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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible - Old Testament

Old Testament Series     Ruth 4:13-17

Today’s story is a wonderful story. It is the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. It is a romance story. It is a love story. It is a story of deep, loving feelings between people. This story is woven together in a seamless, beautiful whole. It is one of the most beautiful short stories in the whole Old Testament. It is a love story between an older woman and a younger woman, that is, between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. It is also a love story between an older man by the name of Boaz and a young widow by the name of Ruth. It is also a love story between God and his people who are going through all these disasters.

Many disasters happen in the book of Ruth, and as these disasters happen, the question is not, “What is the meaning of suffering? What is the meaning of all this suffering which is happening to so many people?” That is what the book of Job is about. That is NOT the question is this book.  But rather, the question is: “What is the meaning of love and loyalty in the midst of all the disasters of life?”

Today, we have to think of disasters. Not just one disaster, but three or four or five disasters happening in a row. Such as when somebody is coming over for dinner and the toilet plugs at the same time the roast is burning in the oven and the kitchen sink clogs up. This all happens at the same time. It is all falling apart at the same time and you ask yourself, “What is going on here, anyway”

Or, it is one of those situations in which there is disaster after disaster, all in the same year. It is that bad year, the year from hell. You go through a divorce which is miserable, and at the same time, your mother dies, then your father dies, and then you lose your job and then you get cancer. This all happens in the same year. You often ask yourself in the midst of all these disasters, “What is going on? Is God turning against me? What is wrong anyway?”

Or, you have been living in North Dakota and it is a time of drought in the 1930s. You lose the family farm. You have to move away. You have to say goodbye to your family and relatives. You move out to Washington, and on the way out to Washington, your car breaks down and all the kids get measles. You finally arrive in Washington, and the place you were planning to move into is not available and you have no other place to go and the job in Washington does not materialize. It is the story of one disaster after another disaster after another disaster.

You would think that the question of this book of Ruth would be, “What is the meaning of all of these disasters which are happening to my life?” But the book does not ask that question. That question is from the book of Job. Rather, the book of Ruth asks a different question. “What is the meaning of love and loyalty in the midst of all the disasters of life?” That is the question that we address today.

In Jewish tradition, this story of Ruth was told once a year at the festival of Pentecost. That was their barley festival. For us, it would be like the festival of Thanksgiving. Pentecost was their harvest festival. In the story of Ruth, there are all kinds of details about the harvest such as harvesting wheat and barley. So the story of Ruth was read at the Jewish harvest festival, the festival of Pentecost.

So let us begin. Let us begin by telling the story of Ruth which is so charming.

So before there was a king in Israel, it was the time of the judges who ruled the land. The Bible goes Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel. Before there was a king in the land of Israel and during the time of the judges, there was a man by the name of Elimelech who was married to this woman named Naomi. They had two children, Mahlon and Chilion. But disaster happened because there was a famine in the land. There was no work. Elimilech lost the family farm, so he had to move away and find new employment. Elimilech and his family moved eighty miles, which for us does not seem a long ways, but for them, the distance was enormously great. Elimilech and his family had had a small farm near Bethlehem and now they were forced to move east, through Jericho and to the land of Moab. Moab had a different language, a different culture, a different religion. It would be like refugee moving from another land into our nation with its new language, new culture and new religion. The family of Elimilech was trying to eek out a living in the foreign land of Moab.

