Belonging and believing: a sermon on Ruth for 18 October 2015

Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-19a
Mark 3:31-35

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Recently the vicar of St Mary’s Church in Wrexham was having a bit of a clear-out of his church cupboards. And as he did so, he made a surprising find– a virtually complete first edition of the Authorized Version of the Bible, the King James Bible, dating from 1611. The Rev Dr Jason Bray had no idea that the Bible was there- it had clearly been forgotten for centuries . The Authorized Version of the Bible was sent to churches across King James’s kingdoms, and as you probably know, our congregation has the care of a copy, which we have not forgotten about. Our copy is on display in the Old High Church, with a note pointing out a curious anomaly.

The printing of the King James Bible we have in Inverness includes a misprint (it’s surprising there was only one!). In the Book of Ruth, chapter 3 and verse 15 ought to end with the words ‘and she went into the city’. In our Bible, however, it reads ‘and he went into the city’. So because of this misprint, our edition is known as ‘The Great “he” Bible’.

Ruth is an overlooked book of the Bible. In fact, I suspect that for many in Inverness, if they have heard of the book at all, it is on account of that odd wee misprint. Perhaps Ruth is not read so often, because it is a tale of many twists and turns, with a plot which needs an understanding of some strange, ancient cultural traditions which are hard for us to understand.

The story is set in the time of the Judges, before Israel has any kings. It’s a wild, lawless, time, when there is no central authority to enforce law and order on the land. But Ruth is a peaceful tale, quite unlike the violent stories which the Book of Judges tell. It begins, however, with a famine (and perhaps we can remind ourselves that often famine is a result of the disruption of farming and trade in wartime).

Elimelech of Bethlehem is an Israelite who leaves his home because of the famine. He takes his wife Naomi, and his two sons, to live in the land of Moab. I suppose today the family would be in danger of being labelled economic migrants. There are places in the Old Testament which warn against the people of Israel mixing with foreigners or the followers of other gods, but this book is not one of them. For there is to be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing among the nations in this story.

Elimelech’s two sons marry Moabite women. But then, Elimelech, and his two sons, both die. Naomi, the widow of Elimelech, is left with her two Moabite daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth. This was a patriarchal society, where women only had status if they were daughter or wives or mothers. As the text puts it, ‘Naomi was left all alone, without husbands or sons’- with no men in this family group, it was as if Naomi had on-one. Economically, socially, culturally, in a time when men are the ones to whom women must always relate, there is no-one for Naomi.

Except that there is. There are her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Somehow these three women survive. And then the news comes that the famine in Israel is over at last. Naomi decides to return home- hopeful, no doubt, that her extended family might help her survive. It seems that when she sets out, her two daughters-in-law accompany for some of the way. But to Naomi, it seems clear there must be a parting of the ways. She urges them to return to the safety of their own families- to their mothers- and kisses them and wishes for them the blessing of her God.

1795-William-Blake-Naomi-entreating-Ruth-Orpah

William-Blake-Naomi-entreating-Ruth-Orpah by William Blake (1795).  Scanned by H. Churchyard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

 

But the daughters-in-law protest. There’s clearly a real bond has grown up among these women in their difficult plight, and Orpah and Ruth do not want to go. In tears, they plead, can’t they come with Naomi, back to her land of Israel?

Naomi, however, is realistic. She tells Orpah and Ruth that they need to return and find new husbands. The custom of the time was that if a man died who had an available brother, the brother would marry the dead man’s widow. This would allow any other dead man’s property to pass to any son of the marriage of the widow and the brother-in-law. It kept the family name and property intact. But that solution is not available for Orpah and Ruth, for Naomi has no other sons they can marry. ‘Why come with me?’ she says. ‘It’s too late for me to marry again and have sons that you could marry later on. Better to return to your own land, where you have a much better chance to find men you can marry. For I am just bad luck to you- there’s no point in carrying on travelling with me’.

