Sermon: 24th Sunday after Pentecost 8th November 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  8am and 10am

Readings:  Ruth 3:1-5 &4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:23-28; Mark 12:38-44

The Reverend  Paul Weaver              “RUTH: MORE THAN A ROMANCE”

 

I have to confess that I have never read a Mills and Boon romance. And I must admit that it is not on my bucket list of things to do one day. But it seems to me that if there is a book in the Bible that reads like a Mills and Boon romance, it must be the Book of Ruth, part of which was our Old Testament reading this morning.

There is the heroine, a young widow. She has a heart of gold, but she is from the wrong side of the tracks. And there’s the hero: an older man, and a man of wealth. But where will he find true love? When he sees Ruth and learns a bit about her, he knows that she’s the one for him. But there are many difficulties in the way, many barriers. How can they ever come together? With the guidance of Ruth’s good mother-in-law and the faithfulness and hard work of Ruth, the barriers are overcome one by one. In due course they are married, have a son, and live happily ever after. It’s a lovely story, well worth reading in full when you have 15 minutes to spare.

Of course there is more to the book than romance and happy endings. The book reminds us that God is at work behind the scenes, guiding and supporting his people, even when things seem to be going dreadfully wrong. And it tells us something of what it means to be part of God’s family.

The story of Ruth is set in the time of the judges, 11 or 12 centuries before Jesus. The people of Israel were settled in various towns and villages, but there was no strong central leadership, and devotion to the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt to the promised land was very mixed. God was treated like a celestial plumber: usually we have no interest in the plumber, but when there’s an emergency we want his help quick smart! It’s not so different from the way so many people relate to God.

The people had discovered that the land of Israel didn’t yield its blessings easily. Compared with slavery in Egypt, it was a land of milk and honey. But the climate was dry, except in the wet season: and sometimes the wet season didn’t arrive at all. So from time to time drought was a reality for the people of Israel. It’s all very familiar to those who live on the land in Australia, isn’t it?

Ruth begins in such a time. The famine in Bethlehem is so bad that at least one family gives up, and moves to a place on the Eastern side of the Jordan River where things seem to be better. So Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons go to live in the land of Moab.

The people of Moab are related to the Israelites, but for a long time there has been tension and violence between the two nations. Furthermore, Moab has abandoned its connection with the Lord, the God of their forefather Abraham, and has become a pagan nation. The Lord is not faithfully worshipped in the land where Elimelech, Naomi and their sons have chosen to live. The family settles there, but Elimelech dies. Both the sons find Moabite wives, and the family continues.

But then more disaster comes. Both Naomi’s sons die childless. Naomi is bereft in a foreign land. No doubt two questions are raging through her mind. “What have I done to deserve this?” Not ultimately a useful question, but a very natural question as we try to make sense of life. And then the more important question: “What do I do now?”

The two daughters-in-law are responsible to Naomi, but she has nothing to offer them. Then she hears that things are better now back in Jerusalem. Perhaps she also feels guilty for leaving the land God had provided for his people. In any case, Naomi decides that it is time to return to her own people in Bethlehem.

But her Moabite daughters-in-law belong here amongst their own people. Naomi sets them free from any responsibilities to her, so that they can find a new future in their own land and within their own community.

However both Orpah and Ruth say that they will come with her: Naomi must have been a good mother-in-law for them to be willing to leave their home and follow her. She does persuade Orpah to stay in Moab, and you can’t criticize Orpah for doing that! But Ruth will not have her mind changed: Ruth will go with Naomi. And her words of devotion may be familiar to many of us: “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 I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”

So Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem. And Ruth the Moabitess joins not only the people of Bethlehem, not only the people of Israel, but also the people of God. Ruth is not only devoted to her mother-in-law: she has also turned away from her local gods to trust and serve the Lord, the God of Israel, the true and living God of all the earth.

But can a Moabite woman do that? How can a pagan foreigner be welcomed into the people of God? Israel was to be a holy people: separate, distinct, not just open to all and sundry.

It’s worthwhile noticing that in the Old Testament, side by side with the message that Israel is holy, Israel is not like other nations, there is also the message that God’s purposes reach far beyond Israel. Right back with Abraham, the great patriarch was told that through him all nations were to be blessed. The prophets said that Israel was to be a light to the nations. And even the law of Moses said that the outsider, especially the outsider who sought the Lord, was to be treated aright.

Of course, through Jesus we see where all this is heading. Jesus came and served and died and rose to open up God’s kingdom, not just to one nation, but to people of all nations and races and backgrounds. And so the church, which began as a company of Jewish followers of Jesus, broke boundaries, and the gospel went out to people of all nations.

And the book of Ruth has its own part in this story. For this foreign woman, who marries Boaz the Israelite landholder in whose fields she has worked, gives birth to a son. This son is Obed, the grandfather of King David, as the closing words of the book point out.

And Ruth’s place is also highlighted in the opening words of Matthew’s Gospel, where we find what looks like a boring genealogy leading up to Jesus. As with other genealogies in the Bible is it a list of men – except for four women who get a mention. And who are these women? Tamar, caught up in a rather sordid story in Genesis; Rahab the prostitute of Jericho; Bathsheba the wife of David, caught up in David’s adultery; and Ruth the Moabite woman.

The odd thing about these women is not simply that they get a mention, but that there is a question mark about them all. None of them is a good respectable Israelite woman. There are sexual irregularities; there is foreign blood. Matthew seems to take delight in pointing this out, as he prepares to tell the story of Mary, who gives birth to the Saviour of the world in circumstances which are seen as very questionable indeed!

There has always been the temptation to think that God is basically interested in good decent people like us: our kind of people. But the story of Ruth and that genealogy in Matthew make very clear that the arms of God reach out far beyond our little agendas, our limited priorities. God has a habit of blessing and welcoming and including the outsider.

And the church is founded on the basis that Jesus came for all kinds of people. A consistent pattern in the Gospels is how Jesus reached out to the untouchables, the people on the edge. And God welcomes into his family people of all races, all classes, all religious backgrounds. He is ready to welcome us all no matter what our strengths and weaknesses might be, no matter what our sins and failings might be. He welcomes those whose character is admirable, as we might well say of Ruth; but he also welcomes those whose background is questionable, as we might also say of Ruth.

God welcomes us all as we come in our need: he does not so much look for our achievements, as our openness to his blessing. And so it is not surprising that God calls us to be a welcoming church: welcoming and open not only to people who are like us, but especially ready to embrace those who are different – those with different backgrounds and cultures and stories.

It is wonderful to see our Archbishop and our Synod calling on churches to be actively involved in welcoming and assisting refugees and asylum seekers who come to our shores – reflecting the purposes of the God who welcomes all kinds of people. Indeed plans are underway in the diocese to encourage and help churches to extend that welcome and to offer that assistance to people fleeing dreadful circumstances. It will be challenging to play an active part in this great welcome, but I suspect it will also be greatly rewarding, if we respond to that call. And it will catch us up in a new way in the purposes and the love of the God who welcomes the outsider. Amen.