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"Why Go with Me?"
Ruth 1:1-18
           I think it might be accurate to say that living is an incredibly elaborate process of choices, decisions, and commitments.  Of course, these vary in their significance; and in our contemporary world, they also become increasingly complex. 
    But nevertheless, we are continually being confronted with options from which to choose.  Even climbing out of bed in the morning, we are confronted with options. 
    And I am reminded that as an undergraduate, attending a church-related college no less, there was a standing joke about whether we would attend church on Sunday morning or worship St. Mattress. 
    And with all our options, we must make decisions.  Sometimes decisions are from a multitude of options, and sometimes decisions are simple "either-or" decisions.
    But having made a decision, we have, whether we prefer to think of it this way or not, made a COMMITMENT.  Of course, a commitment may be very short-lived, or it may be for a lifetime. 
    But that commitment, nevertheless, takes control of our lives and moves us in some direction. 
    There are many stories in the Bible which tell us of the commitments that people make, of the commitments that people break, and of the commitments that people keep.  But one of the most interesting stories of commitment is found in the book of Ruth.
    Now, if you don't know where that book is, you probably won't find it by thumbing through your Bible, because it's only about three pages long.  After the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, the Torah, the Law, we find books of history, Joshua and Judges; and then, before the double books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, all heavy hitters, we find little tiny Ruth.
    But dynamite comes in small packages, and don't let the size of this book deceive you.  It carries heavy messages.
    But getting back to the issue of commitment, we need some background for this morning's story.  Beginning with the very first verse of Ruth:
    "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. 
    The name of the man was ELIMelich 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.  But ELIMelech, the husband of NAomi, died, and she was left with her two sons."
    Now, imagine that you are NAomi.  The only reason you are in Moab is because your husband took you there to escape the famine in Judah, and now he is gone.  I think I can appreciate that. 
    I once had two parishioners, one from California and the other from Massachusetts, whose husbands took them to southwest Missouri.  Then later, their husbands died.  They weren't too thrilled about being in Missouri, so I asked them "Why do you stay?" 
    And the answer was, "Because my children and my grandchildren are here."
    But getting back to NAomi and her two sons.
    "These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was ORpah and the name of the other Ruth."
    So NAomi has reason to stay in Moab.  She has daughters-in-law, which also means the prospect of grandchildren.  And if her sons are going to remain in Moab, she might as well also.  So that works for a while.  But...
    "When they had lived there about ten years, both MAHlon and CHIlion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband."
    And now there really IS no reason to remain in Moab.  She came with ELIMelech and MAHlon and CHIlion, and they're all dead.  All that remains are the daughters-in-law she acquired through her sons. 
    But up to this point her life has pretty much been directed by her husband and her sons.  Her decisions and her committments were based on following them.  And in Biblical times, women were almost always in that kind of situation. 
    But without the men around, NAomi has to make her OWN decisions.  And she does.
    "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."
    In other words, it seems that the famine must be over; the famine that drove them from Judah to Moab in the first place.  So it's time to go home.  Except that now she no longer has a husband and two sons; instead, she has two daughters-in-law. 
    And these women are going to have to make it on their own.
    "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 back to the land of Judah."
    And in a sense, it sounds like the story is over!  NAomi leaves home.  NAomi returns home.  The cycle is complete.  Except that the characters in the story have changed; and that makes all the difference. 
    Now, I don't think we could tell this story today.  The place of women in society has changed radically compared with the time of NAomi.  In her time women were utterly dependent upon men, a culturally-determined dependency. 
    And things didn't change much in new testament times.  NAomi understood this condition.  So.
    "She 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."
    She knew that life was going to be harsh for three women without husbands trying to make a go of it.  So she was telling her daughters-in-law to go home, return to your families.      And essentially, they would be returning to the care of their fathers, who likely gave them away in marriage in the first place.  And what we are witnessing here is pure practicality.  NAomi is giving advice for survival. 
    She continues, "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."
    And NAomi is saying, "Maybe you can get married again." 
    I don't know WHERE people get the silly idea that women are more emotional and less rational than men.  NAomi knows what she's talking about!  She's giving solid, practical advice. 
