July 2021: Naomi [Troublemakers]

Today we’re starting an eight week-long series called “Troublemakers.” We’ll be focused on how troublemakers in the Bible pursued God and changed the course of history. We purposefully stayed away from more well-known people of the Bible so we could tell the stories of “minor characters,” because there’s so much courage in the stories and lives of these folks. Some of whom were royal or wealthy. Many of whom were ordinary, and yet ordained by God.

Today we’re going to hear about Naomi, whom you may know as the mother-in-law to Ruth. Unlike Ruth, Naomi doesn’t get a book of the Bible named after her. But she was a key troublemaker whose courageous, complicated choices changed the course of history and – I believe – invite us to do the same.

Naomi lived about 1,100 years before Jesus was born. She had a husband and two sons. Naomi had left Bethlehem with her family in order to escape famine, and they settled down in Moab, a foreign land to them that was about 50 miles away. There in Moab, her sons both marry women: Ruth and Orpah.

But all three of the men in Naomi’s family die. Her husband dies. Her two sons die. And at the end of this awful series of losses, she tells her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah: “You can go home. You’re still young, and in a time and society when women need to marry for protection and provision, you’ve still got time. Go and leave me.”

So Orpah does. And who can blame her?

But Ruth stays. Ruth says to her mother-in-law Naomi: I cling to you! I don’t want to leave you! I love you. Let’s go back to your homeland, back to Bethlehem. And so this family survives – this unconventional, unusual, and just as meaningful, just as real family. 

(Side note: it’s interesting that the Hebrew word that describes Ruth’s feelings for Naomi – her clinging – is actually the same word used in Genesis to describe how a “man leaves his mother to cling to his wife.” But that’s an exploration for a different day.)

When Naomi gets home back to Bethlehem, her people receive her with disbelief. “Can this really be Naomi?” they’d say. “And who’s that other woman?”

Naomi and Ruth survive by gleaning what’s left over – picked over – from others’ fields. The custom was for landowners to leave some of their grain so that it could be picked by those who were hungry and experiencing poverty. And Naomi comes up with a plan that’ll secure a husband for her daughter-in-law and a means of sustaining her own life. 

Another Jewish custom of the time existed where a man was obligated to marry the widow of his deceased brother. Again, that’s because most women relied on marriage to men for survival. This was seen as a way to provide for one’s whole community. If a woman’s husband died and her source of financial sustenance and family were cut off, she might still have a safety net through this marriage custom.

So Naomi urges her daughter-in-law Ruth to marry Boaz because he was related to her late husband. 

Fast forward after some wooing, Naomi has Ruth make a pretty forthright marriage proposal of sorts to Boaz. It was both a risky and risque plan, but Boaz accepts and marries Ruth, and he also buys Naomi’s land in Bethlehem, which she sells to him to provide for herself. It was pretty uncommon at that time for women to be selling land to men, but she made these choices to survive and for the hope that her family would not be extinguished.

In the book of Ruth, we hear some women talking to Naomi. 

Reading from “The Voice,” Ruth 4:14-17, we hear:

“Praise the Eternal One. He has not abandoned you. He did not leave you without a redeeming guardian. May your offspring become famous all through Israel. May this child give you a new life. May he strengthen you and provide for you in your old age. Look at your daughter-in-law, Ruth. She loves you. This one devoted daughter is better to you than seven sons would be. She is the one who gave you this child.”

Then Naomi held the child tightly in her arms and cared for him. All around her, friends cried out, “Naomi has a son!” They named the child Obed because he would provide for his grandmother. Obed grew up and became the father of Jesse. Jesse, too, became a father one day, the father of David.

Fourteen generations later, from that lineage, from the lineage of Naomi’s choices, comes Jesus.

Complicated Choices in Complicated Circumstances

Naomi’s life doesn’t translate easily into a ten-minute message, let alone an episode of Veggie Tales. I wouldn’t put everything she said in pretty cursive on a poster on the wall. And that’s because, like many people whose stories made it into the Bible, Naomi made complicated choices in complicated circumstances. In the midst of unimaginable loss and suffering, she dared to maintain a little hope and a little faith. She set a plan into motion for survival not only for herself but also for her family, which was at risk of dying out. 

We get to follow Naomi and her family from a bird’s eye view. And we see the circumstances they’ve left and the impossible experiences they’ve had. 

Their story reminds me of a lot of immigration stories and make-a-new-start stories – the stories of those in our own congregation who’ve moved across the world or who’ve left a life they knew for something altogether new.

And Naomi’s story also reminds me of many who are still navigating this country’s legal and immigration systems, trying to secure survival for themselves and their families.

It’s hard, on a day like today, to not reflect on those who are often called troublemakers because of their devotion to their families experiencing marginalization and because they threaten the narrative of an all-charitable and all-accepting nation.

