Weekly Seeds: Keeping Commitments

Sunday, October 31, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Keeping Commitments

Focus Prayer:
Beloved Companion, you deal with us kindly in steadfast love, lifting up those bent low with care and sustaining the weak and oppressed. Release us from our anxious fears, that we, holding fast to your commandments, may honor you with all that we are and all that we have. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Ruth 1:1–18
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Ruth 1:1–18 and Psalm 146
Deuteronomy 6:1–9 and Psalm 119:1–8
Hebrews 9:11–14
Mark 12:28–34

Focus Questions:

  1. What relationships do you most value?
  2. What inspires you to make a commitment?
  3. How have your commitments changed over time?
  4. How do you renew commitments?
  5. What prompts you to alter your commitments?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Every so often on social media, I will see a meme that exhorts women (It’s always only women.) to wait for their Boaz. The idea is that women who are searching for a partner (again, it’s always only presented in this light) should be patient and wait for a man (of means, status, and position) to choose them. If only they’ll change their behavior and actions, they will be found by their version of Boaz.

Of course, that’s not how the story goes.

The details of the story tell a very different narrative of how that relationship developed. Even more importantly, this story is not about Boaz. It’s about Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi:
Ruth occupies a unique place in the biblical canons in that it is the only book to be named after a foreign woman. Its title and Moabite heroine immediately raise questions of gender, ethnicipty, and otherness. These thorny issues, however, are taken up subtly and are sometimes even obscured, in a story that on the surface reads like an idyll. Literary and ideological sensitivity therefore are necessary to appreciate more fully the complex dimensions of the text, some of which are in tension with one another….
At the center of this drama stands Naomi, who has been stripped of everything that gives her life meaning and security. And it takes the loyalty and resourcefulness of another woman, her daughter-in-law Ruth, to reconnect Naomi to her kinsman Boaz and reintegrate her within her community. Remarkably, this ancient story dwells extensively on women’s experience and women’s voices.”(Eunny P. Lee)
One of only two books in the biblical corpus to be named after a woman and the only one to be named after a foreign woman, the book of Ruth is far more than a simple love story or even an ancient version of Thelma and Louise. It’s part of an epic story in which it’s role is to upend cultural norms and presuppositions.

This tale isn’t about finding Boaz…it’s about being Naomi and being Ruth.

The passage begins by situating this particular story within the history of Israel as well as a particular family dynamic. Judges and a famine governed the day and a family has been disrupted by the death of its patriarch and his heirs. The matriarch, Naomi remains along with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Traditionally, the younger women would have returned to their families. That is the course that Orpah takes, but Ruth has a different plan. Ruth chooses to remain with the matriarch of the family. It does not matter to Ruth that Naomi does not have other sons to marry. (Custom would have obliged any living male child to marry the widow of his deceased brother.) Ruth does not concern herself with Naomi’s lack of obvious material wealth and resources. Ruth commits to Naomi and persists despites the elder’s objections. Ruth does not ignore them or refute them, she simply and emphatically declares her commitment to Naomi.

That commitment flouts cultural norms, but the marriages of Ruth and Orpah to Naomi’s sons already set that precedent within their household:
Although the preferred marriage in Israel was within one’s family lineage and ethnic group (known as endogamy), Mahlon and Chilion espoused Moabite women. Marriages with foreign women were often disparaged in Israel, because they were thought to lead to idolatry (1 Kgs. 11;18). Moabite women were especially censured for using their sexuality to lead Israel astray (Num. 25:1–5). During the Persian period, the marital policies of Ezra and Nehemiah condemned intermarriage with foreign women (Ezra 9–10; Neh. 13:23–31). Some scholars think that the book of Ruth was written to counteract their strict interdictions, by highlighting a Moabite female convert to Israel, one who will be the ancestress to King David. (Gale A. Yee)
Ruth turns the table again as she maintains her connection to a family as well as to a people. She had decided to abide with Ruth. She promises loyalty, fidelity, and presence for life. Confronted with such resolve, Naomi ends her objections.

