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Hope in the Midst of Return

“Hope in the Midst of Return”

November 14, 2021

Ruth 1:6-18

A Future with Hope Series


We’re talking about exile and return this month and today we hear another famous story from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. Today we here about a woman named Naomi. Naomi’s family is in the midst of exile. They’ve left their home because of no food and gone to live in the foreign country of Moab where there are a lot of strange things and unfamiliar cultures. As if that isn’t enough, while they were gone, Naomi’s husband and sons die. Today, we find Naomi at a transitional moment. After many years of exile, she has finally heard that there is food once again in her hometown of Bethlehem. She decides to return. In this passage Naomi sets off to return home with the two Moab women her sons have married while they’ve been in exile. These, her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah, have become her only family, even though they are foreigners. Let’s have a listen.


Ruth 1:6-18

Naomi and Her Moabite Daughters-in-Law

Then Naomi started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food.  So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “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.  The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”  But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”  Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

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.

17  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!”

18  When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

_________________

Hope in the midst of return… requires both a return and hope. We are exploring the

ancient and somehow incredibly modern theme of exile and return this month.

Last week we started by talking the Babylonian exile almost 3000 years ago and one prophet’s proclamation that God would lead God’s people out of exile when the exile had run its course. As if to say, perhaps, seasons of scarcity can serve some purpose in helping us to learn to be generous when we have nothing so that one day when we have more, when the exile is over and we’ve returned to “normal” life, we’ll already be in the habit of gratitude and generosity.

Today we’re going to keep going in that thread. Instead of the Babylonian exile, we’ve traveled back a few hundred more years and entered the story of Naomi at the end of her family’s exile in Moab. Naomi decided it was time to return from exile because the famine in her home of Bethlehem had ended. She could go home, finally! But Naomi has changed during her exile. She came with a husband and two sons and she returns with none of them. This puts new meaning to her tragedy and her famine.

But Naomi does not leave exile completely empty. Her sons married local women

while they were living in Moab. And while at first Naomi starts to return to Bethlehem with these two women, Ruth and Orpah, in tow, then she thinks twice. She realizes their lives would be better, more secure, if they stayed in their home country of Moab and tried to remarry. This was the Ancient Near East, after all. Women were property; and three women with no male guardian would struggle to find food and shelter and to make ends meet. And so Naomi tries to get Orpah and Ruth to stay. After some persuasion, Orpah does. But Ruth will not. And in one of the most poetic and beautiful expressions of loyalty in the Bible, Ruth goes above and beyond an ordinary obligation to her mother-in-law. She commits herself to Naomi, who for her was so much more than a family member by marriage. Ruth sees she and Naomi as spiritually bound.

“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!”

Their time in exile has changed them. And when that exile is finally over and it’s time to return to some kind of normalcy, both Ruth and Naomi are different people. Naomi lost a lot. But in her time of scarcity and need she learned that she can love again and depend on someone who was outside of her culture, different in so many ways. Who would have thought that a Moabite woman could have become a real daughter for her. Ruth loved Naomi like a daughter and gave her a glimpse of a future with hope. Did that make her problems go away? No. But what it does mean is that she doesn’t go through her problems alone.

Ruth, for her part, has also been changed by the exile. When it has come time for

Naomi to end her exile, Ruth decides to give up what might have been a secure future for herself in her homeland by saying she’ll return with Naomi to Naomi’s homeland. Ruth chooses commitment to Naomi, her companion through difficult times, over the financial security that a new Moabite family could have brought her. Ruth chooses risk over safety. Why? Because Ruth had found God through Naomi, a real person living through real tragedy in the midst of real exile. Ruth needed Naomi’s God and Ruth knew that she couldn’t go back to her old life and try to stay in relationship with this God on her own, even if it meant more financial security.

___________

Exile changes us, too. Whether you’re feeling the exile of the pandemic or the exile

created by the rise in ideological polarity and hateful rhetoric, when we are separated from what is familiar, we inevitably change. Life happens to us in ways we can’t predict or control and we find ourselves longing for something that is solid and True. During the pandemic, it has been widely reported that church attendance has dropped to less than 60% of what it was before. We’ve been through a lot. Some of this is because the actual risks involved with gathering have been high. And some of this because pandemic exile is changing people. I’ve heard some people say that they walk in the woods when they want to find God and that they’ve discovered they don’t need church every week to find that direct connection. I like the woods and all and I find God there, but that can’t be it for me. Like Ruth, I can’t find God apart from real people. Even imperfect people. I can’t crack the faith code by myself. I genuinely need people in my life willing to make a faith journey with me. People who are honest enough to tell me when I make a mistake; people who will think differently from me and stretch me; people who will carry me when my life is falling apart, and show me grace and forgiveness when I’ve strayed.

Church is not without its risks. Sometimes it’s just plain awkward to meet new people and interact, especially after months of pandemic. Church is often tedious… how long is this sermon going to last, again? How many times have I heard the same person tell the same story in that same meeting? And sometimes church just feels impossible. As pastor friend of mine says, the church would be a pretty perfect place if it weren’t made up people….

By showing up for church we open ourselves up to the imperfections of community. It’s a calculated risk. We’ll probably let each other down from time to time. We’ll make serious blunders. We’ll mess up and get angry with one another…. And yet still we’ll get together for potlucks (….someday!). And we’ll still bring casseroles to the grieving. And we’ll still show up for each other in the hospital waiting room. Church is just weird that way.

Even the best churches will from time to time make you want to walk away. But more often than not, it’s the very thing we can’t live without. Like Ruth, we need other people on this journey with us.

There’s a line of scripture from Hebrews 10:24-25 that says “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

That is to say, we need this (motioning all around). Meeting together as a church enables us to keep after one another, provoking one another, as the scripture says, to love and good deeds.

There is more than one exile happening in our world right now. There is the pandemic isolation, but there is also an exile from goodwill. At alarming rates, compassion seems to be fleeing the land. There is a famine of good old fashion decency. This is unsettling, to say the least. Most days, when the exile of the pandemic is combined with the exile of the endemic polarity, I just want to stick my head in the sand. By the time Sunday rolls around the world has exhausted me and I drag my weary, exilic self to church. Partly because it’s my job, but also partly because every week something about you, and this physical place, and this sacred space reflects God to me and I feel like I am less alone.

That must have been what Ruth meant when she begged to leave the exile with Naomi, right? I can’t do this on my own; please let’s just do it together. This church isn’t perfect; we don’t always see things the same way or agree about everything. But the thing that makes church special is that we show up for one another.

Whether this is your first Sunday here or your 1000 th Sunday here, let this be our place of homecoming. The solution to the exiles we experience. Let this be the place where we practice how to be good neighbors so that we can take that experience out into the world. Let this be the place where children and elders, alike, sit side by side and dream dreams of a better tomorrow. Let this be the place where we return when we’ve got nothing left. Let this be the place where we meet God in real people living real lives, full of both tragedy and beauty. Let this be the place where we say, your people are my people. Your God is my God. Let this be the place where our weary, exilic hearts come home and find hope.

Let us pray.

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