Although a presidency that prided itself on cruelty toward immigrants has now passed, this nation’s policies and practices are still cruel toward those who came desperately to seek life, liberty, and happiness for their beloveds, just as Naomi did.

The first and second testaments are full of admonitions against those who are complacent against the plight of people seeking refuge, and they’re full of praise for those who aid travelers, immigrants, and asylum seekers. 

Just last week, two Episcopalian friends of HopeGateWay co-wrote a column for the Press Herald. This was Rev. Katie Holicky of St. Paul’s in Brunswick and Rev. Eleanor Prior of St. Luke’s in Portland.

The two of them asked our elected officials to help provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers: those who arrived in the U.S. as undocumented children under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA. 

As Rev. Holicky and Rev. Prior wrote, DACA offers two-year renewable residency permits to Dreamers, who had no choice in coming to the country in which they now reside and know of no other home except their home: the U.S.

In 2017, President Trump terminated the program, but the Supreme Court ruled that he couldn’t do that. Still, DACA remains vulnerable without a permanent way forward for Dreamers to gain citizenship.

The DREAM Act, which already has bipartisan support, would help the two million Dreamers currently residing in the United States, many of whom are working or attending school.

It is a tremendous act of faith, spiritual or otherwise, for someone to remain in and contribute to a nation that delays justice and belonging. 

And it is an opportunity for those of us who are not Dreamers to exercise our faith, to walk in the way of Jesus for whom immigration was not a foreign experience, by calling on our elected officials to provide a way forward so that families do not have to make extraordinary, difficult choices in impossible situations.

Six Forms of Courage

Naomi returned to her homeland to gain a livelihood, and in doing so, she made some trouble.

But in doing so, she also demonstrated creative forms of courage. And I don’t know the origin of this notion of there being six types of courage, but I think it’s helpful for us so that we don’t forget that courage takes many forms.

  • Physical courage – Fearing bodily harm or death yet acting.
  • Emotional courage – Following our hearts.
  • Intellectual courage – Being willing to learn.
  • Social courage – To be ourselves in the face of adversity
  • Moral courage – Standing up for what is right. 
  • Spiritual courage – Facing pain with dignity or faith.

When I think about the kind of troublemaker Naomi was, I’m reminded of contemporary troublemakers who quietly look after others – who are courageous so that others can more fully exercise their courage.

There’s Scott Warren, who was arrested for leaving water in the desert for those seeking dangerous passage from Mexico to the United States. There’s courage in the crossing, and there’s also courage for breaking inhumane laws.

There’s Mike Ilitch, who was famous for having founded the Little Caesar’s pizza chain, and who silently and secretly paid the rent of Rosa Parks for over ten years. She had to move to a safer neighborhood after her act of public witness on a Montgomery bus because she became the target of frequent harassment and violence. Rosa Parks demonstrated courage, and Mike Ilitch did, too.

And there’s a woman who long-suffered under a cruel political regime that took her family’s land and possessions. But she took great pride in withstanding political harassment, torture, and poverty. And she raised three children who helped to provide sustenance for the family. One of them, her eldest daughter, grew up and immigrated to the United States with little money, little English, and her husband as her only friend and family. That couple who made that journey are my parents, and their courage was made possible by my grandmother’s.

Courage Begets Courage

We all have opportunities to make the way easier for others who are making a difficult journey. Naomi’s courage made Ruth’s courage possible. And although Ruth often gets the spotlight for being a daughter-in-law who rarely complains and a wife who’s morally upstanding…

It’s Naomi whose troublemaking, whose difficult choices in impossible situations, makes it possible.

Naomi wasn’t Deborah or Jael – warrior women of the Bible. And she also wasn’t Joseph or Moses – humble people who . (In full disclosure, I wanted to name all women here but had a hard time thinking of mild-mannered women in the Bible.)

Naomi was sometimes ready to be forsaken. She didn’t hide her bitterness. 

But she wasn’t forsaken. Not by Ruth and not by God.

I wanted to condense her into a single lesson for a single sermon. My instinct was to reduce Naomi into something bite-sized. But she refuses to be reduced. She’s not a paragon of faith without doubts or even of moral purity.

The Davidic royal line is not a story of moral purity either. Along the way to Jesus, there are people who’ve done good things and people who’ve done terrible things. And God can use all of that, all of our choices, for good if we are still open to the possibility.

Naomi is of that line, imperfect and complex like we all are. She was human. And she was also a troublemaker whose courage made someone else’s courage possible.

So my questions for you today, the questions I invite us into, are these: whose courage has made your courage possible? And whose courage will your courage make possible?

We are Naomis, thank goodness. We are not cookie-cutter, storybook characters. Instead, we are written into the ongoing story of what God’s creation is unfolding, and we are complicated, faced with difficult circumstances – all of us.

So, whose courage has made your courage possible? And whose courage will your courage make possible?

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