Rev. Debora Rolls, Interim Moderator
Psalm 91, Ruth 1
In an article published over six years ago, the U.S. magazine Forbes argued that western society is facing an integrity crisis. Whether it’s politicians who are indicted for breaking the law, churches and government who tried to abolish a culture and heritage through a program of residential schools, police forces accused of racism and brutality, price-fixing by supermarkets or entrepreneurs and royals accused of sex with minors the list goes on and on. I think we’d agree with Forbes. Our contemporary society IS facing an integrity crisis.
And the question is, how did we get here? What prompts individuals and institutions to make choices based more on self-interest than the common good? Choices for personal pleasure and gain even as they come with harmful consequences for the most vulnerable?
These are character failures aren’t they? But what exactly do we mean when we speak of character? David Brooks, a columnist at The New York Times and author of the book “The Road to Character” says that character is comprised of two things. First, it is a settled disposition to do good. To want to do good requires that we escape the pattern of pleasure-seeking, and resolve to follow our callings while at the same time also identifying the core sins of ourselves (you know those things that usually trip us up) so that they may be conquered. Secondly, Brooks defines character as a form of unshakable commitment. This includes living loyally and in alignment with your promises.
So with that definition in mind. Let us ask: Is there anything that we can do, to ensure we develop a character that protects us from the temptation to compromise our values? A character that guides us to make wise, life-giving rather than life-destroying choices? Character that is Christlike in that it only seeks the welfare of others before ourselves?
To help us answer these questions, today we are starting a new five-week sermon series based on the Old Testament Book of Ruth. We’re calling this series: Pathways to Character – How what you choose reveals your heart’s condition. As we journey together through this story we’ll discover that the characters in it each had decisions to make. Some led to life. Others led to death. But before we dig into these life lessons and how we can apply them today, let us pray.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we thank you for the timeless wisdom contained in the Bible. These are not just stories to be learned, but principles and practices to be lived. Help each one of us here and online to lean in to this teaching so we can be transformed for good and bear some likeness to our Saviour in whose name we pray. AMEN
As our story opens, an Israelite father is facing a crossroads. There is a famine in Bethlehem and he fears his family may starve. He’s heard that things are better in Moab, the grass literally there is greener and to move there may spare their lives. He’s got a difficult choice to make. Stay in Bethlehem and hope the famine soon ends and they can come out the other side, or pack up the household and move lock, stock and barrel to Moab.
But it’s a choice that would be frowned upon by most Israelis. Bethlehem (Beit-Lechem) in Hebrew means the House of Bread. It’s the promised land. And we have the advantage of knowing that Beit-Lechem will also be the birthplace of Jesus, the Bread of Life. The significance of the nation of Moab, in contrast is much less illustrious. Moab was founded by the product of an incestuous relationship. Its namesake was the offspring of Lot and his daughter. In Psalm 60, God refers to Moab as his washbasin…in other words, receptacle for filth.
So….Elimelech’s choice is between Behtlehem – God’s breadbasket, or Moab, God’s washbasin. Hmmm, doesn’t seem like a hard choice does it, except that right now, at this moment, the breadbasket is empty and God’s children are going begging. Why is that? The story is set in the time of the Judges, when Israel had no King. The Book of Judges ends with this description of this time: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel. God’s people have turned away from his teaching, they are disobeying his commands, they have forgotten that God is the source of every blessing….and so the breadbasket becomes empty. So we don’t know whether Elimelech consulted anyone….or just relied on himself….whether he too just did what was right in his own eyes. He makes the choice to leave Bethlehem in favour of Moab and in so doing, he reals the true condition of his heart. You see, his name Elimelech, means “My god is King.” But in making his choice, Elimelech reveals he doesn’t really trust God as sovereign and the giver of every gift.
So Elimelech, his wife Naomi and his two sons Mahlon and Killion make the 7 to 10 day journey to Moab, a strip of land on the other side of the dead sea.
Quite likely he intended the move to be temporary, but you know, the family got settled. They had a nice four bedroom tent in a good neighbourhood, they joined the donkey lodge, they made friends. Before they knew it, more than ten years had passed. That’s ten years of not going to church, of not observing Jewish festivals and traditions, ten years of being uprooted from friends, family, congregation. Then one day, suddenly Naomi receives a call from Moab General hospital. Her husband has died, better come and claim his body. His boys, now grown, could still choose to return to Bethlehem, to return to God and bring their mother with them. But they too, follow the example of their father, and make a poor choice, choosing to remain in Moab and marry pagan women. And then they too died, leaving behind their mother, and two widows. Ironically, the very place Elimelech had gone to save his family FROM the grave, instead takes his family TO the grave.
