Sermon: “Honor Thy Foremothers” (Ruth 4)

Before we get to the concluding chapter from the Book of Ruth, this morning, I want to read a few paragraphs from a wonderful book by the naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, called When Women Were Birds.

It may be helpful to know that she is from one of the oldest Mormon families in Utah – in fact, she is a close relative of Mitt Romney’s.

Through her book, I also learned that Mormon culture takes a great deal of pride in the strength and courage of the pioneer generations, and that, kind of along those lines, since the 19th century, Mormon women have been urged to keep journals, with an eye toward preserving the history of God’s saving activity in the lives of their families and in the Mormon community at large.

So here is the opening of Williams’ book.

She writes: “I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. 

“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”

I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals.

A week later, she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.

On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family room. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.”

What follows is Williams’ attempt to understand the meaning of such a carefully, even lovingly preserved silence.

Were the journals three shelves of false starts, or a triumph of privacy—a refusal to be known…maybe a refusal to participate in the Mormon project of documenting where the family story and God’s story seemed to intersect?

It’s a mystery.

Toward the end of the book, Williams observes, “My mother chose me as the recipient of her pages, empty pages. She left me her ‘Cartographies of Silence.’ I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing.   But I can imagine.”

To me—and maybe to you, too—this resonates so deeply with the Book of Ruth.

Because Ruth’s story is remarkable. We’ve talked a lot about her character and her courage. But not for nothing, her story is remarkable simply because it’s like a set of ancient journals – a piece of the pioneer record – that has managed to survive.

So many human stories are lost—actually, if you think about it, almost all of them are…and especially the stories of women. But we have this one.

Amid vast cartographies of silence, the voices of Ruth and Naomi, and then Boaz, too, ring out and echo back through the canyons of history.

If nothing else, they remind us that human lives, ancient or modern, are so very far from tidy. Which has to offer hope for us all.

But the question lingers: why did this particular story manage to survive, with its twists and turns, its unlikely heroines, and their risky strategy for claiming a more secure place in their community? Is Ruth really meant to be a role model?

The silence returns at that point – we cannot say for sure.

But some say that the point only becomes clear in the story’s last two sentences.

Ruth and Boaz have a son, named Obed—named, unusually enough, by the women of the town.

The story says: “Naomi’s women neighbors gave the boy a name: ‘Naomi has a son; we shall call him Obed,’ they said. He became the father of Jesse, David’s father.”

(It’s interesting to note that they speak of the boy as Naomi’s son, when, of course, Naomi is not related to little Obed by blood at all. Maybe that points to some dawning awareness in the community that a deeper kind of moral logic is at work in these events, and that somehow, in this case, motherhood and redemption are intertwined in ways that need to be accounted for.)

In any case, then the story goes on with a more formal genealogy, which the language of the King James Version characteristically describes as a series of “begats”:

“Now these are the generations of Pharez,” it says, “Pharez began Hezron, and Hezron begat Ram, and Ram begat Amminadab, and Amminadab begat Nahshon, and Nahshon begat Salmon, and Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David” (Ruth 4:18).

It’s not poetic, but it packs a wallop.

Because what it reveals is that Ruth is the great-grandmother of the greatest king in the history of Israel—the great-grandmother of the man that tradition held wrote all the psalms, and conquered Jerusalem and made it the geographical heart of Jewish civilization, who brought the Ark of the Covenant to live there forever, and who united the kingdom…and so much more.

David is a figure perhaps second only to Moses in the history of the Hebrew people.

And so, this kind of last-minute revelation is immensely important.

It shows us that the story of Ruth and Naomi isn’t just the story of two plucky ladies who make good—you know, the Laverne and Shirley of Ancient Israel. A sweet comedy. 

But I think the story would have been very different if we were told right up front that this is story of the generations before David.  

If we’d known that all along, then the outcome would never have been in doubt, would it?

The character and courage of the two women would have been something deep in their blood we would have been looking for, starting in Chapter One.

Instead, I take the book to be making a much more subtle point.

