Widow’s Hope - thrive UMC Official Blog

Widow’s Hope

Ruth 1:11-18, 4:13-17

Today begins a new season of Advent. It’s the time of the year where we both anticipate and celebrate the event of the incarnation.  Remember: the one God of the highest heavens became a human being, some two thousand years ago, and dwelt among us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is an event that is both historical and eternal.  It was something that happened long ago in a specific time and at a specific place in the past; and yet it is simultaneously an event that is perpetually new. We call it an eternal event since it has forever changed who we are in our relationship to God and to one another.  Since that historical moment has happened, nothing for us is the same any longer, because God became one of us.

So this morning I just want to start off by asking all of you: do you know this story?

Do you know the history that leads up to this monumental moment?

Do you know what the people involved needed and what they were expecting?

And are you still surprised and filled with wonder every time this miraculous, eternal, historical event is recalled?

Now, given the atmospherics of today’s setting, I’m going to pick up on the 400+, very subtle hints that at least a few of you know the bit about baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.  But this event we’re preparing ourselves for was, in fact, a very long time in the making. According to the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus really has its genesis 42 generations earlier, with Abraham.

Most of us probably skip or skim over parts like this in the Bible, but here we have a list that serves as a kind of family tree for Jesus. And there is a ton of stuff going on here; but there are just a couple of quick things I need to point out to all of you:

  • It shows how all of this business is about relationships within history. Right away, this genealogy illustrates how the person Jesus is a part of a story that keeps getting bigger.  It’s about the one man, and it’s about the nation of Israel, and it’s about the whole world, for all time (but more on that later).
  • It shows us how Jesus is directly tied to Abraham, the tribe of Judah, and perhaps most importantly: King David. Remember, God made a covenant to establish David’s throne forever; so if Jesus is a direct descendant of David, then that puts him in the running to be the Messiah. And right there, in line one of chapter one, we see who Jesus is: he’s the son of Abraham (meaning he’s Jewish/Israelite), and he’s a son of David (meaning he’s of the royal line), and he is the Christ –the Messiah, which means God has specially anointed him for a cosmic mission.
  • Once you read through this list a little more closely, you’ll notice there is one very weird and unsettling detail about this list of names: it also includes the names of five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Uriah” (Bathsheba), and Mary. Now Jesus’s mother, Mary, was Jewish; but there’s even a special note in my Bible on this passage that explicitly points out that the other four women on the list probably were not  In fact, the stories of three of the other four women suggest they had come from the banned tribes that we talked about in our series on Joshua –and they also involved a healthy portion of sexual scandal.

Very briefly: those women’s names are there on that list as a reminder: even the most Jewish of the Jewish people were not as Jewish as they would have like to believe!  Judah, the father of the tribe of Judah, which became the sole surviving remnant of the Israelites: he moved away from his brothers and married a Canaanite woman (and then ends up fathering children through his daughter-in-law –because, hey, he thought she was a prostitute; and he didn’t want to fulfill his legal obligation to care for her after his two eldest sons died!).  And remember Joshua, who was so gung-ho about wiping out of all of his foreign neighbors –he spares a “very helpful” prostitute named Rahab, who hid some Israelite spies in her house.  And then there’s David –the Jewish King to end all Jewish kings –and his kingly line was passed down through his relations with a Hittite’s wife.

One more final detail on this topic before we move on.  This was a big deal because, since at least the first century, Jewish descent has been traced through the maternal blood-line.  That means, to be Jewish, you have to have a Jewish mother.  If you have a Canaanite mother, you are, ethnically speaking, a Canaanite.  This makes sense, because you’re going to learn your faith and your customs from your mother.  She’s going to be the one instilling all of the important values in the next generation, and teaching them about the powers of the heavens: it’s mom.  In that day, Dad defines your status; mom defines your practical belonging.

So right away, the author of Matthew is making a very powerful statement by with this opening genealogy: he’s reminding everyone that their Jewish ancestors aren’t truly and fully Jewish according to descent or blood. Here the myth of the pure-bred Jew is being debunked. And the author of Matthew is doing it using the Jewish scriptures.

