Saturday, November 3, 2018


            I have returned after my two-week study leave.  This weekend we begin a new series entitled, “Them.”[1]  In this four-week series, we will focus on the importance of social justice for God.  Again and again and again, God calls his people to be instruments for social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups:  the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow.

The Bible is absolutely strewn with the language of justice, for instance Jeremiah 22:3 says, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” Zechariah 7:9-10 says,Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’”

And these are just a couple of the examples, but the literature goes on and on. Clearly this kind of justice weighs heavily on God’s heart as he repeatedly called these groups out specifically. Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our top four marginalized groups? We think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but we also added to the list such groups as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.[2]  Over the next four weeks, we will focus on  what it means to work for social justice for marginalized groups in our contemporary context. 

This Sunday, November 4th, is traditionally “All Saints Sunday” within the United Methodist Church, as well as many other denominations.  On this Sunday, we remember and give thanks for all of our family and friends who have passed away, with special attention devoted to those who have died within the last 12 months.  During the service, there will be opportunities for us to lift the names of our loved ones who have died. We will also celebrate the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper, remembering that our celebration is just a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet with Christ and all of our loved ones.

Corresponding with our celebration of “All Saints Sunday,” the first focus in our “Them” series will be the ways in which we tend to exclude and marginalize those who grieve the loss of a loved one.  Our scripture for the Sunday comes from the Hebrew—or, Old Testament—Book of Ruth.  The Biblical scholar Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer notes that the Book of Ruth is misnamed.  Rather than Ruth, it is Naomi who is the central character in the story and so the book should have been named the Book of Naomi.[3]

The story begins with Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons moving from their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to Moab, which was a neighboring country.  The family moves from Bethlehem because of a severe famine.  This was a radical move for Naomi because there were always great tensions between the Hebrews and the Moabites.  The Hebrews looked down upon the Moabites and regarded them with great contempt.  In contemporary terms, their move would have been akin to an American family leaving the United States and moving to North Korea.

Ruth and Elimelech settle in Moab with their two sons and start a new life together.  Over time their two sons mature and become adult men.  Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons, eventually marry local, Moabite women:  Orpah and Ruth.  However, tragedy strikes.  All of the men die.  In Biblical times, the loss of a husband or father could have severe consequences for the surviving widow and/or orphaned children.   Unlike contemporary societies, such as the United States, these ancient societies made no provisions for the care of widows and orphans.  In other words, there were no social programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, to provide for widows and orphans.  By law, all the deceased husband’s property returned to his family; again, with no provisions for the wife.  Further, there were virtually no work opportunities for women in these ancient societies, with the exceptions of prostitution, begging, and scavenging.  Thus, many women who lost their husbands were destined to live in severe poverty for the rest of their lives.

The situation facing Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth was desperate.  Naomi becomes especially bitter over the loss of her husband and sons.  Today, we know that bitterness and anger—over the short run—are healthy and just part of the grieving process, especially for someone such as Naomi, who has multiple losses of her husband and sons. 

Naomi learns that the famine in Bethlehem is over.  So, she decides to return to Bethlehem to her family and kinsmen.  Since Orpah and Ruth are Moabite women, Naomi encourages them to return to their “mother’s houses” in Moab and eventually re-marry.  At first, both daughters-in-law refuse to abandon Naomi.  Rather than appreciating the love and faithfulness of her two daughters-in-law, Naomi responds bitterly:

“ ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’”

In her bitterness and anger, Naomi believes that God is angry with her; that God has turned against her.   She has lost her husband and two sons.  A parishioner, who lost a daughter in a tragic car accident ten years previously, once told me, “Richard, when you lose a child, there is this huge aching hole in your heart and it never goes away.”  This is what has happened to Naomi.  She has this huge, gaping hole in her heart.  Only for Naomi, the huge hole in her heart creates a chasm which separates her from the love and presence of God. 

Although Orpah decides to return to her family, Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi.  So, the two women, Naomi and Ruth, travel back to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown.  Even after returning home, Naomi remains bitter about her tragic losses.  Making a word-play on her name, which means “Pleasant,” Naomi encourages her family to call her Mara (“bitter”) instead:

“‘Call me no longer Naomi,
   call me Mara,
   for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 
I went away full,
   but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
   when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
   and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
 ~ Ruth 1:20-21

These two quotations of Naomi in the first chapter are a form of lament, which is a special type of genre in the scriptures.  There are many different literary genres in the Bible. In addition to laments, the genres include history, poetry,  parables, biography, apocalyptic literature and others.  Laments are passionate expressions of grief, loss, and sorrow.  A lament describes the depth of loss, and it frequently includes an appeal to God to make things right.  In the Bible, laments usually end triumphantly with the conviction that in the end, God will prevail, and all will be well.  Laments can be found in the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, as well as in certain psalms, in some prophetic literature, and in the Book of Ruth.  