Poor Naomi. Naomi had to leave her family back in Bethlehem. They were forced to move to the new land and shortly, her husband and security, Elimilech, died. Talk about a crummy situation. Naomi had just been forced to move from her family, her family farm, her mother and father and brothers and sisters. She moved to this foreign country and then her husband died of all things. Naomi learned to endure life, living without her husband. But, ten years later, her son Mahlon died. O no. Then her son Chilion died. One disaster after another disaster after another disaster. About fifteen years passed, and Naomi was dirt poor. She had nobody to take care of her except the two foreigner daughter-in-law, Ruth and Orphah. She was in a foreign land with a foreign language and foreign customs and foreign gods. Naomi had nothing to do but to go back home a bitter woman. She asked the question: “Why has God turned on me?” Noami asked that question. That is not the fundamental question of the book of Ruth, but Naomi asked that question, “Why has God turned on me?” Naomi got ready to return to Israel, her homeland, and her two daughters-in-law wanted to come back to Bethlehem with her. Naomi said, “No, do not come back with me to Bethlehem. You two young women stay here in your own homeland.”  Naomi walked farther down the road to return to Bethlehem and the two daughters-in-law came trailing along behind her. Naomi called to them, “Please go back to your homeland, to your mothers, your fathers, your people, your gods, your religion. Go back home.” Ruth refused to go back home, and she gave that classic speech, “I beg you. Do not leave me. For where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you are buried, I will be buried.” This is one of the great speeches out of the Bible. Naomi said nothing. Orphah went back to Moab; Ruth began the journey to Bethelem. And so the two women, both widows, an older widow and a younger widow, living in total poverty with nobody to financially support them, took that long eighty mile journey back to Bethlehem. As these two women entered the village of Bethlehem, the women of Bethlehem said “Is that Naomi? She looks so old. Is that her?” Naomi said, “Do not call me Naomi but call me Mara for the name Mara means bitter and I have become a bitter woman. My name is no longer Naomi but my name is now Mara.” This ends the first major scene.

We move to the next major scene. Naomi and Ruth have been living in Judea, near the village of Bethlehem. The two widows are very poor. Naomi, being the older widow, stays home and the younger widow, Ruth, goes to work in the fields to make some meager income. Ruth needed to make minimum income and in that culture of those days, people like Ruth would become gleaners. That is, she would walk behind the pickers of the barley and she would pick up any barley that was left behind. Ruth was a gleaner who would glean and clean the fields, looking for leftover food. Ruth went gleaning with the other poor people of the village. Ruth worked very hard one day. Boaz came out from the town of Bethlehem and Boaz noticed the young widow. Boaz said to his workers in the field, “Who is that?” His workers replied, “That is Ruth. She is the Moabite woman. She is the daughter-in-law of Naomi. She has been working very hard all day, from the crack of dawn. She is resting now in the tent.” Boaz said, “O yes, I have heard of her.”  Boaz then said to Ruth, “Stay and work in my fields, Ruth, and I will command the men not to sexually molest you. Stay here in my fields where it is safe.” Ruth replied, “O thank you, sir, for looking out for me and my safety.” Boaz replied, “I have heard of your reputation. Your reputation has preceded you, especially your great loyalty to your mother-in-law. May God reward you and give you a full reward for being so faithful to your mother-in-law.”  She said, “Thank you sir, for your kind words have uplifted my heart.”  Boaz said to her, “Please sit down for lunch.” Boaz made for her some roasted grain. Ruth had been a hungry woman and had not had roasted grain for a long time.” He said to her, “Work in my fields this afternoon,” and he said to his workers out of earshot from Ruth, “Don’t pick so hard in the fields this afternoon, and leave some extra grain for Ruth.” Ruth picked grain all afternoon, and she had TWENTY-FIVE POUNDS of barley that she put over her shoulder in a sack. Twenty-five pounds of grain for two poor widows was an awesome amount of food that would last them a long, long time. Ruth came back to her mother-in-law, Naomi and said, “Look what I have Naomi. I have twenty-five pounds.” Naomi said, “Where were you? In whose field were you?” Ruth replied, “Boaz.” Naomi exclaimed, “God be praised. Of all the good fortune. Boaz is our relative. Boaz is our ace in the hole.” That is not exactly what she said. “Boaz is the one who could marry you, if it all worked out.” But…nothing happened. The Bible simply says, “Time went by.” That is, some men don’t know how to “move” when it comes to women, so Boaz didn’t do anything about Ruth. Boaz was obviously attracted to Ruth but for whatever reason, perhaps because he was older, Boaz was not moving forward with his relationship with Ruth. So…Naomi thought that she could intervene. Naomi said, “Ruth. Tonight is the night. I want you to put on your finest clothes and then put on your finest perfume and comb your hair so it is utterly beautiful. When Boaz has eaten his evening meal and has drunk his wine and has fallen back to sleep in the hay and pulls the blanket up over him, you go after he is asleep and you crawl in under the blanket by his feet. He will tell you what to do.” So Ruth did what Naomi told her to do. Ruth put on her finest dress; she touched herself with her finest perfume; she brushed back her black hair so that it was beautiful. She saw Boaz fall asleep and she crawled beneath the blanket and lay there at his feet, wide awake with eyes nervously alive. She was also quiet, silent, afraid of what was going to happen. Suddenly, Boaz woke up, startled, and sat up in the middle of the night and called out, “Who’s there?” “It is Ruth,” she whispered. “You are a close relative of mine and you could marry me. Would you marry me?” Boaz replied, “You Ruth are an honorable woman. You are not only loyal to your mother-in-law but now you are loyal to our whole family. You could have gone and sought a younger man who was rich and could support you. But you are willing to marry me, an older man. Yes, I am willing to do this for you. I will go and make arrangements to obtain the rights to marry you. But stay for the night and be quiet.” Ruth lay there all night long, but before the morning came, so nobody could see them, they got up and Boaz gave her FIFTY POUNDS of barley. Fifty pounds of barley. Can you imagine a woman carrying fifty pounds of barley in a sack on her back? Ruth took the fifty pounds of barley to Naomi and plopped it on the table in front of her mother-in-law and said, “Look what I have. Look what happened to me. You were right.” … The next day, Boaz went and found the ten elders of the village and he also found the man who could inherit the family field. Boaz asked the man, “Do you want to exercise your rights to buy Naomi’s family’s field?” “Yes, I do,” was the reply.  Boaz said, “If you buy the field, you also get the Moabite woman, Ruth, as well.” The man replied, “No, I don’t want to buy Ruth, have children with her and get entangled that way. You can exercise the rights.” Boaz said, “I want to buy the field” and he took off his sandal and gave it to the man as a token of their transaction. Boaz found Ruth and he said, “I have made the deal. You are going to be my wife.”