Now, that brings me to Ruth, who is the third woman mentioned in this genealogy of Jesus.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the story of Ruth in the Bible, but it is going to be the one to usher us into this new season.  For her story is an integral part of Advent, which leads up to the incarnation.  She will be the one who will teach us what it means to be a family.

We’ll be reading from Ruth, chapter one, verses 11-18, and then skipping to the end.  But here’s what you need to know before we jump into our reading.  The story here really starts with an Israelite woman named Naomi.  She, her husband, and her two sons were from a town called Bethlehem in Judah.  But there was a famine, and so they had to pack up to move elsewhere to find food, and they end up in the land of Moab.  And while they’re there, their sons end up marrying to Moabite women.  But then somehow all of the men of the family die.

Now for Naomi, this is incredibly bad news: to find herself in a foreign land without a husband or children means there is no one to take care of her.  And things are only going to get worse for her as she ages.  And by the way, this is what the commandment to ‘honor your mother and your father’ is about: it’s a law requiring children to care for their parents when they become too old to provide for themselves.  But suddenly, with all of the men dead, the family is effectually dissolved.  Without any protectors or providers, these women are all incredibly vulnerable in what was then an especially brutal land.

But Naomi is a good and compassionate woman: she blesses Orpah and Ruth and sends them back to their mothers, in hopes that they might still have the chance to start over again.  Naomi then turns to head back to Bethlehem.  At first the daughters protest; but Naomi insists: pointing out that there is no hope in a life with her, since, she says “This is more bitter for me than for you, since the LORD’s will has turned against me.” –which is a way to suggest that Naomi believes she’s been cursed by God.

So, together, the three women cry out to the seemingly deaf heavens, and they weep. Orpah kisses Naomi and goes home; but Ruth lingers.  One last time Naomi insists: go back to your gods and your people.

Here is where our reading begins.  We’re picking up in Ruth 1:11.  It says this:

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.

19 So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem.

Things turned out not to be so easy in Bethlehem either, for Naomi is reduced to total bitterness, and the two women have no other option for food besides gleaning the leftovers of the grain fields by hand.  But eventually Naomi makes a place for Ruth.  She sets her up to do a little steamy match-making –the details of which we would all find to be far less than romantic by today’s standards.  But from a much more practical standpoint, it works: and a means of survival for both Ruth and Naomi is created through family ties.

The last part of our reading for today comes from the last chapter of Ruth, chapter 4.  We’re reading verses 13-17.

13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife.

He was intimate with her, the Lord let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi, “May the Lord be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. 15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” 16 Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. 17 The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They called his name Obed.[c] He became Jesse’s father and David’s grandfather.

Here we have a beautiful and miraculous picture of salvation and redemption. So often we use these words, “salvation” and “redemption,” as things that happen abstractly, somehow, in the hereafter. But in this story, we see a very tangible and powerful depiction of what they look like here on earth.

Salvation here, in this story, appears in the simple form of the two women having their very basic human needs met.  It means having enough food, and a place to live and belong, where there are relationships that can sustain you.  And at the end of the story, we see Naomi –an aging, childless widow “redeemed” by Ruth’s new family.  By the way, there are some complicated customs at work in this story that many of you may not be aware of; but the way they looked at it back then, Ruth’s child, though biologically fathered by Boaz, was understood to be, and treated as, Naomi’s dead son’s child.

Does that make sense?  So when Boaz fathered this child he was essentially doing it on the behalf of Ruth’s first husband, Naomi’s son.  Therefore, by rights, this child was Naomi’s legitimate grandson; and his life secured her home, her future, her property rights, her family name, and potentially even her peaceful rest in Sheol, after death. Basically everything about her life in that moment was given its value and its purpose back. But not only were Naomi and Ruth ‘redeemed’ –but so were the dead.  Naomi’s husband and son were also redeemed, because their line continued.  And their place in history was given a second chance.

This past week I got a phone call here at the church from a man I had never met before.  We get calls like this all the time, from random people who need all kinds of help.  People want to know: could we give them $700 to pay their rent that’s due?  Could we give them money or gas cards to get out of town?  Could we buy them some groceries, help with medical or utility bills?  I’ve had people come to me hoping I can help them restore their relationships with estranged loved-once –which I’ll admit is quite a conundrum when you’ve never ever met this person before. And I usually try to be as helpful and generous as I feel I can be, which usually isn’t very much, and I end up saying ‘I’m sorry we can’t help you with that at this time,’ a lot.

