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Determined to Go

Sunday, September 22, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Mark 12:28-34; Ruth 1:1-19

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“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.”  Many of us have heard this passage before possibly at a wedding. This is a popular passage at weddings because of its emphasis on commitment, loyalty, and love.  I’ve been to at least 4 weddings that have used this passage. The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship even has it on a list of suggested texts for readings during a wedding celebration.  Yet most of us forget that the background of this passage isn’t between a couple starting a new life together during a time of joy.  It’s between two women, a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, two widows in the midst of extreme stress, loss, and brokenness. 

Unfortunately, the book of Ruth is often forgotten by Bible readers.  It only shows up for one week in one cycle of the lectionary which means we only read it in church once every three years.  Ruth is known as a nice short story about the great grandmother of King David.  She is also known for being one of the five women in the Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  And that’s about it.  We don’t usually have the opportunity to spend too much time with Ruth or her story which is so unfortunate because it is so rich with theology and application to our world today.  

The story of Ruth is a story filled with loss and brokenness. You can see these themes just from reading this chapter. There is a famine in Israel which forces Naomi’s family to move to the foreign country of Moab, East of the Dead Sea.  And soon after, Naomi’s husband dies.  After ten years of carving out a life in a new, strange country, Naomi’s two sons die and she is left alone with her two daughters-in-law.  With nothing left, Naomi decides to return to her home country and her people.  This decision was not an easy one . She was being separated from the family she had grown to love and respect while creating a life in Moab.  But, Naomi knew that the world at the time was not kind to widows with no male relatives. S o she told Orpah and Ruth to leave her.  This is a story of loss and brokenness.  Loss of a home and sustenance and loss of family members.  And a broken community that was created while living in Moab.  Ruth does not start out as a happy tale. 

Ruth is also a story of redemption and hesed or steadfast love — the kind of love that God shows to us. There is no better description than the kind of love that God gives to us then hesed.  This type of love is loyal and endures forever. 

This is the type of love that Naomi asks God to give to Ruth and Orpah when they depart from her.  Naomi manages to convince one daughter-in-law to return to Moab, but Ruth chooses a different path.  Ruth refuses to leave and is determined to go with Naomi. In one of the most beautiful proclamations of loyalty and love in the Bible, instead of returning to where she is comfortable, Ruth chooses to create a new community with Naomi.  Even though Naomi begs Ruth to go, she stays which begins the story of redemption. 

For the next couple weeks, we will be focusing on Ruth.  Our sermon series is entitled “relating to the other: lessons from Dr. Ruth.”  Other can have many meanings.  It could mean your partner.  It could mean someone different from you.  It could be as general as just any person who is not you.  In order to understand it in this context, we need to take a closer look at Moab. 

Ruth was a Moabite.  Israel and Moab did not get along very well.  Moab had many different customs and worshipped many different gods.  Israel at that time would have considered Moab to be their enemy and they had a long history. When the Israelites first encountered Moab on the way to the Promised Land, Moab refused to let them pass through their land. Israel was forced to walk around them.  At different points in history, Moab occupied parts of Israel.  The relationship got so bad that at one point, Moab hired a man named Balaam to officially curse Israel.  But, the hatred Israel had for Moab went back to the very beginning of the country’s inception because of how Moab was started. Moab, the country’s founder, was born when Lot had a child with his daughter.  So not only was Moab a physical enemy of the Israelites, Moab was seen as immoral and unwanted in Israelite communities. 

Ruth would have been looked down on because of her Moabite heritage.  I can only imagine what it would be like to walk into a community of Israelites as an outsider from one of the most despised nations.  People would have underestimated Ruth and would not have expected her to make an impact.  In Ruth, the “other” is someone who you struggle with, may not always get along with, and you may underestimate. 

One of these people that may have underestimated Ruth is Naomi.  Scholars are undecided about why Noami asked that Ruth and Orpah leave her.  Naomi may have wanted to do what she thought was best for Ruth and Orpah.  It was too late for Naomi to marry again, but there was still time for Ruth and Orpah to have a better life if they returned to Moab.  Naomi may not have wanted the extra mouths to feed.  Or maybe Naomi worried about what people would think when she returned to Bethlehem.  If she returned to Bethlehem with a moabite family member, how would the people react?  Life certainly wouldn’t be easy for Ruth and Orpah in a town full of their enemies.  And maybe Naomi didn’t want a constant sign of her history in Moab.

Whatever the reason for Naomi’s request that Ruth and Orpah turn back, whether it be for their own good or Naomi not wanting to have to worry about them.  She asked them to turn back and leave her.  To not be a part of her future community. While, we aren’t in the exact situation Naomi was in and no one has run into the Biblical Moabites since the Persian Period, we can all relate to the idea of turning people away.  At some point in all of our lives, I guarantee that we have all disregarded someone or underestimated someone.  Maybe that person you disregarded has different political beliefs than you, maybe they didn’t share with you when you asked, or maybe you just find them annoying.  There is always someone in our lives, who we would consider to be a Moabite or an “other.”  Someone who we struggle with or underestimate.  

Yet, our story and theme for this series is studying what we can learn from these people we would consider to be “other.”  We learn that we can see God at work in people who are different than us.  Ruth is a shining example of the hesed or steadfast love that I mentioned earlier.  When Naomi prays that the Lord will deal kindly with Ruth and Orpah, the word she was using is hesed.  She hopes that God will show them God’s steadfast love. 

But what Naomi doesn’t realize is that God is actually using Ruth to show Naomi God’s steadfast love.  Ruth was neither legally required nor customarily expected to remain with her mother-in-law.  Her proclamation of loyalty is an act of hesed.   The first act of this type of love in the story.   Ruth’s action shows love that is above and beyond what is expected.   Ruth gives up her home, her family of origin, and the gods she had been raised to worship.  At this point in the story, there is no clear personal benefit for Ruth for her continued association with Naomi.  She acts out of selflessness, loyalty, and love. Ruth refused to leave Naomi during a tough time and sacrificed her life, cultural norms, and many of her beliefs to support, love, and be loyal to Naomi.  Naomi was so shocked by this, she didn’t even say anything more the Bible says.  God showed steadfast love and presence through Ruth, someone you would not expect. 

And we see in the very beginning of this story a call to willingness.  Willingness to listen to and engage in community with “others” — those we struggle with or under estimate.  Ruth wanted to enter into community with Naomi.  Ruth, an outsider, a representative from the group that Deuteronomy 23:3 refuses to “admit to the Assembly of God” is the agent that God is using to bring redemption to Naomi and her community. God uses community as a vehicle for redemption and love.  When we refuse or are hesitant to engage with people we underestimate, we could be missing out on an important opportunity for healing, growth, and love.  If Ruth had not stayed and created this new community, Naomi and her community would have missed out on God’s redemptive work. 

Ruth is a powerful story filled with brokenness and heartbreak but also redemption and love.  I’m excited that we get to continue dwelling in this story together over the next two weeks. We can learn so much from Ruth. We all have people like Ruth in our lives. Those who we would consider to be “others” in our lives.  People who we underestimate. People who we struggle with. People who we don’t always get along with.  Yet, one thing that we often forget is that God shows hesed, steadfast love, to us through “others.” Often these “others” are people we would never expect. While we walk through this story of Ruth, let’s all have an open mind and willingness to consider the “others” in our lives and how we should be making a community of hesed and redemption especially with “others.”