Finding a Way

November 11, 2018

Series: November 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Ruth 4:13-17

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then 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! 15He 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." 16Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17The 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.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

Finding a Way

        Nearly two centuries ago, a woman left her home in Virginia to settle in the Midwest.  Unsure of what she’d find and afraid of what she was leaving behind she began a letter with the sentence, “Goodbye God, I’m moving to Indiana.”  As a native Hoosier, that literally hits close to home.  The letter-writer presumed she was leaving a place not simply of familiarity, but of faithful and earnest piety, and heading to the Godless frontier.  A little-known fact is that church attendance was, and actually is still to this day, higher in the Midwest than in the American South, but how was she to know?  In those days, they didn’t have access to that kind of information, much less a broader sensibility about God’s presence in different forms and cultures.

We shouldn’t be so hard on this woman.  How often have people found themselves on such frightening journeys into the unknown, displaced in any number of senses, simply doing whatever they needed to do in order to find a way, particularly women?  It’s important to name that gender dynamic since the Bible so often skews masculine and patriarchal.  The woman in today’s story, Ruth, is perhaps best known for her unwavering loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi after Naomi’s husband and two sons have died.  In those days it was a woman’s relationship to men that provided her security.  Without a husband or son to provide that for her, she was totally vulnerable.  Naomi determines she is too old to find another husband and has no family of her own to which to return.  Her daughters-in-law still have families to which they can return, and so Naomi urges them to go back to their families.  They are in a foreign land.

Ruth refuses, saying in poetic solidarity, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).  It is bold and dangerous, which is how women have had to be as long as we can remember.  In today’s episode of that story, Naomi continues to try and ensure Ruth’s security through a bold and dangerous move.  That is the exact word Naomi uses in creatively trying to secure Ruth a husband, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you…”  This marriage is not about love or mutuality, as we often think of marriage.  This marriage is about survival. 

What unfolds is described in allusion and euphemism.  Ruth is instructed to wait until Boaz has had enough to eat and drink and is asleep, emphasis on the drink.  Then she is to lie by him and “uncover his feet.”  If you’re wondering if this means what you think it means…it does.  Put on your perfume, dress up and “make yourself known” to him (3:4), yes, “known” in the biblical sense. 

In this era of #MeToo, when we are trying to become at least a little more aware of the plight of women in the face of sexual misconduct, and men to a lesser extent, this story is fraught with landmines.  We should be careful when we remember this important stories what messages we inadvertently send.  Even as we honor Naomi’s and Ruth’s creativity, we can lament the world in which such an act felt necessary.  We can weep when we imagine what it must have felt like for Naomi to have to tell Ruth to do, and ache for Ruth as she follows through.  We can wonder as well what it was like for Boaz to experience it.  That Boaz turned out to be an honorable man, that in the story the two wed and seem to have a good life doesn’t undo so much of what feels problematic.

It’s a story of creativity also of great risk, one in which bodies are used intimately and consent is questionable on a couple of fronts.  Ruth does her work under the cover of darkness, which is how women have had to operate, hiding and revealing selectively in order to ensure their safety. 

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Jewish festival of Purim.  Its remembrance involves a kind of hiding and revealing.  The episode it recalls is from another biblical book of decidedly female focus, Esther.  Esther, the story’s heroine craftily brings about the demise of the villain Haman.  At Purim parties to this day, there is a certain kind of cookie served.  Some say these cookies are to resemble the hat or the ear of Haman.  Others say, however, that the cookies resemble another body part, a reproductive organ and not the one that men have.  It becomes a symbol of the sacred feminine, one that has to remain somewhat hidden because the feminine is not allowed to be so overtly celebrated. [1]  Recently, around Halloween, a mother had to explain to her inquisitive child where the notion of witches came.  She described how witches weren’t always scary, but rather were tapped into the spirit and had spiritual powers, but because this was threatening to men and the things that helped them keep their power, scary stories were told of the witches to scare them away.

Yet, even when pushed underground, the feminine finds a way, working within a system that is stacked against them.  And, yes, I recognize a certain irony in me preaching this sermon.  How do I know?  Philip Newell tells a story about a particular community of Catholic sisters who have used their creativity to find fuller expression in a system that does not grant them the same voice or power.  These nuns have made a habit of securing priests who have a different set of abilities.  For a while they had a priest who was too unsteady to hold the elements.  “Poor Father so and so,” they would say, “He cannot hold the chalice.”  While the priest would speak the words of the mass, the sisters would step in to handle the elements.  For another time, they had a priest who could hold the elements just fine but could not speak.  “Poor Father such and such.  He cannot talk,” so these nuns would offer the words at the altar, staying within the system, and yet subverting it, finding their way. 

