In a culture like ours that holds up independence as one of its most important values, being a burden on others is one of the worst things we could imagine. The story of Ruth offers an alternative.
"Blessing Out of Brokenness"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Last week we heard the beginning of the book of Ruth. Naomi and her family were forced by famine to leave their home in Bethlehem for the country of Moab. There, Naomi’s sons marry Moabite girls, and one of the girls is Ruth. Soon, though, Naomi’s husband died. Then Ruth’s husband died. So they were both left husbandless. But instead of going home to her own family for security, Ruth chooses to leave her own home, her own family, her own people, to journey with Naomi. Ruth “clings” to Naomi it says. Her declaration is “where ever you go I will follow, my people will be your people, your God will be my God.
The book of Ruth is, in its’ basic form, a story about two ordinary women—Naomi and Ruth—who exhibit extraordinary commitment and fidelity to one another. It’s an extraordinary story about two ordinary people who are able to not only cling to each other, but cling to survival. And in the end, they both experience the blessing of God, through Ruth’s baby Obed. Who is the ancestor of David, Israel’s most prominent King. In the end, we discover these two ordinary people become conduits for God. For God’s extraordinary blessing. When all is said and done.
It’s an inspiring story. But there’s a whole lot I skipped over last week when going from point A (the beginning of the story) and point b (the end and birth of Ruth’s blessed baby). It’s no wonder that Ruth especially has been held up in the tradition as a celebrated example of faithfulness in her steadfast devotion and loyalty to Naomi. But in skipping to the end I kind of gave the suitable for network television censored version. Because in this week’s reading, Ruth seems like anything but the kind of person we think of when we think of the word “example,” someone we’re called to emulate in daily life. Let alone someone you’d name a whole book of the bible after!
Pretty soon Ruth and Naomi make it back to Bethlehem. Ruth is assigned to work with the local women out in the fields. There Ruth meets Boaz, one of Naomi’s relatives. Boaz is rich. And influential. Ruth seems to catch his eye. Boaz shows Ruth some kindness, by urging the workers in the field to accept her and treat her as one of her own. He advises her to only stay in his fields and he also tells the local men to leave her alone. Because for Ruthm, life is dangerous for a single, unmarried woman without family or kin to protect her. So Boaz treats her more as part of the family than as the stranger, the foreigner that she is. Ruth is vulnerable. And Boaz shows her kindness. By protecting her.
And so Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi sees an opportunity. And she seizes it. “I have a way for you to get the security you need,” says Naomi. “Alright, Ruth,” she says. “Do exactly what I say. Take a bath, put on something nice. Maybe a little jewelry. A little perfume. Wait until the sun goes down, so nobody sees you. Wait until Boaz in nice and comfortable, maybe after a jug of wine or two, then slip into bed beside him.” Ruth follows Naomi’s directions. And yada yada yada her and Boaz are married. And Obed, the baby blessing arrives. End of story.
Man, if I told my grandmother this story—and left out the fact that it is from the Bible—first, she’d probably be shocked that I would tell her a vulgar story like that. But second, probably lose her mind at just how irresponsible Ruth is. How immoral her actions seemingly are. And she does it all with her mother-in-law’s help! And her blessing! First, here she is, hatching a scheme with her Mother-in-law about how to get in on this rich man’s fortune. And his protection. Then there’s a pretty obvious act of seduction—using sex to get what you need. And to top it all off there’s premarital sex to boot.
Women, of course, in the world of the Bible have no access to livelihoods outside of their relation to men. Here they are completely dependent on men for survival. For security, whether it’s economic security—whether you have food on the plate. Or physical security—whether you’re at the mercy of male aggressiveness. So Ruth uses the few means at her disposal to make a life for herself. To be fair, it’s not entirely Ruth’s fault that she takes these steps. This is the time she lives in, the society she lives in. This is where she sits on the food chain. Her options are limited, or at least severely reduced, by her life circumstances.
This isn’t exactly how we imagine people who are supposed look up to be like. They are supposed to be our heroes. They are supposed to be upright. Righteous. Strong credit history and clear police record. When there’s a time to make the right decision they are supposed to always take it. I mean, if you remember the election and how many candidates were called out from all the different parties for things they had done or said in their past. We kind of expect perfection from people who are supposed to be our leaders and examples. Maybe not absolutely perfect, but pretty close.
And so Ruth sounds like the last person we’d want to celebrate as an example of faithfulness. At first glance, this looks like a story of brokenness. Rather than a story of blessing.
And yet here we have Ruth. This story would have been just as scandalous to ancient ears as it is to modern ones. She’s no pure virgin. Yet she’s painted in a positive light. And for some reason not only is she the main character in a story in the Bible. She has a whole book devoted to her. And to top it all off, way far ahead in the New Testament, she finds her way in to the genealogy, the family tree, of Jesus. Even though they track the genealogy exclusively through men, she’s put in there intentionally. Ruth seems to break every rule in the book of what a Saint is suppose to look like and supposed to act like. And yet, here she is. Front and center.
