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How far? How far must these three women, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah travel - How far must they travel as they are torn with overwhelming grief, hollowed out by hunger and hopelessness - how far must they travel to find a place of comfort? Where will they be welcomed? Where will they find basic shelter and food? Warmth? Safety? Community? God?
In today’s story, we hear a just glimpse of the saga that begins to unfold in the book of Ruth. Here, along the dirt road, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah have decided to leave Moab, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. A place where famine grips the land, and where everything they have known has been taken from them - their husbands, their source of income, their sense of stability. Here, clinging to each other on the road, the physical distance from the land of Moab to Bethlehem in Judah is not the main challenge to be overcome.
When, in your life, has all that you have known been taken from you? Maybe it was a change in place. A change in job. The loss of a loved one. An encounter with cancer. A bout with depression. A shattered future. A time when the distance from you to God was great.
This morning, we share in the story of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah; three women who have life-changing decisions to make. In their tragedy we can find ourselves: here in these three people, these three shared lives, three different decisions are about to be made.
Which woman are you? Are you Orpah, who faces the decision of returning to her home community, where she has extended family and knows the village, but will become a widowed outcast at a time when the land offers nothing and there is great hunger? Everyone in her town is struggling to survive. Yet it is to this place that she returns. She started to leave for Bethlehem with Naomi and Ruth, but she decides to turn around.
Or are you Naomi, who can’t believe she is facing this emptiness again? Years ago, she, her husband, and her boys left Bethlehem due to a famine. They took a risk as immigrants in Moab, a land where they could potentially find jobs and wouldn’t starve. They started to rebuild their lives there. Her sons found wives in the land of Moab. Their family was growing. There was a future.
Now she has lost her husband, lost her sons, and lives once again in a village stricken by draught. She is still the immigrant in this town. As an older widow, she is even more an outcast in Moab than the widowed Orpah and Ruth. Naomi voices the chasm of hopelessness that separates her from God. With sobs of grief, Naomi turns to follow the long road back to Bethlehem. At the end of today’s reading Naomi’s grief is shattered by her deadening silence as she turns away from her life in Moab.
It is ironic that in this story of famine and hopelessness we hear once again about traveling to Bethlehem. “Bethlehem” can be translated as “house of bread.” How warm and welcoming is the presence of baking bread in our homes?
It is to this place that Ruth is drawn. She doesn’t have any reason to believe that she will be welcomed in Bethlehem. She probably has some hope that the stories she has heard from there about the good harvest there are true. Through her husband, she has developed ties with Naomi, and a comfort, or curiosity, or that “something” we all experience with God that brings Ruth to decide to walk with Naomi to a new place. Ruth turns away from the village and people that she has known to seek a new hope.
The headlines over the past few weeks have been just as jarring as this story: the electoral fraud and the ongoing war in Afghanistan; the suicide bombings and rising refugee crisis in Pakistan; the questions circling about whether or not there will be enough flu vaccine available in our communities; and the bleak statistics of the number of people murdered in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico this year as the battles between drug cartels escalate.
The list of calamities goes on. And there, in the darkness, another headline caught my attention this week:
“No More Happy Meals in Iceland”
What? No more happy meals? In this worldwide economic downturn, how does our culture - so assimilated by “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,” dollar meals (or maybe Kronor meals?), fast food and drive-throughs – how do we respond to the humanitarian needs of our neighbors? How far do we go?
What does it mean when a generation of children in Iceland will not grow up with “happy meals”?
We hear the word “global” all the time: global economy, global warming, global war on terrorism, globalization. How is God, as we sit here in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, telling us how far we need to go in our own faith journeys? Are we to be like Orpah? Or Ruth? Or Naomi?
So- How far? As we approach the season of Advent, that season of anticipation for a child born in the town of Bethlehem, there is another story about a journey to Bethlehem for me to share with you today.
In this story, we meet up with the group from Memorial on a journey to Bethlehem. This morning, Pastor Phil, and other members and friends of Memorial joined together in worship at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. The Memorial UCC and Christmas Lutheran Church have formed a partnership in the quest to bring words and actions moving toward peace in a place of humanitarian tragedies.
If you have been following Pastor Phil’s blog on the church’s website, you have been able to follow the group’s journey along the Sea of Galilee, through Nazareth and Hebron, to Bethlehem. If you have not visited Memorial’s website to read about the group’s journey, I encourage you to take the time to do so!
There is a familiarity in the tales that Pastor Phil writes about in his blog, as the travelers from Memorial observe baptisms in the Jordan River and a reading from the book of Matthew on the hillside next to the Church of the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:1-6, NRSV
How far? How far must we travel to be comforted? How far must these three women, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah – travel before they are welcomed? Before they find shelter and food? What of our neighbors in Bethlehem today? Our neighbors in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico? Our neighbors in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
What about the neighbor sitting next to you? How far must people in need travel to find healing? Safety? Community? God?
And what about our neighbors to the far northeast?
A few years ago my husband and I took our teenage son and one of his friends to Iceland for spring break. Now as you might imagine, the travel costs to Iceland in March are fairly inexpensive. Yet in this treeless, volcanic, glacier covered land, we encountered a story of joy and a story of great hope for the future of this ever-changing world. Maybe, just maybe, God’s hope for us is in such encounters.
This is the story:
Following the end of WWII, a young man sat on a pew in a very small, one-room church on the island of Iceland. Þórður Tómasson struggled with the grim realities of the end of the war, the beginning of the cold-war, and wondered if the world could ever find peace.
(I write the next few paragraphs with a prayer that Þórður will not take offense if I refer to him as “Peter” for the rest of my retelling. The Icelandic letters that we do not have in English are difficult to type and pronounce!)
Peter (Þórður) had a thought, in this small church, in this small community on the barren Atlantic coast, so far from anyplace, that if people would just get to know one another, if people would just welcome and love all their neighbors, there just might be a glimmer of hope for peace. Peter had this insight as he sat in this one-roomed church where he knew each and every person; each and every blue-eyed person.
We met Peter nearly sixty years later in that same one-roomed church. Now in his eighties, Peter was beside himself with joy and talking excitedly. There, gathered in that same one-room church were people from Iceland, France, Germany, the United States and Japan. Here, in this multi-cultural mix of travelers, here in his home church, Peter identified the presence of God’s hope for the future of the world.
So - how far? How far must we…how far must we travel to mend after overwhelming grief? How far must we travel after being hollowed out by hopelessness? How far must we travel to find a place of comfort? Of safety? Community? God?
Six thousand miles, to Bethlehem? Three thousand miles, to Iceland?
What if I told you that the answer to the distance is internal as well as eternal?
What if I told you that the answer to the distance set right before you?
Is that a distance that you can accept?
Here, at this table, God gathers women, men and children together for the meal of Life. Here Jesus comes before us once again, welcoming us into a place where we are each respected and loved for the person God created us to be. Here we each taste the nourishment of the Spirit in the texture of the bread and the flesh of the grape.
Here God calls some of us to be Naomi, others Orpah, and others Ruth. Here we are all called to invite God into our midst as we consider the decisions placed before us in our lives. The road of change and transformation is set before us.
The distance can be great. But God’s love for us is greater. Come, because the question “How Far?” is answered for you this day, at this table. Amen.