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.

Amen.

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