Lay Reader = Ruth 1:1-7
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. 2The 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. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These 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, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6Then 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. 7So 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.
We are starting a new series looking at the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. We’re looking from different angles at our relationships with the vulnerable people in our community, because the book of Ruth is the story of the vulnerable. It’s the story of the outsider. It’s the story of the unwanted. And it’s also the story of God’s unfathomable, incredible, awe-inspiring plan that works through the vulnerable and the outsider and the unwanted.
We already heard the start of the story in our first reading today. Naomi’s sons married women while living in a foreign land – Moab. Ruth and Orpah are now widows like Naomi since the death of Naomi’s husband and his sons. And Naomi is heading back to Israel a broken, defeated, vulnerable widow.
8But 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. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11But 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? 12Turn 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, 13would 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.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But 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. 17Where 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!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
The high school boy shouted out, “It’s like putting your head on a chopping block!” Any guess what he was talking about?
The senior guys and girls had a combined small group that day, and they were talking about their very different perspectives on relationships in high school. And the girls were exasperated because our culture looks down on them asking the boy out, and boys seem to be incompetent at noticing when a girl likes them. So, they wondered, what holds you back, guys? Why not just ask her out?!?
And to that question this boy replied, “It’s like putting your head on a chopping block.” In other words, he had trouble asking girls out because it required being vulnerable – and not just in a “oh that might hurt” kind of way, but a “my self-image is wrapped up in this” kind of way. And given that boys typically are actually incompetent at knowing when a girl likes them, it’s a total roll of the dice. It makes you vulnerable.
Most of us can identify with that a little. But what other ways can someone be vulnerable? In fact, when have you felt vulnerable? When have you felt exposed? When have you felt powerless?
A parent waiting to hear from their child in the military stationed overseas – that’s vulnerable. Waiting to get back the results of the medical tests – that’s vulnerable. Sending out resume after resume after resume and waiting to hear back – that’s vulnerable. When have you felt vulnerable?
The story of Ruth is the story of the vulnerable. Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons were vulnerable when they moved to a foreign land, Moab. Naomi became vulnerable when her husband and sons all died. A widow is always vulnerable, but a widow in a foreign land doubly so. Ruth and Orpah became vulnerable widows themselves.
And Naomi knew that they would be even more vulnerable in a foreign land themselves, so she tried to convince them to at least stay back in their homeland. Once Ruth declared “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,” she decided to be as vulnerable as possible. She would be a widow in a foreign land, helping to care for another widow. That’s vulnerable.
A woman came in this past week asking for help. She was paid up on all her bills and rent. But she had just sent the last dollar in her account to a family member who was sick and couldn’t pay their medical bills. She knew when she did this that she wouldn’t be able to pay rent at the beginning of next month. So she started asking for help. I gotta tell you, this is a pretty atypical story of someone asking for assistance. It’s usually more like, “I’ve missed the last three rent payments and they’re going to evict me today…” So it struck me as she showed all the bills and information carefully organized in a folder – what if this were me? What if I had sent my last dollar to help a sick family member? What if I had to go around to ask people I didn’t know for help? I would probably give myself several weeks to get it done. I would probably have all the info organized in a folder. And it would be about as enjoyable as chewing on a rubber shoe. It would take eating all my pride to do that. That’s vulnerable. And yes, I was able to help her.
But that’s what I want us to think about today. What if that was my life? What if that was me having to ask for help? What if I was at the end of my rope? “There but for the grace of God go I.” When someone from our community needs help, that could be me. When someone from our community is at wits end and they come to church hoping that maybe, just maybe, they might find the acceptance and belonging they don’t have…that could be me. How can we have empathy for the vulnerable, for the outsider? How can we have compassion for the vulnerable, for the outsider?
So let’s imagine that someone comes to worship or a Bible study or Saturday lunch, and their clothes have a few holes in them. They don’t smell all that fresh. And they’re kind of skittish, not really looking other people in the eye. If something like that happens, how about asking, “What would my life have to be like for that to be my best set of clothes? How vulnerable would I have to feel to be scared of looking people in the eye?” But here’s the catch. Do you know what that person probably DOESN’T need most? A new set of clothes. They probably need most someone to accept them as they are. They probably need most someone to welcome them into the group, not look down on them from across the room. As we will see throughout the book of Ruth, it’s a story of relationships. Ruth isn’t about two vulnerable women getting the food and clothes and shelter they needed. Ruth is about relationships. Ruth is about finding acceptance and inclusion when you’re an outsider. And frankly that’s harder than just providing food and clothes and shelter.
