This morning we begin a new series on the book of Ruth. This book takes place during the summer and is traditionally read during the Jewish season of Shavuot, which Christians celebrate as Pentecost. Let's set the stage. I'd like you to imagine a small country where the rule of law is weak, and strong men prey on weak women and children. Security is found in networks of extended family who try to care for one another as best they can. The people survive mainly on what they can grow and earn from day to day. And then an even greater disaster: a famine. And so as a last-ditch effort to save their children, one couple without many close relatives makes the agonizing choice to leave behind everything familiar and seek a new life across the border where there is more opportunity. This is the situation of ancient Israel in the time when the judges, or chieftains, ruled the land. It was a lawless time when the Bible says "everyone did what was right in their own eyes." This morning's story is one about refugees and immigrants. Vulnerable women, widows living in poverty, who come to rely on one another and on the generosity of strangers. Over the next four weeks, we will see what this short book has to teach us about loyalty and faithfulness, redemption and responsibility to those in need.
Narrator: In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.
The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.
They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.
When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
Naomi: “Go back each of you to your mother’s house.
May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”
Narrator: Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.
They said, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
But Naomi said,
Naomi: “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me?
Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?
Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
Narrator: Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
Naomi: “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
Narrator: But Ruth said,
Ruth: “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 will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Narrator: When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem, when the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
Naomi: “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
Narrator: So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The center of our worship this morning is the Communion table, and as we move towards it, I want to take a few moments to share with you some themes that stood out to me from this first chapter of Ruth. It's a lovely story and if you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so at home this week. It won't take you more than 20 minutes. But there's more to this story than we might assume at first glance.
There are complex issues of who belongs in the community and who is responsible for the poor among us, and those are issues that we are still negotiating in our culture today. Because even though the Bible was written in a specific place and time, it's themes continue to challenge us. So here are few things that I thought were especially meaningful for us to consider in light of who we are as Zion UCC in Delaware in the summer of 2018. We believe God is leading us into a new season of life and in prayer and conversation we are discerning that together. So what does this chapter of Ruth have to say about our situation?
First the idea of returning. The Hebrew word for "return" shows up 12 times just in this first chapter! When Naomi's life has crumbled around her, she decides to return to to Israel. However the same word is used for Ruth and Orpah's plan to go with her, and also for her encouragement to them to go back to Moab. How can the daughters-in-law return to somewhere they've never been?
The reality is that none of us can ever really return. The places we long to go back to aren't really there anymore. They are changed and we are changed. And usually when we want to go back to a place, what we really want to do is go back to a time, which is totally impossible. Naomi wanted to go somewhere familiar, but what she really wanted was to go back to a time when she had her husband and her boys. When she was happier. When the world made sense.
As we think about how God is moving us forward as a church, it's tempting to think of progress in terms of returning to a place or a time we used to know. How we did things at that church we used to go to. Or how things used to be at this church, when we had a big Sunday School full of kids.
The message for us in Ruth this morning is that even if we try to return, we will be going somewhere new. And thank God. We don't want to be the church we used to be because this city is not what it used to be. We want to be the church that Delaware needs now. We are grateful for how this church has been blessed in the past and we can certainly look to our past for guidance. But like Ruth, with boldness and courage, we are returning somewhere we've never been. It may look familiar; it may remind us of things we've seen and done before. But it won't be the same. And honestly, some of you may not think it's better at first. But God willing, it will be exactly what it's supposed to be for this time and this place.
Finally, this story contains themes of emptiness and fullness, as we will see as the story goes along. Naomi is grieving and longing to return to a life that is gone and that's giving her a distorted perspective. In verse 20 she says that she went away full and that God has brought her back empty. But the reason she went away was because her family's bellies were empty. Yes, her family was together, but they felt the emptiness of despair and they couldn't see a future. Now her family is gone and she says she is empty. But she's coming back to a place where some fullness of provision has been restored. There is food and safety here. And, she has Ruth. Now I'm not saying that Ruth makes up for the family that Naomi lost, or that Naomi shouldn't feel sad. But I am saying that maybe her perspective isn't taking into account all of reality.
This is something we can consider too as we move into a new season. When we look at our life together, do we see emptiness or fullness? When we look at the past, are we whitewashing it, seeing only fullness and overlooking emptiness?
When we look at what we have now, are we seeing only emptiness and lack and overlooking the fullness and abundance that God has already given us? In your own life, what are you calling empty? And is there maybe more there than you have been willing to recognize?
As we move to the Table we consider what it means to empty and how God can fill us. When we say we are empty, it doesn't have to mean that we are worthless or awful. It means there is room in us for more goodness. John Henry Newman said that "to live is to change. And to be perfect is to have changed often." So this morning, as we pursue perfection, which in Greek means completion or maturity, we invite God to change us. Again. We embrace the mystery of how we can possibly be filled by these little pieces of bread and little cups of wine. They won't fill our physical bodies. But this ritual will fill the empty places in our spirits as we open our hearts and minds to experience Jesus Christ. What does that mean? Maybe for you it is the very conscious and logical act of remembering what Jesus did and in this moment recommitting yourself to follow in his way. Or maybe it's a sense of love or fellowship that you feel inside you, something harder to describe, something inspiring and comforting. Although we come to the same table, Jesus meets each of us differently, exactly as we need to be met. We are invited to come exactly as we are, empty in different ways, and trust that we will be filled and changed.
Because, beloved, as our ancestors in the faith have proclaimed for hundreds of years, This is the joyful feast of the people of God. People of all genders, all ages, and all races — every BODY — come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s table.