Amid many tears, Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and returns to Moab. It’s the sensible thing to do. But the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, will not go. In a famous speech, she throws in her lot with Naomi, Naomi’s people and even Naomi’s God:
Ruth answered, “Don’t ask me to leave you! Let me go with you. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried. May the Lord’s worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!”
When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.

And so Ruth goes to Bethlehem, where later on she will marry Boaz, a rich relative of Naomi. Maybe this all seems a bit of a soap opera or romantic historical novel. But Ruth’s story does have its place in the Biblical narrative. For by marrying Boaz, Ruth the Moabite becomes part of the story of Israel. When kings are finally introduced in Israel, Ruth’s grandson David becomes the greatest king of all. And in a sense Ruth is also one of our spiritual mothers, for the Christian tradition has always understood that Jesus is a descendant of King David, and therefore Jesus, are descendants of the Moabite woman Ruth who went to live in Bethlehem.

But there is more, still, to this story. I mentioned earlier that it was set in patriarchal times, when men were very much in control. So often, the Bible reflects the patriarchal times it was written in. And often the stories we remember are the ones about the men on the Bible- Abraham, Moses, King David, Saint Paul. The book of Ruth is one of only two books named after women characters (the other- which we looked at some months ago- is the Book of Esther). And although the story plays out in a patriarchal society, the book of Ruth is a book about strong women. Naomi is clearly a woman with a strong bond to her daughters-in-law. She’s not, as the writer of the story suggests, alone in the world after her husband and son die. She still has Orpah and Ruth- women she can rely on.

And despite the lack of men in the family, Naomi is willing to take the risk of making the journey back to her home when the famine is over. She’s realistic about what might await three women who have lost everything, and it’s not surprising that she convinces Orpah chooses to return to Moab. Ruth, however, makes a different decision. She chooses to go with her mother-in-law- ‘Wherever you go, I will go’. A courageous decision by a brave woman.

The Bible is a product of a patriarchal society. Bits of it are often used to keep women in what some men regard as ‘their place’. But the story of Ruth is one of those stories which point beyond the culture of the Bible to something better. Ruth chooses to go against the pressures in her society which would keep her in her place- she rebels against the patriarchal norms. Her strong friendship with her mother-in-law enables her to find the courage to challenge the norms of the society. And God, it seems, blesses her for doing so. Ruth will become part of the Biblical story of God’s dealings with Israel, as she becomes an ancestor of King David- an ancestor, even, of Jesus. Of course, Ruth cannot know that that all lies in the future. But this courageous woman feels that, for the sake of her friendship with Naomi, she is called to go to a new land and into a new life. Here is a Bible story about a strong woman who will not be trapped by the patriarchal conventions of the time.

This story challenges our preconceptions of the Biblical story. It stands as a counterpoint to those parts of the Bible which seem to be anti-feminine. But it is also a counterpoint to another Biblical theme. It reminds Israel that although they are God’s chosen people, other nations are important too.

For th Hebrew Bible is largely the story of God’s interaction with the people of one nation- Israel. Beginning with Abraham, God chooses the people of Israel- they are the chosen people of God. This is a really important strand of the Biblical story, for it reminds Christians that our faith is deeply rooted in the story of the Jewish people. For having elected Israel out of all the nations, God goes on to choose one Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, to be the means of saving the whole world. It’s been said that the Jews are the ‘elder brothers’ of Christians in the faith- a phrase which sums up nicely the relationship of Christianity to the Jewish faith.

But there’s a potential problem with thinking that your nation or religion is especially chosen of God- you may well be tempted to arrogance, to thinking that other nations or religions are less important. That is a disastrous way to go. For at heart of most of the conflicts in the world today is a sense that people think their nation, their group, their religion, is better than other people.

So alongside the notion that Israel is special, the Bible has reminders that God also values the rest of humanity. Ruth is one of these reminders. For Ruth is a foreigner, someone who worships another God. She is culturally, racially, religiously an outsider. Yet when she chooses to follow Naomi everywhere, she chooses to become part of Naomi’s culture. ‘Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God’. And so Ruth becomes part of Israel’s history- her national and her religious history. The fact that a foreigner like Ruth is one of King David’s ancestors ought to be a reminder to us that God can use all kinds of people to work out his purposes.

