November 11, The family tree

The family tree

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17

The story of Ruth is not unfamiliar to many of us – at least in terms of some of the “highlights.” Perhaps you are even familiar with the set-up of the story: A man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi are living in a foreign land –Moab – because of a famine back home in their home town of Bethlehem. Elimelech and Naomi have two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

At the opening of the story, Elimelech dies. So then, it’s just Naomi and her sons.  They stay in Moab and the two sons marry Moabite wives – Orpah and Ruth. But that’s all there is of the family– there are no grandchildren yet for Naomi. Then, pretty quickly as the story continues, both of the sons die, and so it’s Naomi and her two daughters-in-law who are left. All of that happens in the first five verses of chapter one.

In the face of this unfortunate, even tragic, situation, Naomi knows that it’s time for her to go back to her homeland. There’s nothing for her in Moab. She’s in a foreign land, she’s got no means of support. She’s got two daughters-in-law, but they are going to have to go back to their own families. Because that’s how you survive in a time and place like that.

So, as Naomi prepares to leave, to go back to Judah, to Bethlehem, she releases her daughters-in-law from any responsibility they might feel toward her, saying, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Naomi expects that if these young women return to their homes, to their families of origin, at least they will have a chance to marry again and perhaps have families of their own – the children they never had with her sons.

She kisses them good-bye, and is ready to send them on their way, but they weep and they declare that they will go with Naomi, back to Judah, back to Naomi’s people. It’s an emotional response, it shows their feelings about Naomi, but it’s not a good plan for these young women, because as Naomi points out, she has no more sons for them to marry, and without that option – marrying down the line of Elimelech and Naomi’s family -- what other options are available to them if they go with her to Judah, what future would there be for them in a foreign land? They haven’t thought it through the way Naomi has. “I am stuck with what has happened,” she is saying to them, “But you have other choices. Go home and start again. And I will go back to the land I came from, because my life is over, but you can begin again.”

They cry some more, but eventually Orpah takes Naomi’s advice, her instruction to go home to her family of origin, and she leaves. Ruth however, clings to Naomi. And this is part of the book of Ruth, that if you are familiar with only one part, it’s probably this part: Ruth says to Naomi: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! 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!”

Now, it’s interesting that over the years, those verses have shown up in the life of the church most often in the context of weddings, as if they are the vow of one spouse to another. But these are not the words of a spouse, one to another. This is the pledge of a widowed daughter-in-law to her widowed mother-in-law.

It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that family is what you make it. Because you see, Ruth doesn’t have to stay with Naomi – even if she had any obligation, she has been released from that obligation by Naomi, and maybe even without that personal release, she may have already been released by the cultural customs of Moab, or maybe simply by common sense. One way or another, she’s free to go and make a new life. Naomi, a widowed foreigner in Moab, has no power to keep Ruth by her side.

But something in Ruth won’t let go of Naomi. When Naomi says to her two daughters-in-law that she (Naomi) is too old to bear any more children – to give birth to sons which her daughters-in-law might, by custom and culture, marry in the future to secure their place, their future in the family tree, what she is saying it literally true: she has no more sons for them to marry. But she is also saying this: she has no family resources to share with them, and furthermore, not only does she have no power over them, but according to the standards of mercy and compassion, she has no claim with which to hold on to them. And with compassion in her heart, Naomi will not attempt to take their lives from them, to take them down in poverty and isolation with her. They are free to go.

But Ruth, in refusing to leave Naomi’s side, is saying this: No matter what, I will be your family. I will be your family.

The scripture for today, the lectionary selection, picks up the story once the two women are back in Judah. And it comes after the part of the story where Ruth has gone to glean some grain – to gather something from the harvest for her and Naomi to eat– in the fields of Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelech. And Ruth and Boaz have this encounter in the field where Boaz sees her and asks who she is, and she tells him and asks permission to gather some grain and he offers her not only permission but protection. The scripture for today then picks up where Ruth has told Naomi what happened in the field, and Naomi coaches her about how to meet up again with Boaz.

The story is kind of strange to our modern ears – there’s a part that we didn’t read this morning that comes next, where, after Boaz falls asleep on the threshing floor, Ruth does lay at his feet, and when he awakens at midnight, she asks and he agrees to pursue a relationship because he is one of Elimelech’s (and therefore Naomi’s) next-of-kin. Before the relationship can advance, things have to get sorted out in regard to another man who is apparently more closely related, but who has no interest in taking responsibility for Naomi or Ruth, and in the end, it is Boaz who marries Ruth.

