Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt like a foreigner? Have you ever been in a place where you looked different from those around you, perhaps you spoke a different language, or perhaps you just held very different views and beliefs from others and so felt alienated? Has there ever been a time in your life when you moved away from the familiar – whether that was physically relocating to a new city, province, or country, or whether that was spiritually moving into a different denomination or perhaps even religion, or discovering that your Christian walk was much different than it was in the past?
Change can be both exciting and also very nerve-wrecking. I work in the housing industry helping people who are homeless transition from off the streets into an actual apartment complex for the first time. This past week I assisted two individuals to move into their new homes. I noticed how important it was to honour this sacred space – to affirm that yes it was exciting to be able to be in their own place, but also how overwhelming it could feel for them having been used to a certain way of living for so long.
I have spent much of my adult life travelling and I have lived in lots of different places including Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Scotland. In each of these places I arrived without having known anyone. I showed up having to learn a new culture and new customs. It was both exhilarating and also frightening.
If you have ever moved away, you are likely aware of how difficult it can be to integrate into a new environment. True, sometimes things click right away and you may end up loving the new location, but often it takes time to develop strong bonds of trust and friendship. It takes a long time to learn new customs and practices and to be fully integrated into a new culture even when that culture is relatively similar to our own. When I lived in Nova Scotia I was always referred to as “the girl from away.” When other people know that we are a foreigner in this new land, it can cause a well of insecurity and self-consciousness and perhaps even invoke suspicion or at the very least curiosity and questions.
In today’s passage from the book of Ruth, we read about a young woman who also experienced a massive transition. Ruth is an often overlooked Bible character, the entire book only being four chapters, and yet, she is also one of the most profound women we meet in Scripture. So profound in fact that she found herself a place in the genealogy of Jesus as David’s great-grandmother and so a direct ancestor of Christ.
The story begins with a Famine in the land, forcing Ruth and her family out of Bethlehem (which ironically means “house of bread”) and into the foreign land of Moab. We do not entirely know why Moab was chosen as the final destination, however, it was in a pretty ideal location being rather high up and thus likely not subjected to the famine. What we do know is that Israel and Moab were often at odds with each other stemming all the way back to Genesis 19 when this nation first came into existence through an incestuous relationship between Lot and his eldest daughter resulting in a truly flawed heritage. There are numerous passages in Scripture pointing to Israel’s intense dislike of the Moabite god Chemosh who was first introduced by King Solomon and had a reputation as a destroyer. Some verbs historians have used to describe Chemosh include: fierce, inescapable, angry, and a consuming fire. Chemosh also was a wrathful god who demanded sacrifices to appease him. Mostly as a result of this god, the Israelites considered the Moabites their enemies and intermarriage was considered a sin because it would put the Israelities at risk of potential idolatry.
It was in this foreign land that Naomi faced tremendous loss. First she lost her husband, and then she lost her two sons. Loss is always tragic and upsetting. Especially during this pandemic season, many of us have experienced great loss and many of us have had our grief interrupted by restrictions. I lived in Scotland for four years and while I was abroad I lost both my grandmother and my uncle. Grief is a strange thing when one is living in a strange land. Grief is also a strange thing when one is living in strange times. In Naomi’s case her grief was compounded not just due to the emotional attachment she would have had with her family members, but also because of the practical troubles this tragedy caused her. Living in the patriarchal world of that day, women relied heavily on men to take care of them and provide for their needs. Now Naomi’s family, spiritual, and financial support was completely wiped away from her. I can’t help but think of the parallels between what Naomi experienced in this story with the experience of Job who also tragically lost his family. In both cases, these losses produced significant emotional upheaval.
In this short book, names are very significant and we will begin to discover this in our time together. The name Naomi means “joyful” and “pleasant” but in Naomi’s distress she chooses another name for herself. Instead of being called “happy” she wants to be called Mara which means “bitter” because this is exactly how she feels. Sometimes the life experiences and circumstances we face also change how we see ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes it is easy to find our identity in our situations rather than in our salvation.
This is where Ruth comes to the rescue. Naomi has two daughter-in-laws: Ruth and Orpah. Both of these women are young enough to remarry and have children. It would have been unusual at this time for these women to have been married for a decade without children but the Bible does not mention kids and the assumption of the text seems to be that there weren’t any. Naomi urges both of her daughter-in-laws to leave and create a life for themselves. At first both Orpah and Ruth push back and want to stay with Naomi, but she dissuades them by stating how ridiculous this idea is. Eventually, Orpah who name means “back of the neck” caves in, chooses to depart, and go on her way. The Bible does not condemn her for this logical decision, it simply states this is what happened. However, Ruth, whose name literally means “compassion for the misery of another” chooses to journey with Naomi and thus shows courageous, faithful, and generous love. Ruth’s declaration is therefore doubly profound: first she takes on a new nationhood (sort of like switching over her citizenship) and then she also takes a new religious affiliation (converting to Judaism).
I wonder if we can ask ourselves in this moment: has there ever been someone who has journeyed with us even in the most foreign places of our lives? Friendships and relationships are always precious. A friend is someone who is devoted, loyal, and committed to us and who journeys with us in both the ups and downs of our lives. A few years ago I was learning Arabic and I discovered something very profound. The word for Friend is Arabic literally means “one who always tells the truth.” And a friend is just that – an encourager, a cheerleader, but also a truthteller.
However, having a friend who journeys with us in the foreign and strange places of our lives is even more special and real. For example, a friend who embraces our questions and doubts perhaps even about Scripture, about the church or about God. Who lets us voice our concerns and fears. A friend who journeys with us during the major transitions of our lives: perhaps when our life has been turned upside down and we realize the life we have been living up until this point is really not the one that God has destined for us all along. Perhaps even a friend who walks with us during times of seeking, experimentation, longing, wrestling, and doing things a little bit differently than we did before, a bit out of the norm. In the case of my current work, a friend who walks with my clients on this strange and bumpy journey of getting sober, of finding recovery, of finding healing, psychological wellness, and spiritual wholeness. These friends who dare to journey with us in these precious moments are literally the Ruths in our lives. The ones who don’t give up on us. The ones who refuse to leave even when we tell them that we are a lost cause and that there is nothing left for us to give. They stay not because of what’s in it for them, but because they truly desire and value to embrace this transformation with us.
The story of Ruth might not get a lot of press time in many of our circles, but Ruth remains an important Jewish heroine even to this day. Her story is re-told every year during the Jewish feast of Shavout which celebrates the Torah being given to the Jewish people. This is a fitting tribute for Ruth because is speaks to her loyalty to her new God. In fact, Shavout gives the image of a wedding between God and the Jewish people, not unlike the covenant that the foreign Moabitess Ruth gave to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi.
In studying today’s passage my mind was immediately drawn to Hebrews 11:13-16 which reads, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for God has prepared a city for them.”
This week we are going to encounter many different types of people. We are going to see people who look and act a lot like us, and many others who are very different than we are. We are going to meet people with all sorts of different values, beliefs, and worldviews. The question I want to ask is how can we consider showing these individuals radical hospitality? What can we do to make ourselves brave enough to reach out a helping hand even when that might feel uncomfortable to us?
This week we also will be met with longings and stirrings. I urge us to pay attention to these. If we are being drawn into something out of the ordinary, perhaps this is a nudge from God. Perhaps we truly are looking for a country of our own. In those moments of quiet discontent, it is entirely possible that God is leading us to something better and ultimately more fulfilling. I have assurance that we will all get to that special city, if we are open to this adventure. May it be so. Amen.