Monday, March 01, 2010

Once Upon a Time. . .

“’Once Upon a Time’: All Beginnings are Hard”
Greenville College Chapel Address
Ruth 1
March 1, 2010

Word of my colleague, Dr. Kurasha’s injuries sustained last week brought back to me the memories of similar, sometimes, tragic automobile accidents. None was more difficult than the call I received literally weeks before leaving my pastorate in Toronto to come back to Greenville and teach now some 17 years ago. My Australian friend, Peter, was exploring the Ontario countryside with his wife, daughter, brother and sister-in-law. Within a matter of seconds, apparently, they were all dead or terribly injured. (As best as I can remember),while I sped to the hospital to identify the bodies and tend to the living, my associate hurried to a local high school to tell Peter’s daughter that she was now an orphan without a father, mother, or sister. Later, I would have to meet up with her dead sister’s fiancé to inform him that his bride-to-be was gone and there would be no forthcoming wedding. Over the six years of ministry in Canada, I wound up burying a dozen babies, infants, children, and teenagers, along with a score of more typical, though no less tragic, adult funerals. At times, it seemed that everywhere I turned, there was something of the pall of death in the air, and this was certainly not the way I had imagined concluding my years of ministry in the adopted city I had come to love amongst a people who had taken me and my family to their hearts.

But, unfortunately, of such painful stories are our lives often made. Life is oftentimes a mess, filled with, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the daily round of failed plans, disappointed relations, political despair, accidents and sickness and neighborhood bullies,” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 137). And into this mess walks our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For, as the gospels remind us, the story of Jesus, “is not a happy story, not a success story. What it is is a salvation story,” (137). Peterson’s contrast is absolutely essential to help us understand the scriptures, our lives, and the world in which we live: our narrative doesn’t begin on an oasis of safety, but in the muck and mire of everyday human existence. And what we are called to is not a life of success, but a life of faithfulness. It is this message that lies at the heart of the Lenten season.

Perhaps no biblical narrative conveys this quite so powerfully as this little book of Ruth which, in the space of five short verses, plunks us down in the very vortex of human misery. In today’s text, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the story, three of whom are dead within a matter of a few sentences. In these opening lines, the narrator is concerned to establish both a context and a dominant mood for all that will follow. We are presented here with landscape and feeling one might expect in a Thomas Hardy novel. The country to the east of the Dead Sea was fertile, but produced primarily grain crops as opposed to the orchards and vineyards of Palestine. Like the plains of Oklahoma which I remember well from my adolescent years, Moab was known as a land where the wind blew constantly and was relatively unimpeded. Across this barren landscape emerges a family in search of a better existence. They are leaving behind all that is familiar, pulling up their roots, and heading into this dark, foreboding land.

Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are fleeing the certain famine of their home, like the Joads in Steinbeck’s American version, and going in search of a better life for their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. For all of us who are familiar with the realities of moving, it is a painful scene. No matter how much they may have looked forward to the new challenge ahead, the prospect of leaving behind friends and family, familiar faces and established ties, brought with it a sense of loss and anguish. Anyone who has ever moved without knowing what awaits on the other end, knows the special dread and sense of trepidation that must have accompanied the family of Elimelech during those days of transition. In leaving behind all that was familiar, they were consigning themselves into the hands of God, facing their new life without the help of the support system they had left back at home in Bethlehem.

And, as if moving and uprooting their family were not enough, they were journeying into a foreign country. This is an experience difficult to describe to those who have never been through it. When one crosses the border into a different country, one immediately becomes at best a “landed immigrant,” or at worst, a “resident alien.” There are at least a few of you sitting here today who understand something of the culture shock of which I speak. Gone are the familiar customs and language of home; every day brings with it new reminders that you are an expatriate. No matter how much you may love your new homeland, as my wife and I loved both the United Kingdom and later Canada, you can never forget that you are somehow different, an “outsider.” The adjustment can be a difficult one. I’ve seen those who never quite adapt, who hide themselves behind four walls and pine for home. But for this family, the adjustment became even more difficult, as their situation went from bad to worse.

First, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with no visible means of support. In those days, and even for many today, this was the worst possible scenario. In the patriarchal culture of the ancient Near East, a woman was totally at the mercy of men. There was no possibility of a job for her, for all the jobs were filled by men. So, she might choose from three possibilities: prostitution, slavery, or professional begging. But apparently Naomi was fortunate in that her two sons were old enough to make their way in this foreign land and somehow manage to provide for their mother as well. They were, in a very real sense, her salvation, and the only elements which stood between her and desperation.

