Parting may have been "a sweet sorrow" for Shakespeare's young lovers, but the irony bites deep for many.
There are many partings in scripture. Each is a tantalizing glimpse at the lives of real people. There are those who go and those who stay behind. Some are stories begun by journeys, some precipitated by deaths, Ruth is a story of both. There are tragic human problems behind some partings and some movings. In this book of Ruth is an engaging tale of tragedy and hope, loss and commitment, with overtones of legalism and fear of outsiders opposing compassion in a debate that might be still very current one. It's themes of family and relationship and death and moving on are always current.
So famine arises in Bethlehem . Naomi, her husband, and her two adult sons go to the country of Moab in order to feed themselves. Economic refugees we'd classify them as today. In the foreign land Naomi's husband dies. Her loss is complex, in a foreign land with son's to look after and no family ties, Naomi is cut off from support. Her two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. They live ten years in Moab Then Naomi's two sons die. (But to the Hebrew readers this is scarcely surprising, since the sons' names in this cameo of a story are Mahlon and Chilion, Hebrew words meaning "sickness" and "consumption.")
This is a story though, with an all too real human context.
It is a family story, one of lives too short, one of hopes and dreams unfulfilled.
And of what becomes of those who are left.
It's a story many of us will identify with.
With the great benefit of hindsight's perspective, the story moves on quickly.
Naomi learns that the famine is over at home, and she starts to go back. Ruth and Orpah, the daughters in law want to go with her. Naomi, the sensible matriarch cautions them. "Don't feel obliged to accompany me," she says; "I'm an elderly widow, too old to remarry. You women are young; you need husbands. Stay in Moab, for you are Moabites yourselves and you won't be welcome in Israel." Orpah listens to the wisdom of Naomi. Ruth refuses to. Doesn't that so often happen in families? One listens, one won't! She clings to Naomi and cries, "Entreat me not to leave you. Where you go I will go; your people will be my people, your God my God."
And Ruth, knowing that she'll meet hostility in Israel, still goes back with Naomi, so dearly does she love her mother-in-law.
There is something quite natural here too, in Ruth's clinging on to the relationship she has left. We could presume she has her own family of origin still, but Naomi has shared her experience of loss.
These women have a depth of understanding not based in words or measured in time. There is a bond forged of bereavement between these two and it is not to be easily broken.
The story of Ruth though, has always been regarded as a tale of romance.
And everyone loves a romance. How many times have we become sentimental as we heard Ruth's moving speech to Naomi, her mother-in-law, "Entreat me not to leave you... For where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you." It is very moving, and then there's the later marriage to Boaz.
But the story of Ruth isn't finally about romance.
It's about a crushing episode in Israel's history and two different responses to the disaster. As is so often the case in the stories of Refugees, there is a war behind the whole episode.
The story begins with the phrase, "in the days when the judges ruled." Not quite "once upon a time", but indicating a harking back to the old days with a story told to make a point. When this story was written, Israel was recovering from exile, its policies were protectionist, leaders like Nehemiah and Ezra encouraged racial separation and hatred of foreigners.
But not everyone in Israel agreed with this. In fact the book of Ruth, along with the book of Jonah, were written to protest against these policies.
The story of Ruth reminds us that the love which Naomi had for an alien who didn't belong to God's covenant people moved that foreigner to join herself to Naomi and say, "Your God, the holy One of Israel, has become the only one I can worship."
It was Naomi's persistent kindness to a foreigner, acting against what the readers know to be the "official" policy.
And all the while in this tale, Naomi knew her home to be in Bethlehem, "Bethlehem" by the way means "house of bread"; this is another part of what moved Ruth to journey to Bethlehem with Naomi where Ruth could learn for herself why the God of Israel is bread for the hungry when nothing else is.
I'd suggest it's no different for us.
We have losses, we have to leave things and people and former abilities behind and we too need cling to the ones we love, and seek God who provides the true bread of life. We ourselves are grafted into God's family, through Jesus, we have no inalienable right. Like Ruth we find a place in God's family through the grace of others, through the real bonds of love forged in the mess of painful life experience.
But mostly in our lucky country, we are the ones who "remain at home" geographically, and Jesus reminder that all the law is summarized in two rules, "love God and love one's neighbor as one's self" will remind us of the call to love the neighbor in need, to welcome the stranger in our midst; those who must leave home because of war or famine or distress.
There are broad issues confronting us here.
Will ours be a response like that of Nehemiah or like the one in Ruth's story?
Will we take seriously Jesus call to love neighbor as ourselves and scripture like Ruth that challenges even its own nations policy when it lacks God's compassion?
Compassion expressed bluntly in Exodus 22, "you shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."
And in Jesus words in the parable of the sheep and goats, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." More recently, Pope John Paul II said, "I appeal to parents and teachers to combat racism and xenophobia.... Christians must struggle to overcome any tendency to turn in on themselves and learn to discern in people of other cultures the handiwork of God."
When another Ruth confronts us with the cry, "Entreat me not to leave you. Where you go I will go; your people will be my people, your God my God." will we help, will we welcome, will we be open to even hear the cry, to learn of the need?
And for ourselves here today, especially as we recognise our own cries of pain and loss, there is an equal need to confront the issues and to care for our losses and needs too.
"Love your neighbor as yourself" are Jesus words. We know he is not inviting self centeredness or morbid preoccupation. Jesus great summary deals with God, with us and those around us. It says to us that in each case it's love that's most important. Love God. Love neighbor. Love self.
What mattered most for Naomi and for Ruth through their loss and pain was the love that went on. What mattered most in the separations we deal with is the love, because if there had been no love, there would be no pain. What matters above all else is the love! Who we have loved and how we love, not just in the past, but what we have gone on with, who we have joined ourselves to, what bonds have been forged and deepened.
It's really the essence of our humanity; to discover and go on discovering what it is to love God, love those around us and love ourselves. It's our life's task, in all it's beginnings and endings and in every new chapter, to love with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength.
And may the love of God enfold you and uphold you on your journey. Amen.