“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘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!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • 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.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

=========================================

[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

Global Update on Human Rights Concerns by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

On June 18, 2018, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, delivered his final Global Update on Human Rights Concerns to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.[1]

He opened with what he called “some final reflections.”

First, there are indeed universal human rights; they are not alien, Western values.

Second, these rights are now under attack—” not only from the violent extremists, like the Takfiris, but also from authoritarian leaders, populists, demagogues, cultural relativists, some Western academics, and even some UN officials.”  This is due to “the most destructive force to imperil the world, chauvinistic nationalism – when raised to feral extremes by self-serving, callous leaders, and amplified by mass ideologies which themselves repress freedom. The UN was conceived in order to prevent its rebirth. Chauvinistic nationalism is the polar opposite of the UN, it’s very antonym and enemy.”

Third, the U.N. itself is not doing enough to combat this chauvinistic nationalism. This is due to “too many governments represented at the UN will often pull in the opposing direction: feigning a commitment to the common effort, yet fighting for nothing more than their thinly-thought interests, taking out as much as they can from the UN, politically, while not investing in making it a true success. The more pronounced their sense of self-importance – the more they glory in nationalism – the more unvarnished is the assault by these governments on the overall common good: on universal rights, on universal law and universal institutions, such as [the Human Rights Council].”

Fourth, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights clearly has recognized that “only fearlessness is adequate to our task at this point in time. Not ducking for cover, or using excuses or resorting to euphemisms, but a fearlessness approaching that shown by human rights defenders around the world – for only by speaking out can we begin to combat the growing menace of chauvinistic nationalism that stalks our future..”

The High Commissioner then reviewed human rights concerns in many countries around the world. One was Cameroon, about which he said the following:

  • “In Cameroon, I trust that recent promising discussions with the authorities will swiftly lead to approval for a mission by the Office [of the High Commissioner] to all parts of the country. To date this access has been refused, despite the growing crisis in the Anglophone regions, with fighting between up to a dozen armed groups and the security forces. We have received reports of abuses and violations by all sides, including burning of schools and private property; mass arrests and arbitrary detentions; and the use of torture and excessive force by security personnel, leading to the displacement of 150,000 people within the country and over 20,000 to neighboring Nigeria.”

=======================================

[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Opening statement and global update of human rights concerns by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Hussein at 38th session of the Human Rights Council (June 18, 2018)