TEXT:  Ruth 1:11-19a; John 15:9-17

            If you’ve never read the book of Ruth, kick back for half an hour this afternoon and read it.  It’s short, heartwarming, and one of the jewels of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Yeah, it’s a chick flick, but guys if we women have to read all the bloody war sections of the Bible, then you action-loving men need to read the love stories.   

The section of Ruth we read this morning comes from the beginning of the story where we find three women in the Middle Eastern country of Moab who are left with nothing but each other.   Naomi, the mother-in-law of the other two, is not native to Moab.  She is from Bethlehem.  She and her husband had left their home and had come to Moab with their two sons when there was a famine.  Moab had food, Bethlehem didn’t, so they moved.  In Moab the two sons took wives…Ruth and Orpah.  At the time of the story, all the men have died.  Naomi’s husband went first and then both sons, leaving Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah all as widows.

            As you may know, in that time and place, a woman without husband or sons had no means of support, and so Naomi has to figure out what to do.  She decides to return to her homeland.  The famine is over and she has a better shot at surviving among her own people.  So we see her at the opening of this passage, saying goodbye to Ruth and Orpah.  Both are sad at the news of Naomi’s departure, and Orpah is tearfully persuaded to return to her own family.

            But Ruth will not leave her mother-in-law and vows to follow her back to Bethlehem, to adopt her way of life, and to accept her fate.  This is no small decision.  Ruth is leaving her own family of origin…those who would be bound to take care of her until she can marry again.  She is leaving her homeland to live in a foreign country…and it’s a hostile foreign country at that.  If you read through your Old Testament, you’ll see that there are strict rules for the people of Israel about not associating with the Moabites.  There was both ethnic and religious rivalry.  Certainly nobody is supposed to marry a Moabite, and getting married is Ruth’s only ticket out of poverty.  Naomi’s advice that Ruth should return home, as Orpah did, is sound and sensible.  Ruth can expect nothing but hardship in Naomi's homeland.

            Naomi tries to explain all this to Ruth, but to no avail.  Finally Ruth speaks the lovely words that have been read at countless weddings:  “Wherever you go, I shall go; and wherever you lodge, I shall lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I shall die—there I shall be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”  And so they step out together…Naomi going home, and Ruth leaving home and family and nation for the love of her mother-in-law.   Go home and read what happens to her when she gets to Bethlehem.

            Ruth’s act of pure love is greatly rewarded.  Through the husband she finds in Israel, she becomes one of just a handful of women mentioned as part of Jesus’ geneaology in the New Testament.  This Moabite woman that no Israelite was supposed to marry becomes one of the ancestors of Jesus.  Why?  Because she had learned how to love.

            In Abraham we saw great faith.  In Jacob we saw great hope.  In Ruth we see great love, and Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that love trumps the other two.  Love is absolutely the best reason for leaving home.  It is set out first in Genesis, when we are told that we should leave father and mother to be joined to a spouse.  It is brought out again and again by Jesus who is always probing and instructing his disciples about their love, which is exactly where the Biblical rubber hits our life’s road.

            Never mind, for a minute, WHAT you are currently doing in your life.  The root question in the Bible is WHY are you doing it?  Whatever the reason, God can work with it, as we saw with the scoundrel Jacob last week.  Nobody is beyond God’s reach and no one is beyond God’s ability to mold and shape.  But the ideal for which we strive as Christians is to do all that we do for the sake of love.  Things we do for other reasons become just a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.

            The best reason to leave home is love, and that can take many forms.  A soldier leaves home, ideally for love of country, not hatred of an enemy.  When a situation is good, we leave our homes of origin for love of another person, for love of learning, for love of freedom…either for ourselves or for our parents.  When a home is harmful, we leave for the love of ourselves as people made in God’s image.  It doesn’t always happen that way, but Ruth is the reminder that love is the ideal…it is the bar by which we measure everything else.  It is the goal toward which we strive.

