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Where the Food Is
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
October 6, 2019
A Reading from the Book of Ruth
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 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. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Many of you already know that about a month ago Pastor Krystal and I traveled with a group of Texas clergy down to the Rio Grande Valley to see for ourselves the condition of migrants stranded just on the other side of the Brownsville bridge. If you were here in worship over Labor Day Weekend you heard Krystal describe with painstaking eloquence the condition of the tent city, surrounded by impassable violence on all sides and totally exposed in every way. A few of the clergy on the trip, however, did not cross the bridge, but instead to the bus station. Greyhound departs from a bunker not more than a long stone’s throw from the border fence, one of those threshold places where you can get sent anywhere, and so it is here that border agents drop off asylees who have just cleared detention so that they might find their way to their destination, somewhere far across the country, somewhere where family is waiting for them.
One of the clergy who makes this Greyhound station visit is Rob Spencer, Senior Pastor at First United Methodist in Paris, Texas. I heard this story from Rob a few weeks later as we both sat in the Methodist center just adjacent to capitol hill in Washington, DC, and he made it clear: Paris, Texas is not a town full of activists, but nonetheless, Rob come down to the border to see for himself, and as he walks around the station he sees a young woman sitting by herself with a baby in her arms. He goes up to talk to her — he’s got the clergy stole on, he wants to help — and an interpreter materializes from the crowd. At which point Rob learns the story — Maria has crossed the border with her child. She is about to get on a bus to Maryland, where family is waiting. They have crackers and water. Quickly, Rob goes and buys a few sandwiches and puts them in her hands, so that she will have food for the journey. And then he asks her if there’s anything else she needs, and she says, “My child has just been released from the hospital. I have this prescription. I don’t know where to get this medicine.” And then her bus starts to board. And before Rob can figure out what to do, she’s gone, on the bus, with her child. Which is how immigration stories go. You meet for a moment. You break bread for a moment. And then in this in-between space, the moment goes away.
On most days, that would also be the story of Ruth and Naomi. Of course the Bible is full of stories about immigration. It is hard to imagine any single topic on which scripture speaks with more consistent authority, and in its hands, the Ancient Near East is full of migrant peoples and porous borders, but none of them are as personal as the story of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi is from Bethlehem, but when famine strikes, Naomi and her husband migrate, they cross the border into Moab, where the food is, so that they can survive and raise a family together. Unfortunately, death strikes this family — first Naomi’s husband, and then both of her sons, leaving her with only her Moabite daughters-in-law; she’s now a foreigner and a widow at the same time, a precarious combination. But then she hears that the famine back in Bethlehem had passed. “The Lord had considered his people and given them food,” the text says, and so Naomi determines to brave the journey home. She tells her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, that their time as a family has come to an end. We have met for a moment. We have broken bread for a moment. But the moment is gone. You have to go home. I have to go home. I have to go where the food is. We all have to return to our own sides of the border.
But you know this story, and so you know it doesn’t stick. “No, we will return with you to your people,” Ruth and Orpah cry, but Naomi is relentless, in dialog I can now only imagine happening at the Greyhound station just a long stone’s throw from the border’s fence. The bus is boarding, and the family is being torn apart. “Why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” Naomi cannot provide them with security, and she knows it, and what’s worse, she knows that the Lord has done this thing. “It has been far more bitter for me than for you my daughters, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” And so Orpah lets her go. But you know this story, so you know that Ruth isn’t going anywhere, so hear again the words of the gospel on the lips of this immigrant child: “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 may not have grown up with the stories of Israel, but she knows something true about God. She knows that God is bigger than the borders we draw. And she knows that God means not letting go.
In some ways this is an odd story for this day in our church calendar, World Communion Sunday, a day in which we are meant to remember that we share this table with Christians all around the world who gather to break bread and pour the cup and give thanks for the saving grace of Jesus the Messiah. It’s a day that can bring with is a sort of passive tourism — maybe we sing a hymn in a different language, maybe some of our communion bread comes from the international food aisle, you can see the world on World Communion Sunday without having to leave your pew. But on the other hand, one of the most radical things about the communion table is that it observes no borders and no boundaries. When we gather around this meal and proclaim the presence of the risen Christ with us and through us, we proclaim something that defies checkpoints and refuses categories. Communion itself no less is already a story about immigration. Because this table has no papers and yet it crosses freely, and when we gather around it, and when we come before it, and when we touch our hand through the baptism waters and come to be fed at this table, we are crossing a threshold into that place that might send us anywhere. We come here to the center. And then we get sent.
