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From Moab Came an Immigrant

Ruth 1:1 –18; Ps 146; Heb 9:11–14; Mk 12:28–34

Do you know the story of your family, perhaps the tale told of the first person in your family to come to America? The story we tell in the Donelson family starts out in Ireland with the family of a young boy by the name of Daniel Donelson in the early 1730's. His family had been among the many Scots who had been exiled to Ireland after the Jacobite uprising in 1715. It seems that while living in Ireland young Daniel Donelson’s mother and father died, leaving him an orphan. Finding himself destitute and homeless in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel might have starved to death had he not found passage on a ship bound to America. His fare for the voyage was paid by a farmer in Massachusetts who upon the boy’s arrival in Gloucester, took him in as an indentured servant.

You may have heard that indentured servitude in America was fairly common in the 1700's. Persons who had no other means of income could sell themselves to farmers and businesses for a period of seven years during which they would have their most basic expenses paid for, such as a place to sleep, food, and clothes to wear. And very often those amenities were very meager. The place to sleep might have been in a barn. The food might have been just enough to keep one from starving. And the clothing might have been nothing more than ragged second or third time hand-me-downs. So, that’s how the first Donelson in my family got to America, or so I’ve been told.

But, the story goes on. After his seven years were up, Daniel Donelson settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts, became a businessman in his own right, got married and had a family. A couple of his sons fought in the Revolutionary War. Some of them stayed in Massachusetts, while others moved west, including to southeast Michigan.

My great great great great grandfather had a farm in the midst of what is now Pontiac, Michigan. In fact, the first Methodist Church in Pontiac was founded in his farmhouse. His son Ira Donelson became a Methodist pastor who served in several of the churches that I, myself, have served as pastor, including Pontiac First United Methodist Church and Corunna United Methodist Church. Rev. Ira Donelson also became a chaplain for the Union Army and went with the thousands of Michigan soldiers who fought in the Civil War. One of his grandsons moved to Flint and became a piano tuner and pipe organ technician. His son was my father, who took on his father’s profession as a piano tuner and pipe organ technician, and had three children of his own – my sister, my brother, and me.

My sister married a man who had served in the Navy for ten years before becoming the chief engineer of a Flint radio station. My brother went into the Navy during the Vietnam War and went with the Navy Seals as a secret code telegrapher during the American invasion of Cambodia. And I went to seminary and became a United Methodist pastor. And my wife and I had two children – one who many of you have met – Heather, who had two daughters of her own – and her brother Nathan who has a PhD in evolutionary biology and now oversees a research lab complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts where research is being done on neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. He’s married to a special education teacher and has a baby boy named Cooper.

So, now, you’ve pretty much heard the story of our family in America. And I’m sure most of you have similar stories you are able to tell, as well.

Our Old Testament lesson is a similar story. It’s the story of a woman named Ruth who was a native of the country known as Moab, located in the southern part of the what is the country of Jordan, today. It was directly across the Dead Sea from the land of Judah, which is the southern part of the country of Israel, today. And our Old Testament lesson tells us that Ruth had married the son of a Moabite man who had married Naomi a woman from Judah. But, unfortunately, and we’re not told any of the details, but suddenly, both Naomi and her daught-in-law Ruth found themselves to be widows without any means of support.

So, they both had a big problem. How were they going to survive? Naomi’s plan for survival was to return to her family in Judah, persons she believed would take her in and give her shelter and some kind of living. Ruth, on the other hand, had no family left in Moab. Her only plan for survival was to go with her mother-in-law Naomi as she headed back to Judah.

Yet, Naomi realized that bringing along Ruth might present a real problem for her. Would her family take her in if they also had to take in Ruth, a lousy immigrant from Moab, from the other side of the Dead Sea, at that? So, Naomi told Ruth not to follow her to Judah. But Ruth persisted and even promised to become Jewish and take on the Jewish religion, and said to Naomi these famous words: “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-- and there will I be buried.”

So, Ruth went with Naomi back to Naomi’s family in Judah where they gleaned in the grain fields for food. Now, in those days, it was a law that farmers had to leave a portion of their land unharvested so that the poor could go in and take for themselves that which was left behind. So, if you were an able-bodied person you wouldn’t starve. At the same time, law provided for those who were sick or too feeble to work, as well. That was the early welfare system of the people of God. And their example is one of the reasons our country has a welfare system, today.

