Sermon, Nov. 8

Naomi and her Daughters exhibited 1804 by George Dawe 1781-1829
George Dawe, “Naomi and her Daughters”

Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  

That is the sixteenth verse of the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, the source of today’s Old Testament lesson. It’s the most familiar – the most famous – verse of the whole book. Most notably, it’s become a favorite text at weddings. If you go on Pinterest, the notorious craft idea sharing site, you’ll see Ruth 1:16 featured in many an artful wedding decor shot, painted on barnwood, letterpressed on a poster, written in cursive on a vintage globe.

But the thing is, this is not a marriage text. Its message of love and loyalty, of forging new and lasting ties, fits easily in with the language of our sacramental bonds. But these words are spoken by a young woman, a widow, to her mother-in-law. Let me tell you the story – you know I love to tell these stories – and then I’ll circle back round to Ruth 1:16 and Pinterest weddings and all that.

This is how the Book of Ruth begins. In the days when the judges ruled – before the time of the Kings, Saul, David, Solomon – there was a famine in the land of God’s people.  And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the neighboring country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife was Naomi, and their two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. Don’t bother to remember those names, though. Elimelech died soon after the family moved to Moab, but they remained there; the young men took wives from among the Moabites, named Orpah and Ruth. But within a few years Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi’s sons, died too, and left Naomi a widow without sons – a woman without a man to protect and provide for her, one of the worst possible fates in a patriarchal society.

Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem; there is nothing for her here in this foreign land. She encourages her Moabite daughters-in-law to return home to their families, as well; after all, nothing now binds them to her. The daughters-in-law weep and insist on staying—which is when we start to get a sense that Naomi was someone special. We all know that daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationships can be tense, and these daughters-in-law weren’t even Jews – Naomi might well have been disappointed by her sons’ choices. But apparently Naomi was such an affectionate mother-in-law that Orpah and Ruth were quite devoted to her. Naomi harangues the girls, reminding them that she has no more sons in her womb for them to marry, and Orpah at last consents to return home.

But Ruth is more stubborn. She insists on coming back to Bethlehem with Naomi. And this is when Ruth speaks those famous words, making a vow to bind herself to Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God.” She makes herself Naomi’s daughter, she joins Naomi’s family – and more: Christian writer Lauren Winner writes, “With that pledge, [Ruth] makes herself a Jew.”

So Naomi and Ruth return together to Bethlehem, poverty-stricken. It is harvest time, and in order to get food for herself and her mother-in-law, Ruth goes out to glean in the fields. Gleaning was a duty of the rich towards the poor, established in the Book of Deuteronomy: when landowners harvested their grain, the poor could come and collect the ears of grain which were missed.

Quite by chance, Ruth goes to the fields of Boaz, a distant cousin of Elimelech, Naomi’s dead husband. Boaz is in the fields, overseeing the harvest, and notices Ruth, a young woman, a stranger, and alone. Learning who she is, he extends kindness to her, offering her free access to the workers’ water, giving her some food at lunchtime, and warning the men working the fields not to bother her.   Ruth asks Boaz, “Why should I, a foreigner, be favored with your notice?” Boaz’s reply shows that he is impressed with Ruth’s character: “I have had a complete account of what you have done for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death; you have left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know previously.”

Ruth gleans in Boaz’s fields for the rest of the harvest season, at his invitation, but Naomi wants more for her daughter-in-law than a life of scavenging. And the harvest is ending soon – gleaning won’t sustain them much longer. Naomi knows that Boaz is a kind man, and that he is also a kinsman of her late husband, and that this means he is one of a number of people who has some obligation to marry Ruth. Here’s where you need a little anthropology to understand this story: the ancient Jews followed a set of marriage practices called the levirate. This meant that when a man died childless, his brother had an obligation to marry his widow and produce children on behalf of the dead brother; if there was no brother, that obligation passed on to other near male kinsmen. Now, in practice, men were often unwilling to take on these duties towards a widow and a dead brother or cousin. After all, the children you produced weren’t yours, they belonged to the dead man; but you were the one who had to support the widow and her family.

