Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26), 4 November 2018

November 4, 2018 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Ruth 1:1-18 Psalm 146 Hebrews 9:11-14 Mark 12:28-34

Today’s passages are as contemporary as this afternoon’s “breaking news.” They touch on issues of immigration, equality, economics, justice, leadership, and ethics. They challenge us to go beyond siloed theologies and politics to approaches that integrate local and global compassion.

The Book of Ruth is more than a Hallmark Movie Channel love story.  Beneath the flirting and romance is a serious reflection on the place of women and immigrants.  Indeed, the Book of Ruth is both an immigration story and an account of women’s agency. The story begins with a stark announcement, “there was a famine in the land.” Like millions of climate refugees today, Elimelech’s and Naomi’s family emigrate to a foreign land as a matter of survival. They cross the border into Moab, knowing that relationships between Israel and Moab are ambiguous.  Israelites looked down on Moabites as religious, social, and ethical inferiors and I am sure that the Moabites reciprocated. Still, survival trumps comfort, and the family makes a life in Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, crossing the boundary of ethnicity to ensure the family line and offspring to work the land. Yet, no children are born and all the men die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law in dire straits. Three women alone, their lives are in peril.

In the meantime, life has improved in Israel and Naomi is determined to return home to Bethlehem. She charges Orpah and Ruth to return to their families, but Ruth defies her mother-in-law, promising to be with her regardless of the circumstances of life. While once Naomi was an immigrant, now Ruth will be an immigrant – childless and a widow, no doubt destined to be the object of judgment as well as curiosity as well as male attention, given the negative ethical stereotypes of Moabite women. Though Naomi has the right to property in Bethlehem, their survival depends on Ruth finding an adequate husband. Ruth trusts her future in an unfamiliar land to Naomi and her God.

Some scholars suggest that Ruth was written in response to the xenophobia of Ezra, who upon returning from the Babylonian captivity seeks a return to ethnic purity by forcing Jewish men to divorce their Canaanite wives. Ezra believed that only a return to holiness – that is, ethnic and religious separation – could ensure the future flourishing of the nation. In contrast, Ruth is a foreigner, who eventually marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of David. Israel’s greatest king comes out of mixed-racial heritage. The nation’s greatest days transcended ethnic purity.

The parallels between Ruth and our time are unmistakable. While Ruth does not give us public policy guidelines, Ruth challenges us to welcome immigrant peoples, giving them hospitality regardless of how they entered our nation. This does not mean that we abandon border security. It does mean that we recognize our common humanity with refugees from other lands, treating them with the same care we would wish under similar circumstances. (For more on the book of Ruth, see Bruce Epperly, Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure, Energion Publications, 2016.)

Psalm 146, and all of this week’s scriptures, will be read just a few days before the mid-term elections. Just a few months before the midterms Donald Trump was recorded telling an elite group of evangelical leaders, “This November 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion, it’s a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment. It’s a referendum on so much.“ The Psalmist – as well as his prophetic companions – would surely take issue with such perorations. Don’t put your trust in mortals, in rulers, turn to God’s way, the Psalmist counsels. God’s way eclipses and challenges the morality of every politician – the Creator of the Universe feeds the hungry, heals the sick, establishes prison reform, restores justice in the courts, and uplifts the marginalized. God establishes the moral arc of history and our calling is to support its movement toward justice by bringing healing and justice to our own civic responsibilities and national policies. No politician is our savior, and the best politicians in a pluralist society look well to the moral arc and align themselves with it.

The passage from Hebrews is foreign to twenty-first century ears.  Unless you are planning to address blood sacrifices and the theory of atonement, it is perhaps best to excise this text from the Sunday readings. The passage may be salvaged by focusing on the importance of sacrifice – divine and human – for the greater good. God is willing to sacrifice for our healing and wholeness. God takes on the pain of the world as God’s own pain and transforms pain into experiences of tragic beauty. We, too, can transform our suffering and the suffering of others through empathetic responses, grounded in the quest for justice and healing.

The reading from Mark connects our love of God with our love for our neighbor. While the extent of “neighborliness” is left vague, since God is universal, we are led to assume a universality of welcome in terms of our neighbors. Our neighbor is anyone of whom we are aware, in today’s global society. Loving the neighbor involves immediate, interpersonal relationships and also our more distant corporate and political decision-making. Many people restrict ethics to the immediate community – or to people like us with whom we regularly interact. Jesus’ lifestyle and the prophetic tradition suggests that neighborliness has no walls, boundaries, or limits. We should, of course, care for our own kin and fellow citizens, but we must also recognize that persons in other lands are equally loved by God and deserve our ethical consideration.

How do we love our neighbors in foreign lands? How do we love our immigrant and refugee neighbors? How do we put love in practice beyond borders? World loyalty that builds bridges and affirms ultimate unity amid radical diversity is the lure that we must follow to ensure the well-being of our planet and its creatures.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, UCC, Centerville, on Cape Cod, MA, and professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure with God, and The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh.