“Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.” With these words, Ruth follows after her mother-in-law Naomi. She leaves behind her homeland of Moab, crosses the Jordan River, and enters Judah, settling down in Bethlehem. She meets and marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David, as well as part of the ancestry named in the lineage of Jesus.
“Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”
On one level, this is a story about devotion and love. Such was the love and affection that Naomi showed her daughters-in-law that they both wrestled with whether or not to follow her to a foreign land. Orpah decides to stay; Ruth decides to go. On another level, it’s a reflection of a particular time period. All three women have become widows, a particularly vulnerable position in the ancient world. Marriage and family would have been their most reliable means of support.
Naomi knows her chances will be better if she goes back to her “tribe” back in Bethlehem. Orpah figures she will be more likely to remarry if she stays in Moab. Ruth throws her lot in with Naomi, which is quite risky: marrying across tribe is unusual, and it is quite possible that the two widows will end up having to rely on Naomi’s family, if they will take them in.
In other words, it’s a story about history – a time period very different from our own. It’s also a story about love – a love that transcends blood and tribe. And it’s a story about trust – a trust that leans into love, and ends up risking for the sake of it.
Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about fearlessness – about the fact that fear is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s a necessary component for survival. And yet, we can’t let fear rule all that we do. The instinct of fear hearkens back to a primal time in our species, when there was survival and only survival. Human society has evolved dramatically in the intervening centuries, meaning that there are times when fear is simply outdated. It’s the emotional equivalent of using stone tools in the age of the smart phone.
Fearlessness, quite simply, takes practice. And that practice can lead us to the kinds of leaps of faith that we see in Ruth’s story.
Her story is a remarkable one. Think of it as two streams. On one side is her future as a Moabite. If she bids farewell to Naomi and goes back to her childhood home, she may or may not remarry. But she will be taken care of for the rest of her life. On the other side is her future as a foreigner in Bethlehem. As far as she would have been able to predict, nothing is certain. Once Naomi is gone, would her family feel obliged to care for Ruth? She is likely resigning herself to a life of poverty.
Think of it this way: to follow Naomi, Ruth not only pledges her loyalty to her; she obliges herself to a foreign nation and a foreign god! If you’re on the side of Judah, she’s a hero. But if you’re on the side of Moab, she’s nothing short of a traitor.
That’s the level of risk she takes. And what ends up happening is she ends up being part of this Judean stream of history that becomes a crucial part of the grander story of salvation, of God’s love for humanity. Through Joseph’s ancestry, Ruth is thirty generations removed from the birth of Jesus. In the long patriarchal list in Matthew, Ruth is one of only five women named. Moving from one stream to the other moved her story from being one of security and safety in Moab to one of history and destiny in Judah.
And all of it began with a commitment borne out of love.
What would it be like to have that kind of love? What would we experience if we had that kind of devotion to God and God’s story? Where would that kind of fearless loving lead us?
Elizabeth and I lived in Chicago when we were in graduate school. This was way back in the last century, BC (before children). And while we were there, a new call began to grow with a sense of urgency to it: to support the Christian church in the land of its birth. By the time 2000 rolled around, things were falling into place. And in September of that year, we moved to the Northern West Bank, where we spent three and a half wonderful, heartbreaking, joyful years living in a Palestinian village, teaching school and working with clergy and lay leaders there.
Before we left, we had a going away party. Everything in our home was tagged. There was the stuff we were planning to take, the stuff we were planning to put into storage, and everything else. Everything in that latter category we gave away. If people wanted to donate toward our ministry, that would be fine. More important to us, though, was that our “stuff” would find a home: furniture, books, clothes, music, you name it.
I’m not sure I can imagine doing something like that now. But here’s the thing: what sticks with me until this day is how freeing a time it was! We both knew, instinctively, that this is what we were supposed to do. Most of the stuff we had was stuff others had given to us anyway; who were we to charge for it? And letting go of all that stuff was just so…liberating! And all of it – all of it – was wrapped up in a wonderful certainty of this amazing thing that God was calling us into.
What would it look like for us to live with that kind of liberating abandon? What would it look like for you to let go of your “stuff”, however you want to define that, in love and fearlessness? Could we, indeed, follow in the footsteps of Ruth, calling out to God, “Wherever you go, I will go; your people will be my people”?
A word of caution, my friends: if we say this – we really say this and believe it – we will experience not only great freedom. Our hearts will be forever sewn together with those whom God loves. Speaking for myself, my days of living in Palestine are in the past. I have been able to reconnect with so many of those beloved friends by way of Facebook. And these past few weeks, the images they share of violence in the streets of Jerusalem and beyond are heartbreaking. These are people – Palestinians and Israelis; Muslims, Jews, and Christians – created in the image of God. Whatever “side” you feel drawn to in a conflict, whether based on tribe of politics or confessional status or nation, faithfulness requires love. And love requires love not only of those with whom we side – at least, not if we claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who said, in no uncertain terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
For Ruth, love meant risk – risking the safety and security of home because of the deep bonds of affection that her relationship with Naomi had brought. And that risk brought her great reward.
As noble as all of that is, it is a mere shadow of the love that God calls us to in Christ. We love people not because they are lovable. As wonderful as reciprocated love is, it’s the easy kind. We love because we are loved! You see: God knows what we are really like. And God loves us anyway! If that’s true of us, no matter how “moral” or “noble” or “good” we are at our best, we all know that we are never perfectly lovable. But that doesn’t matter to God! God knows what we are capable of and still calls us to the better angels of our nature.
Fearless loving is the embodiment of Christ’s love. It loves friends, yes, but also enemies. It prays for those precious to us, yes, and those whom we cannot stand. It is not easy; it takes practice, and it involves risk. And yet, it brings us into God’s stream of faithful living, of that amazing history of salvation that God continues to promise to humanity!
What would that kind of love look like in your life? What would like look like to practice that kind of fearless loving? For some of you, it may start with your morning commute and replacing whatever kind of colorful descriptives you might have for that person that cuts you off to call out, instead, “God love you!” For others of you, it might be seeing that co-worker who rubs you the wrong way and muttering under your breath, “child of God; child of God; child of God.” Whatever it is, it begins in prayer. After all, prayer is a two-way conversation where we not only call out to God but open ourselves to God and God’s ways.
Friends: the love that God calls us to be part of us fearless. May we live into it together.