Perhaps anticipating that Boaz might be reluctant to take on a widow, Naomi decides to try to push the issue a little. She has Ruth bathe and anoint herself, and dress up in her nicest clothes; then she tells Ruth to sneak up to Boaz as he is sleeping at night, out in the fields where the workers are processing the grain. It’s the end of the harvest season so Boaz and the workers are feasting and drinking in the evenings; Naomi assumes Boaz will have had a few. She tells Ruth, When he lies down, go to him; uncover his “feet”, and do whatever he tells you to do. Ruth says, Okay, I’ll do as you say.

If all this sounds a little sketchy to you, it should. The implication seems to be that Naomi and Ruth hoped to lure Boaz into a sexual relationship before he had a chance to consider all the implications of marrying a widow, and perhaps decide against it. Maybe Naomi assumes that Boaz’ basic decency means that, having gotten some milk for free, he will nonetheless go on to buy the cow and marry Ruth. It’s not Naomi’s best moment, for sure; but we have to remember just how completely without power or resources these two women were. Ruth’s youth and attractiveness may have felt like their only asset.

But Boaz—as we’ve already seen—was a good man, and it didn’t happen quite that way, as today’s portion of the Book of Ruth tells us.  Ruth went down to the threshing-floor in the evening, all gussied up. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and was in a contented mood, he went to lie down and sleep near the pile of grain. Ruth came quietly and uncovered his feet and lay down. Suddenly he woke up startled, and found a woman lying beside him. He said, “Who are you?!” She answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over me, sir, for you are my husband’s next-of-kin.” Boaz said, “Bless you, my child, for your loyalty in this is even greater than your loyalty to Naomi. You have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. Do not be afraid; I will do what you ask and take you as my wife, for everyone knows that you are a worthy woman.” The text hints that Boaz is older, and perhaps on the homely side. There’s no hint that he’s been married before. He seems genuinely touched that this young woman is willing to be his bride – not only to do the right thing for her mother-in-law, but to bring some happiness and fulfillment into his life, too.

So Boaz tells Ruth that he will take her as his wife. but not right away, not until he can do it properly. He will not take advantage of her desperation and vulnerability. First, as he explains, he has to check with another man who is a nearer kinsman to Elimelech, and thus has a greater right to Ruth.  Boaz tells Ruth, Go to sleep. We’ll sort this out tomorrow. In the morning he wakes Ruth early, gives her some extra food, and protects her honor by sending her home “before people could recognize one another” in the morning light. And as soon as the sun is up, he goes to seek out the man— the book doesn’t name him; let’s call him Joe— who has greater right to Ruth and to the rest of Elimelech’s estate, including some land.

Now it’s Boaz’s turn to be a little crafty. He tells Joe that Naomi is selling off Elimelech’s land, and that Joe has the right to buy it, if he wants it. Joe thinks sure, he could use some more land. Then Boaz adds, Oh, by the way, if you take the land, you also have to take Elimelech’s son’s widow Ruth, and “raise up a family for the dead man on [Elimelech’s land].” That scares Joe; he’s afraid that might be a drain on his own resources. So Joe refuses his rights of redemption over the land and the woman, passing them on to Boaz. Without wasting any time, Boaz announces that he will take Ruth the Moabitess as his wife, and will raise up a family in the name of her dead husband.

And everyone lives happily ever after, more or less. Ruth and Boaz are married. Ruth bears a son, and names him Obed. Naomi, of course, is delighted; she is so close to her daughter-in-law and grandson that she even helps to nurse him. The women of Bethlehem praise God for his restoration of the family, and remind Naomi of Ruth’s faithful love: “[She is] the daughter-in-law who loves you [and] is worth more to you than seven sons!”— strong words in a culture which generally valued sons over daughters!

So ends Ruth’s story— but attentive readers will notice her name again, in the genealogies at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Little Obed becomes Jesse’s father, and the grandfather of King David, and the great-great-great-some grandfather of Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. So Ruth the Moabitess becomes part of that holy lineage.

