Sunday, November 4, 2012


It is good to be with you again.
You have done some great things in Ely
         these past few years.
I find that really encouraging.
I have been encouraged by your determination
         to have a children’s Sunday School.
You are now organizing the community
         to provide food and support
         to low income kids in the public schools.
Your ministries are an inspiration to the whole diocese.
We are grateful for you.
I am grateful for you.

There are several good ways to read the Bible.
Sometimes I like to read it an old fashioned way.
It works like this: we study the social situation
     what was going on at the time the story was written –
and look at the history leading up to that situation.

That way we can figure out the point
         the author was trying to make.
There are other ways to read the Bible,
         and we will still get a point out of it,
         just not necessarily what the author meant.

In the case of Ruth, the author was making a point
         that speaks to the United States today,
         and it’s a point churches might learn from.

King David was the centerpiece of Jewish history.
David was the ultimate Jew.
He was their George Washington, Abe Lincoln,
         and FDR all rolled into one.
David was everything a Jew ought to be.

Our story happened before David,
         but it didn’t get written until after David.
After David, the Jewish Empire fell apart.

Finally, Babylon conquered Judah
         and carried the upper class away into exile,
         leaving only the blue-collar workers behind.
For 40 years, the upper class exiles in Babylon
         kept tight with each other and practiced their religion
         scrupulously dotting ever I and crossing every T.
Back home in Judah, the blue-collar folks
         had not been so precise.
They were more easy going with their rituals.

To make matters worse, there was a tide of immigration.
Foreigners from neighboring Moab moved into Judah
         and mixed in with the blue collar Jews.
Jews and Moabites even married and had children.

Then the exile ended.
The upper class Jews came home
         and were not pleased to see what had happened.
They began whipping the place into shape religiously
and cleaning it up ethnically.

They began a massive deportation effort
to get rid of all those unclean Moabites.
Most particularly they wanted to get rid
         of the Moabite wives of Jewish men,
         and their little half-breed children.

When our author saw families being torn apart
by this deportation policy,
 it reminded him of Ruth.
A few hundred years earlier, two Jews,
 Elimilech and Naomi, lived in Judah,
         until there was a famine.
When they couldn’t make a living in Judah,
         they packed up and moved where they could.
There was precedent for it.
During an earlier famine, their ancestors had moved to Egypt.
But Elimilech and Naomi didn’t go that far.
They moved to the country next door.
They moved to Moab.

Elimilech got a job and worked in Moab.
Their sons both married Moabite women.
Eventually Elimilech and his sons died.
By now the economy had picked back up in Judah,
         so Naomi decided to go home.
But her daughter-in-law Ruth wanted
to keep what was left of the family together.
So Ruth the Moabite woman moved to Judah with Naomi.

There Ruth worked in the fields;
         but her story doesn’t end like that.
It’s frankly a pretty racy story.
She sort of slept her way to the top.
The author doesn’t criticize her for it.
He’s too focused on admiring her family loyalty.

The prurient details of the romance between Ruth
and the Jewish gentleman farmer Boaz
just keep us reading the story to its conclusion.

The conclusion goes like this:
Boaz the Jew marries Ruth the Moabite.
They have a son Obed, whose son is Jesse,
         whose son is - - - - David!

David, the ultimate Jew,
         had Moabite blood in his veins.
Under the deportation policy at the time this was written,
         David would have been deported.
His grandma Ruth would never have been let in the country.
If she had snuck in,
the Judean Immigration Control & Enforcement
                  would have pulled up in their black SUV’s
to Boaz’s house one night,
                  told Ruth to kiss Boaz good-bye,
                  and the Jews would never have won their freedom
                           from the Philistines because David
                           would never have been born.

The author of Ruth could have made his point
just by quoting God’s law. Deuteronomy 24: 17-22.
It commands Jews
to welcome and care for aliens in their land
because they were once aliens in Egypt.
But the author preferred to tell us this story
that makes a subtle reference to the law.
Boaz met Ruth while she was gathering
the gleanings from his field.
Those gleanings were left for her as an alien
because God specifically commanded it
at Deuteronomy 24: 17-22.

So what was the moral of the story for Judah
         in those days after the exile ended
         when the upper class leaders
                  were deporting the Moabites?
What might the moral be for us?
That’s something we all have to pray our way through.

But I’ll make one small point about church life.
There’s something that goes on in virtually all churches.
It is always completely unconscious,
         and that’s what makes it so powerful.

Some churches are just cold and aloof.
But most churches are pretty welcoming
         to newcomers who are like the folks
                  who are already there.
We are pleased as punch to see
more of our own kind in the pews.

But unless they are very deliberate about it,
         most churches are not so inviting
to people who are different.
The cruelest behavior I have ever seen
 has been church folks excluding people
                  who “aren’t our sort.”

It isn’t unusual for young adults to ask me to suggest a church.
But, we have congregations where I will not refer a young adult
         because I know how they will be treated.

No one intends to do this.
It’s unconscious – but it isn’t invisible.
Different churches have different unconscious standards
         for who they will include and who they won’t.

If we want to get serious about evangelism in Nevada,
         a good starting place would be for each congregation
         to figure out “Who is a Moabite to us? Who is alien to us?”
then prayerfully reflect on God’s word at Leviticus 19:34:
         “The alien must be treated as one of the native born.
         Love him as yourself;
         For you were aliens in Egypt.
         I am the Lord your God.”