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“Set Free” Luke 13: 10-17

“Set Free”

Luke 13: 10-17

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 22nd, 2010

Where did he touch her?  When Jesus laid his hands on the bent woman to heal her, where did he touch her?  It matters, you know.  Did he place his hands on her back as he stood over her, looking down on her crippled spine, feeling the bow of her brittle bones underneath his fingers?  Did the pressure of his hands add more weight to a back and a life already crippled by weight?  Did he tower over her in order to heal her in a posture that would remind anyone, especially this poor, insignificant, crippled old woman, of his power and authority?  I seriously doubt it.  I mean this is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus didn’t loom over people who were in need of healing.  Jesus didn’t add weight to those already struggling with heavy burdens.  Jesus didn’t use his power and his influence in a way that might make an already suffering woman feel even smaller, even more insignificant, even more oppressed.  No, I don’t think Jesus stood over this bent woman, putting his hands on her back.  I think he got down on his knees, his robes swirling in the dirt, his hair falling in his face as he stooped to meet this stooped woman face to face.  I imagine he had to crane his neck after he got down there so he could look into her eyes.  And then, in this position, I think he reached out and touched her feet…her old, cracked and calloused feet…in order to deliver this miracle, in order to set this woman free.[1]

An amazing thing about this story is that this bent over woman wasn’t even looking for a healing.  She just showed up.  She just happened to appear while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue.  Did she even know Jesus was there?  Did she even know where she was?  I imagine her perspective on the world was seriously limited when all she could see for eighteen years was her feet…her old, cracked, calloused feet.  But then, all of a sudden, Jesus was there, in the dirt, touching those feet, and craning his neck to look into her eyes.

Have you ever known such a moment in your life?  Have you ever had someone go out of his or her way to meet you eye to eye?  To know you?  To get you?  To get your pain and your suffering?

I’ve had such a moment.  Back in the day when I was still seriously afraid of speaking in public I was to be examined on the floor of my presbytery to become a candidate for ministry.  I was really scared.  And as the time for my examination grew closer my fear grew and grew until I knew I was going to just lose it.  So I left the sanctuary where the meeting was being held and found my way to a small chapel.  Once I was alone I cried and cried and cried as I tried to release myself from the tight grip my fear and anxiety had on me.  But I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t release myself from my fear.  And that’s when I felt a little tap on my shoulder.  It was a man who introduced himself to me as an elder from my home church.  I’d never met him before, but he knew who I was and what I was there to do.  He sat down next to me, looked into my eyes and we talked.  I told him about my fear and he understood.  Then he said some things that made me laugh…and that laughter was so healing and so freeing.  It was exactly what I needed to free myself from my fear and get on with what I knew I had to do.

When Jesus went out of his way to meet the bent over woman, to notice her, to recognize her suffering, to stoop to meet her eye to eye, Jesus set her free in more ways than one.  “Woman, you are set free!” he said to her.  And she stood up straight and began praising God.  What a moment!  What a story to celebrate!

But not everyone was celebrating Jesus’ actions that day.  Not everyone approved of this healing.  The leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus would dare to heal someone, would dare to set someone free on the Sabbath.  “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he said, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

What’s happening here is a disagreement over two Old Testament understandings of the Sabbath.  There are two traditions concerning the Sabbath.  One, recorded in Exodus 20, links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor.  As God rested, this tradition says, so should we rest, as well as our households and even all of our animals.  The second tradition of Sabbath observance is connected to Deuteronomy 5.  This tradition links the Sabbath to the Exodus, to God’s people being released from slavery in Egypt. This tradition links the Sabbath to freedom, liberation, and release from captivity.  And this is the tradition that Jesus taps into as he stops on a Sabbath day in order to set a woman free.  Of course it is permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath, Jesus seems to be saying here, for the Sabbath is all about freedom.[2]

In this way, Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath is more than a religious obligation.  Coming here on Sunday morning is more than just our religious duty, it is more than us following the rules set for us by our ancestors in the faith, by our families, by our parents who sometimes have to drag us here kicking and screaming.  The Sabbath is more than a rule to follow.  Instead it is a reminder that we too are held captive, that we too need to be set free, and that Christ is here to offer us this freedom.  Christ is here, stooping and straining, his knees in the dirt, his eyes trying to catch your gaze, all so he can send you the message that he knows you, he gets you, and he gets your pain.  Christ is here.  He’s here and he has come to set you free.

