Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ruth: Faithfulness and the Other

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Ruth 1:1-18, 22:

My youngest daughter goes to the Nazarene preschool in Clovis.  This past week they held their spring concert and one of the classes, after singing their song, had the students recite some of the bible passages they had learned.  As they went down the row, that got to a little boy who couldn’t remember his line.  His mother was sitting down front and so she was trying to give him clues so that he might remember, but nothing was working so finally she just said, “I am the light of the world,” and so the little boy beamed and with great feeling and a clear voice he said, “oh yeah, My mother is the light of the world.”

Today we celebrate Mother’s day, and we celebrate not just those we call mom, but all the women in our lives who raised us and cared for us and were important in our development, for making us who we are. The idea was first proposed by Julia Ward Howe, who is best known for writing Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Howe wanted women to join together for a day of peace and a call for disarmament.  But, the first Mother’s Day as we know it was first celebrated at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, the precursor to the United Methodist Church, in 1908.  Anna Jarvis wanted to create a day to honor her mother, and through her to honor all mothers.

At the 1912 general Conference, which is the administrative body of the Methodist church, they called for Mother’s Day to be celebrated at all Methodist churches, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national celebration as a day to recognize all the women who had lost sons in war.  Unfortunately for Jarvis, by the 1920’s the holiday had become so commercialized in her mind that she began to regret having created the holiday.  But regardless of Jarvis’ feelings about the day she created, it is still the day in which we remember all the significant women in our lives, and today it is also the day in which it might be said that we reach the height of our sermon series on women in the Bible by looking at the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi.

Of the stories we have looked at so far, besides for Mary Magdalene, Ruth might be the best known, and she is significant for many reasons.  She is one of only two women to have a book in the Bible named after her.  The other is Esther, and since the women’s group is currently doing a study of that book, I really thought about covering Esther, but decided against it because the women would probably know more than I do and so would have to correct me after worship, and so I wanted to have to avoid that, for them and for me.  And so I went with Ruth, who is important to us as Christians because she is an ancestor of Jesus, and is listed in his genealogy, one of the few women included.

Others will know Ruth, even though they don’t know they know her, because of the famous words we heard this morning, “where you will go, I will go; where you will lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  That quote is often used in marriage ceremonies, and maybe appropriately so, except for the fact that it does not come from a wedding but instead from Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi, delivered from one woman to another, but that statement is really at the heart of this story of dedication and motherhood.

The story begins very similarly to other stories we find in the Bible, especially in stories of the patriarchs.  There is a famine in the land, and so some families are leaving in order to survive, but this story is a little different because this family is living in Bethlehem, which literally means “house of bread.”  There is no bread in the house of bread, and so Elimelech takes his wife and two sons to a foreign land.  The story begins by focusing on him.  Naomi is his wife, and it is his sons, but then there is a sudden change, and Naomi becomes the focus of the story, so that Elimelech is now referred to as her husband, and then it is about her sons.  She becomes the center of the story; indeed she is the referent by which others are referred, which marks this story as unusual.

But we are already given a hint that this is a story that is going to be about the women because we are told that the family are “Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.”  It is believed that Bethlehem was founded by the descendents of Ephrath, but Ephrath was not a man, she is a woman, and so we are again being given clues that this is a story about women and the descendents of certain women, and women of significance.  The only other time this phrase about Ephrathites is used in the Bible is in reference to David.  There is also a sort of ironic meaning to this usage as well, as the word Ephrath comes from a root word which means fertile or productive, and at the moment neither the land nor the sons are matching that description, although by the end of today’s reading, where there is a barley harvest, and by the end of Ruth, when she gives birth to a son, Obed, there is fertility in the land.

Elimelech and Naomi take their family to a foreign land, but it is not just any land that they go to, they go to Moab, which is the land occupied by historic enemies of the Israelites, even though they are also related to the Israelites.  In Genesis we are told that Lot is the nephew of Abraham.  After Lot escapes from Sodom and Gomorrah, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt, leaving him with his two daughters in the wilderness.  For some reason the daughters think that they are alone in the world, and so they get their father drunk and have relations with him in order to bear offspring.  The children born from this incestuous relationship are Moab and Ben-Ammi, the fathers of the Moabite and the Ammonites, two of the enemies of Israel.  Can you imagine either Obama or Romney accusing the other of being from an incestuous relationship?   This is the ultimate political slander.

