Relating, Creating, Transforming

Ruth 3:1-18

Fear, Anger, and Sadness: Who Walks with Us?

No matter what age we are, or where we are on our journey—I think all of us know what it’s like to be scared, angry, or sad. When I was a kid, I moved a lot. I remember my first day of middle school in Iowa after moving from Indiana. I was scared. I didn’t know anyone in my school. The teachers were new; the hallways were strange; the students weren’t my friends. I felt alone. And I was scared. Then, as a teenager, I remember some vicious bullies roaming the hallways of our school. They didn’t just terrorize me—they picked on all sorts of kids. Sometimes they bullied a guy because he got good grades; other times, they bullied a girl who didn’t come from a family with lots of money so she wore hand-me-down clothes; they also bullied anyone they identified as different. This made me mad, furious–angry. Fast forward to my time as a young adult studying in seminary. I remember my first internship in a church and my first board meetings. I expected discussions and perhaps arguments about how we ought to serve the community, help those in need, lift up those who were down or include those who were left out. But those discussions rarely took place. Instead, time and energy was spent arguing over which songs to sing in worship services; the clothes that people wore; the dogma or doctrine that people “should” believe; and the amount of money the church should save for itself. It made me incredibly sad–depressed, even.

On life’s journey, I think all of us visit places that are scary, angry, or sad. Perhaps some of you are in one of those places today. Maybe you’re trying to get out of one of those places but cannot find the way. Such places in life, I believe, are even worse when we’re alone. We go from being scared to paralyzed; angry to hateful; sad to depressed. But in our stories, if we are not alone—if someone is with us through it all—things can change. Back when I started middle school in Iowa, I was frightened because I did feel alone. But by day number two, a kid named Derrick started talking to me in history class. Before I knew it, he invited me to his house. Soon enough, we were friends. And then a new school was less scary. As a teenager, I was angry at all the bullies around; it wasn’t fair how they treated us; the teachers turned away from it and other students let it happen. But friends gathered around me, stood up for me, and I learned how to stand up for others. Our anger turned into action as we stood with the kids who were constantly picked on. We chose to say “no, stop” when it was easier to just ignore it. And in seminary, as sad as I had ever been because of the hypocrisy and apathy of the institutional church—when I felt alone–my sadness was capable of becoming deep depression. But there were colleagues and friends, some working in churches, some studying in seminary—who stood with me. We shared our sadness, prayed for each other, laughed together, and refused to let hypocrisy and apathy overcome us.

Friends, it’s true that all the scary, angry, and sad places in life look different when we’re not alone, when we walk with others. It changes the game when we’re in a community or alongside a friend, a life partner, or a blessed colleague—people who pull us out of those places with support, love, and care. Then the difficult places can become opportune places to build character, to learn and grow, and even—to find something that was lost, or to heal, or to redeem.

This is the story of Ruth—a story of sadness, anger, and fear—an ancient Israelite story of friendship—that brings about joy, courage, transformation, and redemption. We are looking at chapter 3 of this story, but let’s recap chapters 1 and 2 with the help of these paintings from Marc Chagall:

Chapter 1: Israel was in the middle of a famine. A man named Elimelech journeyed from Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife Naomi and his two sons to Moab. Elimelech died, and so Naomi was left with her two sons. Both sons married Moabite women. One was named Orpah, and the other was named Ruth. Later on, both of the sons died, and Naomi was left with only Orpah and Ruth. Eventually, Naomi heard that the famine was over in her homeland, and so she decided to return to Judah. She told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. Both Orpah and Ruth refused. Naomi insisted they stay, because in those days, a woman of Naomi’s old age would struggle to survive; she had nothing to offer Ruth and Orpah. So the three women cried, and they hugged, and Orpah went back to her family. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. No matter how much Naomi insisted, Ruth refused to leave her side. Ruth was willing to leave her home and all that she knew with no guarantees that it would work out. All for Naomi. So both women went to Bethlehem together at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Chapter 2 begins with this: Naomi had a relative on her late husband’s side. He was a wealthy man named Boaz. One day, Ruth told Naomi that she wanted to go collect the scraps left in the fields as people harvested the barley crop. It was common practice for the ancient Israelites to leave the stalks that fell after picking the barley. This was a spiritual practice of caring for the poor and foreigners who had nothing to eat. The field Ruth chose to collect in belonged to Boaz. Not long after, Boaz noticed Ruth and asked about her. His workers told him that she was the Moabite girl who came with Naomi.

