Sunday, July 8, 2012

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 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 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, you 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.

One phrase in the English language will conjure up a whole host of emotional responses.  That phrase is “mother-in-law.”  Upon my simply saying that phrase, how many of you felt a chill go down your spine just now?  In our society, we have learned that the mother-in-law is someone to be both feared and revered, cause if Momma ain’t happy . . . ain’t nobody happy!

We see this understanding reinforced in popular culture.  How can you say “mother-in-law” without thinking of Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond?  Rightly or wrongly, whether life imitates art or art reflects life, we have come to expect this sort of antagonism in the in-law relationship.  And yet, the story of Ruth and Naomi, which we have gotten the first taste of in our Scripture reading for today, is the story of in-laws who became friends.  Before it’s all said and done, we will see how their friendship has meaning for their faith.  May we pray.

The Story Itself
The book of Ruth begins: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and Elimelech, a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons went to reside in the country of Moab . . . Elimelech, Naomi’s husband died, and she was left with her two sons.  They married Moabite women . . . and then the two sons also died” (Ruth 1:1-5).

The book of Ruth begins, in other words, in tragedy and loss.  Three women, three dead husbands, and perhaps Naomi feels the pain most accutely.  One funeral after another, first for her husband, then for her two sons, without any family, friends, or the familiar to lend their comfort and support.  Life is not easy.  In fact, just a few verses after we left off from today’s reading, this widow will change her name from Naomi - which means sweet - to Mara - which means bitter.  Can you blame her?

Naomi knows that the future is also bleak and potentially bitter for her two daughters-in-law as long as they stay with her.  They can fare better on their own.  In the ancient world, while a widow didn’t just go out, find a job, and start dating again, someone might still take a chance on a pretty young widow who could still have children and maybe even turn out a good day’s work in the meantime.

Knowing this, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to turn back, return to their own country, and find new husbands for themselves from among their own people. She thanks them for their kindness toward her, but really, their social obligation to her has been met, and now it’s time for them to think about themselves and their own well-being.  After some persuasion and tears, Orpah – not to be confused with Oprah – takes her mother-in-law’s advice and heads toward home (Ruth 1:6-14).  But Ruth has hitched her star to bitter old Naomi, and she makes one of the most profound pledges in Scripture: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Ruth demonstrates what God is like.  By word and by deed, Ruth demonstrates what God means when God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, cf. Hebrews 13:5).

Why is Ruth even in here?
The inclusion of the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures seems odd.  Most of us learned in Sunday School that the Old Testament - more properly called the Hebrew Scriptures - narrate the maturing relationship between God and a particular people - the Hebrew people.

Ruth, however, is a Gentile, a foreigner, an outsider, an immigrant.  Eight times in the 4 chapters of her story, we are reminded that she is a “Moabite woman,” the Biblical writers’ way of telling us that she is different, a foreigner, not one of the chosen people.  Rather than being “one of us,” she is “one of them.”  And yet, even though she is an outsider, she is named as a full participant in God’s redemption story, and a full recipient of God’s grace, and thousands of years later when St. Matthew would begin his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ family tree, Ruth would be named as one of the prominent ancestors of Jesus.  For those with ears to hear, her story has much to teach.

First, we live in a society of rules.  How often have we seen rules take priority over relationship?  The Hebrew society certainly had its rules - who was in and who was out, who was chosen and who was outcast, who was an acceptable conduit of God’s grace and who was not.  The story of Ruth breaks these rules, and serves as a word of caution in our day against thinking that we have the corner on the market when it comes to God’s revelation, or placing human rules ahead of human beings.  Ruth is not someone who should be featured in the Hebrew redemption story - she is an outsider!  Yet, God acts in her life mightily and powerfully, meaning that when God gets ready to move on your behalf, God can break rules, bend regulations, flip policies, and even change rigid human minds.

Second, the story of Ruth is included in the Hebrew scriptures to give us an important model and framework for broadening the definition of family.  For people of faith, the family is always being redefined.  The truest and most Biblical expressions of family have less to do with biology and blood than they do with a sense of unity and mutuality that is bigger than all that.  Jesus himself said that his true family were not his own relatives, but those who do the will of God (Mark 3:31-35).  The people to whom you are closest and with whom you literally share life - that’s your family.  It doesn’t matter if you share similar DNA or not, family, especially for people of faith, is about relationships.

How often have you found your own definition of family stretched and broadened?  I think the best way you can illustrate this is to understand the difference between a family reunion and a Thanksgiving dinner.  The family reunion is a fascinating sociological experiment - a time of forced interaction with people you have either never met or don’t know well at all, but who are supposed to be important to you, why?  Because you’re family, that’s why, and family is important.  Never mind that you know nothing about each other, where the other lives, how many kids they have - heck, we can’t even remember their names without nametags!  Am I the only one who keeps an index card in my flip flop with a basic family tree so we have some earthly chance of remembering how we’re actually related to these strangers?

