Rev. Christy Lang Hearlson
October 25, 2015
The Union Church in Waban
Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18
This past Friday night, some of us gathered here at church for Game Night. We played the game Catch Phrase, in which a player has to give clues to get others to guess a word or phrase. Part way through the evening, a player next to me gave this clue: “This is a famous person from the Bible!” To my utter delight, several voices at once shouted out, “JOB!”
In our sermon series this fall, Ancient Stories of a Living Faith, we are exploring stories from the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. We have just finished a three-week deep-dive into the mysterious, beautiful, and difficult book of Job. This week and next, we listen to the book of Ruth. Before we continue, let’s join our hearts in prayer.
Holy God, you who invite us to come close and listen, whisper now to us your living word, that we might hear it and be transformed more into your likeness. Amen.
In the days when the judges ruled. In the time of the judges. That is how the book of Ruth begins. The time of the judges is the time after the Hebrew people’s Exodus from Egypt, after their forty years spent wandering in the wilderness, and after they’ve settled in the Promised Land. In the time of the judges, there is no clear nation of Israel, just a lot of related Hebrew tribes who live a precarious existence in a harsh land. There is not yet any centralized government in Israel. The people don’t have a king—only occasional tribal leaders, “judges,” who try to pull the people together to defend against warring neighbors. There is famine and poverty. People are hungry. The Hebrew people are surrounded by other tribes and nations– enemies who invade them, who abduct their women and children, steal their crops and leave them to starve, who burn their homes. Enemies who import their religious deities and try to persuade the people to turn away from God. The time of the judges is a fearful time, a violent time. The news is always full of threats and death, wars and conflicts. The people live with uncertainty and anxiety. In the time of the judges, you can scarcely trust your neighbors, let alone foreigners, people from other nations.
At the start of Ruth, we hear that an ordinary Hebrew family is facing starvation. They’re from Bethlehem of Judah. Maybe drought or pests or blight are to blame. Maybe their crops were all stolen. Whatever the reason, there is nothing to eat. So this family does what they must—they uproot themselves and start to wander. They become migrant workers, refugees.
Elimilech, Naomi, and their two young sons. They carry their few belongings on their backs. Perhaps father and mother take turns carrying the youngest. They walk until their shoes fall apart, blankets draped over their shoulders, heading toward any rumor of food and security. They walk until they come to water—the Dead Sea—and then they pay more than they can afford to be packed into a boat with other desperate people and ferried across. On the other side, they cross the border into the country of Moab, hoping the patrols will leave them alone. Then they hike uphill, up into the mountains beside the Dead Sea. The mountains of Moab. Enemy territory.
Moab was just on the other side of the Dead Sea from Israel, and it was not a friendly neighbor. Except for in the book of Ruth, every time we hear about Moab in the Bible, it’s bad news. Moabites worship different gods. Moabite soldiers mistreat the Israelites. Moabite women seduce Israelite men. Everyone knows Moabites are not to be trusted. They are worse than foreigners. They are enemies. But Moab has food, and Judah does not. So this is where this family settles—in Moab.
Before long, Naomi’s husband dies. Now Naomi is a single immigrant mother of two sons, trying to survive in a hostile place. Surely she hopes her sons will carry on her faith, that they will somehow find good Hebrew wives. But instead they grow up and marry Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. Then, tragedy upon tragedy, the sons die, too. A few sentences into this story, and all that is left of this family is three weeping women, related to one another only by the tenuous bonds of marriages to men who have died.
And then word trickles through. The famine in Judah has ended. Naomi can go home. She blesses her foreign daughters-in-law and they gather together and weep. But then Ruth and Orpah refuse to abandon Naomi. “We’ll go with you to your people,” they say. But Naomi knows what it means to leave home, to be the poor migrant worker no one wants. She knows what it feels like to start over, to know nobody, to be disoriented all the time. Not only that—Naomi can imagine the looks on people’s faces when she drags into Bethlehem after all this time, no husband or sons in sight, just these foreign hangers-on. Worse off than when she left. No way. So for their sake and hers, Naomi says no to her daughters-in-law, and she makes her case: “You need husbands to survive,” she says, “And I don’t have any husbands to give you. God’s hand has turned against me. Why would you go with someone whom even God has rejected?”
Orpah leaves. But Ruth won’t let Naomi go. “Don’t tell me to leave you! Wherever you’re going, I will go. Your people—your people who are my people’s enemy—your people will be my people, too. Your God—this crummy-sounding God who has turned against you—that God will be my God. I’m never leaving you.”
This turn of events is so unlikely! Ruth, a Moabite woman, one of the supposed enemy – she makes this fierce promise of loyalty to Naomi, a Jewish woman—and not only to Naomi, but to Naomi’s people and country and God. Ruth will become what Naomi has been all these years—a foreigner, an immigrant. And Naomi relents. For good or ill, she will take this young woman home with her, become her advocate, and try to find a future for her. Naomi and Ruth—women of different generations, different ethnicities, different religions. And yet, these boundary-breaking, border-crossing, promise-making women become friends in the time of the judges.
The time of the judges—it passed away and became the stuff of legend. And yet maybe it’s never really passed. The news is full of threats and uncertainty. Drought and famine still stalk the land. Conflicts and wars send families scurrying for cover. Refugees clamor at borders. Women and children are left vulnerable and poor. Migrant workers wander in search of employment. People exclude and attack one another in the name of God. Perhaps we always live in the time of the judges.
