This year, Gifts of Women Sunday lifts up the bond between young and senior women in God's household. Julie read the story of Ruth and Naomi - a wonderful story of the bond between young and senior women. Mary and Elizabeth also share this bond in their story of unexpected pregnancy.
In Mary Martha, we are studying stories of Biblical women. As each woman's story unfolds, we have the opportunity to feel this same bond between ourselves and these women of ancient times - woman to woman from today's world to Biblical days.
Ruth is one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman. The other book is Esther. Ruth is the only book named after a person who is not Jewish. Yet, Ruth becomes the great grandmother to King David and King David’s genealogy leads to Jesus. Ruth changes her citizenship and her religion to stay by Naomi's side. From Ruth's story, we learn the depth of tolerance God expects of us as we learn about God's love for foreigners, like Ruth.
We are called to show God's love to one another - called to go above and beyond so we can help others to know God loves them. Ruth goes above and beyond the call of duty in her faith. She makes a deeper commitment in her faith by staying with Naomi. At first, it seems Naomi is blind to Ruth's generosity. Naomi even changes her name to one that means bitter.
We can be like Naomi. Life situations can make it difficult for us to see the positives. We can be so overwhelmed we do not sense God's steadfast love. This is where Naomi is at. Naomi, her husband and their two sons leave Bethlehem and head to Moab in search of food. This is not like going to CashWise in Hutchinson and returning to our homes in Litchfield. They are moving from one town to the next because they need to find food. Moab is Israel's enemy and Moab is a source of temptations; yet, they head to Moab for food. Naomi's husband dies. The two sons marry Moabite women. Intermarriage is not looked upon favorably. Ten years later, both sons die without children. It is easy to understand why Naomi is weary of life.
Naomi and her son's wives begin the journey to Bethlehem - again, Naomi is in search of food. When Naomi tells the two younger women to return to their homes, the goodbyes are not easy. She wants God to show the young women kindness as they have shown kindness to her and her sons. She hopes God grants both women another husband. She kisses the women goodbye and they weep out loud.
At first, both the young women say they will return with her to her people in Bethlehem. Naomi's responses are along the lines of "Ladies - Let's face facts." She says God is against her. Perhaps she is fearful her bad luck will harm the two younger women. There is more weeping. One woman kisses Naomi goodbye and leaves. Ruth clings to Naomi. Again, Naomi implores Ruth to go back.
Ruth responds with words well-known in society-at-large: "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. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me." Portions of the text often are used in weddings. People tend to be a bit surprised when they learn the words are spoken from a younger woman to an older woman. Even today, when women convert to Judaism, they are given the name “Ruth” in recognition of their courage and conviction.
Naomi accepts Ruth's determination and the two women go on to Bethlehem. The town is aware of their arrival. Naomi tells people her name is now Mara because God has made her life very bitter. Both here and when Naomi was encouraging the young women to return, Naomi blames God for her life trials. We, too, have a tendency to place blame. Or, at the least, we struggle with the desire to place blame.
Naomi's behavior rubs me the wrong way. My experience with older women is different. Older women often help younger women to cease blaming God or blaming anyone - anything - for life trials. Older women often give advice based on all they have experienced in life - advice that counsels a reasoned perspective - a wider lens of coming to rest in God's timing.
I recognize the opposite can be true as it is in this story. The younger woman, Ruth, is the one who helps Naomi to cease blaming God - who brings a different perspective to Naomi. Whether it is younger to older or older to younger, women often are examples of courage and strength to one another. We all need role models. We learn much from one another regardless of gender differences. However, studies indicate we all need healthy role models of the same sex.
The importance of intergenerational relationships also is supported by various study findings. Regardless of our gender, we benefit as human beings when we understand that we all are part of the continuum of God's children. We are blessed by the guidance of those who come before us - blessed by what past generations leave us. We also are blessed by those who follow us - blessed that we can provide guidance - blessed that we are motivated to leave behind something solid for future generations.
I like Ruth's spunkiness when she says "May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me if l ..." In essence, her statement is an oath of sorts. "May the Lord deal with me" also can sound like even God better listen up because Ruth is dead serious about staying with Naomi. Ruth is not dependent on Naomi; rather, Ruth is her own person. She is gutsy and determined. She does not let Naomi's bitterness affect her.
In Hebrew, Ruth's love for Naomi is translated as "chesed" – (show example – example also in bulletin) translated as steadfast love or loving kindness or loyalty. "Chesed" is usually used to describe God's love for us. "Chesed" is associated with divine covenant faithfulness. Finding "chesed" used in the Book of Ruth is a reminder that this kind of special love is available for us to practice too. We feel God's love for us; and, then, we are called to love others as God loves us. God's love is not always easy to put into practice.
God's love - God's mercy - his grace is ever widening compared to our tendency to narrow our love. Narrowing God's love for others may not be our intent but it is what we are doing when we judge others. We narrow God's love for others when we expect and demand fairness while failing to understand larger life unfairness. Practicing God's love calls us to let go of our expectations and judgments - to let go of our desire to control how it should be - to let go of our superiority as Christians with a capital "C." Practicing God's love most likely means we will be off-balance and challenged - exposed to a rougher or rawer style of life - giving more than we get in return to such a degree we finally learn to give with no expectations or judgments.
Often, practicing God's love begins with our fully accepting what we are willing to give up to bring God's love to others. Are we willing to give up sole ownership of our church where everyone knows how we have always done things to share our church with people who may do things differently? What are we willing to give up to fully practice spreading God's love - God's word?
Ruth and Naomi's story is of giving up pretty much everything - loved ones, citizenship, religion, going home to one's family - so much given up to practice God's love. Among the intergenerational women of our church there are many stories of giving up and letting go - stories of practicing God's love. May we share our stories with one another. May we learn to give up and let go so we can practice God's love. May our sharing God's love lead others to know God's love for themselves. Amen.