Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved June 28, 2022]. Original source: Estate of John August Swanson, https://www.johnaugustswanson.com/.
So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said,
‘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!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ 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?’
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.
Your People Shall Be My People: Ruth 1:15-22
A pivotal scene in the film Fried Green Tomatoes features our reading for today. Tough-talking, pants-wearing Idgie Threadgoode receives a letter from straight-laced preacher’s daughter Ruth Jamison. They had known each other a long time. Ruth had been Idgie’s brother’s girlfriend before he tragically died. A few years later, when Idgie struggled in adolescence, her mother had asked Ruth to spend time with her one summer, hoping Ruth’s good behavior would rub off on the half-wild Idgie. They grew close. Idgie was heartbroken when Ruth moved back to Georgia at the end of the summer to marry a man named Frank.
We, and Idgie, learned that Frank was abusive when she made up an excuse to go see Ruth. Idgie was ready to take on Frank that very day, but Ruth wouldn’t let her. Idgie left, knowing that things were not safe but not knowing what to do to help. The proper steps become clear when Ruth sends Idgie the letter. It contains a copy of Ruth’s mother’s obituary, to let Idgie know that Ruth no longer had ties that mattered in Valdosta, and a page from a King James Bible. The page is from the book of Ruth. These words were underlined: “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:” Idgie realizes that this was Ruth telling Idgie to come get her. Idgie gathered up two men, Julian and Big George, and they drove all the way to Valdosta to get Ruth and bring her back home to Whistle Stop, Alabama.
The movie, which is set between World War I and II and released in 1991, lets Ruth and Idgie’s relationship status remain... ambiguous, but those with eyes can see and ears can hear. They build a life together, caring for each other, running a diner together, and raising a son. The words of Ruth to Naomi... where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people and your God, my God... become the bridge that brings them back together.
I think the first place I ever heard any part of the book of Ruth was watching that movie on VHS with my Granny at her home in Tennessee, which seems to be an odd way to encounter part of the Bible for the first time. Our Jewish neighbors read Ruth during the festival of Shavuot. It’s a vital part of their traditions. Christians might notice that figure of Ruth shows up as one of the few women in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew. The book of Ruth also comes up a few times in one year for those preachers who follow the scripture suggestions in the 3-year reading cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. We’re gonna spend some time with Ruth and Naomi and Boaz this summer, at the suggestion of Dr. Wil Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. In her introduction to this text, Mary Joan Winn Leith, describes Ruth as a story of loyalty, generosity to strangers, and love. Those are all values that seems utterly necessary in these troubled times. Let’s shift our attention to the troubled times that brought Ruth and Naomi together.
Ruth and Naomi might have never met had there not been a famine. Naomi and her husband Elimilech are what we might today call climate refugees. They had to leave their homeland because of a natural disaster related to the climate. A scholar named Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi gave this helpful definition of a famine in her commentary on this passage. A famine is a particular kind of large-scale food shortage that may due to a variety of factors that can stack up together to impact food availability. Weather patterns, styles of farming, the presences of pests and blights, as well as human exploitation can work together to compound the damage of a famine.
We don’t know what caused the famine that drove Naomi and Elimelech from the home. But we do know that they were hungry enough and desperate enough that a long voyage to a foreign country seemed to be the better option to staying in Bethlehem and starving. They decided to move to Moab. If you have read other parts of the Bible, you might remember that people from Judah didn’t always like people from Moab very much. Scholar Cameron Howard, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that in Genesis, the people of Moab are described as descendants of an inappropriate relationship between Noah and his daughter. In Deuteronomy, the Moabites are forbidden from being a part of the assembly of God, in part, because they did not show hospitality to the Hebrews when they were migrants escaping from Egypt. Was it great hunger that inspired Elimilech and Naomi to move to Moab or great open-mindedness to new possibilities? Maybe both?
At some point after they arrive in Moab, with two sons in tow, Elimilech dies. In her commentary on this text, Patricia Tull reminds us that, in a world where a woman's livelihood often depended on the whims and fortunes of the men to whom she was attached, Elimilech's death was a tragedy in a few different ways. Not only would Naomi mourn her husband, she might have also struggled to physically survive without him. Fortunately, she had two sons old enough to help out. These sons would eventually marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi, her sons, and daughters-in-law seem to make a life together in Moab, despite any traditions of animosity that they could have inherited. For ten years, in fact, they build this life together. Tragically, Naomi’s sons die, too, leaving Orpah and Ruth widows with no children to care for them.
I was reminded while reading Ruth Sohn’s commentary on this text that Naomi was from Bethlehem and Bethlehem means “city of bread.” Sohn says that Naomi remembered her homeland, the city of bread, and hearing that food was once more growing in Judah and remembering the times God provided bread, food, for the people in the wilderness, she decided to go home to the city of bread. Ruth and Orpah accompanied her part of the way. But, she stops them. She tells them to go back to their mother’s homes. She can’t see a future where she can provide for them, so despite the care they obviously have for one another, she tells them to go back home. They both argue with her, but Orpah, seeing Naomi’s wisdom, kisses her cheek goodbye and leaves, weeping. Ruth, though, Ruth stays.
There are layers of intent that a reader could inscribe on Ruth’s words. Put mostly simply, Ruth loved Naomi too much to leave, so she defies her and stays. Ruth looks at an uncertain future and decides to fully invest herself in the one relationship that feels life-giving... as life-giving as bread to a starving person. Naomi may not feel like she has much hope. She tells the women who recognize her that God has dealt harshly with her... that she is so grief-filled that she can no longer be called her own name, which means pleasant, but should instead be called Mara, which means bitter. But, Ruth is there, quietly off to the side, steadfast her hope that new life, renewed life, is possible with Naomi.
Perhaps you are feeling like you should be called Mara, bitter, because your grief and fear for the future is shaking you. But, notice that even in grief, there is a choice to turn towards that which promises nourishment. And, even in grief, there are relationships that, against all odds, have proven to be life-giving in their own right. These relationships... the networks of life that we cultivate... can help us get to the just and loving future the Holy Spirit can build with us. Your people will be my people. And, we will all help each other survive. May we each have this Ruth spirit with us, cleaving us to one another, as we walk towards the sustenance that we know God can provide.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Cameron B. R. Howard: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3884
Elizabeth J.A. Siwo-Okundi, "Proper 26 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Patricia Tull: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-ruth-11-18
Wil Gafney, "Proper 1" and "Proper 2," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
The entry on Moabites from the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, general ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (et. al) (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996)
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Ruth H. Sohn, "Verse by Verse: A Modern Commentary," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (New York: Ballentine Books, 1994)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.