Ang’s Facebook post was the first item in my newsfeed as I did one last social media check before going to bed. “Writing my first-ever sermon for class. Focusing on the refugee crisis and how it relates to the Book of Ruth. Any ideas on imagery? Focus area(s)? Neeeeeeeeeeervous.”
Suddenly, I was wide-awake. My genealogy includes generations of preachers, including my father. I teethed on a Bible, married Dennis, an Anglican priest, and wrote more sermons than I can remember; some with my late husband, many as a consultant to religious non-profits.
Ang’s words were an alarm clock to a part of me that has been sleeping for a long time. My professional life no longer includes ghost-writing sermons for preachers. And my new husband’s profession is politics – a different kind of preaching.
My eyes welled as Ang’s call for help awakened memories of Saturday afternoons spent with Bibles, commentaries, and prayer books strewn across my dining table. Dennis and I would discuss, research, and sometimes debate a passage of Scripture; drawing out wisdom and distilling it into a homily for Sunday’s services.
Without hesitation, I replied back to Ang’s request for help. It was late. Chemo has made me weary. But none of that mattered. There was a sermon to be written. A friend who needed help. And in that moment, I felt more awake and alive than I have in a very long time.
For more than an hour, Ang and I exchanged private messages through Facebook. We began by discussing the poetry found in the King James Version of the Book of Ruth 1:16, “And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Soon, we found ourselves seeing the plight of today’s refugees through the eyes of Ruth. What courage to let go of all that she knew to embrace the unknown of what God had waiting for her in a new land, in a society of new people! It is easy to see God’s purpose when we already know “the rest of the story.” Much harder and messier when we are living the story in real time, with real refugees, real terrorism, and real questions.
The ghost of this once ghost-writer was back at that dining table, blowing dust off of the commentaries; wiping away the internal cobwebs from this long-ago part of me.
Ang and I discussed. We researched. We found ourselves marveling that Ruth’s words enable us to see with God’s eyes into the heart of today’s refugees – informing our own hearts with renewed compassion.
When I finally went to bed, my heart overflowed with happiness, dripping from my eyes to my pillow. For that hour, I was awake again, alive again. She was the one who asked for help; I was the one who received it.
A few days later, I woke up to another private message waiting from Ang. It was her first sermon, finished and ready to share. “There it is!!!,” she wrote, “You so, so inspired me. THANK YOU!”
Reading her words, I saw pieces of our exchange, coupled with her own wisdom. The end result is a timely, poignant opportunity to see with God’s eyes the news of today filtered through the lens of faith, courage, and love.
Sinners and saints; we are a mixture of both. When we call out for help – when we are willing to receive help – grace calls out to the better version of ourselves. My exchange with Ang reminded me of this truth.
With her permission, here is the entirety of Ang’s sermon. Thank you, Ang, for your words. Through them, I hear grace calling…
Hebrew Bible II
SERMON – RUTH
James Martin, SJ, is a famous Roman Catholic priest and social media all-star. Active on Twitter, he is adept at placing into 140 characters or less mini-sermons of a sort. Earlier this week, a tweet of his caught my attention in particular. “Jesus is ready to cross the sea but everyone has an excuse for not following him. Leave behind what hinders you and get on that boat.”
A boat. Crossing the sea. Leaving behind excuses. We have all seen the heartbreaking images of desperate Syrian families attempting to escape violence in a rickety boat across the Mediterranean Sea. The United Nations estimates that more people are displaced now than at any other time since World War II. More than a million refugees fled to European shores in 2015, seeking safety, often in the confines of dangerous boats.
“Leave behind what hinders you and get on that boat.”
Is Father Martin suggesting that to follow Jesus and the Gospel takes a leap of faith akin to the faith of a refugee to cross the sea? What does a leap of faith for a refugee look like? What does it take to put your children – your entire world – into a boat that could flip at any moment and drown you all? What would have to be chasing you to make that terrible choice the BETTER option? Imagine what it would take for YOU to run from everything you know, to seek safety in a completely unknown land. What could possibly make you do that? How bad would things have to be at home that you would be willing to risk all that you hold dear in a completely foreign land?
The Book of Ruth is the Book of the Refugee. Like so many refugees, Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, are escaping a place they can no longer safely call home. “She started out with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab; for in the country of Moab she had heard that the LORD had taken note of His people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6). Naomi and her daughters-in-law have all three lost their husbands to early death. Unexpectedly they are without their husbands in an extremely patriarchal culture. The women now face famine and the terrifying specter of endless hunger and eventual death.
Imagine what it would take for you to grab what clothes you can fit into a backpack and run. How bad would things have to be? How would your faith in God factor into your decision? Running into the unknown. Running away from the only home you have ever known, into an uncertain future and foreign land.
Staying in Moab meant certain death by starvation for Naomi and Ruth. They had no more options. Flight was their only option. Flight meant traveling back home for Naomi, an Israelite. But for Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, fleeing to Bethlehem would mean leaving behind her entire life, the land of her people, and trusting in something more.
