A Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018; Ruth 1:12-18 and Ephesians 2:19-22
The word has many meanings:
What makes a place home?
What does it mean to leave home?
What does it mean to feel like you don’t have a home?
What does it mean to make a home or engage in God’s kingdom-building for those who don’t have a place to dwell and who cry out for justice and mercy?
More than 1,000 people, including a group of 14 from Pleasant Hill, wrestled with these questions during the 2018 Montreat College Conference held earlier this month at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.
Montreat itself is “home” or a “home away from home” for many Presbyterians who have attended youth and adult conferences because it’s a sacred space where people come to enrich their faith, create community and discern how they are being called to use their gifts to serve.
In the College Conference video that beautifully captures the experience of being at home with one another and God, you probably noticed a cover of the hit single Home by Phillip Phillips playing in the background. If you weren’t able to hear every word or if you’re unfamiliar with the song, here are the lyrics. Listen carefully:
Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home
Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home
Greg Holden, the musician who co-wrote Home for Phillip Phillips to perform after the Georgia native won American Idol, said the song was penned for “a friend who was going through a really dark time, and I wanted to write a song that sort of let them know that someone was there for them.”(1)
Home is immensely popular because of the way it emotionally connects with listeners. It’s been used in numerous movies, commercials and sporting events. When asked in an interview about the impact of Home on listeners, Phillip said:
“I hear the most incredible stories from people about how the song helped them through something tough in their life or was part of a beautiful celebration… ‘Home’ has these arms that can stretch so wide that people can relate to it in many ways.”
Home’s powerful message is particularly relatable to the beginning of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Hear again Ruth 1:14-16:
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.”
Ruth’s actions in this moment are as important if not more so than the words she speaks to Naomi. The text says Ruth “clung” to her. Now, for my of my life, whenever I’ve read this story, I’ve always pictured Ruth wrapping her arms around Naomi’s waist or her legs like a child who doesn’t want their parent to leave without them. And if you do a Google search, you’ll find numerous paintings that depict Ruth as the one who seems to be clinging to Naomi out of fear and desperation.
But that’s not what is actually happening. We ascribe a modern day definition and image to the word “cling” that implies someone is desperately holding on for dear life. However, the Hebrew word for cling—dabaq—indicates the opposite is occurring. Dabaq means to keep close, to fasten your grip, to overtake, to stick together.
As Rev. Linda H. Hollies notes in her book on Ruth and Naomi:
Naomi did not quite “get it,” but Ruth was offering to shelter her from the storms of life, to stick by her side without fail, and to be her protection from harm and starvation… (3)
Ruth also takes a risk by protecting Naomi and taking her mother-in-law back to her hometown of Bethlehem in Judah. Ruth is a Moabite who has never left her home country of Moab. She was born there and raised there. She married one of Naomi’s sons in Moab and was planning to have a family and die in Moab.
Moab, by the way, wasn’t regarded highly by the people of Israel. Moab was renown for it’s sensual, sexually immoral habits, culture and mores. The Israelites, with a high sense of moral values, had a decree that other Gentiles could be converted to Judaism within two generations. However, Moabites had to wait ten generations to convert because of Moab’s reputation.
When Ruth leaves Moab with Naomi, she fully realizes that “her kind” will not be immediately accepted when she steps foot in Judah. And yet she still clings to Naomi and promises to go with her. Ruth is confident that the God of the Israelites will take care of them and lead them home.
During a sermon at the College Conference, Rev. Jill Vandewater Isola explained how Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her trust in God reminded her of a scene from a popular TV drama where one character, Leo, a recovering alcoholic is giving advice to another character, Josh, who is struggling with depression and has contemplated suicide. Leo tells Josh a story. He says:
This guy is walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription and throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. The guy says, “Are you stupid? Now, we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” (4)
This is what “home” is about, Rev. Jill told the conferees. “Home is where you’re not alone in your doubt and struggles,” she said. “Home is where someone is in the hole with you to help find the way out.”
