This sermon by Pete Lagerwey didn’t get recorded, but Pete gracious shared his manuscript for anyone who would like to read or revisit his exploration of the journey that Naomi and Ruth embarked on and the journey we each take over the course of our lives as followers of Jesus.
Narrative Lectionary, Year 2
The story of Naomi and Ruth is one of the great journey stories of the First Testament. In fact, it’s actually two journeys that overlap – Naomi leaves Bethlehem for Moab and then returns; and Ruth leaves her homeland in Moab and accompanies Naomi as she returns to Judea.
It’s a timeless story of loss, letting go, tragedy, overcoming adversity, friendship, compassion and yes, hope. It’s a story about female companionship in a time of crisis; of two very strong women struggling to survive in a highly patriarchal society.
I’m going to touch on three points this morning.
First, I’m going to put today’s journey story into the context of other great journey stories in the First and Second Testaments.
Secondly, I’m going to look more closely at the story of Naomi and Ruth, unpacking some of the details of today’s text.
And finally, I’m going to look at the role journeys and journey stories can play in our own lives.
So, first of all – Journey Stories.
One of my favorite ways to read scripture is through the lens of the journey story. The narratives in the First and Second Testaments can be looked at as a series of rich, beautiful, sometimes disturbing, and always very human journey stories. They are universal stories – similar stories exist in all cultural and religious traditions.
And while I don’t have time to delve into the details, I’ll mention just a few of the more familiar journey stories. Notice how in each one of these stories, trust is required to embark on journey. I’ll return to the trust theme later.
Starting in the First Testament
- Sarai, who became Sarah, and Abram who became Abraham, are called by God to journey to a distant land. The book of Geneses devotes twelve chapters to their epoch journey story.
- Moses, as we heard a few weeks ago, is called by God in the story of the burning bush, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. His sister Miriam and brother Aaron, also become part of the journey story.
- The Israelites wander for forty years in the desert, a journey story of an entire people.
- The story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel – is a journey story of trust, courage and answered prayer.
- In the classic story of Jonah, he is called by God to preach to the people of Nineveh. His journey takes him to the belly of a fish where he is reborn to complete his journey.
Moving to the Second Testament,
- Mary journeys to visit her cousin Elizabeth. As with today’s story, it is a story of female companionship; one that provides the setting for Mary’s Magnificat.
- Later, Mary with her husband Joseph and infant son Jesus, journey to Egypt to escape the murderous king Herod.
- Early in his ministry, Jesus journeys to the wilderness where he is tempted
- Arguably, the entire three-year ministry of Jesus is a journey story, starting with his baptism, followed by his teaching ministry, and ending with his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
- And of course, there are the journey stories of Paul – his conversion experience as he journeys to Damascus and his subsequent journeys throughout Asia Minor, Greece and finally Rome.
As we reflect these and other journey stories, including our story today about Naomi and Ruth, we are faced with the obvious question – why? Why are they in the Biblical text and more importantly, why have these journey stories survived the test of time? Why do we continue to read them today?
And this gets me to my second point – today’s story of Naomi and Ruth.
Their story begins to answer the question of why we have journey stories. This story, like so many, transcends time, place and culture – relating the universality of human experience. And as we consider the text, reflect on parallels to what is currently happening in our world today:
- It is a time of uncertainty, of fear – we read that a famine swept over the land
- It is a story about refugees – we read that Naomi, her husband and her two sons fled to another country (Moab) to survive.
- It is a story of tragedy, of tremendous loss. The story tells us that soon after arriving, Naomi’s husband dies. Her two sons marry and then also die. Having lost everything, she heads home.
But this is also a story of hope and transformation.
- Naomi returns to Bethlehem in Judah having heard that Yahweh had visited the people by providing an abundance of food. The famine is over.