It might make you angry that women have had to operate in this way.  You may not like Ruth’s story at all.  I’m not here to make you change your mind.  Please don’t “blame” it on the Old Testament, though.  As I say to anyone who draws a strong distinction between the two testaments, “There is far more mercy in the Old Testament and far more wrath in the New than most people seem to think.  If you don’t agree, read Matthew 25 and then come and see me.”  So often we misunderstand and therefore misuse the Bible.  We think of it as a series of simple moral lessons and look for the hero to emulate in every episode.  That’s simply not what the Bible is.  The Bible is a library of stories, history, poetry, songs, letters, and truth claims, all of which written by and for people struggling, just like you and me, to make it through the world in the light of their God.  We see them struggle, stumble, fail and triumph in different order and measure just like the rest of us. 

If we want to get into testament distinctions, I might argue the Older Testament does an even better job of bearing witness to the grittiness of the real world.  Naomi and Ruth are real-world women in a real-world predicament.  Stories such as theirs are all too true, and I don’t have to tell that to many of you in this room.

Ruth and Naomi find a way in this cruel world—she and Boaz do marry and Ruth bears a child, a child Naomi nurses.  Did you catch the lineage of their offspring and its significance for us sitting here today?  Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David, and if you’ve read the gospels, you’ll remember they go to painstaking lengths to make clear that the household of David is what eventually gives birth to Jesus.  This creative, messy, painful—I’m not sure how to describe it—response to the harsh reality of life is what gives birth to the one we proclaim as Messiah.  This story is about people caught in a messy world, mustering what courage they can and finding a way. 

Notice how God does not judge Ruth or Naomi.  Then, as now, we have a habit of “slut-shaming” women.  Forgive me for using such a harsh term, but the name isn’t nearly as bad as the reality to which it points, as men and women are held to such different sexual standards.  God does not shame Ruth, yet so many in her world would.  So many in our world would, perhaps especially in the religious community.  Christians call Jesus their savior and yet somehow sometimes forget one of his fundamental teachings was, “Do not judge.”  We don’t know the stories behind people’s behavior.  Sometimes they are just doing what they need to do, creatively finding a way best they can when few choices are available to them.  We must remember.

In a Ted Talk Pope Francis put it this way,

In order to do good, we need memory, we need courage and we need creativity...Yes, love does require a creative, concrete and ingenious attitude. Good intentions and conventional formulas, so often used to appease our conscience, are not enough. Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face. The ‘you’ is always a real presence, a person to take care of.

           I love that last line.  Usually when Christians debate “real presence” they are talking about what’s present of Christ in the elements at communion.  Here, Pope Francis is reminding us that the real presence of Christ in the other person.  If you accept that, you cannot treat people with malice or neglect.  I hear a lot about the importance of the rule of law, and I honor the notion and those who take it seriously, and we should remember that when the law did not take care of people, when it was not compassionate, Jesus broke it, fully prepared to face the consequences.  In doing so, you might say he fulfilled it.  The obligation of the Christian is not to follow the law at all costs; it is to follow Jesus Christ at all costs.

          We have to decide whether we are determined to see others’ attempts to care for their loved ones as grotesque and worthy of condemnation or beautiful and necessary.  The author Steve Almond tells a story about going on the radio to talk about John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, a tale that illustrates the plight of poor tenant farmers and their forced migration due to the ecological devastation of the dust bowl.  Almond recounts receiving a number of responses to the segment.  One in particular stood out.  It was from a man who while agreeing the book was “a classic,” found its closing scene disgusting.  The scene features a woman, Rose of Sharon, giving birth to a stillborn baby in a barn—yes the symbolism is there.  Sharing that barn is an “emaciated stranger,” dying of hunger.  The woman undertakes an unusual act in attempt to save the man and maybe herself.  The Grapes of Wrath concludes thusly:The

Then slowly she lay down beside him.  He shook his head slowly from side to side.  Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast.  ‘You got to,’ she said.  She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. ‘There!’ she said.  ‘There,’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it.  Her finger moved gently in his hair.  She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

“What was she doing smiling?” the questioner asked Almond.  “Wasn’t it creepy enough she was breastfeeding a grown man?”[2]

          Almond reflects, “I wanted to tell him he was missing the point of the story.  The point of the story was that the man was starving to death.  The point of the story was that she was saving his life.”  Are we too immature to see the beauty of this lifegiving act?  Here were two people in the pit of desperation and in the most literal of fashions she nurses him back to life.    Naomi nurses a grandchild, Rose of Sharon nurses a man dying of hunger, each of them giving the only thing they had, the nourishment of themselves, two women on the threshing floor, finding a way.  The way we choose to tell and hear their stories will say everything about the kind of people we are.  Amen.


[2] Steve Almond, Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to