November 12, 2000
This morning I have a couple of stories to tell you; stories of foreigners, family, and famine. Stories of grief, despair, and longing. Stories of courage, risk and new life. Let us begin with the story of Ruth.
A famine drives a family from Bethlehem to the country of Moab. They are Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech died and Naomi was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women named Ruth and Orpah. After 10 years both Mahlon and Chilion die. Their grieving mother, Naomi, makes plans to return to Bethlehem because she hears food is plentiful there again. Her daughter-in-laws begin to accompany her but she urges them back to their mothers' houses to seek new husbands. At first they refuse; eventually Orpah goes but Ruth persists in her refusal to stay declaring to Naomi; "Where you go, I shall go, and where you stay, I shall stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God."
They arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Naomi tells Ruth that it is permitted for her to glean behind the reapers who cut the grain. The field she chooses belongs to a man named Boaz who is favorably impressed by Ruth's devotion to Naomi and her initiative in gathering food. He tells her to glean only in his fields, orders his men not to bother her and offers her water and extra food.
When she returns home she shares what has happened with Naomi and Naomi blesses Boaz for his kindness and notes that he is a "very near' relative of her dead husband. The story continues with Chapter 3:
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17Now, Ruth has a husband, and a son. We may presume that she is more "legitimized" in the culture because the Levirate Custom has allowed her to no longer remain a widow by marrying a relative of her deceased husband. Naomi has an heir and the future of Israel will have a king. There is also much we don't know. Once the child is born the story switches the focus to Naomi and the child's future. We hear no more about Ruth; we know no more about her relationship with her new husband or her son. The women of the neighborhood bless Naomi; they give the new baby a name. Ruth vanishes into silence; the rest of her story untold.
3:1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.
3:2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.
3:3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.
3:4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do."
3:5 She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.
4:14 Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!
4:15 He 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."
4:16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.
4:17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
4:17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been
Nevertheless, the parts we are told about Ruth's story give a vivid and startling portrait of a woman who forged ahead through a number of obstacles to create a life. One might imagine her telling the story to another woman:
"Oh, I was probably a fool to first marry a man not from my own country. But, it seemed like the best match at that time. Those early years were filled with disappointment though; I could not conceive. I grieved deeply about that. And then before too many more years I was grieving again with the death of my husband. All of a sudden I am a widow and worrying about how to survive. When Naomi says she is returning to Moab where there is food, I begin to think perhaps there was a way out. My friends told me I was crazy. To go that far away with a woman who was a widow herself and without resources? To go to a strange land where our people, the Moabites, are despised? But, what was my other choice? To stay here and die? To hope someone will take pity on me and provide for me? Hah! I would rather take my chance on living than to waste away slowly in a deadened life.
"But, I admit I did not know how difficult it would be. Naomi didn't even seem to care whether I came. In fact, she pushed me to stay. But, I loved her anyway and I knew something of her pain. Even as difficult as life had been for us in our time together it felt like we still had some special connection that was worth holding on to.
"The reality of arriving in Bethlehem was worse than I imagined. People looked at me as if I had some disease. Mostly they looked at Naomi as if they could not believe she was the same person. She had lost so much weight. The circles under her eyes were immense; sadness bent her shoulders over. I worried about her too.
"I learned I could go behind the reapers who cut the grain and gather remnants. It was hot and dirty work but I was grateful for the food. Once the field owner told the men to not bother me I no longer had to put up with their stares and suggestive comments. This worked quite well for Naomi and I for some time. But, then the harvest was finished and we were again facing a destitute future. How weary was the constant worry about survival. But, I had been resourceful before and knew I could be again. I refused to go backwards; there had to be a better future for me.
"Naomi, concerned about our plight and my status as a widow, suggested I approach Boaz in a way that was manipulative. But, it seemed as if I had no other choice. I already felt so vulnerable being a woman alone, a foreigner, and with no man obligated to protect me. But this was extremely risky; going to him secretly during the night would risk my reputation and the tolerance of the community. If they ever found out, my plight would be ten times worse. But, to do nothing, to give up on a chance for life to be different would be a hundred times worse. I decided to do it.
"I was so frightened. How would Boaz respond? What would happen? Boaz seemed like a kind man, but this was not how I imagined my life unfolding. My despair at the unfairness of it all welled up inside of me but I resolutely turned my focus to the future. I remembered my friend from home who had always teased me that I had "fire in the bones." She had seen the determination in me to go boldly into the future even if I wasn't sure what it would be like. I only know there is within me this drive for fullness of life; this restlessness that urges me onward through the barriers that come in front of me.
"I was lucky with how it turned out with Boaz. He made me his wife and I was thrilled to finally become pregnant and experience a life beginning within my very own body. Even in the womb this child had abundant energy; perhaps some of my own "fire in the bones."
