Sermon Seeds: Wherever You Go
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Wherever You Go
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Like the Book of Job, the story of Ruth really needs to be read from beginning to end in order to understand even these beginning verses, so familiar to just about anyone who has ever attended a wedding. Fortunately, the Book of Ruth is much shorter than the Book of Job, about the length of a modern short story, and its meaning for us today lies between the lines rather than in its probable meaning for a culture long ago and far away from our own. Of course, the meaning “between the lines” is there in every age, as God speaks to us in marvelous and mysterious ways, right here in the midst of our own purposes and our own life stories.
The narrative as a whole explains, and perhaps justifies, the ancient practice of levirate law, in which the nearest male relative of a dead husband was required to marry (and therefore protect and provide for) his relative’s widow. However, it might also represent a response and a critique of the exilic laws that forbade Israelite men from marrying foreign women. According to David Watson, we find in Ezra 9-10 purity prohibitions against such marriages, in fact, foreign women and children, who were considered “unclean,” weren’t even permitted to live in the midst of the people of Israel.
One thinks, of course, of how often religious laws are used in every time, including our own, to define some of God’s children as “unclean” or “unacceptable.” However, Watson suggests that the lovely story of Ruth, set in a time of violence and lawlessness, is more “welcoming” of foreigners, and emphasizes faithfulness rather than purity as what matters most (New Proclamation Year B 2009). What great counterpoint to such a law, right within the canon itself, for Ruth is nothing less than heroic in her actions and her fierce determination. How could anyone object to a marriage to a woman of such exemplary faithfulness and profound goodness?
Artistry and feeling
Between the lines, and in a powerfully moving way, the narrator of the book of Ruth tells a story with great artistry and deep feeling. The characters that really matter, even more than the powerful Boaz (who would typically be the hero of the piece), are those most on the margins, the least powerful, those with the fewest resources except for their wits, their determination, their faithfulness to each other.
Perhaps in every age a foreigner is seen as a threat or a problem; perhaps in every age some people think they need to “protect” themselves from “the other” (just think of our current controversies over issues related to immigrants, migrants, and refugees, especially – but not only – from Syria, Mexico and Central America); certainly, in every age there are those who have to glean from the edges of the excess (or leftovers) of others just so that they can survive from one day to the next. Perhaps in every age and every culture, and too easily forgotten in an age when a few (just a few) women have reached high places of power and authority, women still suffer from sexism and even misogyny embedded in patriarchal institutions and traditions that render them voiceless and powerless, and yet still they survive and thrive and look after one another and their young.
The system doesn’t always work
In such a patriarchal society, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth are nobodies once their husbands die. The system collapses for them, and they have to resort to last resorts, that is, the young women should return to living with their parents; the text curiously refers to the houses of their mothers, so they may be fatherless as well. Unfortunately, their worth on the marriage market is now compromised, and the old woman, Naomi, the “bitter” one, can only return to her people, it seems, to live out her days without the promise of anything new, without the prospect of delight once again in her life. In fact, it appears that her life is over because her husband’s life is over.
At this moment, Naomi thinks first of the welfare of the two younger women traveling with her, leaving their homeland behind them and hoping that somehow Bethlehem, “the house of bread,” will be a place to find nourishment and safety and a new life. Naomi assesses the situation, makes a decision not in her own best interest, and tries to send them back home. She does this with a word of blessing, which is in itself a kind of theological statement: John Hamlin observes that Naomi’s blessing suggests that “the Narrator” of this story believes that “the circle of Yahweh’s steadfast love is as wide as the earth and is present among all peoples” (Ruth: Surely There Is a Future). Naomi’s God is an inclusive, expansive God, even in the midst of suffering and want, even when Naomi feels that God has abandoned her (1:13).
A story of tears while doing the reasonable thing
We may know the story of Orpah’s tears and her turning back home. No one can blame her, of course, because she’s doing the reasonable and rational thing for someone on the edge of survival. However, we are more likely to know the story of Ruth’s incomprehensible and stunning declaration of a covenant commitment that puts many marriages, both contemporary and historical, to shame: she promises lifelong faithfulness, support and care to this bitter old woman, not even her own kin, a foreigner to her and her people.
