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ruth.jpg (4552 bytes)Bitterness & Faithfulness
a sermon based on Ruth 1:1-18
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Fred Craddock gives us a helpful way to think about the opening chapter of the book of Ruth. He says, "I am going to word. The moment I say the word I want you to see a face, to recall a face and a name, someone who comes to your mind when I say the word. Are you ready? The word is bitter. Bitter. Do you see a face? I see a face. I see the face of a farmer in western Oklahoma, riding a mortgaged tractor, burning gasoline purchased on credit, moving across rented land, rearranging the dust. Bitter.

Do you see a face? I see the face of a woman forty-seven years old. She sits out on a hillside, drawn and confused under a green canopy furnished by the mortuary. She is banked on all sides by flowers sprinkled with cards: ‘You have our condolences.’ Bitter.

"Do you see a face? I see the face of a man who runs a small grocery store. His father ran the store in that neighborhood for twenty years, and he is now in his twelfth year there. The grocery doesn’t make much profit, but it keeps the family together. It’s a business. There are no customers in the store now, and the grocer stands in the doorway with his apron rolled up around his waist, looking across the street where workmen arte completing a supermarket. Bitter.

"I see the face of a young couple. They seem to be about nineteen. They are standing in the airport terminal, holding hands so tightly that their knuckles are white. She’s pregnant; he’s dressed in military green. They are not talking, just standing and looking at each other. The loudspeaker comes on: ‘flight 392 now loading at gate 22, yellow concourse, all aboard for San Francisco.’ He slowly moves toward the gate; she stands there alone. Bitter.

"Do you see a face? A young minister in a small town, in a cracker box of a house they call the parsonage. He lives there with his wife and small child. On Saturday morning there is a knock at the door. He answers, and there standing before him on the porch is the chairman of his church board, who is also the president of the local bank, and owner of most of the land round about. He has in his hands a small television. It is an old television, small screen, black-and-white. It’s badly scarred, and one of the knobs is off. He says, ‘My wife and I got one of those new twenty-five-inch color sets, but they didn’t want to take this one on trade, so I just said to myself, Well, we’ll just give it to the minister. That’s probably the reason our ministers don’t stay any longer than they do. We don’t do enough nice things for them. The young minister looks up and tries to smile and say thanks. But I want you to see his face. Bitter."

Now imagine this face that peers at us from the book of Ruth. It is a bitter face that belongs to a woman who shoulders her life-belongings as she walks days on end toward her destination. So bitter is she that she renames herself Mara-which means, "bitter." What goes around comes around she must have mused. She returns to her beginning flanked by two younger women-constant reminders of her bitterness. Hard to believe that fifteen years earlier she had left this very place so full of hope and adventure. Her husband and she with their two sons had sought to escape a local famine that left meager crops and little income. So they had left for a neighboring country in the hope of a better life.

But it wasn’t to be; tragedy struck early. The first to go was Elimelech, her husband who apparently died early in the sojourn. More recently, however, both of her sons had died-perhaps an epidemic had swept the village-leaving behind wives who needed tending. Three funerals and three widows had left Naomi a bitter woman. Victor Hugo may be right when he said that sorrow is a fruit that God never allows to grow so heavy that the branch cannot bear it. But Naomi’s life had borne enough sorrow to squash an entire forest.

That’s how the storyteller opens the book of Ruth-one of the most tragic beginnings in the Bible, almost beyond our imagination. Notice the downward spiral that disfigures and distorts Naomi into Mara. The story opens with no one in control-the time of the judges. Worse, a famine in the land leaves the cupboard bare. Now in a strange land-Moab-her sons die childless which means, of course, there would be no one to carry on the family name. Though urged by Naomi to remain in their own land, one of the daughters-in-law insists on following Naomi back to her homeland. That’s where the name change says it all. They are greeted by women of the town who ask in startled wonder, "Is this Naomi?" Naomi says in effect, "No I’m not Naomi"-which means ‘sweet’ or ‘pleasant’-"no, my name is ‘Bitter’ for God has treated me bitterly." Notice the last line of her speech: "I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty."

The character also tell their own story about Naomi’s family. Bethlehem, the place where Naomi lives, is "Breadbasket," yet people are starving. And Naomi’s family from the clan of Ephrathites or "fruitfulness," moves to Moab but are "unfruitful" or barren. And "Mahlon," Naomi’s son, is meant to sound like the Hebrew word for the disease that hit the Egyptians; and the name of her other son, Chilion, comes from the root word, "to perish." Not an auspicious family tree!

