Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)
Scripture: Ruth 1:1-11a, 14-22
It’s been just over a year since our dog Ruthie came into our lives. She was a rescue pup that Javen and I adopted into our household of two cats. She has been a joyful, loving addition. I pretend that I don’t like her constant affection, that I need my space, but her desire to be right beside us is one of the things I find most endearing. She follows us around from room to room in the house, stands watching us intently as we cook in the kitchen, begs to go out with us when we’re by the back door, and hops on the couch immediately when we go to sit down. In fact, we named her “Ruthie” because of this passage of Scripture: “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” One couldn’t ask for a more loyal, loving friend.
Unless you ask our cats, especially Amos. Poor Amos’s world turned upside down when that dog moved in. Over the last year Amos has lost weight, started meowing at random, and become nearly neurotic. Previously, he was the only one who followed us around, jumped in our laps, and got in the way when we were watching TV. But now there’s this giant, sloppy, smelly intruder vying for our attention instead. It’s not just jealousy though on Amos’ part. I’m convinced that much of the problem is Ruthie’s tail. She doesn’t realize what she’s got there, but it’s JUST at nose height for a cat. Her tail is ALWAYS wagging, and it goes so fast it’s hard to see. The cats try to give her tail a six-foot clearance, but this makes it hard around doors when she’s buzzing through oblivious to anything but our presence. Amos cringes for fear, and more often than not still gets hit in the face with Ruthie’s propeller. He turns around and swats retribution in the air behind her. Sometimes I see Amos, up on an end table and out of the tail’s range, but watching the dog intently. He must be thinking of all that has gone wrong in the last year of his life. He’s now a stranger in what was once a familiar land. The happiness of home is just a fleeting memory in his cat-brain. Everything he counted on has changed, and there’s no hope of it going back to normal again.
Amos could justifiably have been called Naomi instead, based on what we hear from Naomi in this passage. She, like Amos, has experienced profound disorientation. And though his is rather funny, Naomi’s losses are tragic. Her life has seen one calamity after another. She, her husband and their two sons are forced by famine to abandon the town of Bethlehem (which ironically means, “house of bread”). These food refugees leave modern-day Israel and go to modern-day Jordan, travelling (then as now) into “enemy territory”. In the land of Moab, Naomi was displaced to a different culture, language and customs. Once there, her husband dies, leaving her a widow. What must Naomi have thought when her sons married Moabite women? Was she dismayed that this foreign culture now even had a place inside the family home? Or was she grateful that her sons at least found women to marry, and might now give her grandchildren? We don’t know, except that after ten years (and no grandchildren) the sons also died. There is nothing left for Naomi of the life she once knew—husband, sons and country are all gone. How many dreams were deferred, then died, in Naomi? How many times had the candle of hope been burned out? By the time she goes back to Bethlehem, Naomi’s grief comes pouring out in an avalanche of despair. To the women of Bethlehem who recognize Naomi and greet her by name, she says, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, [call me “bitter”] for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi [“pleasant”] when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Naomi’s experience of life has turned bitter, irrevocably so, apparently. Of the people who journeyed with her to Moab, she alone is left; all the others have died. And she holds God to account for their loss.
Do you recognize Naomi’s cry of pain, of bitter hopelessness? If we’re honest, I think we must hear it all too often. Naomi’s lament is that of anyone who feels betrayed by the circumstances of their life or of the world. Anyone who has ever lost a job, lost a child, lost a lover, or lost a friend. Anyone who feels too old, too sick, too slow, or too single to fit in any longer. Anyone who lives with depression, chronic illness, or never-ending pain. Anyone who faces racism, sexism, domestic violence, bullying, or homophobia on a daily basis. Anyone who has ever said, “Things aren’t like they used to be.” Naomi’s grief is shared by anyone whose heart breaks at the brutality of the world; anyone who wonders, “Why, God?” Naomi gives voice to a profound sense of disorientation when bad things happen to good people, and her lament is practically universal in my experience. All of us take turns being on the outside of what feels normal and right—out of sorts, out of friends and out of company.