Being the Outsider
And really, that’s the crux of the matter. Someone is an outsider because other people drew a circle and they’re now on the outside. Why are Naomi and Ruth outsiders? Because their husbands died and their society decided that men were the only ones deserving of economic status.
What about us? What circles are we drawing? Who’s on the “inside” and who is on the “outside?” Who gets the red carpet treatment when they come to our church, and who gets the nervous looks?
I was having a conversation about a year ago about reaching more people with our ministry. And the person I was talking with was saying that they hoped we would draw in more young families who have stable jobs and can contribute financially and volunteer and be a core part of our community. Hey – that would be great, right? But I responded, “The only problem is that every church in our city is trying to reach that same group, and there’s only so many families that are prim and proper and put together yet for some reason are looking for a new church.”
We might get a handful of new families like that – maybe they moved out of Denver, or just moved to Colorado, or are looking for a church that is alive but still feels like church. Reaching a handful of new families like that is fantastic…but there’s no way we’re going to reach enough to make a huge impact here.
Or let’s go to another age group – active empty nesters. You know, there’s that new facility going in for active 55+ just a few blocks from here. And I bet we’ll see some new people from that. We’re going to do our best to get the word out – invite them to the Saturday Lunch, things like that. And I bet we get a nice handful of new people or new couples that way. And that’s fantastic…but there’s no way we’re going to reach enough to make a huge impact here.
If our church wants to reach more people than we are right now – not just enough to stay flat – picture thirty more people, or forty, or even fifty more people each week. There aren’t enough prim and proper and put together people who are looking for our kind of church to do that. The numbers don’t add up.
But let me tell you what does add up. There are a ton of people with problems in their life. There are a ton of people who are lonely. There are a ton of people looking for meaning and impact and purpose in their life. There are a ton of people struggling to pay the bills. There are a ton of people who have lost someone important and are feeling like a ship without a rudder. There are a ton of outsiders. There are a ton of people who feel like everyone’s drawing circles and they’re always on the “outside” looking in.
Those are the kind of people who didn’t have to be convinced or sold on listening to Jesus. They found him wherever he went. People like Naomi. People like Ruth. People who would feel vulnerable coming in here.
So our challenge in this whole sermon series is to figure out how we can help the vulnerable to feel like they belong. How we can help the outsider feel like they’re on the “inside” of our circle.
We go to the Children’s Hospital quite a bit with our son Charlie, and it’s a nice, big, open space when you first enter. On the second floor they have conference rooms, and it’s not uncommon to see a cohort of doctors looking like they’re attending a conference.
I remember I was killing time with Charlie once, and we were wandering around the second floor. Charlie meandered his way over to some of the big windows by those conference rooms. And the only other person there was someone picking up the trash, so I felt comfortable hanging out in the area. But suddenly the doors opened up and about forty doctor-types streamed out into the hallway. I ushered Charlie along to another part of the hospital because I felt like I was intruding. I felt like I didn’t belong.
So I felt comfortable when I thought I was in the presence of the cleaning crew, and I felt uncomfortable when I thought I was in the presence of the doctors. Why is that?
Now let me ask – when someone who is struggling in their life comes here, do they feel like they’re intruding on the doctors or comfortable with the cleaning crew?
Whenever we act like and look like we have it all put together, I believe we put out the “doctor conference” vibe. I believe it makes people feel like they don’t belong, because they’re dirty and messy unlike those people in the clean lab coats.
So how can we help others see that we don’t have clean lab coats? How can we show that we’re all on the cleaning crew doing our best with our messy lives? How can we demonstrate that our circle includes a bunch of people who don’t have everything figured out – because that’s us?
Sisters and brothers, there aren’t that many people who are prim and proper and put together. And in reality, most of the people who look prim and proper and put together are just hiding things behind their clean lab coats. But if we decide to hide our messy lives behind lab coats, no one is going to feel comfortable here. If we sweep our dirt beneath the rug, no one is going to stick around to hear about the love and freedom that is found in Jesus Christ. If we lose our compassion for the outsider and the vulnerable, we will lose the ability to see God working through Naomi and Ruth today.
I want to close by giving us a time of silent prayer to ask God to open our eyes to the struggling people around us – and that might be the person who’s been sitting next to you for the last two years. Ask God to open our hearts so that we can have the same compassion and empathy that Jesus had. Ask God to open our imaginations to envision how we might be better with the Naomi’s and Ruth’s who live around us. I’ll close us after a couple of minutes. Let us pray.