The little evidence we have points to a close and loving connection between Naomi and her daughter-in-laws. They weep upon the suggestion of separation, perhaps in part due to their grief at the deaths of their respective husbands, but mainly at the potential loss of one another. Among them, Ruth choses another way. She will not concede to the demands of society in face of her circumstances and Naomi’s condition. Those tears almost certainly responded to fear of the unknown, the prospect of ill treatment by whomever they might persuade to take them in. Ruth will not be passive in her destiny. She will determine it, face it squarely, and keep her commitments along the way.

This story is one instigated through grief and monumental loss. At the center of that grief is Naomi, who has lost everything in much the same way as Job and Job’s Wife. She has lost both husband and children, and, as a consequence of those losses, has everything else in her life taken away…even her hope. Her only remaining possessions are bitterness and despair, and they are in abundant supply.

In fact, all that Naomi can see is what she has lost. She even views herself through that lens. She does not value herself as a person in her own right, she mourns the positions she no longer occupies and cannot imagine anyone wanting her presence alone. Ruth offers unconditional and unreserved love to Naomi. It’s both a promise and a gift. As Jessica Tate notes:
breast. At the end of ch. 1, we are left with Naomi’s emptiness. This is where we so often find ourselves—with a scary diagnosis, a relationship crumbling, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. We find ourselves in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if, our fortunes, our security, our confidence, our hope will be restored. We are left with simply a promise—a promise that we are not alone. It is a promise that finds incarnation in Ruth. Ruth will cling to Naomi no matter what. She will be with her wherever she goes, wherever she lives, wherever she dies. This text leaves us unsure of how the story ends but confident that Naomi does not face her emptiness alone. Ruth clings to her, refusing to let her go. That is God’s promise to us, as well—that God will be with us no matter what. It is the promise of our faith: That nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God.
We, too, continue to live through uncertain times, surrounded by loss–of loved ones, of community, and of way of life. The pandemic continues as do other challenges such as climate change, the rise of white nationalism, and economic insecurity that do not have an anticipated end date. There’s so much we don’t know. In our faith communities, many of us are evaluating the resources for ministry that will be available in the coming year and our balance sheets fall short of the need and even shorter of the hope for making a meaningful impact within and beyond our doors. Attendance may be dwindling and the bone-weariness of the faithful may be discouraging, but sometimes we focus on empty seats so much that we forget to celebrate those who remain. We too can discount our value as our conditions change.

But, conditions change. That’s a fact and pattern of life. Our circumstances never remain stagnant, and we cannot make them. Gilbert Rendle challenges us to consider the following: “What if the questions we now face are not the product of things gone wrong but rather of the world grown different?” Later, he goes on to say, “We need a hope that is made wise by experience and is undaunted by disappointment. We need an anxiety about the future that shows us new ways to look at new things but does not unnerve us.” Ruth embodies that hopeful forward facing toward the future.

Ruth also reminds us that we can embody the love and presence of God for one another. In grief, there is perhaps no greater gift than the ministry of presence. Showing up and companioning with our kin in the experience of loss reflects the abiding of God with us. And, Ruth’s persistent pursuit of companionship foreshadows the persistent pursuit of the Incarnational Christ, descendant of her line, who breaks into the world because God’s love will not let us go.

We don’t have to let go of one another either. We can perceive and affirm the value and worth of every sibling in creation even when they object. We too can make and keep the commitment to abide in community with one another no matter what the future holds and circumstances prescribe. We can dispel someone’s isolation. We can share one another’s burden. We can confront the future…keeping commitments.

For further reflection:
“Genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment…’dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love — which is to transform us.’ Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling.” — bell hooks
“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and ‘loaded with promises and commitments’ that we may or may not want or keep.”— Cheryl Strayed
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.