A sermon given at Colonial Church on May 3, 2020. Listen to the sermon below or watch the whole service on YouTube.
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.
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.
– Ruth 1:1-14; 18-22 (NRSV)
Good morning. My name’s Sara and I’m one of the ministers here at Colonial Church. As you’ve heard, in these weeks we are in the midst of a sermon series called “Grace, Actually.” Today we’re going to talk about how “Grace Actually Makes Us Bold” and in order to do so this week and then also next week we will be spending some time in a biblical text that goes by the name Ruth.
Ruth is the story about women who lived in the midst of a challenging time…and how many of us do not know the realities of what it feels like to live in the midst of a globe that has been experiencing a pandemic… seeking to orient ourselves to things to which honestly, how do you orient? And yet here you are. And here I am. We’re still existing and breathing and loving and seeking the good of God in our world and for and with our neighbors.
And so today (and also next week) we’re going to journey with these women as they seek to understand and make sense of a world and how they can indeed not only survive, but flourish in it. So as we turn to their stories, looking for the evidence and the invitations to live in grace, let us pray together.
God, I thank you that you are and have been present through all of human history, that indeed ours is not the first moment of global disorientation. Ours is not the only place or location, even in our current world, where people have known the challenges of constraint. So God, in these next couple of weeks as we journey with these women and their stories and how you showed up, might we be a people who look for and pay attention to the ways in which you are showing up in our lives. May you, by your Spirit give us grace, grace enough and grace actually for this day, for this moment; for indeed your grace is sufficient. So open us and awaken us to the grace that actually can make us bold. For it’s in Christ’s name that we gather, live, move, and breathe.
So the book of Ruth is a really great story for many reasons, not least of which is that it takes place in only four chapters. So if you’re looking for a quick, easy read in the Bible, you can start with this book! In fact, I would encourage you –whether you’ve read this text a million times or you haven’t taken a look at it before– I would invite you over this week and into next that you spend some time in the book of Ruth as we delve into these stories together.
Speaking of these stories, just this past Monday, we began our new Monday Night Women’s Bible Study, studying the book of Ruth. The theme for our study is “Grief, Gratitude, and Grace–an Exploration of the Book of Ruth.” This title and the desire to go into this study came about because of the very exact moment we’re in, asking the questions of what does it mean to be a people who are able to live our lives with an openness to receive and live in grace? To breathe in deeply, and to–no matter what happens–to live our lives with our hands open in gratitude and thanks for the many gifts that we indeed have received. And while we’re doing that, to also be able to name and hold space for the ability to say thanks. For to be able to continue to breathe doesn’t mean it’s not without its own grief. And likewise, this story in the book of Ruth is a story about women in a time where the both/ands of life: that everything belongs and all the emotions and all of the fears and all of the vulnerabilities are so present for them. So as you re-look at this story I invite you to see it anew and afresh, asking: what are the points of connection and disconnection with our own time and with your life?
So a little bit of context about this story.
The book of Ruth is the only text in our entire canon (meaning the whole of scripture) which is named after not just a woman, but also a woman who isn’t an Israelite. She is a foreigner. She is an outsider to the Israelite community AND she is also a part of the most important lineage inside of the Israelite kingdom: namely, the Davidic legacy and this lineage, which indeed then became the lineage that birthed Jesus. So this woman in this book and this story, is a story whose threads come down to us this day. This is a story that impacts and shapes how we move in the world as people who identify ourselves as Christian. But it’s also a story that is surprising. It’s surprising for many reasons, not least of which because it’s a story told and centering around two women. One of them who is older and has been widowed and another woman who is an outsider and a foreigner.
And thus our story begins.
The very first verse notes its location: long ago when Judges governed Israel, a famine swept over the land. Now if you’re just reading this or hearing it for the first time, you’re like, “Okay, that’s nice that there was this long ago time in a kingdom far, far away. This sounds like a very familiar story!” But if you pause for a moment to re-read this opening clause and delve in more deeply you will note that there is something important about this time long ago when the Judges governed Israel. This is telling us something about the context of what’s happening in this text. The time when the Judges governed Israel, what was this time? This was a time in Israel’s history where, according to the book of Judges, there was infighting amongst the tribes; these 12 different tribes who were newly in the land that God had promised them (land that was supposed to bring their freedom) and they were trying to figure out how to orient themselves…but there was inter-tribal violence and some of the Judges who ruled them were incredibly unjust and violent. Not only this, but by the time we get to the end of the book of Judges, horrific violence is transpiring, particularly violence against women. For, as the book of Judges notes: “In that time, Israel had no King and everyone did as they saw fit.”
