(In this 81st installment of the United Press International series of sermons, the Rev. Fred R. Anderson, senior pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, reflects about the way God rewards faithfulness with faithfulness).
This sermon is based on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:7-17
During a famine in the land of Judah, Naomi's husband took her and their two sons from Bethlehem to the land of Moab. Naomi's husband dies. She takes Moabite wives for her two sons, but both sons die childless. Naomi tries to send her daughters-in-law back to their original homes but one of the two, Ruth, chooses to go with Naomi.
Ruth also opts for Naomi's people and their God. Both women are destitute, entering Bethlehem in shame. When the women of Bethlehem recognize Naomi, they are shocked at the ravages of her grief and destitution.
Naomi proclaims that her name should be changed from Naomi, meaning "Pleasant" to Mara, which means "Bitter." She says "I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty ... The Almighty has brought calamity upon me" -- a very human response.
She had lost her husband and her sons. Now she has no children to support her. Even her daughter-in-law's devotion is actually a burden. Now Naomi has to concern herself with Ruth as well.
The two must have looked much like the women whose faces we see from Africa, women whose lives have been torn apart by warfare, greed and famine.
Why has God dealt so harshly with Naomi, seemingly bringing this calamity upon her and Ruth intentionally?
Naomi reminds me of anyone caught in the grip of grief. No matter how much people might believe in God, rarely do they think that God might do something about their loss.
Often they assume that God has taken away joy for an unknown reason. This is why grief is so often joined with a sense of overwhelming guilt. The dark pit of despair beyond which to think seems impossible is rarely far behind.
Like Naomi, grieving people can only wonder why God has let this happen, and has let them down. When people in such a state speak to me about their despair I remind them of Naomi. She could not see that God was at work in her life in a mysterious way full of twists and turns, redeeming not only Naomi and Ruth, but also God's people.
In my early years of ministry, some other pastors and I met regularly with a psychiatrist to consult him on how to counsel the Naomis of our day.
To our surprise, he said: "When people tell you how despondent they are, always respond: 'Great! This means that something new and wonderful is about to happen in your life. Your depression is your spirit's way of letting go of the past and preparing you emotionally prepared to accept new things.'"
He reminded us that this is as true for the person facing life's end due to a terminal illness as it is for the one recovering from the loss of a job or a loved one. We as pastors had the task to keep this truth before those so bereft that they could not even think of a future, he said.
Often God does something new for purposes far greater than our own. The story of Ruth is in the Old Testament as a witness to her faithfulness and its consequences.
Between the women's return to Bethlehem and today's readings, Naomi has sent Ruth out to glean in a field that was being harvested. Israelite law required that the poor be allowed to provide for themselves in this way once the reapers had finished their work.
Indeed, part of the harvest had to be left behind for the poor. Boaz, the field's owner, is kind to Ruth. He says he knew her deeds of faithfulness to her mother-in-law. As a reward, he allows not only to scrape together, but enter fully into the harvest for herself and Naomi. He sends her home with an apron full of grain.
Within the economy of God, deeds of faithfulness are never forgotten. He always raises up a Boaz, often where we least expect it. Boaz turns out to be a relative of Naomi's husband. He is in the line of succession to marry Ruth if he so chooses. She invites him to exercise this right.
In today's text, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife. The happy union produces a son. Now Naomi is no longer without an heir.
"Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without next-of-kin," say the women of Bethlehem to Naomi. "He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age."
The book concludes by reminding us that the child born to Ruth and Boaz is more than Naomi's social security. He will become the grandfather of King David.
God's continuing providence to us often shows in our lives in unusual and unexpected ways, but never comes "out of the blue." God is not a master puppeteer pulling strings behind the scenes. Instead he is a partner in our lives, responding to faithfulness with faithfulness, as the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz shows.
This is as much a reality today as it was then. If we analyze our lives carefully, we see evidence for God's faithfulness coming in counterpoint to our own faithfulness, generosity and persistence.
Our gifts are met by God's gift. This, we realize, is the only security that truly transcends the changing times of our lives.