(Ruth 1: 1-18)
Our second scripture reading this morning comes from the short 4 chapter long narrative book in the Old Testament, Ruth. The book of Ruth tells the story of the Moabite woman, Ruth, and her mother-in-law Naomi. This continues our sermon series on the “Women of the Old Testament” where we are looking at the stories of women in the old testament who are lesser known figures, but nonetheless play incredibly important roles. Along this journey, we’re asking ourselves what can these women teach us about faithfulness? How did these women shape the biblical narrative? How do their experiences with God help us to understand our own experiences with God? And finally, how can their story of faith help to shape my story of faith?
Listen now to God’s word to us this morning from the book of Ruth 1:1-18….
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
Will you pray with me? Holy God – pour out your Spirit in this place that our ears may be opened to hear your word to us, that in listening we may grow in faith and discipleship. Allow the words that we hear to move us to follow you more closely, to surrender the places in our lives keeping us from you, help us to hear not only what we want to hear but that which we need to hear. And now, Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The book of Ruth is ironically a story about Naomi, and honestly, it’s a story about each of us. In each of our stories there is some of Naomi’s. Naomi has life figured out before we meet her, she has married, she lives in Bethlehem, she’s given birth to two sons. Things are going well for Naomi, in fact that reflects her name – her name means “sweet.” Naomi is sweet and life is going well and as planned for Naomi. And then famine comes to the land and she must leave the land she knows, so she goes to the neighboring country of Moab.
Now, Moab is not a place that respectable people from Bethlehem go. Moab is a land where the people worship pagan gods, a people thought to be descended from the incestuous relationship of Lot and his daughters. So Naomi, this sweet woman, travels to Moab. And things stop going well for her, life stops going as planned, life stops being sweet to her – her husband dies and her sons marry Moabite women, women from that part of the world. And then her sons die. And life has turned against Naomi.
Life has turned against Naomi, or as Naomi says “the hand of the Lord is turned against me.” She’s in the pit, in the midst of despair, in the worst place. And here is where we see our stories interacting with the stories of this ancient widow in a foreign country. For we have all been there, perhaps not in a foreign land widowed and having buried our only two children, but we have all mused along with Naomi, “the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Good things are not happening to me, bad things are happening to me, I did nothing to deserve this and yet, here I am. Sick, divorced, alone, without a job, without a family, grieving, lost, wondering where things went wrong, wondering how things got so off track – wondering not how they will be put back together but if they can be put back together.
This is a story about Naomi, and it is a story about us – a story about when life stinks, when it feels as if the world has turned against you, when things are going wrong. This is a story about life, a story about Naomi and a story about us – a story about when life and expectations from the good life have crumbled around us. A story about where God is when life just can’t be going more wrong.
So that’s when Ruth comes in. Ruth is a Moabite woman, from a distant pagan land. Despite her heroism that the book captures, there is nothing in the text we read from today that suggests that Naomi was ever excited that Ruth insists on coming with her. Nothing. Why would Naomi want her daughter-in-law to come back with her? Why would she want to bring a Moabite woman back to Bethlehem? For Naomi, Ruth is a reminder of how everything went wrong. Why would she want to bring that with her as she tries again to recreate her life in Bethlehem?
But Ruth insists and Naomi agrees. Ruth insists that she will not leave Naomi, she insists on being faithful to her even if Naomi doesn’t want it.
The good news for Naomi is the same good news we experience here in worship, in our life of faith. The good news is that redemption for Naomi does not come from returning to Bethlehem successful, it does not come from creating the life she had wanted to, it does not come from making everything turn back to what it looked like before. Redemption comes by way of a foreign daughter-in-law and her tireless devotion to her. Ruth who grants to her mother-in-law the Hebrew word, hesed – loving kindness, mercy, loyalty, love.
So it is for us, the good news is that redemption, fixing of the broken things in our lives does not come from the ways we tape it back together, the ways we try to recreate life, the ways we try to make it right again. Redemption for the ways life has started to suck does not come from anything that we do. Redemption instead comes in the form of loving kindness, mercy. Redemption comes at no cost, no expectation, redemption comes in the form of an outsider, rejected and alone who promises devotion to us. And redemption comes when we least expect, after we’ve tried everything else to make it work.
Anne Lamott writes in the opening paragraph of her newest book Hallelujah Anyway, “We look and look, tearing apart our lives like we’re searching for car keys in our couch, and we come up empty handed. Then when we’re doing something stupid, like staring at the dog’s mismatched paws, we stumble across what we needed to find. Or even better, it finds us.”
Indeed, we look and look for how to fix things, the ways that we can tape life back together, the ways we can make it ok again. But that’s simply not how God works, God works instead by coming to us in these unusual circumstances, in odd and unexpected people who refuse to let us go.
What the book of Ruth tells us is that when life sucks, when things are not going as planned, when you’re left in a foreign land with no hope of things working out, hope comes in the form of your daughter-in-law from a foreign land who promises not to leave you, even if you want her to. Hope comes in the places you are not looking for it in the times when you are not looking for it.
Ruth’s speech to Naomi in that first chapter, the familiar words often used at weddings are not in fact words of romantic love, they are words of hesed, a Hebrew word of ultimate love and kindness.
Ruth’s speech: “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. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. Ruth’s speech to Naomi is the act of “yes, and” theology that we learned about two years ago from MaryAnn McKibben Dana at our Montreat retreat.
The idea of “yes, and” theology is embracing what has happened, for Naomi, that’s embracing and accepting that life has shattered around her and there is not much she can do about it. It’s saying “yes, ok, this has happened and its horrible and its awful and I don’t know what to do.” Rather than ending with “yes, this is horrible, there is no hope of it getting better,” rather than ending with yes, or moving to but, we end with “and.”
-Yes, this is tragic, “and…”
-Yes, this should not have worked out this way, and
-Yes, this is not fair, and
-Yes, this is not what you deserved, and.
The “and” is Ruth’s speech. Yes, Naomi’s life has gone completely unplanned and she is totally undeserving of the horrors she’s lived through. And, she has a daughter-in-law who is refusing to let her go home alone, she has a daughter-in-law who refuses to let go of her. And, Ruth promises to be with her through it all.
That’s the promise of our faith after all, the promise of our faith has never been that bad things won’t happen, that life will work out how it should, that good people will get good things and bad people bad things. That’s not the promise of faith. The promise of faith is that when life turns for the worst, when things happened that shouldn’t have happened, when life works out wrong, the promise of faith is that we have a God who refuses to leave us in the midst of that, that we have a God who will walk in the depth with us, that God promises not to leave us as we figure it out. The promise of faith is the promise Ruth makes to Naomi – where you go, I will go.
When life falls apart, which it does, it is our faith that says, yes, it did, and here’s this thing you didn’t ever dream of and is totally different from before and I think its going to be a good thing.
And that’s what happens with Naomi, yes, horrible things happened, and there was nothing to be done to fix them, she was in the depths. And yet the story goes on in the next 3 chapters to tell how Naomi returns from Moab to Bethlehem with her Moabite daughter-in-law who insisted on sticking with her. And the story ends with Ruth meeting a man, Boaz, a kinsmen of Naomi. And Ruth and Boaz have a baby, Obed, the grandfather of Kind David. And Naomi gets a family again, not the family she had, it looks totally different, but it’s a family, its her family – her and Ruth and Boaz and baby Obed and all the wonderful promise of life comes to her yet again.
In the name of God our Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer. Amen.