(Modified 2021-10-31: Added audio recording of sermon.)
Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican – by Henry Friesen – Oct 31, 2021
Scriptures: Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14 and Mark 12:28-34
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
It Is Our Choice
In the poem entitled “The Road Not Taken” the American poet Robert Frost included these famous lines: Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. These short lines have become famous because they speak to the universal human reality of choice; we as human beings have the ability to freely make choices and we do so every day. In addition we know that those choices have consequences, they will affect our future. Now the choice we make as to the kind of car or house we buy may not have a huge impact on our lives, at least not compared to the choice we make as to a career, a life partner or our convictions in regard to faith. The latter choices are loaded with the potential of deeply affecting our lives at both an intellectual and emotional level. As I get older – and of course I am not old YET – I recognize so clearly that the choices I made at several key junctures have greatly affected my life: they have “made all the difference.”
In our Old Testament lesson we have a demonstration of a life altering choice – it is the story from the Book of Ruth, chapter 1. The story takes place at the time of Judges which if anything, was a time of chaos and uncertainty in Israel – the nation had moved away from following God with the result that violence and lawlessness prevailed. The book of Judges repeats the phrase that “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes” to describe this era: it was not a pretty picture. In the midst of this time comes the story of Ruth which surely indicates that no matter what is going on in the world, no matter how much uncertainty and corruption there is, always there are individuals who live lives of honesty, integrity and ordinary goodness. If you are feeling that our own society is turning into a mess and that chaos is reigning then this story is for you. So here is the story.
Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion were an Israelite family that moved from Bethlehem in Judah to the neighbouring territory of Moab. After some years the two sons married Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. Not too long after that Elimelech, the husband of Naomi died followed soon by the death of her two sons leaving a family unit that consisted of an Israelite woman and her two Moabite daughters-in-law all living in Moab. The family unit has a sense of oddness about it; none of the 3 women are really at home: Naomi is in a foreign country and appears to be emotionally and probably economically tied to two daughters-in-law who are native to this foreign country. The two younger women are in their home country but now have strong ties to a widow who is a foreigner. The oddness of the situation continues when the older woman, Naomi, the mother-in-law hears that the famine in Israel is over and that again there is food in Israel. She then decides to return to her homeland and it appears at first that her two Moabite daughters-in-law will accompany her and become foreigners in Israel.
Verse 6 tells us that together they had begun the journey to Israel. But it isn’t long before Naomi appears to stop, turn to her two travelling companions and say something that she has been thinking about ever since she decided to go back to Israel. Her 3 short speeches and the two responses on the part of her daughters-in-law are the heart of the story so let’s look at them carefully.
It is as if Naomi recognizes the logic of her own journey back to Israel but when she looks at her two daughters-in-law she sees that it makes no sense for them to accompany her any further. She turns to them and in her first comments she says: “Go back to your mother’s house and may the Lord deal as kindly with you as you have with me.”Naomi’s reasoning is that both women will have a much better prospect for a second marriage in their own country and through the help of their own families. It is a short but pointed observation and command.
Both Orpah and Ruth listen to Naomi and both say: “No, we will return with you to your people.”
In verses 11-13 Naomi makes a second and more passionate plea for her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. She reminds them that there is no prospect for marriage for either of them in Israel where it is the custom for other sons to take these widow women as wives and produce heirs for them. But Naomi says, I have no more sons and adds, even if I was to remarry and have more sons, the wait for them to grow to marriageable age is too great: “No,” she says in essence, “your best bet for a stable and prosperous life is to go to your mother’s families and find protection there.”
The situation is full of deep emotion as it says that after this impassioned plea by Naomi, they wept aloud. After a time, one of the daughters-in-law, Orpah reconsiders what Naomi has said, understands the logic of the argument and sees that it makes sense. She kisses her mother-in-law, Naomi and returns the way they came. But not Ruth, she clings to her mother-in-law. So Naomi tries for a third time to make her case arguing that Orpah has returned and that it only makes sense for Ruth to do the same. It is then that we have those famous words of Ruth. No doubt you remember them and I want to examine them but let’s pause for a moment and think about what has just happened in this short scene on the way from Moab to Judah.
