Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you…” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
I speak to you in the name of one God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
She saw that she was determined…Determination, according to the Google, “is a positive emotional feeling that involves persevering towards a difficult goal in spite of obstacles. Determination occurs prior to goal attainment and serves to motivate behavior that will help achieve one’s goal.”
When was the last time you were determined to do something? When did you last feel so inwardly motivated that no matter the obstacles, you were going to achieve your goal? It doesn’t have to be anything major…it just has to involve challenges that need to be overcome, and a will that nothing will get in your way! For example, I had a friend who recently said, “even with the materials shortage and supply chain issues, I am determined to find the perfect Halloween costume.” Or another friend in grad school said, “I am determined to get an A on this assignment, even if I have to study all weekend!” Even myself, I was determined to find Joffrey ballet “Nutcracker” tickets on the exact day my mother will be in town in December, even though it is a Friday night—their most popular night (I did find them). The important thing I want you to remember is that when we believe something is important enough—when we feel like we have the energy and motivation—the obstacles that stand in our way don’t stand a chance, because those challenges, no matter how great, seem minuscule compared to high value we place on completing such an important task.
This morning, we have been given a gift. Our first passage came from Ruth. Ruth is a short book that we only hear from once in our lectionary cycle, and today I want to give Ruth her moment in the spotlight. Ruth is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew scriptures because it is packed full of theological meaning and insight, all in just 4 chapters…just 80 short verses. But in the little book, we hear a novella of famine, foreign lands, death, alienation, hardship, love, trickery, sex, passion, resilience, and new life. It would be impossible to share all the details of this amazing story but what I want to highlight this morning is how when faced with a decision in difficult times, this story captures the gamut of the human experience—some motivated by the world, and some motivated by God.
Do you struggle with taking risks and facing uncertainty? Is your default in life to take the safe and predictable path? Do you ever feel alone? And if so, do you feel that you deserve to feel this way…so weighed down with burden, anxiety, or grief, the thought of sharing such weight seems unthinkable? Or are you fed up with the ways things are—filled with the inner truth that things don’t have to stay the same—that burdens can be lifted—that things can get better? This story shows our human condition in its various forms, but it is the determination of Ruth, even in the face of deep despair that I want to emphasize this morning.
Let’s set the scene. The story begins with Naomi and her Israelite family from Bethlehem experiencing a famine. The situation is so bad that they are willing to move to Moab. *Pause* This is an important detail because people from Judah hated the Moabites. Think about the Good Samaritan in the Gospels…the Jews hated the Samaritans—they look down on them and thought they were sub-human. That is how the Judaeans felt about the Moabites. So, this family leaves all they own, all they know, and move to the worst place possible. Once in Moab, Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but after a time, the two sons die, leaving the three women childless and alone. Remember, in the ancient world it was always difficult to be a woman, but it was especially hard without the presence of a man. Not only were they stricken with grief, but they were also left with few options on how to survive. Naomi decides to go home alone, resigned to the misplaced fact that for whatever reason, God is punishing her and that she deserves all this misfortune. Orpah and Ruth want to come with her, but Naomi also knows how her people would treat these Moabite women. “Life will be too difficult if you come with me,” Naomi said, “go back to your families. Leave me, I beg you.” Orpah turns back—she will miss Naomi but she understands her mother-in-law’s plea…going with her is too scary—too risky. Better to care for herself, she thinks. But Ruth, persists. Scripture says she “clung to Naomi,” and after one last plea from Naomi for Ruth to turn back and home, Ruth responds with heavenly poetry,
“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.
And that is when Naomi realized Ruth’s determination—that is when she knew that no matter the obstacles that lay ahead of them—no matter the persecution or hardship—Ruth was going to attain her goal of staying with Naomi…loving Naomi…and without this act of determination, the rest of the story of would have never happened. Ruth will go on to bear a son, and that son would be the grandfather of David, whose direct descend would be Jesus.
Again, much can be gleaned from such a rich story, but I want us to focus on the three women and their various ways of reacting to their situation. I invite you to place yourself in the story. Who do you identify with most? Is it Orpah, wanting to maintain relationship, but when given the easier option, turns back? What about Naomi…do you feel like you have to face this harsh world all by yourself? Do you think your baggage—your weight—is only yours to carry, and you don’t want to burden anyone else? Or maybe you’re Ruth…filled with the knowledge that life is too short not to share love with the ones who need it most.
Before continuing, I want to be very clear—1. God doesn’t make bad things…God is not responsible for Naomi’s suffering, no matter what she thinks she did—and God is not responsible for our suffering no matter how much we think we may deserve it. 2. There is nothing wrong with what Orpah did—sometimes in our life, the right thing to do is to care for ourselves and seek safety…BUT, what I’m about to say next is meant to encourage you to not always default to what is safe, but rather, act out of determination in hopes of helping God redeem whatever situation needs divine intervention.
You see, our God doesn’t make bad things happen—those things happen because of the existence of evil—but we believe in a God of redemption—a God that can redeem any situation, no matter how terrible. That is what we call bringing the Heaven here to earth—actualizing God’s redeeming works here and now.
But God is no puppet-master. God needs our help. The work of the church is not passive—yes, we pray and we worship and we are fed, but we do it all so that we can be God’s agents of completing God’s will—we are called to be active participants. We are called to be a people of action—a people so filled with determination that no matter what is in our way—whether it be sorrow, grief, homelessness, white supremacy, or any other kind of evil—no matter what the obstacle, the determination that is stirs within our bodies and deep in our bones will be the thing that brings about the reign of God—it will be the thing helps us achieve our goal.
It is human nature to seek safety when we feel threatened like Orpah. And in our western culture and society that promotes individualism, like Naomi, it is natural for us to feel that we can’t and shouldn’t share our burdens. But what Ruth does—what she models for us—with her determination is an opportunity for God to be invited into our world. I’m not saying God doesn’t work through the Orpah’s or Naomi’s of this world—I’m too smart to know that the moment I start putting God and how God work into a box, that is the moment I’m limiting what an all-powerful God can do—but this text does show us that it is through the action of Ruth—the love of Ruth—the determination of Ruth—that God begins to redeem.
Look around—people are hurting…they are struggling. There are many Naomi’s not just in this room but all over. We need God’s redeeming work now more than ever. As we heard in our Gospel, the need for love—the greatest commandment and call to action—is needed more than ever. May your motivation for love and justice be stirred this day, and may it turn into the God-given determination that is the sure way of healing this broken world. Amen.