I’m glad that figures such as Naomi are in the Bible. They demonstrate that it is a faithful and righteous thing to lament. Naming our dis-ease and our dis-orientation is one way we start to learn that we’re not alone. And addressing our complaints to the God of love and justice is only right. Who else has shoulders broad enough to bear our pain, and creative power enough to work in hidden ways to show us the rest of the story?
The other gift of this story for us today is that though Naomi feels like she is alone, Ruth is right there beside her all along. In fact, Ruth (whose name means “friend”) refuses to be pushed away even when Naomi tries—not once, not twice, but three times. God insists on ministering to Naomi’s grief through this foreign, Moabite woman Ruth. Ruth’s friendship is the small, green plant in a hidden crack, growing patiently until its roots and its life break down concrete itself. All the while that Naomi is lamenting God’s harsh treatment, God is at work in Ruth to bring new life out of despair.
Of course Naomi doesn’t recognize the blessing of her friend Ruth right away. Because Ruth is the help that nobody could want. What kind of power and help could Ruth provide? She’s a woman in a time when women were treated as property, with scarcely any identity or power of their own. She’s a widow like Naomi, having lost her own husband (and thereby all the more culturally disadvantaged). What’s more, she is a foreigner, a Moabite, an enemy of Israel. According to the stories told around Israel, the Moabite people were the dodgy children of Lot, the ones who denied food to Israelite pilgrims in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 23:3-5), the ones who followed foreign gods and would lead the faithful astray. Think of the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis today, and you’ll have a sense of how Moabites and Jews got along in the time of this story. What must it have been like for Ruth to follow Naomi back to Bethlehem? Both outsiders in their own way, the oddest of couples, pulled together by Ruth’s dogged dedication to her friend Naomi, and God’s desire to bless them both even in the midst of anguish.
This chapter at the beginning of the book of Ruth concludes with this nod the future: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” I encourage you to read the three chapters that follow in this short little book. Because the hint of harvest here comes to be fulfilled. Naomi’s family connections prove a blessing, and she coaches Ruth on how to get food in the harvest. Along the way, Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, a distant relative to Naomi. They marry, and Ruth gives birth to a son Obed. Naomi is there for what seemed impossible—the birth of a grandson—and the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi that this boy, “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.” (Ruth 4:15) Naomi, who once complained that God left her empty, has her lap and her life filled with all the promise of a newborn grandchild. What’s more, as the biblical writers trace birth records from here, Ruth’s son Obed has a son Jesse, whose own son is David, the greatest king in Hebrew history. Matthew’s gospel continues the genealogy further, from King David all the way down to a man named Jacob, “the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” (Matthew 1:16) Kathleen O’Connor, a brilliant biblical scholar, captures the theological meaning of Ruth the Moabite’s place in the ancestry of David and Jesus: “This providential, inclusive God acts through the enemy, through the one least likely to matter in the community…. Jesus’ own genealogy is a theological statement that includes the nations, the enemies of Israel, the excluded ones.” And now you know, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”
I don’t know if our cat Amos will ever treat our dog Ruthie as anything other than a foreign intruder. I’m not holding my breath, but stranger things have happened. I have hope for them, and for all who feel hopeless and sick of heart. Because the book of Ruth and the heart of all Scripture show us God working in hidden ways to overcome despair with new life, always transforming crucifixion into resurrection. Those who feel like outsiders because of changing circumstances, and those who are treated as outsiders, enemies and foreigners, instead belong together in the patterns of God’s salvation story. Our calling is to follow God in creating community among unlikely people, a community that includes every outsider, until God’s compassion and blessing are revealed.
Let us pray: God, you have called us together as Ruths and Naomis. Work among us your mysterious power, that all may find a home with one another, and that all who are empty might be filled with your grace. Amen.
 Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Theological Perspective” on Ruth 1:1-18 in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009, 246.