There’s More to The Story: Ruth & Naomi
Calvary Baptist Church of Denver |:| September 27, 2015
One of my go-to movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The eclectic nature of the family, the vibrant expressions the family choses to live from, and the deep familial ties capture my attention every time I watch it.
When the main character, Toula, meets the strong vegetarian teacher Ian Miller she falls in love with him. The two come from different backgrounds and for Toula’s family the two could not work. Ian wasn’t Greek, he wasn’t one of them. He was a true outsider to the Portokalos family and it felt like a betrayal to them that Toula would wish to marry someone who didn’t come from their culture.
Toula and Ian found ways to become family and be dedicated to one another. With each step they continue to find ways to include their families and join their different cultures together, making space for every person. I think that is what I love about the movie, Ian and Toula don’t negate their stories but find ways to honor the heritage of the other while moving toward a new normal together.
Throughout the movie you see the strength of the Portokalos women and how they guide and support the whole during these tough times. They do this through recalling the women who went before them and how every generation made a way for themselves. In each retelling they encourage the next generation of women to find out how to live out their joy and survive in ways that they are able to thrive.
The Portokalos family captures family pride. They love their heritage and wrestle with how to move into their new normal. As devote Greek orthodox people Toula’s family had to figure out how to welcome the non-Greek Ian Miller into their family.
Ian came to a place where he was able to look at Toula and respect her faith tradition and take it as his own. In watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding this past week I was reminded of the book of Ruth. Outsiders joining their stories together, living through the hardships of life, and finding out how faith can move them into their new normal with strength and risk.
Just as the Portokalos women carried their family to engage the outsider the book of Ruth tells of how the Israelites were carried through by two widows who lived through unbelievable odds. They were people who were unexpected and shouldn’t have carried the faith through at all, but did. Ruth and Naomi understood family pride in a way that captures it beyond anything one of my go-to movies can convey.
In the story of Ruth, as Andrew just read it, we heard portions from chapters one, three and four. My favorite part of Ruth and Naomi’s stories is Ruth’s speech of dedication and covenantal language to her mother-in-law. “Where you go I go, your people be my people, your God to be my God, and where you die I die”. Behind that language there’s something even more remarkable to me – Ruth will be a foreigner in Naomi’s land.
Naomi understands what it has been to be a foreigner in enemy territory, as she is of the Hebrew people in the land of the Moabites. Now Ruth will be the foreigner as she leaves her people to follow her mother-in-law. But when Naomi sends her daughter-in-law’s back she is saying “stay with your people, I will return to mine and we will all find some safety in our cultural norms,” Ruth says, “no we are family, we may not be blood and we may be of enemy tribes, but we are family and shall stay together.”
Orpah does as Naomi said and returns to her people. You’ll notice that she is not criticized. It is understood and respected that she would return to her father’s house. There is no comparison between these three women as to who was more faithful. Rather it shows the story of how two of these women changed our faith tradition through radical fidelity. Naomi agrees to allow Ruth to stay and says come I will make sure you are safe, I will find your kinsman redeemer and we will make this work. Ruth journeys into a foreign land, into enemy territory, and these two women find strength together.
There’s something about hospitality that I gravitate to in this story. Even though Ruth has nothing to give to Naomi she gives her widow of a mother-in-law her presence. Naomi may have lost her husband and her sons but Ruth does not allow her to lose her too. It was not without continued risk or struggle though. These two women were now unprotected by cultural protections of husbands or sons, yet they flipped everything that society told them that their future would be on its head and figured out how to make life function once again. A new normal that was beyond comprehension.
Naomi keeps her word to protect Ruth by finding their next of kin to marry her. Naomi learns that Boaz is the next of kin and ensures that Ruth knows how to approach him and initiate the possibility of marriage. It is from this unexpected marriage between Ruth and Boaz that we get King David.
Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, the line from which Jesus comes. That is not a small statement. A foreigner, an outsider, someone completely unacceptable is the grandmother of the one that produces King David and eventually those who produce Jesus himself. With Ruth’s son Naomi is now protected once again by societies familial protection, for she now has a grandson. The two women care for each other and defy the odds and in doing so carry on the faith tradition that produces God incarnate.
What I appreciate about the story is it doesn’t make everything pretty. This story doesn’t gloss over the pain or struggle Ruth and Naomi went through. In our society today it can sometimes feel like we need to gloss over the tough parts of our story.
To say our pain was God’s will or that we are too blessed to be bogged down by our struggles. The story of Ruth and Naomi tells it how it was – Naomi leaves Bethlehem because there was no bread, which is pure irony because Bethlehem means house of bread.
