31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
August 28, 2016
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
While First Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind” is by far the most popular Bible passage read at weddings, this passage from Ruth is often used as well. As brides and grooms pledge their lives to one another, these words from Ruth speak of their commitment to walk with each other through all that life has to offer:
“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!” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Can’t you picture a couple speaking these words of devotion and commitment to one another on their wedding day, but that was not the original context of this promise. These words of devotion and commitment were spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.
Daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law – not a relationship that is usually associated with love and devotion. While many of us have a wonderful relationship with our mother-in-law or daughters-in-law, the relationship is more often thought of in negative terms with one woman criticizing the other, the other resenting and complaining about the first.
But that is not how Naomi feels about either of her daughters-in-law. When Naomi tells them to return to their mothers’ houses, Naomi says “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”
This has clearly been a caring relationship. Orpah cries as she leaves the women. Ruth refuses to go. Instead of making the safe, practical choice, instead of returning home to find a new husband amongst her own people, Ruth cares so deeply about Naomi that she chooses to go with her.
You would think Naomi would be overjoyed to hear these words of devotion from Ruth. You would think that after all Naomi has lost, her husband, her two sons, that it would be a comfort and joy to know that her daughter-in-law chooses to journey with Naomi instead of choosing her own security.
You would think that Ruth’s words of devotion would engender an equal response. The Bible only says though that when “Naomi saw that [Ruth] was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.” (Ruth 1:18)
She said no more to her. Naomi said no more because Naomi knew it would be of no use to argue? Or because Naomi was giving Ruth the silent treatment? Was Naomi unhappy to have Ruth’s company?
While there seems to have been great affection between the women after all the years they shared as family, Ruth was actually a burden to Naomi as Naomi returned to her people in Bethlehem in Israel.
While God had given the Israelites very clear directions about how they should take care of the least of God’s people, of the widow and the orphan, this was a time in Israel’s history, where to quote the last verse of Judges, the Bible book preceding Ruth, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
Naomi is a widow, with no husband or son to support her, returning to a people she has not seen in over ten years, returning to a homeland that has been filled with violence and lawlessness as the people have turned from God’s guidance and done what was right in their own eyes.
Naomi has every right to be deeply fearful about how she will survive as a widow alone in this world, and now, she has another widow, Ruth, to support.
Add to that the fact that Ruth is a Moabite, a foreigner and not just any foreigner, one who the Israelites despise. In the book of Deuteronomy, it says, “No …Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendents shall be admitted…You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 23:3, 6)
You shall never promote their welfare or prosperity as long as you live. They shall be excluded from the community of God down to the tenth generation. To say that the Israelites despised the Moabites might be an understatement.
And here Naomi is, returning to her people in Israel, with a Moabite widowed daughter-in-law in tow. Sometimes, our relationships, our connections to one another can feel more like a burden then a blessing.
Ruth is a beloved daughter-in-law who has shown Naomi devotion and kindness. Ruth is also another mouth to feed, a despised foreigner who might cause Naomi to be unwelcome, and Ruth is also a reminder of all that Naomi has lost.
When Naomi went to Moab, she embodied her name, which means pleasant and sweet, but now she is returning to Israel empty – empty except for her grief. Naomi feels like Mara, ‘bitter’ – and while Ruth is not the reason her husband and sons died, Ruth is a reminder of Naomi’s loss, a reminder that Naomi might prefer not to see on a daily basis – or ever again.
In my years of ministry, I have seen that a time or two. The church community walks a family through a very difficult time in their lives and as soon as the crisis is resolved, the family leaves the church. For those left behind, it is hurtful and baffling. It’s not anything the caregivers did though; it’s what they represent. They remind the family of that dark time in their lives, and it is often easier for the family to walk away, than to stay and be reminded on a daily basis of all they have gone through or lost.
Last Sunday were the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, and over the course of two weeks, we celebrated the world coming together. We were blessed to see pictures of a North Korean and South Korean gymnast taking a selfie together. I was deeply touched by U.S athlete, Abbey D’Agostino, who would not leave New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin behind after the two fell while running the 5,000 meters. At the Olympics, we celebrated the blessing of connections.
And this morning, we celebrate the promises we have all made to Rosalyn and Weston that will forever connect us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
These children are a blessing in our lives. Our relationships with them will bring us great joy and challenge, because children rarely behave as adults would like them to; children are loud and squirmy, curious and bold in their curiousity. They ask questions and challenge our beliefs.
Sometimes, our relationships, our connections to one another, even those filled with love and deep devotion, can feel more like a burden then a blessing.
I imagine that is how Naomi must have felt about Ruth. As Naomi returned to Israel with another widow in tow, a despised Moabite, a reminder of all that Naomi had lost, this connection was just one more thing that turned Naomi’s sweetness into bitterness.
But here’s the ever surprising thing about God, even as Naomi was feeling abandoned by God, cursed by God, God was using that which Naomi thought was a burden to bless Naomi. God was using Ruth, the outsider, the despised other, the burden to redeem Naomi’s life.
It is through Ruth that Naomi becomes the great-great grandmother of King David, the Israelite king who united the people and brought peace to their land.
Sometimes the connections, the relationships in our lives can feel burdensome. Sometimes, we might wish to cut those ties. We might feel like we are better on our own, free to do what we want, just fine taking care of ourselves, but it is our connections with God, with creation, with each human being that will redeem and transform our lives.
God is always surprising us. God is always surprising us, that very relationship that feels most burdensome might be the very one that saves our lives, blessing us in unseen and unimaginable ways. Just look at Naomi and Ruth.