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“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“Make Space for the Unexpected”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 28:1-10

 

Jeremiah 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


 

Even more-so than we did not see Covid-19 coming, the Disciples and all of Israel and Judea couldn’t see Jesus’ resurrection coming.

Now they foresaw his death.  In the weeks before his death, when Jesus resolved to return to Judea despite his disciples’ warnings not to return to a land so recently hostile to him, we hear Thomas resigning himself to death with Jesus:  “Let us return with him, that we may also die with him.”  The tension is rising.  The conflict is mounting.  Discomfort with Jesus’ identity and power and authority have reached their natural boiling point, and the disciples want to keep Jesus miles and miles away from it.  But Jesus returned.

Jesus returned. 

And he would not be safe.  Not at all.

 

But despite the fact that Jesus had been alluding to his resurrection… despite the fact that many truly believed him to be the Messiah… despite the fact that Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead… no one could begin to imagine what God had in store next.

Death was to be avoided at all cost.
Death marked the end.
Death had finality.
Death was the end of the movement.

And so when Jesus is crucified on a cross, for all to see, many of the disciples hide in fear.  They have given the last years of their lives following Jesus, and now Jesus has gone and gotten himself killed.  Will they be next?

And so, in classic moves of survival, they turn their gaze inward.  They hunker down and button the hatchets.  They tighten their inner circle.  They spend their days in a dark room.  They look back upon their former careers and wonder if there’s still a place for them there.  They start to worry about their next meal.  The fishing begins again…

 

Do you know what it is like to hunker down in fear?

 

And no one – no one – saw a future past that cross.

How could they?
How could they imagine a future never before seen in all the world?!
That Jesus would arise from death’s strong grip?
Flesh and blood?
Asking for a bite to eat??

No one.

Now the Israelites were a nation occupied.  They had been colonized by Rome.  They paid the emperor taxes.  They had known victory and defeat, power and exile.  But most common to their experience was uncertainty, change.  They ever faced threats of annihilation.  They built and others tore down.  Nothing seemed sure.  And the people were antsy.  Some were ready to bring on a bloody war with Rome, a war they surely would not have won.  Others played the system, buying their power with purchased Roman citizenship.  And others still tried to exercise their religious power and authority while ignoring the occupying forces (until they found ways the occupiers could carry out their will…such as in the condemnation of Jesus).  Herod had razed the holy city in order to rebuilt it, bigger and better and mightier, with Roman architecture and Roman authority.

It seemed like everyone else was pulling the strings of this nation.  And the people of Israel yearned for independence and autonomy.  They yearned for liberation and power.

But at the very least, couldn’t they just plant a fruit tree and own it long enough to eat of its fruit?  At the very least, couldn’t they reap what they sowed? 

Could they have control over their lives enough
To know the reward of their labors, their energies, their affections?
To build a house and live in it?

To this nation who has known plenty and known want… to this nation who has known both power and powerlessness… to this people who yearn for something to place their hope in, comes this prophetic word:

“Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.”

What this describes is hope.

And isn’t that what we’re grasping for now?

 

Will our mortgage companies allow us to defer payments?
Will our jobs hold out?
Will all those we love, still be here when all this passes?

Will this pass?

 

We are grasping for hope.

 

Are the efforts I’m taking enough?
Can my body overcome the virus if I catch it?
Can my family overcome it, if I spread it to them?
Will there be enough beds and staff and masks and ventilators if I need medical intervention?

And what is the world becoming?

So many are rediscovering simple joys –
writing letters and postcards,
riding bicycles,
taking long walks,
slowing down,
sitting on porches,
making music,
reading and writing poetry,
calling friends and family,
taking advantage of online tools we’ve had for years yet seldom used.

We are more aware than ever that each one affects us all, for better and for worse.  We are more aware than ever that our life and healing is bound up in our working together, whatever our differences.  We are more open to outcomes we wouldn’t have before considered.

But

Is this the world we want to live in, bound up, each in our own house?
How long can we sustain?
Will new and even designer viruses hijack life, over and over again?
Will we again know the touch of a grandchild’s hand in ours,
the loving embrace of a true friend,
the gathering of the body of Christ?

 

We need hope… hope that we will eat of the fruit trees we’ve planted… hope that we will continue to dwell in the homes in which we’ve labored and loved… hope that our diligent service will be remembered as company’s consider cuts…

Hope that our children will once again gather together to learn and to play… hope that love for neighbor won’t be eclipsed by fear of neighbor… hope that we may once again gather to worship and serve in the community of Forest Hill…

 

It is easy to see our fears.  We practically manifest them as we ruminate on all the ways we might meet our demise or experience loss and pain.  It is easy to worry.  There are way too many things out of our control right now.  It is easy to despair….when we cannot see a path forward.

