Sunday, July 12, 2015

Faith Friends (Ruth 1:1-18)

1 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.

10 But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

11 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? 12 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— 13 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.”

14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

16 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. 17 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.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.


One phrase in the English language can instill more fear in the heart than any other, and that phrase is “mother-in-law.”  Upon my simply saying that phrase, how many of you felt a chill go up your spine?  The relationship between in-laws can be tricky, to say the least.


My dad was an only child.  He was an only male child.  He was an only male child born after my grandparents had been married for eleven years.  Eleven years of being told they might not be able to have children, eleven years of hoping and earnest praying for a child.  Every stereotype you could imagine about an only male child born late in life to parents who were told they would likely never have children – all of those stereotypes were true.


From my grandparents’ perspective, I imagine my dad’s birth looked like something out of The Lion King, as baby Simba is lifted high and presented for everyone to gaze upon.  My Dad wasn’t just spoiled growing up, he was the absolute center of the universe, and you’d better believe that my grandmother knew that nobody could love him like she did.


My mom never stood a chance.  Mom and Dad met in college in New York, and their first Christmas dating, flew home to Dad’s parents in Virginia to meet the folks.  On the ride home from the airport, Dad hopped in the front seat with Papa, leaving Mom in the backseat with Grandma, who sniffled and dabbed at her eyes the entire ride home.


Mom and Dad had only been married a few months when Mom wanted to prepare a special dinner for Dad.  She called Grandma and asked for some of his favorite foods from growing up, and spent the entire afternoon preparing this meal, and Dad came home and sat down to a table piled high with all of the foods he disliked more than any in the world.  Grandma went to her grave insisting that she had thought Mom wanted a list of his least favorite foods, so she could be sure to avoid ever serving them, but we all have our suspicions otherwise.


Without pointing fingers, especially those of you who are currently seated next to your in-laws, have you ever seen or heard of anything like it?  It sounds like a scene out of Everybody Loves Raymond, doesn’t it?  Rightly or wrongly, whether life imitates art or art influences life, we sort of expect this Marie Barone-esque behavior in the in-law relationship.


Parenthetically, let me say I have wonderful in-laws, especially if Jeanne or David Pickerel are listening to or reading this sermon right now, I have the best in-laws in the world!


The in-law relationship is tricky to navigate, but it can also be a blessed one.  The rest of the story between Grandma and Mom is that they became good friends and yes, family, such that they eventually became not mother and daughter in law, but mother and daughter in love.


I imagine it was a similar situation for Ruth and Naomi, the first bit of whose story we have tasted in today’s Scripture reading.  The story of Ruth and Naomi is the story of in-laws who became friends.  And their friendship developed into a holy friendship, a faith friendship, in which by drawing closer to each other, they were drawn closer to God.


The book of Ruth begins in tragedy and loss.  Naomi and her husband are Hebrews who have fled to Moab to escape famine, they are refugees escaping starvation back home.  They are strangers in a strange land, far from home, far from the support of family and friends, with only their two sons.  The two sons marry local women, and then, one-by-one, the men in the family die off, leaving the women vulnerable and helpless.


Perhaps Naomi felt the pain more acutely than her younger daughters-in-law.  One funeral after another – first for her husband, then for one son, then for the other – one funeral after another without any familiar faces.  Just a few verses after today’s reading, Naomi – which means sweet – will change her name to Mara – which means bitter.  Things have not turned out the way she hoped they would; life itself has turned out to be a bitter pill to swallow.


Naomi knows the future is also bleak and potentially bitter for her two daughters-in-law.  Naomi knows that she is too old to attract the attention of another potential husband, but her young daughters-in-law, well, someone might still take a chance on a pretty young widow who could still help get the work done and maybe even have a few children.


Naomi decides to head back to her home country, hearing that the famine is subsiding, and hoping that some of her relatives might still be alive who would show some compassion toward her.  Her daughters-in-law, perhaps not knowing what else to do or where else to go, follow along behind her, but along the way, Naomi tells them to turn around and go back.  “Go back to your own people,” she says.  “Find husbands.  Have children.  Be fruitful and blessed.”


She thanks them for their kindness, but now it’s time for them to think about their own well-being.  After some persuasion and tears and one final hug, Orpah – not be to be confused with Oprah – takes her mother-in-law’s advice and heads home (Ruth 1:6-14).  But Ruth has hitched her star to bitter old Naomi.  She makes one of the most profound promises found in Scripture – “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I will stay.  Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God” (Ruth 1:16).


I used to wonder why the book of Ruth is included in the Hebrew scriptures.  Eight times in the 4 chapters of her story, we are told that she is a “Moabite woman.”  The Biblical writers are reminding us she is different, a foreigner, an outsider, not one of the chosen people.


