Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Climax of the Story

“’What Do You Think You’re Doing’: The Climax of the Story”
Ruth 3
Greenville College Chapel
April 19, 2010

My friend, whom I shall simply call “Bill”, always seemed to be in need of money. But, back then, in the mid-seventies here at Greenville, most of us were without cars, cash, and many of the technological gadgets which most of us now take for granted. So it was that I came to set up two avenues to increase my income: typing up and proofreading papers for guys who didn’t know how and the establishment of what later came to be called the Joy Hall betting pool. It was the latter which proved to be both a lucrative source of income for me, and occasionally “Bill”; but which also almost led to our downfall and a quick exit from these ivy-covered halls.

That fall, Bill was particularly worried because he wanted to impress this girl who worked at the library. His plan was to locate a tux, buy a dozen roses, and borrow a friend’s car to take her into St. Louis. What he needed was cold hard cash. My idea was quite simple. Bill would strip off and get buck naked (remember, this was the height of the streaking days), and then he would oil down his body and slither out onto the roof of what was then the bookstore and what is now the mailroom. Now, anyone who has actually looked out onto the flat terrain of that roof knows that it is littered with all kinds of little, sharp rocks. The question was: How long could Bill lie prostrate on that roof completely nude in the cold night air? Surely such a question was worth betting on!

So it was that I began to round up the usual suspects and the pot began to grow. The great thing about my scheme was that, no matter what happened, Bill and I would get paid—whether he lasted a long or a short time. But from the very beginning, things began to go wrong. The day turned cold and by sundown the clouds had lowered and it was starting to rain. By ten o’clock, the officially posted time for the event, little pellets of ice were falling out of the sky and littering the roof. Bill had to psyche himself up for the event while we secured box seating for the betters along the south side of Joy Hall—rooms 203, 205, 207. The guys had been looking forward to this all day and I was having a hard time keeping them calm and quiet. My biggest fear always was of getting caught and having the whole lucrative business enterprise somehow unravel. While I “shushed” the crowd, Bill carefully and gingerly made his way out the window and onto the roof. He immediately began to chatter as he spread himself flat against the rocks in something between a cruciform and fetal position. The guys went crazy. Those who had their money on a matter of a few short minutes began to urge him to feel the bitter cold and wet and to get up—like some kind of nude Lazarus who would squeeze back into the warmth of the men’s dorm. But those who thought he might last ten or fifteen minutes were trying to cajole him to remain calm and to enter a Zen-like state in which he might ignore the cold. To those driving past on College Avenue, it must have sounded like some kind of prison break in the offing.

Then it was that my greatest fear began to be realized. It just so happened that that night, of all nights, Dr. Orley Herron, President of Greenville College, had decided to work late in his office before retiring to Joy House. Now what you have to know about Dr. Herron (or the “Big-O” as my friends Jay Kennedy and Mark DeMoulin had later dubbed him) is that he struck fear in freshmen guys—particularly those who were doing what they shouldn’t be doing. Tall and barrel-chested, “The Big-O” could oftentimes be found with his shirt off, leading a pack of a half-dozen or so faculty and administrators in a noontime run. He had this big basso-profundo voice and was the epitome of what my friend, Dr. Randall Balmer, has labeled “muscular Christianity.” Orley couldn’t fail to notice the racket emanating from Joy Hall or the flashlight beams careening over Bill’s naked body on the roof of the bookstore. I knew that if Bill stood up, we were all dead. Everything after that happened so fast that, to this day, I break out in a sweat remembering it. Suffice it to say that the Dean of Men was not very amused and I was warned that the continuation of any such illegal and nefarious activities might well result in my dismissal from the college.

