October 31, 2021
"Wherever You Go"
Rev. Scott Landis
The book of Ruth, in the Hebrew scriptures, contains a fascinating tale that may be difficult for us to comprehend for several reasons. It’s important to understand a little of the backstory to appreciate fully the relational dynamics between Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. We’ll be using this book – this week and next – as we study the ideas of commitment and risk in living our Christian faith.
It’s important to note the differences between the culture we are reading about and our own to appreciate these concepts of commitment and risk. Hebrew culture was fully patriarchal to the utter disadvantage of women at almost every level. For example, and as we see in this story, a woman without the protection of her father or husband was completely vulnerable and had relatively few avenues for survival.
In the Book of Ruth, we learn from the opening sentences that Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, had moved the two of them from Bethlehem (a Jewish city) to Moab (a Gentile city) early in their marriage. There she bore two sons Mahlon and Chilion. Years later, their sons married Moabite women Orpah and Ruth. Over the course of about 10 years all three of the men Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion died leaving their surviving wives in a very precarious position. Naomi thought her best chance of survival would be to return to Bethlehem where, at least, she had some kin she could turn to for help.
So, our story begins with Naomi – preparing for her departure – and insisting that her daughters-in-law remain in Moab where they could return to their families, receive the necessities – food and shelter – and begin to make a fresh start in their lives – that is, to find a husband so they might live “happily ever after.” After initially protesting, Orpah took Naomi’s advice and returned to Moab, but Ruth would have none of it. As portrayed in that beautiful song you are about to hear, Ruth offered her words of commitment. “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live so shall I live.”
I invite you to listen as you imagine this scene – its tension – its sense of loyalty – and its deep sadness and uncertainty as Naomi and Ruth struggle with what next to do.
[Song – Wherever You Go]
It’s an amazing display of devotion and of giving up everything to support and companion this woman whom Ruth adored. Interestingly, and as an aside, the name Ruth in Hebrew is derived from two root words that mean “friend or companion.” Naomi, on the other hand means “pleasant.” Yet when she returns to Bethlehem, and is greeted by her kin, who refer to her as Naomi, she says, “Do not call me Naomi, from now on call me Mara” which means “bitter.”
Can you blame her? And that is precisely the aspect of the story that I would like to spend a few moments on today. What is it like to be named Naomi (Pleasant) when what you feel inside is Mara (Bitterness)?
Can you relate? For example, in our day, what is it like to be called “Christian” when what you feel inside is betrayal from God, who does not seem to care about your needs, and perhaps you feel bitter as well? Is there room for these competing aspects of reality in your life? Can you hold space for both as Naomi apparently did? [Pause]
You see, I believe, even though this precious little book in the Bible is entitled Ruth – this is really Naomi’s story. In a selfless act of “chesed,” which is the Hebrew word for “loyalty or faithfulness arising from devotion,” Naomi releases her daughters-in-law from any semblance of obligation to her. She sacrifices HER needs so that they might return to THEIR home and begin anew with no obligations to what was. They are now to look toward a future bright with possibility and hope. Naomi is able to acknowledge her pain, her loss, even her anger, “Call me Mara/Bitter,” she says, while knowing deep down – she is not alone – God is there, perhaps in an even more profound sense than she ever realized or felt before.
This is a reality we all live with. We live with these competing emotions all the time – sometimes it’s just much more pronounced than others.
I can recall four occasions this week alone where people of deep faith contacted me when they had reached their limit and simply couldn’t take it any longer. They needed someone to talk to, someone who would simply listen to their words of pain, allow them to release their tears, and to know that they were not any less faithful for entertaining the idea that God “had seemingly forgotten about them.” To them it seemed like their prayers had gone unanswered – and they were completely frustrated – but then they felt guilty that they were not being faithful.
I could site the specifics of each situation, but I think you get it – you know this story, and I’d lay money on the fact that you have been there to – maybe you are there right now – or know someone who is. [Pause]
As we have lived – and continue to live – through this pandemic we have had to hold this tension as a constant in our lives as we strive to be faithful while at the same time echoing the Psalmist’s lament, “How long, O Lord?” We have all held hope and frustration or deep disappointment in tension – as we seek the presence of God who promises never to leave our side. But, sometimes that promise seems empty.
Here is precisely where Naomi’s story can speak to us. Naomi learned that God gives us the space to hold grief and doubt as persons of faith without condemnation. It’s the story of Naomi. It’s the story of Ruth. It’s the story of Mary and Joseph. It’s the story of Jesus and Paul. It’s all over the Bible. Is there any reason why it cannot be our story too?
There is no way of knowing, but I wonder whether Ruth learned this lesson AND the importance of commitment just by watching the way Naomi conducted her life. It was not so much what she said – but how she lived. Ruth could see Naomi’s loyalty to God despite the unfortunate circumstances that surrounded her. She could see the way she held “pleasant” and “bitter” in a creative tension that informed her life of devotion and determination.
I wonder who those persons are in your life. Who are your Naomi’s? Who taught YOU how to persevere and endure life’s challenges by THEIR life example much more so than their words? [Pause]
A few weeks ago, my `ōlelo Hawai`i kumu (teacher) asked the class to identify the kumu in our lives. Those “teachers” who had a profound influence on us? Those who taught us life-lessons. I had to think about that for a bit, but finally remembered those who lived their core values in ways that inspired me to live mine. I wasn’t expected to mimic them. That was not their intent. But, I have tried to emulate their integrity. And, so, I invite you to consider the same question.
Who has taught you to hold in tension bitterness and joy in a life that seeks to be faithful? My guess is these are the authentic, deeply-grounded people that have shaped you into who you are today. If they are still alive, you may want to let them know how important they have been to you. If they are gone, take it to your prayer and thank them and thank God for their gift to you.
And then do a little self-examining. Are you living in ways that might help another or others see the strength and character that has formed in you? What do others see when they look at your life?
And, finally, offer God your gratitude for the life you have been given. Perhaps affirming those same words heard just moments ago. Words of commitment: Wherever you go, I shall go.