Ruth & Naomi: Soul Friends

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18

My younger son Tim delights me with his devotion to his first born, Lily.  There is just something about little ones that fills our hearts with joy and with hope in the future.  Tim’s wife, Alya, moved to the US from Russia when she was 10.  Her grandparents and elderly aunts speak primarily Russian.  And while her parents function very well in English at work, with their friends, and at home, they are most comfortable speaking Russian.  And so, Tim and Alya have decided to raise Lily to speak both Russian and English. 

When I asked Tim why they were teaching Lily Russian, he said it was all about relationships:  they want Lily to be able to communicate with her grandparents and other relatives in the language in which they are most comfortable expressing themselves.  For immigrant families, what to keep and what to shed of their “culture of origin” is an important source of identity and discernment.

In today’s world, 258 million people live in countries not of their birth:  19% of this total live in the US.  In N. American, 42% of the population growth from 2000-2015 was from migration.  Germany has taken in more than a million immigrants since 2015, many fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and Africa.  When we visited S. Africa, we were amazed at how the local African population resented the migration of Africans from other nations, fearing they were “taking our jobs.”  The world-wide pandemic has created even greater stressed on immigration.  Many Asian Americans in the US report greater discrimination and racial slurs since the pandemic began—even though epidemiologists have found that the primary strains of the virus came to us from Europe—not China.  How many here came as immigrants or have parents who came as immigrants?  (show of hands) You know this story well. 

Today’s story is a story of immigration.  Naomi and her husband left their home in Bethlehem because there was a famine in the land.  They immigrated to Moab.  Ironic, since Bethlehem means “the house of bread” and was renowned for its grain. Most Israelites considered Moab to be a place of death and destruction.  But when you are in the middle of a famine, you do what you must do.  In Moab, Naomi’s husband died.  Then, her two sons married two local girls, Orpah and Ruth.  Life went on. 

Naomi’s life was hard:  first one son died, then the other.  Suddenly, Naomi has no one but her daughters-in-law.  She urges them to stay in Moab and make a new life for themselves in their homeland:

“Go back each of you to your mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”  Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  (Ruth 1:8-9)

Naomi was a stranger in a strange land.  In ancient Israel, names have meanings.  Naomi means “sweet.”  But, whatever sweetness there was in Naomi’s life had shriveled up and died.  Naomi decides to go home—and her daughters-in-law offer to come with her.  She discourages them:

Turn back, my daughters, go your way…No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me!  (Ruth 1:12-13)

Sweet Naomi has become bitter.  Bitter people often choose isolation; they choose lonely roads. Naomi plans to return home alone—to Bethlehem—where the famine—the physical famine—has ended.  But the spiritual and emotional famine in Naomi’s life–the one that took her husband and her two sons– has made bitterness her ongoing companion.  This bitterness of heart and spirit now causes Naomi to push away the only family she has—Orpah and Ruth.     

Naomi feels cut off from her family—because there are no children—and from her homeland far away.  At such a time as this—some word must be spoken.  Ruth knew that.  She speaks a powerful word to Naomi:

 “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!   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— there will I be buried.   May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth decides to leave her homeland and accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  For Ruth, Naomi is “family” and she will leave all she knows so that Naomi will not be alone.  Through her decision to accompany Naomi to a place she’s never been, Ruth creates a future for Naomi.  Ruth reminds Naomi her love. What Ruth is saying is, Naomi, your people ARE my people; your God IS my God; therefore, where you go, I will go, where you stay I will stay.  I am here for you!

Naomi thanks her daughters-in-law for their “kindness.”  The Hebrew word hesed that is translated kindness here is actually far more expansive.  A better translation would be “fierce covenant loyalty.”  Mama-bear kind of love—or a kind of positive “Tiger Mom.”  This word describes the nature of God.  It describes moments of grace, undeserved love and mercy.  Naomi is saying that in the kindness of Ruth and Orpah, she has experienced the love of God.  Even though Ruth and Orpah are from another culture, and were raised in a different way, Naomi (a foreigner) experienced the love of God through them.  Who has shown you this kind of love?

Ruth and Naomi set off for Bethlehem together.  It is here we can see the depth of sadness that has enfolded Naomi.  As she enters Bethlehem, some old friends see her on the road.  “Are you Naomi?” they ask. 

She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  (Ruth 1:20-21)

Naomi is in such deep despair, she tells her friends to call her “Mara,” which means bitterness.  This once sweet woman has taken on a new identity—a woman bitterly disappointed by life and by her God.  This is the story of many immigrants—they travel to a new land, fleeing persecution, fleeing famine, fleeing war, or simply seeking a better life.  But that new land does not always become the “promised land,” does it?  Bitterness can come and inhabit our hearts when life disappoints us. 

When we are unmoored, and bitterness eats away at us, we can end up in a “far country” –like the Prodigal Son.  At such times, we are sorely in need of companions to journey with us, to guide us.  I wonder what lessons we can learn from the story of Ruth and Naomi?  Let us see what happens when Ruth becomes the immigrant, and Naomi the guide:

So, Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.  They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.  (Ruth 1:22)

This is a foreshadowing.  The Lord is going to use Ruth’s adaptation to the culture of Israel to bring a harvest into both Naomi’s and Ruth’s lives. 