Naomi, a foreigner in the land of Moab and the mother-in-law in this story has demonstrated her love and care for her two, Moabite daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah. Clearly she wants what is best for them even at the expense of losing them as companions and helpers in the life she will be living back in Israel. The two younger women hear the logic of Naomi’s words but are torn as to whether to leave her or not. They weep over their decision – the text seems to suggest all three are weeping. It is a very difficult choice particularly for Orpah and Ruth who are making a choice that will affect them the rest of their lives. Talk about the choice between two roads – they recognize how important this choice is. Clearly they love each other and are close to each other – there is no hint of animosity.
Orpah chooses then finally to return to her own family in Moab as Naomi has urged her to do. The story as it is written in the Bible does not heap criticism on her for doing so – it simply says she heeded Naomi’s advice.
But what about Ruth – clearly she is conflicted but then she determinedly makes her decision. Ruth chooses a path that goes against Naomi’s advice: she will go with her to Israel, a country where she will be both a foreigner and a widow. Neither of these two realities are likely to improve her chances of having an easy life in the future.
It is after Orpah has gone and after Naomi makes one last attempt to convince Ruth to also return to her family in Moab that she speaks. Note that she speaks with great emotion “Don’t press me to leave you and don’t pressure me to turn back from following you.” Is she still weeping as she says this? I don’t know but I sense in these words a kind of pleading that comes from a deep love and sense of closeness. She has no intention, it seems to me, to offend her mother-in-law or be purposefully stubborn – no I think this pleading comes from a well of deep attachment and commitment.
Ruth then goes on to make 3 more strong statements in regard to her intention to travel with Naomi to Israel. Firstly she spells out the extent of her commitment: “where you go, I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Ruth makes a whole hearted and strong choice to be with Naomi, to adopt her family and to honour the God that Naomi worships and accept Him as her God as well. Ruth in effect is choosing a completely different life than what she would have had in Moab – she is doing so deliberately and out of conviction.
And then Ruth goes further – she says “where you die I will die” indicating that being buried among her own ancestors is not paramount. She finishes by making a commitment that reads as a vow or even the swearing an oath: “May God deal with me if even death parts me from you.” Wow, what a statement, what a choice! And what a profound sense of commitment on the part of Ruth to her mother-in-law. Two roads stood before her and she chose the one that included her mother-in-law; she threw herself into this choice with a determination that is incredible in its fullness.
I cannot think of a choice that I have made that is on the level of the one Ruth makes here but I am moved by her example. She chose to set aside her family who would have provided comfort, familiarity and better possibilities for a stable and good life. She chose the road less travelled.
Here is what I think we might take from this story.
At a basic level, I think we are reminded that we have choices and that they have consequences. We have choices in regard to the very basics of human interaction – how we treat our friends, our neighbours and those within our family. If there is one thing that this past year and a half have revealed, and seemingly more this past 6 months, is that we do not all agree as to the danger of Covid or the need for either vaccinations or restrictions or both. More than one family that I know are struggling with serious tensions because they view this from very different perspectives. Just this week I read an article that spoke about the many different churches which are in a similar situation: ministers are being pulled one way or another and many are simply leaving the ministry – parishioners are the same.
Our Gospel lesson includes two commandments of God which Jesus says are the most important; they are foundational to everything we say we believe. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength – we could spend quite a lot of time trying to understand those four aspects of our human ability and how each reveals a level of love that is deep and profound – we don’t have time for that this morning except to note that it is something far more than a tentative or half-hearted commitment. Then Jesus adds: you must love our neighbour as ourselves. This one strikes close to home for it means loving those who do not agree with us or see things the way we do. I find that hard – I want them to think the way I do and pay attention to the evidence that I see but they won’t. Christ calls on me, on us, to love our neighbours as ourselves.
I want to close by suggesting that we as a parish are at a significant point in our joint life as a community of believers. Claude and Hilary are leaving for six months and this at a time when we have been navigating the Covid pandemic and it looks like we will continue to so for the next 6 months as well. We will miss them, we will miss their presence, their encouragement and their love. We will miss all that Claude provides in terms of our services as well as our spiritual and physical needs.
But we are not alone – we have each other and we have Christ as our saviour and brother. Whether we do well during this period in the life of the parish or not is contingent on our choices. Will we commit ourselves to be there for each other, to facilitate care and compassion, to actively participate in our services and to faithfully pray for each other? This is the juncture at which we stand; the road toward care for each other may be a road less travelled but if we, like Ruth, commit ourselves to do so, we will find that our choice together with the work of the Holy Spirit, will have made all the difference.