Sunday, September 14, 2014

Trouble in the Land: Sermon on Genesis 3:14-19, 4:8-16

 Scripture can be found here...

There are a few ways we could talk about today’s passages. I’m thinking we could go micro, focus in; or we could go macro, we could pull out and use a wide lens.

Here’s what we see when we pull in close: In the beginning, the woman and the man eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, against the express directions of their Creator God. After their disobedience is discovered, God doles out punishment. The serpent that tempted them is made the most despised of creatures and his offspring become eternal, mortal enemies of the humans. The woman is given painful childbirth and the punishment of being “ruled over” by her husband. And the man? His punishment is all about the land. The ground is cursed. Instead of a garden producing things for him to eat without any effort, he will have to work hard—and he’ll get thorns and thistles for his pains. And then that final reminder to the man that, after all, he came from the ground—the dust—and he will return to it. In the next generation, sin continues to infect and affect people and land: brother murders brother for no good reason we can discern, and the blood soaks the earth and calls out to God.

At the micro level, we have a story of sin and disobedience and punishment.

Now, if we pull back, take a wide view, we see: a story in which sin adds to the suffering of the world.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about sin. “Sin” is not a word or a concept most of us are comfortable with. To add to that, we Presbyterians have, as part of our Constitution, something called “The Book of Confessions,” which contains eleven historic statements of faith, beginning with the Nicene Creed, dating from the fourth century, and continuing through the ages to our most recent “Brief Statement of Faith,” dating from 1983. The concepts of sin found throughout the confessions are startlingly diverse. For example, one of our older creeds, the Scots Confession (written in 1560 during the Reformation) describes the outcome of the events the garden this way:

By this transgression… the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.[i]

On the other hand, the Confession of 1967 was written in during the Civil Rights movement in this country, and is founded on a single verse from 2 Corinthians: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…” Here, sin is described this way:

In sin, men claim mastery of their own lives, turn against God and their fellow men, and become exploiters and despoilers of the world. They lose their humanity in futile striving and are left in rebellion, despair, and isolation.[ii]

The descriptions of sin are diverse, but a common thread runs through them: Sin is separation from God, and enslavement to something other than God.

In our passages, that separation seems to take on a very distinct shape: the humans, created from the earth, are no longer at one with it. Instead of living in harmony with the land, as the original design for Eden demands, the humans struggle with the land. Instead of living peacefully on and with the land, they are at war with it. “…Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17b). “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). “When you till the ground, it will not yield to you its strength” (Gen. 4:12).

Sin adds to the suffering of the world. Literally. Separation from God leads to trouble in the land. The land suffers, the earth cries out. And the humans cry out, too. Cain cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face…” (Gen. 4:13b-14). The land suffers, the earth suffers, and we suffer.

It’s often said that liberals like to focus on corporate sin—the things we do as societies, or governments, or big corporations. And it’s further said that conservatives like to focus on individual sin, the things we do one-on-one. These passages don’t allow any of us to retreat to our comfort zones, liberal or conservative. Sin—personal and corporate—has devastating effects, and we can’t ignore them.

Early last year, the New York Times reported:

A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.[iii]

Last year the percentage of lost hives came down to 23%, which, according to one researcher, is still “not a good number.” He said, “We’ve gone from horrible to bad.”[iv] One scientist speculated that, if all the bees should die out, humans would not be far behind. He gave us four years.[v] God created us to be connected, to one another, and to the earth. Science fiction movies that have us relocating to Mars notwithstanding, we cannot live without it.

It’s not clear what’s killing the bees, but lots of people are working on it. It IS clear that the world is suffering, and we don’t even have to look outside our own country: from the hives of California, to the particulate filled air of Wyoming, to the devastated marine life and birds of the Louisiana Gulf, to the toxic drinking water of places as disparate as Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, the earth is crying out. This is God’s creation, God’s gift, given to us for our sustenance and plenty. And we have a part to play. It is described right there in the story… in last week’s passage. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

The verb translated “keep” is a verb I am very familiar with. It’s the Hebrew verb, shamar. I’m familiar with it because, when we were taught the Hebrew verb forms in seminary, shamar was the verb we always used. And the meaning of the verb is “to guard” or “to protect.” And that verb, translated “till”? It turns out that is the verb form of the Hebrew word for “slave” or “servant.” So, this little verse, really, properly, could read, should read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and protect it.”