The scripture we read this morning picks up again, then, with Ruth married, pregnant, and then giving birth. The child is a miracle of sorts. Yes, of course, all children are miracles of sorts, but this one is a miracle of sorts because as you look back in the story – back to the moment when Naomi was ready to part ways with her two daughters-in-law, there is no way that she could have imagined having a grandchild. And when Ruth pledged herself to Naomi, there is no way she could have imagined having a child, much less a husband, much less someone who was already part of the family tree, much less someone who would willingly restore the branch of the tree that would extend Elimelech and Naomi’s family line.

It’s all almost unimaginable. I mean the story works itself out – that’s for sure – but no one saw it coming. In this morning’s text, the women of the neighborhood call out in a Greek chorus kind of way; they sing out the good news to Naomi: Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; may his name be renowned in Israel! He (Ruth’s baby, that is) shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him. And then they say something that is biologically confusing to us, but true within the culture and the community: A son has been born to Naomi.

Did you get that? This woman whose husband died, whose sons died, who was living in a foreign land, whose daughters-in-law had no obligation to her, who had no children and no prospect of more children or grandchildren, who was going back to her homeland to live out her few remaining days in poverty and perhaps isolation…is saved from all of that because one person said to her at one critical moment: I will be your family. And that led to something else, which led to something else, which led to something else, until here they are: a child born to Ruth and nursed by Naomi.

Lots of things had to fall into place after that moment between Naomi and Ruth where they could have parted ways, but didn’t, and lots of moments had to happen in just the right way and other actors in the story had to play their parts and (in a sense) all the stars had to align in just the right way…but without Ruth throwing in everything with Naomi, without Ruth saying to her wherever you go, I’m going, wherever you live, I’m living, your people, your God, will be my people, my God, there’s no way the story can turn out the way it turns out.

And of course, you realize the rest of it: the child born to Ruth and nursed by Naomi is Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David – the future King of Israel and ancestor of Jesus.

I don’t know – maybe there are other long-shots in the more lengthy family-tree story that leads from the early ancestors on to David and finally on to Jesus. Maybe there are other moments of supreme loyalty or faith or courage that without them, the story doesn’t turn out the way it does. Maybe there are other heroes on other branches of the tree – in fact we know there are, we know some of their stories as well – but in this story, for this moment, the hero is Ruth – Ruth who has the courage of love and loyalty, Ruth who refuses to leave Naomi, who stays with her and loves her and in the end, saves her.

And it’s not because Ruth is particularly visionary or because she is clever or because she is powerful. It’s not because Ruth is saintly or strong or because she is running toward something and away from something else. It’s not any of that. It’s because when she weeps on the shoulder of her mother-in-law after her mother-in-law tells her that it would be better, smarter, for Ruth to go back to where she came from, Ruth is just stubborn enough, just determined enough, just clear enough –knowing that without her help, Naomi might not make it – that she says, “No. I’m going with you. I’m staying by your side.”

We live in a world today, and in a time in our culture where loyalty is most often a variable in an equation that is meant to calculate advantage. If I throw my lot in with this person, this party, this organization, this community…what advantage will I get, what benefit will I get?

I’d like to think that the church is different. That we are different. That the measure of our willingness to be with and for each other, with and for those on the edges, those who have deep need, isn’t a commercial calculation. I’d like to think that we are a family of faith – in this particular place, but in a much wider sense as well – because we have decided, simply decided, that we will be family, we will be kin to each other.

I suppose as far as stewardship sermons go, this is sort of an odd one. The scripture isn’t asking you to give anything or share anything or pay anything. Just to think about what it means to choose to be family to each other, and how a little bit of stubbornness or determination, or even clarity, about leaning in or staying with, at just the right moment, can plant the seeds of a miracle.

We belong to each other. Maybe not by birth, or by genetics. Maybe not by name or history. But we belong to each other because our lives have intersected here in this place. And what a great thing that is – to all be leaves and shoots and branches on this same tree. What a great thing that is – to be next-of-kin, and in-laws, and nursemaids to each other. What a great thing it is when we don’t write the story, when we don’t even know how it’s going to turn out, but we can have faith that our little part makes possible things that were perhaps once unimaginable.

Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God for Ruth and Naomi. Thanks be to God for loyalty and courage. Thanks be to God for kinship and kindness. Thanks be to God for families – families of blood, of genetics, but also of choice, of commitment, of faith.

May our lives be lived in the direction of compassion and courage. May our heroes be women like Naomi and Ruth. May our hope be in the arc of God’s promises and protection. And may the story of faith and family turn out in ways we have yet to imagine.

 

Amen.

 

Benediction (from “Sing the Journey” #157)

 

Go into the world doing what the Lord requires:

living with kindness and justice,

walking your path humbly with God.

Then you will find yourselves blessed.

 

Know that yours is the kingdom of heaven;

yours the strength and mercy of God;

yours all the blessings

given to God’s beloved children.

 

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

November 11, 2018