Have you noticed how the world is full of average folk,
but hardly anyone notices?
They rarely get their pictures in the paper.
The “bad guys” do.
The crooks, the terrorists, the embezzlers, the villains.
And the heroes do.
The crusader against injustice.
The fire fighter who rescues the child from a burning building.
The athlete who visits the hospital ward.
The best-selling author or musician.
The best-looking actor or the class valedictorian.
The best and worst of us get our pictures in the media.
Now sometimes, of course, it’s hard to tell the crooks from the heroes.
But the vast majority of us are neither.
We’re just getting by.
No better or worse looking than anybody else.
More C’s than A’s and F’s.
We haven’t done the extraordinary,
nor won any big awards or trophies,
nor made any keynote speeches.
We haven’t had the good fortune to win a million dollars,
nor have we gotten too far over our heads in debt.
Like I said, we’re average.
Not particularly newsworthy.
And we’re OK about it!
Hey, life is good — full of surprises, and if not, we’re pleased that all is copacetic.
Average folk make the world go round
because there are enough of us to keep it perfectly in balance.
In fact, we are good people.
Decent human beings, regular joes and josephines
who may never be honored, or rewarded,
or maybe even remembered for anything extraordinary,
but we do try to do the right thing, whether or not anyone notices.
In school, we fulfilled all that was required, but rarely went for extra credit.
And in life itself, we’re not looking for any credit;
it’s enough just to live with a clear conscience.
And our “patron saint” is named Orpah.
(Not to be confused with Oprah, the patron saint of “TV Talk.”)
Have you noticed that women are still named Ruth these days?
Like Ruth Alstadt.
I’ve never met a Naomi, but women today still bear that name like Naomi Judd.
But have you ever met a woman named Orpah?
No, her name has pretty much been retired.
Not because she was a bad person, not a Herod or a Pontius Pilate,
(two other names retired from popular use!).
She was a good enough person.
Her name is in the Bible, after all; only twice, but it’s there.
They didn’t name a whole book after her, though.
And as far as I know, there’s no “Song of Orpah.”
I have heard church choirs sing an anthem titled “Song of Ruth.”
But who would write a song for Orpah?
Who writes songs about average folk who do as their told,
and fulfill all the requirements.
I’m no song writer, but let’s see what Orpah’s song might include.
We could start with what we know for sure.
She was a woman of Moab.
(See, right away…what rhymes with Moab?!)
Her country was one of those that oppressed Israel in the generations of the Judges.
She probably had little knowledge of the politics of her time,
but it was enough to know that Israel considered her country “outside the Covenant,”
even, though this isn’t quite the right word, “apostate.”
Someone has called Moabites “the Edsels of the [Semitic] family tree.”
[Clark Blaise, in his essay “Ruth” in Communion, ed. by David Rosenberg]
Nonetheless, when the famine hit Israel and nearby Moab somehow escaped it,
many from Israel were desperate enough to put differences aside
and cross into Moab to find daily bread.
Orpah and other Moabite women got involved with some of those refugees.
Some came from a city called Bethlehem
which was more than a little ironic since Bethlehem means “house of bread,”
though, at that time it was a city of famine.
That’s about all we know of her, actually.
Except that she married this Israelite named Chilion,
one of two sons of Naomi and her late husband Elimelech.
Within ten years, Orpah was a widow.
Sadly, her sister-in-law Ruth had also lost her husband Mahlon.
So this song I’m trying to write about Orpah will be full of melancholy, to be sure.
In fact, more than an unhappy song,
Orpah’s song will have notes of desperation and fear.
She finds herself with no present means of support,
and no hope for the future either.
Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are all left on their own
in a culture where a woman’s only sources of security and value
were marriage and sons.
These women had no husbands, no father-in-law, and no sons to take care of them.
We can assume that the three women grew extraordinarily close in order to survive,
with the younger two leaning on the older and wiser Naomi.
Odd, isn’t it.
Have you ever heard a song about a mother-in-law and her daughters-in-law
that sang of such devotion to one another and such determination to survive?
Once we’ve gotten past the first couple of verses of our gloomy ballad, however,
the story takes a hopeful turn.
The Lord has smiled on Naomi’s homeland and crops are flourishing again,
with green plants bearing fruit, cattle growing fat,
and maybe even a promise of milk and honey. .
If she can go home, she’ll still be at risk certainly,
but at least she won’t be a foreigner at risk as she is in Moab.
Orpah’s heart sinks when she first hears the news that Naomi is bound for home.
She faces a harrowing decision.
If Naomi leaves for Judah, and Orpah and Ruth stay in their own homeland,
they will lose their anchor.
If they go with her, they hold on to their only connection with their husbands,
but they will still be poverty-stricken, vulnerable, and now aliens in a strange land too.
