God's Story, Our Story: Bound by Covenant
Preaching: Megan Hodgin
Text: Ruth 1:1-17
Where you go, I will go.
This is probably not the passage I would have chosen to preach on my last Sunday as one of your pastors, but this is God’s story, so I think it’s best to enjoy the irony. We are few weeks in to the unfolding narrative of the Bible. We began in Genesis with the Creation of the heavens, the earth and all that is in them. Then, after the fall of humanity, we witnessed the absurd grace of God as a covenant was established with Abraham and Sarah through the birth of their son, Isaac. [Remember that covenant piece...we’ll be coming back to that later!] After God committed himself to his people, we met Jacob, whose encounter with a faceless messenger of the Lord leaves him blessed and limping toward a life of greater faithfulness. Unfortunately, his descendants - the Israelites - are eventually enslaved by the Egyptians and we heard as the voice of God commissioned Moses from the burning bush and sent him to confront Pharaoh. Then, last week, we received the commandments that God gave his people in order to show them how to live after they were freed from slavery.
So, today, we meet Ruth, Naomi and Orpah.
Where you go, I will go. At first, this sounds like a strange word for today. I think there is a gift here, though. This is God’s story and it is our story, after all. We are in it. And even though today is my last day as one of your pastors, I truly believe that wherever I go you will go with me. And wherever you go, I will go with you. Let me explain what I mean…
The story of these three women is one of the most dynamic descriptions of faithful, committed relationships in the Old Testament. Even though these women come from different places and different tribes, they demonstrate a love for each other reflects God’s love for His people.
After the loss of her husband and her sons, Naomi is a grieving widow and childless mother whose own life is now out risk. In a time and a place where all power and all property belonged to the men, Naomi is suddenly homeless and without protection. Hearing of God’s provision in Bethlehem, she chooses to return and it is natural that Orpah and Ruth would join her as the customs would dictate that their loyalty belongs to their husband’s family. Naomi’s insistence that they return to their homes and their mothers is a gesture of grace. She knows the journey they are about to take is not safe for women to do alone, so she tries to protect them from the risk.
When Orpah chooses to return, it is not necessarily a betrayal. It could also be seen as a grateful response to Naomi’s grace and, even an effort to lesson Naomi’s burden by relieving her of at least one mouth to feed and one less stranger to introduce and defend when she reaches her homeland.
Ruth’s response is, of course, the most well-known of the three as a bold act of faith. In fact, Rabbis have taught Ruth’s story as an example for converting non-believers to faith in the God of Israel and her promises are often read as part of marriage ceremonies:
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
At this point in the larger narrative of God’s story, I think that one of the greatest gifts of the book of Ruth is that it confirms that we are part of the story.
If Ruth, a Moabite widow with the odds against her, can be part of God’s family, so can we. We did not literally cross the Red Sea with the Israelites or hear the voice of Moses when the commandments were proclaimed for the first time, but those stories belong to us because we belong to God.
That is one of the most important things I want you to hear today. You belong to God. And so do I. That’s why these past nine years of life and ministry have been such a gift, and that’s why today can be a gift, as well. Because God has established a covenant with us, first through Abraham and Sarah and then through people like Ruth, and ultimately through Jesus God has extended that covenant to all who would believe. He promises to be our God and to make us his people. So even though I am preparing to leave, which is difficult and even painful, we can still rejoice together because we know that God is authoring this story. And Paul reminds us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom. 8:38).
You belong to God. Whether you are from Bethlehem or Moab - or Holland or St. Joseph, MO - or if you find yourself in an unknown place on the road in between the two, God is calling you to himself, just as he called Ruth. When we embrace that invitation, when we accept that grace, we are welcomed into a family - the body of Christ.
Which brings us to the second thing that I think is important to say today: because we belong to God, we also belong to each other. I believe that it is only because Ruth committed herself to God that she could also, then, be faithful to her mother-in-law. The courage to proclaim, “Where you go I will go,” was not Ruth’s alone. It was a sign of God’s work in her life.
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we too have been adopted into this family. Paul explains that we have become one body - though there are many of us and each has different gifts. “...we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,” (Rom. 12:5).
That means that, even though our stories are now taking different paths, it is still true that everywhere I go, you go with me Fellowship Church. And vice versa - in a mysterious way, everywhere you go, I will go with you, as well. In Christ, our stories have been woven together and that cannot be undone.
I can only accept the call to this new role because of what God has taught me through you. It was in this very room, in the middle of my second or third sermon as one of your seminary interns, that I finally discovered what you had been telling me for two years - I am called to be a pastor.
privilege of witnessing marriages, deaths, new babies and baptisms
I will not sing “Build Your Kingdom Here” without thinking of FRC and, when the time is right and it doesn’t pushy, I fully intend to recommend Jordan’s songs to every worshiping community I may be part of in the future.
Wherever I go, I will seek collaboration and authentic community with my colleagues because the staff has taught me fruitful it is to share life and work in that way.
I will never take for granted the privilege of this mysterious, beautiful, challenging thing called the pastoral life because I have had the privilege to serve alongside two of the most gifted and faithful pastors I have ever met.
And, I imagine, there will be a long list of other things that just happen unconsciously because I have been impacted by the time we have shared together.
We belong to one another, in Christ, and you will always be part of my story.
This love we share for one another is rooted in that deep, covenant-keeping love of God. Which means it is meaningful, it is beautiful, it can stand the test of time...and it is for more than just us.
Because we belong to God and because we belong to one another, together we belong to God’s mission in the world.
The love we have - the love that binds all believers - is to be shared with the world!
We know that the world is not as it should be. That was the case for Naomi and Ruth and Orpah and it is still true for us. We lose loved ones much too young and much too suddenly. School shootings, racially motivated violence, women and children enslaved, civil wars tearing countries apart and leaving refugees with nowhere to go...these are average headlines and that is only the beginning. To live with hope and love in the midst of this reality is to choose a better story.
Ruth and Naomi’s commitment to one another is counter cultural. Later in the story, when they reach Bethlehem, they turn heads when they enter the city gates as the people wonder what would possess them to travel without a man and what would cause either of them to take on the responsibility of staying connected to the other - a young foreigner caring for an elderly widow and vice versa. In the final chapter, the people are shocked at the ending of the story when God blesses these unlikely women through Ruth’s marriage to Boaz and then with the birth of a son.
The kind of love that Naomi and Ruth share for each other - a love that begins in God - changes the world. Sometimes it happens in dramatic and profound ways, like the birth of a baby boy who would continue the lineage that would one day lead to another baby. The child who would be born in a manger in Bethlehem and would give his life on a cross in order to redeem the world. Sometimes, sharing the love of God produces such indescribable events.
In other cases, love changes the world over time through slow and faithful persistence in the midst of the ordinary, daily details. This is what keeps Ruth getting out of bed every morning to go and glean among the wheat fields in order to feed her mother-in-law and herself. This is the kind of love that keeps you going back to the grocery store, week after week, to feed your own families and to collect items that are feeding children in our local elementary schools. This is the kind of love that is shared one hour at a time in libraries and computer labs, as Kids Hope mentors share life with their students. This is the kind of love that helps parents coach their children through their anxieties and so that they might see themselves as God sees them, rather than being lost in the stories the world would tell them about who they are.
This is the kind of love you have shown me. I pray that can now share it with others and that you will continue to love all those that God brings into your fellowship. Not just because it feels good. Not just because it seems like the right thing to do. But because God wants to use you to change the world - one act of faith, one gesture of love at a time.