Imagine. We are all creatures of God, created from the earth. And our first job, the thing God tells us to do, right off, is to serve the earth, and protect it. That is our first vocation, our first calling. Our first priority. And, of course, it is a calling that is completely self-serving, since, without the earth thriving and healthy, our time as a species is not long.[vi] The call to protect the earth is not a call to self-sacrifice. It’s a call to save ourselves.

At the end of our passage, God consoles Cain, who has murdered his brother, by telling him he will not be killed. God brands him with a protective mark so that no one will harm him. This is how God responds to our sin, to the things we do that cause the earth to run with blood, human or honeybee. God protects us. God serves us. God reassures us. God sends us on to a new place, in hopes we will do better from now on. God reminds us, as in Psalm 139, that, there is really nowhere we can flee from God’s presence. Sin might be separation from God, but God is having none of it. God won’t be separated from us even if we try to climb in our roadsters and make a getaway.  Sin adds to the suffering of the world, but God steps in to ameliorate even that with second and third and four-thousandth chances. God remains faithful. God remains creative! God keeps inviting us to be a part of the divine creative plan. God’s love never fails. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Scots Confession 3.03, Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution Part I: The Book of Confessions, 11.
[ii] “The Sin of Man,” Confession of 1967 9.12, op cit.
[iii] “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms,” New York Times, March 28, 2013, p. A1.
[iv] “Report Says Fewer Bees Perished Over the Winter, But the Reason Is a Mystery,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, p. A 19.
[v] Leonard Shlain, quoted in the documentary “Connected: An Autoiography about Love, Death, and Technology,” 2011.
[vi] Noam Chomsky, “The End of History?”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Forest for the Trees: Sermon on Genesis 2:4b-22

 Scripture can be found here...

I was born in a beach-town, a suburb of Atlantic City, the daughter of parents who were born and raised in Philadelphia. We didn’t spend a lot of time in forests. In fact, my mother considered forests to be kind of sinister. Maybe she read too many spooky fairy tales in the Philadelphia Public Library, but when it was time for me to go to Camp Acagisca, mom sent dad to drive me, saying “Put me between two trees, and I’ll get lost. Put me between two trees, and you’ll never see me again!”

That said, I’ve had a kind of gentle initiation into forests all the same. My parents took me to California when I was seven, and we spent a day among the giant redwoods. I’ve been camping on Cape Cod. I’ve roamed through the beautiful and well-marked trails at the Waterman Center, inhaling the sweet smell of pine and cedar. I’ve read J. R. R. Tolkien! These are my limited credentials, as we start our four-week “Season of Creation” series with “Forest Sunday.”

But trees: ah. Trees are another matter. Trees, I know. I have fallen in love with trees, individual trees, in my life. Let me tell you about one such tree.

There is a weeping copper beech outside the parish house of West Presbyterian Church. When I went there to work as director of Christian Education almost fifteen years ago, I parked near the tree on my first day in the office, and was very nearly late because I was so taken by it. For those of you who have never seen this tree up close, it is very like the image of a woman with extraordinarily long hair, flowing right down to the ground, which she can completely hide beneath. Think Cousin Itt, only not weird and creepy. You usually can’t see the trunk of a weeping copper beach. But the sight of such a tree makes you want to part those cascading boughs and walk into the fragrant darkness of its canopy. It’s mysterious, you want to step inside. I did. On warm days I took my lunch and picnicked there. I can truthfully say that not one day of my tenure at that church passed without me stopping and taking grateful notice of that extraordinary, stunning tree.

On Forest Sunday we are offered a creation story, and it features no forests, but a number of trees, some trees with names. The tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And then more ordinary trees— let’s say apple trees, and peach trees. Since Eden as it is described is probably somewhere in modern day Iraq, or Turkey, or even Israel, let’s be sure to include orange trees, and also date, plum, apricot, and olive trees. Lemon trees, very pretty. Fig trees, powerful biblical symbols of wisdom and peace.

And there, folded into the stories of the creation of trees and forests and food-crops and animals, is the creation of man and woman. And do you notice how connected everything is? The earth is created, and later man is created from the earth. The man is created, and woman is created from the man’s own body, “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,” as he will call her, right after our passage ends.

And all the parts of creation—all of them—are in some sense made for one another. The man and woman to “till and keep” the trees and forests and food-crops, and the trees and food-crops to provide the humans with food and even, science tells us, air. When we exhale, we provide carbon dioxide for the plants and trees, and the plants and trees, in turn, provide oxygen for us.