The family of Naomi is in a distant land because they were driven there to survive a famine: need and desperation drove them to be aliens in a strange land. Now, in turn, Ruth puts herself second to the needs of this other woman, and promises to make a life with her in a land foreign to her but holding the promises of a God she does not know. “Your God will be my God,” she says, and what a response from God, who makes her the foremother of David, the ancestor of Jesus, and, in faith, of each of us!
Ruth, like Abraham and Sarah
Here we might make an interesting comparison of Ruth to Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch who left their homeland and all that was familiar, trusting in the promises of God and becoming the ancestors of a great people they would never see, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Of course, Ruth didn’t have the advantage of a direct conversation with God, but then a call from God can come in many different ways. Like Abraham and Sarah, Ruth takes that uncertain journey into the unknown and the unfamiliar, trusting in God, and in doing so, becomes an important part of the story of the people she embraces as her own. Surely she never imagined such a thing! Lawrence Farris observes that “Abraham became the father of a nation, [but] Ruth will be the mother of its line of kings.”
I’ve sometimes wondered what inspired such loyalty in Ruth toward Naomi, whose best side is perhaps not so obvious by the time we meet her. We can imagine what their relationship back in Moab, as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, might have been; perhaps Naomi had been particularly kind and even motherly to Ruth and Orpah. In any case, Farris suggests that Naomi had a kind of faith that inspired Ruth, a stubborn (even though it sounds more like resigned) faith that led Ruth to her own new life, in a new place, in a new people (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
The image of God in unexpected people
This simple yet beautiful story leads us to deeper reflection on the experience of refugees and immigrants, and on the pressing need for survival that impels them to leave home. It may also suggest, as feminist theologians have observed, that God often chooses the most unexpected places and times to let one of us “clay pots” reveal the treasure within, the image of God, in which we were created: who would expect that a woman of a historic faith, one of God’s own people, might encounter the image of God in the unconditional, faithful love of a pagan widow, a foreigner on a lonely and perilous road in a place far from home?
Another approach to the text might be a reflection on the covenant commitment of marriage, since so many weddings incorporate this reading because of its beautiful pledge of faithfulness: on a dusty road on the way to Bethlehem, a young pagan woman, utterly low in the social class structure, powerless and yet remembered even today for her fierce loyalty and her tenderness of heart, makes promises that couples today so easily repeat and then find so hard to fulfill. That these promises were made by one woman to another woman is rarely acknowledged. It makes us think twice about the beauty of families of all kinds, and the promises that hold them together, no matter what.
Risking the new and the different
Gary Charles observes that Ruth faces formidable challenges in continuing this journey to a place where everything would be different, from food and language to religious and social practices, and her unfamiliarity with all of these things would mark her as an outsider (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4), much as today we might recognize someone as “not from around here” by their accent. She was definitely leaving her comfort zone behind.
Remember that the people of Israel were forbidden from dealing with the Moabites in any positive way (even though Moses himself was buried in Moab): Deuteronomy 23:6 warns Naomi’s people, “You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.” Judette Gallares provides this translation of that text: “You shall never share your prosperity or happiness with these peoples” (Images of Faith: Spirituality of Women in the Old Testament). What great irony and deep poignancy, then, that Ruth is willing to share Naomi’s desperate poverty and uncertain future, at a time when prosperity and happiness seem a distant memory for them both.
