Till Death Do Us Part
October 31, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.
Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah, lithograph by Marc Chagall, 1960
I’m so excited to begin reading the book of Ruth with you all. For the next four weeks we are going to read all of Ruth. It’s just four short chapters and I want to encourage each of you to read or listen to the whole book of Ruth at some point this week. It’s worth it and you can do it. I believe in you. In fact, if you really want to reap the blessings of this book, I challenge you to read all of Ruth once a week. I mean, think of how you could tell your friends, you read a whole book every week.
In preparing for this series I found an essay written on Ruth from 1953 and I love how the author described Ruth. He said, “From a literary point of view, Ruth is a gem, a gracious and beautiful short story.” He says, “Ruth is a little book, a lovely little book. It is too slight to carry the weight of many disquisitions. But there is an eternal hardiness in its conviction of a God whose love overflows the limits good people seek to impose upon him, and who continually stretches the content of neighborhood and brotherhood until it embraces all lands and people.” Can you guess why, then, we are going to read Ruth for the next four weeks? God whose love overflows the limits even good people seek to impose to stretch who we think of as neighbor and sibling until it embraces all people and lands! It’s worth reading this lovely little book, for the next four weeks. It will only enrich our experience exploring it together, for while we will hear every chapter read together each week, you will benefit from holding the story together as its whole.
So, let’s turn back to the story. We heard already this morning that this is a story that takes place in the days when judges ruled Israel. So, this story takes place after Moses and Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land. The people, now living in the land of milk and honey, began to ask that God for a human ruler over them. God wanted them to be able to simply live in community, trusting God alone to lead them, following the law God gave to Moses, but the people demanded some kind of human leadership. They wanted a king like the other nations. God allowed them judges instead. That places this story sometime between 5-700 years before Jesus was born.
Loving kindness and faithfulness, are the great
themes of Ruth I want you to look for. In the original Hebrew the word is hesed (חֶסֶד). Hesed is a hugely important quality in the Bible and it is generally translated in English to loving kindness, with a quality of generosity. We will see hesed and loving kindness faithfulness among the characters, but we will also see how God uses these folks to reveal God’s own nature which is loving kindness and faithfulness. At the heart of the story of Ruth is God, God who is faithful and at work even in the worst of times. If that’s not a message of hope for today, I don’t know what is. God is at work in the lives
of these people, and God is at work in our lives
all the time, in love.
The way Ruth begins, as we heard from Eric, is with Naomi and her husband Elimelech leaving their home in Bethlehem with their two sons because of a famine. That means Naomi and her family were climate refugees. They fled Judah with their children and went to Moab where they had a better chance to make it, to raise a family, to feed that family. There are some of us here today who can relate to this situation, to needing to leave your homeland because of poverty or crime or something else.
In Moab, the boys grew and married women from Moab. Both of the Jewish men married wives of different nationalities, and different faiths. This is a diverse family. And then a season of heartbreak strikes this family. First Naomi’s husband dies and then both her sons die. We don’t know how they die, but just like Job, Naomi experiences wave after wave of devastating loss. She decides, in her grief, to go back to her homeland, to Judah where the famine had lifted. Now, Naomi was not completely alone. Both of her sons’ wives are with her. Remember, they are Moabites, their families are in this country. So, our story continues in verse 8.
Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
That’s where Naomi is in her grief. She says, “Even if I thought there was hope for me,” she says, “it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Naomi is depressed. She has lost her husband and her children and for good reason, from this place of deep pain, she does not see any hope for her. But she does see these young women as being able to recover from their loss and have a good life. She’s freeing them to not worry about her, and encouraging them to go home, heal, and live their lives. She sees no hope for herself but she does hope for her daughters-in-law and in her love for them, her kindness, she gives them her blessing to go. So,
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, to her mother-in-law “Do not press me to leave you or to 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—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” ' So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
There ends the first chapter. Ruth has refused to leave her mother-in-law Naomi. She is free to go with Naomi’s blessing but she has such a powerful love for Naomi and is so faithful that she pledges complete fidelity to her. This is more than guilty obligation, this is faithfulness and love. Hesed. They have a relationship that has seen times of great happiness, and they also have been there for each other through incredible loss. The power of Ruth’s love and commitment is greater than her fear of what may lay ahead. She could have stayed, as her sister-in-law did, but she wedded herself to Naomi, and promises not only to go where she goes, but to become a foreigner herself, and to take Naomi’s people and culture as her own, and to give herself in faith to Naomi’s God, Our God. She pledges herself to Naomi through death. Ruth’s speech is such a beautiful vow of love and faithfulness that Ellen Stockstill and I made these words our marriage vow to each other over a decade ago.
In what we have heard today, what sets this family a part from any other? What makes them so special that their story is in the Bible; that we are reading it three thousand years later? While their loss is great, it is not unique. We all have known devastating loss, some of you know very well the waves of loss Naomi experienced. Their story is not here simply because of this pain.
And neither is it because Ruth is superhuman in her faithfulness to Naomi. It is incredible kindness, but I think many of us can think of people who have shown this kind of love. My own grandmother, whose name was Ruth, committed herself to her mother-in-law after they were both widowed. She shares Ruth’s name and a bit of her story, but there’s nothing extraordinary about it. Naomi was not a queen, Ruth was not a famous business woman. There were many other families just like them in their time, and in our own. And that is what is amazing, miraculous even about this story in the Bible. IT’S IN THE BIBLE. Their story is made holy, lifted into the word of God, not because they did anything more special than anyone else, but because God wants us to see how if their story
belongs in his story, then so does yours. Someone could tell any single one of your stories, and the way Ruth’s is told, and there would be pain and triumph over adversity, there would be loss and there would be love and there would be loving kindness and faithfulness.
The Bible is the story of God and God’s people and here in the Bible is Ruth’s ordinary story. But it is extraordinary, and so are your stories. And that is what God does for us; God reminds us that our story of faith is part of His story and your story has a place here, a place here in God’s story. And therefore, you have a place here in God’s community today! And here we strive for the kind of hesed, of loving kindness, of faithfulness to each other, to our community, and most of all to God. Ruth and Naomi and those we will meet here, they invite us to marvel at their story so that we might also marvel at the stories of those others we meet: those who come for medical services here, to see a dentist, to hear the heartbeat of their baby for the first time, and those who haven’t yet come through those doors. We marvel at their stories and imagine them within the story of God. For mercifully God’s love overflows all human limits to embrace more and more of creation, in hesed, folding all stories into God’s story of grace and redemption.
How will your story of faithfulness and love be told in the story of God? I invite you to truly imagine as we continue together to learn from Ruth. Amen.