An interesting thing about the Book of Ruth is that God is just barely a character in it. God is mentioned often; it’s a story about people of faith who turn to God for guidance and protection, and honor God as the source of blessings.  But God works in this story the way I believe God works in our world, our lives, a lot of the time.

God acts in this story through coincidences that advance God’s plot – Ruth just happens to go gleaning in Boaz’ field; Boaz just happens to spot Joe first thing that morning.

And God acts in this story through human hearts and human relationships at their best – Naomi’s affection and determination;  Ruth’s loyalty; Boaz’ kindness and decency; the open-heartedness of the people of Bethlehem, who accept and celebrate Ruth even though she is an outsider.

Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. It’s a beautiful text, and if you used it at your wedding, that’s cool! However, I believe that the trend to appropriate this text into the realm of romance reveals something important about our impoverished imagination for human relationships. We look at these words about intimacy, trust, and commitment, and we think, Oh, this is about romantic love, because that’s where we expect to find intimacy, trust, and commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on marriage. I am married to an extraordinary human being, for whom I am grateful on a daily basis. But alongside my spouse, there’s a whole circle of people who sustain and ground and support and challenge me, and I hope that’s true for most of you, too.

My friend Jonathan, the chaplain of the UW Episcopal Campus Ministry – for whom a few Dunstanites are making dinner tonight – talks often about holy friendship.  It’s an idea he’s exploring with the chaplaincy community – how are the friendships formed there different from everyday friendships? More intentional – less conditional – deeper – more fruitful? He wrote about it a few months ago on his blog: 

“The first step toward loving one another is to let yourselves be friends: friends who care for each other, reach out to each other, inside and outside of the hours we share in this place; friends who remember and show interest in one another’s lives; friends who eat together, pray together, laugh together, sometimes cry together…. To be friends is to see one another as gifts of God.

“The second step toward loving one another is to let Christ live in your friendships. Realizing that this second step runs the risk of sounding pious, I think what I mean is that I hope you share with one another the parts of your lives that matter most: the true parts, the God-at-work-in-you parts. I hope you will talk about … what you are seeing of God’s movement in this world and in your life. I hope you will ask questions of your friends here that let others tell you what they see.

“I hope, at some point, you will experience the great gift of being prayed for by a friend, and praying for a friend who needs a prayer especially from you. I hope you will become friends who struggle through the hard parts of Scripture together, and the best parts of Scripture together. I hope you will never forget the gift it is when you show up for each other, and that you also remember how, at times, you have teamed up together, to reach goals you could not have accomplished alone….”

I believe that holy friendship, as Jonathan describes it, is a pretty good description of the bond between Ruth and Naomi. Romance is a very particular kind of relationship that some people spend a lifetime seeking. But holy friendship can unfold all over our lives, in many forms and seasons. Think about the holy friendships you already have, and the blessings they have borne in your life. Think about the friendships or even acquaintanceships that have that potential, with some care and cultivation.

I try not to preach on my children; it’s hard enough to be the pastor’s kid without also being a sermon illustration. But they are some of my best teachers, so now and then, I have to share something. One night this week I asked my kids whether they had done anything lately that they were especially proud of. My daughter said, “Not especially.” So I said, “Well, I’m really impressed with the way you’re getting along with your classmate B. Just a week ago, you guys were fighting a lot.” And my daughter looked at me sternly, paused for a moment, and said, “God is in all of us.”

God is in all of us. And one of the most important, life-giving, fruitful ways God is in us is in our capacity for relationship. Our capacity to reconcile. To connect. To listen, share, support, encourage, collaborate. To establish and live into holy friendships. That’s how God shows up in the story of Ruth. That’s how God shows up for us, much of the time. And that’s a hopes I have for this Christian fellowship: That the bonds of holy friendship will become the strongest threads of the fabric of our common life here.

Jonathan’s blog entry in full: