November 8, 2015 // (using Proper 26B texts) //
First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // Candidating Sermon
“Choosing Love”: Ephesians 2:11-22; Ruth 1:1-22
As I told some of you yesterday, this was not a career option for women where I grew up. It surprised me earlier this year when I realized that even though I had been a woman minister for 10 years, I had never done a sermon series on the women of the Bible. So, we decided to do a short series on the uppity women of the Bible. And I was surprised. I wondered what might happen when we treated some of the women who appear in our Bibles as protagonists, rather than just supporting cast members, as our religious narratives so often do. I was surprised at what new insight, what new illumination, bubbled up. I was surprised by one of my favorite stories, the story of Ruth. Of the two books in the Bible named after women (the other being Esther, a story that just barely made it in), the only other book named after a woman is named for Ruth, the Moabite… a foreign woman. (Pause.) If we were members of the community that gathered these sacred texts, it would give us more than pause. It would be a red flag. Ruth, a foreign woman. (Pause)
There was a time in ancient Israel, when the worst thing a woman could be was foreign. Not only did the laws encourage a separation between “us” and “them,” but Proverbs and other wisdom writings warn the young Israelites of the dangers of “foreign women.” If the Bible were a Broadway musical, on the subject of foreign women, it would belt that sultry song from Godspell: “Turn Back, O Man… forswear thy foolish ways…” “Of all the threats to national security,” Rachel Held Evans writes, “beautiful foreign women were seen as the most surreptitious, blamed, at least in part, for everything from King Solomon’s downfall to the Babylonian captivity. Foreign wives, young Israelite boys were warned, were seductive, idolatrous, and the demise of kings.”1 Watch out for those foreign women! For the sake of your lives, Turn back. (Pause)
1 Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2012), p. 115.
2 Ta-Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (Spiegel & Grau: New York, 2015).
There was a time, when the worst thing you could be in North America was foreign. (Pause) Well. Okay. … Maybe there have been numerous times. Actor George Takei, of the original Star Trek, spent his boyhood behind the barbed wire of internment camps created by an executive order in 1941 requiring that this country relocate its own citizens, the ones of Japanese descent, into camps, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a time of great fear, a time of trauma for our nation. But it was not the first time the worst thing you could be in North America was foreign. There were other times, much earlier, when we took our heritage, whether it was German or Jewish or Slavic or Hungarian, or whether it was in my case German Catholic, and we tried to subsume all of that under one blanket of “whiteness.” It’s something we created. “White” is a construct as much as “black” is a construct today. White is a construct that gives us the impression we belong. Whoever we come from, whatever we were, “whiteness” gave us was a way to no longer be “foreign.” Ta-Nahisi Coates has a beautiful, poetic way of describing this. He calls us, “the people who believe they are white.”2 Whiteness gives us a way not to be 2
foreign. Given recent public rhetoric about the challenges posed by overdue immigration reform, undocumented residents and the resettlement of refugees from Syria, we might be again in one of those seasons in North American when it feels like one of the worst things you can be is foreign – whether that’s a religion that’s foreign to us or whether that’s a race. Whatever our differing political solutions to meet those real and complex challenges to our common life, as people of faith, God calls us to respond a little differently. When we see in our community or in our world signs that say “Immigrant go home!” or hear politicians promise to “send them back,” we really need to pass those messages through the sieve of our spiritual family tree. Because we are Ruth’s sisters and brothers and children, direct descendents of that foreign woman who would not turn back. And that changes everything. (Pause)
Turn back! Turn back. At least three times, in Ruth’s story this morning, Naomi tells Ruth to turn back. (Maybe not with the same tone of voice as we find in Proverbs, but…) Ruth is not only a foreign woman, she’s worse than a foreign woman, in fact, she is a Moabite woman. If you dig a little deeper into the story of Israel, that means she traces her family tree directly to the sad sexual union of Abraham’s brother Lot and his two daughters-in-law who, in a desperate move for their own survival, get their father-in-law drunk and themselves pregnant by him.3 Ruth is one of those people: a Moabite. That detail should set off alarms. We should see signs that say, “Turn back.”
