. They fall in love with Moabite women. Mahlon marries Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah. Naomi is pleased. And then, like lightning striking three times in the same place, her sons die in the foreign land where her husband is already buried in a non-kosher cemetery. Her grief is palpable. Her heart is broken. Her security is vanished.
She hears that the famine has ended. She makes a bold decision for a single woman. She will return to Bethlehem by herself. Her two daughters by marriage walk a ways with her. She thinks it is to say goodbye. But, no, they want to go on with her. She implores them to turn back to their homeland. She reasons with them. Orpah heeds her wisdom, says her teary goodbye, and returns to her home in Moab. Ruth, however, will not go back.
That leads to the most memorable and quoted words from Ruth:
“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.
Where you die, I will die; there will I be buried.”
Those words are often read at weddings (they were at mine), but the context is far from a wedding. It is a widowed young woman from one country speaking to a widowed old woman from another.
On Naomi and Ruth go to cross a national border, always a dangerous thing to do. Bethlehem welcomes back Naomi. They recognize her. They embrace her. They don’t know that she is grieving, but she makes it clear to them.
–“And who is this young woman with you, Naomi? When you left, you had two sons, but no daughters.”
–“You remember right. This is Ruth, a Moabite who married my son Mahlon. But he too is now dead, buried by his father in Moab, as is the other son. Ruth is now a daughter to me. She insisted on coming with me, even when I told her to stay in her homeland.”
–“Then we welcome Ruth, a woman of character and heart. If you accept her, we accept her.”
The famine is over, but people must work in order to eat. Ruth goes to work in a field. She works hard and her work is noticed. The owner of the field, a good man named Boaz, asks about this hard-working young woman in his fields that he doesn’t know. He is told that she is Naomi’s daughter by marriage and that she is a Moabite who is taking care of the old widow Naomi.
Naomi realizes that Boaz is a relative of her dead husband. Boaz is a man of standing, a man of honor. Naomi devises a scheme for Ruth to get Boaz’s attention as more than a good field worker.
–“Ruth, wash up, put on Oil of Olay, your best makeup and perfume. Wear your best outfit. When Boaz has his fill of good food and wine and is sleeping, go to the foot of his bed and rest there. You will get his attention.”
Ruth obeys and Boaz notices that she is more than a good field worker. More than a Moabite who is incredibly kind to the old widow Naomi, who was once married to his relative, Elimelek. It didn’t take long before Boaz took Ruth the Moabite as his bride. It was as good as Captain VonTrapp marrying Maria.
Soon after, Ruth, who had borne no children through Mahlon, is pregnant. She bears a son and they name him Obed. When Naomi welcomes her grandson, all the women of Bethlehem rush to rejoice with her. The family name will live on, with thanks to a young Moabite named Ruth. And Obed grows and becomes the father of Jesse. And Jesse grows and becomes the father of David. And David becomes the great King of Israel. And 28 generations later, the line of David produces a son named Jesus. When we go to Matthew 1, there is a genealogy of Jesus the Savior. And in that genealogy, is the name of a Moabite, Ruth: an outsider, a foreigner, an other.
That Jesus, the one born in Naomi’s hometown, Boaz’s hometown, and Ruth’s adopted home, has arrived in Jerusalem, just five miles from Bethlehem. After being born in Bethlehem, he, a toddler, is carried across a border into Egypt, because of the violence about to break out in Bethlehem. Like Moab centuries before, Jews and Egyptians don’t like or trust each other. It is a dangerous border crossing for a young Jewish couple and their little son. Yet they are welcomed by Egypt. Our Lord Jesus was once a political refugee, an alien, perhaps an undocumented immigrant. When the violence in Bethlehem has ended, they return to Israel, but north to Nazareth. That probably means crossing the dangerous border into and through Samaria. Jesus knows that well. Telling about who our neighbor is, he makes a Samaritan the model for being a good neighbor. He once stops at a well at midday in Samaria and has a conversation with a woman with a checkered past. That conversation changes her life. Jesus once crosses the northern border of Israel into Phoenicia and a Gentile woman with a sick daughter finds him. She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus does and their lives are changed.
Now Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Temple. Here is what happens (Mark 12:41-44 from “The Message”:
“Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, ‘The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.’”
In front of the religious elite, she might as well have been crossing a border as she walked forward with her measly offering. Unlike the religious leaders of that day, this poor old widow is a model for faithful living. Like Naomi and Ruth.
This Gospel, this Good News, is all about God sending Jesus to cross dangerous borders to welcome and embrace others. In a time in which the others in our land and in our world are increasingly feared and demonized, God embraces the others. Like Moabites. Like Gentiles. Like Samaritans. Like grieving widows. Like refugees, aliens, and immigrants. Like us.
We have met three unforgettable widows today: old Naomi, young Ruth, and an unnamed poor one. Three widows and one Lord who uses old widows, young widows, and even Moabites in the great story of the Good News of Jesus. Three widows. Three unlikely players in God’s great drama. God in Christ is ever making dangerous border crossings.