Sunday, November 04, 2012

Proper 26

Ruth 1
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

48 hours to go and there are surrogates in the spin room.

CNN and FOX News viewers know what I’m talking about: each party in the election has surrogates (partisans, spokespeople) who make themselves available in the spin room (place to put the best face on whatever just happened). And each party has hundreds: they fan out (meaning they leave the spin room) and go to swing states that the candidate cannot reach, owing to the strict rule of physics that only allow you to be in one place at a time.

Investment tip: Jet fuel.

Pity that preachers don’t have surrogates or spin rooms. You know, after the service we could retreat to coffee and a surrogate can say, ‘what I think Michael meant to say...’ Other surrogates could offer a counter-argument: ‘Meant to say? You mean you can’t tell for sure?’ I think you see the picture.

So if I was going take my place as a Mount Dennis surrogate, and spin the vote to come to Central, I might begin with the seamless transition from neighbours to brief co-habitors to companions and now friends. I might highlight the leaders who have joined our administrative life and the renewed sense of purpose this brings, and I would certainly mention the Mount Dennis Neighbourhood Centre, steps from becoming a reality and something that is certain to bring great benefit to the Weston-Mount Dennis community.

I see smiles and nods (I’m so confident that I have written here ‘I see smiles and nods’) and so you might say this surrogate has it right. There is great satisfaction when a seeming disaster leads instead to a positive outcome for the benefit of everyone. And I’m not just talking about the Book of Ruth.

But I could be talking about the Book of Ruth. It is a story about a seeming disaster that leads instead to a positive outcome for the benefit of everyone. And it has given us one of the Bible’s most loved quotes, but that would be jumping ahead.

Ruth is a little book, just four chapters, and hard to find unless you know the mnemonic, the handy memory aid that will allow you to find it every time. It helps to remember that it’s Old Testament, then recall the sequence of books: Joshua Judges Ruth. Of course, Joshua is not literally judging Ruth, just providing a handy memory aid.

Think of Ruth as Job’s twin, separated at birth. Like Job, all the misfortune is over before you turn the first page: Naomi is widowed, her daughter-in-laws are widowed, and everyone is in a difficult spot. Whenever Old Testament writers want to give you shorthand for peril or misfortune, they usually start with ‘widows, orphans and aliens.’ Who are the most vulnerable? Widows, orphans and aliens. Who must the faithful protect? Widows, orphans and aliens. Says who? Psalm 10; Exodus 22; Leviticus 19 and 25; Deuteronomy 10,14,24,26,27, and 31; Proverbs 15, 23. And don’t even get me started on the New Testament.

So we have three widows and a difficult choice: Remain together in Moab and face an uncertain future, or return to Judah and face an uncertain future. Judah offered the possibility of kin, but not for all three. Naomi’s best option was to separate from her two daughters-in-law and go back to Bethlehem alone. Ruth and Orpah might best return to their kin and look for support.

All of this, it seems, is based in the idea of something called Levirate marriage, the principle whereby a widow is to marry her late-husband’s brother in an effort to maintain his bloodline. We see it in John 4, with the unlucky woman who has had five husbands, and we see it in other cultures throughout history. (I will mention it on Thursday, when poor Henry must marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, and who can forget Mary of Teck, who marries her fiancee’s younger brother, George V)

So everything old is new again. Either way, splitting up seems the best option and so Orpah remains in Moab. But Ruth has other plans, and gives us some of the most moving words in scripture:

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.

And like Job, there is a happy ending, when Ruth meets Boaz, and something happens on the threshing room floor, and everyone lives happily ever after and the boodline becomes the bloodline of King David, the greatest king of all. But that would be jumping ahead. And it would cheat us of our parallel to Job, the real heart of the story. Listen to verses 19 and 20:

19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
20 “Don’t call me Naomi,[b]” she told them. “Call me Mara,[c] because the Almighty[d] has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted[e] me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

In some ways, Naomi is her own ‘comforter,’ much in the way Job has so-called comforters to provide him with the rationale for all his suffering. Leaving full, and returning empty, Naomi can only conclude that she is being punished by God. She wants to be called bitter, because God has made her bitter, and all the good feeling that Ruth has generated with her stirring words is quickly gone. Oddly, verses 19 and 20 don’t appear in the lectionary of readings, maybe because the people who framed the lectionany felt that one Job was more than enough.

But I would argue the opposite, and for two reasons: The first is that by seeing the depth of her despair, by understanding that the ‘greats’ of the Bible experience moments of doubt and despair, we too can have our moments. Voicing discontent, blaming God for our misfortune, letting God know that we are blaming God for our misfortune: all of these have a place in a life of faith. Remember God is big and we are small: God can take it, so blame away. I can make a spirited argument that God cannot be the author of our misfortune, but that denies the cathatic experience that Job needed and Naomi needed and we sometimes need too.

The second reason we need to look at Ruth’s despair is its place in the overall arc of the story. She goes from despair (famine) to hope (family) to despair (death) to hope (Ruth and Boaz). Like all stories worth repeating, it has twists and turns and misfortune and fortune and underneath it all is a picture of a life of faith. Like Job, we learn that being faithful is not guarantee of ongoing happiness, and that looking up we are most often confronted with mystery. The biblical scholar John Collins put it this way:

The author [of Ruth] wants us to see ourselves here: we cannot see the outcome of our situations, nor can we see God’s guiding hand on them--but we are to “walk by faith and not by sight,” to use a New Testament phrase.

In other words, the road is long, the outcome is less than certain, and we always need companions in the journey. And isn’t that the story of the church? There are moments in our life together when we cannot see where we are headed, and we can’t always feel that God is guiding us, until we find ourselves in a place that feels like the place where we are meant to be. Add some fellow-travellers, people willing to take risks and journey together, and you get the very best of church and the best model for a life of faith.

And so we look about, at friends old and new, and we say “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Thanks be to God, amen.


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