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.