Ruth had to let go of everything she knew and embrace what God had in store for her. Ruth’s leap of faith was taken the very moment she decided to become a refugee. One of the most passionate, eloquent statements of love of the Hebrew Bible comes from Ruth’s lips, in this exact moment of fear, trepidation and tremendous FAITH. “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). Hunger drives Ruth from her home, but her faith in God and her love of family is what took her to a new land.
It takes raw trust in the Divine to become a refugee.
Pure faith is Ruth’s amazing strength in her moments of greatest fear. Willingness to surrender to God’s purpose yet to be revealed. A fountain of love for a woman, a mother-in-law, she had no obligation to follow or honor. Hesed. Yet follow, she does. Hesed. Whether thou goest, I will go. Hesed. Your people shall be my people. Hesed. Your God, my God.
Father Martin believes that when it comes to getting in that boat to follow Jesus, “everyone has an excuse not to follow him.” Ruth used no excuses, she got on that fragile boat and set out on the sea. But let’s take this metaphor all the way to its conclusion. Who was waiting on the other side of that metaphorical sea to receive Ruth? Who are waiting on the shores of Europe, on the shores of the United States, to welcome the Syrian refugee families fleeing untold violence and terror?
In one word: Boaz. And WE are Boaz.
Boaz was a well-respected Bethlehemite. He had land, he had power, he was a man of substance. In short, he had nothing to gain whatsoever by taking an interest in Ruth, Naomi and their sad situation. He could have simply sadly shook his head and walked away, as so many in his situation typically do. Ruth was a completely unknown commodity. Boaz was minding his own business in Bethlehem when in strolls this refugee woman, Ruth, looking to glean from his fields. Suddenly everything changed.
Ruth was foreign.
In what ways does society make us as a people immediately cautious and fearful of the unknown? Of the foreigner among us? Contemporary politics is hitting us on all sides with tales of xenophobia and refugee and immigrant-directed violence after the Brexit vote. The presumptive Republican nominee has proposed a ban on all Muslims from entering the United States. Equally preposterously, fear tactics are being used when debating policy for granting asylum and resettlement for refugees in the U.S.
If we think we as a people are being primed to fear the refugee, imagine what Boaz must have been taught. Ezra and Nehemiah were part of Boaz’s cultural heritage, and neither prophet put trust in someone from outside of Israel. “Make America Great Again” might as well have been “Make the Temple Great Again” as far as some early Hebrew Bible prophets were concerned. The inter-mixing of bloodlines was strictly frowned upon and all of this would have been front and center for Boaz as he met Ruth. Boaz had every excuse in the Book to not meet Ruth and welcome her boat at the shore.
The first time they meet, Boaz and Ruth speak on her journey to Bethlehem. Boaz tells Ruth, “‘I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before. May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!’” (Ruth 2: 8-12).
The Book of Ruth goes on to tell us of Ruth and Boaz’s eventual marriage. Together, they became the great-grandparents of King David himself. The end of the Book of Ruth ends with the birth of a son to Ruth and Boaz. “They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, father of David.” (Ruth 4:17). The greatest king Israel ever knew, eventually the Messiah Himself, were both descended from the union between a refugee woman and her unexpected suitor.
It is easy for us to see God’s purpose when we are able to read “the rest of the story” … but much harder when we are living the story in real time. Ruth and Boaz had no idea how their story would end. No happy endings were promised to either of them. Ruth and Boaz certainly would not have expected their love to produce the House of David. They were living in the moment, same as you and I are today.
The refugee crisis we face right now is in real time and made up of millions of real lives. But Ruth enables us to see with God’s eyes into the heart of the refugee and inform our own hearts with renewed compassion. On one level, it is easier to see the courageous faith a refugee needs to get on the boat to cross the sea… but what of the courage of Boaz? What of his faith? To be the one who watches from the shore as that boat approaches, filled with…. what? Who? How? God demands courage to both get on the boat and also to welcome those who arrive with open arms.
The authors and editors of Hebrew Scriptures wanted readers to understand that the greatest Israelite monarch, David, is the descendent of a foreign immigrant and transplant through Ruth. The writer of Matthew thought it important to connect Jesus’ lineage to this same tradition. The plight of the refugee, Ruth’s story of exile, was significant to the author of Matthew. We must meditate on this. We must not forget. There is deep meaning here and it is meant for us, in this moment, to grasp it. To welcome it.
Father Martin tells us, “Jesus is ready to cross the sea but everyone has an excuse for not following him. Leave behind what hinders you and get on that boat.”
Getting on that boat and WELCOMING that boat to shore are both acts of faith.
After all, it takes as much faith in God to declare oneself a refugee as it does to welcome a refugee into your home.
Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Second Edition. New
York, Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.
Martin SJ, James. “https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ” Twitter. 27 June 2016. Website.
27 June 2016.