 

The people of Israel who have followed Jesus from shore to shore, see their hope dying on the cross with Jesus that day.

The disciples who have seen Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, now fear their own deaths.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, breathes her last goodbye to her beloved son.

 

But JESUS returns. 

Jesus comes back.

 

When we could not see any hope, our Lord overcame the grizzly bonds of death and blew us all away, in life after death! 

 

Friends, I do not know your particular fears in this time.  I do not know your particular worries.  I do not know how the waters rage around you.

But I do feel the waters rising.  I know the gravity of fear.  I have known the sting of loss.

 

But JESUS returns.  Our Lord God popped the top clear off of our greatest imaginings and made hope where there was no hope, made life where there was death, made a future of hope where there was once despair. 

 

Let us leave room for the unexpected.
Let us open ourselves to the unimaginable.

Is there room in your mind for a new uncovering of Truth?

Is there room in your heart for God’s expansive love of neighbor…and stranger?

Is there room in your day for meeting someone new.

 

A gift of this dreadful pandemic is the shaking up of our days.  Because it gives us all a chance to re-evaluate and to decide WHAT is important.

 

Without openness,
Without space,
Without humility,
Without intention,
We can miss God’s resurrection power,
God’s word of HOPE spoken over our lives, and all creation.

 

We serve the crucified, yet Risen Christ,
the Christ who returned.

Whatever your despair, make room for the resurrection power of God. 

Make room for hope

“The Better Part”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 10:38-42
1 John 4:19

 

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

1 John 4:19

We love because he first loved us.


 

I have heard this passage preached on so often, that I didn’t want to preach it.  I feel I could preach on it in my sleep, and if you’re like me, you start to tune out the things you’ve heard too often.  But on second thought I realized that this passage was appropriate for us because we have been very busy with many things.

Now I’d say most of what has occupied our time and energy, at least here, in this place, together, has been good things.  And I imagine that much of what fills your day to day, are good things.  But I imagine that you, like me, can loose sight of the important for the urgent.  You, like me, are probably not immune to the voices clamoring about you, asking for your time and attention.  And many of those voices are of those nearest and dearest to us, those we are charged to love and care for.  Some of those voices are the voices of others in this body of faith, asking if you might step up and step into roles of service in our community of faith.

 

Service is important.  Our Lord Jesus Christ served.  He served even those he was encouraged and expected to ignore.  Jesus’ life was service.  But in looking at the life of Jesus we also notice his life was that of rest and eating, retreating and being quiet and alone.  So many of the stories we hear of Jesus take place around a meal.  Some of the most striking stories occur when Jesus wakes from sleep to help folks who are facing life and death.   Or they occur when Jesus returns from leaving the disciples alone and finds them in a quandary or mess.  Countless stories of Jesus tell of him leaving the crowds with the disciples to rest and retreat.  And even more stories tell of Jesus retreating alone, and quite often to the top of a mountain.

Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, knew his earthly need for rest and repose, eating and sleeping, intimate time among friends and intimate time alone with God.  JESUS needed these things.  Therefore, how much more-so do WE need these things?

 

In the story we read today, two sisters, Mary and Martha, host Jesus as he passes through the village.  Now as you might guess, hosting involves many things, not least of which is the preparing of food.  This task fell to women pretty exclusively, and it consumed the largest portion of any day.  So to invite others into the home meant doubling one’s work, at the very least.

Martha was probably the planner.  She probably knew exactly what this invitation would entail for them that day.  And she probably wanted to show as much honor and respect to the teacher as she could.  It was a daunting task, especially when you factor in all the visitors who would have come to hear the teacher.  She needed Mary’s help, but Mary, perhaps as flighty as I can be, was attuned to Jesus’ words.  She was soaking them in.  She did not think about all the work needing to be done.  She was lost in thought and in this person through whom she felt more love and compassion than she’d ever known before…

And quite understandably, Martha complains to Jesus.  She expects Jesus to put Mary in her place – to remind her that she too is a servant to the occasion and not the beneficiary of all Martha’s work – but Jesus does nothing of the sort.  Jesus in fact defends Mary as having chosen the better thing.

 

How could Jesus?  After Martha is serving him?!  How could he look this gift-horse in the mouth?!  How could he defy social expectation and give Mary a pass on the cooking and cleaning?  How could he act as though he didn’t need to eat and drink – as though he didn’t need the services Martha was so diligently offering.

Well, I don’t know exactly how this played out.  We do not know so many things – such as the breadth or scope of work Martha was attempting.  She may have been trying to make the fanciest, most difficult dish she could – to show respect or possibly to show off…  We don’t know.  We don’t know if this was Mary’s usual behavior, or if this Teacher caught her so off guard that she completely forgot her usual duties…  We do not know.