Everything is so connected, so intimately connected, that, a theory emerged in the 1960’s that the earth is, in fact, one complex organism. Think of the remarkable photographs of the earth taken from space by the Apollo astronauts. There are no borders. Everything is connected. God has created it all in such a way that we have real impact on one another—for good or for ill.

And that is the story of the man and the woman. They will have an impact on one another. Their fates are inextricably entwined, and not simply because the woman is described as the man’s “helper.” [By the way, if you do a search for the word “helper” in scripture, roughly a third of the references are to God. God is our helper. It’s a good word.] The fates of the first humans are connected, and so, I believe, are the fates of all humans today, sometimes in ways we can’t see or predict in advance. This is how we were created: we were made to be a part of one another.

Recently I saw an illustration of a stand of redwood trees, with a written description that went like this:

Redwood trees are among some of the most majestic trees. They grow to be over 300 feet tall, and can live thousands of years, and their wood has special properties that make it resistant to mold, insects, and rot. Also, despite growing so old and so high, they have relatively shallow roots – around 6 to 12 feet deep. This root system could not hold up the tree by itself if it were not for a unique interaction between the trees. Redwoods get their stability and strength from growing up together with other redwoods in groves, and then intertwining their roots. In essence, they hold onto each other, and this enables them to grow incredibly tall, strong, and live long lives.[i]

We are like those redwoods, we people of faith. This is how we were created. We come together in a community of believers and seekers and people who are looking for a better way to live. We seek to put down roots here, roots that stretch out broadly, connecting us, not so much to the place, as to one another. What holds us up is what holds us together. We intertwine our roots, we hold on to each other. This is what enables us to grow strong, in our faith and in our lives.

Everything is connected. This is how everything was created. Trees in forests. Men and women in gardens. People to plants, plants to animals, animals to people, in an endless round-robin of creation, one that was designed by God to give us delight and abundance of life. We find that abundance by noticing that some fruits are delicious and nourishing. We delight by pausing to notice its sheer deliciousness and beauty and mystery. We find trees that take our breath away, and make us want to sit in their shade for peace and solitude. We see late summer flowers that make us want to take pictures so that we share them with our friends. We hold on to each other, like the stands of redwood trees.  And all this connection—to nature and to one another—points us back, again and again, to the One who fashioned all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful. The Lord God made them all. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Beloved Community: Sermon on Ruth 4:1-22

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

We come today to the last act of the Book of Ruth, and we find ourselves in the middle of what truly feels like a romantic comedy—one last obstacle to be overcome, the other goel, the (Hebrew word meaning) “next of kin redeemer.” This is the part at the end of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” where Julia Roberts chases Cameron Diaz to a White Sox game at Comiskey Park to convince her that Dermot Mulroney really does love her. Except, in our story, this is the part where Boaz slyly leaves out the crucial bit of information—the land comes with a woman!—to first, give the unnamed “other guy” the thought that he can redeem the land belonging to the family; and then to allow that other guy to reveal himself as the guy who wants the land, but not the woman, too much baggage, too much responsibility, thank you very much, I’ll go home now.

And so Boaz is left as the closest kin, the one who truly can redeem the situation and the family—buy back their honor, and their stability, and their sense of place, their sense of home.

Let’s step back for a minute, and look at the big picture.

You’ve been taken by the wind… you have known the kiss of sorrow.

The story begins with Naomi finding herself to be a wife with no husband, and a mother with no sons. She has two daughters-in-law who don’t belong with her. She thinks herself to be as good as dead.

But she has this one daughter-in-law Ruth, who insists: Wherever you go, I will go.   

Doors that would not take you in… outcast, and a stranger.

When they return to Bethlehem, Naomi is bitter. But her daughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabite, begins, little by little, to restore life’s sweetness for Naomi. First, she feeds her with the grain she has harvested. Then she lets it be known that the owner of the field is a relative of Naomi’s husband.

Notice, none of the three are blood relatives to one another.

You have come by way of sorrow, you have come by way of tears…

After a time, Naomi sends Ruth to make a case to Boaz that he should step up, and obey the laws of their people, and take Ruth as his wife. Boaz is persuaded.

Then we have our romantic-comedy-type Big Last Obstacle, and it is overcome. Ruth and Boaz are wed, and they have a child, Obed. One last name definition for you: Obed means “servant,” “worker.” And Obed does indeed serve God’s purposes mightily, because he provides us the great punch line of the story, the information saved for the very last moment: Obed will be the grandfather of King David, the greatest king in all the stories of God’s people.

