This sermon is Part I of a two-part series. I will preach this sermon on Ruth 1 at the 9 a.m. service for The Stand, on the first day that it meets in the sanctuary of Blandford UMC, on August 11. Part II, for blog purposes, will publish in a week.
Have you ever been homeless? Seems like a strange question, right? But if you’ve been homeless, you KNOW how wonderful it is to find a place to call home. You know that homelessness is often not just the cause but a symptom of a bigger issue. Whether it’s joblessness, sickness, isolation, or the loss of a loved one, sometimes homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg.
For the woman Ruth, homelessness was just the beginning.
A quick recap of how Ruth ends up homeless. It begins with a man named Elimelek who left his home in Bethlehem and moved to Moab with his wife Naomi. We don’t know why they moved, or what motivated them, but we must assume that the situation in Moab was better for them than staying at home. The Israelites wouldn’t have been inclined to move away from their center of faith and the covenant with God, unless they believed the resources were more plentiful in Moab. So to give their family the best shot at survival, they move away from home.
This practice is much more common today; I even know a man who spends a significant amount of every month in Japan for work. The idea that we would only situate ourselves in a close perimeter to our families is foreign to us, but in the day of Ruth, it would’ve been a significant move for the family of Elimelek to Moab. But for whatever reasons, they settled there and found a temporary resting place.
The sons of Elimelek and Naomi, with unpronounceable names, lived in Moab long enough that they ended up committing another societal faux pas, marrying two Moabite women, named Orpah (rhymes with orca) and Ruth, our heroine. Not only have they situated themselves far from home, but they’ve mixed their family line with Gentiles, people who did not believe in Yahweh God. They had settled for preservation over boldness, security over religious and customary law.
Soon, tragedy struck and all three of the men died. The elderly Naomi was left in a foreign country with no means of supporting herself. In her own country, she would have been taken in by her relatives, but with no husband, no sons, and no property, she had nothing. There are verse after verse in the Bible proclaiming that God expects his followers to care for “widows and orphans.” We can probably understand why orphans would be automatically included in the community’s care: as children, they had no one to care for them. But in these historical days, a widow was just as helpless with no husband or sons to care for her.
So Naomi hears that God was providing what his people needed back in Judah, and she gathered up her possessions and prepared to return home to her ancestors. She began her goodbyes to her daughters-in-law, telling them to return home to their parents, where the customs and laws protected them, ensuring that they would be married by another man. Naomi’s selflessness was exhibited here: she wanted better for her daughter-in-laws than she knew that she could expect for herself.
Initially, both women played the good daughter-in-law roles and said, “oh, no, we’ll go with you.” They were turning their back on the security of that second marriage, of being pulled off of the discard deck of the widow pile. They were young enough to know that without husbands or children, their future still looked significantly bright. Then Naomi rebuffed them again, pushing aside their argument, reminding them why there was no reason to go with her, that they would be strangers in Naomi’s land.
So, Orpah turned back and returned to her parents’ home. She did what made sense, what was logical, what was prudent. Orpah did what most of us would do if we were faced with the same situation: go to a new place with someone we hardly know or boldly go out on faith, and consider the new possibilities in store.
But Ruth chose homelessness. And faithfulness. And steadfast love. Ruth said instead: “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.”
That, friends, is one of the most poetic speeches I have ever heard, at any time, anywhere. Ruth’s bold statements, on behalf of her MOTHER-IN-LAW (c’mon, really, who goes top shelf for their mother-in-law?!), prove that there is more to Ruth than we might have expected. Somehow, who Naomi is has proved to be exemplary, touching, morally moving for Ruth. Somehow, in the midst of a foreign land, Naomi’s faith proved to be righteously bold, proving to be more promising to Ruth than the safety that she could have found if she had returned to her homeland.
Isn’t this the place where Ruth is supposed to say, “well, you’re right, dear. We have always done it this way, where your son died and I go back to my father and he sets me up with a second husband, and I live happily ever after. It’s just the way things work, and they will never change.”
It’s the place where we’d expect Ruth to choose safety and security, the known, over stepping out on faith. Ruth doesn’t revert to historical understandings, to past patterns of behavior. She doesn’t pull a Sheldon and say, but tonight, we always eat this here and do that there.
But instead, Ruth chooses a bold, groundbreaking approach. Ruth chose homelessness with God, over godlessness at home. She chose to go somewhere she wasn’t known, like the opposite of Cheers, to live in a place where the style, the ritual, the worship, was different from hers, because she knew in the long run, that was what was best for her.