God at work in unspectacular ways
God is certainly at work here, in subtle but powerful ways, even if seas do not part and manna does not fall from the sky. Farris sees God’s own faithfulness in Ruth’s faithfulness, and God’s lovingkindness embodied in the tender and faithful care Ruth offers Naomi; hesed, or lovingkindness, is at the heart of this story just as it is at the heart of God’s covenant with the people, and at the heart of discipleship today. Farris then recalls the poignant question Jesus was asked by his disciples in the Gospel of John: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (6:68). Ruth and Israel, he writes, “cling” to God and refuse to “turn aside,” to go to someone else, to other options, even if these make more sense in the eyes of the world (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Gary Charles connects this kind of faithfulness with another Gospel text, when Jesus asks his disciples “to cling to him” rather than the things and beliefs that they hold dear. In a world and a church that are both deeply, lamentably “polarized,” Charles writes, we can learn some important lessons from this foreigner, this outsider, this lowly widow, about reaching beyond our own protective walls and opening ourselves to unexpected and new life (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). What possibilities lie in this text for a sermon preached in the midst of such a divisive political climate, early in an election process? (See a thought-provoking commentary at Commentary: Why Preach an Election Sermon? http://www.ucc.org/commentary-why-preach-an)
A time for re-commitment to the covenant
Dale Andrews reminds us that Orpah makes a reasonable decision in returning home, not an unloving or cowardly or selfish one, but Ruth offers Naomi “the extra measure” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). We might say that she goes “the extra mile.” This is a beautiful theme for the time of year when many churches ask their members and friends to re-commit to the mission of God as it is lived out in their congregation and in the wider church as well. In fact, our pledge of time, talent, and treasure in the coming year is a renewal of covenant promises like the renewal of marriage vows. Out of love and commitment, we look back in love and gratitude, and then look forward in love and hope, even in the face of uncertain and challenging circumstances, and re-state our promise of faithfulness to the covenant we share in the church. We can join Ruth and Naomi on the road, during a difficult economic time ourselves, and offer the gift of ourselves in return for the many gifts God has given us. (Perhaps it’s no wonder that our giving beyond the basic pledge is called “second-mile giving.”)
June Jordan has written a lovely essay on this exquisitely beautiful text, “Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan: One Love” (in Women Writers on the Bible). Her reflection comes from her experience of the love and care provided by her friends during her fight against breast cancer. She recognizes the difficult and courageous decisions made by Ruth and Naomi, two women who have far less power and place than David and Jonathan (although she recognizes the beauty of the love of these two friends, too). Naomi and Ruth, she writes, “could not ride horses into battle and slay the sources of their grief or slay the enemies of their joy.” They were poor women, not princes, but their love was every bit “the equal” of those two more famous and more powerful men. Ironically, we don’t remember Ruth for her political greatness but for being the mother of the grandfather of King David himself. We also remember her, Jordan writes, for the kind of love she showed Naomi, a “love that takes you to its bosom and that saves your life” (Women Writers on the Bible). No wonder, then, that Ruth’s name means “Beloved.”
How does this ancient story of Ruth enrich our appreciation for each time our church has stood with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst? How are we striving, in the United Church of Christ, in your own congregation, to make promises that we will keep purely out of love and faithfulness, in spite of societal pressure and conventional wisdom that might direct us, like Orpah, to more comfortable, more reasonable, and safer places? How does this text shine a light on the edges of our communities, and what, or whom, does it illuminate there? What sort of faith do you think Ruth had? What do you think was her image of God? Why does Ruth’s place in history as an ancestor of David matter?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Unknown, perhaps Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 18th century
“If all my friends were to jump off a bridge, I wouldn’t follow. I’d be at the bottom to catch them when they fall.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“Spread love everywhere you go: First of all in your own house…let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 20th century
“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin–-to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours–-closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is.”
Confucius, 6th century B.C.E.
“Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.”
Paul Carvel, 20th century
“Faithfulness lives where love is stronger than instinct.”
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, 21st century
“The book of Ruth honors the loyal bonds between women. To care for one another reaps the harvest of love. Ruth’s empathy and toil gives birth to authentic power.”
Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg, 20th century
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”
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. 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 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, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
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. 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. 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. 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. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 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? 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, 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.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 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.
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!”
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Praise be to God!
Praise God, O my soul!
I will praise God
as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God
all my life long.
Do not put your trust in nobles, in mortals,
in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs,
they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans shall perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Sovereign their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea,
and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners free;
God opens the eyes of those
who cannot see.
God lifts up those who are bowed down;
God loves those who are righteous.
God watches over the strangers;
and upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.
The Sovereign will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise be to God!
Now this is the commandment — the statutes and the ordinances — that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of God.
Happy are those who keep God’s decrees,
who seek God with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
but walk in God’s ways.
You have commanded that all your precepts
shall be kept with diligence.
O that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous ordinances.
I will observe your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.