We start with some very familiar words from Matthew: a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Part of the segment that we call the beatitudes. These verses are an important reminder of who the Lord blesses, the ones the Lord favors and seeks to honor:
Listen to the words of Jesus as shared in Matthew 5:3-9…
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (NRSV)
Now we’re about to take a pretty right hard turn this week, away from the teaching and catechism of the last several weeks into a narrative…
We started the summer with the 10 Commandments. The 10 Words of the Lord that are meant to define what a life of faithfulness and community look like.
As you recall, God was addressing Moses and the people of Israel, and these words or commands were to help a newly liberated people understand what God expects in this covenant relationship. In the first portion, God is concerned with the vertical relationship between God and God’s people… both individually and as a whole. And then God moves to the expectations for our horizontal relationships, the ways that God’s people might be set apart and known through the way we care for and honor one another.
Jesus himself described these relationships in light of love, how we love.
The first and greatest… biggest… most foundational understanding of who we are to be in relation to God flows from our expression of love for God in all realms of our being – heart, soul, mind, strength. And the remainder of the work is seen in our love for our neighbors – caring for others as much or more than we love ourselves.
For the last 4 weeks, we’ve taken a look at 1 John, which was a good next step, given its focus on making God’s love known in the world, as a faithful response to our encounter with God’s love in the person of Jesus. Understanding Jesus as an incarnational fulfillment of the law, rather than a replacement of the law helps us connect Jesus’ teachings to the Jewish tradition he was part of. AND it helps us to connect to our everyday lives in these human bodies in a very real world to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Trusting in Jesus as both fully divine and fully human challenges us to more fully and engage in both the vertical and horizontal relationships that Christ represents.
As Christ’s ambassadors here in the world, we are the embodiment, the current incarnation, of God’s love for one another, in the faith family and beyond. And our ministry grows richer and more visible as we deepen our understanding that we are God’s beloved. It is that from that well of love that we draw our energy and joy as we serve and bless others.
Hopefully, you have heard over the past weeks, and hear me saying again today that you are God’s beloved. You are loved. And we have all been called and equipped for a life that exhibits that same incredibly deep and faithful love. The kind of love that our Hebrew scriptures call hesed. You’ll hear more about this next week from Karen, but we’ll start exploring the concept today.
Hesed is the kind of deep and faithful love that seems rare in today’s world – where we hear so much more about war, conflict and hatred than we do about peace, reconciliation and love. I suspect that this imbalance has always been around. After all, there are myriad stories of bloodshed, sorrow, anger and grief in our history books and throughout the scriptures.
And thankfully, tucked into these accounts of humanity’s capacity for evil and horror, we also find reminders of our capacity for hesed… for love.
I think maybe that is why as the scrolls were gathered, we find the book of Ruth tucked into the long and difficult history of God’s people. Right alongside all those stories of struggle and war and death and corruption, we find the tale of Naomi and her daughter-in-law. It is, in fact, the story of ordinary people, doing ordinary things.
But in those ordinary lives we see ordinary people going above and beyond the expectations of the world to display the kind of deep and faithful love that makes God’s faithfulness known.
There are no burning bushes or talking donkeys… no miracles… nothing like angels or visions… nothing miraculous… unless, like me, you count hesed among the miracles of God.
So… let’s turn to the book that will be our focus for the next few weeks. The story is broken into four chapters in our Bibles, which is how we will approach the story together.
Rather than just listening, though, I invite you to help me read portions of our story. I’ll take care of all the narration. But when you see the quotation marks that indicate one of the people in the passage is speaking, please join in and read aloud with me as you are comfortable.
Listen and read the word of God in Ruth Chapter 1
1:1 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.
2 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. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.
4 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, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 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. 7 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.
8 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. 9 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.
10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
11 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? 12 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, 13 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.”
14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
16 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. 17 Where you die, I will die -— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty;why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. (NRSV)
What do we hear in these words from God?
I hear the reality of fear and loss.
Elimalech feared that he would be unable to take care of his wife and their sons in a time of famine. Even as they found a place to live in Moab, they lost community, their people.
And in this new land, Naomi lost her husband. Even as she gained the love and care of Orpah and Ruth, she lost her sons.
Yes, in the midst of this loss, she has some hope. There is apparently enough grain to harvest back home. Perhaps, back in Bethlehem, she could start again.
But this was during a time of chaos in the land… the time of the judges. It might help us to remember the last verse in Judges, In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).
This was not good. This was not a good time for anyone. But life was particularly difficult for those who would have been on the margins anyway. Those who were vulnerable.
Naomi is about as vulnerable as one could be, whether she stays in Moab or returns to Bethlehem. She actually is a case study in the way that vulnerability can be multi-layered.
She was an immigrant, a refugee.
A stranger in a land that was not her own, among people who were not her own, at the mercy of their laws
She was poor
Remember, she and Elimilech had left Bethlehem at a time of famine. They would have had very little, thus brought very little in the way of possessions with them on their trek. So, no wealth. Not much to trade.
She was a woman in a highly patriarchal society.
An unmarried widow with with no sons had no one to claim her, no one to buy land, no one to protect her from other men who might like to claim her. no one to provide for her
We can begin to to see in Naomi’s story a pattern still common today.
A disaster – in her case a famine – but it could be a hurricane, a mass shooting, a cancer diagnosis, a war that last for decades.
Surviving any catastrophic event forces people to make hard decisions.