How much it mattered, we do not know,
but Ruth and Orpah will also leave their god behind
and live in a land with a strange God they do not know,
perhaps always being reminded
they are not included in the Covenant that they had heard about.
Orpah’s song could sing of the moment she made the decision to follow Naomi.
Her sister-in-law Ruth is coming, too,
and now we have a song of the path of hopeful expectation,
not necessarily a better life,
but at least a life with Naomi.
There is comfort there, and continuity, and a sense of family.
Orpah and Ruth bid good-bye to their friends, pack up what few belongings they have,
and set out on the journey to Judah.
Naomi is quiet as they go, as if she is having second thoughts about the whole thing.
The lyric to our song of Orpah might even admit that there is no evidence that
Naomi even invited her two daughters-in-law to go with her.
Perhaps she had thought all along that they would be better off
staying in their own country.
Maybe she had even thought it would be easier for her if they stayed home.
Whatever her motivation, Naomi’s words must have been an astonishing blow.
“Turn around and go back.”
“Go back each of you to your mother’s house.”
It is not a suggestion either; it is an order.
Common sense said that it would be more prudent to stay with their own families,
in their childhood homes, in their own country, under their own god.
They were not too old to begin again,
maybe find new husbands and finally again a sense of security
that would surely elude them if they continued on with Naomi to her Judah.
With the order, came her benediction, her blessing:
May the Lord deal kindly with you,
just as you have faithfully loved with me all these years,
and as you loved your husbands, my sons.
May the Lord grant you the happy security of another husband.
Then she kissed then, and they were overcome with emotion, and they wept.
Through their tears, Orpah and Ruth protested,
saying, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
Naomi knew a mere benediction was not enough.
So she turned to reasoning, harsh and caustic.
“Turn back, my daughters...”
Why come with me? I can do nothing for you...
Even if I found a husband tonight, and had children, for crying out loud,
what are you going to do, wait for them to grow up
so you can again find protection and welfare?”
Orpah hears in Naomi’s voice, not anger, but frustration now, even bitterness.
And Naomi admits it.
She has lost her husband and her two sons,
and now she needs to push her daughters-in-law away, for their own good,
and she sees all this as the hand of God turned against her.
The tears flowed, they embraced one another, and Orpah kissed Naomi,
and pulled away.
Her song suddenly fades out.
The last line is sung and the music ends before we realize that it is over.
Orpah does as she is told.
She does what is required of her.
The woman she most respects has told her what to do,
and in trusting obedience, she does it.
Mother-in-law knows best.
Orpah turns back, heads home, and we do not hear from her again.
No one named a book after her.
No one has named a baby after her.
And no one has written her a song.
But she wasn’t a bad person.
She took Naomi at her word.
What her beloved mother-in-law said made perfect sense.
Orpah did the prudent thing.
Not the heroic thing, not the cowardly thing.
She did what the average person would do.
And no one paid any attention to her
after she took her leave and went home.
I hope she did go back to her mother’s house.
I hope there was a handsome Clooney-esque guy who would bump into her at the market.
I hope she did marry again.
I hope she was no longer barren, but had a few children to love with all her heart.
We don’t know.
But we do know what happened to Ruth.
She disobeyed her mother-in-law and became the hero of the story.
They named the book after her,
and her words became the “Song of Ruth.”
Even when Naomi pointed out Orpah as the good example to follow
(“See, your sister-in-law has gone back... you follow her home.”),
even then, Ruth said, “Don’t press me to leave you...”
Then she sang her song.
Many editions of the Bible have set the type not as narrative, but as poetry.
‘Whither thou goest, I will go.”
What we have here is almost a marriage vow.
Listen to the Revised English Bible:
Where you go, I shall go.
Where you stay, I shall stay.
Your people will be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I shall die...
I solemnly declare before the Lord,
that nothing but death will part me from you.”
It’s no wonder couples have chosen those words to be sung at their weddings.
It’s still inappropriate, but no surprise!
Because in the context of the wedding ceremony,
we lose the original and wider context of the meaning of this story.
This is a story of loyalty, yes.
And loving commitment, yes.
Marriage is all of those, so the words may work.
Yet, the fact that this vow is one-sided.
(Naomi promises nothing in return;
indeed, the scriptures say she has nothing to say after Ruth’s song.
In her bitterness and emptiness, she never acknowledges Ruth’s loyalty.
Some have supposed that Naomi wasn’t that thrilled that Ruth was staying with her!)
Apart from the popular context of wedding vows, then,
why are Ruth’s words so memorable?
For one thing, Ruth is making a commitment that goes beyond what is required.
Orpah was the C student, the good daughter-in-law who did what was expected.
Orpah’s action was merely commendable.
But Ruth’s action is understood over the generations as an extraordinary vow
to go with, to stand with, to struggle with, to overcome with Naomi,
no matter the odds or the outcome.
