Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 4, 2018
“What is Love?”
Ruth 1: 1-14 – The Message
Once upon a time—it was back in the days when judges led Israel— there was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem in Judah left home to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The man’s name was Elimelech; his wife’s name was Naomi; his sons were named Mahlon and Kilion—all Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They all went to the country of Moab and settled there.
3-5 Elimelech died and Naomi was left, she and her two sons. The sons took Moabite wives; the name of the first was Orpah, the second Ruth. They lived there in Moab for the next ten years. But then the two brothers, Mahlon and Kilion, died. Now the woman was left without either her young men or her husband.
6-7 One day she got herself together, she and her two daughters-in-law, to leave the country of Moab and set out for home; she had heard that God had been pleased to visit his people and give them food. And so she started out from the place she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law with her, on the road back to the land of Judah.
8-9 After a short while on the road, Naomi told her two daughters-in-law, “Go back. Go home and live with your mothers. And may God treat you as graciously as you treated your deceased husbands and me. May God give each of you a new home and a new husband!” She kissed them and they cried openly.
10 They said, “No, we’re going on with you to your people.”
11-13 But Naomi was firm: “Go back, my dear daughters. Why would you come with me? Do you suppose I still have sons in my womb who can become your future husbands? Go back, dear daughters—on your way, please! I’m too old to get a husband. Why, even if I said, ‘There’s still hope!’ and this very night got a man and had sons, can you imagine being satisfied to wait until they were grown? Would you wait that long to get married again? No, dear daughters; this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.”
14 Again they cried openly. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye; but Ruth embraced her and held on.
15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is going back home to live with her own people and gods; go with her.”
16-17 But Ruth said, “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”
18-19 When Naomi saw that Ruth had her heart set on going with her, she gave in. And so the two of them traveled on together to Bethlehem.
I have moved a fair number of times in my life; perhaps some of you have too. I lived in four different places in college; four different places during seminary in Minneapolis. Then to Washington, DC, for a year and on to Cleveland where I lived in five different homes. Then to Denver. After our first year in an apartment in Stapleton, I finally lived in the first place I ever paid a mortgage instead of rent. You should have seen my mother’s address book.
Every move was for a new opportunity. Something different, often something better. I don’t know what it’s like to move because the landlord kicked me out or because I couldn’t pay rent. I’ll never forget the story Guy Harris told about when he joined the Army. He had to provide a list of addresses for every place he had ever lived. By age 18, he had lived in 29 different homes, often because he was awakened in the middle of the night by his parents. They couldn’t pay the rent. Again.
I don’t know what it’s like to move because war has broken out or famine has descended on the land. I don’t know, can’t imagine, what desperation it would take to get into a crowded boat to cross the sea. Or join a caravan to walk 1,000 miles to a place of which all I know is that maybe it’ll be safer. I can empathize, but I cannot “know.”
Maybe some of you do. And certainly, some of our parents or grandparents or other family ancestors know. That’s why some of us are here – they left their homelands to escape war and poverty, seeking opportunity, arriving on ships that sailed past the Statue of Liberty, back when the United States welcomed immigrants and proclaimed:
”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”
All of that is to say, I don’t know what it would have taken for Elimelech and Naomi, but it couldn’t have been easy to conclude they had to move from their home in Bethlehem of Judah to Moab. Moab, of all places. More on that later.
Irony drives the story of Ruth. Names provide clues. For example, Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means House of Bread, had no bread. Elimelech, which means My God is King, believed God would provide. But all God provided was famine. No bread.
Naomi means sweet and pleasant, but later in the story she asked to be called Mara, which means bitter. And understandably. Sweet Naomi’s husband died. However, she still had two sons. They grew up and married local girls – Moabite girls. But then her oldest son died before he had children. And then her other son died, also before he had any children. Now, Naomi was a childless widow living in a foreign land with two other childless widows as daughters-in-law. Bitter would have been a good name for Naomi. She decided to move back to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah offered to go with her.
