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Ruth: an Unlikely Saint

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
 November 4, 2012

All Saints’ Sunday

Ruth 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.  These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.  Then she 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. 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 (NRSV).

As you’ve heard, today is All Saints’ Sunday on the Christian calendar, and since Baptists don’t really have any saints (at least, not like the Catholics do) we use this day to focus on the saints in the way the Apostle Paul used the word.  He used it to talk about ordinary Christians, people no different from those you see here in the sanctuary this morning.  In fact, he used that word to talk about the Corinthians, and if you’ve read the letters he wrote to them you know they weren’t all that “saintly.”  It was their faith in Christ that sanctified them, literally, “made saints” out of them. It wasn’t what they had done; it was what He had done.  Now that’s a definition we can work with.  But from the earliest days of Christianity onward there have been some of those ordinary, everyday saints who have lived extraordinary lives, or done extraordinary things, and thereby become examples for the rest of us.  Think about Stephen in the Book of Acts, who was stoned to death for his faith and said as he breathed his last, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).  That story is still told to inspire us.  There were others in those early days who died for their faith, and did it courageously.  People began to collect their stories and tell them in church and that body of literature became known as hagiography, which means, literally, “holy writing,” or (better still) “writing about the holy ones,” or (best of all) “saint stories.” 

One of the most famous collections of those stories is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and if you thumb through its pages even casually you can begin to see why All Saints’ Day and Halloween are so close together.  This book tells some pretty gruesome stories.  It tells the story of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who suffered under the Roman Emperor Trajan, and who said, while he was awaiting trial, “‘Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!’ And even when he was sentenced to be thrown to the beasts, such was the burning desire that he had to suffer, that he spake, what time he heard the lions roaring, saying: ‘I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread!’”

And then there’s the story of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who suffered under Marcus Aurelius, and who “was carried before the proconsul, condemned, and burnt in the market place. The proconsul then urged him, saying, ‘Swear, and I will release thee;—reproach Christ.’ Polycarp answered, ‘Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?’ At the stake to which he was only tied, but not nailed as usual, as he assured them he should stand immovable, the flames, as they began to leap up from the wood, encircled his body, like an arch, without touching him; and the executioner, on seeing this, was ordered to pierce him with a sword, when so great a quantity of blood flowed out as extinguished the fire.”  Whereupon his enemies re-lit the fire and kept it going until his body was burned.[i]

It goes on from there, until it begins to sound like Hebrews, chapter 11, where the author says, “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35-38).  In all of this we are encouraged by the example of those who went before us to live more fearless and faithful lives, and, honestly, I can’t think of a better time to hear their stories.  Church attendance in America is falling off at a precipitous rate.  People are dropping out of church by the thousands, because they have “better things to do,” because they’d rather sleep late on Sunday morning, or head down to the river, or go to a football game.  In times like these we probably need to hear the stories of people who would rather be thrown to the lions or burned at the stake than compromise their faith in Christ.  They might inspire us to take our own faith more seriously.

Now, not all saint stories have a violent end.  Sometimes we point to the lives of ordinary, everyday Christians and ask our children to follow those examples.  We talk about their wisdom, their loyalty, their devotion and courage.  We say, “Look at that!  Now, that’s the way to live a life!”  I remember leaving my daughter Ellie with a babysitter once—a young woman in our church—and asking her to teach Ellie how to grow up just like her.  I’m sure you’ve told your children the stories of beloved aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, Sunday school teachers and other saints.  We Baptists love to tell the stories of Lottie Moon (the closest thing to a saint we have) and of Annie Armstrong, Luther Rice, and Lott Carey.  In this church I sometimes hear the names of Baker James Cauthen or Theodore F. Adams.  So, on All Saints’ Sunday it seems fitting to hear the story of a saint, and the one suggested by the lectionary is Ruth, who is—by almost every standard of judgment—an unlikely choice.  But bear with me if you will for a little hagiography, as we turn our attention to Ruth, chapter 1.

It’s a story that takes place in the time of the Judges, after Moses and Joshua have brought the people of Israel into the Promised Land but before Saul or David have begun to reign.  It was that time when “there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes.”  And so begins the story of Elimelech (a man whose name means “God is my king”), who lived in Bethlehem with his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.  There was a famine in the land—the crops had failed, there was nothing to eat—and so Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes: he took his family to the land of Moab, east of the river, where he heard there was food.  Can you picture him loading up his donkey with all his worldly goods, and then starting out with his wife walking beside him and his two little boys following along behind?  They probably went up the road to Jebus (present-day Jerusalem), some seven miles away, and then up over the Mount of Olives and down the hill to Jericho, another eighteen miles.  They would have crossed the Jordan there and climbed the hills of Moab on the other side before finally coming to a place where they could pitch their tent and start their new life. 

