Are You My Mother? A Sermon

The texts for this sermon: Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman and Ruth 1:1-17.

The rains stopped falling and soon food became scarce. No weekly trucks filled with fresh produce and other goods would be arriving at the local market from places with adequate rain.

Children would become dehydrated and malnourished as the drought continued. Women and men would struggle to care for themselves and family.

Not unlike twenty-first century Mexican immigrants who journey north for jobs that pay enough to feed and care for their families, food migrants were common in the ancient world.

And so during a drought in Bethlehem, it’d be common for folks to migrate to lands with rain and food.

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you the God of the immigrant, the poor, the dispossessed?”

___

Elimelech and Naomi left ancient Bethlehem in search of food. To be a migrant in the ancient world was to be vulnerable.

To be a traveler or resident alien was to be on the outside. And so God as perceived by ancient writers of both testaments has specific expectations.

God in the book of Leviticus tells us that,

When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 CEB

In one storyline in the elder testament (Old Testament), Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed because the residents fail to provide hospitality to the stranger.

Referring to Sodom, the writer of Ezekiel attribute these words to God,

This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. Ezekiel 16:49 CEB

The biblical witness is bursting with hundreds of passages about how to treat the poor, the widow, the traveler, and the migrant.

If migrants were treated well, if we treated outsiders well, God would not have to remind our ancient kindred — or us —about how to treat the stranger.

If outsiders were treated like ourselves, there’d be no crisis of migrants in Europe, the middle east, or even in our own country.

Who is inside and who is outside is an age-old question that God has been clear about despite our resistance.

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you the God of all of us? of insider and of outsider?

__

Elimelech and Naomi settled among the Moabites. Though the Moabites were not well-respected by the ancient Israelites…

and though the Moabites probably believed in multiple gods — certainly not the same god as the Israelites — Elimelech & Naomi were treated well.

Their two sons even married Moabite women. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were Orpah and Ruth. For ten years they were part of her family.

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you the God who helps us find a way to live together?

___

Then Elimelech died. Then her two sons died.

Our text today implies that Naomi felt great grief and despair. She felt abandoned by God.

Who could blame her?

A few verses after the end of our reading, Naomi says:

“Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara,b for the Almightyc has made me very bitter. Ruth 1:20 CEB

Naomi means pleasant and Mara means bitter. Naomi describes herself as bitter following the death of her husband and her two sons.

Who could blame her?

There is more here, however, than the grief you and I would feel if we lost our spouse and our children in a short period of time.

Naomi is not only facing a loss of affection, she’s facing a loss of status. She could be facing a life on the streets without a man to provide for her.

That is how it was in the ancient world. Women were without independent means of caring for themselves.

If one of Naomi’s sons had lived, he would’ve been obligated to provide for her. If her husband had a living brother, he would have been obligated to marry her, hence providing for her financially.

“Don’t call me Naomi,a but call me Mara,b for the Almightyc has made me very bitter. Ruth 1:20 CEB

Who could blame her?

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you the God who cares for the widow?

___

Naomi’s Moabite daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth are better off than she. They have families that are obligated to care for them if they return home.

Instead, the two women begin the journey with Naomi back to her homeland in Bethlehem in Judah.(Naomi has received word that the drought has ended and food is plentiful.)

Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to return to Moabite territory, to their own mothers. Naomi and those first hearing this story knew that Orpah and Ruth might yet be remarried if they return home.

Believing she had nothing to offer her daughters-in-law. Deep within the depths of depression, despair, and grief Naomi’s love for Orpah and Ruth bubbles up:

Turn back, my daughters…No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Ruth 1:12a, 13-14 CEB

Orpah obeyed her mother-in-law Naomi and returns home to her own mother’s house, kissing her as she leaves.

But Ruth refuses. She stays with Naomi and journeys to Bethlehem.

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you the God of presence?
Is Ruth your presence with your daughter Naomi?

__

As I spent time with our scripture lesson this week, couldn’t help thinking of the children’s book by P.D. Eastman, ”Are You My Mother?”

In my time as a father and as an early childhood educator, I’ve read that book hundreds of times.

As an educator I know that the book appeals to toddlers as they practice classification — an essential math and science skill.

Like the child in the video that we watched this morning, we also practice classification skills.  For example, we place all the plates together in our cabinets in one spot and all the glasses in their own spot. We separate bath towels from kitchen towels. We know that a kitten needs its cat mother to nurse and that the sparrow returns to the nest to feed its newly hatched.

But notice something beyond the sorting of species apparent  in the book. Notice that the community of animals provides a safe environment as the baby bird tries to find its mother?

The cat doesn’t eat it. The dog doesn’t chase it. The whole community allows the baby bird to learn, to figure out who its mother is for itself.

But more than that, look at what the snort does. The snort — operated by a human being — returns baby bird to the safety of its nest.

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you present in our every encounter with creation?
Is your love embedded in the bird, the cat, the dog, and even the snort?

Like the animals in the children’s book and like the Moabites and the Israelites we are all embedded with the image of God.

We are all one family within the divine one who created and creates.

The immigrant and the long-time resident, the city dweller and the Condonite, brown people and pink people, gay and straight, gendered and transgendered, tall and short, bird and snort, Muslim and Buddhist, and even Moabite and Israelite are all created within the divine image of God.

That divinity within us? That divinity is love. That divinity is the one we call God and others call Elohim, Spirit, Supreme Being, Vishnu, or Allah.

“Are you my mother?
Are you the creating one?
Are you the source of all that is?”

Notice how Naomi refers to her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth when she pleads for them to return to their biological families and take care of themselves:

Turn back, my daughters…No, my daughters. Ruth 1:12a, 13a CEB

To the immigrant Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are daughters. Likewise to Ruth, the immigrant Naomi is beloved. Listen again to what she says to Naomi at the end or our reading today:

“Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay.

Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Ruth 1:16-17a CEB

The immigration status, the question of who is inside and who is outside is irrelevant to Ruth, to Naomi, and to God.

__

Though many of us in this room wish that our families were closer to us or that we could spend more time together, we mustn’t forget the lesson of Naomi and Ruth.

Are you my mother? Naomi is Ruth’s mother, her family, not because of biology but because of love, because of the divine one who connects them.

God is our mother. God is the creating one and the source of all that is. God is the love within and between. 

God is the love that binds humanity and creation together. God is the love that binds immigrant and citizen together as one.

Amen.

___

See also Are You My Mother: Call to Worship and Confession of Sin

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Tim strives to share God’s extravagant love for all–no matter what & without strings. Seeking to follow the lure of the Spirit, Tim writes about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in an era where Christianity has come to be associated with hatred and political wedge issues. “Heinous things have been said & done (& still are) in the name of the One who breathed in the Divine,” notes Tim, “but Jesus shows us that God loves extravagantly.” Following the teachings and life of Jesus is about inclusion not exclusion. It is about compassion, grace, and admitting no one has all the answers. It is about responding lovingly to the best of our human ability. It is about people not institutions. It is about social justice. It is about caring for creation. It is about being who we were each created to be. Tim is a former early childhood educator, a runner, a hiker, a devoted husband, father of two adult children and their spouses, and a grandfather of two perfect babies. The former pastor of the Condon United Church of Christ, Tim recently began serving the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Albany, Oregon. He writes from home, from the coffee shop, and wherever the trail leads him.

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Posted in Ezekiel, Ezekiel 16, Ezekiel 16:49, Leviticus, Leviticus 19, Leviticus 19:33-34, Old Testament, Ruth, Ruth 1, Ruth 1:1-17, Sermon

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Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

All materials by Tim Graves unless otherwise noted. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

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