Contrast that with what happens at Thanksgiving dinner.  Show of hands if at least some of the people who are at the table with you at Thanksgiving are not related to you either by biology or marriage?  What I want you to consider is this: the people with whom you share Thanksgiving dinner are a truer representation of your family than the strangers you meet at a family reunion.  The definition of family is broader now, and it has more to do with relationships than DNA.  Even moreso for the family of faith, one in which we are re-named and re-identified and re-claimed by God as God’s own, and told that now we relate to each other as family - brothers and sisters, even.  Family is still important, but who constitutes our family now has a much broader definition.

Third, Ruth has gone above and beyond her legal or social obligations to bitter old Naomi, and that’s the surprise of the whole story.  There is nothing compelling her to stay with Naomi, other than the authentic affection of genuine friendship.  And so Naomi, who thought she would make the rest of her journey alone, is blessed with a confidant and companion along the way - a faith friend.

“Choose your friends carefully”
I can still hear my parents’ admonition from childhood, adolescence, high school, college, and even into adulthood, to “choose your friends carefully.”  You, too, probably received numerous warnings about falling in with the wrong crowd, and being susceptible to influences that were less than noble.  I remember being mad and upset and disbelieving when, on occasion, they decided that this friend or that friend was not an appropriate playmate, and I wasn’t to hang out with them anymore.  I thought they were absolutely ruining my life, and I couldn’t believe that I had parents who were so mean!

Yet, what they knew and what I later came to understand, is that not everyone who claims to be your friend really is your friend.  Not everyone who claims to be your friend has your best interest in mind.  In the words of Annie Lennox, “some of them want to use you.”

Not everyone who claims to be your friend is your friend.  You can administer a friendship test for your relationships simply by asking yourself some very basic questions:

1.  What seeds are taking root in me because of my relationship with them?  Are they Christlike seeds of righteousness, peace, love, and joy?  Or are they seeds of anger, bitterness, resentment, hostility, and negativity?

2.  Do my interactions with this person lift my spirit, or weigh it down? Do they affect my personality to become more like a Naomi, which means “sweet,” or more like a Mara, which means “bitter?”

Try taking this inventory for yourself with all the people you talk to, think about, and interact with the most - in other words, your friends.  And here’s what I suggest: for those who help you become more righteous, peaceful, loving, and joyful, for those who lift your spirit, maximize the time you spend with them.  For those who are dragging you down to become angry, bitter, resentful, hostile, or negative, for those who weigh your spirit down, for those who want to spend their whole life riding around on the bitter bus - you can simply choose not to ride along with them.  Keep praying for them, keep loving them, keep asking God to do something truly miraculous in their heart.

Let me get a bit more specific for a minute.  When you’re around that bitter person, you need to intentionally make sure that you are the influencer, not the influencee.  When you’re in a conversation and your bitter alarm goes off, something in your head should say, “Oh, I don’t need to get sucked into this vortex.  I need to be the influencer here, not the influencee.  To the best of my ability and with God’s help, I need to influence this interaction by seasoning their bitterness with the love and joy of God, rather than allowing their bitterness to take away my joy.”  When you encounter bitterness, be intentional to be the influencer rather than the influencee.

And remember this: it is not your job or responsibility to change anyone. Only God changes hearts.  It is our responsibility to keep witnessing to the love of God in this world.  Whether or not someone is open to that love and being changed and transformed by it is a spiritual matter between that person and God, and none of us has any control over how open and receptive that person is.  There is only one person that any of us has any control over, and who is that?  Ourselves.  Our job is to faithfully, tirelessly, doggedly, keep witnessing to the love of God, regardless of the outcome or how people respond, trusting that in God’s time and in God’s hands, hard hearts will soften and lives will be transformed.

Now, if you realize that you’re the person riding the bitter bus (perhaps only realized after other people completed their friendship inventory and all-of-a-sudden are avoiding you like the plague), you have a choice in the matter: to keep riding the bitter bus, or to get off at the next stop.  If we want to be transformed, if we’re open to God’s grace working within us and through us, if we want our lives to be shaped by Christ’s love and joy and filled with the Holy Spirit, then hold onto your hat because there is no telling what wonderful things will happen in your life as a result.  And the choice is largely up to you, but you’d better believe that God has some people in mind who will help you through the transformation.

Friends, we don’t make the spiritual journey by ourselves.  Christianity is not a religion that can be practiced alone or in isolation; it is by its very definition a community religion that is practiced in a network of mutually interdependent relationships.  God gives us companions along the way who support us, who hold us accountable, who teach us, who lift us up - friends, in other words.  True friends are the ones who make your life sweeter, so stick close to the ones who do.

Genuine friendship always changes us for the better.  Faith friendships always change us more into the image of God.  And faith friendships are always a healthy and beneficial thing for all parties - both have much to learn and gain, both have much to offer and give.

In the Scriptures, God used Ruth to help change Naomi’s heart.  Like Ruth and Naomi, faith friends stick it out with each other, hold fast to the promises we make to each other, support each other, and we bring out the best in each other we possibly can.  Those are true friends, real friends, faith friends.  They are a gift from God, in whose name and by whose grace, friends become family.

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