Where You Go, I Will Go
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 9, 2021
Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; 4:13-22
This is perhaps the most propitious day to think about mothers, and to realise how important they are and have always been. For many people it has been a difficult year and a half with regards to mothers. There has been distance between children and mothers, grandmothers, and mothers-in-law. This distance has been profoundly difficult. Sometimes it has been forced, particularly with concerns in long-term care, where the only way that people could see their mothers, was through a window. There have been those who have been separated in various parts of the country and have not been able to be reunited. It has meant that families have been strained in relationships that normally offer strong and loving support. It has been difficult.
To celebrate Mother’s Day for the second time during a pandemic, is perhaps for many of you an emotional one. For the mothers who have had to take it upon themselves to be part of the running of an entire household, who have had to spend almost an inordinate amount of time with their young children, more than they usually would, but have had to make great sacrifices to care for them. I love what one mother said to me. She said, “During COVID-19, I have been half-time a teacher and half-time a circus impresario, having to make sure that there is both entertainment and education.” Not something that this mother was really prepared for. There’s also been joy, having family close together and supporting one another, in confined spaces. Having to live and learn and love one another in a very condensed environment has been very difficult, but it has also brought its blessings too.
For single mothers trying to provide for their children and their family, while at the same time being the sole caregiver, has brought around a tremendous amount of stress. So, we have had the joys of familial love and learning new ways of being, but at the same time, deep and profound stresses on the family. The family has been both one of the great blessings during this time, and also one of the great challenges. At the heart of this is mothers.
You might think that on a day like this, I would throw out some platitudes. I might quote, Mahatma Ghandi, who said, “It may be possible to guild pure gold, but who can make their mother more beautiful?” Nobody. A lovely sentiment.
I want to go deeper than a Hallmark card Mother’s Day. I think you deserve it, and I think we need it. I have drawn from the book of Ruth, a magnificent passage that speaks of deep and profound love amongst mothers and mothers-in-law. It is one of the great ancient stories of the Bible, probably written a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. It is a precursor to some of the greats in the Bible; to David, the great king, or Jesus himself. You’ll see why a little later on.
It is also a wonderful story that grabs the heart. I remember a few years ago, our own Spirit Express young people putting on a musical performance about Ruth and Naomi. It was a marvelous production, and your heart was moved by the story. It makes a good story, as well as good theology and imparts a good message. That’s why I recommend, if you've got the time to read the few chapters of the entire book of Ruth. For the sake of brevity, I have pulled the beginning and the end into this sermon, because I believe that in these, we see something profound.
For those of you who are mothers watching or listening today, the story is very simple. In a condensed form, it is a story about a family from Bethlehem – remember that – in Judah. A man called Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, who we’re told lived during the time of the Judges. That places it within the history of Israel, although there are some who believe that it might have been written a little later. It doesn’t really matter, but it was written at a time of famine and of a natural disaster. There was no food in the land of Judah, and so Elimelech and Naomi decided to take their two sons to Moab, a neighbouring country that they had heard had ample food. They leave Judah and go to Moab and when they get there, the two sons, young men from Bethlehem, marry Orpah and Ruth, and these two women, who were Moabites, and they live as a family. Then Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi, the two sons and the two daughters-in-law. We’re told that ten years later, the two sons die, leaving the three women: Orpah, Ruth and the mother-in-law, Naomi. This is another disaster. Now, the question for Naomi is, “What do I do? Do I return to Judah, because I have heard that the Lord has provided food for Judah, and should her daughters-in-law, go with her?
Naomi decides to go back to Judah, but she releases Orpah and Ruth from any obligation that they have to her as their mother-in-law. She says, “Go back to your homes, go back to the families – you're Moabites, stay there, don’t worry about me, I will return to Judah.” But the two of them both said, “No, we’ll go with you.” Naomi challenged them again, and this time Orpah said, “Okay, I will stay.” But Ruth – Ruth remained faithful to her mother-in-law. Here is one of the greatest passages in the whole of the Old Testament. It has become the subject of great music and songs by Chris Tomlin, the contemporary Christian composer of music, and others. Let me read these words to you, and I want you to listen because these are important.
Where you go, I will go.
Where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well,
if even death parts me from you.
Ruth’s words to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God.” Ruth left with Naomi and went to a foreign land in Judah.
The second part of the story is also beautiful. Ruth finds a man called Boaz, who is also from Judah and the area around Bethlehem. They have children, and Naomi is ecstatic, and everyone says, “Naomi, you've come home, but now through Ruth, the Moabite woman, you now have a family. Isn't this great?” Naomi is suddenly surrounded by many children, and Boaz and Ruth are good people, they obey the law, and are faithful people. But what is even more remarkable is that they have a son called Obed. Obed becomes a father to Jesse, and Jesse becomes a father to none other than the great David. Look how this whole picture has concluded, and how beautiful things have taken place here.
So, why on Mother’s Day do we want to look at this? Well, you've probably already grasped it. What we have here in Ruth is somebody who was wise, who had great courage, who herself became a mother, but respected motherhood by respecting and loving her mother-in-law. God ultimately used this love and affection, wisdom and courage for His purposes. God used a family, as mixed as it was, to do His will in the world. Let’s look at Ruth and hold her up today because of her incredible wisdom.
