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June 2024

Abundant Lives

Abundant LivesAbundant Lives by Amanda Udis-Kessler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I highly recommend this new book from our denomination's publishing house (Pilgrim Press). It's a quick read that is very thoughtful and good. It presents a clear, comprehensive vision of the good life as envisioned from our theological perspective. I kept wishing I had written the book, or something very like it. I'll have to figure out how and when to develop this into either a sermon series or a class or some combination of both.

View all my reviews

The fight for Gay Marriage

An opinion piece in today's NY Times about the gay marriage fight annoyed me.  The author was critical of the way the legal fight for gay marriage was framed and blames that for some of the backlash over the last decade.  He believes more time should have been spent persuading people about the dignity of gay people.  He writes:

American gay activists would be wise to recalibrate their activism, shifting from a rights-based approach, with its emphasis on litigation, to one more oriented toward citizenship and dignity. They may also want to embrace a more ambitious and idealistic mind-set, aiming squarely at public persuasion.

As someone who was a gay rights activist--and in some of the toughest states of the heartland--I don't recognize this criticisms at all.  In fact I've always said that our most difficult work was changing hearts and minds, much of which we had to do before any legislative or judicial decisions.   I know I was deeply involved in such work, as were many that I know.  We weren't running the national orgs in DC or lawyers taking the cases, but we were in communities doing the difficult work of persuasion, generally by living our lives with authenticity and joy.  And doing it in public, as a public witness, and despite the hateful responses we could generate in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. 

I think one reason the author misses the work he references, is that there is no mention of the role of faith communities.  Troy Perry, the founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches was maybe the very first gay leader to begin the work for marriage equality.  And he understood that as a religious rite and sacrament, those arguments would need to be framed in spiritual, moral, and emotional ways.  My current denomination, the United Church of Christ, was the first mainline denomination to endorse marriage equality--a decade before the Obergefell ruling.  The work in our denomination and others centered around precisely the sorts of issues, ideas, and arguments that the author thinks was missing in the US effort for marriage equality.

I was simply shocked at the ignorance the column revealed.


What We Need

What We Need

1 Samuel 1:19-28; 2:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 June 2024

               Through persistence and faithfulness in God Hannah achieves her goals.  And once again we see her taking matters into her own hands, not intimidated by religious authority or the way things are normally done, as she engages in worship—a ritual to dedicate her son to lifelong service to God.

            This Bible story got me remembering the weekend of Sebastian’s baptism, when family and friends came into town, and we had a house full of folks.  My mother-in-law, Sebastian’s Lola, spent two days fixing homemade Filipino food, and HyVee roasted us a pig, and after Sunday morning’s worship, we feasted together. 

            In January when I attended Conversations, the annual gathering of United Church of Christ senior ministers, our keynote speaker was the professor Mary Luti talking about the ethical demands of the sacraments—baptism and communion.  The sacraments, she said, are

rituals that announce, embody, and enact the good news of Jesus Christ. By grace and faith over time, they can infuse in us the gospel’s revolutionary joy, its indefensible mercy, its liberating honesty, its risk and danger, its distinctive ethics.

            The gist of her remarks was that while we do good and beautiful things with the sacraments, what we normally do is insufficient for the power and potential that they possess to form us into who God desires us to be.  And so she focused on their significance in the ethical dimension, proclaiming:

The sacraments are a vital source of the church’s public witness. And yet when we’re talking about Chritstian justice-making it’s rare that anyone says, “For these moments we have our baptisms; for these challenges, we come to the table. This is a baptismal imperative, this is eucharistic action. We can do hard things drenched in baptismal waters. We will persist, for we have been fed.” 

The sacraments just might be the church’s most underrated source of formative power for persevering engagement with the world. Centering them more than we normally do in our worship and formation could go a long way towards sustaining the public witness of the Body of Christ. 

            Last week we talked about Hannah’s prayers, arising from pain and expressing her faith and desires, as helping to give birth to the nation.  Today we read a story about her act of worship.  Eugene Peterson highlights that in her story there are seven different times she prays or worships.  She seems to be grounded in spiritual practice, and that spiritual practice comforts her pain, gives her confidence, inspires her vision, and empowers her actions.  Peterson writes that Hannah is an example that “worship is a way of life.”