A few weeks ago, it seemed as if the whole of Europe was ready to welcome refugees, particularly from Syria and the war-torn nations of the Middle East. But if parts of the media are to be believed, we are becoming less welcoming again. We worry the numbers will overwhelm us. We’re concerned that the newcomer will change our society. And today our lectionary gives us the story of Ruth to read today- a story about a foreigner, a member of another religion, an outsider whom the Bible tells us chose Israel’s God and so became part of Israel’s story. Who can tell what God has in mind for the foreigner and the outsider? Who can tell what positive contribution they might make to future of the places they go to live in, and the people they choose to live with?

Jesus was the chosen one from the chosen people. Yet throughout his life, he took seriously those who were not of Israel. He helped and he taught and discussed with the foreigners he met- Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles. In doing so created something which would be more than just a renewal movement within his own Jewish faith. Jesus made it possible for the God of Israel to become the God of all nations. In the Church of Christ, all nationalities, all races, all people are welcome.

The story we read from Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ today is about the universality of Jesus’ message. Told that his mother and brothers are outside and looking for him, Jesus replies that he has found a new family. gesturing to those crowded around him to listen, he says, ‘Look! Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.’ Anyone who chooses can now be part of the family of God which Christ has created.

Yet family is an important part of Ruth’s story. Not the family she comes from, but the family she became part of at her marriage. Ruth chooses to make her relationship with her mother-in-law very important. She will follow Naomi anywhere, and become truly part of Naomi’s family and people. Orpah chooses, as Naomi puts it, ‘to go back to her people and to her god’; but Naomi can’t persuade Ruth to do that. No, says, Ruth, I’m coming with you wherever you go, even if I end up buried in a foreign land: ‘Don’t ask me to leave you! Let me go with you. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God’.

And Ruth makes another brave decision in deciding to choose to worship the God of Naomi. Sometimes people do that, for family reasons- a bride might switch to her new husband’s faith for the sake of family harmony. History is full of princesses who changed their religion so that they could marry another kings’ son. But there’s no marriage, yet, in prospect for Ruth. It’s her mother-in-law’s God that she chooses to follow.

But does she know what she’s letting herself in for? Living in Moab, she wouldn’t have had much notion about what being a follower of Israel’s God was all about. I suspect she already saw in Ruth something which attracted her. But Ruth chooses not to believe, and then to belong, but to belong, and then to believe.

Quite often we have thought that what we had to do to make Christians was to teach them the faith, and then invite them to be part of it. But I’m sure that many people become part of the church nowadays without, to begin with, knowing much about. In our individualistic world, people want to belong- and I think that if people want to belong to the family of Jesus Christ, we should first make them very welcome. Let people come and join us, let them see what it’s like to be part of the church. Allow them to see how we live our lives, and only later, when they ask do we tell them how our beliefs affect our lives.

In fact, I’m sure many of us who have been in the church a while have trouble with aspects of the faith. Yet we want to belong, we want to be part of the family of God. Here are our friends, our mothers and brothers and sisters in the faith. If we have doubts and questions, we’re often borne along by the faith of those around us in the wider church. We all, to some extent, belong before we believe. Like Ruth, we have all chosen to worship Naomi’s God without quite knowing what we have let ourselves in for. So if others want to join us, we should welcome them without expecting them to be experts before they start.

Ruth is a wonderful story of a strong woman. With the help of the deep friendship and solidarity of Naomi, she finds the strength to break through the barriers which are often places in the way of women, and of the poor, and of foreigners. She forges a place for herself in a new land. And she chooses to worship the God of Israel, because she wants to be part of the family of God. The Book of Ruth speaks of friendship, of family bonds, of finding courage to step out in new ways, of strong women in an uncertain world, of foreigners find a place in God’s plan. It’s a lovely book- and it’s quite short, so you should go home and read the rest of it now! And ponder what it has to say to us today!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo