We have all had to go to a new place where we were unknown. We went to school and met new classmates. We moved to a new neighborhood and met new neighbors. We went off to college and met new friends. We moved to a new city and met new neighbors. We went to a new church and met new family. We got married and met new family. We got a new job and met new co-workers. We have all found ourselves in new places searching for a sense of belonging. Throughout our lives, every stage of life, we are looking for a sense of belonging, a place where we can be known.
Naomi and her husband Elimelek and their sons Mahlon and Kilion left Bethlehem during a famine at the time when the judges rules over Israel. Before there was a king in Israel, God had appointed judges to rule over the people. They were judicial and military leaders. In the time, there was a famine in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is Hebrew for house of bread. When we read the Bible, we should find it ironic that there is no bread in the house of bread.
Naomi, Elimelek, Mahlon and Kilion moved to Moab to find food. When they arrived, they were strangers in a strange land; I’m sure looking for a sense of belonging as much as food, shelter, and work. After some time, Naomi’s husband, Elimelek, died. Her sons took Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. I once read that Oprah Winfrey was named after Orpah. While Naomi’s sons were alive, they cared for her. But, her sons died after they had lived in Moab for 10 years.
Without a husband or sons, Naomi was left vulnerable. In a patriarchal society, a woman relied on her husband or sons to provide for her a home, food, shelter, and, most importantly, safety and security. Widows without sons were the most vulnerable in society. Widows were subject to poverty and exploitation. Ruth and Orpah also had no husbands or sons. Ruth is the story of 3 vulnerable women. They are without men to provide for them.
Naomi decides to go back to Bethlehem where she thinks she will be less vulnerable, perhaps find some pity from a distant relative or be provided for by the Jewish community called by God to provide for the poor, widows, and orphans. Israel was a “kinship based society.” A person found safety, identity, and purpose within the extended family of community. Naomi knew she had hope returning home. Naomi had no identity in Moab apart from her family. Returning to Israel, she may be able to find herself.
As Naomi set out, her daughters-in-law started to follow. Naomi sent her daughters-in-law away to return to their parents. Naomi didn’t know what she had to offer Orpah and Ruth. There was a Levirate marriage tradition in Judaism. A brother could marry the wife of his brother and care for her, give her children, do what his brother could no longer do. But, Orpah and Ruth’s husbands were both dead. There was no brother to marry them. Naomi couldn’t expect Orpah and Ruth to wait for her to re-marry and have sons to come of age to marry them.
Orpah returned to her parents. But, Ruth stayed. Ruth was bound to take her marriage vows seriously, even beyond the death of her husband. Ruth had been joined to a new family when she married Naomi’s son and she would remain faithful to that family. Ruth’s vow to remain faithful is radical in acknowledging that she is bound to Naomi through her son’s memory.
Ruth says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” This is the longest and most in-depth conversation between women in the Bible. There are very few conversations among women in the Bible. They all have to do with men. But, this conversation between Ruth and Naomi has more to do with their vow to remain family and their well-being because there are no men in their lives.
In this exchange, Naomi doesn’t know what she has to offer Ruth or Orpah. She knows only that she does not have men to offer them so she cannot offer her daughters-in-law food, clothing, shelter, or security. That doesn’t matter to Ruth. Ruth sees that Naomi has something to offer her. Naomi has God to offer Ruth. I have no doubt that Naomi remained faithful to God as she and her family sojourned in Moab, because, when Ruth vows to stick it out with Naomi, Ruth says, “your God will be my God.”
In this story, we see 2 journeys. We see Naomi’s journey away from home and back home as she is transformed. We also see Ruth’s journey to God.
We know how Naomi felt when she left Bethlehem for Moab. We know what her name tells us. Naomi means pleasantness. Names mean something in the Bible. We have read 2 stories in recent weeks about God renaming men. Names are important and tell a lot about someone. Naomi must have been pleasant when she left Bethlehem and arrived in Moab.
If we read a few verses beyond the selection for today, Naomi tells the women of Bethlehem when she arrives that they should now call Mara. Mara means bitterness. Verses 20 – 21 say, “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” Naomi says her life was full when she and her family left Bethlehem, despite having empty bellies. Now, though, she sees her life as empty and she is bitter, because she has lost her husband and sons. By the end of Ruth, the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi or Mara that Ruth is a daughter “worthy more than 7 sons” (Ruth 4:15).
In her bitterness, Naomi tries to send her daughters-in-law back, but Ruth stays. As Naomi transforms from pleasantness to bitterness, Ruth vows to be by her side. Ruth will follow her mother-in-law to unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar land to uncertain circumstances. Ruth promises to be a presence when everyone else has left.
I believe Ruth stayed with Naomi, because of God. I’m sure throughout their life together, Naomi talked about God and worshipped God, even when she was surrounded by people who worshipped the Moabite god. Ruth must have seen in Naomi some presence of God that Ruth knew she could rely on God, even thru these difficult and uncertain times. Ruth must have known that God had a place for her when she felt like she had no place to belong.
Ruth journeyed on with Naomi to Bethlehem and joined the Jewish community in Bethlehem where she was accepted as one of their own. Ruth was accepted, not because she was a Moabite, but, because she was one with them by faith in the One True Living God. She found a place to belong in an unfamiliar land, among new people and she found her purpose. God would make her an ancestor of Jesus.
When I first came to believe in Jesus, the first thing I did was search out a church. I visited churches for about a year before finding a church that felt right. I visited some nice churches with nice people, but I never felt like I belonged. Finally, when I found High Street Christian Church, I felt at home. It was weird I felt at home just walking over the threshold from the street to the foyer.
In the church, I felt a sense of belonging and being known that I had never felt before. I had had many great friends over the years. I had groups that I felt like I belonged in, but I had never felt such a profound sense of belonging as I did in that church. Even before, I really got to know people, I felt known. I felt known, because God was there and God knew me.
For some of us, you were too young to remember what it was like to be welcomed into this church. You don’t remember being loved by the families of this church as an infant, being prayed over in the nursery, passed from matriarch to matriarch. You know only that through the years you have continued to feel that sense of belonging. Some of us remember being welcomed into this church. You remember that sense of belonging among strangers who would come to be family. We all have found here a place to be known and a place to belong.
We have a church we come to where we are reminded that we are welcome, we are loved, and we belong. We feel at home here, because we are reminded that we are welcomed by God and this church when we have nowhere else to go. We belong to God and this church when we find nowhere else to belong. We are loved by God and this church when we feel no one loves us. That’s what we have to offer people. When we extend hospitality to new people, we invite them to call our home their home, to call our family their family, to call our God their God.
Everyone is searching for a place to call home. I was talking to someone recently who has fallen away from church. He has wanted to get back to church, but keeps finding excuses not to go. He says he is too busy on the weekends. He talked about a time about a year ago that he went to church for the baptism of a friend’s daughter. He told me that he felt a sense of home. He said what he missed most about church was community. He has a close group of friends that he belongs to, but it’s nothing like the sense of community at his church.
I think with our new governance model we are creating a greater sense of community. At the Board meeting when we decided to go forward with the new model, one of our Board members said that she feels like the whole church is her committee. We no longer have silos of people doing this work or that work. We now have Board leaders calling on people throughout the church to help with ministries instead of calling on the same 4 or 5 people.
Through our ministries, we are offering God. We are extending an invitation to the people we serve to call our God their God. We are not just offering pizza and pop to kids. We are not just offering candy scattered around the yard to kids. We are not just offering boxes of cereal to the those without resources. We are not just offering brunch to teachers. Through new rails and doors coming soon, we will make more beautiful our invitation to come and be welcomed. We are offering God to the many people who come to our church to receive our hospitality. In every interaction with our neighbors, we say through our actions, “My God can be your God.”