As an aside, I’m not sure why Ruth and Orpah married Naomi’s sons in the first place. Their names should have tipped them off. Ruth’s husband’s name was “Sickly.” Orpah’s husband’s name was “Caput.” “Caput,” it’s over. Just like their luck. It was caput. But there was one piece of good luck for Naomi. One of her daughters-in-law was named Ruth, whose name means Friend.
But key to understanding this story, easily overlooked among lots of obscure “who cares?” biblical names, was the name Moab. The people of Moab were hated with as deep a passion as you can imagine. Think of hearing the name Maxine Waters or Hillary Clinton at a Trump rally. Or Trump’s name at a Women’s March. Just saying the name Moab would have caused a similar reaction.
The rift started when the Moabites refused, allegedly refused, to provide hospitality to the escaping Hebrew slaves. In response, the Book of Deuteronomy states that no Moabite shall be permitted to enter the Lord’s assembly – for 10 generations! Not clear enough? The Book of Deuteronomy states, “You shall never promote the welfare or prosperity of Moabites as long as you live.” Still not clear enough? Their opinion of these people was so low that when Lot’s son was conceived as a result of incest, they named him Moab. Got it?
I’m not sure that the Moabites called themselves Moabites, but that’s what they were called in Israel and Judah. And upon hearing this story, every listener would have felt, would have known to feel, the revulsion of incest in their stomach. They moved to Moab!?! Ruth was from Moab!?! Lock her up.
So, that’s how desperate Elimelech and Naomi would have been to move there. But, on the flip side, imagine how much hatred Ruth could have anticipated by moving to Bethlehem with Naomi. Imagine Maxine Waters moving to the house next door to David Duke. Neither might like it much. But it would probably also be pretty dangerous for Maxine.
Even so, Ruth and Orpah both offered to go back with Naomi. Naomi convinced Orpah to go back to her family, but Ruth wouldn’t budge. After all, her name was Friend.
Ruth told Naomi words of such absolute life-long fidelity that they are often repeated at wedding ceremonies, without knowing the context – daughter-in-law to mother-in-law. “Wherever you go, I will go; your people will be my people; your God will be my God; where you are buried, I will be buried.” Ruth was more concerned for the well-being of her friend than her own. That’s love.
It doesn’t feel like there is much love going around these days. Friendships ended over irreconcilable views. Family relationships strained by political differences. With hate on the rise, true and genuine love seems rare. Or perhaps hate is simply being exposed. But does it even matter which? That hate has motivated people to kill. Eleven Jews worshiping at the Tree of Life. Two African Americans shot outside a Kroger because the black church next door was locked. Fourteen, hopefully only 14, pipe bombs sent to former presidents and high-profile critics. And that’s all just in two weeks. And yet, instead of toning down the rhetoric, it’s toned up because fear-mongering is a better winning strategy.
The temptation is to ratchet up the rhetoric on all sides. To match hate with hate. Or to say nothing. More and more lately, what else can be said? And yet whenever we ask, what can we do, we can’t forget the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Hate does not drive out hate. Only love can do that.” And yet, what is love?
Michael Curry is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, made famous as the preacher at the royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry when he gave an electrifying sermon on the power of love. He was on the Today Show this week promoting a new book. As he talked, Savannah and Hoda sat mesmerized. And I was mesmerized too. His words were so simple but so filling, as though we are starving for love. I had been working on this sermon about Ruth and his words seemed like they were tailor made for today:
“Love is about unselfish, self-less, living that seeks the good, the welfare and well-being of others, even above my own self-interest.” It was like he was describing Ruth for me, adding, “Selfless living is the only thing that has ever changed anything for the good.”
And then, as though he was speaking of All Saints Day, he told Savannah and Hoda, “Think about yourself. Who are the people who’ve made a difference in your life? They made a difference not because they were doing it for themselves, but because they were doing it for you. It was for you, not for themselves.”
Then he said, “Think of any social change in history. It has been people who have been thinking about more than self, who have been thinking of others. The truth is, no good created and done by human beings has ever been done from the motivation of selfishness.” Let that sink in. Good “has always been self-less and self-giving. That’s what love really is.”