But for Naomi, this is a resurrection story. “Blessed be the Lord…” say the women of Bethlehem, as baby Obed is placed in Naomi’s arms. “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.” Naomi, who was dead, has come alive again. She is so full of life she becomes the baby’s nurse.

But you’ll reach your destiny, meant to find you all these years,
meant to find you all these years.

What can we take from this story?

Scripture tells us stories of creation and re-creation.

We read in Ruth about the breakdown of not only a family, but an entire society, about the moment when its members might scatter to the winds like the seeds of a dandelion, but instead, come together again, when family is re-created by being re-defined. Ruth says, no matter that we are not related. I choose to make you, Naomi, my family. We are kin.

Scripture tells us stories of God’s love through the covenants we make.

We have the initial unseen covenant between Naomi and her husband, and then between Ruth and her husband.

We have the completely unexpected covenant between the foreigner Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi.

We have the further marriage covenant between Ruth and Boaz.

And we have God’s unseen hand, guiding the makers of these covenants to provide for God’s people in ways that startle and surprise us.

Scripture tells us stories of outsiders who, mysteriously, end up being the lynchpins in God’s surprising designs.

Ruth is a Moabite, which means all kinds of coded things in scripture about being an outsider, about being hated—in one psalm [108:9] we actually read, “Moab is my washpot,” which is a very cleaned up translation of something much more like, “I will wipe the floor with you, Moab.” Naomi’s people despise her people. But of all the players in this little tale, it is Ruth who is most closely aligned with not only the character, but the purposes of God. Ruth is the one whose actions speak of hesed, of loving-kindness, and faithfulness.

And it is Ruth who is the necessary player—it is her re-crafting of familial relationships that ultimately can be credited with the birth of King David.

Think of how this story was heard in an era when intermarriage with non-Israelites was forbidden. Think of how this story was heard as people were being forced to break up their families, sending their wives and children away if they were not descendants of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Think of how God was speaking to God’s people through this gentle little tale of loss and hunger, and re-vitalization and fullness—all because one of those hated foreigners exceeded all expectations and definitions of love and loyalty.

Think of how we can hear this story today.

As summer comes to an end, I want to end, not by talking about a romantic comedy, but a big sci-fi action picture, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” So, we have our hero, a guy kidnapped from family when he was just a kid, and we have what ends up being his truly motley crew—a green killing-machine of woman, a genetically engineered raccoon man, a very extensively tattooed wrestler-type, and a man who is a tree. A tree-man. The tree-man’s name is “Groot.” We know this, because he speaks only the words, “I am Groot,” in response to every situation. “I am Groot.” For those of you to whom this means anything, think “Hodor.”

I am going to spoil the end of this movie for you, so plug your ears if you haven’t seen it. In the great crisis near the end, when it seems all our motley crew is sure to die, Groot does something that will save everyone, but probably kill him. The raccoon man, Rocket, tries to talk him out of it—“But Groot, you’ll die.” And then, with tears brimming in his tree-man eyes, he says, “WE ARE GROOT.”

We are Groot. It’s the most scriptural moment I’ve experienced in a summer blockbuster in a long, long, time. And it speaks a truth that is at the heart of, not only the Book of Ruth, but all of scripture: our redemption, our salvation, always, always, happens in community.  And it almost always happens because we have defied the rules that society clings to about where our loyalties are supposed to lie, and instead, stretch ourselves, open ourselves, to come together in a beloved community of those outside our own tribe.

This is what church is. A beloved community. A community where we come together, not because we are a biologically related family, but to find and forge a new definition of family that does not rely on shared genes or skin color or ethnic background.  Like Ruth. Like Naomi. Like Boaz.

You have drunk a bitter wine with none to be your comfort,
You who once were left behind will be welcome at love's table.
You have come by way of sorrow, you have come by way of tears,
But you’ll reach your destiny, meant to find you all these years,
meant to find you all these years.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Song Lyrics: "By Way of Sorrow," Julie and Buddy Miller

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Burning Bush

Detail, Burning Bush/ Tree of Life Quilt by Janet Rutkowski

Exodus 3:1-8

I hardly dare ask... I know we have no right...
But Michael Brown, I must ask this great favor, this unspeakable gift.

Trayvon was not enough, nor Emmett,
nor the whole host and holocaust of men of color,
(did we even notice Kajieme?)
enslaved, disposable,
less than human through the sites of a gun.

I hardly dare ask.