So her family are refugees to the foreign land of Moab and when she’s there her husband dies and her sons marry foreigner women. Then her sons die. Naomi is willing to send the only family she has left, her foreign daughter-in-laws, back home to their fathers’ houses. She eventually renames herself Mara which mean to mean bitter one.
The story of Naomi and Ruth is not one of joyful explanations to life’s hardships. There was never a moment where they said “in God’s name” or “for God’s will we do this”. The only time in the first half of the story that God is mentioned is when Ruth proclaims that a foreigner’s God will become hers. You see Yahweh was not Ruth’s God but she was willing to claim Yahweh as the God she would follow, the God she would believe in, the God she would dedicate her life to. And in doing so that risk of faithfulness produces God incarnate.
There is no promise to Ruth or Naomi that in risking community together they would be the great-great grandmother and great grandmother of the grand King David. There was no dismissing their pain or experience to bring about God’s light. It was through the cracks of life that these women lived and in being present with each other God’s light came through. In the unexpected faithfulness of foreigners turned family the story of God continues.
Calvary, our lives right now may feel like a desert, both personally and collectively. Many of us are experiencing new normals in our lives that have not come about by joyful experiences. Some have new normals because of a new diagnosis, wondering what to do next with treatment, being let go from work, waiting for an opportunity that has yet to come, considering what the future of our life together will be, or pondering how to function in a church that may feel different than it has before.
Life is not easy. And as we are in a season of storytelling I would encourage all of us to figure out how to tell our stories like Ruth’s and Naomi’s are captured. When times are hard it is okay to name that times are hard. We live in a world that tells us to protect ourselves more than figuring out what radical hospitality can bring us to.
It can be a very hard time to figure out how to tell own stories when the struggles “out there” seem bigger than we feel. It can be hard to know how our stories fit in it all but may we be encouraged by the story of Ruth and Naomi, for each of your stories is worth telling. When we learn how to be community in each of our new normals we find ways to be faithful to one another and in doing so create a collective new normal of hospitality.
We aren’t too different than Ruth and Naomi. As we venture through this season of life, a season where there is great joy, confusion, and uncertainty may we lean in. May we lean into one another’s lives and join each other in the moments of sorrow and jubilation. Lean in and hear the stories of this community in such a way that we get an understanding of who we are in this very moment as you recall our individual stories with the Passions and Perspectives Ministry Team. May we not just wait for somebody on that ministry team to ask us about our stories. May we turn to each other and realize that each and every one of us continues the lineage of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jesus – and no matter what day it is it will always be the day we can tell our story.
Each of your stories is brilliant, vibrant no matter how insignificant you may feel at times. Your joys, your sorrows, your struggles, your triumphs carry on and bring about the manifestation of God every single day. You are the face of God in a time where people wonder why they should believe. The face of God is beautiful, for your lives are beautiful. As I look out on this congregation I am reminded of the beauty that comes from our individual stories that then interweave to create the story of Calvary.
I am often reminded of the struggles of figuring out how we validate our own stories, living into the pain and the delights that we experience daily while caring about those that are different than us. Ruth and Naomi’s stories were strengthened when they joined together. In this story we see two ways they healed: the first was being willing to risk their own safety for that of the other and then being willing to care for the one that represented the outsider. Through their community with each other they healed from being widows at society’s whims and healed from believing the outsider was worth neglecting. They became well in living life together, as they honored their own stories and changed their outsider to family.
As I question where I see this in my own life, who’s stories do I wrestle to join with I think through all the ways society labels and places me in categories and how I do the same to other people. If I don’t use the practice of confession, which allows me to acknowledge stories different than mine and find ways to share our stories together, I open myself to the danger of giving into guilt, fear, anger and lose the ability to see our commonality and strength in unity.
After questioning whom I need to work with to strengthen my story by joining with theirs the first thing that stands out to me is my very skin. As I look at my skin it cannot be denied that I’m white and there are moments where I’ve wrestled with the skin I bear – the skin that society says gives me more power than human beings of color. I wish it didn’t. I didn’t ask for it. As much as I don’t want the power given to my race I also don’t want to live in a society that says people of color are less than, that their race means they can be trusted less, that if they just did this or that their worth would be acknowledged. So I wrestle to find my story as a white person of privilege to join the stories of Black Lives Matter. Because as a person who has never been told I don’t matter because of my skin color I want to stand with those who fight to have their value acknowledged and honored. I wrestle to loosen the fears that can come with acknowledging my privilege and give way to the freedom that comes from acknowledging it and working to not perpetuate inequality.