The fact is, we don’t know what’s in them.

We don’t know what’s in them, because we don’t know what’s in us.

We don’t know what’s in our neighbors.

We don’t know what the future holds for our community, or what role – if any – our people and our place might play in a world where even so much of the near future is, even so, over the horizon.

We cannot know, in the moment, how it is that God’s larger purposes may be coming to fruition right now, or soon, or somewhere down the line, or not at all – at least, not with any easy certainty.

What seems so messy and contingent and partial and temporary may be just that. Or it may be the beginning of something much greater.

Only God knows, and only time can tell.

Indeed, the God whose grace abounds within the world operates silently, even imperceptibly for most of us, at least most of the time.

And the great “ta-da” moments of revelation are only rarely some kind of great uncloaking.

More likely, they are the culmination of so much patient, faithful, courageous diligence—acts and character and witness that lay the groundwork for a future that the workers cannot see…just as the builders of Europe’s greatest cathedrals knew that perhaps only their grandchildren would worship in a finished sanctuary.

So…there are no stories of great-grandma Ruth, sitting on the front porch, rocking baby David on her knee.

Likely, she was not there for that to happen. But her role in his life is nevertheless profound.

Israel needed David. And David needed Ruth—not simply for life itself, but in order to live the kind of life his time in history would ultimately require.

And so the world needs you and me to take our lives seriously, and to use them for the sake of goodness and justice and hope in all the ways we can, even if the culmination of our work remains over the horizon.

More depends upon our doing it than we ourselves may ever truly know.

Finally, I want to say a brief word about silence.

We noted that what is so remarkable about Ruth is how she is not silent—how her story flies in the face of any number of conventions and social expectations for the women of her day. 

Following the example of Jesus, part of our mission as a faith community is to see those people that the rest of the world does not see, and to hear their stories, and to make sure that God’s house is a place where at least some kinds of silence are not golden, much less gospel.

It is our work to make sure that those who find their way here come to feel known and appreciated, and in the end not only transformed by this community, but also an agent of its – of our – ongoing transformation.

That’s our work because Ruth is our story—it’s a perpetual summons to remember that God is at work in the world in ways that, in the fullness of time, prove to be utterly astonishing.

Our faith rests on the stories that affirm this truth going back through the sands of time and right up into our day and right here in our midst.

The writer Terry Tempest Williams opened her mother’s empty journals and saw cartographies of silence.

Ruth calls us, and Jesus calls us, always to be the people who receive stories, no matter how ragged or unfinished or imperfect they might be.

Our Scripture this morning reminds us that with the love of community and the fullness of God’s time, those stories may turn out to be nothing less than the cartographies of grace, itself.


The First Day of School

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger and did nothing for you?” (Matthew 25:44)

Dear Friends of Second Church,

This morning was the first day of school, at least for the Greenwich Public Schools, and our daughter Grace was up early.

She’s very excited to be a first grader, and so at least for today, our morning routine was a delightful performance of her independence–clothes on without any “Poppy, not THAT…..” editorializing, breakfast downed, teeth brushed, hair brushed, lunch packed, backpack checked one more time, and off we went.

The lawn outside her school was like old home week for the under-tall, and Grace got right down to business, comparing new sneakers with her friends and telling them all about the raptors she saw a couple of weeks ago at the Stamford Nature Center. (Is it just me, or are children are smarter than they used to be?) Parents with cellphone cameras were everywhere.

It wasn’t until the classes were all proudly marching in the schoolhouse door behind their new teachers that I noticed the few kids hanging back–holding on tight for another minute as mom or dad carefully moved them toward the door, harrumphing them along in stages, like thirty pound bags of flour. And from a word here or there I managed to catch, I realized that they were all “new kids.” New to school, or new to Greenwich, or just new to Julian Curtiss? I don’t know yet. But they’re new.

We all know that in a few days, most of them will be just fine.

But I’ve been thinking about them all day, and thinking about how I can help Grace be one of the kids who makes an extra effort to welcome them.

