Updated: Nov 1
“Where You Go, I Will Go”
Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 15, 2023
Sermon Text: Ruth 1:1-17
They were refugees.
Not because of war, but because of famine.
Naomi and her husband and sons left Bethlehem
and settled in enemy territory, in the land of Moab.
This ancient and beautiful story about a refugee family
is juxtaposed with recent images of
refugees fleeing the northern part of Gaza
and with images of American tourists trying to leave Israel.
We don’t need specialized scholars to help us understand this story.
We know about refugees, even if we can’t personally identify with their plight.
Once Naomi and her husband settle in Moab, their sons marry Moabite women.
The name of the first was Orpah, and the second, Ruth.
There’s a story that when Oprah Winfrey was born her family had planned to name her Orpah.
Orpah is a good biblical name.
But apparently the name was misspelled on the birth certificate,
and she became Oprah instead of Orpah.
And with one, single misspelling, the name Oprah has become more famous than Orpah. (This story was told by Robert Williamson in an episode of the Bible Worm podcast, but he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure whether the story was true).
While they are in Moab, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies. And after about ten years Naomi’s sons Mahlon and Chilion also die. Now, it is just Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth.
They begin traveling back to Bethlehem, knowing that the famine there is now over. And who knows what was going through Naomi’s mind as they began their journey. After all the years they had spent together, perhaps it seemed natural to travel together on this new journey. But perhaps Naomi also begins to wonder how the residents of Bethlehem would react to her bringing two Moabite women with her. Moabites and Israelites were ancient enemies. Deuteronomy had been quite clear in stating that no Moabite was to be allowed into the assembly. I can imagine that Naomi doesn’t want to expose her daughters-in-law to possible rejection, so she encourages them to return to their own people in Moab.
At first both daughters-in-law refuse Naomi’s request. But after Naomi pleads some more, Orpah finally decides to return to Moab. But not Ruth. Instead Ruth speaks to Naomi those words that are among the most beautiful in all of scripture: “
Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
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.
This is a beautiful text that is often read at weddings, and it’s certainly a beautiful text to read at a wedding. But Ruth speaks these words at a moment when she’s choosing not to marry again, or at least choosing not to return to Moab to find a husband there. Ruth’s most important choice at this moment is to remain with her mother-in-law, essentially saying that her relationship with Naomi is the most important relationship in her life.
Ruth’s decision is a surprising one. The biblical narrative sets us up not to expect such a decision. In the book of Genesis, we learn that the Moabites and the Ammonites had their origins in the incestuous union of Lot with his daughters. With such an origin story, we are not inclined to think well of Moabites. And then in the book of Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ final sermon to the wandering Israelites. Moses explicitly says that no Moabite will ever be allowed to enter the assembly (Deuteronomy 23:3). With this kind of set-up, it’s hard to imagine how Moabites and Israelites could ever mix.
In the same way many people today throw their hands up and state emphatically that there will never be peace in the Middle East. After all, these people have been fighting each other for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
Back in 1995 I was privileged to travel with a group from my seminary to Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. The prospects for peace seemed brighter then than they do now. Thus, we fret about how the current conflict could ever come to an end. And in the biblical narrative we don’t expect things to work out well when Naomi brings a Moabite woman home with her.
On the other hand, the biblical narrative conditions us to expect the surprise. Abraham and Sarah have a child in their old age. The youngest son Jacob is chosen over the oldest son Esau. The Israelites escaping from slavery in the Egyptian empire is a surprise. So, we are set up to anticipate that surprising moment when Ruth looks Naomi in her eyes and says “wherever you go, I will go.”
In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, the main character, Evelyn Quan Wang, has the ability to travel between universes. Each universe is differentiated by decisions she has made over the course of her lifetime. In one universe she is a professional singer. In another she is a martial arts master. In yet another she leaves her home against her father’s wishes to be with her true love. And in another universe, she decides to call off the relationship and stay with her family.
As movie viewers, we would expect Evelyn to choose to stay in one of the more glamorous universes where the pressures of her everyday life can’t get to her. After all, when the movie opens, she is on the brink of divorce, she is caring for her sick father who has always made her feel inadequate, and she has a very strained relationship with her young adult daughter. (In one of the alternate universes her daughter is the dark overlord).
The surprise is that Evelyn’s love for her estranged daughter is so great that, even after seeing so many other possible lives she could be leading, Evelyn chooses to stay exactly where she is. She doesn’t want to choose a life that doesn’t include her daughter.
So she chooses the life that she had at the very beginning, not knowing whether she and her daughter will finally be reconciled or not.
The story of Ruth and Naomi doesn’t require a biblical expert or astute theologian to help us understand it, because we all know that power of having someone look us in the eye and say, I choose to be with you. I choose to be present with you in the midst of whatever difficulty you’re going through at the moment. I choose to be with you even though we don’t know how it will work out yet. But I choose to be with you, because love is so compelling and I have no other choice.
Friends, we have neighbors who are hurting. We have neighbors who have lived in Israel, and they are in pain. Many of us have Palestinian neighbors who are also in pain. And whenever one of us is in pain, there is no substitute for having someone look us in the eye and say, “I am with you. I am with you no matter what, because the love of God and the love of neighbor leaves me no other choice.”
Dear friends, look around. Look around at the faces in the sanctuary, and friends on Zoom look at the thumbnail faces you see on the screen. Look around. Look around you because these are your people, and we are all gathered together worshipping our God. May God give us the strength to build upon the strong ties that are already there and to create new ties, ties which bind us all together in love.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
Sources: The sermon illustration from the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once is from a resource by Clergy Stuff. I did see the movie on my own, but got a bit lost as Evelyn shifted between universes.
Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.