“God’s Grace in the Life of Ruth”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 27, 2017
12th Sunday after Pentecost
I love weddings. I love the beauty, the hope, and the possibilities they foreshadow for the future of two people who commit to join their lives one to the other. And I can be quite sentimental about them—so much so—I can cry at the wedding of strangers. In fact, I have been known to cry over many weddings portrayed on film. Just ask my husband! So…imagine my dilemma when I was asked to officiate at my very first wedding—that of our only daughter, Sarah. While I would have enjoyed playing the role of “mother of the bride,” sitting sweetly on the front pew of the church with tears streaming down my face—it was not to be.
When I began to prepare for the big day, there was one thing I knew for certain: If I cried, Sarah would lose it. So I knew I must not cry! And, sentimental fool that I am, what were the chances of that happening? Well, as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” so in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I enrolled in a crash course in the art of self-care. I meditated and prayed daily. I took long walks. I had frequent massages. I intentionally removed myself from as much stress as possible. Then, when the big day arrived, by the grace of God, there I stood before Sarah and her fiancé with joy and peace and “narry” a tear to shed. It was a miracle.
Since that day, I have officiated at many weddings, each, in their own way, a miracle to behold. And, interestingly, more than a few couples have chosen to include, as part of their wedding ceremony, words from the Book of Ruth: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” We may wonder why these words are often “taken out of context,” as it were. I believe it is because they are heartfelt words of unfathomable love—regardless of the fact that they are first uttered by a widowed daughter-in-law to her widowed mother-in-law.
The Book of Ruth is a Hebrew short story about the great-grandmother of King David. It is set in a dark time in Israel’s history. Moses and Joshua are long gone and kings of Israel like David and Solomon, are yet to come. These are the in between years of Israel’s history marked by all the people doing what is right in their own eyes.
In Bethlehem (which literally means “house of bread”) there is no bread. Consequently, Elimelech takes his wife, Naomi, along with their two sons, to find bread in a foreign land. But it is not just any foreign land, it is Moab and there is a long history of enmity between Israel and Moab. Yet, in time, the sons of Elimelech take wives from the land of Moab. Then, calamity strikes. Elimelech dies leaving Naomi a widow. Then, more tragedy occurs when both of Naomi’s sons die—leaving two widows in their wake. Destitute and broken hearted, a family is rent asunder.
The life of a widow in biblical times allows minimal prospects for living—let alone thriving. There will be no completion of an advanced degree, no joining the work force to make minimum wage. Things look dire, to say the least. As a result, Naomi encourages the women to return to their people and their god—perhaps to seek mercy from their own people. Orpah agrees and departs. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to leave Naomi’s side. Instead, she clings to her mother-in-law and makes one of the most remarkable pledges of loyalty in Scripture: “Where you go I will go, and 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.” Ruth, the woman from Moab, the foreigner, the enemy of Israel, demonstrates what the loyalty of God looks like. By word and by deed, she exhibits God’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Ruth’s incredible words of love and commitment redefine the meaning of family and faith for all time. Bloodline does not necessarily a family make. We see it played out now, maybe more than ever. In our modern-day mobile society, with jobs taking us from state to state, with divorce decimating over half of American families, traditional family events are often shared with fewer blood relatives and more “families” of our own making like neighbors and friends and co-workers. It brings to mind Jesus’ response to the question, “Who is my family?”
You remember the story. Jesus is speaking to the crowds when his mother and brothers come, likely to “talk some sense into him.” When he is told that they are standing outside, Jesus responds, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Through these words, Christ foretells of the Kingdom of God here on earth where gender, skin color, family history, and all that divides is rent asunder. Thanks be to God! God’s love covers it all. God’s love covers us all.
Ultimately, Ruth and Naomi, journey onward together. No doubt, their future looks grim, but looks can be deceiving, and often are when God’s provision ever so gently moves into action. And God’s nature is revealed as the Almighty who is concerned about the everyday life of humanity: the grief of a widow who has buried her husband and sons—the broken heart of a woman left childless, without a husband, and living in a strange land. In the end, Ruth puts her hope in Naomi and in Naomi’s God. Doing so is always a good idea!
When the women reach their destination, it is the beginning of the season of harvest—a season of opportunity—a season of optimism. With just a seed of hope in her heart, Naomi sends Ruth into the fields of a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband. There Ruth gathers up leftover barley and Boaz happens to notice her. Boaz goes out of his way to treat her with kindness, assuring her safety and provision. Evidently, his actions are enough to push Naomi’s matchmaking skills into high gear for soon she orchestrates another encounter. Hear these words found later in the Book of Ruth:
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”[i]
Following Naomi’s instructions to the letter, leads to the happy ending for which we have been yearning. Later, we learn:
Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.[ii]
With Ruth and Boaz a royal dynasty begins that will, eventually, include David and the very Son of God, Jesus the Christ—Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith—Jesus, God’s love revealed in human form! Emmanuel! God with us!
In preparation for our upcoming pilgrimage to Scotland and Iona, I have been reading (or as the case may be, re-reading) some of the works of John Philip Newell. Newell served as the churchwarden of Iona Abbey in Scotland for a time. Poet, scholar, teacher, he has written many books about Celtic Spirituality. In A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, he shares the following:
An American rabbi was once asked what he thought of the words attributed to Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The rabbi replied, “Oh, I agree with these words.” To which the surprised questioner asked further, “But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” “Because,” answered the rabbi, “I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father except through love.”[iii]
No one comes to the Father except through love. The story of Ruth is a story of love. Ruth becomes a wife again and Naomi becomes a grandmother. The story of Ruth is a story of God’s gracious hand at work in the details of life for those who put their trust in God. Ruth, a woman, a widow, a foreigner, puts her hope in Naomi and in Naomi’s God. Doing so is always a good idea!
[i] Ruth 3:1-5, NRSV.
[ii] Ruth 4:13-17, NRSV.
[iii] John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, 119.
*Cover Art “Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab” by William Blake via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain