This fall we’ve been reading stories of people who lived out God’s calling for their lives through the relationships they had with God and with other people. Today is our sixth story of covenant and relationship. Before we begin looking at today’s story, we’re going to see how well we remember the previous five stories.
To do this, I need five volunteers. Each one of these people represents one of our stories. Your job, first, is to figure out which story they symbolize. Your second job is to, then, identify the order that these stories appear in the Bible. If you need it, you can use the pew Bible to help jog your memory.
- Gen. 2:16-17 - Plant, symbolizing creation
- Genesis 18:14a - Bread, symbolizing Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality
- Genesis 32:28 - Wrestler, symbolizing Jacob wrestling with God
- Exodus 3:5 - Barefoot, symbolizing "holy ground"
- Deuteronomy 6:5 - Ten Commandments or tablet, symbolizing God giving Moses the Ten Commandments
Now that we’ve reviewed these stories of God and God’s relationship to people, let’s hear today's story. It’s also about relationship, although God doesn’t play a direct role in this story. So, perhaps, for us, it’s an important story. Because in these times after Christ, we don’t see a visible God present in our world, but more of a hidden God, working behind the scenes, just as in today’s story.
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. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.
But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.
But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.
Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.
Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”
Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”
Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” --Ruth 1:1-17 (CEB)
Today, we read only a portion of the story of Ruth. Ruth is only one of two women with an entire book in scripture that is dedicated to telling her story. Who knows the other book? Yes, it’s the book of Esther. Esther is a Jewish queen. Ruth is neither Jewish. And, she is definitely not royalty. Yet, she is one of only four women who are named in Jesus’ genealogy, or history. Our key verses today are from chapter one. The book of Ruth is only four chapters long and it’s a great story. So, when you get home today, I encourage you to read the rest of Ruth.
There are many different approaches that we might make to today’s story. As it opens, we hear that there is a famine in Bethlehem. The irony here is that Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” The “House of Bread” is now empty. And Elimelech, our opening character, and his wife, Naomi, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, must leave Judah, their home country and travel to Moab, another country, for food. So, one approach to today’s story might be that of food insecurity. Something that we, here, at Grace & Glory seek to address every week.
Another approach might be related to the relationship between nations. Because the history between Moab and Judah is complex. Isn’t that something we see and understand, especially, as we grow older. That relationships between nations, as between people, are not simple. Or black and white. But, that they are filled with complexity. Moab and Judah are cousins. The Moabites are descendents of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. They are family. And, yet, there is a long history between them. Warning made to Israel that the women of Moab are seductive and will seduce Israelite men away from God. It’s this belief that eventually results in a law that forbids Moabites from entering Israel’s religious assemblies to the tenth generation. Yet, they are family, albeit, the black sheep of the family.
To approach from this angle would also work, especially given the news stories this week of the situation at the Turkish and Syrian borders and the long, historic relationship between the Kurds and the Turks - a relationship fraught with complexity.
A third angle, or approach, might be that of immigration. Elimelech and Naomi and their sons are refugees from famine. Traveling to another country for food - a country that might not welcome them wholeheartedly and, in fact, a country that might reject them. That might shame them. Simply for seeking security for their family.
How appropriate this approach might be for us today, when the number of refugees in our world has surpassed the numbers from the time of the second world war and as our own country has continued to reduce the number of refugees it is accepting annually. To be an immigrant in our world today means to be without a country. Rejected. Isolated. Insecure.
A fourth approach (Who knew there could be so many ways to approach this story??) - a fourth approach, might be that of women. And, particularly, the role of women in a patriarchal society. Where one is considered property. Devalued. Not only for one’s ideas or opinions, but even for one’s body. Which doesn’t even belong to oneself. In our #MeToo era, this, too, would be a valid approach.
There are even more approaches. There is loss. The loss Naomi experienced with not only the death of her husband, but of both her sons. And the insecurity that resulted for her. And her daughters-in-law. Related to this is the issue of infertility - that after ten years of marriage, neither of her sons and their wives have had children. And so, there is also loss her. The loss of hope. And as a congregation that has had members experience much loss this year, this, too, would be an appropriate approach.
But, there is one approach that I will call an “umbrella approach.” You know when you open an umbrella and it covers everyone under it, this approach is like that. Because it is an overriding theme that we hear and experience throughout this complex story with so many different themes and approaches running through it.
That umbrella approach is connected to the Hebrew word hesed. We’ve heard that word before. It’s hard to define for us in English. It means “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.” In the Septuagint, which is the original Greek Bible translated from the Hebrew, the Greek word used for the Hebrew word hesed is the word we translate into English as grace. Normally, hesed is attributed to God. It’s a word used hundreds of times in the psalms to describe a God who is faithful. And loving. A God who shows a kind of covenantal love. The same kind of love that we see in the marriage covenant. A love that hangs in. Through the thick and the thin. The until “death do us part” kind of love. That kind of love. It is true that hesed describes the love and faithfulness of our God. The hesed that God continually shows to God’s people. To us.
Yet, in this small story in scripture, the hesed shown is that by Ruth toward Naomi. Ruth, who makes a choice to remain with her mother-in-law, instead of returning to her own mother. Who, then, returns with her mother-in-law back to Naomi’s home village, to her home country. Ruth, who is now the foreigner. Who is willing to risk everything - her family, her country, perhaps even her life - to show love and faithfulness - hesed - to Naomi, her mother-in-law.
Because, you see, hesed is not just an adjective. Hesed is not just about an emotion. Like the Hebrew word shema last week, hesed is also a verb. It’s about action. About putting love into action. Whether it is to feed the hungry, to make peace between nations, to care for the immigrant, to lift up women and others who for way too long have been treated as “other,” or to simply be with and accompany those who have experienced deep loss, to show hesed is to show love in action.
This is who we are to be. Because this is whose we are.
We love because God first loved us. Amen.
Preached October 12, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Readings: Mark 3:33-35, Psalm 126, Ruth 1:1-17