The hashtag is good-- ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬--
but I fear it isn't enough,
won't do the job we need it to do,
the enormous breaking down
of laws and structures and hearts
the massive dismantling of privilege unacknowledged
and assumptions unchallenged.

Oh Michael Brown. I know we have no right to ask,
the image is all too close
to the evil fires set again and again...
the symbol of hope, the cross of Christ
transformed into Satan's flag of terror,
crackling and crumbling in a Missouri night.

I know we have no right to ask, But ask I will.

Oh Michael Brown, will you be our burning bush?

c. Patricia Raube 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, What a Night! Sermon on Ruth 3:1-18

"Hay Bale" by Jamie Wyeth

Scripture can be found here...

Try to remember a time when you fell in love. Maybe it was summertime.

Maybe you remember a warm evening spent walking through the park, hand in hand with someone you’d had your eye on for a long time. And now, you knew the feeling was mutual. And you were light-headed and giddy with the new reality. Love!

Or maybe you were in an air-conditioned restaurant. A conversation started… “Tell me about yourself.” And the next thing you knew, it was five hours later, and you regretted the early morning commitment that made you say goodnight before you wanted to. It was love.

Or maybe you were watching the one you’d been married to for a long time already. They were fixing a faucet. It was a hot day. It had been a frustrating project, taking longer than planned, requiring a second trip to the hardware store. You brought a cup of ice water, and your eyes met, for just a moment. And there it was… you’d do anything for each other. Still. It’s still love.

In this morning’s passage from the Book of Ruth we are given a window into an intimate moment—but what is it, exactly? Is it the moment Ruth and Boaz fall in love? Is it the moment when they know they belong together? What exactly happens on that threshing floor?

The story is set in motion by Naomi.

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, from different lands, ethnic groups, and religions, have been living in mutual commitment in Bethlehem. Their stomachs were empty, but now they are full. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological needs come first. Then the need for safety. Then connection—love, marriage, family. Explicitly stating that the goal for Ruth must now be marriage, Naomi sends her daughter-in-law, washed and anointed, to the end-of-harvest celebration, with their kinsman Boaz as the object of Naomi’s strategies. Naomi instructs Ruth,

“… go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”  ~ Ruth 3:3b-4

There are several ways we can look at this. Maybe what we are seeing is a planned seduction. Ruth is bathed and anointed—she’s put on her perfume, taken care as to how she is dressed. Anyone who has been in love knows the ritual of preparing to spend time with the object of their affections. Choosing the right clothes. Fussing with your hair. This is all familiar.

Where the biblical narrative takes an unexpected jag is in what Naomi suggests next. “Don’t approach him until he’s drunk and ready to go to sleep. Then lie down next to him…”

There is a specter hovering over this scene, the ghost of something else entirely. I’ve stated a couple of times over these past three weeks that Ruth and Naomi have no options for employment. But that is not true. There is a profession open to them, the oldest profession, and the hint, the threat of prostitution hangs around this scene like an unwelcome guest. And I promise you: anyone hearing this story or reading the scroll back in the time when it was written would have understood that fact very clearly. The actions Naomi urges Ruth to take—with the specific goal of obtaining a marriage proposal from Boaz—could easily be interpreted as solicitation, with Ruth as the prostitute and Boaz as the client. This is an extremely risky proposition. If you’d like to know all about the significance of the phrase “uncover his feet,” you can catch me at coffee hour or at bible study on Monday at 5:00 PM.

But this is not prostitution. Ruth is not soliciting, and Boaz is no client. And, in fact, after she follows all Naomi’s instructions to the letter, Ruth stops short. She stops short at stopping short—she does not follow Naomi’s instructions to wait to be instructed by Boaz. Instead, she speaks:

[Boaz says], “Who are you?” And [Ruth answers], “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”

We interrupt the flow of this sermon to bring you a brief piece of background information on that phrase, “next-of-kin.” According to the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, close relatives must step up to guard the property rights of the family when there is a death. In this case, Ruth is marriageable, and there is, we learn for the first time right here, property associated with Ruth’s dead husband—property she can’t own outright because she is a woman. “Next-of-kin” is a legal designation. It means that Boaz is not only eligible, he is morally required to step forward—to keep the property in the family by marrying Ruth.

But now: did you notice what just happened? That in a story supposed to have taken place something like 3500 years ago, a woman has proposed marriage to a man? God is said to spread a cloak over God’s people repeatedly throughout scripture (in Hebrew, the word is “wings.”) It is a metaphor for complete care and protection, an act of love and nurture. When Ruth asks Boaz to spread his cloak over her, she is asking him to care for her, to protect her. Ruth is asking Boaz to marry her, and she is doing so in language that deliberately ties Boaz’s action to God’s: love as an act of caring and protection. The Hebrew word for this is hesed. It can be translated love, or loving-kindness, or faithfulness. Hesed is the kind of love God has for us.

And Boaz’s answer?

[Boaz says], "May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.” ~ Ruth 3:10-11

There’s that word again, hesed, only here it’s translated “loyalty.” But it’s the same word. Love. Loving-kindness. Faithfulness. The kind of love God has for us.

And here it seems like a good time to notice: this chapter is usually portrayed as an attempt to get Boaz to save Ruth (and, by extension, Naomi, and their family’s property and heritage). But here Boaz, with incredible grace, and humility, and honesty, points out a poignant truth: Ruth is saving him, as well. He reveals that he thinks of himself as less worthy, maybe less desirable. He is honored.

I wonder. Do you think maybe the best relationships are the ones where both parties think that they are the lucky one?

Can you remember a time when you realized that this was the person you wanted to spend your life with? And it was not because they were beautiful or buff or even smart or brave… but simply because you could see their goodness shining through? Their heart? When Ruth looks at Boaz she sees a man who didn’t chase a foreigner, a stranger, away from his field, but provided for her safety as well as her empty stomach. When Boaz looks at Ruth he sees a woman who devoted herself to the well-being of her widowed mother-in-law, despite her own self-interest, and who, even in this act—this bold and daring proposal on the threshing floor—continues to care for Naomi.

Boaz urges Ruth to sleep. Because the author of Ruth is a brilliant storyteller, the happy ending—the fullness and healing the reader is longing for—is not so quickly or easily accomplished. There is another who is a closer relative; this must be dealt with. Boaz, mindful of the conclusions that might be drawn if Ruth were to be spotted leaving in the wee hours of the morning, helps her to leave undiscovered. Still, the atmosphere is light and the symbolism heavy: Boaz loads Ruth down with grain to take home to Naomi. Seed and fertility—fullness of every kind—are promised. Ruth leaves, we have to believe, with a heart as full as her cloak.

Naomi’s question to Ruth upon her return home is translated “How did things go with you, my daughter?” but the Hebrew is a much more spare and enigmatic, “Who are you, my daughter?” Who is Ruth, now that she has returned home from her assignment? Is her reputation intact? Did Boaz understand what she was angling for? Has she returned home a woman promised marriage or not? Ruth’s response, if the text actually reports it in total, is equally spare, and equally enigmatic: “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” [3:17] If Naomi’s question (and ours) is, “What happened, exactly?” it goes unanswered. Some things are better left a mystery.

What a night! An assignation on the threshing floor, full of sexual tension and anticipation. And yet it carries with it even more pressing questions of long-term safety and well-being, life and death. Which, if you think about it, is true of every relationship of deep commitment, certainly of every marriage. I have a minister friend who likes to remind marrying couples that they make their promises in the face of death—that, despite the relative ease with which they can change their minds and go their separate ways, in the moment of marrying they commit themselves to staying until either they or their spouse are widow or widower. “Love is stronger than death,” the Song of Songs reminds us, “and passion fierce as the grave.” In love we set a seal on the heart of one another. It isn’t easily erased.

Much like the love of God. God sets a seal upon our hearts and lives, too, and God’s passion is without doubt stronger than death and fiercer than the grave. And God cares about us, our lives and our loves matter to God, in all their messiness and unpredictability and moments of embarrassment and grace. Dr. William Willimon wrote a gorgeous essay on weddings and marriages, in which he concludes:

Our God, thank God, does not wait until we get our lives cleaned up and aesthetically acceptable, until we know what we’re getting into, until all the psychological factors indicate that we are ready to mate, and until we figure out the real meaning of what it means to love another human being forever. Our God -- the one who began his ministry at, of all places, a wedding in Cana of Galilee -- entered the flesh, the tackiness and transitoriness of it all and said, strange as it might seem to us of little faith, that our human unions are of divine consequence.[i]

God’s hand continues to quietly guide the characters in our story. Next week, all will finally be revealed. But we can already see the ending, like a well-plotted romantic comedy. We see it in Ruth, cloak full of grain, moving quietly through the mist of a very early morning to show Naomi the promise of what lies ahead, this very human union that is of divine consequence. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] William Willimon, “Cleaning Up the Wedding,” the Christian Century June 6-13, 1979, p.653.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Empty Ones: Sermon on Ruth 1 and 2

