Ruth's storyteller begins with an ominous sort of note. In the days that the judges ruled, is the first line of the tale. In the Hebrew Bible, the way it's organized, Ruth gets put with what are called the Writings--books that impart a kind of holy wisdom, like Ecclesiastes and Esther, Proverbs and Chronicles, Daniel and Job (books that don't quite fit with the Law that orders a righteous life, or the Prophets who bring God's word with uncommon clarity). But in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that our bibles are based on, the Septuagint, Ruth comes right after the Book of Judges, making the connection between the two even more obvious. Ruth begins: In the days that the judges ruled; and Judges ends like this: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
That may not sound like a bad deal. But what we're meant to hear is that it's a time of chaotic relativism, a time of division and discord, disunity among God's people; a time when the life of freedom in God has been widely traded for a life of slavery to self. This is the backdrop of Ruth's story.
It's a setting that feels vaguely, uncomfortably familiar, doesn't it? We know something about times and places where personal choice and selfish ambition are among the highest ideals; and we know something about the kinds of messes that can create. In any case, it's not a particularly promising situation. That's what we're supposed to know. This is no sanitized, make-believe world where we can escape for a spiritual retreat. It's a world in which the headlines are relentlessly fearful, where neighbors are anxious, the markets uncertain, and leadership is shaky at best.
But it's not just the social order that's suffering. The next line tells us that creation is groaning, too. In the days when judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. We go from bad to worse. And we quickly realize that we're not going to be spending time with the ruling judges, but in the company of a community of migrant workers--it's not hard to imagine that Elimelech was part of a "caravan" of migrant workers, environmental refugees, who left Bethlehem in search of something more hopeful. Maybe there's a life to be had in Moab.
And then, to top it all off, by the end of the first paragraph we hear that, in fact, a life has been cobbled together, only to have it fall apart again--Elimelech marries Naomi, and they have two sons, who take Moabite wives, but within a decade all the men have died, leaving Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth hopeless and desolate, without protection or provision.
We begin with unflinching realism about the world. None of the edges are softened. The hardships aren't glamorized; they're just laid out as a matter of course. These are perfectly recognizable conditions. I doubt there are any among us who don't know the salt of Naomi's tears, or Elimelech's dashed hopes and broken dreams. It’s a bleak beginning. But to be honest, I think there's something starkly beautiful about the fact that there's no hesitation about honesty and realism here. There's no expectation in this scripture that we should look for a hidden meaning behind untimely deaths, or dire situations. These widows are not dusted off and primped up before they are caught up in God's story. Instead our storyteller is relentless in showing us that if this will be scripture, if it will tell us something about who and how God is in the world, it will only be in this world.
And yet, we can't help but be aware that God is not subject to, or limited by our conditions, or our expectations, whether good or bad. As we walk through Ruth's story, we will be reminded that we're not dealing with a god who waits until we have our acts together, and the setting is ideal, and the liturgy is wrinkle-free. No, as we enter Ruth's story, we can't help but deal with the One whose pattern is to speak chaos into order, to breathe life into mud, to call light out of darkness. Our expectations of what constitutes good soil for holiness, proper grounds for God’s work, don't amount to much against the surprising bloom of grace.
And before we get too far, I think it's worth paying attention to the fact that it's not just the conditions that aren't ideal, in the beginning. None of the characters are obviously heroic, or specially gifted. We don't hear that "in the days the judges ruled the Spirit of the Lord came upon Ruth, or Naomi, or Elimelech." In fact, the rest of the story will be mostly about two widows and an old farmer in a backwoods village, putting one foot in front of the other through less than perfect circumstances. It's kind of remarkable how often the Scriptures remind us that the stuff that reveals something true about God, the building blocks for God's kingdom are not generally the most coveted materials. If we were going to create a salvation story, a story about how God is in the world, I suspect we wouldn't begin with the bereaved and the calloused. I certainly wouldn't. There's a fairly long lineup of competent and capable, educated and successful people ahead of Naomi and Ruth (and even Boaz, who hasn't made the story, yet). It's unnerving how regularly grace undermines my choices.
Naomi and Ruth make plain the truth that weaves its way through the Scriptures: that God chooses strangely. It's interesting that Jews read this story during the festival of Pentecost. Pentecost is both a harvest celebration, and festival during which Israel remembers the giving of Torah, God's instruction for free and abundant and holy living, at Mt. Sinai. In other words, it's a time when Israel remembers God's provision and God's choice of them--a nation of redeemed slaves--to be a light to the nations and the hope of the world. It's a time when God's people remember who and whose they are. I will be your God, and you will be my people. It's a time of remembering that they are meant to be strange in the world, that they have the odd and divine task of bearing witness to who and how God is.
And of course, there's always a danger when people get together to express their peculiarity, to acknowledge that they are somehow different from their neighbors. And it's even more dangerous when that difference has something to do with the maker of heaven and earth, the God of all things. The Church knows all too well what kind of havoc can be wreaked on the world when the fact of God's choice gets twisted about. We know that the wonder that God chooses to work in and through people can be easily mangled into a means to separate and divide the chosen from the damned; a way of insisting that God doesn't so-love the world, but God so-loves us and people like us. We know because we've done it.
There's a danger in believing, trusting, knowing that God has designs on our lives. It can make us quick to close doors, anxious to set up barriers, eager to establish clear-cut membership policies. We can move almost effortlessly from the wonder of God's world-saving, horizon-expanding, possibility-making choice, to cramped self-protection, and neurotic gate-keeping. We can imagine that God's capacity to choose is very limited indeed, roughly on par with ours. We can trade the staggering expanse of God's grace, the wild length, width, height, and depth of God's untameable love for this world, for a vision limited by our fears and expectations, a dream pared down to a more manageable size and scope.
