Friday, May 12, 2017

"Agape and Mother's Day"

            I am returning to my sermon blog after a rather long interruption caused by several different factors.  For me, it is hard to believe that this coming weekend is Mother’s Day and that summer is right around the corner!

            Our worship theme this weekend will center on the loving relationship between a mother and her family.  At the same time, I would like to expand the scope of reflections to include other persons in our lives—both women and men—who have “been like a mother” to us.  Our scriptural base for these meditations will be Ruth 1: 1-19.

            The Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures is a love story.  In the story, Ruth, a foreigner who has emigrated from the country of Moab, falls in love with Boaz.  Through this poignant love story, we are reminded that God’s love extends to all persons, regardless of country, culture, or ethnicity.  Further this story underscores that it is God’s intention for us to welcome and offer hospitality to the sojourners and refugees who are in our midst. 

            While the principal theme of Ruth is the love story between Ruth and Boaz, the first chapter focuses on family relationships, instead.  The story begins with a Hebrew couple, Elimelech and Naomi, who decide to leave Bethlehem in Judah because of a terrible famine, which grips the people. 

            For the Hebrew people, the land and people of Moab would have had very negative connotations.  The Israelites looked down upon the Moabites, with contempt and loathing.  The two peoples had a history of bickering, hostilities, and shameful encounters.[1]  However, despite the contempt which their culture had for Moab, the couple take their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and immigrate to Moab.  At first, Naomi and her family seem to flourish in Moab. 

Then, tragedy suddenly strikes when Elimelech dies.  Yet, even after Elimelech’s death, Naomi and her two sons remain in Moab.  The two sons grow up to become men and they marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  After about ten years, another tragedy occurs when Naomi’s two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law.

After burying her husband and two sons in the soil of Moab, Naomi is left without any family to support her.  At this point in history, the government did not provide social safety nets for those who were without a family or source of income.  This meant that widows and orphans were especially vulnerable to poverty and hunger.  So, without a husband or extended family in Moab, Naomi faces a financially threatening future.  At about the same time, she hears news that the famine is finally over in her native home of Bethlehem in Judah.  So, Naomi decides to go home to Bethlehem, where she has extended family who can help her.

As she prepares for her trip home, Naomi encourages her two daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families because they, too, are now widows and need the support of their extended families.  Addressing them as her daughters, Naomi urges them to return to their homes and re-marry.  Naomi says, “‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with…me.  The Lord grant that each of you may find security, each of you in the house of your [new] husband.’” (Ruth 1:8-9)  Both Orpah and Ruth are very distraught because they deeply love their mother-in-law.  In a tearful farewell, all three women cry and hug one another.

But, then, the two young women make very different decisions about their lives.  With Naomi’s blessing, Orpah decides to return to her family.  In her decision, Orpah follows the social customs and conventions of the time.  She obeys Naomi and returns to her family.  We should emphasize that the storyteller does not condemn Orpah for her decision; it is the conventional choice.

By contrast, Ruth chooses an alternative, unconventional path.  Instead of taking her leave from Naomi and returning home, Ruth clings to Naomi.  Ruth says, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.”  (Ruth 1: 16b-17a)  So, Ruth accompanies Naomi back to reside with her family in Bethlehem in Judah.  And, it is at that point that the love story between Ruth and Boaz begins.

I think that this first chapter of Ruth raises some interesting questions for reflection on Mother’s Day.  We typically focus on celebrating our biological mothers on Mother’s Day.  And, we rightfully remember our mothers’ love and dedication and care and sacrifice for their children—for each of us.  Yet, there are some biological mothers whom we cannot really celebrate on Mother’s Day.  Consider, for example, Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who drowned her two young sons by strapping them in their car seats and then driving the car into a lake.  Of course, it is easy to condemn Susan Smith.  Yet, in her trial, testimony revealed that Smith had been molested as a teenager by her stepfather and that she had tried to commit suicide several times.  So, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Smith was psychologically unfit to be a mother.[2]

The point is that those qualities which we justifiably celebrate on Mother’s Day are not dependent upon giving biological birth.  Instead, they are qualities which all of us—women and men—can share and cultivate with those around us.  Naomi exemplifies this observation in her treatment of her daughters-in-law.  Naomi loved and cared for Orpah and Ruth.  She was like a mother to them.  So much so that they desperately wanted to go to Bethlehem with Naomi.  Even though Orpah and Ruth would be living as foreigners, among a people who historically viewed Moabite women with loathing and contempt, love for their mother-in-law outweighed the social difficulties of living in a hostile land.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, May 14th, as we celebrate Mother’s Day at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] In the Hebrew Book of Numbers, there is a story of the Israelites staying in the land of Moab during the forty years, when they wandered in the desert before settling in the Promised Land.  During their stay in Moab, many Israelite men began to have illicit sexual relationships with Moabite women. This led to some of the Jews beginning to worship the false god of Baal.  That is, the Israelites turned away from worshiping and obeying Yahweh, the one true God, who had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt.  This apostasy angered Yahweh and so the Hebrew leaders imposed a prohibition upon intermarriage with Moabite women (See Numbers 25: 1-5). 

[2] “Susan Smith” in Wikipedia,, accessed 11 May 2017.