Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Death, Life and Motherhood

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Ruth 1:1-17:

The first attempts to create a day for mothers was begun by Julia Ward Howe, best known for writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  It wasn’t a day to honor mothers the way we do today, but instead in the wake of the civil war, in which so many mothers had lost their children, it was a day for mothers to come together to call for peace and disarmament.  The first Mother’s Day as we know it was celebrated at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, the precursor to the United Methodist Church, in 1908.  Anna Jarvis wanted to create a day to honor her mother, who worked promoting female education, and through her to honor all mothers.  At the 1912 general Conference, which is the administrative body of the Methodist church, they called for Mother’s Day to be celebrated at all Methodist churches, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national celebration as a day to recognize all the women who had lost sons in war, which we should note is the same year world war 1 began.  Unfortunately for Jarvis, by the 1920’s she believed that the holiday had become so commercialized that she began to regret having created the holiday. 
I think that Mother’s Day is one of the hardest sermons to deliver every year.  While Mother’s Day tends to be a high attendace day as people come out to celebrate their mothers, I also know that there are people who consciously avoid church on Mother’s Day, or at least dread coming, because they don’t want to have to deal with the pain that mother’s day brings.  There are those women who wanted to have children but were unable to; there are women who chose not to have children, and who feel judged for that decision, especially in the church; there are who have lost children; there are those who have lost their mothers; and there are those who mothers were unwilling or unable to be a mother to be their children and somehow I have to bring those altogether and or at least recognize those realities, to mourn and to celebrate, to recognize pain and to honor, and I think to proclaim a message of hope, love and appreciation, and I think that Naomi and Ruth do all those things.

The Book of Ruth is one of only two books in our Bible named after a woman, does anyone remember the second?  (Esther)  The book begins with a key indicator of what the story is going to be about, but it is very subtle and so to catch it you would have to be very aware of Biblical storytelling, and that is that we are told that the family are Ephrathites.  It is said that Bethlehem, was founded by the descendants of Ephrath, who was the wife of Caleb, and so the family is identified not by a male clan name but by a female name indicating that this is a story about women and the descendants of those women.  There is also a sort of ironic meaning to this usage as well, as the word Ephrath comes from a root word which means fertile or productive, and at the moment neither the land nor the sons are matching that description, and so they have to leave Bethlehem, which means house of bread, although eventually there is not only fertility in the land but also fertility in the family as well as Ruth will give birth to a son.

But to avoid the famine taking place, the family moves to a foreign land, but not just any land, they go to the land of the Moabites, historic enemies of the Israelites, and they settle there, and the sons take Moabite wives, and after a while Elimalech dies, and something very interesting happens in that there is now a change of reference in the story.  The story begins with Elimalech as the primary character, as Naomi is his wife, and it is his sons, but then there is a change in reference, and we are told that Elimalech, the husband of Naomi dies, and she is left with her sons.  Naomi now becomes the center of the story and other characters are referenced in relationship to her, which makes this unique among the Biblical witness.  There are 956 men named in the Bible, but only 188 women.  Most of those women named we know simply because they give birth to some significant figure, although there are many mothers who are mentioned but never named.  There are other women in the Bible who are known for things other than giving birth, but the simple reality is they are not often talked about or in many cases even remembered.

But I believe that we know of Naomi and Ruth not only because of their roles as mothers, but for other roles they play as well.  In fact, although Ruth plays a significant role for us as Christians in that she gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse and Jesse is the father of King David, and thus she is listed in the genealogy of Jesus, the birth of Obed does not come until the very end of the story, and then it is not Ruth that is celebrated but instead Naomi.  At the beginning the story Naomi has known the pain of losing not only her children but of seeming to have her future cut off from her.  In that moment of agony and despair, Naomi cannot see anything bright, she sees no blessings in her life.

 In the curse given to Eve as she leaves the garden of Eden, she is told that there will be increased pain in childbearing.  I think we can interpret that to mean not only the physical pain of childbirth itself, but also the pain of knowing of that we can lose our children, a reality that is very present in our household this year.  Naomi and her family go looking for bread, for new life in a foreign land, and instead they find more death and destruction, leaving Naomi a broken woman, no longer a mother, no longer a wife, which means for her in her society that she has no bearing, no support, no structure, she is left adrift and so it’s no wonder she sees no future for her own life let alone those of her daughter-in-laws.  And so she calls Ruth and Orpah to send them away.  Naomi wants to do what she thinks is right in her role as their mother, she is trying to protect them, but they don’t want to go.  Eventually she dissuades them telling them that there is no future with her, and Orpah goes away, while Ruth stays.

It might be easy to look down our noses, or to think less of Orpah for leaving Naomi, but she is not unfaithful in what she does, it’s just that she is judged against Ruth who goes the extra mile in staying, in clinging to Naomi and then in eventually wearing Naomi down so that she allows Ruth to accompany her to go back to Bethlehem with her.  The Hebrew word being used here for faithfulness is hesed.  It is a word often used to describe God’s unmerited acts of grace and mercy.  So, to do hesed, is to show loyalty or love far beyond what is expected, or what the law requires.  When Naomi says “may the Lord deal kindly with you,” the word translated as kindly is this same word hesed.  Naomi is actually asking that God show the same level of hesed to the women, as they have shown to her.  But then Ruth goes even further, and she clings to Naomi, and says the lines with which many of us are so familiar: “where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.  Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried.”  These are words that are sometimes used in weddings as a sign of utmost devotion to another, and even Ruth clinging to Naomi is reminiscent of the second creation story, in which we are told why “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.” (Gen. 2:24)  Ruth is driven not by logic, but instead by loyalty and love, by hesed, just as Naomi has been driven by hesed towards her daughter-in-laws in trying to protect them.