Stanley Milligan was a writer, who a number of years ago wrote a very popular book, Six Degrees of Separation. It became a movie that really didn’t do it justice, but “six degrees of separation” meant that we were never more than six people away from knowing everybody else on the earth and if you trace the trajectory of those people, you would find a connection to somebody.
You know, I’ve actually done that a little bit myself; I’ve gone back, and I’ve looked at, say, a famous person to see how many levels of connection might actually be there. None of which I know completely, but in general terms. I'm surprised how quickly you can move to knowing yourself and then knowing somebody that is seemingly distant. We could be six degrees separated from the Aga Khan; or from a homeless man in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It doesn’t matter, there is a connectivity. This connectivity is important, because it connects us with one another in a way that is hard to comprehend, and these connections are often very important. They're also very diverse. They're not pure connections, they're connections that are often distorted and move in various and sundry places.
Same with our lineage. We like to look at our ancestry, and see pictures of our ancestors, and put together a family tree. There are not many family trees that are as pure or as simple or as streamlined, either ethnically, racially or culturally as we think. There is a great degree of diversity within each of our backgrounds, despite what we think about our own cultures. There is no such thing as a pure race by any stretch of the imagination. That becomes obvious right here in the Bible, and in a very important moment, because the narrator tells us repeatedly that Ruth was a Moabite. Now remember, this has been written within the context of Jewish literature, and the Moabites were a terrible people as far as the people of God were concerned. The Moabites came, it was believed, from the illegitimate relations of Lot and his background and his family. They worshipped false gods, according to the Israelites. The god that they worshipped mainly was Chemosh. They practised impure things, were sexually impure, and often corrupt. They were looked down upon for the relationships they had, so much so that the prophet Ezekiel singles them out as a bad people.
Ruth is a Moabite – remember this – she is from a culture that is totally foreign to the people of Israel. Yet Ruth is held up in these passages as being someone who had great wisdom, insight, and compassion. When she said to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go, your God will be my God,” she was willing to change. She was willing to have a change of heart, born out of love and commitment to her mother-in-law.
This is surely one of the most beautiful things in the whole of the Old Testament: a Moabite and a woman from Bethlehem in a bond of love that strengthens the family. It is glorious. It is also true that in many ways, because of all of this, the wonder of Ruth is that she became the ancestor and the antecedent of something greater.
There was also great courage shown. Not only wisdom, but courage. The courage of Ruth was that she went to Judah and put herself in great jeopardy because she was a Moabite. She could have faced rejection. What man would want to marry a Moabite woman in a land that was ruled by the judges that had great devotion to the law, that maintained a degree of purity of the people, that had a belief in one God, not in the pagan gods of Chemosh and so on? Ruth going to Judah was a brave act, but what was that brave act driven by? Her compassion and love for her mother-in-law. It was love that took her to Judah. She risked everything going to that country.
Sometimes in making a tough decision based on love, and having the courage to do that, God can do wonderful things. Many of you will remember the Disney movie, Mulan. There’s a lovely line where the emperor praises Mulan to the captain and he says this: “For the flower that blooms in adversity, is the most rare and beautiful of all.”
Ruth was a flower that bloomed and blossomed in adversity. It took courage for her to do that. Not only that, it took her into a relationship with Boaz, and together they became people who followed the law.
So, what we have here is Ruth, a Moabite being changed with the love that she had for Naomi and being someone who fulfilled and became faithful to the law. She not only came to believe in the God of Judah, Boaz, and Naomi, but she also faithfully followed that law, took it into her heart, and made it something that was important. What’s remarkable in this story of love, is how God uses it. At times Naomi despaired, and she questioned her faith, but she also believed God had taken her back to Judah and had taken care of her people and provided for them. But Ruth going back with Naomi also led to something else. Remember, all of this started with famine, with a national crisis, and people leaving the country because of it. This also resulted in the loss of three people – Elimelech and the two sons of Naomi, the husbands of Orpah and of Ruth.
This was a story that started off badly in a moment of crisis, and here we are, still in many parts of our country and the world, particularly India, living in this enormous crisis. What I believe will get us through this, and precisely what got Ruth and Naomi through their crisis, was love for one another and the faithfulness to God, who can change, renew, and make things better. This is at the heart of all of this.
There’s one more thing here. The love that Ruth had for her mother-in-law, and the wisdom and the courage of Ruth, paved the way for something much greater. Ruth’s son, Obed, nursed by Naomi, became the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of David. Ruth was the one who made David possible. David’s reign, though flawed with many challenges, nevertheless created a dynasty that would lead Israel and Judah through their greatest years, until the Babylonian exile. Ruth was the antecedent of David, and her act of love down the road, two, three levels of separation, had created the most wonderful gift of the sovereignty of a king for Israel.
There’s one more person here and if you look carefully at the genealogy of Obed and Ruth, you will find them in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth. From where? Bethlehem, where Elimelech and Naomi were from. Jesus, our Lord and our Saviour, had a Moabite ancestor in Ruth, and her love and her faith made this possible. That’s not six degrees of separation, that is generations of something being passed along, and God using it in an incarnate way.
This Mother’s Day please understand the power of love, the power of devotion, both as a wife, as a spouse, as a mother, and as a mother-in-law. Know that God can then use that love for purposes beyond our imagination: Where they have gone, we will go, and we will go and meet our God. Happy Mother’s Day. Amen.