We know he is here because we can feel him in the warm, welcoming handshake of our neighbor in the pew.

We know he is here because we can see him in the eyes of our friend sitting over there who really gets us, who really understands our pain.

We know he is here because we can feel his Spirit in the music that is sung.

We know he is here because we can taste him in the communion bread and hear his voice echoing through the wine, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We know he is here because the water in the baptismal font whispers to us of new beginnings, of new life, and the freedom we can know if we dive deeply into Him.

The Sabbath reminds us that we are held captive, and that we need to be set free; set free in the Christ who has come here for us.  He has come here for us.  He has come here for all those dying to be set free.  The Sabbath reminds us of this, and it invites us to look around and see who else might still be bound and waiting for their release.  The Sabbath invites us to look around our church, look around our community, look around our world for those who might still be bound and waiting for release.

In a sermon on this text, Jana Childers tells the story of “a little girl who lived in a rural community.  It was just a few years ago, but the girl lived in one of those towns where driving down Center Street is like driving back into the thirties.  She lived in a little house and went to a two-room school.  She had loving parents and, from time to time, a good teacher.  But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up.  She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair hadn’t been there.  By the time she was seven-years-old she knew what the world was.  She had heard the phrase, ‘only a mother could love that’ and she understood it.

One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests.  When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams.  ‘Just stand over there by the door,’ the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room.  ‘I want to test your hearing first.  Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say.’

‘Apple,’ the teacher said in a low voice.

‘Apple,’ the little girl repeated.

‘Man,’ the teacher said.

‘Man,’ the little girl repeated.

‘Banana.’

‘Banana.’

‘Okay,’ the teacher said, ‘Now a sentence.’  The child knew that the sentences were usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all.  She’d heard you could expect something like, ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Are your shoes brown?’  Still, she listened very carefully.

So it was that standing with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’[3]

Woman, you are set free! And she stood up straight and began praising God. When we come here on the Sabbath we are reminded that Christ has come to set us free; in more ways than one, he has come to set us free. And, as we come here on the Sabbath we are invited to look around and see who else might be bound and waiting for their release.  We are invited to heal, and to love, and to transform the lives of those in need of liberation by being Christ in a world so in need of his healing, liberating love.

Now to the God who sets us free, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving, and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] This image was developed from Jana Childers’ sermon on this passage entitled, “The Kyphotic Woman.”  Found on 30GoodMinutes.org

[2] David Lose, “Sunday, Sunday” posted on WorkingPreacher.org.

[3] Jana Childers, “The Kyphotic Woman,” http://www.30GoodMinutes.org.

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She Was Bent Over

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. Luke 13:10-13

Where did he touch her?  When Jesus laid his hands on the bent woman to heal her, where did he touch her?  It matters, you know.  Did he place his hands on her back as he stood over her, looking down on her crippled spine, feeling the bow of her brittle bones underneath his fingers?  Did the pressure of his hands add more weight to a back and a life already crippled by weight?  Did he tower over her in order to heal her in a posture that would remind anyone, especially this poor, insignificant, crippled old woman, of his power and authority?  I seriously doubt it.  I mean this is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus didn’t loom over people who were in need of healing.  Jesus didn’t add weight to those already struggling with heavy burdens.  Jesus didn’t use his power and his influence in a way that might make an already suffering woman feel even smaller, even more insignificant, even more oppressed.  No, I don’t think Jesus stood over this bent woman, putting his hands on her back.  I think he got down on his knees, his robes swirling in the dirt, his hair falling in his face as he stooped to meet this stooped woman face to face.  I imagine he had to crane his neck after he got down there so he could look into her eyes.  And then, in this position, I think he must have had to touch her feet…her old, cracked and calloused feet, in order to deliver this miracle, in order to set this woman free.  And by doing so, by touching her in this way, Jesus set her free in more ways than one.[1]

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] This image was developed from Jana Childers’ sermon on this passage entitled, “The Kyphotic Woman.”  Found on 30GoodMinutes.org

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What follows is the sermon from the sixth Sunday of Easter.  I included some resources at the end of the sermon if you would like to learn more or get involved in empowering women around the world.