A few years ago, I read this article by an Anglican priest that really changed the way that I read the Bible. And in doing so, it changed the way that I see the world entirely. This priest was talking about what Sunday School was like for him as a kind. It always seemed to go like this: “Abraham was obedient. Be like Abraham. Moses was courageous. Be like Moses. King David was wise and just. Be like David. And, of course there was Ruth. Ruth was faithful and she was loyal. Be like Ruth.” The scriptures were taught as sort of a book of upright moral heroes who were there just as examples. Of what we are supposed to do. Who we are supposed to emulate.
Soon enough, though, once he did some further reading, the bottom of Sunday School really started to fall out. He read and found obedient Abraham pretending his wife was his sister to save his own skin—twice!—and offered his own son up as a willing sacrifice. Then he found courageous Moses’ first act of courage was in killing an Egyptian guard, making him the ancient equivalent of a cop-killer. Then ge found wise and just King David sending his best friend to the front battle line to be killed so he could have his wife. (Not to mention the fact that he had 700 wives). And then he found faithful, loyal Ruth, lying in bed with Boaz, using what she had. To get what she needed. He discovered that these upright moral heroes weren’t what he thought they were at all. So he lost faith in the scriptures. And lost interest in the church. These, he thought, are the best people God has to offer? Instead of blessing, he seemed to find nothing but brokenness.
But then something dawned on him. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s not about how amazing these people are, but how utterly unremarkable they are. Maybe the Bible is not a book simple full of perfect people to be like. But maybe it’s full of imperfect people like us. Maybe it’s not about how upright and faithful people are to God, and about how we just need to be like them. But about how faithful God is to them in spite of their imperfections, their brokenness, and their sin. And about how faithful God is to us in ours.
Ruth stands tall in our tradition, not because she is perfect. Or even that she is totally good. Her life circumstances don’t permit Ruth perfection and goodness can be an afterthought. Things are broken from the get go. But even out of this horrible situation, God is able to bring about an incredible blessing. Maybe the Bible is about broken and imperfect people, living in a broken and imperfect world. And about God using them to create a new one. The story of the scriptures is not about a bunch of really perfect well scrubbed heroes: it’s a story of God bringing blessing out of brokenness.
And this is the same promise made to us. The promise that we live and die by. That God is at work in our lives and in our world, broken, and as imperfect as they may be. Bringing brokenness out of blessing.
Abraham sold out his wife Sarah and offered up his son—but God still used him. Moses was a murderer—but God still used him. King David was a betrayer, a conniver and a cheater—but God still used him. Ruth did what she had to get by in a patriarchal society. Ruth took advantage of the system to get what she needed. She used every trick in the book. But somehow God still found a way, and Godstill used her to bring hope where there was none and brought a blessing beyond her immediate sight.
You may be a liar and a cheat. But God can still use you. You may have hurt everyone you know. God can still use you. You may be an addict or a recovering one. God can still use you. You may be a middle class white guy who wishes life could be more interesting and laments that he's not doing more. Yes, God can still use you, even you. And will.
This is why the cross stands at the center of the story, and why the cross stands on the wall above our heads today. That even in humanity’s worst sin, our brokenness, God can somehow bring about blessing. That even out of our worst failures, God can bring about a future. God is bringing new life.
So “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything—it’s how the light gets in” (with thanks to Leonard Cohen).
Light out of darkness. Peace out of war. Life out of death. And blessing out of brokenness.
And for this, thanks be to God. Amen.
The service was centered on Ruth 1:1-18, the opening chapter in the book of Ruth. In this initial passage, in a stirring speech Ruth the Moabite swears loyalty to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi. The Moabites were the sworn enemies of Israel, and Ruth risks all by leaving her own people and is adopted by a new people—Israel.
The Book of Ruth tells the story of how a widow, Naomi; her daughter-in-law from Moab, Ruth; and a wealthy farmer from Bethlehem, Boaz, make possible the birth of Obed, the grandfather of King David. The book of Ruth shows how the actions and commitments of ordinary and even unexpected people such as foreigners and widows can change the course of history for the better.
Rev. Ryan Slifka
The story of Ruth is a unique one from the bible for several reasons. But one that’s always struck me is that it is one of the few that fixes its spotlight primarily on women. It’s an ordinary story. About two ordinary women.
First there is Naomi. There was a famine in their homeland of Judea, so Naomi makes the trek with her husband, Elimilech, and their two sons Mahlon and Chillion away from home to the land of Moab. And so they settle in this strange land, hoping to forge a new life. Eventually Naomi’s husband dies, and her two sons marry some of the locals. One’s name is Orpah. And the other is the second woman that is the focus of this story: Ruth. They are the ones that the whole story orbits around.
Ten years pass, and the story says, Naomi’s sons both die. They both die before either Orpah or Ruth could have children. So all three, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are completely without hope. According to the culture and the times in which they live no husbands and no children mean that they have no one to care for them in the present. Or to care for them in their old age. They are alone and completely vulnerable.
