A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on November 7, 2021
Deuteronomy 23:3 — No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. . .
Ruth 3:1-5; 4: 13-17 — Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” . . .
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One of the enduring questions of life is about who’s in and who’s out. We first get this on the playgrounds of elementary school – who gets chosen first; who waits to the end, unwanted by all? There are social groups – did you get invited to the birthday party? In my elementary school, it even extended to Girl Scouts. You were only really an acceptable Girt Scout if you had Brownie fly-up wings on your uniform and if you, like me, actually belonged not to Scouts but 4-H…. well, let’s just say we knew who mattered and who didn’t.
If you think about it, I’m betting that each of us can come up with some way we knew we were in, or out…. it’s just that common. And while at this distance, I no longer care about whether or not I sat at the right table in the lunchroom when I was in high school, in a much more serious way, this is the deciding challenge of the world.
As I look at my newspaper it tells me that there’s a major controversy between the French and the English, ostensibly about fishing rights, but more likely really about who’s in – the European Union – and who’s out. I doubt they’ll go to war about this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some fights. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who has the power? Who will share it?
We all know conflicts that have turned to war: this past week the New York Times had an article about Kenneth Branagh, who’s just made a movie of his experiences growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the time of the troubles. It was a time when “in” and “out” had eternal consequences. Even now, there are neighborhoods in Boston where it’s best not to be pushy about the Irish troubles. In and out … dangerous identities.
Last week I talked about the story of Ruth from the most usual understanding – that Ruth stayed with Naomi out of love. This week, I want to go back again, and look at Ruth’s story from that in and out perspective. Because I suspect this is the real center of the story, although that’s not really clear until you read the story in context.
Just who does belong? It’s clear that this isn’t a new question. Today’s lessons tell the story of the competing sides in the struggle. Back in the day, some folks believed that if you didn’t belong, if your parents weren’t “from here”, if you couldn’t trace your ancestry back to the days of Moses, well… you were out. If you were a Moabite – an outsider – no good Jew should marry you. If you did marry a Moabite, the powers-that-be were saying that you needed to put your wife aside and abandon your children. They were saying that there was only one way in, and that was by birth.
At about the same time, up pops the story of Ruth. Never doubt that Ruth should be read together with the pronouncements in Ezra, or even Nehemiah. This was a BIG struggle in their time. The Israelites had been forced into exile in Persia, and under the leadership of Ezra and others, were now back, and trying to rebuild their community. One way to do that, to rebuild solidarity, was to say it’s only us. But the other way, the way Ruth suggests, is by expanding definitions – not by keeping them out, but by bringing them in.
This is one of the times when both sides of a major argument are laid out before us and it’s up to us to understand the choices, and to see which was the better discernment of God’s will.
Two stories – Ezra and Nehemiah say, throw out your non-Israelite spouses & children. But Ruth says clearly that outsiders are good folks, too, and they can enter the circle.
Or, as the poet Edwin Markham wrote:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”
Now the thing is, this is not just a story about long-ago days in ancient Israel. This is a story which is part and parcel of humanity, about an issue we struggle with almost every day. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who matters?
This is a story about something that has pulled human beings apart since forever. We pretend it’s not there. Much of the time, those who are “in” never even realize that the “other”, the folks on the outside aren’t in with them, or aren’t just as well off wherever they are. We find it excruciating to open our eyes to the differences. It shatters our illusions to realize that everything – policing, education, housing, even access to good quality food – everything is different for those on the outside.
When we set up the world so that there are “in” and “out” categories, we’ve missed the mark. Sure the Bible says, set aside that outsider spouse, abandon your children…. but – wait a minute – that’s not really what it says. Ezra says that, not the Bible. And then we read Ruth, and who is Ruth’s great-grandson? No other person than King David, the greatest of all the Israelite leaders.
It’s clear that the story God blesses is the story of Ruth, the story of inclusion, the story of the welcome extended to someone who was an outsider. The Bible says welcome the stranger. The Bible says welcome if you are Black, welcome if you are white, Hispanic, welcome however you identify. The Bible says welcome no matter your gender identity, your affectional preference. The Bible welcomes Yankees fans; the Bible welcomes long-suffering Giants football fans. The Bible welcomes Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants.
The Bible invites us all to sit at this table together and eat one meal. It is Jesus who is the host; everyone is invited to sit and be part of the family.
In or out – at this table we step over the divisions which threaten to pull us apart, and share the meal which brings us together.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child