“Lydia’s Story”

Acts 16: 9-15

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

May 9th, 2010

Saima Muhammad would dissolve into tears every evening.  She was desperately poor, and her deadbeat husband was unemployed and not particularly employable.  Their house, in the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, was falling apart, but they had no money for repairs.  Saima had to send her young daughter to live with an aunt, because there wasn’t enough food to go around.  Saima’s husband had also accumulated a debt of more than $3,000, and it seemed that this debt would hang over their family for generations.  Then, when Saima’s second child was born and turned out to be a girl as well, her mother-in-law, a bitter old woman named Sharifa, exacerbated the family tension by telling her son that Saima was never going to give birth to a boy, so he should take a second wife.  When Saima heard this she was shattered and ran off sobbing.  Another wife would marginalize her further in the household and devastate the family finances, leaving even less money to feed and educate the children.  Saima felt her whole life slipping away from her and she knew she needed some help.

So she joined a women’s solidarity group affiliated with a Pakistani microfinance organization called the Kashf Foundation.  Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery to sell in the markets of Lahore.  She used her profits to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income—the only one in her household to do so.  Soon Saima was able to bring her eldest daughter back from the aunt and she began paying off her husband’s debt.

When merchants wanted more embroidery than Saima could produce, she paid neighbors to work for her.  Eventually thirty families in the neighborhood were benefiting from Saima’s business.  Through Saima’s business success she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate their house, connect running water to the house, and buy the luxury of all luxuries, a television set.[1]

Saima’s story is an inspiring one because she succeeded in escaping poverty, in educating her children, and in providing for her family and her community all because someone believed in her enough to loan her $65.

After reading today’s scripture story I wondered to myself, “Who believed in Lydia?”  Lydia, you see, was a rare woman of her time. “In New Testament times, a woman cast in a role beyond that of being property was exceptional.”[2] Lydia was exceptional because she was a successful businesswoman (a dealer of purple cloth), a homeowner, and an independently wealthy woman (no husband is mentioned in Lydia’s story.)  Lydia is also exceptional in her personality.  She was not demure or skittish as one would expect from someone considered to be “property.”  Instead, she was eager, curious, confident, and convincing.  She was a natural leader; which was perhaps why her home became a center for the growing church in Philippi.

So who believed in Lydia?  Who empowered her to rise above the female status of merely being someone else’s property?  Who tapped her God-given potential and gave her a chance?  I’d like to know more of Lydia’s story because I’d like to see more women given such a chance.

Across the globe today many women still suffer abuse that results from the belief that they are inferior, that they are worthless, that they have no more potential beyond being someone else’s property.  We have probably all heard some horrific stories of the violence and abuse women around the world must endure because of oppressive cultural and religious prejudice that says women are simply no good.  So in light of this, in light of the oppression women face because of gender inequality, I’d like to know more of Lydia’s story, and more of other women’s stories who were able to rise from the ashes of oppression.  I’d like to know more, because it seems like it doesn’t take very much to empower a woman.

Take Tererai Trent, for instance, a woman from Zimbabwe who accomplished more in her life than any of us would ever dream possible all from one person’s encouragement that her dreams were achievable.  As a child living in Zimbabwe, Tererai didn’t get much formal education because she was a girl and was expected to take care of the household chores.  She herded her family’s cattle and looked after her younger siblings while her brothers went to school.  One of Tererai’s brother’s, Tinashe, hated school and wanted to drop out, but their father wouldn’t let him because he needed the education to become a breadwinner for the family.  When Tinashe brought his books home from school the insatiably curious Tererai pored over them and taught herself to read and write.  Soon she was doing Tinashe’s homework every night.

The teacher soon discovered what was going on, though, because Tinashe was such a poor student in class but always seemed to turn in perfect homework.  And when the teacher found out that Tererai was the one turning in the perfect homework, the teacher went to Tererai’s father and begged him to allow her to attend school.  After much debate and argument, her father finally agreed to let her attend school for a couple of terms.  But then he married her off at age eleven and Tererai’s new husband refused to let her continue her schooling.  To make matters even worse, her new husband resented Tererai’s literacy so much that he beat her whenever he thought he had caught her trying to practice her reading.