These young men somehow adapted. They settled down, found themselves wives, and set to work building for their families a new life in a new land. Their new spouses were natives, and probably helped to form a link between them and the land that their mother would always consider a “foreign country.” What kind of a life they lived we do not know—it isn’t important to the main story line. What we can surmise is that the wounds of the past now began to recede into their memories, and they had a chance to heal in the company of their new-found mates.

But before much time had passed, the final calamity struck. This was the most horrific possibility imaginable for Naomi—a bad dream from which she would never fully recover. Her two sons, the pride and joy of her life, died as well, leaving behind no male heirs to continue the family line, but only two defenseless brides. If the plight of this family had been desperate before, it was almost hopeless now. Where would they go? What would they do? If the landscape of the setting is bleak, the predicament of these three women is equally somber. The storyteller’s task is set: How will he rescue this family from almost certain destruction?

The spotlight is now thoroughly centered on this woman pummeled by the vicissitudes of life. Naomi calls forth our sympathies. Battered, beaten, and bitter, she decides to make for the only place in which she had known any real happiness—her home in Bethlehem. In this little Judean village she had probably played, worshipped, and met the man whom she would marry. Bethlehem had been the home in which she had set up house and given birth to two happy sons. In the midst of all of the calamity that now surrounded her, perhaps it was only the pleasant memories of those days in what would later become the city of David which provided for her any sense of solace. Now her mind could think of nothing else but getting home to Bethlehem.

But before she left, she had one final duty as matriarch of her now disintegrating family: to charge her two daughters-in-law to return to the homes of their childhood, as well. This scene literally drips with pathos and, as it was being told, the storyteller must have verbally leaned into the narrative. According to the laws of that day, these women had nothing any longer which bound them together, except a common memory embedded in a family story. Since Orpah’s and Ruth’s husbands had died, their responsibility was to return home where their parents would receive them, probably somewhat grudgingly. Yet, even though there was no law that bound them to this bitter old woman, there was something even greater—those common memories and the strong bonds of a love forged from shared difficulties. Through the fires of mutual trials, they had each earned the other’s respect and with all of their men gone—the only gender that counted in those days—Naomi was now their leader and their only tie to what they thought of when they remembered back to what had once been their sense of “home.”

What is even more incredible than their lack of common blood is that these women come from different nationalities—they don’t even have the bonds of culture to bind them together. And yet Ruth still persists, remaining adamant in the face of leaving behind all of the familiar landmarks. I’ve often wondered to myself: How many of our ancestors must have seen in this strong young woman a hero and exemplar as they crossed seas, plains, mountains, and deserts? While Naomi cried out, and perhaps rightfully so, against the heartlessness of God, here in her midst stood one who represented to her the love, care, and commitment of the deity against whom she remained angry and bitter. While she had lost all that she regarded as safe and homelike, here stood one before her who reminded her of the foundation on which a home is built.

It is little wonder that Ruth’s words of response have become a standard epithet in Christian weddings. This willingness to go, to love, to stand beside, remains the ideal for the married couple and can be seen in the archetype presented for us in the gospels of the Christ who mirrors exactly these same qualities as he ministers to the needs of others. But in this story it is not Jesus but a Moabitess who is modeling an extraordinary life of faithfulness. According to our scriptures, the Moabites were a cursed clan who owed their origins to an act of incest that took place between Lot and his daughters. As such, this woman was the consummate outsider, a non-entity amongst “true Jews” who were probably some of the first hearers of this tale. Like other women in the scriptures, Ruth could in no way be branded here a “good girl” who acknowledges Naomi’s authority—one owed her by virtue of her age. Instead, she chooses to stand over against all accepted protocol and to leave everything familiar behind in order to set out on a journey to an unknown land.

Good storytellers know that how and where one chooses to begin a story establishes whether folks will continue to listen. Although the bulk of this story is yet to come, something is already becoming abundantly clear from these opening verses: the picture of life that is being portrayed in this book is not one that is necessarily pleasant or happy. In a time in which the barriers between fantasy and reality remain as unclear as ours, the picture here is one of stark reality. In a time when folks are consumed with self-indulgence, chasing after beautiful bodies, and always believing that compiling a few more things will lead to comfort and security, the storyteller here presents us with a picture of life that is minimalist in all its aspects. This narrator has the audacity to suggest that we can expect difficulties and unanswerable questions in life—in fact, that they are inevitable. This runs counter to many of the myths which make up 21st century America.

