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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 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.

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 had consideration for his people and given them food. 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 to go back to the land of Judah. But 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. 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.They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But 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? 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? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

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 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. 
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!’ 
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them,
‘Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 
I went away full,
but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Ruth 1: 1-22, NRSV

Preached Sunday, December 3, 2017 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Kent Siladi, Connecticut Conference Minister. During the season of Advent, we’re learning about a few of the remarkable women in Jesus’ family tree. We’ll return to the Year of Mark in January.

It’s a New Church Year.  Although many celebrate New Year’s at the end of this month – we Christians begin our year today with the first Sunday in Advent.  It is the start of the short season of waiting and preparing to welcome once again the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel into the world.  Over the next four weeks you will meet four women who are related to the birth story of Jesus and it is my privilege to introduce you to the first woman – a woman by the name of Ruth.

One of the popular gifts that will be given this Christmas will be the DNA testing kit from Ancestry.com.  Have any of you done that?  It’s a simple test that gives you information about your family of origin and what part of the world they were from.  If Jesus had been born in our time he might have used the test to discover his own ancestry and lineage.  The fact is that we do not need ancestry.com to know about his lineage.  We have Matthew.com to help us to learn about the lineage of Jesus.

In the first chapter of Matthew, right from the beginning we read of the descendants of Jesus. The gospel writer lists 14 generations beginning with Abraham and ending with David.   There is a tendency to skip all of that with unpronounceable names and unknown characters.  For those of us who know our way around the Bible – it’s in the language of King James the “begats” –that we would prefer to skip over.  This person begat that person – you get the idea.  It’s like when someone has shown you their family tree with great enthusiasm and you start to lose focus as they enthusiastically tell you about being descended from the Mayflower.

While the temptation is there to skip the beginning of Matthew’s genealogy story of Jesus – we really shouldn’t.  It shows us that trust in God is one of the keystones of discipleship. This is a central theme in Matthew’s Gospel, introduced right from the beginning of the infancy narratives. Jesus is named Emmanuel, that is, God is with us (Mt 1:23). Matthew is assuring us that God governs history and that nothing eludes God’s power, that there is a guiding plan, beyond our comprehension, which gives meaning to life’s events. He is encouraging us to stand with reverent trust before the mystery of God, as revealed in Christ.

A student of Biblical genealogy would immediately recognize something unusual in the lineage of Jesus.  Most Jewish genealogies list only the men.  The patriarchal society of Jesus’ day would not list women descendants.  Women’s stories were often not included.  Some might say that women’s stories are now emerging and there should be no alarm!  Four women interrupt and finally break the patriarchal pattern of the Israelite lineage of Jesus. They remind us of the sins of the fathers; they remind us of the laws of Torah that command society to provide for the marginalized and the poor of the community; they remind us of assertive women who made those laws work; they remind us that salvation comes from the marginalized and the powerless who become our heroes; they remind us that there is no such thing as a pure ethnicity, that there is ultimately no strict “us” and “them,” that we are our enemies and they are us, one humanity.

By including these notable women in Jesus genealogy, Matthew is teaching us that it is the Spirit of God that guides human history. God uses the unexpected to bring an unfolding plan to fulfillment. History is not a linear series of events leading to predictable outcomes. It involves sin and conversion, success and failure, heroes and villains. But God is at work in it, making crooked ways straight and rough ways smooth. And ultimately, God’s love prevails, a truth revealed in the person and life of Jesus.

Matthew seems to have another motive for inserting these four women into the otherwise all-male genealogy: They are all Gentiles. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba was probably a Hittite. Their presence on the list foreshadows the role of the Messiah, who opens Gods saving plan to the Gentiles. Matthew is saying that just as Gentiles are part of Jesus lineage, they are part of his future.

So let me turn to the main character for today – Ruth. 