Then one day a woman named Jo came to Tererai’s village from the group Heifer International.  Jo met with a group of women, Tererai included, and asked them what their hopes were for the future.  At first the women were puzzled by the question because they didn’t really have any hopes.  But Jo pushed them to think about their dreams and reluctantly they began to share.  Tererai timidly voiced her hope of getting an education.  When Jo heard of Tererai’s dream, she encouraged her and told her that her dream was achievable.  It seemed that this little bit of encouragement was all Tererai needed in order to get on her way.

After Jo and her group from Heifer International left, Tererai began to study frantically, while raising her five children.  She ran away from her husband to escape his beatings and continued to study.  Then on a small piece of paper Tererai wrote down the goals for which she would work.  “One day I will go to the United States of America, she wrote, to earn a college degree, then a master’s degree, and then a PhD.”  All of these goals were exquisitely absurd dreams for a female cattleherder in Zimbabwe who had less than one year’s formal education.  But no one told Tererai that.  She took the piece of paper on which she had written these goals, folded it inside three layers of plastic to protect it, then placed it in an old can.  She buried the can under a rock where she herded cattle.

Then Tererai started taking correspondence classes and began saving money.  Her self-confidence grew as she did brilliantly in her studies, and she got a job working as a community organizer for Heifer International.  With more encouragement from the Heifer aid workers, she applied to Oklahoma State University and was accepted.  So she climbed into an airplane for the first time and flew to America.  At Oklahoma State, Tererai took as many credits as possible and worked nights to make money.  She earned her bachelor’s degree and then started on her master’s.  After her master’s degree she moved on to Western Michigan University where she recently completed her studies for her PhD, writing her dissertation about AIDS programs in Africa.  After accomplishing each of these amazingly difficult goals, Tererai returned to her village, hugged her loved ones, then went and dug up that old can with the piece of paper inside.  And she crossed off each of her goals with pride, signifying her accomplishments.[3]

Isn’t it amazing how far someone can go if they receive a little encouragement?  Tererai, with all of her invaluable education, is now a productive economic asset for Africa, for her children, and for her children’s children who will all benefit from her work for generations.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, two journalists for the New York Times, recently wrote a book entitled, Half the Sky. The title comes from an old Chinese proverb that says, “Women hold up half the sky.”  In this book Kristof and Wudunn discuss the need to empower women across the world not only as a women’s issue, but as a humanitarian issue, and as a way to seriously improve the economy and the living conditions of the poor in developing countries. In the research for their book they discovered that in normal circumstances women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world.  Even poor regions like most of Latin America and much of Africa have more females than males.  To empower these women through education, through microfinance loans, through proper pre-natal and maternal health care, the positive social and economic effects are extraordinary.  Kristoff and Wudunn call it the “girl effect” when whole families, communities, and villages are transformed simply because a woman was empowered and encouraged.  Half the population of human beings can contribute significantly, if they are given the chance to do so.  In their book Kristoff and Wudunn conclude that, “In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery.  In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism.  We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”[4]

In this month’s issue of the Presbyterians Today magazine I was so pleased and so inspired to see a picture of our missionary friend, David Hudson, standing with a group of Pakistani girls outside of their school that is supported by our denominational mission funds.  At the end of this article I was further inspired to read these words, “Presbyterian [mission] schools stress the education of females.  ‘The literacy rate in Pakistan is really low, 30 percent among girls,’ says Veeda Javaid, executive director of the Presbyterian Education Board in Pakistan.  “But if we educate a girl,” Javaid continued, “we are [more than likely] educating a mother, which pays off for generations.”[5]

I could think of no better way to honor our mothers today than to highlight the impact women can have on the world if only they are so empowered. Stories such as Saima’s, and Tererai’s, and Lydia’s may be rare, but they represent all the transformation that is possible when a person’s God-given potential is encouraged, and tapped, and then shared with their family, their community, and their world.  So on this Mother’s Day, I pray that we might all find a way to encourage a woman today.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Resources for Information and Involvement:

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 2009).

www.heifer.org website for Heifer International, a great organization.

www.pcusa.org/worldmission news stories, a column from the World Mission Director, a video feature and links to various World Mission ministries

www.pcusa.org/worldwide country-by-country descriptions of the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its partners around the world.

www.kiva.org You can give a woman in the developing world a microloan through this organization.

www.engenderhealth.org focuses on reproductive health issues in the developing world.

www.equalitynow.org lobbies against the sex trade and gender oppression around the world.

www.empoweragirl.org was founded in 2007 by fifteen-year-old California girl, Sejal Hathi.  It builds relationships between girls across continents and supports education and health programs in fifteen countries.