How do you explain to a first grader about Jesus’ commandment to welcome the stranger? How do we help our children see that building community is about lunch tables and playground games and the look on your face when the teacher picks your partner? And how can we help them learn how sacred it is to do those things with others in mind? Do we do the same sort of things ourselves, so that our children see the lesson often enough to follow our example?

The beginning of a new school year is always a holy moment. Somewhere nearby, moms and dads are praying that their worried new student will settle in, make friends, and begin to love their new life in this new place to which they’ve come. My hope is that, each in their own ways, the children of Second Church will be answers to those prayers.

See you in church,

Ruth: Gold-Digger or One True Love? (A Sermon on Ruth 3)

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Congregationalists of Connecticut had a short-lived dream of Christianizing the entire globe in a single generation.

That dream came about because of the arrival of a young Hawaiian native, later known as Henry, who had signed onto a Connecticut whaling ship when it had stopped for resupply on his island. Little did the ship’s crew realize that they had arrived during a lull in vicious internal wars by different island factions—the kind that made a ticket to anywhere else something very much worth thinking about, and which Henry acted upon.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that Henry stayed with the ship until its voyage concluded in New Haven and was in no hurry to return home.

He was taken care of by a series of students, then boarded with the families of several local pastors, and was converted to Christianity. His story was a matter of great interest throughout Connecticut, New England, and New York.

But he was only the first young “heathen” man – that was their term – to visit Connecticut, and soon it became clear that others were arriving, too, not only from Hawaii, but from all kinds of places.

And so the ministers of the Congregational churches began to imagine what might happen if these young men were not only converted, but then trained as missionaries and returned home to serve.

The possibilities seemed enormous. Funds were raised. Celebrities endorsed. Faculty were hired.

Eventually, buildings for a school were acquired upstate, in the town of Cornwall, which is in Litchfield County.

But after auspicious beginnings and ongoing coverage in the newspapers, tragedy struck.

A local mob attacked, and burned down the school.

You see, some of the heathen boys had taken the idea of Christian brotherhood too far.

“In Christ, you are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free,” it says in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Perhaps with that in mind, the boys had struck up friendships, and then potentially romantic interests, with some of the local girls of Cornwall.

Christianity, it seems, was one thing; racial mixing was quite another.

And so that was the end of that.

I’m thinking of that story today because it can be easy to forget how brave, in its way, Ruth’s visit to the threshing room floor to be with Boaz really was.

Remember: she is a woman in a time when women were viewed as having few, if any rights—and on top of that, she is a woman who comes from another place, where people worship another deity, and she has no one of any standing to protect her, much less vouch for her character, or her purity.

She comes in tow of her “mother-in-law Naomi,” but it’s “mother-in-law” in quotation marks because Ruth’s husband is dead, and Naomi’s husband is dead, and there are no children, and they had been living out there in Ruth’s country, so any notion of the letter of the law protecting anyone from anything was a non-starter.

And yet, as we noted last week, things are not so bad now that they’re in Bethlehem.

Life isn’t easy. But good things are happening.

In particular, Ruth receives generous treatment at the hands of Boaz, a wealthy, well-meaning landowner who was perhaps a cousin of her late husband’s family.

Boaz, it seems, is just one of those pay-it-forward kind of people. He’s been moved by Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, and he treats her not only with generosity, but even more remarkably, he offers her tremendous face-to-face respect.

And in that, of course, he sets the tone for how she will be treated by the community at large.

Ruth is the consummate outsider–a childless, destitute woman of another ethnic tradition. By contrast, Boaz is the consummate insider: a figure of great respect, a man, wealthy, in the prime of life, and religiously observant.

A cynic might say that in going to him on the threshing room floor, then, Ruth has nothing to lose, while Boaz has everything to lose—and perhaps that’s true.

On the other hand, the difference in their power abides with them in the darkness of that night, and come the morning, had Boaz decided to act as if nothing had happened—and simply ignored Ruth—well, there would have been no court of appeals for Ruth to turn to.