            He also points out—“This story began with Hannah weeping.  It ends with Hannah singing.”

            And the song she sings is filled with power and vision.  Not only that her own needs will be addressed by God, but that God will intervene radically on behalf of the people to deliver them from evil and establish a better, more just future.  Hannah’s acts of worship have ethical imperatives too, just like our Christian sacraments.

            This song is a source for the radical, justice-making vision of the people of God.  At his best, David embodies the vision of this song, and at his worst, he is judged for failing to live up to it.  The words and images and ideas in this song become central to the visions of the prophets and the lyrics of the poets.  It is Hannah’s song which Mary covers and remixes and makes her own—the Magnificat.  And this vision, originating in Hannah’s song, growing and developing over the centuries, is what Mary taught her son Jesus, who embodied as fully as one can the grand ideas of justice that Hannah sang.  What a song!

            And talk about the ethical imperatives we can draw from worship!

            This magnificent song, this act of worship—full of gratitude, praise, thanksgiving, and forward-looking radical hope—arose from the needs, the pain, the grief and sorrow, of this one woman.  Her persistence and faithfulness.  And her confidence in a God who listens and responds.

            This summer I’m leading a Theology Book Club.  We’ll be meeting once a month to discuss a book, and the book for August is Christena Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman.  Cleveland is a social psychologist and founder of the Center for Justice + Renewal.  Cleveland writes about growing up in an evangelical church and her youthful embrace of faith, religion, and spirituality.  Yet her growing struggles with that faith and her dawning awareness that not only did it not meet her needs, that it actively worked against them.  Specifically, it did not meet her needs as a black woman.  And fundamentally what didn’t meet her needs was the image of God she grew up with, what she starts to call “whitemalegod” and “fatherskygod” (both all one lowercase word).  And the more she studied and experienced life and began to question, the more she wondered if this image of God met anyone’s needs.  If we believe in a God who listens and responds and loves us, then we must reject whitemalegod and all of his negative effects on people and society.

            And so Cleveland went in search of images of God that arise from the Christian tradition and that did speak to her needs and the needs of all humanity.  Like Hannah, she took matters into her own hands, was not intimidated by religious authority and the way things are normally done, but sought out a life-giving spiritual practice and worship of God that met her needs.

Cleveland encourages the use of imagination when exploring God.  She writes that we cannot believe what we cannot imagine, and that too often traditional views have limited and inhibited our use of imagination, which leads to control.

            The divine image she discovered that spoke most powerfully to her were the Black Madonnas of rural France.  In villages throughout France, churches and shrines have centuries-old images of the Madonna and Jesus that are black.  In these sculptures and their stories and traditions, she discovered the God who listens and responds to her need.

            Cleveland argues that whitmalegod not only doesn’t meet human need but seems disgusted by it.  Toxic forms of religion compel us to conceal and repress our needs, particularly teaching women to do so.  Leading to a spiral of shame.  Instead, we must be liberated to identify and express our needs and take action to meet them.  Cleveland writes:

Echoed throughout these imaginings is a desire to authentically express our needs and for them to be cherished by those around us.  In other words, we long for nurturing . . . We yearn for a society that beckons our most authentic selves and celebrates our glorious quirks and foibles.  We long for a community that sees our need as an invitation to deepen our collective connections.  We crave a world in which our humanity is honored first and foremost.

            In the Black Madonna of Vichy, Cleveland discovered an image of the divine “She who cherishes our hot mess.”  For her, the needier the better.  This image of God gets “down into the thick of human experience.”  And God empowers us to create communities based on meeting our needs.

            I feel a resonance with Hannah, who believed in a God who listens and responds to our pains and our needs.  And with persistence and faithfulness, through acts of worship, she took decisive actions to bring about the changes she longed for.  Her worship and spiritual practice led to a set of ethical imperatives.  Cleveland does something similar in her spiritual awakening and her pilgrimage to discover the faith and the God she needs.

            Cleveland draws on research that shows matriarchal, as opposed to patriarchal, societies are “need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.”  Our vulnerability is valued and affirmed.  And society is structured to lift up our needs and respond to them.

            Hannah was alarmed by the corruption, disorder, and violence against women in her time.  She chafed under the patriarchal conditions of her life.  She envisioned something new, different, and better.  A world of greater justice. 

            She became a mother, who dedicated her son to this transformative work, to leadership among the people, guiding them to something better. 

            For Christena Cleveland, the work of creating needs-based communities is what it means “to mother.”  She proclaims, “No matter our gender identity, we are all invited to mother by creating life out of pain, by creating loving, interdependent community in response to violence.”

            Hannah may not have been the paragon of nurture—giving up her son to live at the shrine and be raised in service to God.  But she is an icon of creating life out of pain and taking the steps to respond creatively to the violence of her world.  From her individual pain, she envisioned something better.  She believed that God would listen and respond.  And so she centered her life on worship and spiritual practice—on her own terms, not bound by convention or intimidated by religious authority.  Her acts of worship, of persistence and faithfulness, became the source of a tradition that continues today, in us and the work that we do to nurture communities of care and outreach, supporting and encouraging one another, and engaging in the work of justice. 

            What do you need?  How do you experience God responding to your needs?  What sort of relationships and community would address those needs?  How might your needs shape your worship and your spiritual practice?  And how might your worship and spiritual practice flow back into the ethical dimensions of your life?

            Let’s imagine the more we might become.  And then let us live into the ethical demands of our faith and practice, to be a people who repond to human needs, and in that way embody God, who cherishes our hot mess.


Anti-Semitism

Franklin Foer's April cover story for The Atlantic, which I finally took the time to digest yesterday, is a must read, I believe. Though it is deeply sobering and alarming. 

And it prompts deeper, critical thinking about some of the language and concepts the American Left has embraced in the last decade. 

Here are some important reader responses also worth reading. 


New Propaganda War

Anne Applebaum is always important to read and never more so than this cover article for The Atlantic about how the West is losing the war of ideas.

She demonstrates how the authoritarian powers have learned that they cannot only control and censor information internally, they must be actively sowing information against the West and its values at home and abroad, including in the Western countries themselves. She reveals how new information and media networks have been created to spread this information in developing countries. And then how that information is also shared within the democracies. Some by the far Left but much more by the far Right. 

It is revealing that what Stalin once tried to do with the American Left, Russia has succeeded at doing with the Right. And what was then surreptitious, is now done brazenly.

 


A Darkly Radiant Vision

A Darkly Radiant Vision: The Black Social Gospel in the Shadow of MLKA Darkly Radiant Vision: The Black Social Gospel in the Shadow of MLK by Gary Dorrien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good book to finish on the eve of Juneteenth.

The three volume journey through the Black Social Gospel has been deeply informative and inspiring. I've learned a lot and identified other books that I need to read.

This particular volume focused on the era after the assassination of Dr. King. First he covers Andy Young and Jesse Jackson in their efforts to live into Dr. King's vision through their political activities. Then he dives into detail discussing Black theology in its various forms--liberationist, womanist, liberal, feminist. Dorrien gives thorough presentations on various thinkers and major works. Then he discusses the celebration and challenge of the Obama years for the Black Social Gospel, including the relationship between Obama and Jeremiah Wright. Finally, he brings the topic into the current moment, with the impacts of Black Lives Matter and the prominence of Traci Blackmon, William Barber, and Raphael Warnock, with Warnock largely representing the drawing together of the political and theological efforts post-King.

View all my reviews

Zealots

David von Drehle's column in today's WaPo attacking the anti-IVF zealots is worth a read.  He states unequivocally (and from personal experience), "the perverse result is that the supposed champions of families and babies are targeting the very families that want babies the most."

The column concludes powerfully:

I don’t think any people alive care more about the miracle of conception, the viability of a fetus and the gift of life than IVF patients. No one suffers more acutely or weeps more bitterly over unborn babies; they are, after all, holes at the centers of our lives. How can a person of faith fail to see the creative power of God in the intelligence that makes such reproductive technology possible? What crabbed theology sees God at work in sperm and eggs and reproductive organs, yet finds only sin in the brains of scientists and doctors? Lord save us from the zealots.


