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

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