If you look closely at Matthew’s genealogy, you’ll find four women listed -- Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth. Have you ever wondered why these particular women are mentioned? If you know their story, you know that each story has a dark side. But, despite the dark edge, each woman plays an important role in the biblical story.
This morning we read about Ruth. Her story begins when a Hebrew woman named Naomi moves to Moab with her husband and two sons to escape famine in Israel. It’s strange that they’d go to Moab, since the Hebrews believed that this nation was cursed by God for not helping them when they wandering in the wilderness. But that’s where they went, and during their sojourn, Naomi’s husband dies and her two sons marry Moabite women.
Do you see a problem brewing? I do! And the problem is, good Hebrew men didn’t marry Moabite women! But these men did just that! And then tragedy struck again when Naomi’s sons die leaving her alone, destitute, and with two daughters-in-law to support. With no husband and no more sons to support her or give her grandchildren, Naomi cries out in despair.
Realizing she had no future in Moab, Naomi decided to go home. Knowing she couldn’t provide for Orpah and Ruth, she tells them to return to their families. Orpah tearfully obeys, but Ruth remains committed to Naomi. Although she would be an outsider in Israel, she pledges her undying loyalty and service to a woman who could give her nothing, a woman in need of her own redemption. Although Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth persists and declares: "where you go, I will go" And "your God will be my God." With this, Naomi and Ruth begin a journey of faith together, a journey that started with little promise, and yet it’s a journey that leads to the redemption of Naomi, Ruth, Israel, and in the end, humanity. You see, the story of Ruth is a story of conversion, covenant, and community.
We usually think of conversion in relationship to God, but in this story conversion begins with a commitment to another human being. Ruth, the Moabite, commits herself to Naomi, the Hebrew. Her conversion to Yahweh only begins after she sees Yahweh in Naomi’s life, and in committing herself to serve Naomi, she also declares her allegiance to Naomi’s God. Now the question is: Why would a Moabite woman leave behind her own gods and embrace the God of Naomi, especially, when it seems like Naomi’s God had failed to take care of her? Despite everything Naomi had gone through, Ruth saw something worth embracing in Naomi’s life.
I think that’s the way conversion often happens. It doesn’t start with intellectual arguments, it happens when we see the grace and compassion of God in the life of another person. And when that happens, when we see the light of God present in this other person, we embrace it. That’s what evangelism is really about. It’s about sharing the life we know in Jesus Christ with a person who wants to have that relationship with God themselves.
In her conversion to Naomi and to God, Ruth makes a covenant: "Where you go, I’ll go. Your people will be my people, Your God will be my God," In making this covenant, Ruth commits her life to the service of her mother-in-law. Now, we’ve all heard lots of mother-in-law jokes, and I suppose some mothers-in-law can be a problem, but that doesn’t seem to be true here. There’s a love here that can’t be broken, even by death, and that’s what a covenant relationship is all about.
When God made a covenant with Israel, God said, in effect, I’ll stay with you through thick or thin. And God did! When Jesus made a covenant with humanity, he said: I’ll never leave you nor forsake you. In our baptisms, we accept that covenant with God for ourselves, and in doing so we commit ourselves to serving God by loving our neighbor.
Ruth exemplifies living in a covenant relationship. Although Naomi worried about providing for Ruth, in marrying Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, Ruth redeemed Naomi, by reversing Naomi’s fortunes. Then, Ruth became an ancestor, first of David, and then of Jesus, and in doing this she reversed the fortunes of Israel and of humanity.
As Christians who live in a covenant relationship with God, we commit ourselves to being part of a community that’s concerned about the welfare of others. Naomi probably told her daughters-in-law to go home, because they would be a burden to her. It’s also possible that she would be embarrassed that her sons had defied the Law and married Moabite women. Whatever Naomi’s reasons, Ruth made it clear that now she was part of Naomi’s community: "Your people are my people. Where you’re buried, I’ll be buried."
Covenant commitment is the foundation of Christian community. In the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, we see that the Christian journey of faith isn’t an individualistic trek, but instead it’s one we take together. Ruth understood this truth better than Naomi, but in the end Naomi came to see that their futures were connected. No matter what might come their way, they were in it together.
Our journey, as Christians, is much the same. The church is more than just a religious organization, it’s a community of people committed to sharing life together in the name of Jesus. Instead of being nomads our spiritual tourists, we can become pilgrims who take the journey of faith in the company of others.* Traveling alone might seem quicker and even easier, but Ruth understood that the easy way might not always be the best way. In the end, both Ruth and Naomi found blessing in each other’s company. Ruth would gain a husband and a child, while Naomi got the child she wanted to carry on the family name. And then there are Ruth’s descendants, David and Jesus, who would in their own ways reverse the fortunes first of Israel and then humanity.
With Ruth I invite you to make your covenant with God and with God’s people. No matter where we go, no matter what happens to us, in Jesus, we’re linked together. With Ruth as our guide, we hear the call to commit ourselves to serving one another. As Jesus himself said, the reign of God is based on two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. As we sing our hymn of invitation, "I Am Thine O Lord," let us say to each other: Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God!
*I take this image from the title of the book – From Nomads to Pilgrims, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking (Alban Institute, 2006).
Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 5, 2006
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 5, 2006