By Rev. Joan Kessler
Between 2016 and 2020, a span of roughly three and a half years, I moved house four times. It was a period of my life that felt like one giant moving container…my life was in boxes. Kitchen, Bedroom, Christmas, Books the labels read. You might know what I’m talking about. Even with best-made plans, there is a vulnerability that comes with moving. Because there is always the chance that we are going to lose something we thought important along the way. Our sense of who we are and know ourselves to be gets a shaking up with each relocation and every pull of the packing tape dispenser. But in the moments of sorting, wrapping, carefully storing the items of one’s life, we learn something of who we are and who we are meant to be.
And then finally comes the arrival at the new home and the unpacking and finding a new place for everything. Sometimes not everything will fit in this new space and so you need to, yet again, make some decisions about what to keep and what to move along….to the Thrift Store I might add!
Ruth is the only book of the bible that is named for a woman who is a foreigner and not from the house of Israel. We also know the names of three women from the ancient world, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, and their experiences of grief and vulnerability related to the place they find themselves. Their story begins with a crisis….a famine…followed by another crisis…the untimely deaths of their husbands. When life delivers a blow such as this, when our world is forever altered, we want two things…to not be alone and to go home. The book of Ruth is about these two things.
Naomi calls her two daughters-in-law together and tells them the facts of life. We need more than is being offered to us here in Moab and it’s time to be on our way, she says. You two should go back to your families. I can’t offer you anything. It’s every woman for her self. I am going back to my kin, my homeland, to Judah, to grow old and to die there.
Orpah and Ruth respond differently to matriarch’s suggestion. Orpah sees Naomi’s point and decides it’s time for her to be on her way and return to her family. Ruth however hears Naomi differently. After a tearful goodbye to Orpah, Ruth is adamant that she will not leave Ruth even though Moab is the place of her ancestors. She feels this immense bond and kinship toward her mother-in-law, and she insists she will not see Naomi on her own. The journey back to Judah is one that will effectively make Ruth into the Other, the foreigner, the one who doesn’t belong, a very dangerous for place for a woman on hew own.
Our sense of belongingness is at the core of what it means to be human. What is your experience of being the Other, of being seen by others as a foreigner? Some of us here this morning have lived and worked in other countries…how did you wrestle with being the one in the minority, the one who stood out in a crowd…perhaps there were language and cultural barriers to overcome. As one friend and colleague put it, what is it like to see yourself not mirrored in the world around you? What does it feel like to look around and see no signs of your deepest self, your personhood?
These are the questions that presented this week. I also found myself asking what is my work to remove barriers that keep people separate and in a “place”? The gospel reading we didn’t hear read this morning, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment of all. And his answer comes several centuries after the life of Ruth and Naomi…that you shall love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And this is no Hallmark card kind of sentimentality. It’s a call to loving action. We understand this to be kind and friendly to our neighbors, friends, strangers we meet, the exchange of warm pleasantries, to be seen and acknowledging. But the biblical sense of love we read of today in Ruth is about love that shows up. It’s not staying put…Love is the path we travel. Naomi and Ruth come to the decision that will see them pool their resources and accompany one another. Ruth makes a solemn promise to her mother-in-law, “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, and there I will be buried.”
Our reading today shares no theophany, no prophecy, no instructions from on high, telling them where to go or what they are to do. Naomi knows the Godly kindness her daughters-in-laws have extended her…she just feels like God has turned a blind eye to her grief and predicament. Naomi isn’t sure of much of anything, but she accepts Ruth’s offer to find Home together in the time of her deepest need. There is a quiet faith that guides and gives these women the hope that better days are coming. We too experience divine love through the help and goodness of others…. those who show up at just the right moment with the ability to listen and offer assistance…to walk the mile and bear the load as the servant song sings.
We are going to reimagine our community with a two-service format in a month’s time. This will shift our sense of togetherness into two unique groups for a time being. As one of us so eloquently stated this week: We may be two camps for worship but last week at the Fall Fair we were all in one camp. The day is coming when we will emerge as a stronger and even more vibrant church family. Thank you Fran S for this beautiful reminder.
Ruth and Naomi reimagine what home is. They may not have the assurance of physical needs being met or a roof over their heads. Instead a relationship defines their sense of home and belonging. The women go forth under precarious circumstances until another by the name of Boaz comes into their lives, redefining yet again what home means and looks like. I hope you will read the rest of this beautiful love story some time this week. Let us make our needs known, let us share our grief and disappointments with another. And then, when we are ready, let us walk in Love together.