Ruth and Naomi are both widows—they have no way to sustain themselves.  Ruth is a stranger and doesn’t know the Israelite culture and ways.  So, Naomi instructs Ruth on how things work.  She sends Ruth to ask permission from the landowner Boaz to glean the grain that falls to the ground during the harvest. 

Allowing widows and the poor to glean the “leftovers” from the harvest was one way that ancient Israelites helped  those in need in their community.  Another way the community provided for widows was that the closest male relative could marry the widow and purchase, or “redeem” the property owned by the dead son. 

Thus a “redeemer” is someone who buys back something; someone who frees someone from captivity or oppression. 

When Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz the landowner, she knew that he was a potential Redeemer.  Boaz was in the family line and could redeem her son’s name and property.   Ruth’s fierce covenant love for Naomi brought them both back to Bethlehem—but Naomi’s instruction of Ruth led to a future for both of them.  How?

Well, Ruth gets to know Boaz as she gleans in his fields.  Boaz negotiates to become her “redeemer”—marrying Ruth and purchasing her husband’s property.  They wed and have a child.  What we discover is that Ruth’s covenant loyalty to Naomi actually became the path to redemption, a way out of the famine and their vulnerability, to a great harvest. 

When Alya’s parents came to California 25 years ago, friends from Russia had paved the way.  Their friends helped them find jobs, told them where to rent an apartment (near good schools, the grocery story, and the bus line), and helped them learn “new ways” so that they could thrive in a new land.

Can you think of people who helped your parents, or you become “at home” in a strange land?  Can you think of someone who helped you figure out the norms of a new school when you moved as a child?  Or when you went to college—a new friend who made this new place “home” to you?  Someone who, just like Naomi, schooled you in not just how to survive, but thrive in a new place?

What is interesting to me about the story of Ruth and Naomi is that it is Naomi (the one more familiar with Israelite culture) who becomes the “guide” for helping Ruth navigate a future for them both—a future with hope.  This is in line with our usual way of thinking:  it is the older generation who instructs the younger.  But notice what is important here is that Naomi is familiar with the culture, and Ruth who needs to learn.  Naomi emigrates twice—once leaving home to go to Moab, once returning home from Moab. 

As she returns to Bethlehem—“the house of bread,” she is able to teach Ruth how to be “fed”—not just spiritually (by gleaning); and not just emotionally (by marrying).  Naomi teaches Ruth how to be “fed” by the Lord.  She is a blessing to Ruth, and in return, Ruth blesses her with a “son.”  The younger woman and the older woman mutually bless each other.  They become more than “in-laws”:  you might even call them “soul friends.”

So, I am wondering, who do you know who needs such a friend?  It could be someone who has suffered numerous losses—like Naomi.  It could be a new co-worker, who doesn’t yet “know the ropes.”  It could be a non-Christian, who will not know peace until their hearts rest in God.

Lily is older now.  But, I love how my son Tim is learning Russian so that both he and Lily will be able to have a stronger relationship with Alya’s parents and grandparents.  This “learning the language” is a sign to me of his “fierce covenant loyalty” to his wife and to her family.

Increasingly as churches in American, we have to “learn the language” of a new group of people—our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends:  people who have not been brought up in the church, who stopped going when they went to college, who do not know Jesus.  Who here knows someone like that (show of hands)?  Who amongst them might need you to become their “soul friend”?  For such people to come to know the living God, we need to learn how to speak their language—and to “translate” live-giving faith in ways that new people can enter into a relationship with the living God.  Your knowledge of the ways of God could provide the gift—not of earthly sustenance (of a husband, of food, of shelter…or an heir)—but of eternal sustenance—life with God.  As ATUMC plans to move off-site when our building is torn down and rebuilt, Pastor Allie has challenged us to think about how we can reach out to new neighbors in new ways.

What the story of Ruth and Naomi teaches us is that this challenge of evangelism is all about relationships:  relationship with God and relationship with new people who do not yet know the Lord.

When Ruth’s baby is born, no one is more delighted than….Naomi!  Indeed, the women of the village say:

“A son has been born to Naomi.” (Not to Ruth, but to Naomi!)  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.  (Ruth 4:17)

Now David was the famous King David—and who is King David’s most famous descendent?  [Jesus]  And Jesus is our… Redeemer!

Out of Naomi’s bitterness—out of all the losses and brokenness in her life, sweetness returns when Ruth bears a son!  Even though her husband and her two sons die, through Ruth’s fierce covenant loyalty–Naomi now has a “son.”  The women say to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a next-of-kin…He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.  (Ruth 4:14-15)

And what brings about this transformation from death to life for Naomi?  A decision by Ruth to travel to an unknown country so that Naomi would not be alone:  a new life that began with these powerful words:

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.   (Ruth 1:16)

With this commitment, Ruth and Naomi became more than in-laws—they became soul friends.  Where are you being called to go and do likewise? 

Amen.

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