So Boaz and Ruth meet for the first time. Boaz, not obligated to really care about this widow from Moab, tells Ruth: Don’t go collect in another field. Stay here close to my girls. Keep your eyes on where they’re picking the crop, and follow them. No one will bother you. And when you’re thirsty, go drink from the jars of water that the men have drawn.

Surprised, Ruth wonders why Boaz would show such kindness to someone like her. Boaz tells Ruth that it is her character that intrigues him, how she had stood by Naomi through thick and thin, how she had taken risks to leave her family and her homeland. So he makes sure that Ruth has enough to eat. And when Ruth tells Naomi this news about Boaz, the bitter, once-sad and angry Naomi praises God.

Now in chapter 3 and Naomi has changed completely. No longer down in the dumps, she now plays matchmaker. She has hope for Ruth and her household. Naomi knows that Boaz will be sorting the barley that was picked. So Ruth, Naomi thinks, why not clean yourself up real nice, make sure you smell good, dress up to the nines, and go to that threshing floor. When Boaz lies down to sleep, uncover his feet and lie down yourself. Quite a risk. Up to this point, Ruth had been protected from such a scenario. But now Naomi was asking her to put herself in a very vulnerable situation. Ruth isn’t sure, but her friendship with Naomi has brought her this far and given her much courage. So Ruth waits until Boaz is lying down and he uncovers his feet. Of course, the story is playing with words here, for the uncovering of feet is well—not about feet. I’ll leave the birds and the bees explanation to all you parents out there. But can you feel the tension in the story? What will happen to Ruth? How will Boaz react? The spreading of Boaz’s robe would be a symbol of betrothal. Is the story about to end with a happy marriage? No. Even though Ruth calls Boaz her redeemer, [the one who would allow Ruth to have land, food, and community], Boaz doesn’t accept. Don’t get me wrong—he is grateful for Ruth’s act of loyalty and her thankfulness. But Boaz mentions another man, a guy who is younger. But Boaz is clear that he will help Ruth. Either way, she would not be left alone.

At this point, you and I will leave the story there and wait to turn the page. There’s drama here, isn’t there? Unexpected twists abound. Rules are broken; obligations and duty are pushed aside in favor of friendship and mercy. Women destined to live in poverty, on an uncertain path, with seemingly little hope. And yet, a lasting friendship forms that binds them together. Their fear becomes courage; their sadness, joy.

An unlikely friendship between an Israelite woman and a Moabite woman is more than just a nice story. The book of Ruth was a protest against the Nehemiah-Ezra marriage laws established at the time, prohibiting Israelites from marrying foreigners. Clearly, Ruth’s story was challenging how society defined marriage, relationship, and even love. Obligation and duty gave way to friendships well beyond the established categories.

Ruth and Naomi had little in common. They were of different generations, from different cultures, practiced different religions, and claimed different homelands. But they trusted each other, even when things looked bleak. They picked each other up and shared what they had—be it wisdom, experience, talent, strength, or courage. And together, they were able to overcome the many obstacles of life. Together.

On Thursday, I attended Stars of David, a world premiere play, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towards the end of the play, there is a touching scene between a mother and daughter. The twelve-year-old daughter is crying—expressing to her mother all the fear and anxiety and inadequacy she feels as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah. She can’t learn the Hebrew. She can’t get the traditions right. She’s feels like she’s going to fail; she’s unsure that she can go through with it. She’s scared, frustrated, and sad at the same time. Her mother looks at her with love in her eyes and simply says:

Life can be uncertain and scary sometimes. We can even go to dark places. But when you go with someone who cares about you, what was scary and dark becomes an adventure that you share together.

 Who are the people who journey with you in life—stay with you, through it all? Be thankful for them. Let them know how much they matter to you.

 Who are the people around you who are sad, afraid, or angry? How can you be a good friend to them—lift them up, encourage and bless them–not out of obligation, but out of genuine care?

Choose to be such a friend to others. And choose, like Naomi, to accept the people God brings into your life to challenge you and bless you—even when those friends come from unlikely places.

May Ruth live in your story. Amen.

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