If by chance she became pregnant, the minute she began to show, they would have run her straight out of town for good.

Ruth would have known that all too well. And so it is brave that she goes.

Why does she?

She goes because in a world where so often, power and privilege come with the right to tell the story the way it suits the powerful few, Ruth is bold enough, loyal enough, and caring enough to imagine a different story.

As someone who gave up the protections of her own tribe to come to be with a foreign people and to see herself under the watchful eye of a foreign god, Ruth is uniquely well-positioned to see some things about tribes.

Specifically, she sees with remarkable clarity that tribes and their customs—their stories, their roles and responsibilities—offer a measure protection and predictability in a confusing world. Thank God they do.

But Ruth also sees that those roles can prove confining, and that all stories have their limitations, and that being one of the privileged insiders means coming to see the world in a certain way…and feeling free to ignore the people and the situations that don’t fit into that worldview.

Now, there is more to Boaz than that. She sees that.

But she also knows that despite whatever chemistry there is between them, if she sits out on the front porch waiting for Boaz to show up with a dozen roses, she will be waiting a long time.

Boaz does not seem to know any stories like that. He does not seem to see the world that quite that way.

In a deeper sense, that’s just it: Boaz cannot wholly know just how his own lenses have shaped how he has come to see the world.

And so Ruth dreams of a new prescription, a different kind of story, not only for herself, but for Boaz, and Naomi, and for all of them.

So often, we speak of faith as a kind of patience – as a way of enduring with hope that things will be made right in God’s time.

Some of religion’s toughest critics have called faith an “illusion” or the “opiate of the masses,” precisely because it can so easily be misused as a way to keep things safe, tidy, and predictable—which is the way that all tribes like the world to be.

But this morning’s Scripture reminds us that, sometimes, God’s time is now.

At its best, our faith is a constant reminder that the world we see is not all the world there is, and that the path toward human wholeness is a path of engagement and encounter.

Whatever our stories may be, all Creation is part of God’s story – and that the role God has asked us to play is a role far greater, and far richer, than the expectations of any human tribe.

God’s love is unfailing and unchanging. But at its heart lies the promise of new possibilities for all of us.

You and I know that over the last few weeks, the world had reverted to many of its own – our own – most destructive and most tribal impulses.

In the last few days, the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has raised over a quarter of a quarter of a million dollars on the Internet. Sad to say, this is not a reflection of our nation’s commitment to due process – the comments left by visitors on the website are, frankly, a cesspool of every conceivable prejudice, and their glee is unmistakable.

Never has our need to imagine and work for new stories, and a broader understanding of fairness, been more urgent.

Sometimes, I worry that the only thing white Americans actually like about living in a pluralistic society are Mexican food and jazz music.

And if, from time to time, it so happens that we inhabit the same space, even so, let’s not pretend for a moment that we live in the same world.

Except that, as faith reminds us, we do.

We live in God’s world.

And if our tribes tell us how it is that we might coexist, and get along enough to live side by side, God’s word points to something much harder and more profound: it says that we are to learn how to live together.

We are to learn how to be part of one another’s stories, and to seek a new prescription for the lenses of our tribes.

That’s what Ruth did. In a world where people would have been all too ready to label her a shameless gold-digger, she was brave enough to act as Boaz’s one true love, and to rewrite their stories.

What can you and I do to rewrite the stories of who we are and what we owe our neighbors?

How can we come to see the things our own lenses may distort or even hide?

These are the questions of Ruth, and Ferguson, and even the Heathen School in nearby Cornwall—the questions of every era of American history, and every community. Port Chester and Stamford, Bridgeport and Greenwich.

Let’s ask those questions with hope and humility, remembering that it was the Congregationalists of Connecticut who, two hundred years ago, built a school for boys from all over the world, hoping to share the saving love of Jesus Christ.

And let’s remember that it was other Congregationalists of Connecticut who burned that school to the ground.

But let’s ask the questions.

And may the story of Ruth and Boaz remind us that new answers and new stories are always possible, if only we find the courage to help write them.