Prayers of Parents

Prayers of Parents

1 Samuel 1:1-6, 9-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 June 2024

            When Stephen and I were planning this worship series we noted that this story from I Samuel, centering a woman desiring a child, would, ironically, fall on Father’s Day.

            So, we decided to lean into it and focus our attention more broadly upon parenting and families. 

            But this isn’t a story about some conventional family.  For one, Elkanah has two wives.  A reminder that families come in various forms. 

The feature of the story that resonates for many of us in the 21st century is Hannah’s struggle in her effort to have a child.  Many families struggle with fertility.  Many must find alternative paths to form their families.  Two months ago, we hosted a First Forum in which some of our church families talked about the various routes they took in forming their families.  Adoption, in vitro, donors, surrogates—these and other methods have become common.  In a story like today’s, we can find parallels to our experiences.

Which is part of the power of the Bible.  As Eugene Peterson described it, “The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us: ‘Live into this—this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’”

So these ancient stories call for our participation—to find the ways that God connects to us and speaks to us and the ways these stories resonate with our own.

Before continuing, I do want to take a moment to comment on something.  This week the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination I grew up in and was ordained in, passed a resolution against in vitro fertilization.  Probably all of us know children born through this medical procedure.  Couples who struggled emotionally and physically to have children and experienced in vitro as a modern miracle. 

In vitro fertilization helps to create life, to create families, to expand our ability to love and care for one another.  God gave us amazing brains and with those brains we’ve gained scientific understanding of the world.  We’ve invented and developed medical technologies and procedures that allow us to address age-old human conditions, like infertility.  Why shouldn’t we understand these modern medical miracles as themselves part of God’s gift and blessing? 

Here at First Central, and in the United Church of Christ, we embrace the good that comes from these technologies.  More importantly, we embrace the children and families that they create.  God loves you, God embraces you, you are welcomed and affirmed here.

Let me give a little introduction to the Book of First Samuel, which is the text we’ll be exploring the rest of the summer.  First Samuel is part of a series of books recounting the stories of the nation, particularly focused on the southern Israelite nation of Judah.  These stories center around the Davidic monarchy and the Temple in Jerusalem.  So kings and rulers figure prominently in the stories of First Samuel.

But one of the most fascinating aspects of these stories is how they are in depth explorations of moral character.  Unlike most nations, who tell triumphant stories of their rulers that gloss over any defects, the scribes of ancient Israel recorded both stories of triumph and failure.  All the weaknesses and shortcomings of their rulers are made clear.  Which is one reason these stories still draw our attention all these millennia later.  We resonate with the moral struggles and psychological depths of these characters.

Last week I talked about the Book of Ruth, and how it is set in the time of the judges, which was a time of chaos, disorder, and violence.  Particularly violence against women.  Ruth appears in that context as a counter-story, focused on two ordinary women and the ways they survive and thrive in the patriarchy of their day through their initiative.

First Samuel begins similarly, by centering a woman—Hannah.  The Book of Samuel implies that the project of building the nation begins in the prayers of this woman.  So, let’s turn our attention to Hannah for a moment.  What is it that she desires?

That’s the provocative question asked by biblical scholar David Jobling in his magnificent commentary on First Samuel.  A commentary I’ve been mining for treasures to preach for fifteen years now.

Jobling takes an interesting approach to this story, beginning with how he views Elkanah.  In many commentaries, Elkanah is interpreted as a man of great integrity and moral character, with deep affection for Hannah.  David Jobling isn’t so sure.  He says its possible that Elkanah with his two wives is enjoying a best-of-both-worlds available to a man in that kind of polygynous patriarchal system—he has one wife for bearing and raising children and another wife free of all those complications.  Jobling wonders, Elkanah “has no need of children from Hannah, and perhaps fears that she would cease to be attractive if she were worn out by childbearing.”

Hannah goes into the shrine and pours out her heart to God about how she feels in this situation and the way she’s being treated.  She wants a son.  But, as David Jobling points out, it’s not exactly clear why she wants a son.  Because she does not raise this son; she gives him away to be a servant of God, to grow up at the shrine.  It doesn’t seem that she wants a son for Elkanah—he’s already got children and Hannah in no way commits her son to her husband.  Nor does she seem to want a son to nurture and care for.