[1] Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 2009) e-book locations 3,423-3,446.

[2] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, pg.476.

[3] Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 2009) e-book locations 4,393—4,440.

[4] Ibid, e-book locations: 162-165.

[5] Jerry L. Van Marter, “Education is the Key,” Presbyterians Today, May 2010, pg. 21.

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Who believed in Lydia?

Lydia’s story in Acts 16: 9-15 intrigues me.  She is a fascinating woman of whom I would like to know more.  But, as is the norm with scripture and women, we know only a tiny portion of who she was and from where she had come.

What we do know, though, was that Lydia was a rare woman of her time.  “In New Testament times, a woman cast in a role beyond that of being property was exceptional.”[1] Lydia was exceptional because she was a successful businesswoman (a dealer of purple cloth), a homeowner, and an independently wealthy woman (no husband is mentioned in Lydia’s story.)  Lydia is also exceptional in her personality.  She was not demure or skittish as one would expect from someone considered to be “property.”  Instead, she was eager, curious, confident, and convincing.  She was a natural leader.  Which was perhaps why her home became a center for the growing church in Philippi.

As I have reflected on Lydia’s story this week, I began to wonder, “How does one become a Lydia?”  How do you rise above low expectations that are assumed for you?  How do you succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles?  How do you tap your God-given potential when all you are ever told is that you are no more than mere “property?”  I can’t imagine Lydia becoming who she became, though, without some help.  I can’t imagine Lydia becoming who she became without someone to encourage her, empower her, and inspire her with a new vision of who she could be.  There had to be some voice in her life loud enough to contradict all those voices that told her she wouldn’t amount to anything.  Was it her mother?  Was it another woman in her community?  Was it a particularly enlightened man?  Who believed in Lydia?

As I reflected on Lydia’s story this week, I have also been reminded of all the abuse women across the globe continue to suffer because of gender inequality.  Horrific stories of bride-burnings, sexual slavery, “honor” killings, and the use of rape as a weapon of war, are just now coming to the attention of our global community.  Women are still viewed as mere property in many parts of the world.  And they are suffering terribly because of it.

What these women need is people who believe in them.  People who have the courage to contradict the voices that say they are worthless pieces of property and of limited potential.  People who will help them find their own confident and convincing voice.  I believe we can be these people.  By raising public awareness of the atrocities women face around the world and by letting our voices of protest be heard, by these things alone, we can be these people.

As a mother I cannot help but dream of what my children will become.  I pray every day that I can nurture their ‘becoming’ and their potential with a strong foundation of love and support.  Every child, whether they are a boy or a girl, deserves such love.  Every child of God deserves to have someone who believes in them and who will speak up on their behalf.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, pg.476.

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Third Sunday in Lent

I am getting back into the swing of things after taking last week off to help my parents while my mom was in the hospital.  Today was basically spent clearing the piles off of my desk that were making me feel crazed and chaotic.  So now that that’s done I feel like I can breathe a little better (of course the amazing breeze coming in through my open window today helps too). We’ve had a terrible run of sicknesses in our house and I feel too much like I’ve been simply “getting by” during this Lenten season.  I’m hoping to regain my sense of shalom this week, or my sense of spiritual well-being and balance, so I can enjoy the beauty and the hope that this Lenten season can bring.

We celebrated the gifts of women this past Sunday.  So I left the lectionary behind to tell the story of Naomi.

“Naomi’s Story”

Ruth 1:1-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

March 7th, 2010 – Third Sunday in Lent – Celebrating the Gifts of Women

She never imagined her life could take such a turn for the worse.  Naomi had been living in Bethlehem, her home and her families’ home for generations.  She had always felt so safe living in Bethlehem, the small town filled with her friends and family members, the place where she met and married her husband, Elimelech, and the home where she gave birth to her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.  Life in Bethlehem was a blessed life, that is, until the famine struck.  Nobody anticipated the famine in Bethlehem…I mean the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”…so no one was prepared.  Naomi’s husband had no choice but to pack up everything and move to the east, to the country of Moab, to a country of foreign ways and foreign people.  Naomi didn’t want to move, but she knew that she had to for the sake of her family.  Things were bad then, but bearable.  At least they still had each other, Naomi thought to herself.

