Prayers of Parents

Beloved Community

Beloved Community

Ruth 4:9-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 June 2024

               A couple of weeks ago, in the daily email from the Atlantic, Charles Sykes wrote about what he called the “airsickness” of our current moment in America.  He described the airsickness as experiencing “a disconnect between our senses—a nausea-inducing conflict between what we know and what we see.”  And what has caused this?  Sykes explains:

We’ve been led to believe that things work in a certain way, that there are mores and norms. We thought our world was right side up, but it now feels as if it’s been turned upside down. Words don’t mean what we think they do. Outrage is followed not by accountability, but by adulation. Standards shift, flicker, vanish. Nothing is stable.

He summed it up—"we find ourselves in a land of confusion.”

               Those descriptions resonated with me as I was preparing this summer sermon series on Old Testament stories beginning with the Book of Ruth.  Ruth is set during the period of the Judges, before Israel had an enduring monarchy.  And if you’ve ever read the Book of Judges, you know that it details a society descending further and further into chaos, disorder, and violence.  Each generation appears to get worse, and the final story of the Book is one of rape, murder, mutilation, and horrific violence as cities and tribes attempt to destroy one another.

               Our time is obviously not as fraught as that period of ancient Israelite history, but there are parallels with the sense of disorder, dread, and confusion.

               And in this context, we get the Book of Ruth.  As Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes, “Ruth is the still, small voice after the cataclysmic storm of Judges.”  She develops that idea further:

In the wake of Judges’ scenes of large-scale violence, deeply problematic national leadership, and moral deterioration of the whole people Israel, Ruth is a story of personal relationships that prove to be redemptive in the lives of a few ordinary people—yet ultimately point in the direction of hope for Israel as a whole.           

               The Book of Ruth, then, might just be a great place to turn as well in the summer of 2024, here to find how ordinary, modest people enter into relationships that “sow seeds of hope in the midst of desperate situations.”

               Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the rest of the story that precedes what I’ve read already. 

               Naomi and her husband and two sons leave Bethlehem during a famine and move to the country of Moab.  Now, Moab is sometimes a rival and enemy of Israel and sometimes is occupied by Israel.  It is not necessarily the most friendly of places for them to live.  Yet, they stay.  Eventually Naomi’s husband dies and her two sons marry local women, one of them being Ruth.  Those sons then die, leaving the three women alone. 

               Naomi decides to return to her homeland, to Bethlehem, and releases the two women to return to their families.  A fraught situation in ancient patriarchal cultures, where a woman, most of the time, needed a father, husband, or son to provide for them.  The story turns attention to the unjust plight of women in such a culture. 

Orpah decides to return home, but Ruth commits herself to traveling with Naomi in what is one of the most beautiful passages of scripture, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following after you!  Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

This pledge has often been used at weddings.  An interesting fact we gay marriage activists used to point out, because this is actually a commitment made between two women.  Not that they were married, because they weren’t, but it is one of those Bible stories that explodes traditional, patriarchal, hetero-normative gender and family relations.  These two women form a family and a household out of commitment and love for one another.  And then they use the survival strategies and coping skills necessary for two women to survive and thrive in the social setting they find themselves.

Because of this, Naomi and Ruth have long been icons in the queer community.  It’s irrelevant whether they were romantic partners or not—they exhibit the love and commitment of same-gender families and they embody the strategies and skills that our families have often had to evoke in order to survive and thrive in legal and social regimes that discriminated against us.  For these reasons the scholar Mona West proclaims Ruth to be our “queer ancestress.”  She exhibits the self-determination we require to live our full, authentic selves.  So, Happy Pride Month, from this ancient Biblical story.

Naomi and Ruth, then, return to Bethlehem and now must figure out how to live.  Ruth goes out into the fields to glean the leftovers from the harvests.  One of the ethical principles handed down in the Torah, is that when a farmer harvests their fields, they are to leave a remnant for the poor to come to collect for their survival. 

The Book of Ruth is also a story about the welcome and inclusion of foreigners, including those from untrusted rival nations.  The Book of Ruth is in the canon to counter the exclusionary perspective of some other biblical books, such as Ezra, which forbids the taking of foreign wives.  As biblical scholar Jacob L. Wright points out, the Book of Ruth is a challenge to the Old Testament laws, and evidences how the biblical canon includes stories about people of protest who provide examples of dissent and challenge, which themselves become core aspects of the biblical testimony.

(Many layers in this little book Ruth)

While gleaning, Ruth draws the attention of Boaz, who guarantees that she will be able to gather enough to support her and Naomi.  Naomi encourages Ruth to take matters into her own hands, so one night, Ruth enters Boaz’s tent, and they sleep together.  After that, Boaz takes the steps to publicly claim Ruth as his own, leading to the bit of the story I read earlier. 

A child is born, and the community celebrates that child as Naomi’s, recognizing that Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz have together formed a unique family and household that defies the hetero-normative, patriarchal standards.  And this family ends up being the most consequential of families—the origin of the Davidic Monarchy.

According to Ellen Davis this story “shows how the future opens up from the faithful, small-scale actions of three ordinary people, each of them serving the needs, spoken and unspoken, of the other.” 

This is a story of how people should act in a time of crisis and difficulty.  It centers women.  Modest, ordinary women.  And teaches us that relationships should be prioritized, even when those relationships don’t quite fit custom and law.  What matters is that we treat each other with generosity and loving-kindness.  That we trust one another and defer to each other.  We mutually take these risks with one another in order to create something new and better that helps all of us to survive and thrive.

               Ellen Davis writes, “The real test of covenant relationship is how one vulnerable person treats another who is likewise vulnerable.”

               In our own topsy-turvy time, that remains the true test.  How we vulnerable creatures treat each other in our vulnerability.  With proper care and attention, we can create the beloved community, where all are welcomed and included and given the opportunities and the capacities to flourish. 

               From our ordinary, daily acts of kindness, the future opens up to new possibilities.

               I like how UFMCC pastor Celena M. Duncan describes it in her commentary on Ruth:

For God’s realm to be realized concretely on earth, at the center of one’s life must be love of God, respect for self and for others, loving-kindness, responsibility, accountability, and integrity.  These are boundaries by which we recognize the dignity and personhood of ourselves and of each other, by which we acknowledge our common humanity, siblings all, children of the same Parent with the same spark of the divine that runs through one and all.  In the Creator of all, there is no straight or gay, asexual or bisexual, oriental or occidental, this nation or that one, old or young, not even Protestant or Roman Catholic.  There is only the diversity that the Creator in wisdom, love, and grace wants to share with us, diversity that we are expected to treat responsibly and respectfully.


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