So Naomi and her family go to settle in Moab, the land of their enemies, and while they are there her sons marry Moabite women, but then Elimelech and her sons all die leaving Naomi, Ruth and the other daughter in law Orpah, not to be confused with the name Oprah, all alone.  In the ancient world, women depended upon men for their identity and their very survival.  Without a male around their world appears pretty bleak.  The fact that Naomi wants to sent Ruth and Orpah back to their mother’s tents, rather than their fathers tent, may also indicate that they do not have any other male relatives either.

Neither Orpah nor Ruth wants to leave Naomi, but she tells them that she has nothing else to give them.  She has no other sons for them to marry which is from the Levirate marriage where brothers are obligated to marry their sister-in-law not only to provide them protection but also to allow for his brother’s name to continue.  But none of that is available, and so Naomi is trying to do what she thinks is right for the daughter-in-laws, she wants to send them back to their families and their people with hope that they might have some future their because she doesn’t foresee any future for herself, there is no sense of hope left for Naomi.  She wants to do what she thinks is right in her role as their mother, she is trying to protect them, but they don’t want to go.

It might be easy to look down our noses, or to think less of Orpah for leaving Naomi, but she is not unfaithful in what she does, it’s just that she is judged against Ruth who goes the extra mile in staying, in clinging to Naomi and then in eventually wearing Naomi down so that she allows Ruth to accompany her to go back to Bethlehem with her.  The Hebrew word being used here for faithfulness is hesed.  It is a word often used to describe God’s unmerited acts of grace and mercy.  So, to do hesed, is to show loyalty or love far beyond what is expected, or what the law requires.  It might be said that both Naomi and Ruth are showing hesed to each other in this situation, although clearly Ruth’s hesed is over the top and so Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, and they return at the beginning of the barley harvest, there is fruitfulness back in the house of bread.

Nothing is really said about who Ruth is until they return to Bethlehem, and then she begins to be referred to as Ruth the Moabite.  It is not clear why all of the sudden this distinction is made.  Is that how Naomi refers to her, or instead is this how the inhabitants of Bethlehem see her?  But regardless of why, Ruth is now identified as an outsider, as “one of those people.”  No matter what she has said to Naomi, no matter how much faithfulness, hesed, she shows, she is the other, she is a descendent of a group who are not thought of highly, and in fact in Deuteronomy we are told that Moabites and their descendents to the 10th generation are forbidden from entering “the assembly of the Lord.”  Being a Moabite in Israel would not be a good thing, and having been the foreign wife of an Israelite would put her in potentially an even worse situation.

There is a lot of debate about when the Book of Ruth was written.  Some say it dates to the time of David, and others put it to the time after the exodus at the time the Jews were returning to Israel.  In order to rebuild Jerusalem one of the things that Ezra and Nehemiah, who were the leaders of the people, did was to make foreign marriages illegal, and then tried to force Jewish men who had married foreign wives to abandon them and any children they had together.  They weren’t really concerned about Jewish women who had married foreign men, because they were sent away.  They hadn’t yet set it as Jewish law that you were born Jewish if your mother was Jewish, that comes later, although that law makes more sense than trying to look at genealogy though males.  You can read more about these activities in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

I am inclined to go with dating the writing to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah because Ruth stands in stark opposition to this other witness.  Ezra and Nehemiah are trying to say who is acceptable and who is not, and to try and purify the religion again.  But Ruth is sort of the minority report, or the dissenting opinion to what Ezra and Nehemiah are seeking to do, and the reason why it is the dissenting opinion is because what the book of Ruth tells us is that Ruth is the grandmother of David.  That is, the greatest king in Israel’s history is a descendant of a mixed marriage, and not just any mixed marriage but one with a Moabite, which is just about as bad as it gets.  But here it is nonetheless.  And, through David, then we also trace Jesus’ genealogy back through Ruth as well.  It turns out that God delivers the Israelites originally through this foreign woman.  This is one of those times in which we see that God does not break into the world through great miracles or supernatural events, but instead God breaks through one woman clinging to her mother-in-law and refusing to go back to her people, but instead following Naomi home.