And since there isn’t a limit on the number of disasters in one person’s life, those who have been made vulnerable by one disaster find themselves up against harder and harder choices, often in circumstances far beyond their control.
One need only to consider the stories of the families on our borders…
From our very beginning, people have come to America in hopes of a new beginning, whether seeking refuge from genocide during wars, or famine brought on by drought, or lack of employment and opportunity in their home countries.
And for these immigrants and refugees, what seems like a land of promise can quickly become a harsh reality with difficulties in gaining citizenship, lack of affordable housing, few opportunities for adult education in language and literacy. Not to mention the prejudice and hostility they will likely face.
Knowing what we know about the ways families have been separated, knowing what we know of people who have died attempting to cross deserts in the Southwest and closer to home…. the waters between Cuba and Florida, I can’t help but wonder: Why? Why do they come?
I can only imagine they are experiencing the same mix of desperation and hope that first Elimalech did as he brought his family to Moab, then Naomi displayed as she returned to Bethlehem.
Desperate hope and just enough faith to believe that God would see them through the difficulties that make them vulnerable right now. In the expectation that some day… some place… life will be better.
Even as they know that they risk losing everything -including their lives – to cross those borders and start over.
So… is it any wonder that
Naomi the refugee and immigrant
Naomi the widow
Naomi the grieving mother,
as she sets out on this return journey, says to the girls she has come to love,
go back to your own families, don’t come with me.
Naomi had nothing but a whole lot of nothing to offer them.
They were young enough – If they returned to their mothers, in their fathers’ households, they might be able to marry again, have children – perhaps even sons. And in the meantime, they would be part of a family unit. They would be home.
If they come with Naomi to Bethlehem, they will only prolong their experience of dislocation, of not belonging anywhere.
I remember when I went away to college, having moved out of my parent’s house for the first time. The more time I spent away, developing into a semi-grown human with my own separate experiences and opinions and sense of self, the less coming home felt like being home.
And yet, living in a dorm room that had to be emptied and packed up every few months, living among people I hadn’t known very long and likely wouldn’t know forever… that didn’t feel like home either.
It was the first time I ever felt rootless, placeless, dislocated.
When we moved to Orlando almost 20 years ago now, I had no idea that it would take me a good 5-6 years to lose that same odd sense of never being truly at home. We came here for Paul’s job.
In doing so, I left behind the people I knew from school and work, I left the church I grew up in, I left the town where I knew all the back roads and shortcuts and where to get the best kolaches.
Paul had lived out here before we met. He knew Orlando and Kissimmee and Winter Park. He knew how to get everywhere. He still had some friends in town. Connection. It was a little like coming back home.
I knew 2 people, and both of them lived at least an hour’s drive from us.Assuming I didn’t get lost.
But like Ruth, I had promised in my wedding vows to Paul, “Where you go, I will go” Maybe not in those exact words, but that was the idea.
When a move was clearly the best choice for his career, I totally agreed we needed to look and go where the next best step took us. Turns out that was Orlando.
We were pretty sure that I could find a job, too. That we would make new friends. That we would find a good neighborhood where we could raise our kiddo.
We had hope.
And not a little trepidation.
Paul had some excitement.
I had fear. And loss. And grief.
Of course, I came with him. Not out of duty, but out of the love that was and is foundational to my commitment to our relationship.
That’s what love does.
Love compels you to venture into the unknown, based on even a kernel of hope.
Based on a kernel of barley, in Naomi’s case.
And a daughter-in-law who loved her deeply and stubbornly.
And, as a community does, the women of Bethlehem welcomed Naomi home. I don’t know if you caught the word our translation used to describe the town on her return- that they were stirred. Eugene Peterson’s translation makes more sense to my ears. He says that the town was “buzzing” and asking if it was really her, returning after so long.
And her response probably shut that buzz down pretty quickly.
A total buzzkill.
If I’m totally honest, this is the point in the story that made me fall in love with Naomi.
So much respect.
Because she did not hold back. Not one bit.
She made it abundantly clear that life had been hard.
And it was still hard.
She wasn’t ready to be pleasant, even if that was the meaning of the name she’d been given. She was definitely not feeling it.
She was Mara. In the core of her being..
Bitter’s my name and lamenting is my game.
She was not ready to praise God for much of anything.
She was still grieving and needed to lament.
She needed to be angry.
I believe that finally being home allowed some space for that anger.
And in the loving, persistent presence of Ruth, God honored her anger.
For God sees and loves those who have lost everything,
those who are so poor, that even their spirits are impoverished.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Through the loving, persistent presence of Ruth, God honored her sorrow and pain.
For God sees and hears the cries of those left behind,
those who are no longer able to hold onto the ones they loved.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Through the loving, persistent presence of Ruth, God was present for Naomi.
And through the loving, persistent presence of God, there was hope
Hope for the promise of a harvest to come.
Hope for the promise of life to come
Hope made real in love and loyalty.
And there’s the miracle.
Ordinary people living ordinary lives… lives filled with
Ordinary people loving in ways that go far above and beyond the law,
above and beyond the expectations of the world,
one ordinary moment at a time.
So look around this week…
Watch for ordinary people loving in extraordinary ways
Give thanks for their faithfulness, for God’s presence and faithfulness through them.
Watch for the poor in spirit, those who need someone to provide space for their anger, sorrow or pain.
Pray and ask God, how you might be that persistent loving presence for them.