“Help! I Need Somebody!” Week 1 — The “From Bad To Worse To Worser” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Started my favorite kind of series: based on a biblical book seen through a cultural hook.  In this case, the book is Ruth and the hook is the Beatles;
  • Hinged on the exegetical & historical work of doing what Sandy Richter calls “bridging the cultural divide” … in particular the concept of the “bet ov” and why is it you’d marry your dead husband’s brother anyway?
  • Addressed both Ruth Needers and Ruth Becomers;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  Logic leaves but love clings.


Have you ever felt like this? (AV / GIF of car over side of road)

When things go from bad to worse? You’ve had those days; you know what I’m talking about. That day you lost the tennis match AND the girl said she didn’t want to go with you to the movie? Bad to worse. Or that time you got laid off from your job and then that evening that guy breaks up with you. Bad to worse. Or you got thrown out of the game at SCAA for being too vocal (profane?) and on the way home you get a traffic tickets? Bad to worse. Or you find out someone is leaving the church for a more sedate one around the corner on the same day the hip cool church gets a big magazine spread and ain’t nobody in the world paying attention to you. Bad to worse. I’ve been there, you’ve been there, some of you are there today and it’s actually why you showed up to church this time.

Well, if that’s you, you’re not the first, you’re not the worst, and you’re most certainly not alone. We have this incredible privilege of digging into an incomparable story over the next few weeks, the story we have as the biblical book of Ruth. And Ruth begins as the poster child – I mean, the POSTER CHILD! – of bad to worse. Here’s the situation: this is ancient, ancient Israel, prolly 1200 BC, 3200 years ago, and it’s AFTER Moses but BEFORE David. A real “in between” time, before the Jews had established a central government and stable borders. (CHAZ? CHOP?) But look at the very first words of this little book:

In the days when the judges ruled

In the days when the judges ruled … well, what does that mean? Well, some of you remember the series Crash Test Dummies and if you do, you know that the era of the judges, immortalized in the book of Judges, right before Ruth in the bible!, was a time of anarchy, corruption, and lawlessness. When the judges ruled and everybody reading it AT THAT TIME would have raised their eyebrows, knowing, “nobody was ruling then!” Maybe worst of all in that lawless era, down became up, sin became good, and, get this, human trafficking (rape for profit!) was called God’s will. It’s why the author at the end of that book throws up his hands, says, “I got nothing; these people are awful, ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’ Boom. The end. Women were not safe on the streets of Israel in broad daylight, that’s how bad it was. Bad.

And then, in JUST THE SECOND PHRASE OF THE BOOK!, it goes from bad to worse:

there was a famine in the land.

So: as if chaos, anarchy, and traumatized women isn’t bad enough, let’s pile on a famine as well. Is it God’s doing? Maybe. Unspoken here. So what happens next?

So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.

Oh, this is ironic. The name Bethlehem? Means house of bread! So the Bread House is in famine and he’s got to go to a place go Moab, out of Israel, to find food. And who are the people in Moab? Well, according to Genesis 19:37, they’re a people whose origins are … incest. A woman gets pregnant by her father (Lot) and she names the son “Moab.” Just the worst kind of in-breeding, and you know that stain, that mark stays with the entire people group. It’s the kind of thing you can’t get away from. Bad to worse indeed.

But it turns out the story is just warming up. In 1:2 we finally learn the names of the little family:

The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

Yet look at 1:3:

Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons.

How? Why? What happened? We don’t know because it don’t say! But it’s for sure a bad to worse to worser story. And then, rapid-fire, staccato fashion in the story but ten years in real life, the two boys marry Moabite women.

They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth.

You know what that means? They bring a little incest – just a little though! – into the family! Oy vey! And then THEY DIE.

After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

In two verses, Naomi has lost husband and both sons. If it was a Batman episode, it’d be POW! KER-PLAT! Bad to worse to worser to worst.

And again, I don’t know, but maybe you’re there today. It’s the grief when your dad died that gets coupled with a Covid related layoff. It’s the divorce that gets followed by your child’s trouble with the law. It’s the time you found your spouse was cheating on you when you realized you had a communicable disease. It’s even the one or two people here today who’ve learned this week you’re expecting … and you just broke up with him. I’m talking about you … or someone you know. Bad to worse to worser to worst.

And we in 21st C USA have a hard time understanding just how precarious the situation is for these three widows, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah. Unprotected women were in incredible danger at that time – we’ve already seen how in Judges they called human trafficking God’s will. Talk about Help! I Need Somebody! See, your only source of protection was not local govt. or law enforcement, but belonging to what’s called A Father’s Household. In Hebrew, a BET OV (Say it with me.) It’s why Jesus says, In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. A father would have a household, a compound – just like the Kennedy compound without the beach, pool, and tennis court – and his sons would marry and bring their wives into the father’s house. That’s where security & stability came from. And … get this … if you’re a woman and you marry into that family and your husband dies … you marry his brother. Ick factor to us, but makes total 100% sense to them. It’s one of the things the bible DESCRIBES but does not ENDORSE.