Somewhere along the line, Israel must have recognized this, so, while delighting God's gracious choice, she also began to tell herself Ruth's story: a story where the heroes are an old woman who imagines herself not blessed, but cursed by God, and a woman from Moab. It matters quite a lot that Ruth is a Moabite. The storyteller reminds us of the fact again and again (8 times in 4 chapters). Ruth the Moabite. It matters because this causes all kinds of grace-filled problems for a Biblical faith. See, the Law is pretty explicit in its exclusion of Moabites from faithful community (Deuteronomy 23:3). At one point, in order to get Israel back on track, the leaders try to expel all the Moabite wives with their foreign gods and idols, so that there would be no more genetic mixing with true Israelites, and no more exotic and idolatrous influences. Moabites are the long-time enemy, since the time of the wilderness; the antithesis of a chosen people. And yet, here is Ruth the Moabite, saying: Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people will be my people and your God my God.
Together these two women enter our understanding of God, the story of God with us, as an unexpected and powerful gift. Naomi is a gift to all of us who have ever felt that God has abandoned us. She will be a reminder quite to the contrary; that, in fact, God has a surprising habit of showing up in the ash heap, amidst the rubble of hopes and dreams; that God will not despise a broken heart but God's goal is to see every tear wiped away, every weight lifted, every chain shattered, even death conquered. And that's not to say that the pain in our lives is insignificant. Naomi's story, her anguish, admits a little more openly than we might like that in this life we are not immune from, or indifferent to pain. It's not hushed. There's no stiff upper lip here. Pain gets voiced. It gets prayed. It gets yelled and moaned. The Scriptures never shy away from suffering; they never try to sweep it under the rug, or gloss over it with platitudes.
And yet, time and time again, we come up against the persistent promise that while we know all about brokenness, in the end it will not define us. It will not have the last word.
The last word is grace. Grace breaking through the cracks. Grace on the lips of outcasts and nobodies. Grace taking shape in the overlooked and the everyday. Grace bringing life out of death, molding lives of freedom and hope and joy. Those who go out weeping with seeds for sowing will come back singing for joy, their arms full of the harvest! Sings the psalmist. Naomi testifies for us when we're at our wits' end; she gives powerful voice to a broken heart. And in the end she'll stand as a fresh reminder that no one is beyond God's reach. The pits of despair are not deep enough to separate us from God's love. Not trial or hardship, not even death can separate us from the love of this God, St. Paul will sing centuries later.
And then there's Ruth the Moabite. She is a promise for everyone who is told that they don't belong in God's presence, that they are not worthy of God's blessing and grace. Ruth stands up for the misfits and the rejects and the outsiders. She stands up for the gay kid who's told he doesn't belong in church; for the immigrant told she doesn't deserve what the rest of us have by happy accident; for the marginalized and victimized, the kicked out and the downtrodden. Ruth stands for all of us who struggle with worthiness, who wrestle with shame and guilt, who are weighed down by hopelessness, who feel as though we don't belong. Ruth stands up and in the midst of her crying she clings to another possibility. It's a powerful image as Ruth clings to Naomi. She will not be sent off. She clings.
Together, Naomi and Ruth stand as a witness either for, or against God's people. This morning, here and now, they stand as a witness either for or against the Church, grafted into the promises of Israel, gathered up by grace to be a living testimony to who and how God is in this world. They stand as a reminder that we are made to be a sign of God's unexpected and uncontainable hope. We claim to follow the One who is light in the darkness, light that is the life of all people, light that will not be quenched. We bear the name of the One who is good news for the poor, strength for the weary, the One who is new sight for sin-dim eyes, who is release from every captivity. We bear the name of the One whom we'll see has Naomi the Cursed, and Ruth the Moabite, in his family tree.
If we'll bear that name well, I think we have to let Ruth teach us her song, to learn to sing in harmony with her.
Do not 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, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die; May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you!
Hearing Ruth's covenant song to Naomi we hear the age-old God-tune, the melody of grace, the self-giving love that will shape Jesus' ministry and his death, ring out in the glorious shock of his resurrection, and carries the hope of his rule and reign.
As we learn to sing with Ruth, we're guarded from cramped and anxious living. As her song bubbles up in us we are freed from the manic self-protection our world tells us to live in. We are opened up to the possibility that even we might share the mind of Christ: who let go of everything that was rightly his, in order to cling to us, to cling to a new possibility, and hold us to a new hope. Ruth the Moabite tutors us in the way that we're made to be, the way that God is--the God who will not turn back, who will not shy away from the dark valleys, but who will cling to us, even when we can't cling back, and guide us through. Nothing in heaven, earth, or hell--not even death--will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!
I want to encourage us to read through this passage again over the course the coming week. Let’s let Ruth's words take shape in our hearts, in our lives. Let’s stand with Ruth and Naomi in their grief and in the faintest of hopes, we're reminded again that our lives are salvation material. Ruth the Moabite, on the dusty road between death and promise, in the backwoods village of Bethlehem, among unnamed labourers and unlikely famers, insists that God's choice, God's grace, is not dependent upon who we are--certainly not who the world says we are--but on whom God is. She testifies that wherever we happen to be, whatever we're doing, we can be, will be, are the living stones with which God's kingdom will be built.
By God's strange choice, caught up in God's grace, clung to by Christ and clinging to the hope that we have in him, we are sufficient--whatever the conditions, whoever the company--to give witness to God's possibility, to let all the hope, peace, joy, and love of God for us and for this broken and beloved world, have its full effect.
Holy Spirit, give us comfort and courage, grace and guts.