by Daniel Harrell
We’re breathing our core values this fall—five verbs that speak to who we are as a congregation: welcome, risk, wrestle, immerse and do good. These five values emerged from our year long ReForming effort, twelve months spent trusting the Holy Spirit and discerning God’s will for us next. Last we week we looked at Welcome Beloved through the lens of the Good Samaritan—though a better description of Jesus’ parabolic hero would have been the Crazy Samaritan. The Samaritan comes upon a Jewish man—both a stranger and an adversary—laying by the road, beaten and bloodied by robbers. Filled with compassion, the Samaritan not only interrupted his travel schedule, risked infection by patching up his enemy’s bloody wounds, used up his own costly oil and wine as salves, surrendered the comfort of his own burro and searched for an inn, but he also gave a Jewish innkeeper permission to run a tab to cover whatever expenses the beaten man’s convalescence incurred. Who does that? And yet this is the embodiment of holy welcome: loving an enemy as a neighbor, as one beloved by God as much as you are. It is God’s love for us that makes possible, and obligatory, our love for others. We welcome because Jesus welcomed us first.
Jeff Lindsay returns us to Welcome Beloved in two weeks. For this morning and next Sunday, we look to our second Core Value “Risk Together the Messy Path of Faith.” Like Welcome Beloved, Risk comes right out of the Bible. Jesus made plain that following him could be hazardous to your health. Here in the little book of Ruth, a woman from the other side of the tracks gets abducted and pressed into marriage. Failing to bear children—her only social security in that culture, she’s sent packing by her mother-in-law, a bitter woman with a realistic assessment of Ruth’s prospects. The future was dangerously uncertain.
Ruth occurs during the time of the Judges, a dark period of social, political and religious upheaval—a little like our own day. God’s chosen people had chosen poorly—Judges describes it as a time when “everyone did as they saw fit.” Rival nations and powers threatened. Climate disruption caused a severe famine. An Israelite named Elimelech and Naomi, his wife, loaded up their two sons and left their hometown of Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” But there was no bread in the house.
Elimelech’s family, famine refugees, sojourned to Moab, a place no self-respecting Israelite would ever dare go. The bad blood between Moab and Israel went back centuries. The Moabites descended from a tawdry Bible story of a man named Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his drunken incest with his daughter. (It’s not a Bible story we tell very often). The Moabites became a persistent thorn in Israel’s side: Moabites obstructed Israel’s passage out of Egypt on their way to the promised land. Moabites seduced Israelites into idolatry. A Moabite King hired a sorcerer to throw a hex on the entire Israelite nation. But Moab had bread. And Moab had eligible women to marry. And Naomi was desperate. We’re not even to the third verse of Ruth before Elimelech, the patriarch, is dead. Without marriage and descendants, women were doomed. Naomi needed her boys to get hitched and quick.
So in verse 4, her boys “took” two Moabite women—a last ditch hitching given prohibitions against marrying foreign women. Ten more years of famine ensued—in every sense of that word. Both couples went childless and then both husbands died. And we’re just to verse 5.
Naomi makes her realistic assessment. Saddled with two Moabite daughters-in-law and no children to show for it, Naomi realizes she has no hope in Moab. She might as well cut her losses and beat a path back to Bethlehem. She tells the girls—named Orpah and Ruth—to go back to their Moabite mamas. She blames God for the mess. “Don’t call me Naomi anymore,” she laments (a name meaning “pleasant”), just call me Bitter “because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me and brought calamity upon me?”
To blame God for her mess means Naomi’s not lost her faith. She has faith enough to be furious. She believes God’s in control and that’s why she blames him. Orpah and Ruth resist abandoning Naomi, but this only makes her more mad. She lets loose a righteous and somewhat melodramatic rant: “Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” Even if I should have a husband tonight (which ain’t gonna happen) and bear two more boys (which ain’t gonna happen) you would still have to wait twenty years for them to grow up (which ain’t gonna happen!). Can’t you see? God is out to get me! First he starves me, then he takes my husband, then my sons, my livelihood, my social standing, my security and my future. My life is over.”
Bitter indeed. Orpah got the message and got outta that mess. Naomi turned to smack some sense into Ruth. But Ruth won’t have it. Instead, Ruth clings ever tighter, and swears a poetic pledge of insane loyalty: “Do not press me to abandon you and turn back! Wherever you go, I will go; Wherever you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I let anything but death separate us!” These inspiring words have found their way into many contemporary weddings—though you wonder if the couples who speak them have ever read Ruth. Ruth risks her heritage and her culture, her standing and identity, her religion and any obvious chance at safety and security to accompany the bitter mother of her dead husband back to Bethlehem, into enemy territory for a Moabite, to a place prejudiced and bigoted against her.