But then Elimelech died.  And Naomi mourned.  Her marriage to Elimelech had been arranged, but she had grown to love him deeply.  What would she do without her husband?  How would she raise her sons all by herself?  Mahlon and Chilion were good sons, though, and took more responsibility after their father passed away.  They grew up and married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  Naomi saw her family growing again and she was pleased.  But then tragedy struck again and both Mahlon and Chilion died.  Naomi couldn’t take it.  She knelt on the dirt floor of her tiny home and beat her fists into the earth crying out to God, “Why? Why?”  Naomi’s grief and sense of loss was almost too much to bear.  She turned bitter and angry, convinced that God was against her.  Her life, her life that had once been so blessed, had been taken from her.  She was cursed.  She was cursed to live out the remainder of her days as a widow…as a widow in a time when being a widow meant being destitute…a time before life insurance…a time before women could leave home to get a job.  Naomi had nothing left.  Naomi had nothing more that she could lose.  So famine or no famine, Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem.  At least there she could be comforted by memories of better days.

Because none of us holds the power to see into the future, life often takes unexpected and sometimes even tragic turns.  We may think we’ve built ourselves a secure future, setting aside our nest eggs, saving for our college funds, planning for our retirement, but stories such as Naomi’s remind us that life isn’t so predictable or so easily planned for.  Sometimes bad things happen.  Life can take a turn and we can lose it all.

In 1929, on a day now known as “Black Thursday,” the Stock Market crashed and people literally lost everything.  Stories have survived of men committing suicide after the crash, men whose lives had taken a completely unexpected and tragic turn.  The Crash later launched the Great Depression of the 1930’s when many workers lost their jobs and were forced to live in shantytowns and former millionaire businessmen were reduced to selling apples and pencils on street corners.

Life is unpredictable and sometimes even downright tragic.  Naomi’s story reminds us of this fact, her story reminds us of the reality of life that we cannot ignore.

Naomi begins to prepare for her journey back to Bethlehem.  As she prepares she gathers her two Moabite daughters-in-law around her and tells them of her plans.  Naomi urges them not to follow her to Bethlehem but to stay in Moab, to stay near their families and the only place they have known as home.  But Orpah and Ruth protest.  They are worried about Naomi.  They know how insecure and unsafe life is as a widow.  But Naomi insists and eventually Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye.

Naomi expected this.  She knew her daughters-in-law would be concerned about her, but would eventually concede to staying in Moab.  In Moab Orpah and Ruth would actually have a chance to marry again.  If they followed her back to Bethlehem, though, they would be looked down upon as Moabite foreigners.  Their chances of remarrying in Bethlehem would be slim at best.  So when Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, she wasn’t surprised or hurt.  She knew that this was the way it had to be.

As Orpah slowly walked away, Naomi turned to kiss Ruth goodbye as well.  But Ruth wouldn’t accept the kiss.  I’m not going, Ruth said.  I’m not leaving you.  Of course you are Ruth, Naomi said, you have to.  No one expects you to return to Bethlehem with me.  But Ruth was adamant in her decision.  No, I’m not leaving you.  You are my family now.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my god.  Naomi couldn’t believe her ears?  Was Ruth really saying she was going to Bethlehem?  Was she really willing to give up her chance at a family and a future by leaving the country of her birth?  Her questions were answered when Ruth grabbed Naomi’s arm and began to lead her towards their home so they could begin packing for their trip.

So, in another unexpected life turn, Ruth shows unprecedented loyalty and commitment to her mother-in-law.  Such an act of loyalty and commitment can be described by the Hebrew word khesed used frequently throughout this story.  Khesed can be translated as “loving kindness.”  It is more than simply being kind, though.  To do khesed means showing love or kindness over and beyond what is considered normal or expected.  It is an act of love that is completely unexpected and unmerited.  It is an act of grace.  And this is what Ruth offered to Naomi.