But this guy who called on Thursday just asked for prayer.  And because of some things I had said at Valley’s prayer group just the day before, I figured I’d better go ahead and practice what I preached.  So I went to this guy’s house to pray with him –though still wondering all the way over there whether or not this was a wise use of my time.

Anyway, I got there; and he had instructed me to walk right on in the back door –which isn’t something I’m very comfortable with.  And there was something about the dead possum in the alley way, and the wildly overgrown grass and the lawn cluttered with broken things that didn’t make the home seem any more inviting. It reminded me of a scene from this show called True Detective.  But I went in anyway, and called his name, as he had asked. And his gruff, wheezing voice calls back to me, letting me know where to go.

I wish I could tell you that the time I spent with this man was beautiful and intimate and filled with meaning, but it wasn’t.  Instead I met a man whose whole life was brimming with need, but there he sat with no one to share it with.  All of his friends and those of his birth family were dead.  He has kids, but didn’t know where they were, or how to contact them. And even if he could, it didn’t sound like it would’ve done him much good, given how he had left them forty years ago.  And now he was getting old, and his health was failing him –he thinks maybe because of some poor choices he had made as a youth. His vision, his immune system, his lungs, his feet –all the systems of spiritual contact, were failing him. “So pastor, I need some help,” he told me.

In that time, he talked a lot, and we prayed a little.  And he wanted to know: could I send some women from the church over to help him with his laundry?  You see, he likes to change his clothes every four weeks or so, but he’s about out of clean laundry, and he can’t get to the basement on his own to wash them.  They didn’t have to be women, or course, they could be men, he said, but did I have some people?  People I could send who could help?

Internally I was deliberating whether or not I had any courage left to confront the laundry myself while I was there, and trying to calculate all of the other things I needed to get done, remembering I had already told Kristen I couldn’t help her with the laundry this week because I was too busy –and silently trying to anticipate her reaction to finding out I had taken two hours to help a stranger with laundry when I hadn’t been helpful with our own.  Basically, I was trying to weigh and tally the complex economies of life, and the place this man might potentially occupy in it –thinking of Ruth all the while.

But then this man told me he had spent all of his energy on me for the day, and thanked me, but let me know it was time to go.

And unlike Ruth, I went at the first opportunity, practically sweating relief.

Here at this time of the year, we do a lot of things supposedly to honor the season and the miracle it celebrates.  We put up trees and lights and we encounter lots of strangers in the passageways of our modern-day markets, mostly without notice.  But as we begin this new season of Advent, I want you to start seeing –to start really noticing– your own participation in the miracle of incarnation.

You have a body.  You can be in some specific places at particular times.  You can be with people.  And your presence in their life –and theirs in your own- matter, tremendously. Immeasurably.  And it is the relationships that we have and share with the people around us that save us. It’s the primary resource that keeps our world humming today: not money or technology or anything else –but all of those serve the grander and more urgent need for relationship. Salvation isn’t a thing we have to wait to enjoy when we die.  We have it now!  With each new breath, with every bite of food and sip of water. In every storm where we’re not frozen to death.  In every moment where laughter, and tears, and stories, and hopes and needs are shared we are saved.  We’re saved from death and an eternal sense of meaninglessness.

When Ruth commits her life to Naomi, she does what is perhaps the most powerful thing a human being can do. In that moment, it must have looked like she was resigning herself to despair.  She even says: where you die, I will die.

For just a moment, I want you to sit in a state of awe at what this woman did.  She was set free from someone who had more needs and bitterness than her.  It was a relationship that did not look like it had any advantages.  But she stayed nonetheless.  She gave up her home, her family, her past –even her gods- to be with an old woman.  But why?

It looks like foolishness.  It sounds like hopelessness.

But only when we get to the end of the story can we recognize the miracle of it.  Long after she said the words and the die were cast, the truth is revealed: she made an absolutely necessary contribution to the salvation of the whole world.

This is the Christmas miracle we celebrate: something divine in human skin and history.  Let us stand before it in wonder, as we pray: