Monday, November 9, 2009

Faithfulness: A Love Story

Sermon for 11.08.09

Ruth 2.1-8, 10-12; 4.13-15, 17; Psalm 42; Mark 12.38-44.

Please pray with me: May we love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind…[and] love our neighbor as ourselves.”

From today’s Gospel: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow…out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sunday evenings seem to be God’s time for epiphanies, for taking me by surprise. When the phone rang this past Sunday, it was my friend Cathyann. We hadn’t had a phone visit since I started coming to Port Ewen. We became friends in seminary. She had just become a single mom with a daughter to raise, essentially on her own. She was determined not to let circumstances hinder her call. By the time she was ready to take a church, the only available full-time job was two half-time churches in the middle of rural Kansas. There’s nothing wrong with Kansas, but Cathyann had never lived anywhere but the East Coast. She had no friends, relatives, or associations with the Midwest. But off she went.

Unfortunately, one of the churches did not work out and so, two years later, she was without a job. Because she is United Church of Christ, there was no connectional network to place her. She would have had no place to go had not a friend from seminary, now in Nebraska, invited her. The next year was tough, lonely, and poor—another displacement for a woman now in her mid-50s. She refused to give up, responsibly reshaping her life through hard work and faithfulness to the covenant that she had made. She became a chaplain, began to do supply work, and then was invited to become a full-time interim pastor in a church that loves and appreciates her. This has been her dream and the Nebraska part really didn’t matter.

But she called me last Sunday to invite me to her wedding! After her painful divorce, I’d never heard her express any desire to remarry. And she fought the proposal at first, but then realized that this man is someone she simply loves being with. We never thought that so much good—a church and personal happiness—was waiting for her, and especially in Nebraska!

What does this have to do with the book of Ruth? Actually, quite a bit. This is as much the story of an older woman as it is Ruth’s and it also is a story of exile and emptiness. As such, it speaks to us.

The story begins with famine in Bethlehem that forces Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons to immigrate to the land of Moab, even though the people of Israel had no respect for Moabites or their strange gods. These people were descended from Lot, for heaven’s sake, and if you don’t know what that means, you’d better read Genesis 19 as quickly as possible. The sons are described as “taking” Moabite wives, rather than marrying them. Then all three men die, leaving Naomi and her two childless daughters-in-law as widows. Naomi feels that God has turned against her and well she might. As a woman past child-bearing years with no male protector, she is destitute, and so she tells the two young women to go back to their own people where there is some hope of starting again.

Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses, speaking those words that are now read at weddings: “Where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” What is behind Ruth’s risky decision to make such a covenant? Was her love for Naomi or her compassion—her call to responsibility—so great that she ignored common sense? Was she moved by hesed, the deep loving-kindness of God? In the newness of her loss, did she reach for relationship? For someone to whom again she could show hesed?

Naomi’s reaction is odd. She doesn’t speak to Ruth during the trip back to Bethlehem. Her name means “pleasant,” but she tells the women at the gate to call her Mara or “bitter.” She certainly doesn’t introduce her daughter-in-law when they walk into town, and the story insists on labeling Ruth as “the Moabite.”

In the section that we heard this morning, Ruth, the Alien, goes out to glean or gather left-over grain in the fields. The laws of Israel specified that a certain amount must be left even for alien beggars. Then the narrator slyly tells us that she “just happened” to go to the right field and is seen by Boaz. Boaz may not really have been a kinsman. If he were, he would have a responsibility towards these women. The word could equally mean “close friend” of Naomi’s husband.

The passage is full of ambiguities. Boaz is described as “prominent” or “worthy.” Old Testament readers, knowing that his ancestors were Jacob and Tamar, as dubious as Ruth’s ancestors, would be on the alert. His words are certainly pious sounding, but can we be sure? Although he might very well have been drawn to Ruth, he might also have been simply curious. He also might have worried that if he showed her too much favor, other gleaners or even his field hands would expect more. So he says, conventionally enough, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds.” Ruth may sound humble, but she subtly switches the agency from God to Boaz: “May I continue to find favor in your sight,” she replies.

Such wordplays and ironies continue and, in the end, there is a marriage and a baby, but the story is not just about one happy couple. The women of the town give Ruth’s baby to Naomi, presumably to tend, but they call him Naomi’s son. Her emptiness has been filled, her barrenness has been compensated, her bitterness has turned to joy, and she is no longer homeless. And the story doesn’t stop there.

The story records a chain of events, a chain of faithfulness and loving-kindness. Ruth, an alien, persuades the prominent Boaz to show her loving-kindness. He, in turn, had been touched both by her faithfulness to Naomi and, more, by her willingness to chose him, an older man. And first there was Ruth’s loving-kindness, her hesed to Naomi.

It doesn’t matter that Naomi is uncivil when the story begins or that Boaz’s motivation may not be clear because the story is also shot through with God’s own hesed for all of these people. God sends Naomi and Elimelech to a place that brings disaster and yet she comes home with a gift. The gift appears to be a liability, a despised foreign woman, and yet she is guided to just the right field. Finally this baby of less than perfect lineage doesn’t only comfort Naomi’s old age but becomes the grandfather of David, the ancestor of Jesus who is the Incarnation of God’s Love and the Redeemer of the world. No wonder we are given this reading only weeks before Advent.

A good read becomes first a parable about true fidelity across age and ethnicity. About giving out of what seems to be a poverty, about being able to give when it seems that there is only poverty to draw from. About discovering and fulfilling God’s law through self-giving love. A further beauty is that this story seems to be telling us that human being personify and communicate God’s hesed to each other. But finally the love story is about God’s enduring faithfulness and love for us, unlikely agents that we are.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, to whom will we cling with steadfast love? To whom will we do hesed? Will we allow those who seem alien to be agents of our redemption? Will we see that a Ruth is standing there? Who gleams among us and how much do we first take from what we consider our own fields? These questions are difficult, but help us keep asking them. Help us tear down those walls that have been so carefully crafted. Help us embrace the scandal of your faithfulness and your fierce inclusivity. Amen.

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