Well, what has happened to Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah. There is now no longer a BET OV (repeat it!) but there are no brothers for the widow women to marry (some of you say, “thank God!” but they didn’t!). The options for the younger ones in particular are limited to prostitution or starvation. Bleh. All that’s why Naomi makes the decision in 1:6-7:

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Ah, BreadHouse has its bread back! But just a few steps into the journey, Naomi realizes that these two younger woman, her d-i-ls, would be better off going back to … THEIR OWN BET OVs!

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

You’ve got your own people; you might not bet the best welcome in Bread House because everyone there will know you’re from Incest Land.

To that viewpoint, she piles on this foolproof logic in 1:12-13a-b:

12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters.

Again, it’s BET OV thinking … even if I get pregnant TONIGHT and it’s a boy, are you gonna wait 18 years plus nine months to marry this brother in law? Of course not. Airtight logic to get them to go, followed by the clincher in 1:13c:

It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

Bad to worse to worser to worst to WORSTEST! She believes in God but she hates him. She acknowledges God but only because she feels she is cursed by God. What a fix! Ladies, I’m toxic, I’ve got bad karma, bad ju-ju, bad mojo, stay away. Unassailable logic.

And then, 1:14:

14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

Oh, Lord. But Ruth clung. Three words that change everything. But Ruth clung. Orpah is not being criticized; she does the wise thing, the safe thing; it’s just the Ruth does the God thing. But Ruth clung. She goes on to explain herself in 1:16-18:

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

Oh, man. I realize that so many people here NEED A RUTH in your life to cling to you when life goes from bad to worse to way worse. And others of you need to hear an invite to BE A RUTH to someone else when their life goes on the same trajectory. But whether you are a Ruth NEED-ER or a Ruth BECOME-ER, the truth emerging from the story is the same: Logic leaves but love clings. But Ruth clung and that moments starts an entire chain of events that still impacts us even today. All because one women defied logic, gutted convention, and clung to her mother-in-law.  Logic leaves but love clings.

Because here’s what we do and why I’m giving this talk on this day. We can NOT prescribe, arrange, force these relationships as a church. I can’t go up to you and say, “Can I be your Ruth?” Nor can I tell you, “See her over there? She needs a Ruth. Have at it.” But we can create opportunities and environments where those relationships can develop. Where connections emerge. That’s what our LifeGroups are about … we think we’re going there to study the bible or watch a video – AND WE ARE – but all that is simply to provide a forum where relationships can happen and grow. Where Ruth NEEDERS and Ruth BECOMERS can, by the grace of God, intersect and interact and the body of Christ become reality.

And I love seeing it happen. Some of you know back in the summer I had cataract surgery. I was a little edgy because the idea of sharp object in my eye is something I’d rather not ponder. And that morning I had to get up EARLY to be at the surgery center in time. What greets me as I wake? I text message from a 27 year old member of one of my LGs: Praying for you, sir. About 15 minutes later, another message, this one from a 67 year old member of ANOTHER LG: Praying for you sir. See that? It is not logical that men – MEN – 40 years apart in age get up early in the morning to pray. But they did. I need a pair of Ruths, and they did.   Logic leaves but love clings.

And I do love that Ruth, the Moabite, the outsider, the woman tainted by some incest in her bloodline, is the hero of the story. The one who is “less than” becomes the one who is “more than.” And you know what? There may come a time when the group you despise are the very ones you’ll have to turn to in a crisis. The same ones you’d written off are the ones you lean on. It could be an African American if you’re white. It could be an Asian if you’re black. It could be the guy with the MAGA hat if you’re the vegan. It could be the hippie from Asheville if you’re the banker from Fort Mill. Or both. God has this marvelous way of upending your prejudices by making you NEED someone from the very group you loathe. It could even be a preacher for those of you who are atheists! But God!   Logic leaves but love clings.

And … if you’re the Ruth and you know today that God is calling you to cling and you know who you’re to cling to as they walk through the divorce, the cancer treatment, the bipolar adjustments, the job loss … please know: logic is an inadequate response to pain. Don’t answer pain with facts. That’s not what the grieving, the hurting need or can hear. Naomi had her airtight logic; Ruth should return home. Ruth had something much more: the power of  Logic leaves but love clings.

It’s really like that time, very early on in my time here, 21 years ago now, when I had a crisis.  Made a decision, one that was hard but seemed clear to me, but it was opposed 20 years ago in a way it wouldn’t be now. Legit didn’t think I’d make it. And a friend gave me one of these: SHOE LAST. What is it? A Shoe LAST. It keeps the shape of the shoe; makes the shoe … last. The note said: This makes the shoe last and so will you. Life had gone from bad to worse to worser and then there was my Ruth. Who is yours?