            But this is about much more than our reasons for physically leaving home.  Jesus’ last command to his disciples was to “go.”  Get out of here.  Leave.  Make disciples—all over the world.  Don’t get too comfortable, there’s work to be done.  Don’t cry over spilt milk, don’t hold grudges, don’t worry about who gets the credit and who doesn’t…get over yourself, get out and go.  God’s kingdom is at stake.

            Following the command might mean a physical departure, but it almost always means an inner departure…a change in the way we do things…leaving old ways behind and finding our way along a new road.  What Jesus emphasizes again and again is that this inner type of departure is also best done for the sake of love. 

            In my book, I told the story of Betty at the church in Dover.  St. John’s has two different worship services.  One service is traditional with robes and organ music, creeds and glorias, and all the things that go with a more formal service.  The other service is contemporary with guitars and drums, clapping and dancing, no robes, and very little in the way of formal liturgy. 

Betty is an older woman who really enjoys the more stately, formal service.  But Betty had a little nine-year-old neighbor whose parents did not go to church, but who really wanted to go to Sunday School.  Sunday School met during the contemporary service.  So Betty left home.  She left the service that she most enjoyed and went to the other one.  She left her comfortable, spiritual home out of love for her little neighbor.

And that is exactly the right reason.  We are called beyond our comfort zones by a loving God in order that the world might feel God’s love through us.  It feels uncomfortable to many people to think of talking about their faith to friends and family outside the church.  And yet, every single day, a home in Westford, Groton, or other surrounding areas gets a phone call they wished they hadn’t gotten.  A medical test has shown something.  A loved one isn’t expected to hang on much longer.  The company is cutting jobs.  Their unit is being called up.  Every day someone is getting a message like that…someone who has no idea that there is a God who loves them and that there are communities of people who will be God in the flesh for them and walk through them through those dark valleys.

It is for love of them that we share our faith—love of them and love of the God who asked us to bear the message--love of Jesus who showed us just how uncomfortable God was willing to get out of love for us.

And it is not just an individual love.  God so loved the WORLD, we are told in John 3:16.  Abraham was sent to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, and that calling of God’s people has never changed.  As people who have taken the name of Christ…the name of Christian…we are called to bless the world.  Love should drive us as Christians to be in the forefront of the fight against poverty.  We give of our resources as a mirror of God’s love and self-giving for the world.  That’s what the offering is about every Sunday.  It’s not the church picking your pocket, it’s not budget installment payments, and it’s not a vote for or against the church’s leadership or programs.  It’s a love gift…it is our participation in God's love for the world.

That love should push us to be out front standing against racism and all forms of hatred.  If God is love and Jesus is God…as the Christian faith proclaims…then hate is anti-Christ.  When we protect the weak and vulnerable, when we welcome the outcast, when we give up our own sense of entitlement to comfort, ease, and security and go straight into the difficult places, we are taking up our cross and following Christ…not out of fear of hell, not out of sullen duty, and not for extra stars in our crown.  We leave our comfortable home out of love…love for God and as an expression of God’s love for the world.

That is how we preach…all of us.  We preach to the world that God is love by being loving ourselves, and being loving is tough.  Ask the soldier what love of country costs.  Ask the parent what love of children costs.  Ask Martin Luther King, Jr. what the love of humanity costs.  Ask Jesus what the love of God costs.

Like Naomi, the world may have lots of reasons…lots of very good reasons, for telling us to stay at home.  It’s comfortable.  It makes sense for our own security and well-being.  But that’s why the book wasn’t named after the practical Naomi, no matter how kind and loveable she was.  It was named after Ruth…the one who left her native land, her religion, and all reasonable hope of a secure future for the sake of love.  And God rewarded her with a part in the salvation of the world.

Can we learn to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves?  Do we love God enough to follow the call to something new?  What does love have to do with your life?  Anything?  Everything?  Amen.

(c) 2005, Anne Robertson
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