Elena is a poor peasant farmer in Bolivia, who shows all the signs of rural poverty – missing teeth, a weathered face and curved back.  She and her husband farmed their small plot of land together until her husband had a stroke.  Elena had no idea what was wrong with him, nor did they have the money for him to go to a larger town to see a doctor, and so Elena did what she could to try and keep up the farm herself, but the work was too much .  Much of it fell into disrepair, food became scarce and Elena and her husband, began to suffer with malnutrition an issue affecting more than 25% of the population of Bolivia.  In the midst of this Elena found Arminda living on a street corner, scavenging for food including eating noodles off the floor of a nearby restaurant.  Arminda was 2 years old, having been abandoned by her family because they could no longer take care of her.  Even though she was having enough trouble feeding her husband and herself, Elena, demonstrating Hesed, took Arminda into her home and  tried to track Arminda’s family down.  When Elena found them and was told that they didn’t want her back, Elena began procedures to adapt Arminda.  Being a mother is about much more than just giving birth to a child, it is about giving hesed, about giving unconditional love, about reaching out to those in need even when it would seem that you have nothing else to give, and creating a new future, giving a future, to another person and to yourself.

And so Ruth goes home with Naomi.  Ruth  the Moabite.  That is how Ruth is referred to once they get back to Bethlehem, Ruth the Moabite.  She has been named, and it is not a good one because she has been named as the other, the outsider, the foreigner,, the enemy.  In Deuteronomy there is a rule that stipulates that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.  Even to the 10th generation.” (Deut 23:3)  Lots of people made judgments about Ruth, even Joshua Judges Ruth (a little Biblical humor).  She is a Moabite, certainly nothing good can come from her, she has been deemed unworthy of anything even before she has begun.  No matter what she has said to Naomi, no matter the faithfulness or hesed  she shows to Naomi, she is the other, “one of those people.”

There is lots of speculation about when the Book of Ruth may have been written.  There is nothing in the text itself which  dates it.  Some speculate that it was written down during the reign of King David.  But others, and I tend to agree with this group, say that it was instead written after the Jews had begun returning from exile in Babylon during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when they were setting laws which made it illegal for a Jewish man to marry a foreign woman, and if anyone was married to a foreign woman they were being called on to abandon their wives and children in order to marry Jewish women.  And so in the midst of that, the Book of Ruth stands as a minority report.  Ezra and Nehemiah are trying to say who is acceptable and who is not, who can be a mother, in order to try and purify the religion , and Ruth is standing there as a stark witness to a different reality, a different way of being, a different view of new generations and their mothers, of saying that our greatest king is the descendent of a women of one of these relationships. This is one of those times in which we see that God does not break into the world through great miracles or supernatural events, but instead God breaks through one woman clinging to her mother-in-law and refusing to go back to her people, but instead following Naomi home, and doing something as simple, as yet something as miraculous, as becoming a mother.

This week Marianna received her first report from the organ donation group and found out that Wyatt’s heart valves were given to two men, potentially saving their lives, and his corneas were given to two others giving them sight. And there we have hesed,the power of being a mother, and we might wonder if Marianna, in some small way through the donation of Wyatt’s organs, in giving hope and life in the midst of darkness and despair, in giving life in the midst of death, in continuing to be a mother to Wyatt, the son she has lost, that she has also become, in a small way, a mother to those whose lives have been changed through this simple gift, this simple act of Hesed in memory of her son.

The book of Ruth is the story of two remarkable women who change their futures together, and through that they change the future of the world, just like our mothers do, and just like all the women who made a difference in our lives do.  By changing our lives, they change the world. Naomi and Ruth also represent a minority report that the attitudes towards the other are not held by everyone.  They show us that while we do not get to choose our families, sometimes they consist of the most remarkable people, and  that sometimes we do get to choose to make new families of our own, and Ruth and Naomi show us about faithfulness, about loyalty, about Hesed, about death, about life, and about motherhood in all its forms.

One of the other ways that hesed sometimes gets translated is as saint.  Certainly we could easily include Ruth and Naomi in that category.  Our own mothers might also qualify for sainthood, for their dedication, faithfulness and love given to us.  But, I have also yet to meet anyone who did not have other women in their lives who took a mothering role to them, who who took them under their wings, who, in many ways, became like Ruth and Naomi, who provided us with new hope and a new future. Today we remember our saints, those who have been faithful, those who have given us unmerited love, those who have given us unending grace, and so I would like for us to take some time to name them, to name the women who have made a difference in our lives….

The story of Ruth begins in the midst of despair and tragedy and ends with the redemption of the people, and then the redemption of the world.  Ruth’s hesed, her dedication and love, even though she is the other, continues to be a shining example to all of us of what love, dedication and loyalty look like, an example lived it out in the lives of all the women who have impacted us as well.  May we all take the time to express thanks this day to the saints in our lives, to lift their names up to God and to thank them for the difference they have made, and continue to make in our lives.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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