Today’s sermon begins at the 17:30 mark.
One of my favorite scenes in all of cinema comes from the animated movie Inside Out. If you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the mind of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. The main characters are Riley’s emotions.
In the movie, Sadness and Joy get lost and need to make their way back to Headquarters. Along the way they come across Riley’s old imaginary friend Bing-Bong. To the rest of us it looks like he is pulling a little red wagon, but to Bing-Bong it is a rocket-ship, and a symbol of the adventures he used to have with Riley.
In my favorite scene, the rocket-ship is accidentally swept up and thrown in the dump of forgotten memories, gone forever. Bing Bong is dejected, the last connection to his friend was just taken away. He mourns, Riley can’t be done with me.
Joy hates seeing him like this and wants to fix him. She tells him, It’s going to be okay. She tries tickling him, making funny faces, distracting him. But nothing seems to work. He just sits there, unable to go on.
So Sadness steps in. As she sits down next to him, she says, I’m sorry they took your rocket-ship. They took something that you loved and it’s gone forever.
Joy scolds Sadness for making things worse. But Bing Bong begins to reminisce about the fun he used to have with his friend. Sadness acknowledges his grief and lets him cry. And then, Bing-Bong gets up, ready to continue the journey.
Joy is astonished. How did you do that? she asks, to which Sadness responds, I don’t know, he was sad. So I listened.
* * * *
Neither of the stories we heard this morning are over. The Gospel passage goes on to describe Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Ruth and Naomi’s circumstances are reversed in later chapters when Boaz follows Torah law by leaving food for the immigrant and fulfilling the role of a Kin-Redeemer.
But in these verses, nothing is fixed. Mary is mourning her brother. Naomi and Ruth are grieving and homeless. New joy will come for them later. But today, in these passages, we are left in a state of Holy Saturday. Encouraged to reflect on death, and loss, and the grief of life.
In these passages, our protagonists are not ready for help. They are not ready to be fixed. They are simply ready to mourn.
* * * *
I love the Bible. My wife makes fun of me for having too many Bibles, and commentaries on the Bible, and books about translating the Bible. And she’s not wrong. We really don’t have the shelf space for it. But I love the ancient words. For me, they speak directly to today, to the commonalities of life. To the emotions that have been experienced for generations,and the stories of people who have wrestled with the sacred.
And the story of Ruth is one of the most relevant and beautiful in the canon. The history of the great king of Israel (David) starts with Naomi’s intense grief. The roots of Jesus flow through Ruth’s immigration story. And after millennia, it still tells the story of the immigrant, the lonely, and the grieving.
So how can we not think of those we’ve lost when we read this book?
We are told: [Naomi] kissed them, and they wept aloud. Naomi’s tears call me back to the hospital, where as a chaplain, I sat at the bedside with families in the throes of grief. For me, she is the mother in the ER, the father at the Code Blue, the daughter in Intensive Care. Or maybe, Naomi is a congregation in Pittsburgh. Or a community in Kentucky. Or anyone else in the ache of fear and mourning.
And how can we not think of those seeking refuge?
Ruth states (in a verse that always makes me a little teary): Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Another woman, thousands of years later, was also told to leave those she loved, and go back to her own country, and standing on the steps of this very church, she stated: I want to stay here for my family. I want to fight it, because I love my family. Ruth is the refugee and the immigrant. She is the foreigner and the stranger in our midst.
I love the Bible, because we are invited into the story. We are asked to weep with Mary in our own grief. To mourn with Naomi. And to cry with Ruth.
* * * *
But these children of God are not asked to cry alone. The Bible is full of stories of how God guides shepherds to sit with the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Jesus, seeing the pain of his people, the heartache of God’s family, begins to weep with them. He joins them in grief. Not instead of doing something, but as an act of familial and foundational love.
And Ruth, facing her own mourning and the prospect of a new (and possibly hostile) land clings to Naomi. Where you die, I will die. Ruth refuses to let Naomi be alone. She demands to be a part of her story and her pain.
Both Christ and his ancestor, Ruth, sit with others in their grief and re-define what it means to be family.
Like Mary and Naomi, we are not asked to cry alone. God guides pastors (sometimes unexpected ones) into our stories. To shepherd us when we are an outsider, to sit with us when we are lonely, to mourn with us when we grieve.
Ruth models what theologian Ada Maria Isasí-Díaz calls Solidarity as an “expression of the gospel [and Torah] mandate that we love our neighbor.” This solidarity is “the union of kindred persons” across familial, national, and even religious lines. It is the kin-dom of God: la familia de Dios. It is the family we are called to be an active member of.
It is more than thoughts and prayers. It is an active love. It is a form of being with and for each other. Not instead of work, but as a foundation for it. A foundation for love and hope; for peace and justice.
This is not always comfortable. Later in the service, we will invite you to pray and sing (however briefly) in Spanish. If you do not speak the language, this may be a little awkward. But that’s part of solidarity with la familia de Dios. It is about moving beyond the societal lines that separate us; it is about moving into love.
It’s about seeing the immigrant (the outsider), the orphan (the unloved or lonely), the widow (the bereaved) not as “someone else’s problem” but as an essential part of our family. It is not about charity, but solidarity. Not about one-sided giving, but mutuality. It is not about fixing, but jumping into the pit.
* * * *
I’ve been blessed with shepherds of my own.
Early in our marriage, Amy and I joined the Presbyterian Church’s Young Adult Volunteers. Through that program we lived and taught in East Africa for a year. Early on, we were working at a school in a very remote village in Northwestern Tanzania. We had each other, but that was about it. We couldn’t speak the language of our neighbors. Our closest family was thousands of miles and an ocean away. The food was unfamiliar and we found it difficult to make a good meal. And we relied on strangers for transportation and groceries. Initially, we were very lonely.
One night we decided to stop hiding and take a walk. About a half-mile down the road a woman saw us coming. As we got closer she came out to talk to us. She did not speak any English, and our Swahili was rudimentary at best but we understood the words for “welcome” and “my home”. We weren’t interested, timidly we pretended we didn’t understand, and continued walking.
On the way back, it started to rain. First a little drizzle, and then it began to downpour, just as we were passing this woman’s home again. She ran out to us with an umbrella, and this time insisted that we come inside. God’s nudge had become a shove.
She sat with us as we watched the rain. She fed us fish and ugali and Sukuma-wiki. The best meal we had had in weeks. And she simply smiled at us. Not with charity or sympathy, but with the love of family.
We couldn’t speak, and yet this woman made me feel loved. I was still a foreigner, and yet this woman made me feel a little less lonely. I still don’t know her name, and yet she was my family that day.
My sister in Christ.
Mama yangu katifa Roho.
Mi familia de Dios.
Thanks be to God.