Pentecost III; June 14, 2015
You may have heard this beautiful poem read at a wedding, or perhaps you’ve heard a “Wherever you go, I will go” song. Although it’s not inappropriate for husband and wife, that’s not who says it. It is a young woman speaking to her mother-in-law, a woman she honors and loves as a friend. The words show the commitment of friendship.
And the words are about being on the move. “Where you go, I will go,” said Ruth to Naomi. And she did go, and it turned out well. Scholars like to talk about the theological and political significance of the story; whatever else, it is a great story in which things turn out well. How about if I take some time and summarize it for you?
Naomi and her husband Elimelech were from Bethlehem; when a famine hit, they moved with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to the country of Moab. They liked it there and stayed, long enough that the boys grew up and married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. In time all three men died, leaving only the women, childless. So Naomi decided to go home to Bethlehem, and the daughters-in-law decided to go along.
Naomi talked sense: there’s nothing for you in Bethlehem; you belong in Moab. She blessed them and told them to go back there. After some resistance, Orpah gave in and went home, but Ruth refused. “Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” I find it interesting that she becomes a convert, not because she thinks the Lord is a better God than the gods of Moab, but because of her love for Naomi. Well, for what it’s worth.
I think Naomi is rather irritated. Rather than being grateful for Ruth’s loyalty, she’s a little annoyed at this intrusion on her grief. But they get to Bethlehem, and are desperately poor, so Naomi sends Ruth out to work, where a rich man named Boaz falls in love with Ruth and proposes marriage. They get married, and have a son; everything turns out well in the end. Even Naomi is finally happy, with a grandson to spoil.
For now, though, let’s stay on the road with Naomi and Ruth, pretending we don’t know how the story ends. Because that’s where we are today. Naomi is trudging her way back to Bethlehem; she talked Orpah out of going with her, but Ruth is sticking with her. Here in this room, some of us are Presbyterian Church of the Master enjoying the space where we’ve worshiped for decades and others of us are Benson Presbyterian Church, feeling a little out of place but along for the ride. Who is Naomi and who is Ruth? Or perhaps the question isn’t which church you identify with which character, but whether you’re on this road because you feel you have to be – like Naomi – or you’re on the road because you love someone and you don’t want to be separated.
Here’s the way it looks to me today: we’re all Ruth, and the Lord Jesus is Naomi. Jesus-Naomi is headed somewhere, and we’re tagging along, singing, “Wherever you go, I will go; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Thoughts for the three groups present today. For those who are not members of either church, but are blessing us with your presence today: Jesus Christ is a force in the world, and we’re trying to keep up with him. Although folks often think of a church as a pretty building with a steeple – and there’s value to that – a church is also a wagon train, always on the move. Sometimes we circle the wagons against danger, and sometimes we stop for a while. But we’re generally on the move, aiming for that Kingdom Land, and we’re not going to stop until we get there. Now, to be part of this wagon train we don’t much care whether you agree with everything the trail bosses up front say, or with every line of the Apostles’ Creed, or even the way someone here interprets the Bible. What matters is that you want the Kingdom of God to be your destination and you’re willing to take directions from the Lord Jesus. He’s leading this wagon train.
For the people of Benson Presbyterian Church: what a range of feelings you may have right now. Dislocation, not in the space where you have worshiped since 1956. Feeling like guests in someone else’s house and you’re worried about soiling the nice towels. Relief to have a place to be that obviously needs work but has enough people around to manage it. Joy to be together and to be making new friends. Perhaps not yet, but soon enough some of you may feel at a loss. What do I do now? I used to teach Sunday School, or maintain the boiler, or supervise the kitchen, or corral people for the program at Rose Hill School. What do I do now? Before you feel adrift, I hope you will engage. If you’re a singer or musician, talk to Vickie about providing music this summer. If you like to work on the building, Lord knows we can find a job for you. Your Session is going to be leading you in a process called “discernment,” to try to figure out where your wagon train is heading. You will have work to do in that process. But in the meantime, I hope you’ll also find opportunities to engage here.
And for the people of Presbyterian Church of the Master: I don’t need to tell you to be good hosts; you already do that well. But things are going to feel different. I’ve put their name on the bulletin with ours, and while we’re worshiping together I want it to continue to read that way, so we don’t forget that we’re doing some things together. Already you may have found someone in your chair and you had to sit somewhere else. We may even say the Lord’s Prayer the way they say it sometimes. Things will feel different. Although we do not know where the Lord will lead them, I will say this up front: if we all end up staying together – which is one, but only one, of the options – then things will be different.
That’s the way it is when the Church is on the move. Most of us – myself included – have a picture in our heads of when things were “the way they’re supposed to be.” Nope. If things ever were the way things are supposed to be – and I doubt it – then that was fine for then, but not for now. Because the Church needs always to be on the move. Otherwise Jesus will leave us behind. He’s on the road to the Kingdom of God, and we don’t want to be left behind. We’ve already said to him, “Where you go, I will go; your people will be my people, and your God my God.”
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church