And Ruth claims Naomi’s god as her own: she uses a promise with God as her witness, to state her standing with Naomi, and binding herself to Naomi moving forward.
Because of the example of Naomi, Ruth converted to pre-established Judaism, a familial religion, turning aside from her family’s beliefs and homeland, for something unknown.
And this is not the way it’s always been done.
A few years ago, participants at a few churches in the Tri-Cities area set out on faith to create a church for people who were not comfortable or welcome at other churches, for people who were searching for faith and hadn’t found it in a traditional church. They set out to create something new and bold and wonderful.
They pitched the vision, planted the seeds, and worked through their own sweat and tears and prayer to create something intent on changing how people did church. To do church differently.
Now, three years later, we are gathered today, as the Stand at Blandford. The community has met at the Preschool, at Swaders, at the Holiday Inn, and Blandford. I don’t know that any of those places are the final resting place, but they have all been home. They have all been the place where God showed up, and lives were changed. But somehow, setting up shop here seems like an even bolder move: how can a church intent on reaching people who aren’t comfortable in traditional church meet in a traditional church?
It seems that to accomplish being a church plant, wherever we are, there are bold steps, flag-planting moments we need to consider.
To figure out who God wants us to be, looking to the example of Ruth, it is not enough to know what we aren’t, we must know who we are. We must declare publicly and boldly, that we’ll go where God leads, regardless of what it costs us personally. That whether the next five years finds us here, or in a car dealership, or in a funeral home, or in a park, that our God is bigger than our location or our situation. That God’s plan for the Stand requires that we blow up the box and start dancing on its remains.
In the next few months, I propose that we make some extraordinary moves. I do not mean that they are original or that they are earthshattering, but that they are necessarily dangerous for our understanding of ourselves and our comfort zone. I mean that we should devote our selves to these principles for ourselves and for the church.
PRAY: I propose that we begin praying and crying out to God for the plans he knows already for the Stand, and for each of us. I don’t believe we’ll ever live into the plans God has for our lives until we lay our wants, and hopes, and dreams down in front of God, and ask that God’s will be done. Naomi wasn’t terribly happy with God, but she still looked to him in the long run; she still applied the principles of her faith to her life. Neither Naomi nor Ruth ever asked to be widows, but with their boldness, they presented themselves in the slipstream of God’s grace… and found community and comfort there.
STUDY: I propose that we commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, regardless of what we think we know or have considered before. We are a community in isolation; individuals spinning our lives and periodically bumping into each other. I’ve been here for the last few months, and I recognize that our community is still not as deep as we’d like it to be. That commitment to each other, like Ruth to Naomi, comes from being known to each other. I think we must study the Scripture to know God, and we must share our stories with each other to be known by our community. I believe that we’ll recognize the person we need to be and who others are through small groups. Which leads me to this challenge: I want us to strive to have every member of the Stand in a weekly or monthly small group by Christmas of this year.
WITNESS: I propose that we commit ourselves to sharing our faith in word and deed in a way that is undeniably evangelistic. I’ve been involved in church leadership for over a decade, and I know that there can be a great vision pitched by the pastor and the leadership, but if the body of the church isn’t committed, the church isn’t going anywhere. We all know that there are dozens of people we know who are struggling with the big questions of life and don’t have anywhere to examine them. We work with them, hang out with them, live next to them, like and dislike them. Heck, we’re even related to them. But have we passionately considered that their need is something we can help relieve, by opening up our community to them? Have we committed ourselves to inviting someone to the Stand EVERY WEEK?
God shows up in Ruth’s life in the midst of change, tragedy, hardship, and voluntary homelessness. But Ruth becomes part of a revolution, part of the movement of God’s work in the world that culminates with Jesus. You’ll have to come back for the 11 o’clock service to find out what I mean. But know this: Ruth’s bold faithfulness, her determined conversion to the belief in the one Yahweh God, was rewarded in her lifetime, and proved that God’s work in the world is never haphazard, never pointless, never unfulfilled.
God is calling you to come home to a right relationship with him, even if your new home is different, strange, and sometimes unrecognizable. Because God wants you to understand that home isn’t a place, or a time, or a situation, but home is the place where God meets you where you are.
In the sanctuary by August! Hmmmm…I think we call that leadership!,
Thank you, John.