Unrecognized Saints – November 4, 2018

Unrecognized Saints

A Communion Meditation by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Ruth 1:1-18-22

November 4, 2018

All Saints’ Day

Main Idea:  God is faithful.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today and next week we have the privilege of exploring the extraordinary book of Ruth.  This book shares with the book of Job a counter cultural message of who God is and who God loves.  It presents to us an unlikely and unrecognized saint who reveal her faithfulness through her care for another.  Her faithfulness mirrors the faithfulness of God.

The book of Ruth most likely was written after the Babylonian exile during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, who preached of the dangers of foreign influence on the people of Israel.  They forbade marriage with non-Jews and required the divorce and expulsion of foreign wives and their children (Ezra 10:3). The book of Ruth, the story of a foreign woman’s faithfulness, provides a counter to Ezra and Nehemiah’s nationalistic rhetoric.

The story is set in the time of Judges, a period of violence and anarchy before the establishment of King Saul.  The book of Judges ends with “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).  The book of Ruth begins with suffering and displacement. “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land.” (Ruth 1:1a)  A family from Bethlehem is driven to leave their home because of the lack of food and they migrate to Moab in search of a better life.  Moab was an enemy nation to Israel.  To get a sense of this in present day; they did not move to Canada, they went to Cuba and made a life there.

But [as is often the case with migrant families], their suffering did not end with their relocation.  The husband Elimelech dies and his wife Naomi is left a widow.  Her two sons marry Moabite women and for a while things are okay.  Then the sons also die and now there are three widows with only each other for support.  To be a widow in those times was to be extremely vulnerable, 3 widows was triply bad.

Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and decides that her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth would be better off returning to their mothers’ home.  She thanks them for their kindness to her and prays for them and tries to send them on their way.  But they resist.  Naomi insists, conjuring up a ridiculous scenario about the likelihood of her ever being about to provide for them.  Orpah does what Naomi asks but Ruth “clung” to her.  Naomi says “Really, look at Orpah, do as she does!”  Ruth responds with a profound pledge of loyalty.  “No I won’t go. Do not ask me again.  Where you go, I will go, leaving all that I know.  Where you live, I will live, even among strangers.  Your people will be my people, whether they accept me or not.  Your God will be my God, who I know will care for us.  Where you die, I will die and there will I be buried.  I promise this by your God which is now also my God. Even death, with which we are all too familiar, will not part us.”

With this pledge, Ruth abandons all she has known; her home, her family, and her gods to commit herself wholeheartedly to Naomi and Naomi’s God. Naomi had become a migrant in response to famine, leaving her home to make a better life for her family.  Ruth becomes a migrant because of love and fidelity to her mother-in-law who had become her family.  In response to Ruth’s beautiful and powerful speech, Naomi says nothing. Is she overwhelmed with gratitude?[maybe] Or is she calculating whether Ruth will be a help or a burden?  Naomi had planned to depend on the mercy of her former neighbors.  Bringing along another person, another widow, a stranger, a Moabite, decreased the likelihood that she would receive help.

When they arrive at Bethlehem, they create quite a stir.  Naomi is almost unrecognizable to her former neighbors. And Ruth, the foreigner, they ignore.  Naomi is filled with bitterness and grief. She lashes out at God for her misfortune saying  “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”(1:20-21) She sounds like Job, yes?  Naomi does not yet see Ruth as a gift, but Ruth is there whether any one notices or not, supporting and caring for Naomi.

The chapter ends with a note of hope.  “So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite,[the foreigner] her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” (1:22)  Those who are empty will be filled.

In the book of Ruth, the model of faithfulness is this young woman from a foreign land.  No one expected her to act as she does, no one valued her beyond her lack of sons but here she is lifted up as the embodiment of hesed, the lovingkindness of God.  Ruth understood that the God of Naomi, to whom she pledged loyalty, was the God of widows, and orphans, and migrants, and refugees, and she wholeheartedly committed herself to this God and to this woman who needed her.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, let us take a moment to think about those unrecognized saints who live out the loving kindness of God.  Let us think about those who are marginalized and displaced and yet show extraordinary courage and grace.   May we be encouraged and challenged by the faith of Ruth who becomes the great grandmother of King David and an ancestor to Jesus our Christ.

Let us pray,

Faithful God, we thank you for your loving kindness with which you shower us each day.  Open our eyes to see your faithfulness in those around us and empower us to care for those in need.  Amen.