Within weeks of that event, my entire life would change. I decided that I was no longer going to be a Pre-Med major, but to give in to my passion for literature and become an English major. The band I was in disbanded and I found myself the lone freshman with a group of upperclassmen loading my drums up to go out and represent the college. My quest to date my way through the better part of the female populace was dropped and I actually got the Chaplain of the Sophomore class (known for her upstanding character) to go with me to that year’s performance of Handel’s Messiah (today, I am happy to report, she is my wife of some 32 years). Looking back now, I can see how, in many ways, that night on the roof marked a crisis-point, a climax, in my narrative in this place and forever changed the trajectory of my student years.

Such crisis-points come along in our lives occasionally, but it is usually only in retrospect that we recognize them. In Ruth’s continuing saga, the days had probably begun to blur together—beginning and ending the same, falling into a regular, routine, and mundane pattern. Each morning she would probably get up early, before dawn, dress herself, and make her way to the fields to glean a little something for herself and Naomi. But, just as the women have been the primary actors throughout this brief narrative and the men oftentimes passive, at best, so it is in this chapter of the story. Naomi comes up with a bold plan which is filled with double-entendre. Her instructions clearly represent a woman who understands both the hearts of men and the ways of the world. Ruth, she says, is told to wash and anoint herself (the ancient equivalent of putting on cosmetics), to put on her very best and most attractive clothes, and then to go to the threshing floor to lie in wait for Boaz after he has had his fill of food and drink. In other words, Ruth is to be at her most desirable exactly at the point at which Boaz will perhaps be most susceptible to her charms, having eaten a big meal and swilled one too many beers. In Hebrew, these opening verses are dominated by the powerful verbs which get translated with English words like, “go down” and “lie down.” These terms are not neutral—they are freighted with sexual overtones. Further, the Hebrew term for “feet” is the same as that which is used to represent the sexual organs, the “private parts” of an individual. At the end of reading Naomi’s instructions, the reader is left to wander, exactly what is this older woman suggesting? The text remains intentionally ambiguous and the only conclusion we can reach is that, at the very least, Naomi’s plan is, as Danna Fewell and David Gunn suggest, both deceptive and dangerous (Compromising Redemption, 99).

Ruth’s partner in this dangerous dance is Boaz, the one remaining righteous man who has emerged in the story. But here he is at first something of a cardboard cutout, a kind of poster child for “The Best Damned Sports Show Period.” Just as Naomi had predicted, he walks onto the threshing floor filled with food and drink and, according to the narrator, “he was in a contented mood.” Think American Thanksgiving, lots of turkey and pumpkin pie, an hour into the football game, all the males in the household with belts unbuckled and fast asleep.

This was the moment of crisis. Naomi’s instructions had been clear: “observe the place where he lies; then go and uncover his feet and lie down.” My professor at Princeton, Katherine Sakenfeld, raises the question about what is at work here: Is Ruth now about to engage in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, offering her body for the sake of the older woman’s economic welfare, or is she merely naïve and unaware of the sexual implications of Naomi’s plan? Again, the text retreats from any real clues. What we do know is that, according to the writer, “she came stealthily and uncovered his ‘feet,’ and lay down,” (verse 7). Hours later, at midnight, he turns over, the writer says, “and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!” Now the moment of reckoning had come. Naomi’s instructions had been clear: “he will tell you what to do.” But, instead, Boaz asks a question, “Who are you?” This is a scene Hollywood has provided for us numerous times over: the drunken man awakes to surprisingly find a female in his bed, at his side.
Now, for the first time, Ruth departs from the script. Here is how Fewell and Gunn describe what follows:

She puts her identity up front with all that it entails—she is a foreigner and she is ‘lower class’ (“your maidservant”). But she puts it up front together with a challenge: Extend your kanaph, because you are a rescuer/redeemer. As with Naomi, Ruth allows Boaz freedom to make a choice. See her as but an ephemeral sexual object (“extend your penis”), or see her as a person in need (“spread your wing/skirt”), a person who offers an enduring relationship, in which sexuality will have its home. She ‘calls’ him on his words of faith in chapter 2. It’s fine to talk about the wings of YHWH, but how about something a little more tangible? You can afford to wait for YHWH to recompense, reward and offer refuge. I can’t. How about putting your action where your fine words of faith are. You talk of my hesed (“faithfulness”). Now let’s see yours. Not only does she pull his religiosity to the level of human interaction, she pulls it to the most basic level of human interaction—sexual intercourse. His blessing (back in chapter 2) allowed him to remain distant; she challenges him to cut through the distance, to become as intimate as two people can be. She appeals to desire and closeness as a condition for faithfulness. And she extends to him her trust.
(Compromising Redemption, 102-103).