But once we move through the shock and perhaps the initial offense of Jesus’ words to Martha, I hear a deep compassion for Martha.  Instead of a rebuke, I hear an invitation.  Jesus reminds Martha that she has a choice in all this hustle and bustle.  Jesus SEES how distracted and worried Martha is about so many things.  And he points to Mary as an example of what is good and needful.  Martha too can choose to stop and be, to listen and be present.

 

Now if I were Martha, I would feel enraged at this insinuation that my work was irrelevant or unnecessary.  But Jesus wasn’t necessarily saying that.  Perhaps they all would have chipped in to cook at some later point…  We do not know.  But if I were Martha, I would also find myself longing to stop and sit and be still.  I would have been beside myself with jealousy at Mary, sitting at the Teacher’s feet like that, without a care in the world but to listen to each word he said.

Could I abandon my lists and tasks like that?!

Could I pause the hurry and bustle of my mind like that?

Could I step off the treadmill and sit and be?

 

And this is where I think of all of us.  We take on many tasks in love and service to the Lord in this place.  This place of sanctuary and community is living and effective because of YOU.  Your passion and vision, your sweat and service, your diligence and expertise, your care and planning.  YOU make this place overflow with love.

 

…But we cannot fill another’s cup, if our well is empty.

We cannot love, unless we have been loved.

We cannot serve, unless our needs have been served.

 

To say it another way, “We love because God first loved us.”

 

 

And so very logically, if we are not attentive to sit and be still, if we are not pausing to listen to God’s words, our wells will surely run dry.  And when we run around trying to fill other’s wells while ours is dry, we usually end up spreading need and hurt more than plenty and love.  We cannot give what we do not have.  We need to be nourished by God’s word, sustained by God’s presence, held in God’s unfailing love…before we are made ready to go out and serve.

And so I remind us all, that even as you work and serve and labor in the love of the Lord, in this place, and in your own places of life and work… May you take refuge in God.  May you return to God’s feet and open your mind and heart to hear God’s words to you.  May you lay down the needs.  May you lay down your worries.  And may you bring it all to Christ’s feet.

 

Our Lord who fed 5000 from two loaves and five fish, can care for you.

Our Lord who made the lame man walk, can care for you.

Our Lord who raised Lazarus from the dead, can care for you.

Our Lord who created the earth and all stars, who formed the planets and the ladybug, can care for you.

 

Let us heed these words of Jesus, spoken to us now, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

 

 

May we, like Mary, choose the better part.

“What Love is This?!”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 23
Ruth 1:1-18

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Ruth 1:1-18

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

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “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. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“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!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

 


 

This story of Ruth and Naomi compels us.

What possesses someone to cleave to another like that?

 

It is a mystery.

Did Ruth not have a better option?  Was her family of origin a place she never wished to return?  What were Ruth’s ties with her home country like – that she would give it all up to stay with Naomi and move to away from the only place she’d ever known?

Or did Ruth love her hometown and family of origin but love Ruth more?  Was her commitment to her husband so deep that not even death would end her commitment to his mother?  Did she pity her mother-in-law for having lost so much and feel an obligation to care for her?  Was her connection with her mother-in-law so extraordinary, that leaving her felt like more than she could bear?

 

We do not know.

For some undisclosed reason, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.

And this seems clearly NOT in the best interest of Ruth.

She had a much better chance starting over in her hometown.  She could re-marry.  She was young enough.  She could start again.

But following after her mother-in-law, who could no longer marry and had absolutely no way of caring for herself (as a woman in those days), was most certainly the bigger risk.  As women, their entire livelihoods were reliant on their having men to provide for them.   And all the men were gone.  The ties that bound them were gone.

 

But Ruth commits herself to Naomi – that not even death should part them.

 

This is extraordinary.

And it probably saved Naomi’s life, as two were much more likely to survive than one, alone.

And so we have Ruth and Naomi traveling back to Israel, to Naomi’s nation-of-origin, in the hopes that they would somehow find a way to survive, as word had reached them that God has spared the people of Israel, giving them food.

This commitment by Ruth to Naomi is so extraordinary that couples getting married will often pull from this text – in hopes that their own love and commitment might be half as strong that that shown by Ruth to Naomi.

 

What is it about this text that draws us in?

I think it’s this utter commitment.  I think it’s the depth of love shown in this most tangible way – of not leaving, even when it surely means suffering and risk and a difficult journey.  This cleaving to another person with devotion is so utterly gorgeous.  It draws us in.

 

Mercifully, Hebrew culture had a system for caring for the people.  Since in that day men were alone allowed to own property and conduct business, so all women needed the care of a man in order to survive.  Sometimes the man was a husband, sometimes a son, sometimes a father.

