Message by Rev JennyCarter
November 4, 2018
(Based on the Book of Ruth)
There are moments in our spiritual lives where we hear a poem or a song, or see a story told on television or in a movie, and something deep inside of us shifts. It’s like a light has been turned on, and our understanding shifts. We are changed. Sometimes we even hear those transformative words in a sermon on a Sunday.
Preaching is a strange thing. You work to craft a sermon that is true to the biblical text and relevant to the people gathered. But the writing of a sermon is sometimes more like an act of prayer, than an exercise in language, where your primary concern is the simple arranging of words into sentences that have all the grammatical bits needed in order to make sense. A sermon is not meant for reading, it is meant for “hearing”, and so when you preach what you have written, it takes on a whole new life. The life it takes on has far less to do with the preacher, and far more to do with the Holy Spirit and with each one of you.
You see the words that come from a preacher’s mouth is only half the equation – it cannot fly on its own. If there is to be “life and faith and hope shared” and transformation made possible – a sermon needs ears that can hear. Proclamation of the gospel (or proclaiming the good life giving news of our faith) is not what someone like me says up front. Proclamation is how the words said up front are shaped by the Spirit as it lands on your ears. Have you ever had an experience where you have listened to a sermon, and you felt the words were meant just for you? That somehow in your struggle a way forward might have appeared? Or how the light of life found you, even though you had been in a rather dark place in your spiritual life? Well that is proclamation. That is the Spirit speaking to you.
The old church term for this is called “being convicted by the Word.” A rather ominous sounding term, which simply means the Word of life was especially meant for you that day. Every preacher I know, after crafting a sermon, wonders who it is that needs to hear those particular words organized in that particular way, on that very day. There is always one.
Sometimes the one “convicted by the Word” is the preacher themselves. You’re preaching the sermon and all of a sudden it hits you, “Oh, these words were meant for me.” We call this being convicted by your own preaching. It’s funny how this realization doesn’t hit you when you’re writing the sermon, it only happens in the sharing of it. How very like the Holy Spirit! The Spirit needs the gathered people for the Word of life to be shared!
The story of Ruth is a story in search of ears that can hear. When we hear this story told, we often hear about the importance of love and loyalty, perseverance and faith in God. And for sure, those are all in there. Ruth and Naomi were paragons in those areas. Yet they were also wise, and crafty, and determined to not let a social system that had become prejudicial and bigoted keep them down. You cannot help but love Ruth. Her story is the stuff of legend. She was everything a good person tried to be. And that is why her story would have caused the ears of those first hearers to tingle a little bit.
You see, Ruth was a Moabite – a foreigner. She and her mother-in-law Naomi were facing starvation and an uncertain future in Moab since the men in their lives had all died, and a woman alone in the world had no access to the very things needed to sustain life. They decided to return to Judah, and they did so hoping that Naomi’s relatives would save their lives, by allowing them to have food and shelter and a place in society that would not leave them as beggars. We know how the story unfolds from there. We know that Naomi knowing the customs of her homeland, comes up with a scheme for Ruth to find Boaz, a well off relative, who will then fall in love with her, marry her, and keep her as his wife. In so doing, securing the futures of both Ruth and Naomi.
It’s a good story! But it’s not just a story about these amazing women. It is a story that is told to make the ears of those living in Judah at the time burn. Ruth’s proclamation to her mother-in-law that we heard read, the “where you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people, your God will be my God” part of Ruth’s speech, would have struck at the very heart of everything the good and faithful people at the time would have held as of critical importance to the faith. You see, according to the religious authorities and sentiments of the day, Ruth would have symbolize the evil immigrant determined to undermine the purity of the land and the religion.
The problem with Ruth was that she was a Moabite – and while the Moabites might have been part of Abraham’s extended family according to history – they had been banished for the past 10 generations. There was great animosity between the people of Judah and the people of Moab. Moabites were considered “less than” in the eyes of proper religious people in Judah. So to have Ruth made into a hero, a paragon of faith and virtue and loyalty, would have been a shock to the people of Judah.
The story of Ruth was told during a time not long after the exiles returned from slavery in Babylon. Many of the returnees had married Babylonians and other foreigners during their time in exile, and had created families together. Yet once they returned home, the religious authorities demanded that Jewish men divorce their foreign born wives. They viewed the presence of these women as abominations to the faith, an affront to God and all that is holy, and a dilution of a “pure” race, so they had to go. This action by the religious authorities caused so much hurt and anguish and pain. Children lost their mothers and grandmothers, and those discarded women lost everything – including a way to support themselves. It was an injustice, and it was wrong, and so the story of Ruth was told. Her story was told so that those who heard it might have their ears tingle, and be convicted by the word of God. The life giving word of God that told them this was not the way to be. That to be faithful meant to put prejudice aside, and to welcome the foreigner and the immigrant not just into the families, but into the very heart of all that is holy and of God.
It would be very easy to leave this story in the care of history. It would be easy to say something along the lines of “that was then, this is now” and we have grown beyond such prejudices – grown beyond the notion of a holiness code and the faith sanctioned practices of exclusion. And while certainly we would not sanction prejudice, or approve the concept of “racial purity” – Ruth’s story is still relevant. It’s relevant because it is asking us to look at our own lives – especially our religious lives – and to question how it is we are living. What norms or practices are we holding up as sacrosanct – those principles or places, those routines or practices, we have – that are so important that they cannot be interfered with or changed – even if they cause others to be excluded or feeling less than. Every religious institution, including ours, has them. Sometimes they are big and lofty statements, and sometimes they are small religious habits and preferences – but either way, they keep us separated from one another, and they most certainly keep us separated from those beyond our walls who need a little good news in their lives.
Ruth’s story caused a stir and a change in the religious practices of her day. The calling to account of religious bigotry and misguided notions of faith, enabled her to find a home. We too are in need of a home. People beyond these walls are in need of a home. Home is found where love is found. Home is found when we knock down the barriers that keep people out because of race, sexual orientation, social class, education levels, or any other thing that serves to separate people. Home is found when we no longer put habit and custom ahead of people and their needs. Home is found when we no longer judge one another, but simply embrace one another in all of our imperfections. Home is found when we affirm that wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.
So, today, as these words hits our ears, may our ears tingle with the Spirit who brings us life. May we be convicted by the spirit to find our home, and to welcome others into it – whether that home is our place of residence, our nation, or our community of faith.