Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ruth's Risk

Proper 23 – Year C (Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost)
Ruth 1:(1-7)8-19a; Psalm 113; 2 Timothy 2:(3-7)8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Sunday, October 14, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Recently, I ran across this little bit of literary trivia:

"‘Behold the turtle; he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.’ These words by James Bryant Conant [had] special meaning for writer James Michener. In 1944, when Michener was nearly 40, he was serving in the U.S. Navy on a remote island in the South Pacific. To kill time, he decided to write a book. He knew that the chances of anyone publishing it were practically nil. But he decided to stick his neck out and give it a try. Michener had decided that the book would be a collection of short stories. A friend told him that nobody publishes short stories anymore. Even so, he stuck his neck out and went ahead.

"The book was published and it got few reviews, but Orville Prescott, the book reviewer for The New York Times, reported that he liked the stories. Others decided they liked the book too, and it wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize. Kenneth McKenna, whose job it was to evaluate books for a Hollywood film company, tried to persuade his company to make a movie out of it, but the company decided the book ‘had no dramatic possibilities.’ So McKenna stuck his neck out and brought the book to the attention of composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When Broadway cynics heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein were planning a musical called South Pacific, they guffawed and said, ‘Have you heard about this screwy idea? The romantic lead is gonna be a guy past 50. An opera singer named Ezio Pinza!’" (“Risk”)

South Pacific is generally considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won all of them, including all four awards for acting – the only musical to ever do so. And the 1958 movie version of South Pacific was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one of them.

“You can understand,” said Michener, “why I like people who stick their necks out.”

I think James Michener would have really liked Ruth, the protagonist of today’s Old Testament lesson from the book that bears her name. As we heard in this opening chapter of the book, Ruth was no ordinary woman. She defied the social convention of the culture and time in which she lived to follow Naomi, her mother-in-law, and ultimately, Naomi’s god, the God of Israel. But maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up a little and refresh our memories about this story. For this, we need to start not with Ruth, but with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Naomi was originally from Bethlehem. About ten years before the time of our story, a famine struck Judah. In hopes of surviving, Naomi, her husband, and her two sons moved to Moab, a foreign land. Naomi moved to Moab in search of life, but instead, found only death. At some point following their arrival in Moab, Naomi’s husband died. Normally, Naomi would have been in dire straits. While women had little standing in that day and age, widows had even less. They were completely dependent upon their relatives to take care of them. Fortunately, Naomi had two sons who could take care of her. During their time in Moab, the sons had each married local girls, Ruth and Orpah. But then, just before our story really begins, her two sons also die, leaving three widows – Naomi, who was now completely without means of support and survival, and her two daughters-in-law.

Knowing that she is too old for any man to want to marry her, Naomi has no choice but to return to her homeland, where at least she has relatives who might take pity on her and provide some modicum of support. But Orpah and Ruth have options. They can return to their own families, who will support them. And in due time, they may find other husbands who will support them. Yet, they chose not to exercise that option, choosing instead to follow Naomi. Recognizing the foolishness of such an endeavor, Naomi lays out the facts of life, explaining in a very logical manner that the best thing from these two girls is to go home. Orpah realizes the wisdom in what Naomi counsels, and does indeed return to her parents. Ruth, on the other hand, insists on staying with Naomi. For some unexplained reason, she is governed by love and loyalty rather than by logic. She chooses to forego the security that will be had in her parents’ care in favor of staying with Naomi, someone to whom she is not related, and to whom she owes nothing. She risks herself, her security, and her well-being by going into an alien land. Not to mention that Israel viewed Moab with negative moral and emotional connotations. By going into an alien land whose people view her people with great disgust, Ruth is potentially opening herself to serious danger.

In this defiant act, Ruth demonstrates, what in Hebrew is called hesed – a kindness and loyalty beyond what the law requires – a loving devotion that is above and beyond the call of duty. But, as we find out, her faithfulness and loyalty are not solely to Naomi. As Ruth states in her famous speech of defiance, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth is choosing to give up her identity as a Moabite. More importantly, she is choosing to give up any devotion to the pagan gods of her own people to worship the God of Naomi, the God of Israel. Ruth is not just making a statement of intention. She is making a solemn pledge, evidenced by her words “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” which is the standard form for swearing an oath. Ruth has not only demonstrated hesed, extreme faithfulness and loyalty, to Naomi; she is also swearing her faithfulness and loyalty to God, a god whom she does not even know.