Then comes the best part of the story. From the Bible, “So Boaz took Ruth home as his wife. And the Lord blessed them. Ruth became pregnant and had a son. And the women said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord. The Lord has given you a grandson today to take care of you. May the boy become famous in Israel. Your daughter-in-law loves you and has done more for you than seven sons. And now she has given you a grandson who will bring new life to you and give you security in your old age.” Naomi took the child, held him close and took care of him. And the women of the neighborhood named the boy, Obed, and they told everyone a son has been born to Naomi. Now Obed became the father of Jesse and Jesse became the father of King David, and in the New Testament, King David was in the family tree of Jesus.

This is an incredible story, a love story, a wonderful story. The theme of this story is not “what is the meaning of suffering in the midst of the disasters of life.” That is not the question. The question is this: what is the meaning of love and loyalty in the disasters of life? Because that is what life is all about. What is the meaning of love and loyalty in the midst of the disasters of life?

Let me give you some examples of how I have seen this question lived out this past week.

I tell this story with the permission of the people involved. Rosemary and Aiden O’Dell are long time and active members of our parish and the two of them have lived through many disasters in their life. Having been a pastor here for thirty years, I know some of those disasters.  Such as when the family business folded. When their daughter was sick for twenty years and then died. When prostate cancer infected Aiden. When Rosemary made her “witch’s brew” for Aiden’s prostate cancer and many of you use the same recipe and brew. When Aiden got Parkinson’s Disease. I also know that the O’Dell’s also lost a son early in their marriage. And so the question for the O’Dell’s has been, “not what is the meaning of all this suffering,” but “what has been the shape of love and loyalty during all these years.” As friends in this parish, you and I have witnessed the incredible love between Aiden and Rosemary during these many decades, and their love and loyalty is incredibly strong.

For the past several years in our parish, Virginia Tervo has struggled with her cancer treatments. Her daughter, Michelle, was planning a wedding for March, but the doctors tell the mother that she will not live that long. Michelle and the family have discussions and come to the conclusion to move the date of the wedding up, so that mother Virginia can possibly be there. I cannot tell you how loyal Virginia’s husband, David, has been through these many years, how often he has been the taxi driver, how often he has negotiated with the doctors, how often he has been the rock of Gibraltar for the family. And similarly with the adult children, Michelle and Brian. During the past several years, there have been many trying times and the question has not been, “Why has this suffering occurred.” The persistent question has been: “How am I a loving person in this disastrous situation.” The first question about suffering cannot be answered, but the second question about being loving and loyal during disasters is answered everyday.