Ruth intends to share Naomi’s future.
And to do that, she must give up her own past and present.
She leaves behind the family of her birth, her homeland, her culture, her god.
Remember Naomi’s blessing on her two “daughters”:
“May the Lord deal kindly with you,
just as you have faithfully loved with me all these years,
and as you loved your husbands, my sons.”
The Hebrew word for dealing kindly and loving faithfully is hesed.
(In many ways, the Hebrew word hesed is to the Old Testament story
what the Greek word agape is to the New Testament story.)
In her promise to give up her life to Naomi,
Ruth is expressing her hesed, her faithfulness born of caring and commitment.
Already living at risk, she is adding more uncertainty
and becoming ever more vulnerable than she was as a widow in her own land.
Presumably, having lived within an Israelite family for some ten years,
Ruth has learned the meaning of hesed and understands both Naomi’s blessing
as well as the blessing her life might be to the older woman
as Naomi returns home to an uncertain future.
Hesed is a powerful motivator.
It moves us beyond what is merely expected of us
and makes ordinary people into heroes.
Ruth’s story is told and remembered because it is about the loving-kindness of God,
the loyalty and faithfulness of women at risk,
and because a man named Boaz redeemed a family’s land
and brought love and security to Ruth,
beginning a new generation that would give Israel its greatest king.
(Here’s a hint: the last word in the Book of Ruth is David.)
No wonder Ruth is remembered with such affection, gets all the songs,
and lives again through the Bible’s pages even into the genealogy of Jesus,
— all because of her loyal and loving promise to go the extra miles with Naomi.
Among the lessons we might glean from this story today
is the need for all people of faith to put aside cultural and theological differences
and make God’s loving-kindness the center of all we do.
Not to deny our traditions or abandon our beliefs,
but to make loving servanthood the keystone
of our response to God’s mercy in our own lives.
And to go beyond what the world expects of us,
to move well ahead of what’s “average” and to do the extraordinary
in times when many folks only do what they have to, just to get by.
In the life of a church, it means holding on to our own vows of faithfulness,
those of baptism and church membership,
and not being mere consumers of what the community of faith offers,
but people willing to give their lives to bring life to others.
When church folk merely come here for what they can get out of it,
they can drain the very life from the community.
Orpah may have done what was right for herself;
but Ruth has done what was right for Naomi.
No wonder we sing her song.
For it sings of transformation from emptiness to fullness,
from grief to joy, from bitterness to blessedness, and from vulnerability to victory.
Joan and I witnessed a powerful example of what we might (awkwardly) call
“un-hessed” yesterday, followed by examples of loving kindness and faithful love.
We saw the premier of a video by local playwright Talia Moore,
based on her play “Mama, Don’t Cry.”
She wrote of a family victimized by domestic violence
at the hands of a brutally abusive husband and father..
Even knowing we were watching a play, the angry threats, the sound of a slap,
and the eventual pulling of a gun were jarring, painful to bear.
The physical and psychological abuse in that household
portrayed the very opposite of hessed…
with a family broken, torn, shattered, despite the prayers of the man’s wife,
loving mother to their three children.
Following the film, we in the audience were invited to a time of reflection
on the story’s theme of domestic violence.
It was not an academic discussion...especially when we learned that the drama
was based on real-life events, and that some of the principals in the story
were there in the room with us.
The author of the play introduced her mother and revealed that it was her story
we had seen enacted.
Talia Moore’s mother had promised God that if she survived that violence,
if she found liberation, if God would save her family,
she would serve God the rest of her life.
She has been a minister and missionary ever since,
and her children have made her proud answering their own calls
and serving faithfully in their own ways.
As the members of the audience shared their own stories,
many themselves having survived domestic violence and emotional abuse,
Joan and I experienced signs of God’s loving kindness in the supportive embraces
and tears of empathy as voices broke
in the sharing of personal stories of survival and victory.
Yesterday’s event ended with strangers holding hands in a circle of prayer,
amid promises that rivaled Ruth’s
to stand together against forces that would extinguish the light of faithfulness
or block the way of God’s peace.
May God keep the words of Ruth’s song in our hearts
as we follow Jesus wherever he goes,
and then sit with so many folk from so many cultures
at the table he has prepared for us.
The centerpiece of the table is bread which is his life given for us,
the cup with is his lifeblood poured out for us.
Signs of hesed and agape and God’s going infinitely beyond what we expected.
Now, I want to circle back to the beginning of this reflection, this meditation.
I want to claim my own average-ness.
I need to confess my mediocrity and offer it to be redeemed by the grace of God.
I want to open myself to God’s transforming love.
giving thanks to God for Ruth, yes, but also for my sister-in-common-ness, Orpah.
Who would write a song for her?
[The sermon concluded with Chris Bartlette’s original composition
“Song for Orpah.”]