A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on Sunday, July 23, 2017. Principal reading Ruth 4 and Matthew 1
For the people of Israel, called to be God’s people, one’s lineage was of utmost importance. It identified who you are and where you came from. To carry on the family line was considered paramount in your existence. To help a deceased kinsmen carry on the family line by marrying their widow and producing heirs was considered honorable and redemptive. What was lost because of death is then redeemed – it is brought back.
The story of Ruth is one of tragedy and loss – an account of how one person, Elimilech, struggles to care for his family in a time of famine in the land and moves them to what he hopes is a more promising future in a foreign land. Alas, he and both his sons die leaving his wife Naomi and 2 daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, all childless, to fend for themselves. Orpah returns to her family and Ruth chooses to go with Naomi back to her homeland – back to Bethlehem – hoping and praying that Naomi’s’ people, God’s people, will care for them. We learn how these 2 destitute women make the best of a bad situation with Ruth gleaning the fields in order for both of them to eat. And then Naomi plans how to secure a future for her daughter-in-law by planning that a kinsmen Boaz who has let her glean in his field under his protection, might marry her.
In the last chapter of the book of Ruth, we learn how Boaz, a kinsmen of Elimilech, Naomi’s deceased husband, marries Ruth, her daughter-in-law, thereby redeeming the family name by restoring land ownership to her and by producing a male heir. And as we read the first verses of the gospel of Matthew, we learn that not only did this marriage redeem and protect both Ruth and Naomi, it also brought Jesus into the world.
God is not a major character in the book of Ruth. Rather it is a story of how thru all of life’s struggles, through tragedy and misfortune, through the choices we has humans make in our lives – those with good outcomes and those with bad outcomes. Through all of this God remains steadfast. Even when Naomi is left alone in a world hostile to women with no male family members, and she is bitter, God is with her. In this case, God was with her in the person of Ruth – a foreign woman, a childless woman, a poor woman, another woman with no future.
In these past weeks, I mentioned how the Hebrew word for turn is used 15 times in the Book of Ruth –it is a story of life’s twists and turns, a story about reversals. The other word used in Ruth is Hesed – the Hebrew word for loving kindness. Not just any loving kindness but the steadfast abiding love and kindness that comes from God. God loves all people, no matter where we are in life, regardless of the choices, good or bad, we make in life, God loves us. And in that love, God uses us – those of us who have been faithful children of God our whole lives, those of us who are indifferent to God, those of us who don’t know God like Ruth, those of us who actively resist God and God’s love – God loves us all no matter what. The people of God written about in the book of Ruth believed that God was theirs alone and they believed that Moab was an evil foreign place where they worshipped idols – a place to avoid at all costs. And yet God used a woman from Moab, a foreigner, Ruth, one who grew up worshipping other gods, and placed her prominently in the ancestry of Jesus, the one who came as a human being to live among people so that we might know God and God’s love. It is notable that Ruth was one of only 5 women included in the listing of the genealogy of Jesus.
The Book of Ruth is a story which illustrates the loving kindness of God – that it is always with us. And I would add that it comes when you least expect it, from the most unlikely of people and sources. Some 20 years ago, Sandra’s sister, Mary, died in Scotland. She was devastated as she made the long journey home for the funeral. She purchased a special ‘funeral’ airfare ticket and went through the steps to board the plane as if on automatic pilot. It wasn’t until she was half way across the Atlantic that she realized the check-in agent, had put her in business class instead of coach. She was grieving and because of the loving kindness of this complete stranger, she didn’t have to deal with a crowded seat and all that comes with that. She admits that it wasn’t till months later that she realized that God had been close beside her that day through this act of kindness. God’s loving kindness comes when you most need it and you may not even recognize it.
This week I received a letter from someone I’ve known for a long time but see only rarely and who is actually a distant kinsperson through a common ancestor many generations back. This person wrote words of condolence and comfort, remembering my parents and grandparents and offered words of encouragement that I didn’t know I needed. The letter was unfamiliar handwriting on a lined piece of school notebook paper with ink fading in and out as it might of a pen little used and the love of God was clearly there and unmistakable. God’s hesed, God’s steadfast abiding, loving kindness through a most unlikely and unexpected source.
I encourage all of you to look back on events in your life and look at things that you considered coincidence or luck and view them as God’s love in your life.
God is always with us. God’s love will never leave us. No matter what!