"But, life again had taken a downward turn. Barely was my son born and he was taken from me and given to Naomi. The women of the neighborhood gathered around them both and discussed his naming. Once again I felt left out, the foreigner ignored. I felt resentful; had I just been used? I felt uneasy as if once again I was going to have my life shaped by events around me. I was anxious about experiencing another loss.
"There are times when it simply seems too much to bear and I grow so weary. In those times I sink down into myself, into a place where there seems to be no life - just a nothingness. It is a void and in that moment when I truly see it for what it is there arises in me a "No!" A flat refusal to give up on life. A refusal to let what surrounds me define me. A refusal to give up on hope. And somehow, I climb out of the hole of nothingness and move towards something.
"What it will be I cannot know, but my movement towards it is what keeps me alive. This is the wisdom I have learned in my life."
Ruth was a woman of courage, facing life in an extraordinary way.
This past week the Seattle Times told the story of Norma Lopez. Norma is a single mother who works two full-time jobs to make enough money to pay for a modest apartment she shares with her 7-year-old son, a 15-year old car, day care and the bills. The approximately $400 left over each month she sends to Mexico, where her mother is raising her other older children.
Her day begins at sunrise and doesn't end until 1am the next morning. During the week she sees her son, Ricky, during an afternoon half hour between jobs while she's eating. He is asleep when she leaves and asleep when she comes home.
Norma recently learned Ricky would have to repeat first grade this year - something for which she blames herself because she wasn't there to help with his homework.
By day, Norma cleans a Lynnwood apartment complex. At night she cleans the office building that houses the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She has done this for six years and has been on welfare only once when she delivered her son by Caesarean section and was forced to be off work for several weeks.
She dreams of the day when she can afford to bring her three teenage children to live with her. "I need to do it," she said of her difficult life. "I pray to God, give me strength. My mind and body complain, but little Ricky gives me strength." She feels despair when her son asks her why she can't stay with him and help him with his homework like other moms do. She tells him, "Sweetie, you don't have a father. I have your grandma and brothers and sisters to support." But, she knows he doesn't really understand.
Just like the story of Ruth there are other parts of this story that we do not know but which we can imagine. Another "foreigner" in a strange land, another woman on her own struggling to make a life out of difficult choices. We hear again the pain of life met with tremendous courage and commitment to a different future. "I want to have something better," Norma said. "That's my wish. If I can't, I'd like my child to have something better."
Where is God in all of this? The book of Ruth seldom mentions God and appears to present only human origins and motivations for action. We sense God's presence only indirectly through prayers. We know the relationship between God and the people of Israel was a covenantal one. Such a relationship implied mutuality. Humans are given freedom and trusted to act out of the integrity of their relationship with God. The "fire in the bones" of Ruth may be seen as the deep push of the Spirit that seeks life in all of us.
Norma is clear that is her faith and reliance on God that helps her to keep going on four hours of sleep each night.
A woman wrote in a church newsletter about her personal struggle with the news of her husband's inoperable brain tumor. She spoke of her feeling the absence of God and referred to the poem "Footprints." In the poem a person tells of seeing only one set of footprints in the sand as he walked through a difficult time in his life. He realized that the one set of footprints was not his, but God's as God carried him. This woman said that for her the realization was slightly different.
In her case she did not see footprints beside her own because God was behind her pushing her gently as she traversed her way through the pain, not allowing her to fall back into a void or simply quit moving. God was the movement that gave her the courage to be in the midst of her tragic circumstances.
The stories of Ruth and Norma also remind us how people least enabled by the culture around them to shape their own destinies nevertheless initiate action that changes not only their lives but also the lives of the people around them. Yet, it is important to remember that their actions in themselves do not improve the social systems that surround them, situations in which they find themselves impoverished and unprotected. Such stories raise important questions about whether we can have the courage to be a culture willing to change its entrenched systems of injustice that lead to lives like these.
Our stories are different from Ruth and Norma yet we all experience many moments in our lives where we have to make difficult choices. Often we have to confront loss or betrayal. Sometimes we are the focus of the prejudices of others; others who do not know or understand all of our circumstances judge us. Other times we are victims of the unjust economic and social constructs of our culture. Often we simply become more aware of the deadened state in which we live our lives.
It is in these moments that we choose whether to give up and give in or whether to find within our faith and ourselves the "courage to be" in a different way; the courage to affirm the life force within us and to follow where it leads with confidence.
Our psalm reading this morning asks us: With God as the stronghold of our lives, of whom or what shall we be afraid? The psalmist proclaims: "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living" and reminds us to "be strong and let your heart take courage."
This morning let us commit anew to courageously live life with confidence and a willingness to make the difficult choices without always knowing where they will lead. Let us trust that in that movement towards renewed life we will experience God's presence in new ways and give birth to something holy and healing. Amen.