When Naomi and Ruth get settled back in Bethlehem Ruth begins gleaning grain in the field of a prominent rich man named Boaz.  All the poor people gleaned in the fields because the Israelite landowners were required to leave both the standing grain at the edges of every field and the grains that were accidentally missed during harvesting for use by the poor.  So Ruth was hard at work in the fields when Boaz noticed her.  “Who is that?” he inquired.  Someone responded, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi.”  Boaz was impressed by Ruth and the story that had gotten around town of her loyalty to Naomi.  And, in another unexpected life turn, Boaz begins to care for Ruth and Naomi, providing them with food and security. Eventually Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son named Obed.  So Naomi’s story ends happily.  Because of the khesed shown to her by Ruth and then later by Boaz she was no longer poor and destitute.   Her family was growing again.  She knew the security of a home and a future.  Naomi had been redeemed.

Oftentimes, when we read this story we take it to mean that we ought to be like Ruth.  That we ought to go above and beyond when it comes to loving others, serving others, and showing kindness and mercy.  And this is a valid reading of this text.  But there is also another way to read it.  Yes, we ought to be like Ruth, but we are Naomi.  We are the ones in need of redemption.   And God is the one who shows us khesed. God is the one who shows us unexpected and unmerited grace and kindness.

Our Psalm for today reflects God’s willingness to go above and beyond when it comes to showing us grace and love.  Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there.  If I take the wings of morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

God’s faithfulness to us is unprecedented and at times even unfathomable.  We have done nothing to deserve God’s loving kindness.  In fact, we’ve done more to deserve God’s wrath than God’s love.  But God is faithful still. Yes, we ought to be more like Ruth, but we are Naomi.  Naomi’s story is our story.

The story of Naomi is, in fact, a story of redemption and of hope for all of God’s people.  Naomi’s story gives hope to the poor and destitute that one day they will be redeemed, that one day they will know food and shelter and security.  Naomi’s story also gives hope to all of us that we will also be redeemed – that we will be changed by the grace of God – that we will be set free from sin and from the trappings of this world – that we will be set free from the need to place our trust in the things of this world – that we will be set free to live as God intended us to live—to live lives of  “loving kindness.”  Naomi’s story is an important one, reminding us of our hope for redemption.  But Naomi’s story is also important in reminding us that we cannot earn this redemption by ourselves.  We cannot set ourselves free.  Instead, our redemption is the result of someone else’s faithfulness.

A.J. Gordon, the pastor of a church in Boston, once met a young boy in front of the sanctuary carrying a rusty cage in which several birds fluttered nervously. Gordon inquired, “Son, where did you get those birds?” The boy replied, “I trapped them out in the field.” Gordon asked, “What are you going to do with them?” And the boy responded “I’m going to play with them, and then I guess I’ll just feed them to an old cat we have at home.” Gordon felt bad for the birds, so he offered to buy them, but the lad exclaimed, “Mister, you don’t want them, they’re just little old wild birds and can’t sing very well.” Gordon replied, “I’ll give you $2 for the cage and the birds.” “Okay, it’s a deal” the boy said, “but you’re making a bad bargain.” The exchange was made and the boy went away whistling, happy with his new money. Gordon walked around to the back of the church property, opened the door of the small wire coop, and let the struggling creatures soar into the blue. The next Sunday he took the empty cage into the pulpit and used it to illustrate his sermon on redemption.  “That boy told me the birds were not songsters,” said Gordon, “but when I released them and they winged their way heavenward, it seemed to me they were singing, ‘Redeemed, redeemed, redeemed!”[1]

It’s by someone else’s faithfulness that we are set free.  It’s by someone else’s loving kindness that we are redeemed.  The final few verses of the book of Ruth share the secret of who our “someone else” is.  Running through the genealogy of Naomi’s family the text reads, “A son has been born to Naomi.  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David.” The birth of Obed represents the redemption of Naomi.  But the birth of Obed also leads to the birth of David, whose line promises redemption for the whole people of God through the birth of a Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Jesus Christ is our “someone else.”  Jesus Christ is the one whose loving kindness has set us free.  May we leave today with our hearts full of our redemption song.  May we leave today singing our praises to the one who has set us free.

Now to the God of all grace, who calls you to share God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power and the glory forever! Amen.


[1] From Our Daily Bread and found on http://www.sermonillustrations.com

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