So, Pastor Rob watches the bus pull out of the station with a pit in his stomach. What will happen to Maria and this child without the medicine they need? And then I think Rob remembers in some powerful way that God means not letting go. And so Rob goes and finds the interpreter and together they go to the ticket counter. Rob knows that Maria is bound for Maryland but obviously it’s not one straight shot and so together they figure out that she bus she’s on is bound for Houston, and then of course there will be another one, and another one, but first, at 11:30 that night, Maria’s bus would pull into the Greyhound station in Houston. And so Rob got on the phone. And he calls a colleague. And then he calls another one. A few minutes later he is on the phone with a Nataly Negrete, associate pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston, and a Spanish speaker. “I need you to do a favor for me,” he says. And she says, “Yes.” And he says. “You don’t even know what the favor is yet,” he says, but she replies, “The answer is still yes.” And so at 11:30 that night Pastor Nataly ended up standing at the Houston Greyhound station waiting for a bus.
She doesn’t even know what Maria looks like, but even so, Maria is not hard to find. She looks tired, the baby is sick and crying. And then Nataly got to tell Maria the good news. Because Rob had not stopped making phone calls. And because he has figured out every stop that bus was going to make along the way. And so Pastor Nataly got to tell Maria that every stop along the way, there were going to be volunteers waiting for her. Clergy with food and clothing, nurses with medicine and volunteers with money and even a new phone. Every stop, from Houston to Maryland. New Orleans. Birmingham. Knoxville. Roanoke. Armed only with an address book and church that calls itself connectional, Rob has drafted an army, and where Maria goes, they will go. Where she lodges, they will lodge. Her people will be their people. They will share a God bigger than borders. And they will follow a God that means not letting go, every stop along the way, until she finds her way home.
I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it through that story, I love it so much. I love that image of the church, called into being by the communion table, a church that knows no boundaries and knows no borders and shows up in the middle of the night wherever the food needs to be. It’s easy to read that story as a template for everything the church could be and should be: the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ, bound together in a common pursuit of justice and mercy and medicine for a child who needs it. But I also wonder if the story is worth reading inside out. Because of course, at the end of the day, communion isn’t really about us saving the day. The table isn’t a bludgeon we carry with us into the field of battle. It’s not a tool in our arsenal for when we go off to save the world. It’s not even our table. It doesn’t belong to us. It doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to you. We don’t get to sit in the middle of it. We don’t get to dictate the terms. The table is at the center, but we come as guests. We come as strangers. We come as those who have found themselves in this space in-between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. We come as those who are not quite where we came from and not yet where we will be. We come as those waiting and hoping and praying and yearning and living and dying in this threshold place that could send us anywhere. We come to this table, and God puts a meal in our hands, and then, we get back on the bus.
We get back on the bus, with faith that wherever we go, God goes. That wherever we lodge, God will lodge. And that we shall be God’s people, every step along the way. That God means not letting go. That God means not to let go of us. So I invite you to this table. You who have come from a very long way away. You who have traveled through the long wilderness, I invite you to come and be fed at this table. I invite you to come and be sent again from this table. The journey is not over, and the work is not done. The communion feast is not the feast of God on the last day. It is just a glimpse. It is just a foretaste. It is just a sandwich before the next leg begins. But it is also a promise. It is a promise about the kingdom of God coming into the world, and it is coming.
After Pastor Rob finished telling me the story of the communion table that went all the way from Houston to Maryland, as we sat there just a stone’s throw from the National Mall, he finished and he walked out the door, and he got on a bus. He got on a bus so that he could go to Maryland and have dinner at the home of Maria and her family and her infant child. I don’t know how it went. I don’t know what he saw when the door opened. I don’t know what they saw when they opened the door. But I have a sense of it. Because the Kingdom of God is like this.