So Naomi hears that the famine is over back home, and she decides to risk the trip back home. She tells her daughters-in-law not to bother with her anymore. She has no sons. No security, no future. “I have no more sons to offer you,” she says, “you’d better go back and live with your own people.”
Because you see, Ruth and Orpah had married in to the family from over the border in Moab. They are Moabites. Different race. Different culture. Different religion, even. In fact, they are from the culture that Naomi’s people look down on the most. In the book of Genesis we hear that the Israelites think of the Moabites as in-bred hillbillies. We’re supposed to boo and hiss every time we hear the word “Moab.” They are supposed to be the bad guys. It’s sort of like Palestinians marrying into an Israeli family. So Naomi tells them to go back home to their mother’s houses. Because maybe there they can find the safety, the security, and the future that they need. With their own people.
Orpah does the intelligent thing. Through tears she hugs and kisses both Ruth and Naomi goodbye and she leaves. She heads back to her own people. Back to life as she knew it. But Ruth does something incredible, something brave, something foolish—maybe both. Ruth it says, “clings” to Naomi. Ruth says to her mother-in-law, the younger woman says to the older woman who is completely different from she is, Ruth says “don’t press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.” Naomi has no future. She has nothing to offer. Yet Ruth, someone completely different from her in every single way, refuses to leave her no matter what and joins her in her faith. On the journey home.
If you think about it, for a story in the bible this is a pretty ordinary story. It’s an admirable and inspiring story for sure. But it’s ordinary. If you remember our sermon series on the book of Job, you’ll remember that God shows up out in a whirlwind and speaks to Job face to face. But not here. Throughout our passage, and the rest of the book of Ruth there are no direct divine encounters. There are no miracles. There are no signs or visions. There’s no speaking in tongues. God is mentioned once and a while, sure. But God never shows up in any kind of obvious way. You could say that it’s just like most of our lives. Most of the time, anyway. Life is generally less than miraculous, less than visionary. Less ecstatic, less super-charged with God’s presence. Like our own lives, like our own stories, the story of Ruth and Naomi is pretty ordinary, pretty everyday. Pretty mundane.
There isn’t much vision of God in this story. It is so everyday and ordinary. And yet, this is what makes it extraordinary. It’s what makes it glorious. At the end of this book, Ruth and Naomi make it home, they make it back to Judah together. And there’s this scene where Naomi, is cradling this newborn baby in her arms, nursing at her breast. And it’s Ruth’s baby. The women of the neighborhood gather around. “A son has been born to Naomi,” they say. And the women name him Obed, it says, who “became the father of Jesse, the Father of David.” David, of course, being the greatest king in Israel’s history. Whose line eventually extends through space and time. All the way to Jesus. Just goes to show you. Pay attention to those genologies!
Naomi who was too old, who’d lost everything, and Ruth who threw away everything to journey with her. These two ordinary women with seemingly nothing to offer the world, become a part of the purposes of God. The book of Ruth is the story about two women, two determined people who have met significant challenges and heartaches in their lives. Yet, these two women who are as different as people can be from each other, they cling together. And they journey together, leaving their old lives behind. These two women who on their own seem to be living a small and unsignificant story. Yet, they are drawn together in their suffering and their loss. And they become a part of God’s story. With Ruth’s simple words: “Where you go, I will go; Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.” With these simple words they are bound together. And their ordinary stories, their ordinary lives, get woven in to what God is wants to do for the whole world.
What a perfect message for All Saints Day. As I have mentioned a few times before, in the Reformed Christian tradition, the Saints aren’t just the extraordinary, seemingly perfect people who do miraculous things. We have this idea, inside and outside the church, that real greatness lies in perfection, in heroism, and in fame. But the Saints are all those ordinary, imperfect people who have been drawn in to God’s story. The great Catholic writer and founder of L’Arche once said that, “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. ” Saints are people whose ordinary lives are driven by, fueled by extraordinary love. Ordinary people like Ruth and Naomi. Ordinary people like you. And like me. Bound together with simple, ordinary words like “where you go, I will go; Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.”
So brothers and sisters in Christ. All remember that you are Saints. Remember that you have been drawn together with countless people through space and time, past, present, and future, by Christ, into God’s story of redemption for the whole world.
You are saints. That, like Naomi, you can discover God’s powerful presence when we experience deep lost and our times of deepest need. Like Ruth, you can also discover yourself as part of a story greater than yourself.
You are saints. That like Christ, it’s possible for you to be forgiven and to forgive those who sin against you. Like Christ, it’s possible to extend kindness and generosity to the weak, the broke, the reviled, and those who seem least deserving of our kindness and our generosity.
You are saints. And your ordinary bodies may become extraordinary as part of the body of Christ. Even your ordinary, everyday, imperfect lives can be used for God’s perfect, extraordinary purposes.
You are saints. Like Naomi and Ruth, your ordinary life may be filled with, and driven by God’s extraordinary love. And where they have gone before us, we are called to go. Those people are our people. And their God is our God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.