Sunday, July 29, 2018

Ruth--A Story for Our Time: Loss and Loyalty

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!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them,

“Call me no longer Naomi,
    call me Mara,
    for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
    but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
    when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
    and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.  Ruth 1 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you, from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s good to be back. I’m grateful to Pastor Funk for covering for me last week, allowing me to be away. During the time I was on vacation, I travelled to Minnesota to be with my son and daughter-in-law. It was a great journey. 

Today, we are going on another journey--an imaginary journey. This journey, though, is not a journey that we want to make. It is one that will take us away--from extended family, from country, from culture, from church--from everything we know and love. But, it is a journey that we must make. Because, unless we do, we will not survive. None of us.

It is a journey like this that is described in the opening verse of our reading: “During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab.

There’s a lot in this first verse. First, it opens with this phrase, “During the days when the judges ruled...” This time--the time of the judges in Hebrew scripture--was a time of great chaos and disobedience in Israel. If we turn to the book that immediately precedes the book of Ruth, we read these words in its closing verses: In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right.

Doing what is right in one’s one eyes is never a good thing in the Bible. The book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel. And even though God sought to raise up faithful judges, or tribal leaders, to save Israel from their enemies, each time they fell back into mayhem. Every. Single. Time. Back to doing what was right in one’s own eyes--which was a direct denial of the Law given to Israel--the law we heard given earlier this summer. Given to promote life--life with God and life with our neighbors. In the time of the judges, Israel fails to fulfill that law. And falls into chaos.

In the midst of this, we enter the story of Ruth. In the second part of the first verse, we find that there is a famine in Bethlehem, which, ironically, means “house of bread.” There is no more bread in Bethlehem. Survival means finding food. So begins the story of a family--Elimelech, the husband; Naomi, the wife; and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

They journey to Moab. Crossing a border in search of food. Trying to survive. Vulnerable.

Chances are pretty good that, when they arrived in Moab, they were not welcomed with open arms. You see, there was a long, complex history between Israel and Moab. While there was some history of cooperation between the two nations, there was also tension and conflict. During the Exodus, God had even commanded Israel not to intermingle or intermarry with the Moabites. In moving to Moab, Elimelech and Naomi and their sons entered into this foreign country, knowing that they would likely not be welcome.

What level of desperation does it take to do this? To feel so hopeless that survival means  no other choice but to leave the country one loves? The culture one loves? The family one loves? To move to a place where one knows no one? To begin all over again? To a place where one likely won’t feel welcome? How desperate and vulnerable must one be?

Over time, Elimelech and Naomi and their sons settled in. They began to build a new life for themselves there. Just as things were looking up, tragedy struck with the death of Elimelech. Naomi became a widow. And, although her sons married and she gained two daughters-in-law, both Moabites, soon, there was a second tragedy. The death of both of her sons. Naomi was not only a widow, but childless, as well. And her daughters-in-law--Ruth and Orpah? Well, they, too, were widows. And also childless.

We’ve heard before how vulnerable widows were in ancient times. Everything--name, wealth, status--was passed on only through male heirs. To lose a husband, meant to lose everything. To lose both husband and sons meant meant loss of name, wealth, status. And the family future. Without sons, there was no future. And, without sons, there was no security in old age. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah were completely alone. And vulnerable.

The custom was that a widow would either be taken into the home of the next oldest brother-in-law or to return to her father’s household to be protected and cared for. Naomi heard that the famine had ended in Israel. She decided to go back. To return to her home country, to be with her family. And, so, in the days before Israel had a king, three women set out on a long journey...

Narrator: Day one. 

Ruth: “It was hard to say goodbye to my family, not knowing if I’d ever see them again. My mother cried and my father held me for a long time and I felt his sadness. I know very little about the land to which I’m traveling. I’m glad that Orpah, my sister-in-law, is coming with us, because we share the same memories, the same stories. We can help each other along.”

Narrator: Day two.

Naomi: “To be going home was all I ever dreamed of. Ten years in Moab felt like a lifetime. I only went there because Elimelech decided that living and working in a foreign land was better than starving in our own village. But my husband and my sons are now dead. I am nothing now; a widow with no identity and no protection. Even my God has deserted me and left me bitter. This is nothing left for me in Moab. They say the harvest will be food this year in Bethlehem. I still have family there. I hope they’ll help me. I’m going home. And Orpah and Ruth, my daughters-in-law, are coming with me.”

Narrator: Day three.

Ruth: “Orpah went back to Moab today, back to her home and family. Naomi told her that it was better for her to remarry and raise a family in her own community. It was a hard parting. Orpah loved Naomi. We were all in tears. I’ve decided to stay with Naomi. I can’t really explain why, but I held onto her and told her that I was going with her. I left no room for argument. We are journeying on.” 
Narrator: Day five.

