Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-8, Psalm 146
“Your people shall be my people,” Ruth vows in her powerful oath. These words might be the reason this book of the Bible is named after her. Arguably one of the most beautiful passages of scripture, a more complete expression of one person’s commitment to another is hard to imagine. Not surprisingly, this passage is up there with the “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians as a wedding favorite, so we are likely to have first heard these words in relation to romantic love between a man and woman.
But the context in which they are said is anything but romantic. The first verses of the Book of Ruth lay out a tragic scene. The story is set “in the days when the judges ruled,” and if you’ve ever spent time in the pages of the book of Judges, you know they are talking about a period of chaos and brutality for the People of Israel. Judges is full of terrible stories, and, for a people who have been given the blessing of God’s way of life, its concluding words are also terrible: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”
Where chaos reigns, famine often drives migration. Naomi and her husband emigrate from Bethlehem—the “house of bread” in Hebrew—seeking the sustenance they are lacking in Moab, land of Israel’s enemies. But for Naomi, there is no bread in Moab, only death and barrenness.
When her husband and two sons die, Naomi and her two Moabite daughter-in-laws must fend for themselves, widows in a time when a woman’s security was found in the protection of a father or husband.
If I were making a movie, I would stage this opening scene on a bleak and barren landscape, everything a dull gray; a landscape of despair. The three women would be walking with nothing but the clothes on their backs, dazed, weary, stoic faces toward the tiniest wisp of hope—a far-off rumor there might be food in Naomi’s homeland. But suddenly Naomi brings them to an abrupt halt. Whatever substance might lie behind the rumor, how could it possibly be enough for three childless widows? Her despair is swallowing her up.
“Turn back,” she tells her daughters-in-law. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me; I have nothing to offer you but my bitterness.” Bitterness is consuming her; later Naomi will even rename herself “Bitter” to the women of Bethlehem. She cannot yet see how, side by side with her losses, God has provided for her, maybe not what she thought she’d wanted, but a future sweeter that she could have ever predicted.
One daughter-in-law, Orpah, accepts Naomi’s direction, and we cannot fault her. It is the reasonable thing to do. Yet, have you noticed that people who do the reasonable thing do not usually have books of the Bible named after them? And so it is that Ruth’s act is the one upon which the entire story hinges—a story, it will turn out, much bigger than this little four-chapter tale of widows and wives wedged between tales of tribal rulers and kings.
Orpah kisses Naomi and turns back, but Ruth “clings” to Naomi. One writer notes this act is “intimately powerful: “The verb “clung” is used [elsewhere]in one of the more familiar places in the tradition: in Genesis 2, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.”
It is an act of faithful devotion and commitment, echoed by Ruth’s 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.
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!”
Naomi is rendered speechless, and so should we be, for Ruth’s words and deedsare as mysterious as they are beautiful. We have to wonder what could possibly have motivated Ruth to say—and live by—these words of loyalty to Naomi? Maybe Ruth got to know a more attractive side of Naomi, or maybe Ruth had no other better options; but neither of those speculations can really account for her heroic and self-sacrificial devotion. And, make no bones about it, Ruth’s decision is both risky and costly.
“Your people shall be my people,” Ruth vows, but a Moabite woman cannot expect loyalty or even inclusion from people who would view her as a dirty enemy, outside their sacred covenant. The people of Israel would take their cues regarding Moabites from Deuteronomy 23:6, which one scholar translates as follows: “You shall never share your prosperity or happiness with these people.” Author Kathryn Huey notes, “What great irony and deep poignancy, then, that Ruth is willing to share Naomi’s desperate poverty and uncertain future, at a time when prosperity and happiness seem a distant memory for them both.”
So what motivates Ruth? While we can’t know for sure, I believe that Ruth’s words and deeds are a response to God’s call. Somehow this Moabite woman, raised with the worship of foreign gods, has experienced God’s gracious love, who knows, maybe through her relationship with Naomi. And, like Abraham and Sarah, when Ruth hears God’s call and responds, God strengthens her to leave everything she knows, sent to be a loyal companion to a despairing friend, embracing a new land, a new people, and the fullness of life with God as she goes.
When they arrive back at Bethlehem in the golden glow of the barley harvest, we know things will turn out all right. And it turns out that the mystery of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi and her people is the bread that sustains them, God’s grace in this story, in which God acts not in obvious and miraculous ways, but through the ordinary actions and extraordinary commitment of everyday people. It turns out that Naomi’s people do become Ruth’s people as Ruth brings a new beginning to Israel.
Do you remember the rest of the story? When Ruth goes out to glean the barley fields, she meets the prominent land-owner Boaz. Upon Naomi’s advice, Ruth takes bold action to secure a future with him. When Ruth marries Boaz and they have a child, barreness becomes new life, not just for Ruth and Naomi, but for that people who have no king. The child Obed turns out to be the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, Israel’s golden-age king. And if you follow that lineage, as Matthew’s gospel does, Ruth turns out to be the foremother of none other than Jesus Christ!
Of course, in today’s piece of the story, neither Ruth nor Naomi can predict what’s ahead. Naomi doesn’t recognize the blessing of God walking beside her. But even in the moment, if nothing else ever came from it, Ruth’s devotion still changes things: for Naomi, it is the grace that keeps her feet moving toward something more than despair and death.
And friends, this is what I want to say to you. It’s Stewardship Commitment Sunday, after all, and I would be remiss if I didn’t point it out. Your financial commitment is essential for the ongoing ministry of this congregation. But there is a much more basic point to be made.
It is not by accident that you are here today. We all know how many other options there are for your time this morning. Somehow, you made a decision to get up, get dressed, and come here. You said, some of you just for this morning, but many of you for much of a lifetime: “Those FPC people will be my people.”
And friends, this “people” includes all sorts! We have older folks and younger folks, folks who are wealthy and folks who are just getting by, folks with visible and invisible disabilities, folks from in-town, and folks from the valley. Some you might never encounter outside this location. Some of them are so different from you that you honestly have no idea how to relate to them.
What brought you here? I don’t know for sure, but I believe it was the mystery of God’s grace. By grace you heard God’s call, and by grace you responded, answering God’s call to show up here, committing yourself to worship to worship God in this place with these specific people.
And I believe just that much commitment matters more than any of us know. Who knows how God will use it to reveal Christ’s Kingdom in our midst?
Financial support is a part of your commitment, but your very presence matter just as much. Your commitment to be the welcoming arms of God to whoever walks through that door. Your commitment to nurture and teach children who are not necessarily your own flesh and blood, or get to know the oldest saints in our midst. Your commitment to speak a word of encouragement to all the folks overwhelmed by their often crazy-busy lives of work and family.
Your commitment to seek in the company of others here the purpose, presence, and power of God in your own life, in La Grande, and in the whole world. That commitment is the work of the Spirit, which keeps all of our feet moving through all the landscapes of uncertainty, toward something beyond bare functional survival, toward the mission of God reconciling the world, moving ever onward toward the great and glorious culmination of all things in Jesus Christ
For there is someone else who, following his foreigner ancestor’s example, from Bethlehem onward gave his life, the sustaining bread of God’s steadfast love, saying to all humanity in word and in deed, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
He lived and died and was buried with us, and he was raised on the third day, that each and every one of us may know the new life which comes as we commit our heart, mind, soul, and strength to loving God and loving the neighbors God gives us.
Your commitment matters. It matters right here, right now, and it matters more than you may ever know.
All glory be to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining us, One God in Community, Amen.
 Kathryn Matthews Huey, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/wherever-you-go.html