Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Ruth 1: 1-18)
Back on July 16th, 2002, the Dave Matthews Band released the first single off their upcoming album Busted Stuff. The tune was titled “Where Are You Going” and in its prime it was a constant presence on the airwaves and made it all the way to 39th on the Billboard Top 100.
When I first heard this song I thought two things – one, it was bound to be a hit. And second, it sure sounded to me, the young pastor that I was, that Dave might’ve been evoking Ruth a little bit when he wrote it. Check out the lyrics:
Where are you going?
Are you looking for answers to questions under the stars?
Well, if along the way you are grown weary
You can rest with me until a brighter day – you’re okay.
This part in particular:
I am no Superman
I have no reasons for you
I am no hero, that’s for sure
But I do know one thing:
Where you are is where I belong
I do know where you go
That’s where I want to be
Now it’s entirely possible that he had someone else in mind – a friend, perhaps a lover – someone he wanted to assure beyond a shadow of doubt that he would be with them wherever they went; that they would not have to face an uncertain future alone: where you are is where I belong.
Of course, that is pretty much the story of our scripture today: someone who did not want to face an uncertain future alone and someone else who was more than happy to be the reason they wouldn’t have to. Although the story of Ruth and Naomi is more nuanced than that, like so much of life; and it’s that nuance that gives the story its real impact beyond just a nice woman being there for her mother-in-law.
Context is always key when reading scripture, and there are two things we need to know about the story of Ruth before diving into it. First, this story takes place during the period of Judges in the Old Testament. This was that hundred or so years between the Hebrews settling in the Promised Land after their long journey through the wilderness, and the arrival of the era of kings. During this time, lots of things were in flux and God’s people were interacting frequently with neighboring nations around them.
Which leads us to the second thing we need to know, and that is that the main character in our story is not Hebrew. This is outside the norm for most of scripture that focuses almost exclusively on the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and those who come from them; those who worship Yahweh as Lord. Certainly rare for a non-Hebrew to be cast in such a positive light.
And yet that is what we have here – so now on to our story. It begins like some apocalyptic movie as a huge famine wreaks havoc across the ancient world. To survive, Naomi and her Hebrew family travel to the foreign land of Moab where her husband is able to provide for her and their two sons. The boys grow into men and marry Moabite women – one named Orpah and the other Ruth.
Everything’s going well until a series of horribly tragic events unfold. First, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her widowed. Within ten years both her sons die as well. These events put Naomi in perhaps the worst possible place for a woman in the ancient world to be – not only is she grieving the death of her entire immediate family, but a woman back then was fully dependent on the men in her life to provide for her safety and security. And she has lost not just one of them but all three.
And yet, in the midst of the upending of her life, Naomi is able to focus on the lives of others – namely, her young daughters-in-law. By Hebrew law a woman was bound to the family of her husband, even upon his death. But if the husband died early in marriage, when the woman was still able to bear children, she was permitted to leave her former husband’s family and begin another life with someone else.
Now let’s acknowledge the heavily-patriarchal slant of this way of seeing the world and, at least for our purposes today, simply recognize that Naomi loves her daughters-in-law and wants what’s best for them. So she has a heart-to-heart with Ruth and Orpah and encourages them to begin new lives elsewhere. She gives them permission to leave her. Orpah takes her up on the offer and she is on her way. But Ruth stays. Ruth, a Moabite woman, chooses to remain with her Hebrew mother-in-law. Naomi does try to talk her out of it – you have your whole life ahead of you, you don’t want to be stuck with me, you can begin anew with your own people, just go. But Ruth will hear none of it and makes her case emphatically clear in some of the more moving lines in all of scripture:
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! she tells her.
Where you will 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 more as well,
If even death parts me from you!
Ruth’s decision to stay does more than simply ensure Naomi will be cared for in her old age. It also sets in motion a series of events that lead to Ruth’s marriage to another Israelite named Boaz, and the lineage from them that traced all the way to the great King David and even to Jesus himself.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – more on that next Sunday. For now, let’s stick with this surprising turn of events around Ruth’s decision and the obvious question: why? Why did Ruth decide to stay when both the law and Naomi encouraged her to go? Why did Ruth stay?
Now some might say that it was out of sheer duty or devotion; that Ruth stayed because it was the right thing to do. And there’s probably some truth to that – Ruth seems like a fairly principled person, like someone who always follows through on their word. Others might surmise that Ruth stayed because she truly loved her mother-in-law and just didn’t want to leave her. That, too, seems like a possibility as well.
But I wonder if the real reason here might be another one entirely, one that certainly includes duty and devotion and love, but also involves a different element as well. We’ve already acknowledged that Naomi needed Ruth in her old age with her husband and sons dead. But is it possible that the needing went both ways? Is it possible that Ruth stayed with Naomi because, in the end, she needed Naomi as much as Naomi needed her?