Judges is a violent book. It’s a time of anarchy. It’s a time of a way of being that is opposite and contrary to the ways that God desires God’s people to live…and it is in the midst of that moment, at the time when the Judges ruled, that we get the story of Naomi & Ruth. Thus, this story presents a counter-narrative to what was happening in the broader land and history. It’s a story of these two women and their family and how God’s grace is present…and they choose to live in it.
A few additional details about this text: to start, one that is interesting for us to note is that in the Jewish scriptures, this book sits in a different place than it does in the Christian Canon. In our Bibles you will find the book of Ruth immediately following Judges because it’s historically right set in the time of the Judges. However, in the Jewish Canon, Ruth is a part of the third section of their texts known as “The Writings” and within the writings there is a subset of books where there are the Five Scrolls of Megilloth. Sounds like a good WWE wrestling name, right?! “I am Megilloth, here with my five scrolls!” I don’t know why I think that’s really funny, but I do. Anyway, that’s where Ruth sits.
Importantly, these five scrolls shape the liturgical calendar for the Jewish faith. And the book of Ruth is read during the Festival of Weeks (Shavot). The Festival of Weeks takes place during the harvest and it is a time also when the people gather together to remember God’s gift of the Torah, which is the Law, and remember the way that God relates to God’s people. In the Jewish history and community, Ruth is heralded as an example of it looks like to live as a people who are faithful to the covenant, making clear what it means to be people who embody the law that is intended to enable God’s people to be in right relationship with God, with one another, with the land, and with all people. And so this story bears witness to hesed, faithfulness to God. That’s what this story is about. In the time of anarchy and violence, Ruth is a story about real humans living in faithful relationship with God and one another.
As I noted, this story is named after Ruth, a foreigner Moabite woman. The scene opens in the land of Moab with an Israelite family who is from Bethlehem, which ironically means “basket of bread”. Bethlehem is a prosperous place where there should be food enough for everyone. Yet this family has migrated to Moab because there was a famine in their hometown, so they went to Moab. Now it’s kind of strange that they would go to Moab because it’s basically like if you went from Stillwater to Hudson, you cross a river, but it’s basically the same place in every other way…yet they go to Moab. By naming that they went to Moab this may have been an important signal to the original hearers who may have well asked: “Why would they go there? The Moabites? Do they know who the Moabites are?” Their going to Moab would be worse than say for me as a kid born in the eighties and knowing that the USSR was our decided enemy and we were going to beat them in the Olympics, to discover that you had been cheering for the USSR. You just wouldn’t do that. They are the evil empire! This conflict was even more fierce. And we see this throughout the witness of the Jewish scriptures, that generally speaking, the Moabites, even though they’re close familial relationship with the Israelites, they are seen as suspect. They’re seen as dangerous and especially the women, for if you intermarry with them, you’ll abandon YHWH God. And Oh, by the way, if you are a Moabite or have Moabite ancestry for 10 generations, you can’t worship in the temple.
So spoiler alert: Ruth the Moabite (as the text says again and again in case you forget), she’s a Moabite in case you forgot, well- she’s still a Moabite. Anyway…spoiler alert, Ruth begets Obed and Obed begets Jesse, and Jesse begets David. Okay. So I’m not really great at math, but I’m pretty sure that is only about three generations. The leader of all of Israel- the one after God’s own heart, David, is a Moabite and should be forbidden from worship! But one of the things about the Jewish Canon related to these writings and scrolls is that what it represents and reminds us of is that within the tradition of Judaism there has always been a pluralistic way of understanding what it means to be the people of God. And so, one of the thoughts about when this text was written is it may have been written as a or a counter-witness to the xenophobic texts written against the Moabites, and in-particular Ezra-Nehemiah, which emphatically states that you cannot marry outsiders. Thus, some scholars think that Ruth may be a counterpoint to that witness. Alternatively, other scholars think that Ruth is seeking to argue in favor of the Davidic legacy by naming one with Moabite heritage as the embodiment of hesed loyalty.