Naomi is in a hole. She left Israel due to a severe famine. Then, she loses her husband and a decade later, she loses both her sons, presumably from illness. Naomi is grief-stricken, feeling hopeless—resigned to spend her remaining days in loneliness till she dies. Ruth, who has lost a husband, had a hard life in Moab and is uncertain about how she will be welcomed in a new land, “jumps in the hole” with Naomi. Ruth knows the way out and it is forward with God.
One of the College Conference’s keynote speakers, Rev. Becca Stevens, shared how the organization she founded, Thistle Farms in Nashville, TN, shows the way out and forward for women who’ve fallen on hard times.
After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary that offered a loving community for the survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. In 1997, five women who had lived life on the streets and in prison were welcomed home to Thistle Farms. More than 20 years later, Thistle Farms continues to welcome women by providing free lodging, medical care, therapy and education for two years. Residents and graduates earn income through one of four social enterprises within Thistle Farms, and the global arm of the organization helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide—women who face abuse, oppression, hunger and poverty in their countries.
Three incredibly brave and courageous women, graduates and employees of Thistle Farms, came on stage with Becca Stevens to share their stories of transformation—of how Thistle Farms clung to them and sheltered them from their storms. Each woman expressed gratitude to Thistle Farms for giving them welcome, redemption, love and hope.
Becca reminded the conferees that “being in community means there will always be someone who needs help,” and that “radical hospitality is what the church needs to be about.”
Being in community by clinging to those who need comfort and protection—by jumping down in the hole to help someone who is stuck and in trouble—is our biblical heritage. It’s in our identity as people of faith, as the apostle Paul states in his letter to the early Christian communities in Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Do you catch what Paul is saying in these verses? We are joined together in Christ to build a home for God.
Not a brick and mortar or wooden or steel structure, mind you. That’s fine and all, but the apostle isn’t talking about traditional materials used to construct a church building. Those things are not what make the Church; they’re merely a casing or outfit for what truly is the Church: people. Flesh and blood human beings who create room for God to reside within their very souls and who seek to grow holy temples from their hearts.
We gather together as people of faith in community inside and outside of these walls because we are citizens of God’s kingdom and members of God’s household, no longer the strangers and aliens that parts of society and the world deem many among us to be.
We go out to do the work of Christ’s ministry in neighborhoods near and far because God calls us to cling to others, to provide comfort and love to our brothers and sisters. The reason why we serve at Clifton Men’s Shelter, Laundry Love and the Duluth Co-Op or send mission teams to Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic is because we desire to be in solidarity with fellow human beings who are hurting and who clamor for God’s justice and mercy.
We welcome people all backgrounds and walks of life to discover their meaning and purpose and to seek protection from their storms. We help those who are a bit stuck and need direction so that together we can together find a way out and forward with God.
Joined together in Christ, we make a home for one another. A home where none are alone in their doubts and struggles. A home where all are loved accepted and cherished.
Regardless if you are in this sanctuary or a hospital room or an apartment or a classroom or an office or a shelter for the poor, or a city park or an impoverished village on a hillside thousands of miles away or even a hole in the street, a home will be found and made.
For where you go, we will go.
And where you lodge, we will lodge.
And so will God, who clings to all of us, now and forever.
(1) Greg Holden quote: http://www.mcall.com/entertainment/lehigh-valley-music/mc-interviewing-greg-holden-after-writing-phillip-phillips-hit-home-singer-finds-himself-chasing-the-su-20151024-column.html
(2) Phillip Phillips quote: http://www.songwriteruniverse.com/phillip-phillips-interview-2014.htm
(3) “On Their Way to Wonderful: A Journey With Ruth and Naomi” by Linda H. Hollies, p. 15. The Pilgrim Press, 2004
(4) The West Wing, Season 2, Episode 10, “Noel,” 2000. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0745664/quotes