Friday, June 5, 2015

your people shall be my people

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was truly delighted when Jamie and Wendy chose as one of the readings for their wedding the passage we heard earlier from the Book of Ruth. I know you all heard it read a few minutes ago, but I think it no harm for us to hear it again:

 But Ruth said, ‘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!’ 

It was not one I had heard read at a wedding before and yet I think it a rather beautiful one for a wedding – even though, of course, the person talking in this passage, Ruth, is not speaking of the love between a husband and wife at all in this passage. I say 'of course' – but that rather presumes that all here know the context in which she is speaking … which is probably not a safe assumption at all. So perhaps some background is needed.

The story begins like this: during a time of famine in the land of Israel, one family from Bethlehem leave and go to the land of Moab, a country that is now part of what we call Jordan. The family consisted of a man called Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two adult sons Mahlon and Chilion. Soon after they arrive, we're not sure exactly how soon, tragedy strikes in their new homeland and Elimelech dies. A severe blow for Naomi, no doubt – not only is she in a strange land, but now she is a widow. But she has her two sons to comfort her and care for her.

For a time all is well with them in their new homeland and they prosper. The two young men marry Moabite women – one called Orpah, the other Ruth. Neither marriage, it seems, is blessed with children, but we may presume that both young men are deeply in love and very happy with their choice of bride, as neither seeks to set her aside and take another wife, as they might have done. Ten years pass and then tragedy strikes again – both Mahlon and Chilion die. We do not know how, but as the text seems to imply the deaths occurred fairly simultaneously, and these are both relatively young men, we may reasonably suspect some kind of accident.

This loss of husband and sons, her only children, is a hard one for Naomi – she will later tell people that they should no longer call her Naomi, but 'Mara' which means 'bitterness' because the Lord has dealt bitterly with her – she had gone to Moab full, a wife and a mother, and she was to leave it empty, husband and sons gone, and without grandchildren also.

Little wonder, then, that Naomi no longer wants to stay in Moab, the place that had taken so much from her. The famine in Israel is over and she decides to return home. Both Orpah and Ruth wish to go with her, but Naomi tells them not to. They have been good daughters-in-law and dealt kindly with her; but they should now return to their own mother's homes, marry new husbands for themselves, and find security for their futures – something that she, a childless widow, can not offer them.

Both Orpah and Ruth protest, not wishing to abandon her, but Noami insists and Orpah at last relents, kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and leaves. But Ruth clings to Naomi; not even seeing Orpah go will persuade her to leave Naomi on her own and she phrases her refusal in the beautiful words we heard earlier '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.'

So, as I said earlier, these loving words that Ruth speaks are not said in relation to married love. But they do, I think, speak profoundly of what it is that happens when a man and woman wed. At marriage, as we are told in Genesis chapter three, the husband and wife become one flesh; and more, this is not some simple human decision, that can be set aside at will, for as our Lord Jesus Christ tells us in Matthew chapter 19, what God has joined together, let no one separate – words that we will hear later as part of the marriage service. It is God who joins the couple, God who makes them one flesh.

A profound mystery – and a mystery that Ruth takes to it's logical conclusion by her refusal to abandon Naomi and leave her alone and uncared for in the world. When she married Naomi's son, she became one flesh with him; and thus his mother truly became as a mother to her, with all the responsibilities that come with it.

In wedding speeches we will often hear it said by the father of the groom that they are not losing a son, but gaining a daughter; and the father of the bride that they are not losing a daughter, but gaining a son. These wedding speech words might have been inspired by the example of Ruth as she refuses to abandon Naomi in her loneliest hour and by her words 'your people shall be my people.'

In a few minutes Wendy and Jamie will bind themselves together in the covenant of Holy Matrimony; he, in the words of Adam in Genesis, will become bone of her bone; she will become flesh of his flesh; they will no longer be two, but one. And as they and their families are united this day, I can think of no better way to bless them, and all the days of their marriage echoing the words of Ruth: whatever road you travel, may you travel it together, and find your dwelling there, your home wherever the other is; may Jamie's people be Wendy's people now, and Wendy's Jamie's also; may your love of each other be strengthened by your love for God, even as your love for him strengthens your marriage; may you be faithful to each other as long as there is breath and heartbeat within you; and when you die, may you rest together in peace to rise in glory when our Lord Jesus comes to call all his faithful servants home. Amen

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