    And in my own family, my mother has been exceptionally competent in giving her children rational, practical advice.                
    But NAomi's advice is unsettling and upsetting.  And this is a painful experience for these three women.  Because NAomi is saying, "Let's all go our separate ways."  But...
    "They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people."
    Now, Bible stories leave out lots of details.  We don't know how long these three women have been taking care of each other.  We don't know how deeply the relationships have developed.  Perhaps the ties with Orpah and Ruth to NAomi are so strong that they are worried that she will not be able to take care of herself upon return to Judah, and THEY want to be available to take care of her. 
    Or maybe they figure that there will be as much security with her as there would be in returning to their original homes.  But NAomi is adamant.
    "She 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?"
    And NAomi seems to be telling them that her role in their lives is finished.  Once upon a time she produced sons who became their husbands, but she can't do that again.  Her place in their lives, in a very traditional sense, is OVER.
    NAomi short-changes herself.  But then, many women do, even today.  I once knew a woman, 40 years old, beautiful, brilliant, extremely well-educated, who feared that men would not be interested in her because she could no longer have children. 
    And Naomi continues her line of reasoning, "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, would you then wait until they were grown? 
    “Would you then refrain from marrying?"
    But notice something about NAomi.  At no point does she consider what her daughters-in-law might be able to do for her; all she can think of is what she can--or cannot--do for them.  Her vision may be narrow, but it is definitely unselfish.
    And then she concludes her little speech saying, "No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me."
    So is she feeling sorry for herself?  Well, no, I don't think so.  I think she is just drawing the contrast.  She has lost her husband and her sons, and the chances that they will be replaced are slim and none. 
    But on the other hand, her daughters-in-law could still find husbands, could still have children.  They still have a future, if they would just go home.  NAomi is a realist in a culture where reality could be exceedingly harsh.
    "Then they wept aloud again.  Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her."
    And the kiss is a good-bye kiss.  But NAomi only gets it from one of her daughters-in-law.  She has succeeded with Orpah, but not with Ruth.  But why would Orpah decide to return home, and not Ruth? 
    They've been listening to the same arguments from NAomi.  They've been living in the same culture.  What would make the difference?
    They say that if four people witness an automobile accident, they witness four different automobile accidents.  And I would suggest that Orpah and Ruth heard two different messages.  Or maybe they heard the same message from two different people.
    Well, NAomi has run out of things to say.  "So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law."
    But NAomi is assuming that her daughters-in-law are alike; and that if one follows her advice, that should be example enough for the other. 
    But when we come to the table of life, the smorgasbord of life, when it comes to making our decisions, our criteria can be decidedly different.  Orpah obviously was using the same criteria that NAomi was using, and made her decision as NAomi would have her decide.      Ruth, on the other hand, was using a whole different set of decision-making criteria.
    "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."
    And Ruth is telling her, "I have made up my mind.  Please, no more arguments!  I have committed myself.  Your travels, your homes, your people, your religion, I will share in."
    And NAomi is probably still wondering, "WHY will you go with me?"  And it may well be that NOTHING she has said to Ruth in this passage has made the least bit of difference.  I suspect that Ruth has had her mind made up all along. 
    "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!"
    A lifetime commitment.  Absolute, and no exceptions, and no conditions.
    "When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her."
    Why go with me?  I suppose the same kind of question could be asked of Christians, "Why go with Jesus Christ?"  And if we were were to rationalize it, and take it apart in terms of worldly practicality, we may well decide to NOT go with Jesus Christ.  And why do pastors decide to do what THEY do with their lives? 
    If we were all coldly rational in a worldly sense--as NAomi would have Orpah and Ruth be--I suspect most of us would be off doing something else.  And many seminary students don't finish for that very reason. 
    And many pastors DO leave the ranks of the clergy for that very reason.  But more important is the question that needs to be asked from the pews:  "Why follow Jesus Christ?"  Why go with HIM?  Are we like Orpah, who succumbs to the reasoning of this world?     
    Or are we like Ruth, prepared to make the decision, make the commitment, on faith alone, against which no earthly reason or argument can stand?                        

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