            In the Book of Ruth, the laments of Naomi do not include an appeal to God to make things right.  However, as we shall see at the end of the Book of Ruth, God does prevail and all is well.  That occurs in chapter 4.

However, in chapter 1, Naomi’s grief is deep and palpable.  She is bitter and depressed.  There is a huge hole in her heart.  Even worse, Naomi is convinced that God is angry with her and is responsible for all of her misery.  Even with the help of her family, Naomi will still have to deal with the economic hardship brought on by the death of her husband.  Even though she has returned to her family and even though Ruth continues to live with her and support her, in many ways Naomi feels isolated from her friends, her family, and her God.  Naomi is not alone in becoming marginalized after the death of a loved one.

            Even today, in 2018, those who grieve and mourn their beloved can become marginalized.  The funerary customs of American society can lead to the marginalization of those who grieve major losses.  Of course, at first, we are very good at rallying around someone who has suffered the death of a loved one.  We send sympathy cards, make phone calls, and drop off food at the home of those who grieve.  On the day of the funeral or memorial service, we rally around those who grieve, trying our best to comfort and support them.  We go out of our way to be sympathetic and supportive. 

            Yet, when the services are over and the body or ashes have been laid to rest, then everything goes back to normal.  We return to work or school.  We return to our routines.  Everything goes back to normal for everyone—except those who grieve the death of a loved one.  These persons are left alone, for the most part.  They must continue going through the grieving process by themselves.  Frequently, they are left with Herculean tasks of disposing of their lost loved one’s possessions and settling their estate.  All of this must be done while trying to figure out a “new normal” without their loved one.

            Frequently, discovering this new normal includes re-negotiating relationships with others.  Over the course of my ministry, many widows and widowers have told me one of the most disappointing aftermaths, following the death of a spouse, was losing the friendships of other couples; relationships which they thought would last forever are suddenly dissolved because those relationships are relationships between couples.  Suddenly, the grieving widow or widower is no longer invited to play cards or go out for dinner because they no longer have a partner.

            In this way, we frequently marginalize those who are grieving.  Whenever we marginalize someone from the rest, we have created a social justice.  Rather than marginalizing those who grieve, disciples of Christ are called to work for justice by including those who grieve.  We can overcome the isolation by freely sharing our love and support.

Our scripture reading provides an exemplary role model for this work of solidarity, love, and support in the person of Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth promises to love and support Naomi for the remainder of her life.  In a beautiful passage from scripture, Ruth pledges her lifelong support and love for Naomi:

‘Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
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.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’ ~ Ruth 1:16-17

            Naomi and Ruth return to Judah.  As the story continues, Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz.  Eventually, Ruth and Boaz are married and soon thereafter have a son.  Then, the Book of Ruth concludes in this fashion:

“Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” ~ Ruth 4:14-17                                                                         

            The women tell Naomi that Ruth’s son will be to her “a restorer of life;” that is, the son will give new meaning and purpose to Naomi.  The birth of this son enables Naomi to be finally healed from her grief at the loss of her husband and sons.  The birth of this son reverses the emptiness which has embittered Naomi.  The birth of this son enables Naomi to re-connect with others and rise out of isolation and marginalization.  The birth of this son reassures Naomi that God has not turned on her, but instead loves her.  Contrary to its title, the Book of Ruth is really about Naomi and her redemption from grief.  God does not abandon or turn away from Naomi.  On the contrary, throughout the story God is working to redeem Naomi.  God uses the love and loyalty of Ruth as a channel to redeem Naomi.

            In a similar way, when we freely share our love and support and solidarity with someone who is grieving, then, just as Ruth, we also become channels which God uses to bring healing and redemption to those who have a huge aching hole in their hearts.  When we share our love and support and solidarity with those who grieve, then we bring them to the center of our concern and we help them overcome the marginalization, which pushes them to the edges.  This is social justice.

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 at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 4th, as we remember and celebrate our loved ones who have passed away.  Come and join us, as we lift up our loved ones by name and ring a chime in memory of them.  We will also explore how loving and caring for those who grieve may be a form of social justice, as we seek to break down society’s tendency to marginalize those who grieve.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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

[1] The worship staff and I developed the ideas for this series—as well as the name, “Them” for the series, several months prior to the publication of the book, Them, by Sen. Ben Sasse.  We were unaware of Sen Sasse’s forthcoming book when we planned the series.  Therefore, the emergence of both our series and the book with the same title was purely a coincidence.  I have not read the book by Sen Sasse and cannot comment further on it.

[2] The previous two paragraphs contributed by Hayden Florom, Marketing and Communications Director at Christ UMC.

[3] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, Commentary on The Book of Ruth in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 2, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

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