Scripture Ruth 1:1-22
Ruth 1:1-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
1 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. 2 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. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 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, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 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? 12 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, 13 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.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 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!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them,
“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?”
22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, 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.
To get us started exploring this last question - the “where do we go from here?” question, let’s take a look at what Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson has to say - she’s the Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta that serves more than 80 congregations and more than 20 new worshipping communities. We’ll hear what she has to share around what it means to journey together.
“Where do we go from here?”
It was early 2015. The church we had come to Haverhill to plant had ended. Ben and I were both feeling burnt out from giving our lives over to the ministry we had cultivated in that city, and were grieving the loss of a dream, the loss of vocation, the loss of a job that we had trained years for, had gone to school for. That question, “where do we go from here?” was heavily on our minds as we weighed options. We wrestled and struggled and prayed over that question so many times. So many future possibilities fanned out in front of us - from Ben getting a PhD from Boston University and building a life in Boston or other United Methodist seminary to remaining in Haverhill and finding jobs to make enough to live -- except staying in the place where our vision for a new way of being faith community had died really wasn’t a viable option - the wounds were still too fresh to imagine living and thriving there. I really struggled living in that ambiguous time when the next steps were so unclear. There seemed to be no clear path forward except for selling our dream house and moving back north to Maine and applying for any job in the Portland area that would take us.
You all know how that story ends.
Or I think back February of this year - when we all knew that our values as a church and the commitment to the full life and participation of our LGBT siblings were in conflict with the stance of the wider United Methodist Church. We had been in a discernment process about our relationship with the denomination for months - and the time had come to answer the question - “where do we go from here?” - a question that involved hours of conversations and questions and prayer that led us to take steps toward disaffiliation - a process that will come to an end in the near future.
“Where do we go from here?”
Though this might be the last question in our summer series, it certainly isn’t the last question meant to wrap up conversation, or the question that places a period on an on-going dialogue. The question “where do we go from here?” implies a journey - a commitment to continue to explore together what might come next as we seek the invitation God has for us. It is a question of discernment, that challenges us to take stock of all that we have heard and shared and consider the promptings of the Holy Spirit nudging us forward into something new -- and I think it must be something new, because we wouldn’t be asking the question “where do we go from here” if we didn’t have an inkling that God might have something different for us on the horizon….whether that’s going to something completely new...or going into something familiar with a fresh perspective based on transformative conversations.
“Where do we go from here?” is also a question of orientation - you have to fully know the here you’re in - at least well enough to take the steps toward whatever is next - and it’s also a question of movement...of purpose and intention...even if the answer to that question is to get a better sense of where “here” is!
I think the story of Ruth and Naomi from our reading this morning is a beautiful example of what can happen when we take the time to ponder that question with one another.
The catalyzing event in this tale is that the two sons of the late Elimelech - Mahlon and Chilion - died. Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and sons, came to Moab due to a famine in Bethlehem, and while living there, her sons married women native to Moab. After the death of her sons, Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, is left in a foreign land with her two daughters-in-law. Hearing that there was food once again in Bethlehem, she decides to return home. Both of her daughter-in-laws decide to join her in her journey home, but she manages to persuade one of them to stay in Moab, in her native land. Ruth, on the other hand, will not acquiesce to Naomi’s pleas.
It sounds like they are at an impasse. “Where do we go from here?” Naomi clearly wants her daughter in law Ruth to have a life and a future back where Ruth originally came from - and Ruth is determined to follow and bind herself to Naomi as Naomi travels back to her native land. I have to wonder if in some way if there weren’t some points of tension and frustration that arose in that dialogue as they navigated their differing perspectives. In the midst of Naomi’s grief and pain, Ruth remains steadfastly grounded, committing herself to being present with Naomi into an unknown future, binding herself to live, work, and worship alongside her mother-in-law from that moment until death. She not only takes on this deep relationship with Naomi, she commits to a new people, a new faith, a new identity.
The two women don’t know what the future will hold. Naomi is so steeped in her grief she wishes to be known as “Mara” - “bitter” upon returning to her homeland. But even in that place, Ruth is steadfast.
What does it look like for us to live out that same depth of relationship as we consider our community...our country...our world? What would it look like to be that committed to others in the face of grief...of pain...of oppression...of marginalization...of suffering?
I love the oaths that Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson shares in the study guide. She invites us to imagine a member of the human family, and speak the words:
By the mercy of God and because of God’s grace, we are bound to one another. Your pain is not your own but is now my pain. The plight of your people is held in my hands and my heart as if they were my own. Where you journey and work, I too, will journey and work alongside you, with God’s help. Where your bones are buried, may I too, find a resting place and declare every earthly resting place sacred in the eyes of God.
I can envision a whole host of people to be in solidarity with - people whose livelihoods will be impacted by climate devastation - I am sure there are people in our own community who will feel the weight of that, indigenous people whose voices have been silenced for generations, Black people who continue to struggle in the midst of racial injustice, people who are mourning in the wake of COVID-19, our youth and children those who are lonely and isolated - take a look, for a moment, at our prayer list - and all that we lift up in prayer to God each week together.
“Where do we go from here” is a question that fosters hope and imagination. It leads us to look beyond ourselves and to commit to deep relationships and solidarity. It leads us to bear witness to pain and grief and suffering - and joy and celebration and triumph - of those around us. It honors the journey of what has gone before - and honors the journey that is yet to come.
My prayer is that as we in the next few weeks encounter our own “where do we go from here” moment - that day we separate from the UMC and officially become the Chebeague Community Church - that it might be an opportunity for us to bind ourselves together in this radical new way of journeying (as we see lifted up in our story about Ruth and Naomi) - and an opportunity for us to radically commit ourselves in deep ways to sharing the love of God in our community - to encountering Jesus in the most unlikely of places - to sensing the movement of the Holy Spirit out and about in our neighborhoods and our world - to be a courageous people willing to engage directly with compassionate hearts, with brave vulnerability, with generous spirits - so that as we work and live and talk together, we can glimpse hope and joy and beauty - and become more fully the people of faith -- the community of faith -- the community church -- God created us to be. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.