3 Amy-Jill Levine, “Ruth,” Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1992), background here and elsewhere.
But although Ruth’s rich, complex story begins in emptiness and loss, it ends with fullness and love. When Bethlehem – literally, “the house of bread” – lies empty with famine, a certain man Elimelech takes his wife, Naomi, and two sons to seek a better life in Moab. Sadly, the man dies. His sons do what good Israelite boys should not do; they take Moabite wives. Ten years later, it seems, the sons also die, leaving three widowed women without the means for survival. And this is where the story gets really interesting. Naomi hears a good harvest has come again to her homeland and decides to return, telling her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers’ houses and seek new husbands and new futures there. But despite being told three times to “turn back,” Ruth refuses. She instead pledges herself to Naomi with a fierce and holy love. You may have heard these words before:
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 clings to Naomi. It’s the same word the storyteller uses in Genesis for the way a man will cling to his wife. It’s the kind of passion we usually reserve for marriage. It’s a God sort of love. The word is hesed. It shows up throughout Ruth’s story. And the people who see her hesed – sometimes translated loyalty, sometimes translated faithfulness – marvel at how the way she chooses to love saves not just herself, but Naomi, too, then eventually, the entire people, and much, much later… us. Having no other source of income as widows, Ruth goes to glean around the edges of the harvest. She catches the eye of Boaz, who gives his servants specific instructions to protect her and help her, eventually extra measures of grain. When Ruth retells the 3
tale to Naomi, the understandably bitter older woman sees a flicker of hope. Boaz is a relative of sorts, someone who could redeem the family property… and the women who go with it. She tells Ruth to shower, perfume herself, dress in her best and go to the threshing floor. Scope out the place where Boaz lays down and then go uncover his feet and lay down beside him. “He will tell you what to do.” Wink. Wink. Let the reader understand “feet” is often a euphemism in scripture and probably is here, though no one in this story seems to terribly worried about this foreign woman seducing Boaz. Interestingly, there’s no moral commentary. The commentary in this story is on Ruth’s hesed, her steadfast love. Ruth does everything except wait for Boaz to tell her what to do. Instead, she proposes to him. Boaz marvels at Ruth’s hesed – her steadfast love, the love that chooses to be fiercely loyal. He redeems Ruth, Naomi, and the land. At the end of the story, we see the rest of Ruth’s family tree: Boaz begets Obed, who begets Jesse, who fathers David, the king.
What if Ruth had acquiesced to Naomi’s first, repeated command to “turn back”? Emptiness and death would have had the last word. Of course, this uppity woman of the Bible did not do as she was told. She did not turn back. Ruth did not go home. She chose instead steadfast love, hesed. [Pause]
Bold, active Ruth disappears from her story once she obtains her security and Naomi’s through marriage to Boaz. But she does not disappear from our story. She becomes part of our lineage. Much, much later, when a gentile tax collector finds salvation – new life and holy relationship – in the community of Jesus, he tells that good news story starting with women. The Gospel according to Matthew begins with a list of names, all the generations from Adam to Jesus. But four of them, including Ruth, are foreign women.4 She did not turn back. She did not go home. She chose instead steadfast love, hesed, and her choice to choose steadfast love enabled us to meet God embodying that same steadfast love in Jesus. Remember, writes Matthew, with his genealogy… Remember, writes Paul to an early church in Ephesus, at a time when “circumcised” and “uncircumcised” were his version of “foreign” and “native-born.” Remember… at one time you were foreign by birth… you were outsiders … … remember that you were aliens from the commonwealth, strangers to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near. … Remember, we tell one another here in this place, remember at one time you were called “gay,” called “illegal,” called “disabled,” called “heretic,” called “addicted,” but now, in this place, you are Beloved. You may be strange, still, but you Belong.
4 Held Evans, p. 119.
Ruth teaches me again this year, both through her original story and in the way her story echoes through the Gospel stories and the stories of the early church. She helps us as Jesus followers struggling to respond faithfully in a political environment hostile to all who might be called “foreign,” in an environment that seems hellbent, at times, on finding new people to fear and to scream at “Turn back!” Ruth helps us in our time and in our place not to whitewash what makes us “foreign” to one another, but to accept and to see the bridge that connects us across difference and makes us more whole. That bridge is hesed, God’s love, steadfast love, a love that chooses to love. (Pause) And I think Ruth helps us, too, very practically today as we discern this 4
ministry we might share. You aren’t starving, like Naomi. You’ve experienced abundant harvest even in the time since you last pastor left. You don’t need a savior in your next pastor. (I am relieved.) But if we decide God is calling us together, we will be for awhile… maybe always… a little foreign to each other. I will be coming from a foreign land of davenports and foreclosed century homes, experiences of real childhood scarcity, and that conversational habit of couching real feelings in what we sometimes call “Midwest Nice.” (Pause) I’ll be entering a foreign land nearly void of brown skin, where principals in the public schools seem… happy and… laid back… (it’s a little like the twilight zone)… where more people than I’ve ever seen hitchhike and sleep regularly outside… where church members appear to be more theologically liberal than their pastors. I’m sure we’ll encounter more that seems foreign and strange. But like all relationships gestated in the womb of the Body of Christ, like all relationships born out of that Creator’s steadfast love, the lifeblood of ours will be hesed, steadfast love, a love that chooses to bridge and connect. A love that chooses to love.
We are Ruth’s sisters and brothers and children, direct descendents of that foreign woman, who would not turn back. May that change everything about who we are and what we do. May that empower us today, tomorrow and every day to choose love, no matter how foreign we are to one another and others we encounter along the way. Let us be people who choose to love in God’s way. Amen.5
5 Disclaimer: This was a much longer sermon than I typically preach!