And yet in this time of the judges, we here in this church are not exactly in Ruth and Naomi’s shoes, are we? We can sympathize with them, but we are, for the most part, safe, relatively wealthy, well-fed, and powerful. We can glance at pictures of refugees waiting at borders while we sip our morning coffee—coffee made from beans picked by poor laborers in another country that we might visit as tourists. We travel for fun or work or volunteerism, but not because we are fleeing war, not because we will otherwise starve. We have a social safety net that Naomi and Ruth do not. We may live in the time of the judges, but we’re not Ruth and Naomi.
And yet I think the book of Ruth may be what we need to hear—we who live secure in the time of the judges. I want to name just two ways Ruth’s story can challenge us to live as people of faith in the time of the judges. First, the book of Ruth challenges how we see those who are in need. As we watch the news, it is easy to begin to think of all those poor refugees, those homeless people, those migrant workers—masses of needy people who need our donations and our help. But in Ruth, the story draws our gaze to three particular women, three nobodies who could have been swept onto the dust heap of history but who are instead named. Naomi. Ruth. Orpah. Women who aren’t just victims, but who have their own thoughts, desires, and agency. They have names.
I know a man named Bill Robinson. Bill was the president of my college when I was an undergraduate student. One of the most remarkable things about Bill is his knack for remembering people’s names. One time when I heard him speak to a student group, and someone asked him how he did it. How did he remember people’ names so well? Bill told us a story. He said that when he was a young man, he volunteered as part of a prison ministry. He was asked to lead a bible study with a group of incarcerated men. When Bill arrived in the room where he was to teach, he looked around and saw a group of at least thirty men waiting for Bible study to start. Then a guard handed him a clipboard, and on it was a list of numbers. “These are the guys in your Bible study,” the guard said. Numbers, no names. Bill took the clipboard, and then he set it aside. He introduced himself and said, “I need to know your names. Let’s just go around and say names.” And as each inmate introduced himself, Bill felt that each man’s name was so precious, so significant, that Bill must not forget it. And when the men had finished introducing themselves, Bill found he did remember their names. Bill said to us, “No one’s memory is perfect. But I’ve found that most people don’t forget names. They never learn them in the first place.”
This is painfully true, isn’t it? It is so easy never to learn names to begin with, especially when we’re faced with the Ruths and Naomis and Orpahs of the world. It’s easy to group people together into a huddled mass, to pity them and try to help them, but not to learn names, not to know anyone. Living faithfully in our own time of the judges first means learning to take God’s view on the world, so that we see all people as irreplaceable, beloved, named.
And in fact we have an opportunity this morning to take God’s view of people. Over in the Crocker Chapel is a board with photos of children from the Russell School. These children are running in a 5K Race to raise money for their own school, and we are invited to sponsor them individually. Now, for security we don’t know their names, but we have their faces. Faces that remind us that they are real children with real lives, that call us to see them as particular and beloved. So in the time of the judges, we learn to see particularity. We learn names.
In our time of the judges, the book of Ruth sheds light on faithful living in another way. In Ruth, we witness these two women who build a relationship across major differences. As we will discover next week, it turns out that God works through this relationship to save the people of Judah. Their relationship becomes a vehicle for salvation for a whole community. But this only happens because Ruth and Naomi are willing to build a relationship across their differences.
Back in 2004, students at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College, which share a campus with one another, students approached professors at both institutions, asking to form a Jewish-Christian interfaith circle so that they could talk with each other and learn from one another. That first circle began as a small discussion group with two faculty involved. Then in 2008, the two schools received a grant to form a new ongoing center—the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education, or simply, CIRCLE. CIRCLE now engages hundreds of graduate students, academics, and community leaders, both in person and online, helping them to build relationships of care, mutual respect, and civic collaboration. Each week up at Andover Newton, there are Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, and Muslim students who meet together in small groups. They talk about a theme, and they join together in community-based projects.
They do this because we live in the time of the judges. There is too much violence, too much suspicion, too much misunderstanding and hatred. They do it because they believe that God works through our willingness to build relationships with those who are different from us. So this is the other way in which we can learn to live faithfully in the time of the judges—we build relationships with those who are different from us.
It’s not just Ruth and Naomi who do this in the Bible. This is how Jesus lived, too! Jesus touched people no one else touched. He ate with people everyone else rejected—people who were thought to be sinners and political turncoats. Once, when Jesus’ disciples showed up after going grocery shopping together—it really says that—they were grocery shopping—they found Jesus sitting in a public place talking to a woman of another ethnicity and religion. They asked him, “Why are you talking to her?” But Jesus kept on talking with her. And for her part, she was so amazed by her encounter with Jesus that she ran home and told everyone in her town about him. In Jesus, we see a God who builds relationships across difference.
This is part of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ—that in Christ, as the book of Ephesians says, God has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” The wall between you and me. The wall between us and them. The walls between people groups and nations. God breaks down dividing walls of hostility, bringing reconciliation. And not only that– God invites us to be God’s ambassadors of reconciliation. To be a person of faith in the time of the judges is to join in God’s mission of building relationships across difference.
We here are not Ruth or Naomi. We can listen to their story and try to relate to them. But we are not refugees. We don’t exactly stand in their shoes. But our world is full of Ruths and Naomis. And in the time of the judges, this story reveals part of our calling. We’re called to learn names—Naomi, Ruth, Orpah—learning to care about real people who are being swept up and scattered in the world’s events. And we’re called to build relationships across difference.
And I truly believe that we don’t do this alone. Under and through our name-learning and relationship building, the God of Ruth and Naomi, the God of Jesus, this God is at work, too, breaking boundaries, making promises, bringing salvation in the time of the judges.