Either way, whenever it was written, edited, and compiled, we know for sure that this story is present in our canon and that it’s utilized both in the history of Jewish worship and in rabbinical understanding to tell the story of what it actually means to be hesed, faithful.
So what do I love about this? Well, the first thing that I love about it is that the example of faithfulness and what it means to be people who truly are living in that covenantal committed relationship with God is two women, women who tell us the story about how God relates to God’s people and then how we are supposed to relate to one another. Another thing I love about this book is that it’s a really human story. It’s a representation of those stories that so often transpire in the midst of history where we normatively tell about conquest and kingdoms (i.e.- Judges), this is one of those stories of that centers around the lived and embodied stories of people who gather in kitchens and at the dining room table and have family relationships. Indeed, in the midst of Judges and political violence, we get to hear a human story about women who survived. And guess what- THAT’S how God shows up and that’s a place from which we can learn about how God moves in hesed relationship with us.
Just like Jesus sat down over table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors and his disciples, these women are gathered in the intimacy of their relationships, reminding us that God doesn’t just show up in big political pronouncements, but God shows up in the real of our simple, beautiful, complex lives. Isn’t that cool? It’s a reminder to us that in whatever we’re doing each day there was and is a call and an invitation to be people who in this moment, in the time of global pandemic, people who live and bear witness to this faithful, good God who asks us to live with open generosity and faithful love of our neighbors.
Another thing that I love about this text is that it challenges the people of Israel and by extension us, its current readers, to rethink the boundaries around who gets to tell us where God belongs and where God speaks from and who indeed speaks of the truth of how God works in the world. Because indeed, God’s faithfulness is shown through a Moabite woman and through her mother-in-law and to have a story about a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law representing God, well, I think that’s a pretty good thing.
So let’s take a little bit of a deeper look at this text. As we enter into the story, we encounter the woman who- though the book is not named for her- really is the central character in many ways, Naomi. Naomi, we are told, has moved to this new land, has sojourned as so many of her own ancestors had done and migrated due to the constraints and the realities of poverty and lack of food, and she finds herself as a foreigner in a new land.
Her sons take women from Moab (echoing what has happened in the book of Judges), and there is a type of violence, and yet even in the midst of this violence, these women, when their husbands die, leaving them with no children after 10 years, (which wouldn’t have been a good thing for anybody) they choose one another. All the men are gone and now suddenly two Moabite woman and a Jewish woman, look at each other saying, “What do we do now?” And many of you know this, but contextually at this time to be a woman whose husband and sons had died and you’re in another land, well, you are left with nothing. It’s not like you can go get a job. It’s not like you have some inheritance or there’s a social welfare system that’s going to take care of you. They were in dire circumstances, constrained in so many ways.
And what I love about this story is that the way that it represents how grace actually shows up. Grace doesn’t have to look like, “Oh, I trust and I know all of it will be okay,” for grace is much more vulnerable and liminal than that. Instead, grace is that which enables us to put one step in front of the other as little bit by little bit we continue to move forward. And in this moment, in the midst of this grief, in the midst of this vulnerability, Naomi makes a decision. A decision of courage, a decision to go back to her people and see what might happen. In this text she, like Job, calls out to God and says, “God (Shaddai- the mighty one), this isn’t just! Here I am: you’ve left me with nothing. My daughters-in-law are barren. My sons have died. My husband has died too. I have nothing. And now God almighty, where are you? Why have you not shown up?”
And also like Job, she calls out and cries to God, calling God to account. And in this way she is critiquing the system that has left her with nothing and asking for God to save her in the midst of the injustice.
This is a story about how grace shows up, that this woman is able to name the actuality of her experience, both in her pronunciation to God, “God, where are you?” but also in her naming of herself honestly. As she comes back to her community, she tells them, “Don’t call me by Naomi anymore call me Mara.” Names matter in the Jewish community and for her to name herself not as “Joy,” which Naomi means, but to name herself as one who is bitter is to acknowledge that her circumstances in which she finds herself have constrained her to such a point that she’s like, “My name isn’t even recognizable to me anymore,” and yet in the midst of this moment she still continues onward.