The incongruity of life’s reversals are captured in the Hebrew word, shub, which means "to return," "to turn back," "to go back," or "to repent." Shub shows up 18 times in the book of Ruth, but it dominates this first chapter (15 times). Shub suggests a mental, emotional, or spiritual reversal. Notice the shub-ing or "reversals" going on in the story-Naomi and Ruth "return" to Judah from Moab, from barrenness to barley harvest. In Moab, Naomi and her family seek more out of life only to find the opposite: death. Naomi’s life goes from "full" to "empty," thus she goes from "Sweet" (Naomi) to "Bitter" (Mara). Yet at story’s end there will be one final reversal-a good news reversal that suggests God’s behind-the-scenes work. A child will be born to Ruth and Boaz and he "will be a restorer of life," literally, he "will cause life to turn around" for Naomi.

So in a few lines we hear the story of decline and bitterness-

No king
       No food
               No husband
                           No son
                                    No name

Seems all we have on our hands is a tragic, seemingly senseless story. So what do we learn from this story that will help us in our own travel through life? I think we can pick up several important learnings from this tragic beginning. Clearly, tragedy does happen and happen with such unexpectedness and pain that it can stun a family and suck their breath out. Maybe the story is a heads up for us to develop and practice empathy and not just sympathy to the Naomis of the world. Empathy not only listens for the facts, but listens so intently to the heart that it can enter into and help to bear some of the pain of another.

I was once sitting in a class as Bryant Kirkland, former minister of 1st Presbyterian Church in NYC, drew my attention to this. One day, he went up to the board and drew a huge circle. Then he placed an "X" at the top of the circle. "That," he said, "is where some of your listeners will be on any given Sunday that you step into the pulpit. They’ll have just gotten their loan, their job, a surprise salary increase; the kids will have excelled and delighted them. They’re at the top of their game."

Then he marked another "X" at the bottom. "And that is where others will be when you enter the pulpit on any given Sunday. During the week their whole life has come unraveled. They’ll have found out that their spouse has cheated on them or their kid is taking ecstasy; they’ll have been handed the pink slip, or contemplated suicide." So the preacher just walks into the place of speaking from Scripture with that knowledge he told us. Both need to hear the gospel-but how differently we hear it from the bottom or the top of the circle. The opening scene in the book of Ruth cups our ear to those who are at the bottom of the circle. It calls us to empathy.

But consider Orpah. She pulls a shub and turns back when Naomi insists that her daughters-in-law stay in Moab among their own families. We usually dismiss Orpah as making a bad decision, certainly less noble than Ruth’s. Yet the writer does not condemn Orpah. Nor should we. Orpah also reflects faithfulness and obedience. She honors Naomi’s wish and returns. Perhaps God dealt kindly with her too. But no one elected to tell her story. She is so like many modern women today who choose traditional life-styles and yet wonder that no one is interested in telling their stories. We celebrate Ruth, but forget Orpah. Yet Orpah’s choice raises an important question about our own lives: to what in our own past are we to return in order to reclaim? Shub takes on many shades of meaning-sometimes it means to repent, but sometimes it means to turn back and go back to a familiar place.

Consider Ruth. Her choice is the reverse of Orpah’s. She-perhaps out of anger, even defiance-chooses to follow Naomi. If Orpah sends us back to reclaim something in our past that needs reclaiming, perhaps Ruth turns us forward and tells us to leave the past behind us.

That was the case of a rabbi that Philip Yancy once spoke with. "Before coming to America," the rabbi said, "I had to forgive Adolf Hitler." "Why?" Yancy asked. "Because I did not want to bring Hitler inside me to my new country." The rabbi got it right-he needed to leave his Moab and turn toward the future through forgiveness.

Consider God. God is sort of a silent partner in the book of Ruth. Naomi lets God have it when she blames all her bitterness as God’s doing. The accuracy of her statement needs another Sunday to explore. But God may well be in the tragedies while at the same time-though usually unnoticed or acknowledged-is also in the recovery and new situation. Just because we can’t find God in the foreground doesn’t mean that God is absent from the background.

In an intriguing playfulness with words, the writer mentions the "country of Moab," which is identical to the very name that Naomi uses for God. Thus, the place where Naomi’s troubles begin has not been abandoned by God, for God’s name is written into the very fabric of suffering and trouble. Christian faith might describe it in promise form: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes" (Romans 8:28). By the end of the story we will discover that God has had a purpose in mind from the beginning. And so it is in our lives too. Amen.