- Twice in the story we learn of radical hospitality. The first time occurs when Naomi and her family are welcomed to Moab – there are two marriages; and, if you read the rest of the story, Ruth marries into Naomi’s extended family. This is also a story of welcoming the outsider into community. Welcoming the outsider – a theme repeated over and over throughout stories in both Testaments, including the familiar story of Jesus, a descendant of Ruth, talking to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
- And finally, in what is the most human and perhaps the most gripping part of the story, is the female companionship, born out of trust, between Naomi and Ruth. Naomi, as she is about to leave Moab and return to Judea, urges her two daughter’s-in-law to return home. Naomi says, “Return to your mother’s house. May the Most High care for you with the same kindness that you have cared for your dead and for me. May the Most High give you security and true fulfillment and lead you to new spouses.” Then she kissed them both.
And while Orpah, one of the two daughters-in-law goes home, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and responds with what is one of the most beautiful and enduring poetic prayer offerings of friendship of the First Testament.
Notice the rhythm – you, I; your – my. This is a life-long commitment – I’m going to live, die and be buried beside you. From today’s text:
But Ruth said to her, “Please don’t ask me to leave you and turn away from your company. I swear to you: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I’ll die there too and I will be buried there beside you. I swear – may Yahweh be my witness and judge – but not even death will keep us apart.”
This is clearly a relationship of trust, trust having driven out all fear. More broadly, a story of two women who discover the bond of a relationship that flows from solidarity with each other, and I would argue, all of creation.
This brings me to my third and final point – the role that journey stories can play in our own lives.
As you become more aware of journey stories you will discover that you have your own journey story. In fact, you will discover that you have multiple journey stories, many of which are ongoing and concurrent. Some may involve actual travel – most will not.
- We are all on a spiritual journey. Our stories, if told, are about doubt, loss, loneliness, and abandonment; as well as hope and transformation. The very fact that you are here this morning gives testimony to this journey story.
- Life is difficult. All of us have painful journey stories involving broken relationships, dysfunctional family, careers gone awry, unwelcome illness and the death of loved ones
- And of course, we have journey stories that involve physically traveling.
Stories of leaving home for school, volunteer work, jobs, adventure, caring for others and pilgrimage – pilgrimage being a type of purposeful journey.
Many of you will be familiar with the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain that has attracted tens of thousands of people for over a thousand years. One that Pastor Megan, my wife Pat, myself and perhaps others here today have completed.
I’m going to end with five practical thoughts for moving forward – some next steps if you will. And here I’m sharing some personal thoughts from my own journey experiences – you are invited to adapt these to fit your own journey stories:
- Tell your stories to others. Write them down. Validate them – make them real. Stories, especially stories of transformation, those spiritual thin spots, those moments of divine intimacy that assured you that you were beloved, need to be told or they will fade and you will begin to doubt their authenticity.
- Listen to the stories of others. The stories of modern-day refugees fleeing Central America, the stories of veterans returning from the trauma of war.
The stories of young people struggling for identity and value in an age that is often superficial, shallow and judgmental. Come to appreciate the trust and courage of those closest to you. Internalize their struggles and come to understand the fear they face and overcome.
- Be gentle on yourself and others. None of the stories, including yours, will be perfect. In fact, they are likely to include missteps and moments of moral failure, similar to the stories found in the First and Second Testaments. If you have any doubts about this, reread Hebrews 11 – Paul’s list of the heroes of faith. You’ll be surprised at some of the names.
- Acknowledge and except paradox. Our stories will never fit into a neat package. There will always be the need to hold opposites in tension. Transformation usually happens within the context of extreme loneliness and abandonment, while simultaneously being held by a loving and embracing community.
- Recognize stories as metaphor. Some mystics describe a spiritual exercise where they step back, capturing a bird’s eye view of their lives, taking a moment to look at the big-picture. If you do this you will discover that your journey stories are often a metaphor for life. They are smaller journey stories within your larger life-journey story.
I’m going to conclude by once again going back to the word trust, and its importance within the context of our journey stories. As we saw in the story of Naomi and Ruth, trust is something we do – it’s always expressed through action
Its trust that allows us to take risks; it’s trust that allows us to embark on journey; and its trust that drives out fear that accompanies all journeys. Trust drives out the fear of others who are different; the fear of failure, and even the fear of death. And of course, when trust conquers fear, it opens the doors to relationship, bringing us together as we saw in today’s beautiful story of Naomi and Ruth.