Sermon Archive

You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Call Me Bitter

William Chu
UUMC

“What’s your major?” is question that is getting harder and harder to answer for undergraduate students.  A New York Times article entitled, Choose one College Major out of Hundreds, Blamed it on the growing number of possibilities. 

Colleges and universities reported nearly 1,500 academic programs to the Department of Education in 2010; 355 were added to the list over the previous 10 years as colleges, to stay competitive and current, adopted new disciplines like homeland security and global studies, cyberforensics and agroecology. 1

Michigan State University offers over 150 majors for undergraduates. 

Some studies indicate that the average college student will change their major three times over the course of their college career.  

When students come to that moment when they have to change majors it can be a very hard decision with significant cost of time and money.  Frequently this change is driven by a desire to move from a state of emptiness to one of fulfillment.  

Like a college undergraduate Elimelech was faced with a hard decision.  Famine had come to Bethlehem.  Bethlehem literally, the house of bread had become a place of bitter emptiness.  The choice Elimelech had to make was to stay in Bethlehem and passively wait for famine to subside and the crops to return.  Or to hit the road seeking greener pastures. 

Discerning God’s call or trying to figure out what in the world God wants you to do can be a daunting task.  The practice of discernment takes a lot of practice.  In order to learn to proficiently put your finger on God’s call takes effort. It helps to have a good loving relationship with God.  Staying in Love with God takes deliberate practice.  

Just like saying the words, “I love you” is not the end of love but rather the beginning of love. Its after you say I love you that the real practice of love begins.   You can only really learn a person's thought and habits if you spend time and pay attention to that person.  Discerning the eternal mind of God requires spending time in the word,  conversing in prayer,  and practicing the love of God with your neighbor.  Asking friends to pray for you or asking sisters and brothers what they imagine God’s will is for you.  

Faced with this “Change of Major” decision,  Elimelech must have practiced a relationship with God as a means of knowing God’s will was for him and his family.  I can imagine him spending time in the scriptures reading about how Abram follow God by leaving home or how Moses moved from the palace of Egypt to through the desert of Sinai to the Holy Land.   I can imagine the prayerful discussions between Elimelech and his wife Naomi.  
Naomi what do you think God wants us to do.  

Following that discernment process Elimelech decides to change his major. 

Elimelech went to live in the land of Moab. He took his sweet wife Naomi and they brought their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion with them.  The family lived in Moab for ten years and it was anything but sweet.  This change of majors may have been fulfilling in the beginning but soon the emptiness of Famine catches up to the Elimelech family.  And a bitter chain of emptiness begins.  First Elimelech dies.  Naomi was a single mom with two sons.  They eventually married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  The first readers of this story would have seen this a bitter plot twist in the story since jewish tradition frowned on marrying non-jews.  Finally, Naomi’s sons Mahlon and Chilion died.  

This bitter emptiness that befalls sweet Naomi, set the stage for a restoration.  God is at work in this change of majors that move from full to empty and then back to full.  From sweet to bitter and then back to sweet. 

Confronted with this bitter emptiness Naomi decides to change majors again.  

Naomi decides to turn back and head for Bethlehem, for she had heard that the LORD had considered his people and given them food.  As Naomi begins her return trip, her daughter-in-laws tag along.   Its not too far into this change of major that the reader begins to detect a change in Naomi’s disposition.  The name Naomi name carried the meaning of sweetness or sweet one so the reader is led to assume Naomi to be sweet woman. 

But the bitter chain of emptiness has bittered Naomi and she changes her name...

At the gates of Bethlehem the woman greet sweet Naomi but she responds 

    “Call me no longer Naomi,
        call me Mara,
        for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 
21     I went away full,
        but the LORD has brought me back empty;
    why call me Naomi
        when the LORD has dealt harshly with me,
        and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 

Naomi becomes Mara which mean bitter.  But even before this scene at the Bethlehem gate the reader can detect bitterness in Naomi.

Not long after the three widows start the journey to Bethlehem, Naomi, treats Orpah and Ruth in a less than sweet way… 

Naomi dismisses Orpah and Ruth.
“Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 

Naomi offers some straight talk to Orpah and Ruth. When both daughters refuse to leave and cling to Naomi, she becomes insistent.   

  11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons,  13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”  14 Then they wept aloud again. 

I read this a rant but Naomi is speaking the bitter truth to her daughter-in-laws.  

The word bitter carries with it the implication of strength.  One has to be strong to speak the truth in love.  Which is precisely what Naomi is doing. 

God has treated Naomi in a bitter/strong way and Naomi begins to reflect the strength of God in her ways.  

Naomi decides to let her Daughter-in-laws actively choose their own way.  Or choose their own major.  Naomi’s bitter treatment of her daughter-in-laws is offered in way to strengthen them to take an active role in the selection of their way.  Naomi strengthens Orpah and Ruth to change their own majors.  

That NYT article implied that the hard truth was that choosing a major required active exploration that required intentional action on the part of the student. 

“Exploratory” is the new undeclared. Colleges have moved away from the negative-sounding “undecided” label to encourage students to experiment with unfamiliar disciplines and, perhaps, discover a passion and career path. “We want to remind them that they have an active role” in their academic choices, says Mary Beth Collier, the dean of academic advising at the State University of New York. 1
 

Both Orpah and Ruth reflect the strength of God and take an active role in the selection of their changes in major.  Oprah decides to go back to her family of origin and Ruth decides to leave her home.  

God’s path for us not easy to discern, and God desires for us to take a bitter/strong active roll in our discernment of this path. 

None of the decisions that we make are wasted when we prayerfully make them in discernment of God’s will.  Then the words of Isaiah will be true.

Is. 55:10        For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
        and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
    making it bring forth and sprout,
        giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
11     so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
        it shall not return to me empty,
    but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
        and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Through the full and empty times, in the change of majors and course corrections, in the sweet and the bitter God goes with us and we are not abandoned.  We are restored. 

In the end God makes a way for Naomi and she is restored.  God uses Boaz and Ruth and even Naomi herself in the restoration.  Bitter/strong Mara once again finds the sweetness of God love. At the end of the story of Ruth we find those same women at the gates of Bethelhem once again greeting Mara by the name of Naomi (Sweetness).

14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!  15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. 

Its this line of David that the reader discovers how this complete the cycle from full to empty to full or the sweetness to bitter back to sweet is.  

Luke 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

The Advent reading may seem out of place today but it is the continuation of the Naomi restorative cycle.  Mary continues the restoration of Naomi with the birth of Jesus.  The saviour of us all.    How does this cycle continue in you?