This system was so developed that they even had a system for making sure each man’s name and legacy was carried on.  If a woman lost her husband and had no children, the next of kin had an obligation to marry that woman so that she could conceive and bear a child to carry on the family name.  This was a family obligation.  And the character and integrity of one’s nearest of kin could be measured in their willingness at such times to step in and provide for the bereaved woman in this way.

But in this instance, Naomi was advanced in age, and it seems her time of bearing children was over.  She fell through the cracks.  There would be no more children to care for her, even if her next of kin were to step in.  She had lost the two she bore, and she could bear no more.  The two young wives had no brother in law to step in redeem them, as it was called in that day.  In fact, since Naomi and her husband had traveled to Moab and were foreigners in that land, they had no next of kin there at all.  So these two women had absolutely nothing.

This was about survival.

 

And in this place of nothingness.  In this place of emptiness.

They are reliant on God.  They are reliant on the mercy of strangers along a risky journey.

And in this place of emptiness, they cleave to one another.  They rely on each other.

 

When Naomi has no societal power left and no inroads to survival, Ruth will not leave her side.  She works tirelessly for herself and her mother-in-law that they might have food.  And to Naomi who feels as if her life is over and she has nothing, Ruth is living proof that God loves her and will not leave her.

Naomi shelters Ruth by bringing her back into the land and culture of Naomi’s roots.  There, there is food; God has been merciful to the people.  There, they have land owned by her former husband.  There they have kin, if one will step up and care for Ruth in this way.  And so Naomi guides her daughter in law – instructing her in this foreign land and culture – that Ruth may find her way and start anew, with fresh hope.

 

I will probably never tire of hearing this story.

We all need people in our lives like Ruth…

The kind of people who stay – long after their obligations have ended,

The kind of people who love – even when there’s little in it for them,

The kind of people who are committed to us – in thick and in thin, in plenty and in want.

 

We all come to places in our lives when we feel utterly stripped of all power and security.  We face journeys that feel so endless and barren.  We find ourselves with more loss than gain.

And in these times, we need people like Ruth.

 

I don’t know why some of us enjoy friendship and love like this only for a short season.  I don’t know why some of us search all our lives and never find such companionship.  I don’t know why others of us are so blessed to have several folks in our lives who would love us like this.

But wherever you find yourself today, I invite you to give thanks for those in your lives who have been there for you, for a lifetime or a season, or even a moment.

 

I have spoken to you before about that very low time in my life, that time pinnacled with acquiring bed bugs just before Christmas.  The bed bugs themselves can be enough to make the strongest among us feel crazy, but the real pain was in feeling so alone in my suffering.  And the bed bugs felt like icing on that cake of suffering.

The day I got the news that all fabric in my house had to be bagged and laundered and all belongings had to be pulled out 4 feet from the walls – for the bed bug treatment- I despaired, as I have no family in area.  Who could I possibly ask to come and enter into my misery – to help me through this mountain of a task?  I only had a few friends, and some of those friendships were new and untested.  So I called one such friend, and though it may be hard to tell at the outset, she is among the saints of this world – if her acts of love are the measure.  She agreed to come help, but she knew we would need more help if we were going to get everything ready in time, so she called some of her friends.

In the end, one of her friends agreed to come help.  It was a tiny miracle.  And so the three of us worked until we could work no more, and when it became clear that more would be needed come morning, the friend of my friend slept on my couch, in order to help me again in the morning.

 

What love is this?!?

What love is this – that goes the extra mile – and for someone essentially a stranger?

 

In this very low time, God showed God’s love for me through the love and selfless generosity of a stranger – to enter into my misery and walk with me until I could go on.

 

I do not know who your angels in disguise have been.  They come in all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds, times and places.

They have come in our times of greatest need.  And sometimes they come only for a moment.

But in these moments, God is showing the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.  In these moments, God is present and real to us in flesh and bone through people who have opened themselves to be used of God.

 

In our lives full of glorious mountain moments and valleys of despair, may we find God present with us, in the stranger, in the friend, in dear companionship, and in moments of utterly selfless beauty.

 

It is hard to love like this.

That’s why it is so rare and precious.

That’s why an entire book of Bible is one such story.

But as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, to be used by God,

we will find ourselves party to more and more such moments,

we will find strength to love with this kind of self-less and persevering love,

and we will witness the profoundly gorgeous love of God poured out.

 

God is actively working

To comfort the afflicted

To restore the oppressed

To heal the broken and brokenhearted

To shepherd us through the valleys of the shadow of death and bring us into a broad

land of milk and honey

To make our cups overflow!

 

God is actively working.

 

May we open ourselves,

listening for God

asking God to use us

and being obedient to the Spirit

That more people may KNOW the gorgeous love of God,

      in moments, and friendships, and love, like the love Ruth showed Naomi. 

 

Lord, use us.