His choice was not life-giving, but life-destroying. And he and his sons have left their remaining family in a precarious position. These women have no means of support and no other family nearby to take them in.
So Naomi, the matriarch makes her own choice. She hears that the Lord was blessing his people in Judah with good crops and so she decides to turn back, she makes the choice to turnaround. When we speak in the church of repentance, we mean to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. No matter how many bad choices we may have made, no matter how far we’ve strayed from God, all it takes is one step of turning back to God to begin a turnaround in our lives. And so it is with Naomi. Naomi here is repenting of the choice to move to Moab as she returns to her homeland, to God and his people. But she doesn’t impose her choice upon her daughters-in-law. In fact, she urges them to remain behind. The trip to Bethlehem will be arduous and they could be attacked along the way. And if they do make it safely to Bethlehem, they will be branded outsiders, pagans, foreigners. In other words, the welcome mat won’t be rolled out for them.
So she says to Orpah and Ruth, ““Go back. Go home and live with your mothers. And may God treat you as graciously as you treated your deceased husbands and me. May God give each of you a new home and a new husband!” She kissed them and they cried openly.” At first they both protest, but eventually Orpah agrees to return to her parents in hope of a better future. She leaves Noami and Ruth and disappears from the pages of history. We never hear of her again.
But Ruth. Ruth chooses differently. She refuses to leave her mother-in-law to make the journey alone. And perhaps in some of the most beautiful verses of scripture, we hear her vow, which is this: “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”
Ruth has counted the cost. She knows the risks, but love outweighs it all. She sets her self-interest to one side and thinks of Naomi. Elderly, vulnerable, broken-hearted Naomi. She can’t bear to think of her going home alone.
And they make it. Some ten or so days later they walk wearily into town. Dust covers their mourning clothes. They are thin and weak having had to manage their rations carefully. And yet, Naomi is faintly recognizable to her old friends and neighbours. “Is it really Naomi?” they ask.
And watch how she responds: “….” Naomi has chosen to assign a certain meaning to the whole Moab experience. She says this, “Don’t call me Naomi,[a]” she told them. “Call me Mara,[b] because the Almighty[c] has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted[d] me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” Wow! She’s bitter alright…and she assigns all the blame to the Lord. But wasn’t it Elimelech’s choice to leave? Her neighbours and friends all survived the famine, might they have as well. It seems that she has conveniently forgotten this, she accepts no responsibility for leaving the Lord’s care behind to seek to do things their own way. She was more worried about things going bad than about herself going bad.
What about us? Do WE trust God when circumstances get hard? Or when the going gets tough do the tough get going? When we face hardship do we abandon God, do we doubt he exists, do we question his love for us? Or do we, like Elimlech, take matters into our own hands and do what is right in our own eyes?
Or do we choose to remain and continue to trust? Do we double-down in our relationship with the Lord? Do we talk to him more, do we continue in our daily bible reading, do we search our thoughts and actions critically…looking for where we might have been disobedient or self-centred? God is determined to upend our values. He will test us to see if we value what He can give us more than the privilege and delight of knowing him and being radically changed by the experience.
David Brooks in his book, “The Road to Character” says that character develops when we face “pressure points.” When something bad happens to you you can either get broken, or be broken open. As an example, he tells the story of Sarah, a mother from Ohio who came back from an antiquing trip to find her husband had killed himself and their two kids. She now runs a free pharmacy, she volunteers in the community, she helps women cope with violence, she teaches. She told David this, “I grew from this experience because I was angry. I was going to fight back against what he tried to do to me by making a difference in this world. He meant to kill me, but my response to him is whatever you meant to do to me, I’m not giving you the satisfaction, you’re not going to do it.” (Long pause) That, my friends is a choice. A vote for a character that chooses victory rather than defeat. A character that prizes relationships over isolation. A character that loves others as yourself. A character that perseveres. (PAUSE) In other words, a character like Jesus. Jesus chose the path of love that also was littered with pain. What will we choose? Will we make choices that bring us into closer harmony with God and with others; or will we choose that which bring us into a state of war and hatred with God, with humanity and even ourselves? As C.S. Lewis the late theologian and author wrote: To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, joy and peace, knowledge and power. To be the other means mad madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Ruth could have given in to anger, bitterness, despair, but she chose to trust God in the midst of her tragedy. Elimlech chose to be self-reliant, Ruth chose to be God reliant. His choice led to death, hers to life. Which will we choose?