Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Love Beyond Belief
13 October 2019, NL2-6, harvest communion
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’
11 But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!’
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 ‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’
16 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’
It seems perhaps an odd choice to put our harvest celebration on the day when the lectionary gives us a story about a famine—or it might be the perfect day, as we remember that while we have an abundance of good things, there are many who are hungry and thirsty, and part of our duty as people with plenty is to share with others.
In Bethlehem, the town whose name literally means “house of bread,” there was no grain to harvest to make bread. It was bad enough that at least one family left that place, looking for more abundant life, and went to the land of Moab—a land whose people were enemies of the Israelites, specifically banned and despised. Living up to its reputation, Moab turned out to be a land not of plenty but of grief and loss, as Naomi’s husband and sons all died there over the decade they lived there.
When Naomi heard that the Lord had ended the famine in Bethlehem, she decided to go home. But she had a problem — Moabites were unwelcome among her people, and she had two Moabite daughters-in-law.
Actually, she had more than one problem. Because though she recognised that God’s hand was at work in saving the people back home from the famine, she also believed that God’s hand was turned against her, that she was, at best, abandoned by God, or perhaps even cursed.
Two Moabite daughters-in-law didn’t help that feeling. So she urged them to go home to their own families, and she sent them away with a blessing from the God she believed had turned his back on her — she compared these young women to God, actually. Our translation says “kindness” but the word is chesed, which means something more like loving-kindness, faithfulness, and loyalty, all rolled into one word. It’s a loyalty and love beyond belief, beyond expectation. Ruth and Orpah have done more than could possibly have been expected of them as foreign wives brought into this family.
It took several tries, but eventually Naomi was able to convince Orpah to return to her birth family. Perhaps Naomi’s insistence that God had abandoned her played a part in that decision, or perhaps Orpah understood the difficulty that lay ahead if she, a Moabite, chose to emigrate, or perhaps she simply followed her mother-in-law’s directions. Whatever the case, Orpah wept, and said goodbye, and set her face back to her first home.
Ruth, however, clung to Naomi. She insisted that she had made a commitment and would not break it. She knew the challenges, she knew the risks, and still she held fast. And again, our English translations make it hard to see the full truth of her words, as they try to smooth it out for the way we speak, but Ruth doesn’t speak in the future tense. She speaks of a present reality. In explaining her insistence on sticking by Naomi’s side, she says literally “Your people, my people, and your God, my God.” Again, she acts on chesed, loyalty and love above and beyond expectation or belief. Ruth has decided to surrender her past and to go forward into God’s future despite whatever obstacles there might be. Where you go, I go, where you stay, I stay.
It’s an astounding speech, really, highlighted by the fact that this chapter of the book of Ruth uses the word “turn around” — which is the same as the word for “repent” — twelve times. In the midst of so many reversals, turning back, and repentance for decisions made over the past ten years, we have this steadfast movement in one direction. Ruth will not turn back, she will not repent of her choice to stay by Naomi’s side, she will not reverse her familial commitments. Despite the dangers and difficulties of being a foreigner in a new land, despite the ways people will make fun of her accent and the limitations her background will place on her, she is steadfast in her loyal love, her faithful loving kindness, her chesed.
Naomi and Ruth arrived back in Bethlehem just before the barley harvest, and Ruth took matters into her own hands by going out to glean in the fields. Landowners were required to leave some of their crops at the edge of the field so that those without land could come and harvest something for themselves, and Boaz was a faithful and righteous man, so he did that, and more, for Ruth. And the way Ruth managed the situation ensured not just her own survival, but Naomi’s position in the community...and ultimately she became the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king. This immigrant woman, from the most despised foreign nation, has a place in the genealogy of the people of God — because of her willingness to put aside her own self interest and to be loyal and loving beyond belief, and because God can and does use all sorts of people, even the ones we have excluded.
Yesterday morning, thousands of people witnessed a version of this as well. Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to run a marathon distance in under two hours. But part of the reason he was able to do that was because he had 41 other world-class runners to take turns surrounding him and helping him keep the pace. They protected him from wind resistance, running in front and behind in a tight formation, and they kept the exact pace outlined by a laser on the road in front of them. They had to run an incredible 13.1 miles per hour in order to accomplish this feat.
Those 41 other runners came from 11 nations, including some who are both sporting and political rivals to Eliud’s own nation of Kenya. A number of them came straight from the World Championships in Doha, using their well-earned holidays to help him reach this goal. None of them will get medals or prize money, their names will be instantly forgotten by most who saw the spectacle of yesterday morning. They were not there running ridiculously fast and in meticulous formation for themselves or their own glory. Many of them said in interviews they were doing this—on their rest days, remember!—for Eliud.
That is a loving-kindness that is beyond belief. I mean, the pace at which they ran also boggles the mind and feels unbelievable. But so does the idea that they would give up their time and risk injury without any chance of personal gain. Yet they stuck close together and to Eliud, going relentlessly forward. It was like watching that loyal loving-kindness above and beyond expectation, running through the streets.
Most of the time, chesed is the word used to describe God’s posture toward us. Though we turn away, God is always faithful. Though we have difficulty acting as if we are made in God’s image, still God deals with us with loving-kindness. Even when we decide the risks of following God’s way are too great, God risks everything, all the way to the cross, to show us chesed. God surrounds us and brings us relentlessly forward...and asks us to do the same in return. To be like Ruth, or like the runners, to stay close whatever the cost, to cling to Christ, to live our commitment not just with our minds but with love beyond belief.
May it be so. Amen.