I don’t know how long they were there before it happened, but it did—Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her two sons, a single parent.  Somehow they managed to get by, and when the boys were old enough they married a couple of the local girls—Orpah and Ruth.  I won’t even tell you how their mother must have felt about it.  There was a lot of bad blood between the Israelites and the Moabites.  And Moabite women, in particular, had a bad reputation (cf. Numbers 25:1).  But the boys didn’t have a lot of options.  Moabite women were the only women there were.  They married Orpah and Ruth and ten years later both of those boys died.  Maybe we should have seen it coming: one’s name was Mahlon, which means “sickly,” and the other one’s name was Chilion, which means “weak.”  All the same there they were, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, left alone in the world to fend for themselves.  And don’t forget, it was a man’s world.  As one commentator has said, “there was no possibility of them finishing a degree, entering the workforce, and sharing an apartment.”[ii]  The best they could hope for was that their family would take them in again.  And so, since the famine is over, Naomi makes up her mind to return to her relatives in Bethlehem.  It’s all she’s got left.

Or so she thinks.

When she packs up to leave Ruth and Orpah pack up to go with her.  They start down the road with her toward Bethlehem and at first Naomi doesn’t say anything.  Maybe she’s glad for the company.  But eventually she turns and says to these two: “Go home, both of you.  Go back to your mother’s house.  Maybe the Lord will look kindly on you.  Maybe he’ll give each of you a new husband and a new life.”  But they said, “No, we’re not going back.  We’re going with you.  We’re going to make our life with you in the land of Judah.”  And if Naomi could have laughed she would have.  “Daughters!” she said.  “What have I got to give you?  Nothing.  Nothing at all!  I’ve got no home to give you, no husbands to give you.  Why, if I met a man this morning, married him this afternoon, and conceived twin sons this evening, would you stick around until they grew up, until you could marry them?  I don’t think so.  No, go your way, daughters.  Go home.  And may God bless you.”  She kissed Orpah goodbye and Orpah started down the road toward home.  But when she went to kiss Ruth goodbye, Ruth clung to her and 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!" (Ruth 1:16-17).

Can you imagine the look on Naomi’s face?  On one hand, shocked and surprised that Ruth would say such a thing, but on the other hand grateful to tears that she wasn’t going to be left alone?  Ruth was clinging to her.  The Hebrew word is the same one used in Genesis 2:24 where it says, “a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife.”  Ruth is willing to leave her father and mother and cleave unto her mother-in-law, which is almost unheard of.  There must have been a long moment of silence, and then weeping and embracing.  But this is all the Bible says, that “when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her she said no more to her” (Ruth 1:18).  And that’s as far as we’re going to take the story today.  Don’t worry; we’ll hear the rest of it next week.  But for today we’re going to leave it there, with Ruth and Naomi starting down the road toward Bethlehem, arm in arm. 

I was having coffee with some of my colleagues on Tuesday morning of last week and I asked them about this story.  “Where’s the good news here?” I asked.  “Where’s the gospel in this passage?”  And Rachel May, the pastor of Boulevard United Methodist Church, said, “I love that part where Ruth says ‘where you lodge I will lodge.’  I love it that Ruth is not going to let Naomi be alone.”  I’ve been thinking about that ever since.  I’ve been thinking about it especially as we approached this All Saints’ Sunday when I knew that Lynn was going to read the names of the 56 or 57 church members we have lost in the last year.  I thought about those of you who would hear the name of a close friend or family member read aloud.  I thought about how alone some of you might feel and I pictured Naomi, standing on that road, saying to her daughters-in-law, “I’m all alone!”  And I could almost hear Ruth roaring back: NO, YOU’RE NOT!” and that’s when I thought, “There it is!  There’s the Gospel!”  Because we are not alone, not even when our last loved one dies.  There is someone who loves us still and who will not leave us, no matter what.

The people who have written commentaries on the Book of Ruth seem to agree that this is a book that shows us what chesed looks like.  Chesed is one of those special Hebrew words that belongs to God and God alone.  We usually translate it “loving kindness” or “steadfast love.”  But in this little book Ruth shows us what chesed looks like in human form.  It’s the look on her face when she says to her mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”  In other words, “I am going to be with you from now on.  I refuse to let you be alone.”  I don’t know.  Some of you may not want a daughter-in-law like that.  But on this All Saints’ Sunday the story of Ruth reminds us that when we are feeling most alone we are not. 

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Jim Somerville, 2012


[i] Both of these stories are from “The Ten Primitive Persecutions” (Chapter 2 in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs)

[ii] From a 2006 sermon by Jim Mueller, Pastor, Austin City Church

 

 
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