I felt like I was sitting in church. And then he described the opposite of love. It isn’t hate, he said. I thought he would give the standard answer that instead of hate, the opposite of love is fear. But, no, Bishop Curry said, “The opposite of love is self-centeredness. Hate is a derivative of that. If love is self-giving, the opposite is self-centeredness.”
Is that why our country feels so off track right now? We’re being led by a narcissist in chief who ratchets up any fear he can to make people feel deathly afraid they will lose what is “rightfully” theirs, but really, the whole time, all he’s really trying to do is line his own pocket and feed his own desperate ego.
Bishop Curry didn’t say all that. He simply pointed out that “self-centeredness doesn’t work. If we all lived a self-centered existence, we wouldn’t have a society. Democracy depends on that. Human survival depends on that. Life on this planet depends on our capacity to be unselfish, to be self-less, and giving.”
Savannah, Hoda, and I all sat speechless, taking it in, reflecting on what it means to live in an era that feels devoid of love. Especially for people like Elimelech and Naomi. Except that it isn’t. We are, in fact, living in an era overflowing with love. Every act of resistance is an act of love because it is for someone else. By people who care what happens to other people.
When hate makes the news, love is what happens next. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh pledged to help provide funerals for the 11 victims of the synagogue shooter. Their initial goal of $25,000 was reached almost immediately. On Friday it stood at $230,000 from over 5,600 individual donations. An Iranian student at Arizona State launched a similar campaign that is now over $1.1 million from 17,000 individual donations. That’s love. One might even say, given the source, of all people a Moabite, of all people an Iranian… given the source, it’s the kind of ironic love we celebrate in the Book of Ruth.
Voting or helping people vote or ensuring one’s right to vote is an act of love when its purpose is to serve the Common Good instead of selfish purposes. Maybe all the voter suppression going on in Georgia and North Dakota and Dodge City, Kansas, isn’t about hate. It’s just people being selfish. But that’s no way to build community or ensure human survival or life at all on this planet.
And so, on this All Saints Day, I invite our reflection upon people who have gone before us, whose lives were marked by their love for humankind. Who in your life embodied, or embodies, the truth that “Love is about unselfish, self-less, living that seeks the good, the welfare and well-being of others, even above my own self-interest”? They are our role models, demonstrating the meaning of love. The opposite of which isn’t hate or even fear. The opposite of love is “me, me, me.” The opposite of love is nationalism.
Think of all the people who made a difference in your life by their self-giving. People who were or are friends like Ruth. They can guide us through these days.
I also invite us to remember today people like Naomi and Elimelech whose very survival meant having to cross the border into places like Moab. Moab, of all places.
And, as well, I invite us to remember the people of Bethlehem who welcomed Ruth and draw inspiration from them. The people of Bethlehem who ignored a direct order from Deuteronomy never to promote the welfare of a Moabite. They welcomed this Moabite woman in and, of all the great ironies of her story full of irony: how she became the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king. The greatest irony, of course, is that under that great King David, Israel was never more prosperous. Because they welcomed in their enemy whose name was friend. What is love?
Later in the Service, part of the All Saints Day liturgy: We Remember
Members of the Tree of Life Synagogue. Worst act of anti-Semitism in US history. At the time, it marked the 294th mass shooting in 2018, a number still climbing
David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59
Richard Gottfried, 65
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Irving Younger, 69
Daniel Stein, 71
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Melvin Wax, 88
Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86
Rose Mallinger, 97
We remember them.
Vickie Jones, dead because another massacre like Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church failed.
We remember them.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, by October 4, a total of 65 shootings had occurred on school campuses across the US. By June, there had been 41 deaths, including 17 from Parkland, Florida. We remember them.
Data from Gun Violence Archive shows that so far this year, more than 12,000 people have died from gun-related violence, including suicides, and 23,506 others, and counting, were injured. We remember them.
10,000 have died in Yemen, a low number because it is too dangerous to count the dead. We remember them.
And then, yesterday we learned of two dead at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida. We remember Dr. Nancy Van Vessem, 61, and Maura Binkley, 21.
I love being the