So, what does she want?  David Jobling says the story suggests that she wants a son who will be in service to God.  A son who will be a leader among the people.  He writes, “Perhaps this is an ambitious woman who, having little scope herself, hopes to satisfy her ambition vicariously through her son.”

Here is Jobling’s interpretive theory.  Hannah sees the state the nation is in—disorder, violence, and chaos.  She also sees the corruption of the priests at the shrine.  In the next chapter we are told about how the sons of Eli the priest have extorted people and also engaged in sexual harassment and probably worse. 

So she takes the initiative to do what she can to address the situation. Her patriarchal society limits what she is capable of doing herself, but she envisions a son who will become a leader of the people and serve without corruption.  Jobling writes, “As the initiative-taker in her story she is the cause of the restoration and glorification of judgeship in Samuel.  Through her son she achieves the resolution of the . . . scandals of her time.”  Through Hannah’s persistence and faithfulness, change for the better is brought to her people.

So, she is, in many ways, a mother of the nation, helping to give birth to a new order.

Hannah begins her revolutionary work with prayer.  Some commentators call her a “prayer-warrior,” to parallel the warriors we so often encounter in these stories.  Eugene Peterson makes much of Hannah’s prayers.  He points out how she’s not intimidated by religious authority, and that she goes around the prescribed rules for religious rituals, and takes matters into her own hands.  He writes, “She uses her own words, her own voice, without intermediaries.”  She boldly asserts her needs and is confident that God has addressed them.

Which suggests that she believes in a God who listens, who is present with us, who lives in solidarity to human need and suffering and responds. 

Today we sang “This Is My Father’s World.”  I love this hymn, and we don’t often sing it in its traditional form.  One thing I love about it is that the God it celebrates is not some removed and distant judge.  God in this hymn is immanent, present everywhere, gently discovered in nature—“in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.”  This hymn does celebrate God as Father, but it is a loving, affectionate, present father.  The best kind.  The ideal, really.

And because God is so intimately present, God is the power that strengthens us to fight the evils of our time.  When I find myself in times of trouble, or dismayed about the situation of the world, I will sing that last verse—“Oh, let me not forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. . . . The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.”

Another aside.  Two weeks ago the greatest living Christian theologian died.  Jurgen Moltmann grew up a youth in Nazi Germany.  As a teenager he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery and experienced the horrors of bombing, watching his friends die.  He spent time in a British prisoner-of-war camp, and there discovered the Christian faith in its fullness.  Over the last seventy years he’s been one of the most prominent and influential of Christian voices.  Realizing that after the horrors of the war, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb, belief in God was endangered.  What was needed was a theology that arose from these experiences of suffering.

And so Moltmann wrote about a God who suffers with us.  Not a God that is remote, free of emotion, and unacquainted with the human condition.  But a God who feels, who loves deeply and compassionately, and who took it upon God’s self at the cross to experience the depths of human evil and suffering. And because of the crucifixion, God is a power always present with us in our suffering and pain.

Moltmann, though, was primarily a theologian of hope.  That we must always be looking forward to newness and possibility.  That we are the eternal beginners.  And what we hope for is a fullness of life, an eternal livingness, that enriches our experiences every day.  He celebrated the ways we encounter God in all that is joyful, good, beautiful, and fun.

And so the Christian church mourns the passing of this, our brother, one of the greatest Christian voices of all time. 

I see a parallel with Hannah’s belief in God.  She is confident that God will hear her and respond.  That her child will bring about the changes she desires, a nation that lives more fully into God’s vision for humanity.

The story of Hannah is not one of an ideal parent, as we usually conceive it.  Frankly, she doesn’t seem all that maternal.  Her vision is big and bold and far transcends her own family.  So, she becomes an interesting model for us and a reminder that families come in many forms, and that there’s not just one model for how we parent.

To those who are parents or who long to be parents, what is it you desire?  What do you hope and dream for your children?  What are your prayers? 

For God, who is also our parent, our mother and father, is listening.  God has dreams and desires to.  Of how each of us can transform and grow into our best selves.  Of how we can all learn to be family to one another.  Of how our society can become more just and kind and good.

So, let us pray for what we desire—for our children, our families, our world.  Trusting that God is with us as we work together to make our longings a reality.


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.