Ruth’s story follows the description of the darkness that falls on Israel in the land in the days recorded in the Book of Judges. Sin is everywhere in the last five chapters of the Book as the people are described as falling into idolatry and civil war, these being perhaps among the most violent chapters in the Bible. The oft-repeated refrain in these chapters also concludes the book: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21:25). The King of Israel, God, who had brought the people out of Egypt into the land of milk and honey, had been brutally booted out of the story by a people living in sin. Whereas they were chosen to proclaim the Realm of God by lives lived in faith, their choices had led them far astray.

     The book of Ruth opens in Bethlehem.  Yes, Bethlehem. This was the same Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born. Also, it was the birthplace of King David, the great king of Israel. Ruth lived before King David, in fact because Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ, Matthew makes clear was born of the lineage of David.

Now before we break out in singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” let’s hold that impulse for four more weeks.  This Bethlehem is the epicenter of separation from God in the time of Judges.  Bethlehem can be translated into “House of Bread”.  Ironically in Ruth’s time it was a place where there was little bread.  Famine was in the land and Ruth spent her time gleaning in the fields which basically meant dumpster diving for the little wheat that was left behind after harvest time.

  Ruth was a Moabite. In other words, a despised foreigner.  And God’s proclamation is very clear about Moabites.

   From Deuteronomy 23: “No… Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt. You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.

     Moabites are not welcome. The covenants or promises of God are not for them. The children are rejected because of the sins of their fathers. Right from the mouth of God. That sounds like racism. It sounds like hatred.

     But wait a minute. God is supposed to be an all loving Deity. The one who doesn’t look at things like race or gender when embracing people. The one who forgives the sins of the whole world. This law against Moabites makes God look pretty bad. Because who could reject Ruth? Just because her genealogy is wrong? Just because her ancestors tried to oppose the people of Israel? That doesn’t sound like the God we know.

     Or does it? It was never going to matter how good Ruth was. It was never going to matter that we have none of her sins recorded. Because even before taking those into account, Ruth was already out of favor with God. Just like we are. People aren’t born morally neutral. People aren’t waiting to choose which side of the battle to pick between good and evil. People aren’t in this grey area where nothing is yet certain. We make mistakes, we mess up, we deny God before others, we hurt one another every day.

     The reality is that God breaks the rules. God says yes to people who categorically deserve a no. By every rule, Ruth shouldn’t have ever even been considered a member of the house of Israel. And yet. Here she is. Listed in Jesus’ genealogy. And she is not the first. She’s yet another broken rule. Another example of what should not have been. The rules are important. Necessary even. The Moabites worshipped a false god. And the temptation to go after that false god was real. We are tempted every day to go after false gods. Ruth’s inclusion represents the enemy Jesus calls his followers to love. She also represents the widow, the alien and the poor whom the laws of Torah command society to provide for because of their vulnerability. Ruth’s story itself tells of a woman who through her assertiveness caused these laws to work.

Probably the best-known part of Ruth’s story is the commitment that she makes to Naomi.  She tells Naomi,

“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.
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!”

Ruth makes a covenant promise with Naomi.  It is a promise between two people and it includes the agreement that no matter what –  we will stick with one another and that the foundation of that promise rests in God.  It is also a covenant that reminds us that we need one another.  None of us makes it on our own.

In our tradition we value the autonomy of the local church.  This means that each congregation to make its own decisions, to decide who its pastor will be, to raise the funds for its mission and ministry and to discern how you will live out your faith in Jesus.  No one directs you in this community of faith and no one tells you what to do.  We call that autonomy.  It’s our love for independence.  I have learned over the years in the UCC that we do not need any lessons in independence.

Ruth’s story however underlines another important part of our tradition and that is the belief in covenant.  We believe that we are connected to one another.  We proclaim that we are all members of the same body, the body of Christ and that we can accomplish more together than we might accomplish alone.  We might cherish our independence but we also are connected and interdependent.  The covenants we share with one another allow us to do things with a collaborative spirit.

So just as Bethlehem where both Ruth and Jesus were born means house of Bread we are ready to break bread together.  We are reminded at the Lord’s Table that Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Bread of the World.  As we break this bread and share this cup we are reminded that we are bound together in common witness and common purpose.

On this first Sunday in Advent let us remember the ties that bind us one to the other.  Come Holy Spirit, come.

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