Naomi: “Why won’t Ruth go home? I gave her my blessing. I tried to set her free of any obligation that she feels towards me. I even told her that God has turned against me by taking my husband and sons away from me. But she won’t listen. She insists she’s coming with me and that nothing I can say will make her change her mind.”

Narrator: Day six.

Ruth: “I wonder what Naomi’s village is like. Will her neighbors remember her? What will her relatives say when they find out about Elimelech and Mahlon and Chilion? What kind of reception will she get? Will they welcome Naomi? Or will they resent her for leaving when they were all struggling for survival, for getting out with her family and leaving the weakest behind? And what will they make of me, with my foreign ways and accent? Will they blame me for what has happened? Naomi thinks that her God is punishing her. Will he punish me, too? I’ve said her God will be my God, but I don’t know what he’s like, this God of hers. Or what he demands.”

Narrator: Day eight.

Naomi: “Ruth is still with me. Although her presence is a continual reminder of what I’ve lost, I’m not sorry. It’s good to have a daughter-in-law who loves me like a mother, or like a friend. I’m trying to prepare her--to tell her about my village, my people, about our faith and traditions. But, it’s so strange to her. And, how can I tell her that our God is generous and faithful, when all I feel is bitterness now because it seems that God has taken from me all that i lived for and loved?

Narrator: Day nine.

Ruth: “Naomi says we’re getting near to Bethlehem. Part of me is excited and part of me is scared. This journey has given me time to think, time to ask questions. I don’t feel like the person that I was when we left Moab. I’ve had to leave behind the things that I don’t need any more, to let them go. And I’ve discovered some of the things that I want for myself, what I hope for, what I dream about, what I need. I can’t forget Chillon, or Moab, or my family. I don’t want to--they’re still part of me, part of the story of who I am. But I now know better who I am. I am Ruth. I am a widow. I am strong. I am able to take risks and to make changes. I am travelling with a new God. Naomi says he looks after his people, fights for them, shelters them, feeds them. “He” sounds a bit more like a ‘she’ to me. I’ll tell Naomi that one day. I wish I could share some of this with Naomi. But, she’s so sad at the moment. I want her to know how much I love her, that I want to stay close to her, that I want us to share whatever happens to us from now on.”

Narrator: Day ten.

Naomi: “It is good to be home again. Yet, today was both sad and wonderful: wonderful to see my friends and neighbors and catch up on ten years of news and gossip; sad to tell my story, to come home without my husband and sons. It’s so hard. Yet, somehow, it feels safe to be back with people who still believe that God loves them and cares for them. Ruth is now the stranger here, but it’s hard, because this is my home and yet it’s strange for me, too. Maybe I can learn to live with my sadness and pain. Maybe this place will be both an ending and a new beginning for me, for both of us. Maybe out of our struggle and suffering, something new will be born.”

Narrator: And so, Naomi returned from Moab, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, came with her. As they came to Bethlehem, the barley was ripening. It was harvest time.

Friends, scripture is ripe with stories like Naomi and Ruth and Orpah and entire casts of characters. In them, in their lives, in their conversation, we see and hear their diverse stories. And their diverse voices. Voices that are in conversation with each other across the centuries about many difficult issues and circumstances. In the midst of these voices, we see God at work. Sometimes God is very present. At other times, God may not seem present, but is still working there, behind the scenes.

Just as with Ruth and Naomi, God calls us into dialogue with each other, sometimes around what might be very hard issues. We may not always agree with each other. Yet, at the heart of our conversation and our understanding, and particularly at the heart of our faith is a belief that God is faithful and is always at work. Transforming. Seeking to bring life out of death. New out of old. Understanding out of misunderstanding. Peace out of conflict. Love out of hate. Hope out of despair. 

There is a Hebrew word that describes this steadfast faithfulness and love of God. Hesed. Hesed is a word that describes love. But, it is not some abstract, intangible concept of love. Instead, it is a picture of love in action. Of love that goes beyond walls. Beyond borders. Beyond differences. Of love that goes beyond laws. Of love that brings new life. Hesed is what we see in Ruth as she lives out her love for Naomi, who is a foreigner and a widow, just as she is. But, mostly, hesed is what we experience from God. Love in action in God coming to us. In Christ. Who is the embodiment of God’s love.

As we proceed through these next weeks, I pray that we might begin to engage in conversation around the difficult topic of immigration. To be vulnerable and open with one another in such a way that we might begin to identify what we have in common--our shared values. Values that are informed by God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. By God’s hesed. Values that lead us forward.

Perhaps then, if we are able--perhaps we might begin to help our desperate and divided and chaotic world also begin to find a way forward. 

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached July 22, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church.
Pentecost 9
Readings: Ruth 1:1-22 (Matthew 5:3-9)

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