"Ruth" by Henry Ryland (1856-1924)

Scripture can be found here...
Almost 20 years ago, an unnamed character in a mostly obscure comic strip with a niche audience was talking about her criteria for which movies she was willing to see.  She said, “I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, Two, talk to each other about, Three, something besides a man.” This little sentence, penned somewhat offhandedly by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, took on a life of its own. It came to be known as the Bechdel test, a kind of feminist litmus test for the full representation of women in art and culture. It’s not that people who are interested in those things won’t see anything that doesn’t pass the test—believe me, we’d be watching precious few movies and TV shows if we held to that standard. But—it’s a useful tool, not perfect, just consciousness-raising.

The Book of Ruth is one of just four books in the Bible that passes the Bechdel test.[i] That means that the book of Ruth contains at least two characters—in fact, there are three—who are women, who have names, and who have at least one conversation that is not about a man.

This makes Ruth a remarkable book. It’s a remarkable book written for a pivotal moment in the history of God’s people. The opening sentence tells us that the story is set in the time of the Judges, but scholars will tell you it was written much later, in the time of the return from the Babylonian exile.

This is the background for the book of Ruth, also called throughout the book, Ruth the Moabite. Ruth is not from Bethlehem in Judah, she is not a Jew. She is a foreigner.

The names are important and revealing in this story. The book begins as the tale of a man, Elimelech—a name that means, “My God is king.” Though we don’t have a God who intervenes in obvious ways in this narrative, that name—My God is king—sets the tone for a story in which God’s hand seems to be guiding people and determining outcomes. Elimelech sets out from Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and his two sons for Moab. They are being forced to flee to another land because there is a famine in Bethlehem—Bethlehem, a Hebrew word meaning “house of bread.” There was a famine in the house of bread, which tells us that something is very wrong; things are topsy-turvy, upside down. And Elimelech’s sons are named “Mahlon” and “Chilion,” which translate “sickness” and “wasting,” so, that’s not good. Still, they marry our heroine, the Moabite Ruth (which means kindness) and another Moabite woman named Orpah[ii] (which can mean shadow or darkness). Naomi’s name means “pleasant.”

Here’s why it matters that the book of Ruth was written at the end of the Babylonian exile. After about sixty years of captivity in Babylon, the Jews were permitted at last to return to the land of Judah. During the exile, the priests and scholars of the people had spent much of their time of study and prayer attempting to figure out why God had allowed this terrible thing to happen to them. They came to believe that it was their own fault, that the people had worshiped other gods, and they laid much of the blame for that behavior on foreigners. Aliens. People of other ethnic backgrounds. As they returned from exile, strict laws, draconian laws, went into effect, prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and foreigners. Those who were already married to foreigners were required to divorce, to split up their families. Jewish men were required to send away their foreign wives and children. The book of Ruth, set in another, earlier time, is a story about an alien, a foreign wife, Ruth the Moabite.

Back to our story. All three men die, leaving behind all three women as widows, and Naomi also becomes a mother who has lost her sons. In our day, this would be considered a tragedy of the greatest proportions. The depth of pain and loss for any family who loses one member is great. This family has been hit particularly hard.

But there’s more than the human, emotional toll of grief and loss. There is also the social reality of what it meant to be a woman in that era. These three women have entered a nightmare. In this ancient world, women without men to protect and care for them are incredibly vulnerable. They are in constant danger—danger of starvation, or danger of being kidnapped and sold as slaves. They can’t go out and get a job to support themselves. Well, they could. But it’s not a job any woman really wants. Naomi as the matriarch of her tiny and decimated family makes the decision. They will return to Bethlehem, because there is news that the land is producing food again, the famine is over. There is bread again in the house of bread. Their best hope lies in returning to the land of Naomi’s birth, the place where they might be able to find food and family.

And then a struggle ensues. Naomi lets it be known that even this decision is not foolproof. It’s as if her conscience is telling her: don’t drag these young women along. There are no guarantees. Naomi’s words to them are heartbreaking. “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me” [1:8b]. Naomi puts herself in the same category as the dead. Naomi is all but dead herself.

When Ruth and Orpah protest, she refutes their pleas with dark humor about the unlikely scenario of her giving birth to sons again, so that they could grow up and marry the young women. “No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me” [1:13b]. Naomi cannot account for all that has happened to her, except to believe that God has turned away from her. She is bitter. She is a shell of her former self. She is empty.