It’s funny – we don’t like to talk about needing people, particularly when it’s us doing the needing. We’re often more than happy to be the one needed, to support others in their struggles, to be there for them. But when it’s us that need help, when we’re the one in need, we tend to discount it. Minimize it. And why is that, I wonder – does it make us uncomfortable? Does it mess with our pride to have to ask for or receive help? Naomi tried doing that but Ruth wouldn’t let her. And perhaps the reason why is that at some level Ruth knew that she needed Naomi too.
I mean, truth be told, we all need each other right now, don’t we?
It’s already been observed by others that our world, our country is fighting two pandemics at the moment. You know about the first one. But the second one is just as deadly because, while the first attacks our respiratory system, the second attacks the human soul and leads to things like misguided individualism, misplaced victimization, and – as one of our elders put it to me – a loss our collective sense of doing things for the common good.
The thing is, we have a vaccine for the first – it works pretty well. But we’re struggling to find a vaccine for the second. And make no mistake, this second pandemic is taking a heavy toll on us. Mental health needs have been on the rise over the past couple of years; and as I mentioned in my Monday Message this past week, suicide has impacted more and more families and communities, including our own.
I wonder, beloved, if there is wisdom for the moment in Ruth’s story; in that the whole notion of us needing each other is not some lofty truism we should simply acknowledge but a heart-felt reality we need to embody as if it means everything….
I believe I’ve shared before the story once told to me by a minister colleague of mine; a story of a certain Alcoholics Anonymous group that met in her church. The group was comprised of mostly older men who’d been gathering for decades. Over the years their therapy centered around repeating the same old stories and telling the same old jokes, and it served them well.
And then one day a younger man in his early twenties showed up. With a little bit of trepidation, he announced that he had been sober – to which everyone offered polite applause – until he also shared that he had recently relapsed. And the room got very quiet, because the men there had not been used to going this deep in quite awhile. This newcomer was taking them to a familiar place, an unsettling and uncomfortable place. There was a long period of silence.
Finally, the voice of a long-timer spoke up. “Son, I want to thank you,” he said. “I’ve been sober for 35 years now. And the truth is, I’m still scared – still grieving for what I’ve lost and still scared of losing what I haven’t lost already. So I want to thank you for helping me remember who I am and why I’m here.”
More silence. The old man looked around the group and their deep contemplative faces; then said, “You know, I am a member of a society. You know what it’s called? It’s called the White Knuckle Society. Grabbing, gripping, holding on by my fingernails every day of my life. Yep, that’s it – the White Knuckle Society. Anybody else here a member?” And everyone’s hand shot up in the air.
The old man turned to the newbie and said, “Son, this is the White Knuckle Society. And you are most welcome here.”
One of the things we’re doing as the church in this season is learning how to be church all over again. I mean, some things are staying the same – we are still worshipping every Sunday morning, we are still gathering for fellowship like last week’s S’mores & More or this afternoon’s Fall Festival. Our session is still meeting, our ministry teams are still engaged in ministry. The church continues to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and thank God for that.
But perhaps in this season one of the things we need to make sure we’re being for each other as the church is a certified chapter of the White Knuckle Society. That is, a gathering of people who recognize that we need each other, that we are both the one offering help and the one in need of help. That we understand the value of being together, of belonging, of being loved and accepted for whoever we are. That we are as ready to receive care and support as we are in giving it.
What kept Ruth and Naomi together – what keeps us together – is the realization that we were not made to make it on our own; and our futile attempts at trying to do that hurt not only us but those we are close to. What kept Ruth and Naomi together and what keeps us together is the understanding that we are never truly alone – not by a long shot.
So people of God, be like Ruth: be persistent and perhaps even a little stubborn in caring for each other, for checking in, for asking “hey, are you okay” when you’re not sure. And also, be like Ruth: don’t try to go it alone. Lean into those around you, and don’t hesitate for a second to accept help when offered or ask for help when you need it.
I mean, imagine the beauty of the church if we successfully lived into the example that Ruth and Naomi have given us. Imagine our world if the church became known not as a place that excludes people, not as a place co-opted by the powers-that-be, not as a place where “this is how we’ve always done it” takes precedence over “this is what we need to be doing now;” but imagine our world if the church became known as the living embodiment of the White Knuckle Society. How many people do you think would be busting down our doors then?
Beloved, may our response on this Response Sunday not only be about our heartfelt pledge to the work and ministry of God’s church, but may it also be about our commitment to becoming a place where you can love and be loved, where you know you belong, and where you know beyond a shadow of doubt that you are never alone.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.