May 29, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
It Could Happen to You
It is good to be with you. My name is Naomi, and I’m visiting you from the eighth century BCE. If you’ve heard the story of Ruth in the Bible, then you’ve probably heard of me; Ruth is my daughter-in-law. I understand that today you are beginning a new worship series on weddings and marriage. I was invited to come speak to you as I have earned a reputation as a matchmaker.
So tell me if this doesn’t sound like one of your romantic comedy movies. It happened that Ruth and I were living together after we had returned to Bethlehem. If you knew Ruth at all, you’d know she has an interminable earnestness. All that energy can be a lot to take, for anyone. We hadn’t been in town two days, and already she’s out in the field gleaning, gathering up the leftovers from the barley harvest.
This went on for some time, and I remember the evening I saw her coming back into town. In these days, I could barely haul myself out of bed, and here comes Ruth, laughing and carrying an enormous bushel of barley. When she sees me her face lights up, because when she looks at anyone her face lights up…
I said to Ruth, “Where did you get all this.” When she told me the landowner was Boaz, that’s when I knew. If this were a movie, this is when the theme music would start playing. You see, Boaz is related to me, so of course he is watching out for Ruth, so of course these two share a destiny. I heard myself say to Ruth, “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” I heard those words come out of my mouth, and I’ll never forget that. Because that’s when our story changed.
I had my work cut out for me! See, Ruth is someone who can come on a little strong and get a little clingy, bless her heart. So I did what had to be done and devised a plan. It was a good plan. That night, we found the right dress for her, and she was going to put her hair in a long braid. I told her to go down to the threshing floor. But don’t rush right in! Hide until Boaz has something to eat and some wine. Wait for him to lie down, then, very slowly, go—uncover his feet, lie down next to him, and then follow his lead. Men like that. And, well, you can imagine the rest…
So there’s a kinsman who was technically next in line to marry Ruth, but he and Boaz arrived at an understanding. The property my late husband owned, along with Ruth, was transferred from this other kinsman to Boaz. The deal was made official by the giving of his sandal. Because have you ever heard of a more romantic wedding! No I know, when your American movies have the wedding happy ending, it’s not a backroom business deal solemnized by a sandal transfer. You’ve got to understand, marriage was different twenty-seven hundred and fifty-six years ago.
In your movies, people get married because they fall in love! It’s all pretty dresses, and string quartets, and those cupcakes made to look like roses; have you seen these cupcakes? For you, getting married is a rite of passage for young people. It promises the stability of adulthood: here’s how you know you’ve really grown up. Marriage proves their sense of worth: here’s how you know you’re lovable and loved. You can watch these movies and feel your heart thrill with the promise that it could happen to you, this destiny of love could happen to you.
So you’ll forgive me for wondering if that’s actually how things go for everybody. What about the people who are called to paths other than marriage; do they get a rite of passage? What about the people who long to get married and cannot?
As somebody who’s on a speaking tour as a matchmaker, I can tell you something our societies have in common: Popular culture proclaims it is better to be married than single. There’s a reason why it’s called marital status; being married means you have social status, and being single, you don’t. But you do realize, I am not just a matchmaker. I’m also a widow. My whole life, being graying and unmarried was my greatest fear, now this is what’s happened.
You see, in my world, for women, marriage can be the difference between life and death. Marriage means you have a place in the household, that you have some chance for economic security. Marriage means you belong in the community and you belong, in the eyes of God.
The law is designed to protect the male lineage. So if a man dies, his brother is obligated to marry the man’s widow to ensure that her future children remain part of her husband’s line. It’s also good for her; the worst thing for a widow is being put out. With no husband, no livelihood. That’s why the LORD has to keep telling the people to protect the widows, and the orphans, and the immigrants —because, otherwise these are the people who would have nothing and no one. Otherwise it would be better for us to be dead.
Growing up, I lived on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and we were not a wealthy family. I’m the youngest of four girls, but my three sisters were much older than me, so I know what it is to be alone. I remember being about six or seven and all the stress in the house when they were getting married.
Years later, when I met Elimelech, my whole being breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t realized how much worry I’d been carrying until we got married and all that worry dissolved. I will also tell you that I loved Elimelech; I did. We had two sons, and I was so grateful to have no daughter, or so I thought. For us, for years, things were fine. Until they weren’t.
The first thing that happened was Elimelech died. We had gone to Moab to get away from the famine, and maybe that was the worst thing we could have done, or maybe that was our destiny. A few years after my husband died, the boys, Mahlon and Chilion each got married. Those two did everything together. So when Mahlon died, I should have seen it coming, because then Chilion went and died too. They all left me. Alone. With their wives.
Since the famine was over in Bethlehem, I decided to go back, but I didn’t think Ruth and Orpah would try to go with me! At least Orpah had the sense to go back to her family. But then there was Ruth. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Where you go, I will go” she threatened. “Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Who asked you to come along, Ruth… Coming back to Bethlehem was humiliating enough!
I thought I had friends there who would help me, but now they didn’t know what to do with this sad and sorry woman. I remember seeing them huddled together talking about me. That’s when I realized. It wasn’t just Elimelech, or Mahlon, or Chilion, it was the LORD. I was being cast out by the LORD.
I don’t mean that my name was inadvertently omitted from the guest list, or that God just got busy and forgot. I mean the LORD our God looked right at me and said, “Not you.” Even my tears turned bitter. And everybody knew. I mean, what if it happened to you?
Now these were the days when Ruth would not leave me alone. She kept poking and poking, and I couldn’t look at her and not see Mahlon in her eyes. Of course, you know she probably saved my life. I remember that evening when Ruth was coming back with that whole bushel of barley. She was laughing! That’s the first time I looked at her and didn’t see Mahlon. I heard myself say, “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” I hadn’t said a blessing out loud in ages.
I looked at Ruth, her face was shining, and what if this is where God has been the whole time? Not a man in heaven deciding whether to take me back or turn his back. What if God has been in this goofy girl the whole time? In the love that hunts us down, and clings for dear life, in the love that will not let us go… In Ruth, of all people.
The story in the Bible has a happy ending, like your rom com movies. Ruth and Boaz got married, and I became a grandmother, so the women in the town welcomed me back. It seems like that should be enough for a happy ending but it’s even better.
It’s that being a widow was my worst fear, and now it’s my life. I thought all that mattered was finding favor in the eyes of the LORD our God. And that wasn’t it at all. It was God who came and found me when everyone else huddled and whispered; God in the kindness of Boaz; God in the pestering, sparkling, persistence of Ruth.
So let me leave with you this. If ours is a God who works through people to welcome those who are left out, maybe that is your calling as a church. Maybe you know someone who has been rejected —by marriage, by life, by their idea of God —and maybe they need you to be their Ruth.
You know we are always helping each other learn how to hear God say “I love you.” Listen long enough, we might even begin to believe it. Because the truth is, it could happen to you; it already has. Married or not, if you are living on this earth, your life is destined by creation to be a love story.
Thank you for listening to me this morning. Blessed is the LORD whose love leads our lives, and blessed are you.