Wherever You Go

Wherever You Go

According to some commentators the Story of Ruth is very old probably 1100 years before Christ. In its present form, however, it may not have been written down until post-exilic times, about 400 years before the birth of Christ, in the time when Ezra the Priest was insisting that the men of Israel should divorce their foreign wives in order to preserve racial and spiritual purity. Ruth the Moabite woman, the Great Grandmother of the Great King David provided an excellent counter to Ezra’s inhuman treatment of these gentile women. The story is also about immigration. A prolonged drought had driven Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to leave their native Bethlehem and go to the country of Moab as economic refugees. We should note that their status in Moab would have been similar to illegal aliens coming into the United States trying to make a living. We can also observe that the names of the two boys were not auspicious for this story, Mahlon meaning “sickly,” and Chilion meaning “weakling.”

While the family was in Moab, the two boys married Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. The text does not tell us who was married to whom. Elimelech died leaving Ruth a widow and then Mahlon and Chilion died leaving Orpah and Ruth widows. With no male protection and no share in the land, Naomi concluded she must leave and go back to Bethlehem in the hope that some family would take her in and perhaps lay some claim to Elimelech’s land. She encouraged Orpah and Ruth to go back to their families for that was their best prospect of avoiding starvation, and perhaps they could remarry. Under Hebrew law if one brother died without children the other brother inherited the wife. Since both sons were dead, if Ruth had another son, he would have been obligated to care for both widows, but as Naomi points out, she was past the age of child bearing, and even if she wasn’t Orpah and Ruth would not be able to wait for another son to grow up to take care of them.

Naomi must have been a pretty good mother-in-law, because both Orpah and Ruth refused at first to leave her. Mother-in-laws get a lot of bad press, and they are often the object of the proverbial mother-in-law joke like these:

My mother-in-law’s other car is a Broom!

My mother-in-law said to me, “I’ll dance on your grave.”

I said, “I hope you do. I’m being buried at sea.”

My mother-in-law and I were happy for 20 years, and then we met each other.

Naomi’s relationship with Orpah and Ruth was full of love reinforced by shared sorrow. Out of love Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law to leave her, because she knew she could not provide for them. Finally Orpah turned, said goodbye, and went back to her family, but Ruth steadfastly clung to Naomi. Ruth’s extreme loyalty was the result of compassion, and the bond of shared grief. Ruth sealed her pledge to stay with Naomi with her famous oath:

1:16 “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; 17 where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.”

This was a powerful oath. In this promise Ruth bound herself through Naomi to a land, a people and a God she had never seen. There also seemed to be little hope for Ruth in this promise. The people of Bethlehem might refuse to receive Naomi, and even if they accepted Naomi back there was no guarantee they would accept Ruth the foreigner. And what prospects did they have? Naomi was certainly past her prime. Ruth was an alien in a strange land. Both women might be treated as little more than slaves.

So this passage is about grief, faith and moving on. Grief can forge powerful bonds. Grief can be transformative. Grief can midwife faith. Most importantly like many people in grief Naomi was angry and bitter about her fate. When she returned to Bethlehem and her relatives greeted her, she said, “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, (meaning bitterness), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Despite her anger and grief Naomi did not remain stuck. She picked up and moved on. That was a tribute to her faith.

I am reminded of Jimmy Carter’s mother, Miz Lillian. When she was asked, if she was angry after the death of her husband, Earl, she replied, “No, but I chopped a lot of wood that winter.” Like Naomi, Lillian did not remain stuck in grief. Instead she picked herself up, left Plains, Georgia and became the house mother of a fraternity at Auburn University. She also went on to administer a nursing home and then served in the Peace Corps as a nurse in India.

On remembrance Sunday we remember the faithfulness and loyalty of Ruth. She was not deterred by her grief but instead remained true to Naomi even though there appeared to be little hope for her in her choice. As we grieve for our loved ones we can see in Ruth and Naomi an example of faith working through the challenge of grief.

Because our hearts are laid bare and vulnerable by loss, we become unusually open to making new or deeper bonds of relationship as we grieve. Loss also opens us up to the possibility of change. We have to reinvent ourselves when we suffer a major loss. All change is hard, but some change is unavoidable like when we lose a spouse, or a parent, or a child, or a job, or a dream. Life will never be the same again. In adjusting to our loss we have to think of ourselves differently.

When tragedy is common and hardship is shared whether an attack like 9/11 or a weather disaster like Hurricane Katrina, the Alabama tornados, or now Hurricane Sandy, we pull together, we share, we reach out to one another and grow stronger in the midst of devastation. Wherever you go, I will go. We come to worship on this Remembrance Sunday because of our covenant to pray with and for each other. We pray this liturgy together in order to allow our shared grief to strengthen the bonds of love between us.

Not only do we draw strength from one another as we share the liturgy of remembrance, through memory we bridge time and space drawing strength from past members of the community of faith. Jesus promised us that he would be with us always to the end of the age, and through Christ all those who have died in faith are also with us in our remembering.

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The miracle of the resurrection assures us that we are never alone. In the words of Ruth, “wherever you go, I will go.”

This morning is a time of remembering — remembering loved ones and good friends who have died in this past year. Remembering living together, working together, praying together. We remember the good things we have shared, and we give thanks to God for each other, and treasure the memories of the love we have shared.

We come today to say good-bye.

There are people we will not see again in this life time. We need to be able to say good-bye and move on. Living lies ahead and not behind. Saying good-bye is sad, but we must answer God’s call to move on into the future.

Let us give thanks to the God who promises us that good-bye is not forever. For through the resurrection of Christ we will live again. Praise God. Amen.


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