Naomi and Elimelech were a young couple who lived in Bethlehem about five centuries before Jesus’ time. They had two sons. The country of Moab was to the East and as often happens, there were frequent border disputes. There was famine that covered all of Judah. It was a hard famine. It lasted a long time. There was no water, no work, no food, even in Bethlehem, which ironically means House of Bread. You can imagine the awful jokes tinged with sarcasm. After a long time of trying to wait out the famine, and growing ever more fearful for their sons’ lives, they did what the hard pressed always do and still do. They left. They emigrated. They went to Moab. The Moabites didn’t really want them. They were viewed and treated as, less than, as other than whole and human. But they did what immigrants do all the time. They made do. And their sons made friends with Moabites and became acculturated into Moabite culture. Their sons even took Moabite wives. For ten years, things went well for this extended Jewish and Moabite family. It wasn’t perfect. Neither of the sons produced children. They weren’t fully accepted. But it went well enough. And then tragedy struck. First, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her sons and daughters- in-law. Then both sons died, one right after another. And in a time when to be a widow was almost a death sentence, there were three grieving widows, with no men to help them navigate a culture that was really, really, harsh on women. After a while, Naomi heard the famine in Judah had lifted and after struggling long and hard, decided she would return to her own people and hope family ties would provide enough to get by on. Both of her daughters in law insisted on going with her. At first Naomi agreed. But then she realized that Orpah and Ruth would face a hard time as Moabites in Judah, much like she and Elimelech had faced in Moab. And to make matters worse, they would be women, with no men to pave the way for them. She told them both to return to their family homes and blessed them saying: May the Lord be as kind to you as you have been to me. And may you find security in marrying again. Both women protested, saying they wanted to take care of Naomi. They ached for her. She had lost her whole family and no way to take care of herself. But Naomi worried about these young women, too, and she insisted they return to their family homes. Orpah finally relented. She left. But Ruth. Ruth was fiery, and stubborn and loyal. I know a lot of Orpah’s. They are wonderful caring people. I have been amused and frustrated to know my fair share of Ruth’s too. And when I mentioned this to some of my friends, they muttered: tell me about it. Other friends tried hard to keep a straight face before they doubled over laughing. So yes. Ruth was loyal and strong and stubborn. And she cared deeply about Naomi. Naomi was touched and yet she would plead with Ruth: I have no more sons for you. I can’t take care of you. Please go home. Ruth finally got tired of this conversation and spoke those words that have resonated in the recesses of my brain for decades: 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 I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more as well, even if we are separated by death!
What could Naomi do in the face of such fierce love? What could she do in the face of such determination? She stopped bothering her. On they went. Together they returned to Bethlehem. They arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest. It was the custom at the time to leave gleanings, or the less desirable parts of the plants for the poor to take. Ruth asked Naomi if she could go to the fields to glean. Naomi said yes. Ruth went to glean and ended up in the field owned by Boaz, who was a distant cousin of Naomi. Boaz came to inspect the field and asked the over seer: who is that? She told him how Ruth had insisted on taking care of Naomi, even when she didn’t have to, even though they were not blood relatives. When he heard this, he told Ruth to stay close to the workers on his land and they would take care of her. She continued to work the fields. The other workers were told to leave more for her than they normally would and Ruth took the extra home to Naomi. They would not starve. But the harvest ended. And there was uncertainty once again. So Naomi, ever mindful of all of the work Ruth was doing on her behalf, took her aside and said: you need to do what I tell you to do. Don’t question me. And she persuaded Ruth to have a word with Boaz. Boaz was an older man, and knew that Ruth had not chased after younger men, so as to not sully Naomi’s name. Boaz took Ruth as his wife. And shortly thereafter, they had a son. They named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse, who became the father of King David.
This short story moves me in so many ways. My heart almost breaks with how deeply these two women care for each other. Their relationship transcended race and culture. When most people make some calculation about cost or time, this relationship was based on compassion. Both treated the other with care and compassion. That’s one thing that moves me. The second thing that moves me is how each left what they knew and found a home in each other’s country and company, despite deeply trying times. Naomi leaves Bethlehem first, makes a home in another country where she is barely tolerated, and after more than a decade abroad comes home broken, to a country that had changed. And yet. She had Ruth. Ruth risks going to a country where SHE will be barely tolerated, in order to take care of her beloved mother- in-law. They both experienced tremendous upheaval. But ultimately do fine. They were both “other” at different times during this story. This story also leaves me with compelling questions: I wonder who the Ruth’s and Naomi’s are today? Mexican Americans living in south Texas, or Chester County Pennsylvania? Who are those who leave their home countries because living conditions were so intolerable they simply have to? What happens when they sort of acculturate? When their adopted country becomes home, sort of but not quite? Nepantla is a word among the Mexican Americans living in the southwest US. It means caught between two worlds, never belonging to either. I imagine Both Ruth and Naomi knew what that felt like. And yet. God used them. God uses all of us. God breaks down all of the barriers, to further God’s kingdom. The outsider Ruth becomes King David’s great grandmother. That’s a jeopardy question by the way…..All of the pain, all of the leaving and going and coming, all of the upheaval—it’s all okay as long as we remember we belong to each other, as long as we trust that God walks with us. Not only will it be okay, but new life finally comes out of it. At times you wonder. Naomi clearly did. Go back, she tells Orpah and Ruth. Go back. One did. You can’t blame her. But the one who moved forward—she has a son, who has a son who has a son….eventually we get to Jesus, a direct descendant of Ruth, the Moabite woman. How cool is that?
I titled this sermon: will I follow? I think a better title is: Who or what will I follow? Because we all follow something or someone. Some will follow the path of least resistance. Others will follow a little voice in their hearts that says there are no strangers here and caring for the least of these—the widows—the elderly widows is the highest good. That’s what Jesus preached—Jesus, a descendent of a Moabite woman. He lived a love for the least of these. They were the ones he noticed and looked after first. He cared for all. He even healed the Centurion’s slave. But he really loved and looked after the most vulnerable. Two final points: As a Pastor, my first responsibility is for the least of these. And who the least of these are, changes—depends on context. Week to week, it could be different. Aside from this congregation, as a Christian, my heart is with those who are the most vulnerable. I know a bit of Spanish and am learning a bit of American Sign Language. I am going to Haiti. My passion for ministry continues to side with those who struggle the most. I have grown to love this congregation. I am honored by your faithfulness and by your faith in me. And it is my great hope that all of us will be in ministry together, reaching out to those are not quite welcomed or fully accepted in our country, in our work places, in our churches. By necessity, Naomi left her home, became an outsider, experienced tragedy and yet felt Ruth’s love and loyalty. Jesus, an heir to David, preached the good news to the poor and dispossessed. And we are heirs of both Ruth and Jesus. And for that I am grateful.