Recent Sermons

JEANNE COKER'S SERMON

AT ST. ANDREWS CHURCH

SUNDAY 30th April 2017

AT 10.00AM EUCHARIST SERVICE

 

Today I am going to talk about the lives of three widows from the Old Testament and pose some questions about their story being reflected in our society. I don’t expect any answers! But to give you some thoughts to take away with you.

Throughout history there have always been times of migration. Over the centuries economic crises have forced millions of people to migrate with dreams of a better land and prosperity. Perhaps we could think, for example, of the effects of the nineteenth century potato famine in Ireland and the depressions that hit Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, forcing people to emigrate. Disasters are part and parcel of human history and great stories of courage, perseverance and, above all, hope, shine through dark and tragic episodes. Such is the story of Ruth.

Ruth ch1v1 -  In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man (Elimelech) from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The scene is set.

These were the days before the rule of any king and the previous book of Judges makes it perfectly plain that the people did virtually as they wanted. In any time of famine the unscrupulous take advantage while the poor suffer. That a famine should take hold in Bethlehem underlies the severity of the situation – the name Bethlehem means house of bread.  It may be that Elimelech found it impossible to survive in his home town because the famine also raised issues of principle. What is quite certain is that the famine was a life and death situation and Elimelech decided the only way to preserve the family was to take the drastic step and leave for another country.

Does this resonate with some events in the present day?

A likely route from Bethlehem to Moab would be down through the Judean hills to cross the river Jordan at the top end of the Dead Sea. From there they would have travelled through the baking barren landscape before ending up some eighty miles from Bethlehem, in Moab. Today it is part of Jordan. As we read we realise that Elimelech must have died soon after their arrival in the land of Moab. This situation was a disaster for Naomi whose faith in the one true God of Israel precluded her from finding Moabite husband (Ezra 10.2 – “unfaithful to our God in marrying foreign women”). However this did not deter her sons, Mahlon and Chilion, who married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi’s family left because of famine and were apparently accepted by the Moabites.

How do we, in Britain, feel about immigrants (or aliens, or whatever word we use)?

For about ten years Moab was home to Naomi, her sons and daughters-in-law but there were no children and both sons died. Sons were very important to continue the line and inheritance so Naomi receives another harsh blow.

The opening verses of Lamentations portray a vivid picture of the disaster of widowhood. Now losing her sons she has lost her own security and a place in the community.

Attitudes to women were harsh in the days of Naomi.

Does our society today give equal value (and opportunities) to widowed women as it does to men? Or do widowed men feel excluded in society?

(At least we don’t lump together widows and aliens as does Deuteronomy)

Jesus identifies with widows and mothers-in-law (Luke 21 – the poor widow’s mite and Mark 1 – healing peter’s mother-in-law).

Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are now three widows and have no rights of inheritance. Naomi is far away from her homeland and culture and sees no future for herself in Moab. When she hears the famine is over in Bethlehem she decides to return home. Both daughters-in-law love Naomi and have a difficult choice to make. Orpah decides to stand with her own people but Ruth decides to commit herself to Naomi. (Ruth ch1v16 - Your people will be my people and your God my God). In fact Ruth had been converted. Such was Naomi’s living and generous faith that Ruth willingly gave herself to the mercy of the God of Israel. She had witnessed the trust Naomi placed in the guidance of her God, it motivated her to leave her own God and trust in Yaweh.

Do we as Christians display our faith like Naomi so that people are inspired to become Christians?

Our story now continues as the two women make a somewhat hazardous journey uphill from the Dead Sea to Bethlehem – back to her roots for Naomi and a foreign land for Ruth.

In a small community news spread fast so everyone knew of Naomi’s return but were amazed at the conversion of Ruth. The women had no obvious source of income so Ruth went gleaning behind the harvesters. Boaz, who owned the fields, gave her his protection, telling the men not to touch her. (It was not a very safe environment for women on their own). He also told the harvesters to leave some stalks of corn for her to glean and gave her permission to drink from the labourers’ water pots.

Do we look out for strangers who may find our environment scarey? Do we look for ways of helping them?

Ruth is astonished at his kindness and asks Boaz why he is so kind to a stranger. He replies in Ruth 2.11 “I have been told what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband – how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done”.

Now the story moves on. Naomi is selling land which belonged to her husband. There are

rules about this – it should be offered to the nearest kinsman first. If he accepts then he is to take Ruth as his wife as she is the widow of the son who would inherit on his father’s death.

Do other people’s customs seem strange to you? Should we not try to understand rather than dismiss them?

This unnamed kinsman declines so Boaz (who is presumably next in line) accepts and marries Ruth. They have a son who is the father of Jesse who is the father of David and Jesus was of the house and lineage of David. From a tough life to a happy ending.

Naomi and Ruth were close friends. Jesus, too, had close friends in Mary, Martha and Lazarus (of the two occasions recording Jesus weeping, one was when Lazarus died). Jesus chose his disciples to be his friends (John ch15v15 – I have called you friends).

So I leave you today with two tasks

  1. Read the book of Ruth

and

  1. What does it feel like to be a friend of Jesus