Growing up in our sometimes isolated ghettoes we are told a different story. In a time of uncertainty and in a climate of fear, we are encouraged to look for strength in security. As Pax Americana stretches out her wings below whom all are called to bow, we naively believe that where we go, we take with us primarily freedom and liberty—all of which falls largely on the deaf ears of others who view our actions as both paternalistic and full of hedonistic self-interest. Here at home, we are told a story which posits consumption and competition as the highest values. All that we aspire to in life has behind it the singular goals of economic and political power. Many, if not most of us, may have even been lured here, to this place, not for an education, but for a degree. And the reason we need a degree is so that we can get a good job, so that we can make more money, so that we can accumulate more stuff, and thereby, discover our primary purpose in life.

Or perhaps we have fallen prey to a different narrative which circulates in the evangelical subculture. Here, we are promised health and wealth this side of eternity and eternal bliss the other side if we will simply “come to Jesus.” Having said the sinner’s prayer and displayed Jesus on the bumper stickers of our cars, we somehow believe that if we work hard, give occasionally to Christian causes, and fill our lives with Christian rhetoric (or, Jesus-speak), we can expect good things to happen to us in life. We are warned not to get too caught up, however, in the pleasures of this life, but to learn to live cautiously and pray for those poor bastards who are unlike us. Just maybe, if they listen to our words of warning, recognize that we are the true messengers of God, and come to Jesus--even they can find a place in heaven and a life filled with lots of good stuff this side of eternity. And, more importantly, they can be assured of a “get into heaven” pass via a direct rapture while all the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

The Bible unmasks both of these narratives for what they are—blatant falsehoods, facades of the gospel. Instead, the Christ who walked the way of the cross is better seen in the death and destruction of today’s story in Ruth. This story literally drips with irony and would have caused its original hearers to have suffered a bit of religious shock. For here, the story of God’s people lies suspended by a thread that is both foreign and female. God’s salvation history hangs precariously on the faithfulness of a woman who will risk everything she has and, as we will see later, by so doing provide one of the crucial links that leads inexorably to Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. To a world which clings to a narrative freighted with power and prestige, the shocking reality to which we are introduced in this little book has the potential to turn the world upside down.

And that’s just what good storytelling does. It insists on beginning in a way we might not expect and in a place far removed from our own and, by so doing, shocks us out of the lethargy of our current comforts. This biblical story, this story of salvation which confronts the opposing story of success insisted on by our culture, claims in Peterson’s words, that, “salvation is not a one-time stand,” (147). For the Hebrews, this could be summed up in the word HESED, which was most often attributed to God. Sometimes simply translated with the word, “kindness,” the roots of the word are probably better expressed with our term, “faithfulness.” What is being represented is long-standing commitment, no matter what the cost. This is a word of relationship which refuses to reduce one’s connection to another to issues of blood, contract, or economic benefit. HESED means a willingness to die with or for another, even if one cannot see or understand the reason for doing so. HESED is what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to not flee the German prison at his first opportunity, but to remember those who were imprisoned with him. HESED is what a man demonstrates when the doctor tells him that there is no hope for his wife, but he refuses to leave her bedside. HESED is what the best soldiers demonstrate whenever a comrade has been wounded and, at the risk of their own lives, they stay behind not knowing whether there will be any other opportunity for rescue.

And HESED is what Ruth demonstrates at the end of this narrative to Naomi who has now chosen the name, Mara, to represent her bitterness and loss. In the midst of her grief, the matriarch of the story cannot even see the grace of God made manifest in this young woman who refuses to leave her side. The story concludes on this single thread of hope in which the emptiness of the older woman is set alongside the HESED of this foreign, powerless, child of incest. “Ruth the Moabite has chosen Naomi the Judahite. Ruth the daughter-in-law has chosen Naomi the mother-in-law,” (Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 174). On such a choice hangs the outcome, not only of this particular narrative, but of God’s larger salvation story. This is no one-night stand. This is a commitment almost beyond comprehension.

Of such a beginning are great stories made. Into such a world came Jesus Christ. Out of such bitterness and through such faithfulness will emerge hope for all people, of all ages, and of all nationalities. And that, my friends, is a story worth telling!