Sunday, November 5, 2006

Faith Friends - Ruth 1:1-18

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 Eprathites 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 I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and even 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.

There is one phrase in the English language that is sure to conjure up a whole host of emotional responses. “Mother-in-law.” It makes no difference if you’re male or female, newly married or a seasoned veteran, there is no telling what this title means to you. In our society, we have learned that the mother-in-law is a person to be feared, revered, annoying and unavoidable.

One newlywed bride was preparing dinner for her husband, and wanted to make it a special treat. She phoned her mother-in-law to obtain a list of his favorite foods from childhood, and spent all afternoon slaving away over a feast of livermush and sardine casserole, Brussels sprouts, beet and lima bean salad, and fried SPAM. However, given that we’re in church, I won’t tell you what exactly the husband said when he came home.

Rightly or wrongly, we have come to expect this sort of antagonism in the in-law relationship. Then we read a story like the one in our text today, and it surprises us, and while it’s touching, we have to admit that we find this whole thing a little bit odd. Ruth and Naomi have violated our preconceived notions about what the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship should look like. Then again, perhaps our preconceived notions need to be shattered every now and then. May we pray.

To understand this story of Naomi and Ruth, we need to take a step into their context. Desperate to escape famine, Naomi and her family have traveled from their home in Judah to Moab, which is present-day Jordan. They are Jews living in an Arab state – the very definition of outsiders. But once there, life doesn’t get any better. Naomi’s husband dies, and her two sons, having taken for themselves Moabite wives, also die. Only a few verses after the cutoff from this morning’s passage, Naomi, which means sweet, will change her name to Mara, which means bitter. And, quite honestly, she has reason to be bitter.

But Ruth, Naomi’s Gentile daughter-in-law, also has grounds to be embittered. After a childless marriage, Ruth’s husband is dead. Dead, too, are her brother-in-law and father-in-law, the two men who under Hebrew custom would have been required to provide for the young widow. In the ancient world, a widow didn’t just go out, find a job, and start dating again.

Ruth and Naomi, on first glance, appear to be a hopeless pair. After all, someone might take a chance on a young widow hoping she could yet have children and maybe turn out a good day’s work in the meantime. But Ruth has hitched her star to bitter, old Naomi.

Stubborn Ruth makes one of the most profound oaths I’ve ever seen anywhere, in any context. Despite the fact that Naomi has urged her to return to her people, to seek out another husband, to find security in his household, Ruth refuses to leave her side. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Her statement is the surprise upon which the whole story hangs.

One evening following a party, the Danish theologian Knud Hansen raised his hands over the guests and exclaimed, “The Lord bless you and surprise you!”

That’s exactly what God has done for bitter old Naomi – he has blessed her and surprised with Ruth, a companion along the way, a confidant, a friend. Conventional wisdom would have Ruth return to her own people in the hope that she can carve out a better life for herself. But the surprise of the whole thing is that Ruth sticks around, and in the end, this ends up being a pivotal blessing for Naomi, for Ruth, and eventually, for all Israel.

We have often read this story and celebrated Ruth’s free thinking. We are, after all, consumed by the thinking that we have a choice in most matters, from breakfast cereal to what sort of car we drive to what shampoo we use. But you will notice in Ruth’s response to Naomi that there is no deliberation. The immediacy of her response suggests that Ruth stayed with Naomi because it was simply the right thing to do.

Indeed, family relationships are filled with living reminders of the limits of choice. We do not choose our parents or our children. And we cannot choose to change them in any fundamental way, either. We’re stuck with them. All of us have people in our families who infuriate us or embarrass us or annoy us. I have a theory that everyone has weird cousins (a theory not entirely contradicted by the realization that I am someone’s cousin). I didn’t choose my cousins and they didn’t choose me. We are stuck with each other, and or reasons none of may be able to fathom, we stick by each other.

We stick by each other because we are stuck with each other. That’s true in families, but it’s also true here in the family of God. But in the family of God, we are not cousins – we’re brothers and sisters in Christ. And we stick together for some very fathomable reasons – namely, God has told us to. He has called us from lives of selfish individualism to a life of community, a life where we are all members of his very body, a life shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It all comes down to the covenant faithfulness of our God who keeps his promises. The fidelity between Ruth and Naomi rests in these promises. The fidelity between and among us is possible because of God’s faithfulness to us.

We have a wonderful example of discipleship in these two women. ‘Disciple’ merely means “one who follows.” A Sunday School teacher was asking his class of second graders about discipling one Sunday, and one little girl put her hand up very eager to talk about the subject. “My family really believes in discipling! We disciple everything! My parents talk all the time about the need to disciple! We disciple newspapers, we disciple plastic bottles, we disciple cans. My mom believes that discipling will save the world.”

But saving the world has its challenges. We’re stuck with each other. We’re stuck with people we may not like very much. People whose politics are different. People whose preferences in worship style, music, and liturgy are different. People whose leadership style, or communication style, or priorities are vastly different than our own. People whose age, or social views, or race, or fiscal policies would make them a natural target for us to attack.

But we, as members of Christ’s body, are supposed to be above all that. United with him in our baptisms, we have cast off and put to death our old identities in order that our identity may now be defined by unity in his body. These other issues, the ones that so easily divide us and send us on our own separate ways, are supposed to be minor players in the whole thing. Yet, how many times have we allowed them to dominate the discussion to the point that Christian unity becomes something we talk about in the abstract rather than something toward which we are supposed to constantly strive. While it’s easier to simply divide over these issues, to choose sides and begin to mount a case, Jesus did not call us to walk an easy path. He called us to walk a faithful path, a covenant path, a path where we take up our cross and follow him daily.

Staying together is tough work. It requires compassion. It requires understanding. It requires communication. It requires commitment. Quite honestly, it’s more work than many people are willing to put in.

But quite frankly, it’s what we need to do. Because, if we allow ourselves to be divided by periphery issues – worship styles, music, politics, denominationalism, how the money gets spent, conflicts in leadership – we have announced to the world that Jesus Christ was not powerful enough to hold us together in our petty differences, and the unity he promised was nothing more than a pipe dream. More importantly, we have failed to be the Church. We have taken the course called “Following Jesus 101” and received F’s. While a house divided against itself cannot stand, a church divided against itself is not even the Church. It is nothing more than a mirror of the brokenness in society, when it is supposed to be an instrument of reconciliation working toward the kingdom of God.

Ruth didn’t give up on Naomi. Naomi didn’t give up on Ruth. But more importantly, God didn’t give up on them, and God doesn’t give up on us. So let’s not give up on each other. Our fidelity to those we are stuck with is a powerful reminder of the fidelity of God who chooses to be stuck with us. That is why the story of Ruth – a gentile – has an honored place in the Hebrew scriptures. She reminded the Jews of something important about their God. God does not leave us when the going gets tough, when we are as destitute as an ancient Near Eastern widow. God is not committed to us because it’s in God’s interest or for any other good reason. Rather, God is committed to us because . . . well, that’s the way God is. I look forward to the ways God will continue to bless us and surprise us.

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