The French are not held in high opinion by many people in this country today, but they have a historically important relationship with the United States, going all the way back to the Revolution.  In order to try and celebrate this relationship, French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi began a project to create and bring a sculptor to America which represented American independence and liberty.  He wanted it based on a roman figure of liberty and so began to look for a model to use for the sculpture, but he couldn’t come up with one with which he was happy.  Then he began thinking about what all people had in common, and that was mothers, and so he used his mother as his model.  His sculpture, as some of you know, is the Statue of Liberty, and lady liberties face is that of Bartholdi’s mother.  It is the mother’s face which represents the hope of a better future and the universality of all people.

King David descends from a woman, an enemy woman, who befriends a fellow widow and together they create a new future.  Naomi has no hope for the future when the story begins, which is the reason she wants to send Ruth and Orpah away, but Ruth refuses and she becomes the unexpected mother.  She becomes the unexpected form of salvation not only for Naomi but for Israel and through her family line she becomes the source of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ.  Ruth shows us the ways in which God’s providence manifests itself in ways that we could never possibly imagine, in ways that we can sometimes not even comprehend, and even in ways that we don’t think are acceptable.

There is not a single Jew, not a one, who, before this story, would have said that the greatest king, the head of a royal line that would bring the messiah, would be the descendant of any of the enemies of Israel, especially the Moabites.  For them, that would just be unheard of, unimaginable, that would not be God showing hesed to Israel.  But this is what happens, salvation comes from the most unlikely of people and the most unlikely of places, like a carpenter coming from a backwater village, who was executed by the Romans, who becomes the savior of the world.  It is an example of how God works in the world, and how God works through ordinary people.

The book of Ruth begins with a story of despair, and it quickly gets worse, only to be redeemed.  It is the story of two remarkable women who change their futures together, and through that change the future of Israel and then world.  They also represent a minority report that the attitudes towards the other, towards the outsider, are not held by everyone.  That there are some who consider these people friends and family.  They show us that while we can choose some relationships, that we do not get to choose our families, and sometimes they consist of the most remarkable people.

Isabella is a golden retriever who lives at the Safari Zoological Park in Kansas, and Isabella is the mother of three incredibly cute animals, but they are not three golden retrievers like their mother.  Instead they are tiger cubs.  The cubs were abandoned by their mother one day after they were born.  Tom Harvey, the zookeeper, said the cubs were wandering around their pen trying to find their mother, but she wouldn’t pay any attention to them, and so to allow them to survive, a new mother had to be found and that is where Isabella stepped in.  She had just recently weaned her own puppies, and took on the tiger cubs as if they were her own.  “The timing couldn’t be any better,” Harvey said, “and the mother doesn’t know the difference.”  Isabella not only nurses the tiger cubs, but also licks and cleans them, she, in fact, does everything that a mother should do for her cubs, or puppies.

Hesed means going above and beyond in faithfulness, loyalty and love.  One of the other ways that hesed sometimes gets translated is as saint.  Certainly we could easily include Ruth in that category because of her dedication, faithfulness and love expressed to Naomi.  Our own mothers might also qualify for sainthood, for hesed, for their dedication, faithfulness and love given to us.  But, I know that not all of us were graced with mothers who showed that dedication, some of us instead had mothers more like the mother of the tiger cubs, who, for whatever reason, could not express their love, could not give us hesed.  But, even with those who mothers were unable to express their love, I have yet to meet someone who did not have another woman in their live who didn’t take that role, who became like Isabella and took them under their wings, who, in many ways, became like Ruth, who provided us with new hope and a new future.

And so today we remember our saints, those who have been faithful, those who have given us unmerited love, those who have given us unending grace, and so I would like for us to take some time to name them, to name the women who have made a difference in our lives….

The story of Ruth begins in the midst of despair and tragedy and ends with the redemption of the people, and then the redemption of the world.  Ruth’s hesed, her dedication and love, even though she is the other, continue to be a shining example to all of us of what love, dedication and loyalty look like, an example lived it out in the lives of the women who have impacted us as well.  May we all take the time to express thanks to the saints in our lives, to lift their names up to God and to thank them for the difference they have made, and continue to make in our lives.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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