And yet, this outsider has a book in the Hebrew scriptures.  She is named as a full participant in God’s redemption story, a full recipient of God’s universal grace.  Her story features so prominently that thousands of years later, when St. Matthew sat down to write his gospel, he began with an account of Jesus’ family tree, and Ruth – the foreigner, the immigrant, the outsider – would be named as one of the prominent ancestors of Jesus.


Ruth has much to teach us about fidelity, friendships, and faith.  Ruth has much to teach us about the nature and character of God.  Ruth grew up outside the faith – she’s never been to church, doesn’t know the first thing about Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, she’s never tithed, she’s never served on a committee, she wouldn’t know the difference between a hymnal and a Bible – and yet, this one from outside the tight-knit Hebrew community has something in her character that’s consistent with God’s character.


When she says, “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay,” do we not hear the echoes of God’s promise to never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6, cf. Hebrews 13:5)?  God is committed to us, sticks with us, no matter what.  Without even trying, Ruth reflects the covenant faithfulness of the God in whose image all humanity is made.


Mother-in-law Naomi, likewise reflects God’s image, even in difficult circumstances that leave her feeling bitter.  Her two daughters-in-law have made two very different decisions in terms of staying with Naomi.  One stays while the other departs.  Does Naomi bless one and curse the other?  No.  What I want you to notice is Naomi blesses them both.


Naomi’s love for her two daughters-in-law is not tied to a particular decision or behavior; she blesses them both.  So, too, God’s love and favor and blessing are not contingent upon us making certain decisions or behaving in a certain way.  It is not earned.  Not turned on or off like a light switch based on our actions.  God’s love is not reserved for a privileged few.  No.  Friends, God loves us, blesses us, favors us, graces us no matter what.


Naomi reflects the fidelity of God in extending unconditional blessing and love; Ruth reflects the fidelity of God in sticking with Naomi, no matter what.  As they stick with each other, bless each other, love each other, what develops can best be described as a holy friendship.


We were all told to choose our friends wisely.  We all know the reality that not everyone who claims to be our friend is our friend.  In the words of Annie Lennox, some of them want to use you.  Life is full of people who want to take advantage of us, exert influence over us, whose interest in us is self-serving.


Friends, those people are not your friends.  True friends bring out the best in each other.  Faith friends bring out the image of God in each other.  Ruth and Naomi were faith friends; their commitment to each other brought out the image of God in each other.  As they grew closer to one another they grew closer to God, and as they grew closer to God, they grew closer to one another.  Ruth and Naomi could easily have been the original Golden Girls – thank you for being a friend; travelled down the road and back again – and indeed, they travelled down the road of life and faith together.


Would it be that we would each have a few faith friends.  When you think about your closest relationships, the people you spend the most time with, does your time with them bring out the best in you, make you a better person, make you more gracious and loving, more the person God has created you to be and desires for you to become?  Sometimes they may challenge you, inspire you, push you, and even irritate you, but if it’s all for your own good and to the glory of God, then you’ve got yourself a holy friendship, and you should hold onto it like precious gold, and maximize the priceless time you spend with them.


If, on the other hand, your interactions with someone bring out the worst in you, make you angry, bitter, and negative, then that’s not a holy friendship.  That person is no friend of yours, at all.  That’s someone who is trying to sell you a seat next to them on the bitter bus – it may seem tempting to take a ride on it, but it ain’t gonna get you where you want to go.


You may climb aboard out of genuine desire to help that person, change them, correct them, convert them, win them over.  But taking a ride with them on the bitter bus is going to influence you more than you will influence them.  Riding around on the bitter bus is only going to make you . . . bitter.


Here’s the thing about the bitter bus – it’s only fun to ride when it’s a high-occupancy vehicle.  It’s awfully lonely, no fun to ride around on the bitter bus by yourself.  You can’t control other people who choose to ride it, but you do have the choice of not riding along with them.  People who ride the bitter bus love company, but that company doesn’t have to be you.  And while none of us has any control over anyone else, while none of us can make anyone else do anything, if enough people get off the bitter bus that’s it’s no longer any fun to ride, then you never know how that might motivate that lifetime rider to get off at the next stop.


That’s the best way to influence someone who’s bitter.  Simply refuse to join in.  Don’t give their bitterness an audience.  Don’t be a dumping ground for their trash.  Scott Stratten says, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”


That’s the kind of transformation in the human heart that only God can bring about, but friends, God CAN bring it about.  While you don’t have to get on the bitter bus with someone or even try to win them over, you can still love them, show them kindness and compassion, and work and pray for them to someday, hopefully soon, offer themselves to God for God to change their life with his unconditional love.


When we offer ourselves to that kind of Godly transformation, you’d better believe that God will have some people in mind to help us through the change – to nurture us, support us, encourage us, challenge us, inspire us along the way.  You know, friends.  Genuine friendships always change us for the better, and holy friendships always change us more into the loving image of God.


Let’s choose our friends wisely.

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