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Pentecost 22, 11/05/2006

Sermon on Ruth 1:1-18, by Jim Mueller

1 In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2The 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. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!" Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10And they said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me."

14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15And she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you."

18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

The book of Ruth is a Hebrew short story too often forgotten in our lectionaries and as a beautiful model for the Christian life. It?s hard to imagine that the great-grandmother of King David could so easily be relegated to the past. Imagine the current relevance of the work of God in peoples? lives to demonstrate the beauty of family, marriage, love, and commitment. Imagine the current significance of the Jewish covenant being shared with a gentile woman from Moab over 1,000 years before Christ. The relevance of mission and family shared in this incredible historical narrative is at the center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and not inconsequently, at the center of his Jesus? own heritage).

We first have to close our eyes and dream back to the days of the Judges. Moses and Joshua are gone and the great kings of Israel have not yet come. These are the ?in-between? years of the Jewish people, marked by war after war. Sunday school favorites like Samson, Gideon, and Deborah often dominate Jewish history, however we find this rare, forgotten jewel after Judges closes its story. The setting is a famine in Bethlehem (literally meaning ?house of food?) and the rest of the promised lands. Elimelech (literally meaning ?My God is King?) and his wife Naomi (literally meaning ?pleasant?) journey with their two sons to seek food and refuge in a forbidden land. Although the marriage of God?s people to Moabite women was not expressly forbidden by the Law, it certainly indicated a point of compromise in the family?s lineage. Ruth and Orpah (don?t confuse with modern day icon Oprah) would never be allowed entrance into the assembly of the Lord (Dt. 23:3). The tragedy and pain of the story culminate with the deaths of all three men (husband and sons). The three women are left destitute. No possibility of work, food, or home. No possibility of finishing a degree, entering the work force and sharing an apartment. History is not kind to women left alone. Naomi must dismiss her daughters to the mercy of their homelands and family, and she must also find mercy with her own people. With many spilt tears the family is broken.

Naomi even encourages these daughters to return to their god Chemosh. Chemosh was considered a type of Baal-god (fertility cult), often called the ?Fish God?, and child sacrifices were sometimes common. Orpah leaves and returns to that life and philosophy. But Ruth simply clings to her mother-in-law, holds her close, tight. Chemosh is not her god anymore and those people are not her people. In verses 16 & 17, Ruth confesses her commitment and faith, "Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you." Ruth is redefining the definition of family and faith for us. We live in an age where faith is not passed down by families any longer. Our spiritual fathers and mothers are not necessarily our fathers and mothers. We live in an age afflicted by death, divorce, and distance. Our Thanksgiving tables are examples of this reality. The people with whom we break bread, share our lives, and spend our holidays become family without the bloodline.

Jesus teaches this new family ethic in Matthew 12:49 while pointing to his disciples and followers, ?Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.? These are words of comfort to people who don?t meet the traditional criteria. Relationship to God is not based on race or ethnicity but instead on commitment and shared experience. Those who live your life and faith with you are your family. This is the ethical standard of the cross. The reconciling blood of the cross redefines table fellowship. You can?t look at Ruth?s skin color, or sin baggage, or religious history and define who she is. You have to look at her love. She is in love with Naomi, her mother-in-law (which is miraculous in some people?s eyes), and not only that, she has fallen in love with her God.

As we redefine Christian community in our place we must do the same. Everyone enters with baggage and history, and now Jesus is telling us from the cross to change the criteria. He tells the Father in heaven to forgive people, he tells his friend to become a son to his mother, and he tells the thief on the cross to join him at the banquet in heaven. Things that were formerly impossible become possible, even ideal. Jesus is reuniting the daughters and sons of the first couple in Genesis 3 to each other. He is putting the building blocks of family and faith back together. He forces each of us to open our eyes wider and love our enemy not only on the inside, but even to embrace them as family. Share your clothes, share your food, become the Good Samaritan, become a father to the orphan.

A beautiful example is found in adoption. Our good friend Chris Branscome, who often leads worship and even shares from God?s Word here, has told his story to me many times. As an adopted son, he has to emotionally ask the question over and over again in his life. What is family based on, blood or love? The two are often not the same. His father and mother are the Branscomes. The couple who took him in as a young child, fed him, gave him safety, security, and faith. The clapped for him at his high school graduation, they clapped again at his college graduation, and they now grandparent his daughter. He will live with them and die with him ? they are mom and dad. That is the Christian ethic. Adoption becomes the new family.

That is the beautiful ending to the story of Ruth. A new husband, Boaz, and new promises. A grandmother, Naomi, who gets to hold her grandchild. This child is family to her not because of blood, but because Ruth continues to call her family. Ruth redefines family for us as well.

Perhaps your stories are just as confusing and beautiful. Perhaps you?ve made friends into family ? maybe your Thanksgiving table will be as diverse as mine. Perhaps your God-children are as special to you as mine. Good. God?s dream for mankind is being made into reality. The key is to see the cross as more than just personal redemption. It has communal effects as well. The cross of Christ washes away the sins of isolation, brokenness, desperation and guilt. The cross of Christ ushers in a new ethic that takes forgiveness and new life to people who adopt each other as friend, family, brother, sister, and mother. This reconciliation is at the heart of the Reformation and All Saints? Day. As we prepare ourselves for the Season of Advent and the promises of God, let us prepare ourselves for the incarnation of the Son of God. May we prepare ourselves by opening up the Thanksgiving table and inviting people from every place in life.

Now may the peace that surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And may our families increase based more on commitment and love, and through the blood of Jesus.


The Rev. Jim Mueller
Austin City Church