painting of medieval church in summer

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

[A sermon delivered at the Corydon Presbyterian Church on Sunday, August 11, 2019.]

A lot of times these Bible stories we read in church start sort of the in the middle of things, and we need some backstory … but we can read the book of Ruth as a whole self-contained little story, really, and here we’re so close to the beginning of it, we might as well read the first few verses that set the stage, because it would take just as long to summarize them, so …

Let’s listen for the Word of God to us in Ruth 1(:1-11, 14-19, 22)

It’s quite likely that they will die, by the way.

I’m not saying that to be negative or melodramatic, it’s just that from what we know about life in ancient Israel, widows were in a precarious position, and Ruth and Naomi are two widows with no children, and in particular no sons, to support them, which makes it even worse,

so even though there’s no famine in Bethlehem now, at this point in the story we have to wonder where their next meal is going to come from.

Because even though the Torah tells the Israelites to care for widows and orphans, in the time of the judges, people were not behaving that well, and for that matter, even after the time of the judges, people don’t always do what the Torah tells them to do.

So, it wasn’t completely correct to say that we’re coming right in at the very beginning of the story, because, as always with anyone’s story, there’s a fair amount of background that if we have it, it just helps us understand better, what’s really going on …

For instance, there’s a story told by the ancient rabbis, that Ruth and Orpah were actually sisters – so, they were sisters who had married brothers, so, if they had had any children, their children would have been double cousins, which I’m pretty sure some people here will appreciate – and they were Moabite royalty, because they were the daughters of King Eglon of Moab and the granddaughters of King Balak.

But … unfortunately … King Eglon actually oppresses the Israelites during the time of the judges – there’s a story about that in Judges 3, one of the ones we don’t normally read in church because it’s … not a very nice story, and King Balak actually tried to curse the Israelites when they were traveling to the promised land, which is a story back in Numbers … so we could understand if Ruth didn’t want to advertise her genealogy when she arrived in Bethlehem.

All of this is part of what we might call backstory.

If we were actors, who were going to be playing a part in a play or a movie, we would want to have as much backstory as possible:

We’d want to know: Who’s my character? Where’d she come from? What’s it like to grow up there? How many sisters and brothers does she have, is she the oldest or the youngest, and was she one of the favorites, or was she always in trouble, or was she always trying to get her parents’ approval and never quite making it … was she good in school, was she always the last one picked for teams … ?

We’d want to know all that, because it would help us know how to play our part: whether we should be confident, or insecure; whether we’re friendly and trusting, or always have a chip on our shoulders; … how we’ll react to this or that line coming from this or that other character … our backstories inform all that complex human relationship stuff …

So I have to say, I always notice when I read the story of Ruth, which is this beautiful story, and it’s told in such a careful and seemingly straightforward way … that when we start to look at it, we notice … there’s a whole lot of the story of these characters that the storyteller leaves out.

We really don’t know much about Naomi, for instance. We know her name means “delightful” or “pleasant” – this might tell us that she is a very warm, kind person … and this may explain why her daughters-in-law love her so much … although, honestly, when we read some of the things she says and does in this story, we might start to wonder whether her name is a kind of ironic, because she complains a lot … although, to be fair, she has a lot to complain about … and she’s very savvy … again, not to be negative, just noticing …

But the biggest thing we don’t know is where this amazing, rather awe-inspiring, heroic declaration of loyalty on Ruth’s part comes from …

So again, if we were actors, if we got to play the part of Ruth, we’d want to know things, like whether …

Well, whether Ruth grew up in a home where that’s just what people do, they take care of one another, sort of like in that Disney movie Lilo and Stitch, where the family motto is ohana, “no one gets left behind or forgotten” so that OF COURSE Ruth would never let her old mother-in-law go back to a distant land all alone, even if it does mean that she’s trading what might be a very secure and pleasant life for a very insecure and even short one. In which case, Ruth’s heroism comes from her noble character.

But maybe Ruth grew up in a home where … that isn’t what people do at all, where what people do is traumatize each other and victimize each other and belittle each other, where the situation is so terrible that when she had to decide she thought to herself “I’d rather die than go back to that.” Maybe Ruth’s heroism is more like a kind of desperation; maybe she became a hero of lovingkindness because she thought, what have I got to lose?

How would we know?

Because the Bible doesn’t give us any of this backstory.

Why is that?

I wonder … whether … maybe, by leaving out all that backstory, by leaving all that to our imagination …

Really almost anyone, anyone really, could imagine themselves in this story …

Anyone could hear themselves saying those words to Naomi …

Anyone could make this story … their story.

