These verses from the story of Ruth may be familiar to us. We read just a few, ones that tend to appear in wedding liturgies from time to time: “Where you go, I will go; your god will be my god, and your people will be my people.” It’s a lovely statement about commitment, about lives and destinies and identities joined together. The broader story expands on its loveliness; it re-emphasizes and underscores how beautiful the idea is. And yet, I’m also sure it will surprise us, because it is, ultimately, a story about conversion. And it is a story about conversion at a time when such conversion was all too rare, and even potentially dangerous.
To get a little geography in place, Naomi and her husband Elimelech left Bethlehem with their two sons when famine struck Judah. They wound up in the land of Moab on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, and settled there to build their lives. Their sons married Moabite, not Jewish, women. Elimelech and his two sons died, leaving three widows: Naomi, who was a Jew, and Orpah and Ruth, her daughters in law, who were both Moabites.
All of this happened in the story as prelude to what we encounter in our lesson today: Naomi, having heard that the famine has ended, decides to head back to Bethlehem. She has family there, as well as some land. And as she makes this decision, she encourages her daughters to go back to their own families. And the two take different paths: Orpah goes home; Ruth ventures off into foreign territory.
Let’s pause right there: Ruth is a Moabite. Her people had opposed the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, and had ended up in a perpetual state of hostility with Judah and Samaria. She is a Gentile going to live among Jews.
Did she have issues with her own family of origin? We have no clue. Was Naomi particularly kind to her, welcoming her more as a daughter than a daughter in law? Again, we have nothing but conjecture on our side. Or was she just naturally a risk- taker, an adventure-seeker? It’s purely a guess at this point.
We have more questions than answers, because all we have is a brief description of Ruth pulling up stakes on her family, her tribe, her homeland, and her gods, and throwing her lot in with her mother-in-law Naomi on the other side of the Jordan River. Which one of us wouldn’t do the same? Anyone?
That’s one piece, a central piece, which we might take away from this story, this part about Ruth’s conversion. She chooses to leave behind the darkness of the Moabite gods and their cults of fertility and the sun as she clings to the light of Yahweh, the true God, the Lord of the Hebrew people. There is a profound courage at work. She has cut ties with everything she knows for a willingness to belong to an unknown. She’s not traveling abroad for a short-term experience. She’s not a Moabite missionary, taking her religion into uncharted territory. She is shifting her allegiances radically, saying with her very life that blood isn’t thicker than water after all.
Ruth’s own story mirrors many dramatic conversion stories that we have all heard or experienced before. I have shared my friend Jesse’s story here before. He was born into an extremely dysfunctional home in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, and he wandered just about every road of self- destructive behavior you can imagine: substance abuse, time spent in and out of juvenile detention centers for this act of vandalism or that act of violence. By the time he reached adulthood, he had become a caricature of upper class tragedy: access to too many resources, and parents who were never around – and even when they were, they didn’t have a clue what to do.
One night, Jesse decided to end it all. He took a bottle of sleeping pills and went to bed, expecting not to wake up in the morning. But God had something different in mind. Jesse woke up in the middle of the night, feeling violently ill; and there was Jesus standing at the end of his bed. What then transpired was one of the most dramatic conversions I have ever heard of. And by the time the morning came, Jesse had survived a suicide attempt and a face- to-face meeting with the living God.
When Jesse tells the story now, he relishes including the part where Jehovah’s Witnesses came to his door not long after. He was so spiritually raw that he didn’t know what direction things were supposed to take. So as they shared their version of Scripture, he promised to pray about it. A week later they came back, and he politely informed them that his prayer had shown him that they were the ones in need of guidance, not him.
When I first heard his story, I listened with a combination of awe and skepticism; mostly because I had never had an experience like that – in fact, I never have. But one thing I learned that day is that God gives us the conversion we need. Jesse’s life had been so dramatic up to that point that nothing short of drama would have brought him face-to-face with Jesus. In other words, there is no barrier that we can construct between God and ourselves that can’t come tumbling down, whether it happens like an earthquake, or the slow erosion of time and the elements.
That’s all fine and good. But in Ruth’s geographical terms, we’re already on the Bethlehem side of the Jordan River, hanging out around the manger of the Christ child. And as we make our way through this series, we are looking to these Biblical characters as role models, as mentors, as people of faith in whom we might either see something reflected of ourselves or find inspiration for our own faith journeys. How can Ruth be that person? She made the switch that brought her into the story of salvation, as she becomes King David’s great-grandmother. If we were to follow Ruth’s example, of trading tribal and religious loyalties, we would leap out of this faith of ours into another. Is that the call? Is that the lesson? Are we supposed to let go of our Christian faith for another, better one?
The surprising answer, I think, is “yes.”
Friends, we are who we are, created by God for goodness. And through our lives, we are shaped by a variety of factors. Some of those things, no doubt, are of God; and some of those things are just the reality of accidents and coincidences of the life we have lived. And all of them combine in some way, shape, or form to make us who we are, right here and now. The problem is trying to figure out what is and what isn’t of God.
We Presbyterians have our own way of reminding ourselves of this fact. Every worship service begins with a Prayer of Confession, just in case we forget that we are imperfect. We talk about being part of a church that is reformed and always reforming. We have no illusions that we have “truth” and “righteousness” all figured out; instead, we have hope that the light of Christ will shine in our darkest places.
This all leads me to the conviction that we do ourselves, and others, a disservice by holding on too tightly to the things of faith, because they might actually be matters or assumptions of our own making. Many of you have told me your own stories about how God has opened you to new possibilities that you never imagined you could consider real, conversions that were grand or subtle, that shaped you in surprising ways: the healing of bruised relationships, worldviews that look very different than they once did, an old, familiar story that taught you something new just when you knew you couldn’t wring any more meaning out of it.
What would it be like to have the faith of a Ruth? What would it be like to hold our convictions, but to hold them loosely? If they’re really of God, if they are truly holy, they will remain. And if they are unnecessary, or even contrary to true faith, they will fade away. Don’t get me wrong: certainty is a gift. But certainty and arrogance can live on a razor-thin edge.
This is one of the things that I love about our own community here at OPC. We are unafraid of the questions that life brings us; because we may live in an uncertain world, but we have certainty in the God who gives life to that same world, who calls us and loves us and redeems us. We have no illusions that we have it all figured out; nor do we believe that God gives up on those who ask tough questions, who live into their God-given curiosity.
That’s the faith of Ruth.