As somebody who grew up in a family that lived paycheck-to-paycheck I can understand the struggle my parents made. Yet no matter how hard it was for my parents, who were not college graduates and who worked multiple jobs, my siblings and I were never born into the system of poverty. So as somebody who would love to say I get what it is to be poor, I understand that struggle, I can’t. I can say I know what it is to see my parents struggle and give all they had to their children. It is from the knowledge that I had privilege because I was not born into systematic poverty that makes me all the more passionate to figure out how we stand with our brothers and sisters who are poor. To listen to their voices and needs and ensure that we work together to guarantee they the next step needed to begin dismantling the perpetual cycle of poverty.
As a cis gender, straight person I want to scream I am an ally and actually live out every chance I get. If I ever forget that it’s not my voice that needs to be heard when with people of the LGBTQ community I miss the chance to listen. The chance to stand alongside and be willing to risk my own well-being because I stand with my brothers and sisters who are sexual minorities. Because the minute I don’t listen or stand with them I am no ally. To continually find and create space where the majority of sexuality and identity is not dominating and to ensure our brothers and sisters are not forced to assimilate to the culture of the sexual majority.
If you know me part of my family pride is that I am of Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian descent on one side and Irish and Scottish on the other. I am proud of my heritage. I am proud of my ancestors. I am reminded that my birth certificate says I am a US citizen and if I ever forget that it was my immigrant great grandparents who brought my families here I forget what it was for them to seek a better life. It opens me up to forget those today who wish to live here seeking the same betterment of life my ancestors wanted. If I forget their struggle I’m erasing what they fought for because it’s become my norm to not struggle to call this country home.
I share these confessions with you because they are part of my story. The struggle to find my story as a person of privilege without giving way to the fears of guilt for the societal privilege I have. My story is one rooted in faith and I could not acknowledge the privilege I was born into and have gained over time without confession and the belief in transformative grace and love. The faith tradition I’ve found to be true for me has allowed me to believe that grace, forgiveness, hospitality, and love are possible.
For me I just listed people that are so often categorized in my life as the other, whether I name them as the other or whether society says we should be at odds. In times when it feels like my story is threatened or insignificant I am reminded to turn to the story of Ruth and Naomi. If I look at people who are different than me as anything other than a child of God, other than family even if not by blood I miss out on ways to be transformed.
When I learn to see people as family by choice, community by risk and I keep from turning inward toward apathy. As part of this community I have to lean in to each of your stories and remember that you are my chosen family, community by risk and when I live in that truth anything can be possible.
Calvary we have some healing to do and as we do it may we remember that this world has some healing to do also. Our healing inside these walls can be simultaneously be joined with the healing outside these walls.
When our healing joins the healing of whoever the outsider is for each of us, whether they be outsider by choice or by societal proclamation, we heal both internally and externally.
May I never be so comfortable that I forget that I am an outsider to someone. That I am the other to anyone else that does not look like me, does not have the same socioeconomic status, does not have the same sexual majority, does not have the same privilege.
May I remember that I am the other and may I lean into those stories not because my story is insignificant but because my story can no longer go on without their story, without our stories. This journey of radical hospitality and risk taking community is built on our beautiful stories guided by fidelity to each other. Our stories carry on the story of God and Calvary may our communal story be one that joins forces with the marginalized, with the outcast.
Let us remember that each of us at different times in our own lives will experience struggle and injustice and in all of those times may we remember that our stories cannot be overshadowed when we join another story but that our stories are amplified by joining the stories of the communities around us.
As a community we are figuring out where we go next. Regardless of our differences I join with you in the belief that love is possible, peace is tangible, & equality values all human dignity. Calvary you are the face of God, you do good work, your sorrows are valid, your experiences are true, and your faith can transform.
Ruth and Naomi were not heroes in the steps that they took, they simply were being faithful but they’ve become heroes in our faith tradition because of the mundane act of choosing family.
Calvary you’re part of my community and I a part of yours. As we lean in let us not be afraid of the outsider, let us realize our stories are significant, and let us realize that when we join the marginalized, the outcast, the other we take a stand against apathy and we defy the powers that be. And as we do we carry on the lineage of our God incarnate.
You are the beloved children of God and with each day we continue to do this thing we call life together. We defy what society tells us is our goal in life every time we look to each other and say where you go I go, your people be my people, and your God be my God.
Just as Ruth and Naomi defied their societies and chose to stick together, we make the choice to lean in and be the unexpected community for one another, the unexpected community in Denver. Let our family pride at Calvary continue the lineage that was started by two widows who chose to be defined as family.