To say, then, that Ruth found herself in a “compromising situation” would be an understatement. It is clear from the text that the narrator wants us to see clearly the possibility for sexual misconduct. The instructions that Naomi issues may indicate that Ruth is to go to the threshing floor prepared to speak, “as a bride.” There is intentional ambiguity about the uncovering of Boaz’ legs—how much was to be uncovered? Eight times in this relatively brief drama the verb, skb, “to lie down” is used, alongside the frequent use of the verb, yd’, “to know.” But, in no way is this an attempt by the biblical writer to titillate those of us overhearing the story. The purpose is to draw us into this difficult question of whether Ruth, caught in the crucible of a difficult choice, will emerge the righteous person she was when the story started. What happens at the threshing floor is but the climax of the narrative that began on the highway in Moab and continued in the harvest scene of the last chapter.

I would like to suggest this morning that all of us come to our own threshing floors at one time or another. Most of our lives, as I suggested last time, are spent in the realm of the everyday and the mundane—following the same ritualized pattern from sunup to sundown. But, there are points of crisis: moments in our histories where we are confronted with a realm of possibilities, one is chosen, and life from then on is almost indescribably different. The question that confronts us at such moments is: What will we do and what will be the basis for our lives from here on out?

Ruth could easily have seduced Boaz on that night. A young widow in desperate need of security, it would have been a convenient way to force Boaz’ hand. We stand in awe of such a righteous woman who was yet willing to be so forceful, so courageous, and to take such a risk with the one possession which she truly owned—her reputation. It could all have ended so much more disastrously, but Ruth’s commitment to Naomi, to her care, and to her God, brought her to this point where her faithfulness and moral responsibility would, at long last, begin to provide a concrete sense of security.

Boaz, too, could have succumbed to the moment. Here was a man of wealth, who could have had most anything he wanted—and clearly Ruth’s purity was well within his grasp. It would have been easy to yield to the temptation to sin without ever muttering a word—no one would probably even have believed her. But Boaz, too, recognized a higher calling to purity and faithfulness and, prodded on by this foreign woman, he chose to accept his responsibility as her redeemer. One wonders to what extent Ruth’s willingness to help Naomi and to risk her reputation became such a challenge to Boaz that he was even able to rise above his own drunken stupor and lay claim to the challenge of a higher good.

And so, she who was without protection found herself covered by the “wing of righteousness”—here obviously meant to be both Boaz and Naomi’s God. And, in a direct reference to Naomi’s earlier lament of bitterness and her proclamation of being “empty,” was extended a generous gift of barley with which to return to Naomi. No longer would the older woman need to remain empty, but God, through this foreigner, would restore to her a sense of “fullness.” From here on out, the story will simply reveal how this “fullness” will come to fruition in the lives of each of these three main characters.

And what of us? Faced with issues of equal consequence in our own lives and in the life of our community, how will we choose to respond? When the time for decision comes, will we choose to give in to the temptations of the moment or will we yield, instead, to a higher moral calling? In those times of crisis, when our life is at something of a climax point, when action is called for, on what will we base our decision? These are not abstract questions, I would remind you, but are all too real. During the time when I was doing graduate work at Oklahoma State University, I became friends with a brilliant chemist, involved in groundbreaking research in what would later become a part of such shows as “Crime Scene Investigation,” where chemicals are analyzed as evidence that may lead to conviction. Mark was offered millions of dollars and a quite lucrative stipend with the promise of additional contracts, if he would agree to work with chemical weapons which might be used offensively in a time of war. It was the height of the cold war during the Reagan administration and all the stops were being pulled out and money spent brazenly in an attempt to break the back of a waning Communism. Dr. Rockley chose, however, to say “no,” to give up his security for the future, and to be forever black-listed by the defense industry. Our decisions may never require us to turn down millions of dollars, but they will, inevitably, demand us to surrender the security of the present for the hope of the future.