A few years ago, I was over to visit Claire Tronson  I remember when Claire had cancer surgery and needed to get out of the hospital to return home so he could care for his wife, Agnes, who had Parkinson’s at that time. Claire was so faithful to his wife, taking care of her every need for years, beyond the call of duty, beyond the call of love.

As I look across this congregation today, I see the many faces and remember the stories of your loyalty to one another. The question is not, “why is this suffering happening to me.” Suffering happen to everybody and always will here on earth. That is not the question that is being addressed in this story. The important question is this: what is the shape of loyalty and love when the disasters of life happen. How am I a loving person in this disastrous situation?

But example so great love are found not only within marriage and the family. Examples of great loyalty are often found outside the family as well. The situation I am thinking of now is of a book, of a book that was at the nurse’s reception area in a nursing home where Jimmy Brandt used to live. Jimmy Brandt was the music leader in this congregation and in the neighboring high school before he was crippled up by a stroke so many years ago. The story I am thinking of today is the story of a book. I would go over to visit Jimmy Brandt at his nursing home once a month and give him Holy Communion. Once a month, big deal. I would go over to that nursing home and would have to check in by writing my name in this entry log for visitors. You would look at the pages designated for Jimmy Brandt. I would see one name for week after week after week, for month after month after month, for year after year after year. The name. Dennis Stuessy. Sunday, Wednesday. Sunday, Wednesday. Sunday, Wednesday for years. Choir practice on Wednesday nights. Choir sang at church on Sunday morning, and Dennis faithfully and loyally picked up Jimmy Brandt for Wednesday choir practice and Sunday church for years. So incredibly loyal. A friend. Not a family member. Not a neighbor. But a fellow Christian. So loyal.  The question was not, “why did this happen to Jimmy Brandt?” The question is, “What is the shape of loyalty and love when the disasters in life happen?”

The purpose of this Biblical story is to inspire us to live in the way that Ruth and Naomi lived. It is the story of God’s loyalty to us. It is during our disasters, God is loyal to us in all our disasters throughout life.

That is one theme that is found in the story of Ruth. But there is another theme. It is the theme: don’t stop and fixate in the times of the bitterness of life. There came that time in Naomi’s life when she lost her family, her family farm, her job, her house, her food. She lost one son, she lost another son, then she lost another son. She came back home to Bethlehem a bitter woman. She said, “My name is no longer Naomi. My name is Mara. My name is bitterness.” Now, how sad that would have been if Naomi would have stayed in that situation for the rest of her life, if she would have remained bitter. But Naomi did not know the future. She did not know what God was going to be doing for her. She didn’t know what God was going to be doing for her in the future. There is this wonderful line in the Book of Ruth, 3:18, that says, “Be patient until you see how this all turns out.”  Naomi didn’t know that years later that Obed was going to be born. She didn’t know that a grandson was going to be born to give her new life and new hope. Naomi didn’t know l this. God’s word for Naomi was “Be patient, Naomi, until you see how this all turns out.”

And you don’t know what is going to happen to you three years from now or five years from now or ten years from now. You don’t know how God is going to bless you in your future. You don’t know. But this we do know. It says in the Biblical text for today, “God is faithful to his promises to the living and the dead.”  God is faithful to you when you are living. Today is not the time for you to fixate on your bitterness. In the story for today, we were told that her name was Naomi, not Mara. Don’t fixate on and become Mara.

Well, the story of Ruth is a great story. The greatest line in the story is this: I beg you not to leave me. For where you will go, I will go. Where you will live, I will live. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you will be buried, I will be buried.” It is that kind of loyalty found within the people of God that makes the hearts of the angels smile. Amen.

CHILDREN’S SERMON: Talk about friends and the pleasures of friendship. Ask the children if they have any good friends. Ask what are the qualities of a good friend? Towards the end of the discussion, talk about some friends are friends for life, from their early childhood through grade school and high school and young adulthood and married life and sometimes even until old age. That is, such people are friends for life and their primary quality is loyalty. Such friends are loyal when young, in grade school, high school, college, work, marriages, retirement. I have one friend like that and his name is Terry Jorgenson. The story for Ruth today is the story about someone who was a friend for a lifetime.

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