And this is a story that gets bigger and bigger … it’s starts out as a story of lovingkindness, and then as the plot unfolds, we find out it’s a story of redemption, because Boaz shows up and sees Ruth’s value, and then Ruth and Boaz get married, and take Naomi into their household, and then Ruth has a baby, Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, who is the shepherd boy who later becomes the great king of Israel, who then becomes the ancestor of the Messiah … so this story, that starts with Ruth’s death-defying act of lovingkindness, becomes part of the backstory for that larger story of redemption …

And whether we call that story … the story of Jesus … or we call it the gospel … or the Bible … we are talking about the whole story of redemptive love that God is telling, and is inviting us to step into, the way Ruth stepped in to the story of Naomi, and when she did that, stepped in to the story of Israel, and so, stepped in to the story of the people of God …

And whatever these people’s lives may have been like in what we sometimes call “real life,” what has become most lasting and real and memorable about them is their acts of lovingkindness to one another.

As one of the ancient rabbis, Rabbi Zeira pointed out, the story of Ruth doesn’t have anything to do with religious law or rules – it doesn’t have any commandments or prohibitions, or any regulations, so you might wonder, why is it even in the Bible? … and he said, “to teach us the greatness of the reward for acts of lovingkindness.”

A story like that can change your life, the way it seems to have changed Ruth’s life …

A story that can change your life like that is a kind of gift …

And anyone, with any backstory, could be part of this story, of what happens when someone does an act of lovingkindness.

Which is important, because in real life, Everyone has a backstory, and that backstory does affect how we play out our day-to-day everyday life scenes; the psychologists remind us that we’re all telling ourselves stories all the time – stories about who we are, and what we are doing, and why we’re doing it – and those stories actively influence how we live our lives.

This fact about human beings has really been on my mind since the mass shootings last week in our country; because we don’t know the whole backstory, but we do know that one of those young shooters had been telling himself a particular kind of story – a story in which he was playing the part of a hero, in a war, with enemies, and victims, a matter of life and death, a story in which he could be someone. He didn’t write that story himself, of course, he got that story from the broken world around him, from a community; people supported him in telling that story, people fed him with details to make it more realistic, people sold him props to help him act out his part in that story … and then, when he did act that part, all the way through, on the stage of his local WalMart, that was full of people who hadn’t been asked whether they wanted to play parts in that particular story … suddenly, it became clear what that story was really about … that it was all about death.

And unfortunately, I think we know, that young man is not the only one telling himself a dead-end story like that; there are all kinds of deadly, bleak, abandoned stories, being written, and told, in this world, by this world;

There are a lot of people in this world, in our world, who really need a better story than that …

for whom a better story is a matter of life and death …

who need to hear a story that’s about life and love rather than about death,

who need to hear a story about life and love that includes them, rather than one that could only ever be about someone else.

a story about the possibility of redemption … a story about the heroism of lovingkindness, and the greatness of the reward for acts of lovingkindness … a story that has a place in it for anyone, whatever they may have been like before the story really begins …

… like the story of Ruth … or the story of Jesus … or the story of the church …

… a story like the one we’ve become part of, have been welcomed into, whatever our own personal backstories were – as Pastor Phillip used to say, the way “All of us are welcome – each of us is welcome – all of each of us is welcome.”

… it may seem very ordinary, it may not seem all that dramatic, but sharing a story like that is an act of lovingkindness, including someone in that story is one of those real and lasting and memorable acts of lovingkindness.

I’ve told this story a few times, so some of you may have heard it before … forgive me if you have … but 25 years ago, when we moved to Corydon, I was not a churchgoer, and hadn’t been for something like 20 years; we didn’t know anyone here, and I wasn’t sure that what people might have called “our lifestyle” was going to be too popular here … or what that was going to mean … but I decided to give the Presbyterian church a try, because there wasn’t anything better [again, not to be negative], and as it happened the Presbyterians were building a new building, and because the Presbyterians were trying to save a little money, they were doing some of the work themselves, and that work included picking up all the rocks on the property … and I happened to be here on the day the pastor invited everyone to show up and help out with that … so I did that, I arrived on that day, at that time, with a bucket, … In my case Naomi was Patty V., who some of us remember, and who suggested that it might be a good idea to have a pair of work gloves for work like that, which this city girl hadn’t even thought of, and who found me some … we worked together for a couple of hours in the dust in July in Southern Indiana picking up rocks and talking and all of a sudden it didn’t matter that I was new or gay or whatever, I was just … part of this … after that I used to always say, I’m a Presbyterian because the Presbyterians let me pick up rocks.

It was more than that, obviously. When we make space in our story for someone else, whoever they are, wherever they came from, whatever their backstory – that’s an act of lovingkindness.

It’s what Naomi did, it’s what Jesus did, it’s what we can do, what we can keep doing … and the reward for that really is great … as great as life itself.

Flemish Baroque peasants doing summer work in a field with a church in the background
“Summer” – Pieter Brueghel the Younger
“Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:37-38

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