Like so many before them a young Middle Eastern couple sets out on their own. They left the comfortable bounds of “home” to begin their life in a neighboring land. While the place they were headed made others shake their heads in disgust, they thought there would be opportunities for them. The found their spot and began their family and had two children, both boys. That afternoon she could just sense something was wrong. When her sons came in from the fields alone she knew her beloved had died. While she had lost her husband, her culture told her that she would be OK; her two sons would care for her. In due time her sons married girls from the neighboring villages. She loved her new daughter-in-laws, and for a while all was good. The woman could not help but notice the passage of time as she looked down on her once young hands that had begun withered with age. Her long flowing hair was now gray. The routine was the same day after day. The boys –now men- tended to the flocks and the fields. They did not have much, but it was enough. But in a moment everything changed. The woman who had buried her husband was now forced to bury both of her sons. With the pain of grief hanging in the air the three, the old women and her two daughters-in-law faced a haunting reality. The little land and the herds they had survived on would be passed on to other men in the community. As women they had no right to own property, in fact they were seen as property. The future that awaited them was grim. With no husband and no sons the elder woman knows that there is no one to provide for her and she has no way to take care of herself. A slow and certain death awaited her if she stayed where she was. Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? This story and these questions could be lifted from the life stories of tens of thousands of people on the move from one place to another in desperation. Theirs are stories of a people who need help, who need refuge.
While this story could be the story of many, it is actually a story born in scripture. There is more we need to hear. The elder woman sits and ponders and decides to make the hard journey back home. She thinks to herself that maybe, just maybe, one of her relatives would let her live on the scraps left in their fields after harvest. It would be a hard life, but there was no other way. Lovingly but sternly she tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their villages – to remarry – a build a new future for themselves. One reluctantly agrees. The other tells her “no,” that she will make the journey with her. The younger woman understands it is a journey into hunger and profound poverty – and even death, but she will not let the elder woman go alone. The younger woman understood that while her elder will be going back to the familiar, for her it will all be foreign. She will be seen as a refuge, and because of a long history cultural conflict, many – if not most - will see her as an undesirable, an outcast, unworthy. Despite the costs, despite the risks, the young woman knew the elder needed her. She took her by the hand and told her, "Please do not ask me to go back to my village or to turn my back on you and leave you here on the road alone. Wherever you go I will go too, and where you stay I will stay there also. We are in this together. Your people may reject me, but I will call them 'my people' because of what they mean to you. And your God I will claim as my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if even death separates you and me."(A creative interpretative translation of Ruth 1:16-17.) So the two begin their journey. There is no plane, no train, or even a car for transportation. They have to walk. With each step the old woman wearies. By the time they reach their destination the elder woman cannot stop telling everyone she encounters that she had left her homeland with everything, and now goes back empty handed, but loaded pain and bitterness. The elder woman seems to have forgotten the moments of joy, and is simply seized by her grief and the desperation of her situation. Joy has given way to bitterness. Hope has given way to hopelessness. Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go?
The younger woman found her way into the fields and finds a job. It is not much of a job – in fact it would pay far less than minimum wage. Her job was that she was allowed to go into the fields behind the harvesters and claim what little they had left behind. This was not without risk. The landowner could stop her at any moment – and the harvesting crews were not always kind and gentle to woman like her. But then, someone stepped up. The landowner told her; From now on don't go to any other field to glean—stay right here in this one. And stay close to my young women. Watch where they are harvesting and follow them. And don't worry about a thing; I've given orders to my servants not to harass you. When you get thirsty, feel free to go and drink from the water buckets that the servants have filled." She dropped to her knees, then bowed her face to the ground. "How does this happen that you should pick me out and treat me so kindly—me, a foreigner?" Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? When we find ourselves at the midst of crisis – with seemingly nowhere to go – we know that something has to change. We need for someone to step into our story.
This story could be that of the Narcisse children. Following the earthquake in Haiti many families were given special visas to reunite aboard. The eldest sister, Esther had moved to Canada several years earlier to attend school. Now a senior she didn't expect to be taking in the rest of her siblings without notice. Their mother arranged through the Canadian Embassy for the children to relocate to their sister's home in Ottawa. That's all she knew; somewhere in Canada there is safety for my children. So here they came; 19, 17, 15 and 10 years of age all living in a one bedroom apartment near the university. The Matthew House Ministry Team learned of this overcrowded need and has stepped in to help this college student provide better housing and care for her brothers and sisters. The Matthew House Ottawa was one of the causes we help support through yesterday’s Ride for Refuge.
This story could emerge from the life of one of the young college aged teachers working with the Chin Student Organization who is helping to educate the Chin refugee kids living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Chin kids are not allowed to attend a government school because the government does not recognize them as a part of the community. So, the refugee community asked its best and brightest to work with no pay and at some real risk to help teach the kids. “We organized because no one is coming to help us. The burden is too heavy. We cannot do it ourselves.” Yesterday teams from our church took part in the Ride for Refuge to raise funds to help the CSO in providing a simple lunch for these hundreds of refugee kids.
This story could have emerged from the life of the persecuted church in Sudan, where uncertainty is a way of life. Yesterday teams from our church took part in the Ride for Refuge to help provide funding for some Sudanese refugees to return home and for struggling churches in the Nuba Mountains to have the resources to build something stronger than churches constructed of mud and straw.
There are two sides to the Biblical story and the stories engaged with as a part of yesterday’s event. I am thankful for the great work Brian, Gary, Jerry, Sherri, Kathryn, and countless others did to make the Ride for Refuge possible. But the great miracle is not just the money that has been raised; it is how the money will be seen by those who receive it. We have seen the efforts of those with whom we are partnering and will bless their work and bless their walk with God by coming to their side. By now many of you have realized that our Biblical story comes from the book of Ruth. We did not read the focal passage in advance or reference it verse by verse because I did not want our Sunday school versions of the story that play in many of our minds get in the way of the real power of this story. It is a story we tell to the children, but it is not a children’s story. It is a call for us who know the power of God’s refuge in our lives become instruments of refuge in the lives of others. We need to make sure we are investing ourselves in the lives of each other and those around us so that know that they do not face times of crisis alone. We need to be willing to invest our lives in those around us, who need us, fully knowing the price. We need to make a way of others to claim lives of dignity in the times where they feel that their dignity is gone. It is about the people of God acting out of who we are as God’s children and pointing people to find the strength they need not just from our actions, but from the real refuge they find in the love and the comfort of God. Ruth hears this from the landowner Boaz when he tells her in Chapter 2, verses 11 and 12, "I've been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." May we become instruments of God’s refuge.
Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? The second side of the story is equally important and sometimes profoundly personal. We see it in Ruth’s part of the story. She was a woman who loved beyond expectation but who desperately needs to find refuge – a safe place – a safe place for her wellbeing and a safe place for her soul. Hear the good news, God is our refuge. That promise offers us and others the security of knowing that even when others fail us and when the struggles of life seem grand, God is with us and will see us through. God offers us the warmth of His embrace and the strength of his love for us that we might be able to face whatever we encounter. God is with us –and is going ahead of us – even when we feel like we are on the outside looking in, or when we feel burdened and wonder how we will make it – when we are in a crisis and need somewhere, no someone to turn to – when we think that there is nowhere to go – God is there, making the way for us, becoming our refuge. May we race to the feet of God who will see us through.
Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? Where does our help come from? It comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth - and from God’s people; the people who have found the power of God’s refuge who become God’s instruments to change the story of others. Amen!