Jewish rabbis interpret Ruth’s pledge as a conversion. She claims Naomi’s God as her own, leaving everything to follow the Lord. Ruth’s faith is the fruit of some pretty unconventional evangelism. We work hard to make faith winsome and attractive and easy to believe—lowering the bar so that coming to Jesus doesn’t cost too much. Then there’s Naomi’s approach: “God loves you and has a horrible plan for your life. I’m bitter and resentful and wish I was dead. God can ruin your life too. Just have faith.”
Ancient Jewish tradition taught such an approach in their law book called the Talmud. It says:
If a person desires to convert to Judaism, he or she is to be addressed as follows: “What reason do you have for wanting to become a convert? Do you not know that Jews are persecuted and oppressed, despised, driven from place to place, and overcome with hardships?” If he or she replies “I know and yet am unworthy of becoming a Jew,” he or she is accepted immediately.
Jesus said the same about following him. “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but I have no bed to sleep in.” “I will be rejected by the religious leaders and condemned, arrested by the Romans to be mocked and flogged and crucified on a cross.” “If you want to be my follower, you must give up your own way and take up a cross too.” Most of the disciples who’d signed up for the miracles signed out once Jesus started talking like this.
Christians determined early on that the sign of their faith would be the sign of the cross—the epitome of risk. To press the point they shaped their first baptismal fonts to look like coffins. You had to die to get into the kingdom. Centuries later, when St. Benedict worked to reform the church, he made it as hard as he could for people to join his movement. When a petitioner knocked on his monastery door to sign up, nobody would answer for a few days. If the petitioner persisted, he’d be let in and given reasons over the next six months as to why he shouldn’t join. If after that you still persisted, you’d be considered for inclusion, a process which took four months more. You had to be serious.
Until recently in many New England Congregational churches, becoming a member meant providing a witness as to your seriousness. The temptation is always to take an easier path. The way of the cross is the messy road. The more serious you get about being salt and light in the world, about mission and justice and doing right; the more concerned you get for the least and the lost; the more stubborn you get about forgiveness and loving your neighbor and even your enemy, the greater the risk. Yet if you have ever really taken the risk; if you’ve ever put yourself out there for Christ’s sake and the gospel, then you’ve known that spiritual power, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even further.
Ask people to tell their stories, and the stories they tell, the events that shaped their souls most intensely and meaningfully are always tales of harder times. While in Colombia with these Confirmation students this summer, we ventured out onto the streets at night to comfort the drunk and drug-addicted. We traveled to remote barrios to worship with the poor, made our way to a girls’ home to spend time with daughters left by their families out of desperation, and to a soccer field to hear of young men lured away from cartels in a country where violence is always too near, where faith has a measurable price. In each of these places, serious Christians took risks to love sacrificially. They gave up their own way for the hard and messy and beautiful way of the cross. Hardship presses past the sensibility of individual well-being and security and taps into a paradoxical, resurrection power that defies common sense.
Christians determined early on that the sign of their faith would be the sign of the cross because only the love of Christ crucified for us proved large enough and deep enough to hold our fullest joys and worst sorrows, the wonderful as well as the tragic.
A good friend in need of a job told this past week about being rejected from yet another potential employer. The interview went well, but they hired an internal candidate. Mad at God again for all the woe he’d been through, the doorbell rang and a stranger stood at the door with an envelope. Inside was a $5K cashier’s check with “Thank You” written in the memo line. And my friend’s like, “Thank me?” “I think my hands were shaking as I held the check. It was so surreal. As challenging as this season has been, there have also been some really good and beautiful moments too. In the goodness and the hardness of this season, God is with us through it all.”
Naomi finally gets her grandson. The story ends with the whole neighborhood praising the Lord’s goodness. As the psalmist, King David, sang, “the LORD adorns the oppressed with salvation.” Against all odds, a glorious love affair had bloomed. Ruth the Moabite widow caught an Israelite husband named Boaz and had her baby—a boy born in Bethlehem who grows up to be the grandfather of the great King David—the savior of Israel as a nation. This is why Ruth warrants an entire book of the Bible to herself.
But if highlighting King David’s bloodline is the warrant, why call attention to the icky Moabite blood that snuck into the gene pool? Because is the oppressed—the outcast, the stranger, the enemy, the excluded and the sinner, the Samaritan and the Moabite—whom the Lord adorns with salvation. Ruth’s descendent, King David, saves a nation. But it is her greater descendent—Jesus Christ the Son of David born in Bethlehem centuries later—who saves the whole world.
Despite all the trouble, Naomi’s firm faith never wavers, even in anger, and Ruth takes the risk. As with our core value, Ruth and Naomi walk the messy path together—“your people as my people, and your God as my God,” the pathway of life as the way of the cross. Ours is a strange faith: wisdom looks like foolishness, goodness emerges out of suffering, and life rises from the dead. We trust in a Lord whose ways aren’t our ways, whose presence can feel like absence, whose mind we cannot know, whose decisions we cannot calculate and whose actions we cannot manipulate. Hope, fear, love, beauty, tragedy, honor, wonder, weakness, suffering virtue—these most central passions of human experience all defy logic. Faith is called faith for a reason. And it is proven worth the risk.