I have something of a concern this morning, and it is not a concern rooted in whether many of you will be successful by the world’s standards. I have no doubt that many of you will leave this place, get married, buy homes, and attain a reasonable standard of living. What I fear this morning, though, is that you will come to equate this (the pursuit of the American dream) with God’s call on your life. I fear that you will find yourself so busy on the Internet, with computer games, listening to your IPOD, and texting one another on your cell phones, that you will have no time for God and no ability to hear Him, even if you so desired. I fear that you will get so enmeshed in our culture’s attempts to make money and to build a security fence of protection around our lives that you will see risk as something inimical to the Christian life itself.

A few years ago, a twenty-something independent journalist named Jill Carroll, was working for the Christian Science Monitor, when she was arrested by a group calling themselves the Revenge Brigades and then held hostage for several months. If you remember reading the reports, you know that Miss Carroll had gone to the Middle East, learned some Arabic, and had immersed herself in the culture in order to engage the Iraqi story with integrity. Some suggested that at least part of the reason that she may have eventually been released was because there were so many pleas by both Sunni and Shi’ite leaders on her behalf stemming from the great respect she had earned for her attempts to delve behind many of the “fluffier” portrayals of Iraqi life. No matter what one thought of her politics, or perhaps even of her naiveté, one couldn’t help but be impressed by her willingness to risk all in pursuit of the truth. Like Ruth, in this morning’s scripture, Jill Carroll is simply representative of the risk-taking to which we are called in this Easter season.

Unfortunately, all too often, those of us in the Christian community have held up a different model, especially for women. While we have certainly emphasized the need for moral purity, we have downplayed the necessity of the willingness to risk, even to risk all for the cause of Christ. Those of us most privileged in the power structure, particularly we males, have tacitly and sometimes even blatantly put forward a picture of docile femininity which, though not physically burkha-clad, is at, the very least, somewhat verbally “burkha-ized” and muzzled. It is this version of Christian womanhood that writers such as Anne Lamott have so vehemently regaled as more cultural construct than true to the radicalized models we see both in Scripture and throughout the history of the church. Sexualized (within proper limits, of course), quiet and demure, always hiding in the background behind “their man”--such has been the ideal of Christian womanhood perpetuated by American Evangelical pop culture.

It is high time that we laid aside such cultural chicanery and encouraged a different model of faithful, yet risk-taking, faith. Such a commitment would result in a different kind of young man and woman leaving this place than walk away from all-too-many Christian campuses. Instead of simply blending into the culture and naively accepting its technology, its vision of success, and its commitment to materialism, we would understand it for the secular fundamentalism that it is and engage it with all the powers of the Spirit and reason at our disposal. But such a feat would require a willingness to rise up against both the cultural blinders of our age and to break the shackles, as well, of the Evangelical sub-culture’s fear of empowered women and righteous and liberated men willing to stand, not over, but beside them.

So, alongside my fear, I have a dream—a dream that we, as a community, will begin to read ourselves into the Scriptures, the whole scriptures, and that, in so doing, we will be challenged to die and to be buried with Christ in order that we may live with him in the joy of this Easter season. And that, somehow, in learning to die to ourselves, we will be raised up a new people--a people empowered for service and committed to a life of risk, so that when we find ourselves on the threshing floors of our lives, like Ruth, we needn’t be afraid to uncover whatever lies in front of us and to hazard everything we are and might yet hope to be, so that our story might become a larger part of God’s story of redemption and reconciliation of the world to God’s self.