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Sermon – November 8, 2009: Not To Leave You

Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2009 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Not to Leave You

Ruth 3: 1-5, 4: 13-17; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

Matthew’s gospel begins with broad hints of the global significance of Jesus.

There’s a holiday for the visit of the wise men, so we recognize them as foreigners bidden

to come and worship the king of the Jews, and see how that foreshadows the fulfillment of

Isaiah’s vision of the nations being drawn to, and redeemed by, Jerusalem. Before that,

however–before what we conceive of the action of the story beginning–Matthew has

another clue that being Chosen has outgrown its racial and cultural bounds. It is a genealogy

of Jesus, and in that genealogy, among the other ancestors, are mixed outsiders who

anticipated, by their early intermingling, the worldwide redemption of Christ.

Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law from the land of Moab, is on the list as King David’s

grandmother. She is there to confirm, for the first-century followers of Jesus, that the people

God now chooses are gathered irrespective of race or language or nationality. It is kinship

with Christ, a sincere desire to join themselves to the household of God, which makes them

belong. All those difficult-to-pronounce ethnicities we meet in the Pentecost story, Parthians

and Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappodocia, Phrygia

and Pamphylia, the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Cretans, Arabs– we get the idea.

Jesus calls to individuals in their hearts, across boundaries of every kind, and makes a new

people out of them.

Those of us who had the pleasure of visiting with missionary Kim Brown a couple of

weeks ago were reminded of this. Baptists have been worldwide missions-sending

people forever, and it’s not because we’re afraid they’re not like us and have to make them

like us. It’s because God has shown us that people everywhere are just like us–

vulnerable, responsive to love, capable of both cruelty and nobility, by turns selfish and

generous–and so they are, just like us, exactly those for whom Christ came to reveal the

nature and desire of God. Those images of people with different racial characteristics, telling

their stories of loss and of hope, of pain and resolution, in a foreign language, take us right

back to the first century, where Christianity got started. Wherever someone went with the

gospel, people responded.

It is second-nature to human beings to fear strangers. Every tribe which ever

existed set its boundaries by discernible kinship, some reassuring evidence of shared

identity. The Jews were the Chosen People, and every other human on earth consigned

to the broad category of gentiles. It was a Jew and a non Jew world. Those non Jews

might be divided up in a bunch of other looks and languages, but from the Jewish

perspective, that wasn’t so important. They all were outsiders. The Greeks divided the

world the same way, into Greeks and barbarians. People are a we-against-them species,

and God can’t be surprised that we instinctively mistrust strangers.

God, however, can show us a mixed multitude following Moses, Jews and non

Jews. The Old Testament, in multiplying its headache-inducing laws, makes a lot of them

for the fair treatment and inclusion of non Jews in the midst of Israel. The Biblical record can

preserve a story like that of Ruth and Naomi, to show us the humanity of people who come

from somewhere else, and prepare us for the possibility that old categories of us versus

them aren’t what God wants.

It’s no accident that this story gets preserved about David’s grandmother, because

David is a bit of an outsider himself–raised up out of a relatively little clan to take the

kingship away from the existing ruler. More important, David’s success and especially his

incorporation of Jerusalem, which before David was an independent, foreign entity inside

largely-Jewish territory, meant that David’s kingship was going to usher in a new kind of

cosmopolitanism for the people of God. It made sense to point out that strangers might be

people who love and need us, rather than people who threaten us.

Part of the point of the story of Ruth and Naomi is putting away the fear of outsiders.

Fear, however, is a strong motive, and what can overcome it? What overcomes it is love.

This again is where these texts take me back to the visit of missionary Kim Brown.

It’s obvious from everything she presents about her work among the hill tribes of Thailand

that her love of God is realized in her love of the women and children she serves. She

loves them and they love her. These two visits she’s made, two years ago and the other

week, she didn’t come alone, but with a coworker who’d grown up in the extended family of

care, support, and Christian commitment that she’s helped create. They are excited about

their common devotion to what God can do for people, and they’re also obviously

devoted to each other.

In our culture we have a basic story about tribal differences being overcome by

love, and it’s a boy-meets-girl story. It’s a romantic story. Romeo and Juliet come from

feuding families, and human suspicion, pride, and stubbornness destroy their young lives.

“All are punished” is the moral– it’s a lesson about failing to recognize that people should

love each other across boundaries. It gets retold in “West Side Story” and “Abie’s Irish

Rose” and “Mississippi Masala,” over and over again.

In the story of Ruth she’s in a situation where she needs a man–hers is not a society

geared for independent, self-sustaining women–and she gets a man. It might seem like it’s

a story about romantic love, and maybe a little bit of it is. But the real love story in the book

is the love story of a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law. The resolution of the story is not

Boaz’s taking Ruth as his wife– it is the celebratory congratulations of the other women,

when children are born to Ruth and Boaz, that they have been born to Naomi. The focus is

on the two widows, one the daughter by marriage and the other the wise old woman, and

their care, cooperation, and success.

Ruth and Naomi both are widows, and in an obvious way they are ancestors to the

widow of the gospel account, the poor woman who puts everything she has in the Temple

treasury. The fact that they all are widows in first century Judea, however, has its deeper

meaning in the straitened circumstances widowhood brings. There is not only solitude, but

poverty, and vulnerability. Naomi loves Ruth so much that she tries to send her away to

start over, the life of an old widow being penurious; and Ruth loves Naomi so much that she

doesn’t care about the cost of remaining attached–she gives herself entirely to the person

she loves. She renounces land, language, customs, religion–everything–in order to live out

her loyalty. That’s what she has in common with the widow from the gospel, who is marked

by Jesus as an example of selfless devotion, true dedication.

The wealth the women lack in material things, though that is gained through Boaz, is

nothing compared to the wealth they have spiritually by their love for each other. They

wholeheartedly seek each other’s good, have each other’s interest at heart, and submerge

their individual identities in their shared life. Naomi had another widowed daughter-in-law

who followed twenty-first century American advice. Naomi pointed out that there was no

future in following her back to Judea to this daughter-in-law, too, and urged her to seek her

own interest. She should get over her past attachments to the parent figure and strike out

on her own and be self-actualizing, and this daughter-in-law, after some understandable

emotional pain, achieved detachment. She grew up, in that sense that people grow up

who learn to live without other people so they can learn to live for themselves, and there

really are people who think that’s healthier than the path Ruth takes.

Ruth grows up another way, the way of giving herself away. She understands that

there is nothing for Ruth the person in sticking with Naomi, but she loves Naomi, and she

can’t help herself. That’s who she is. She loves, and that means she’s going to devote

herself, and that means that she’s going to have the rest of her life defined, not by what are

only her needs and notions, but by relationship.

Our gospel reading today contrasts the scribes, of whom Jesus has a low opinion,

with the type of person that the scribes selfishly victimize. The scribes, Jesus says, like to

make long prayers and consume widows’ houses. What does that mean except that they

go to worship on Sunday and get indignant about sacrilege and engage in sharp business

practices which an every-person-for-himself or herself economy permits?

The widow, however, isn’t motivated by self interest. She loves God. She loves

the faith in which she has been raised, and gives everything to it. She’s devoted–she’s

devout. Nothing is more important to her than making her gesture of upholding God’s place

in her world. She’s not grandstanding, and she’s not being a martyr. Love gains by giving,

sometimes even materially, but that’s not the point. She loves and gives to a God who

loves and gives.

That’s the message of Hebrews. God loves, and that’s not just a benign feeling.

That’s the need to give the self away for the sake of the beloved. That’s God emptying

self in Christ, so that the deep, boundless love God has for us can do us good.