What is interesting is that Ruth’s pledge “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” parallels God’s words which established his covenant with Israel – “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Ruth is choosing to opt into God’s covenant with Israel, to opt into a covenant relationship with this god who is essentially unknown to her. In so doing, Ruth is demonstrating Israel’s ideal of relationship with God – a faithful loyalty and devotion that is above and beyond the call of duty.

To fully understand the implications of what Ruth has done, we need to consider the rest of the story of the book of Ruth. The Reader’s Digest version is that upon arriving in Bethlehem, Ruth meets Boaz, one of Naomi’s relatives. After some subtle seductive moves on Ruth’s part, masterminded by Naomi, Boaz really begins to like Ruth. Naomi then decides to sell her property to Boaz so that she could have some money to live on, while keeping the property in the family. Boaz buys the property, marries Ruth, and they all live happily ever after. Naomi has money to live on. And knowing Ruth, she probably insisted that Naomi come to live with her and Boaz. Ruth has the security of a husband. And Boaz gets an attractive, young wife and another piece of real estate.

As the story opened, things were not looking very rosy for either Naomi or Ruth. Both had lost their husbands and all possible means of support and security. But thanks to Ruth taking a risk, thanks to Ruth acting on the faithfulness she felt toward Naomi, and more importantly, thanks to her faithfulness to God, both women ended up with the security and support they wanted and needed. Because of Ruth’s hesed, her faithfulness and loyalty, to Naomi and to God, everyone involved was blessed.

But the blessings don’t stop there. You see, there’s more to the story. Ruth and Boaz eventually have a son, Obed. Ruth and Boaz allowed Obed to be called Naomi’s son, thereby providing her with a male next-of-kin who could inherit the property she formerly owned, reap its benefits, and provide further assurances of her security. But ultimately, it was not just Ruth and Naomi’s family that were blessed through Obed. Obed eventually had a son named Jesse, who was the father of David, the greatest king in the history of Israel. So the entire nation of Israel was blessed through Ruth’s faithfulness to God. And what’s more, David was an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth, redeemer of the world. So the blessings of Ruth’s faithfulness extend not only to her family, not only to Israel, but to the whole world. We are all blessed by Ruth’s willingness to risk her own security in favor of committing to a faithful relationship with God.

We are created in the image and likeness of God. And this is exemplified in this story. The hesed of Ruth is an image of the hesed of God. This is reflected in Naomi’s comment to her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Naomi recognizes that the hesed Ruth demonstrates is a mirror, an image, of God’s hesed. And in due course, because she risked herself and her security, Ruth lives into that image, thereby becoming a catalyst for blessing, just as God in his hesed, blesses.

This parable is one of faithfulness – both God’s faithfulness and ours. If we are faithful to God, God will be faithful to us. Now I don’t necessarily mean to imply the negative of that – that if we are not faithful to God he will not be faithful to us. I believe that God has the capacity and even the desire to be merciful and faithful to us even when we are not always faithful to him. But what this parable of Ruth illustrates is that if we take a risk, if we don’t obsess about our own security and well-being, but if we instead commit to a faithful relationship with God, we will be blessed beyond our wildest imagination. And that blessing need not be limited to us, but can and does extend beyond us to those around us, often in unknown and unforeseen ways.

To me, there is no better confirmation of this than the numerous stories I am blessed to hear in my capacity as priest and pastor – stories from people who had either consciously or unconsciously turned their back on God, often for reasons unbeknownst to themselves. But then, without exception, when they chose to turn back to God, they find that God is still there, that he is still faithful to them, even when they had not been faithful to him, and that their lives are greatly enriched by that relationship. Unlike human relationships, in our relationships with the Divine, there is only one party who can turn their back, and it’s not God.

When we, like Ruth, dare to risk, dare to turn toward God, we find that God is there, waiting to embrace us with open arms And in our faithfulness to God, we experience first-hand God’s faithfulness to us, through blessings beyond our wildest imaginations. And we may just find that not only are we blessed, but that through God’s hesed, through God’s faithful devotion to us that is above and beyond the call of duty, we may also be a blessing to the world, or at least our own little piece of it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


“Risk.” Sermon Illustrations. [] (12 October 2007).

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