Naomi names with honestly what she’s holding and struggling to encounter and live with. She names this…and yet she still persists. And while we don’t know all of what she’s feeling or all of what she’s experiencing, it very well might be that she’s trying to get her daughters-in-law to leave her alone because she doesn’t really want to go home with two Moabite foreigners like, “Hey, it’s me, Naomi, will you take me in along with these other two women who just happened to be from like a tribe we hate and everything.” That might be why she tells them not to come with her. It might be that she is aware that she has nothing for them. That indeed, as is written here in the text, she says, “What do you think? I can have more sons who then will take care of you?” As would have been a custom and possibility at the time.
It is impossible for her. And so she tells them, “Listen, you’ve been faithful in the way that God is faithful to God’s people (hesed). Go back to your family and be free and blessed.” And so, one of her daughters-in-law does indeed go… and there’s no judgment of her in the text. She goes back to her people, but her other daughter-in-law says, “No, I’m coming with you anyway.” And she aligns herself with her mother-in-law and exclaims, “Now you are my people. Your kin are my kin. Your God is my God.” And Naomi doesn’t say anything in response. We don’t know why she doesn’t say anything. Maybe she was like, “All right, fine, you, when I’m done arguing, I’ve already lost everything. I’m not going to argue with some Moabite woman. Just fine, come with me. Just leave me alone.”
Or maybe something else is going on.
Maybe she’s been persuaded and convinced. Maybe there’s a glimmering of hope in her that maybe grace hasn’t left her: maybe she’s not abandoned, but she doesn’t want to go there yet because she’s afraid. We don’t know exactly why or what is happening, yet throughout the next chapters, the story evidences grace: the grace that enables us to be bold, not because we know the end of the story, but because little bit by little bit we’re able to take one step and then another. And Naomi is an embodiment of this kind of boldness, a boldness that that keeps breathing. A boldness that chooses to love her daughter-in-law even though her daughter-in-law is from a people who are hated her people. A boldness of a woman who connives and schemes with the resources she has and calls God to account and who lives out that sort of faithfulness and, in so doing, reminds her community, and us through them, that we belong to one another.
Naomi lives this boldness by existing and persisting and resisting the things around her that are constraining her. She bears witness to a grace that holds space for us to be human too. A grace that reminds us that in these times to be bold doesn’t mean that we are individually going to come up with a cure for Coronavirus. To be bold doesn’t mean that we are going to find all of the ways to heal all of the ills of the world. But to be bold is to choose love. To be bold is to refuse the witness of the book of Judges, where we all just do whatever we think is right. No, instead it’s a boldness that seeks to live more deeply in alignment with God’s vision of community and faithfulness. It’s a boldness that seeks to live out God’s vision of kingdom and God’s vision of how grace actually saves us.
So how about you?
What’s the story in your own life and the realities where maybe, like Naomi, you find yourself feeling some barrenness? Asking: does God still care? You’ve wondered if God’s way of wanting us to align ourselves as humans and as Christian community doesn’t look like the things you think it ought to look like. If you’ve had any of the questions, feelings, or experiences: Welcome to being human with the rest of us.
My friends, might we turn to the story of Naomi, a story about a woman who kept going. A woman whose boldness looked like that kind of persistence. Whose boldness looked like that kind of faithfulness. Whose boldness looked like that kind of trust. Whose boldness makes clear to us that “Grace, Actually Makes us Bold.”
Grace makes us bold to be the people of God, to bear witness to a God whose faithfulness crosses all generations and all divisions. It makes us bold to ask for what we need. To turn to one another, to refuse the exclusions and to remember that grace will actually be present with us. In this story, God’s grace shows up through real people and God’s grace continues to show up through real people even until this day.
So how is God asking and inviting you and me and us collectively to be the church by bearing witness to the grace, the grace that actually makes us bold?
Bold enough to keep believing and living our lives in hesed faithfulness to the God who is and was and is to come. Bold enough to love and have concern for our neighbors so that the story we might tell each other might be, like Ruth, one of some real people (with names remembered by history or not) who chose to be the people of God in a time of pandemic.
May it be so, and may grace, indeed, make us bold.
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