So, while Ruth was gleaning in one of the family fields, she met a man named Boaz. And Boaz fell in love with Ruth. And Ruth and Boaz had babies. And one of those babies was named Jethro. And Jethro grew up and had several sons, one of whom was named David who eventually became the king of Israel. And David had children. And they had children. And they had children, and so on, until one of them was named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. And Mary had a baby. And his name was Jesus. And then we’re told that Jesus and his parents emigrated to Egypt because Herod was going to murder all the baby boys in Bethlehem. And then when the threat was over they immigrated back to Judah out of Egypt, once again.

Perhaps you already know that the scriptures we use on any particular Sunday morning are usually determined by the use of a three year list of scriptures that’s called The Revised Common Lectionary. Over the years I have been amazed, again and again, at the uncanny nature of that lectionary to pick scriptures that speak directly to current events.

Yes, here we are. Just turn on the radio and all you’ll hear news casters and politicians and presidents and talk radio hosts talking about is immigrants. And some of what we’re hearing isn’t very nice. It’s almost like many of them have forgotten that some of the greatest people in the bible were immigrants and despised for being so. In the book of Genesis Joseph who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt was an immigrant. And then all his eleven brothers and his father, as they came to Egypt to keep from starving to death during a long drought, were immigrants. And then the descendants of Joseph and his eleven brothers, the Hebrew people, became immigrants when they left Egypt on their 40 year caravan to the Promised Land. And then there was Ruth who was an immigrant. And then there was Jesus and his parents – immigrants!

So...What does the Christian faith say about  immigrants?

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is asked by an expert in the law of Moses to tell him what is the greatest law of all. And Jesus quickly answers him: "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

What Jesus was reciting was known as The Shema. It was the foundation of the Mosaic Law. It comes straight from the Ten Commandments. And Jesus knew that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength by its very nature required that one must also love one’s neighbor as oneself. And also, in Jesus’ teachings, it was quite obvious that loving one’s neighbor meant much more than just loving members of your own family, or loving people who look like you, or speak the same language as you, or have the same color skin as you, or even live in the same country as you. Rather, as far as Jesus was concerned, loving your neighbor means loving (or at least caring for the welfare of) everyone you meet.

And Jesus summed up this teaching in many different ways – In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus praises a foreigner who takes care of an man who has been robbed and beaten and is lying helpless on the side of the road. And then there’s the story of Jesus’ speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, telling her that her sins are forgiven, and then she goes and tells everybody in town about Jesus.

And then there is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25:32-46 where Jesus lays it all on the line as a tribute to those who obey his teachings and as a warning to those who do not. Jesus strictly commands his followers to care for the hungry, the thirsty, strangers (the sojourners and immigrants), the naked, the sick, and the outcasts of society. Jesus said that those who do those things, even though they’re sometimes very difficult things to do, would enter into heaven. But, he also warned that those who refused to do these things would be accused and sent into the place that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.

It seems there are two kinds of Christians in America, today. One kind is the Christians who are Christians because they simply want to be saved. They talk about the blood of Jesus, and Jesus dying on the cross to save them from their sins. And they talk about how they were saved and about how they went down to an altar and knelt and gave their lives to Jesus. And, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But then they’re go on to tell you who is saved and who isn’t and then they condemn folks who don’t measure up to their particular version of righteousness. And they forget just about everything that Jesus taught about love and forgiveness and accepting others and caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the immigrants, and the outcasts. They find all sorts of sensible or even hateful sounding excuses for not doing those things. So many Christians want to be saved, saying they believe in Jesus, but they don’t give a rat’s derriere about Jesus’ teachings if they don’t make sense from a worldly point of view. Yet, it ought to be pretty obvious that you can’t have one without the other. And, I do believe that this is probably Christianity’s biggest problem, today. Too many willing to talk the talk but not walk the walk.

The other kind of Christians commit themselves to doing Christ’s work of loving others, no matter who they may be. No matter who. They believe in Jesus by following his teachings. In fact, there are many who argue that believing and doing are one and the same.