Orpah weeps, kisses her mother-in-law, and heads down the road towards her parents’ home.

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
~Ruth 1:16-17

Ruth is a remarkable character in a remarkable book. She chooses to throw in her lot with another woman, against all reasonable assessments of possible risks and rewards. She chooses, further, to bind herself with a covenantal vow, to someone who is, to her, a foreigner. Those of you who were here last Sunday, forgive me for repeating myself, but this is worth understanding. The statement, “May the Lord do thus and so to me,” was surely accompanied by a gesture. A gesture like this, [one indicating the cutting of the throat] or like this [one indicating being stabbed with a knife]. That is covenant language—the Hebrew always refers to “cutting a covenant,” because covenants are always sealed in blood—one way or another. Ruth has promised, on her own blood, to stay with her foreigner mother-in-law, who is also a different religion AND a woman. No pro-con list would have resulted in this choice.

What could Naomi do? The two women, Judean mother-in-law and Moabite daughter-in-law, head to Bethlehem.

They arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest. By the time they get there, their stomachs are as empty as their hearts, and Ruth the Moabite offers to go to a barley field to glean. Gleaning was a practice in ancient Israel and Judah that was codified into law. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is mandated: when farmers gather their crops—their barley, their wheat, their grapes—they are not to strip the plants bare, and if they leave a sheaf in the field by accident, they are to leave it there. These gleanings are for the poor. They are for widows and orphans. They are for aliens, for those we might call “illegal immigrants,” those who have no particular right to be there. Sometimes the text explains, “You will be blessed if you do this.” Other times it simply says, “I am the Lord your God.” We provide for those who are hungry because it is what the people of God do.

Ruth goes to glean. By coincidence, or by Providence—that quietly guiding hand of God—it turns out that the field she gleans in is owned by one Boaz, whose name means “by strength.” He is related to Naomi’s dead husband. And Boaz notices Ruth. He asks questions about her, and he learns of her loyalty and dedication to Naomi. He learns that she has been gathering the gleanings of barley since early in the morning without stopping.

Boaz speaks to Ruth, and tells her to stay in his field, to stay near his people for protection. He gives her some food to fill her empty stomach, and some kind words to fill her empty heart. And when she returns to the place where she and Naomi have been staying, her report of the day fills Naomi with hope—for the first time since she was reeling with the emptiness of her sorrow and loss.

As we end chapter two, we know there will be bread on Ruth and Naomi’s table once again. And we know that Naomi sees even greater hopes for fullness, for both herself and her daughter-in-law.

It has been a devastating summer, this summer of 2014. All around the world there are wars and rumors of war. Israel and Palestine seem to be abiding by an uneasy cease-fire. The streets of Ferguson, Missouri are still ringing out with gunfire after a young, unarmed black man was killed, and police responded with military force to peaceful protests, which then turned violent, and led to opportunistic looting.  In Iraq the ISIS forces continue to terrorize Christians as well as specific ethnic groups. And these are just the stories that have been in the news.

One theme runs through all these headlines. The theme is conflict based on difference. The difference may be religion, it may be ethnicity, it may be skin color. These are old, old fights, many of them. But in each case, thinking humans are choosing, for the most part, to align themselves tribally. They speak of “those people” when describing those whose actions they find abhorrent.

The book of Ruth tells another story, a cool breeze blowing through a landscape of boiling anger. It tells of love and commitment across the boundaries that ordinarily divide us. It tells of a woman from the region that, today, is part of Jordan, who gave her life and loyalty to another woman from what, today, is part of Israel.

This story was written at a time when immigrants, aliens, were demonized, when they were blamed for everything that was wrong in the post-exile society. This story was written to offer another perspective, one that holds to the notion that, in the words of one writer, “Biological family is too small of a vision. Patriotism is far too myopic. A love for our own relatives and a love for the people of our own country are not bad things, but our love does not stop at the border.”[iii]

The story of Ruth is the story of love that doesn’t stop at the border. It’s a story of human beings giving one another a chance, ignoring the walls that normally divide them, even those walls their religion is telling them to put up. 
-->It’s a story of radical commitment, against all odds, that gives God’s quiet and powerful hand an opportunity to take those who were empty and make them full again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Ruth, Tobit, Mark, and Luke. The number falls to three if you leave out the Apocrypha (Tobit).
[ii] “Orpah” can also mean “mane” or “back of the neck.”
[iii] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
[iv] Noam Zion, Megillat RUTH: Hesed and Hutzpah