Living in Covenant
A short time after we were married, my wife Shannon and I discovered that one of the seldom spoken of perks of marriage is that you now have someone else to blame for all your mistakes. When I was single and I misplaced my keys, it was always my fault. But now, when I lose my keys or misplace my phone, I don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility myself, I have a wife to blame! I have someone else to curse out under my breath as I search the house for my missing items. This is obviously not the greatest perk of marriage, but it is sometimes nice to shrug off some of our responsibility for the ways things are onto someone else.
Unfortunately, blaming others, especially women and foreigners, is a time honored tradition that I cannot claim to have invented myself. Indeed the practice of blaming women for the problems of the world goes back well into the BC era, and can be found in several places in our Bible. Throughout the centuries many Christians have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in such a way as to make Eve responsible for bringing sin into the world. This is quite a stretch considering that only Adam was commanded by God not to eat the fruit and that he made his own decision to do so. Nevertheless, this text has been used countless times to place the responsibility for sin onto a woman.
Where it really gets bad, this blaming of our problems on women, is when the female and the foreign overlap: our own women are bad enough, but foreign women, they are truly to blame. When the very survival of Israel as a people was threatened during their time in exile in Babylon, the leaders of the community insisted that the best way for Israel to survive as a distinct people was to avoid marrying women outside of Israel. In this way, they believed they could preserve the distinctive identity of Israel; they could avoid assimilation. Even after the exile, when the Judeans began returning to Jerusalem, this prohibition on mixed marriage remained strong. Ezra, the man sent to help rebuild the Temple, insisted that the Judeans not intermarry with the other peoples. These foreigners, these women, would dilute the faith of Judah and lead its people into sin and abomination. According to this view what was holy about Judah was its racial purity, the Judeans were God’s people by birth and any mixing with other ethnicities would damage this identity. So it was these foreign women who were the problem, they were destroying the racial purity of God’s people.
Given this male tendency to blame women, especially foreign women, for the ills of the world, one has every reason to expect that the biblical book of Ruth, which is about a moabite woman, a foreign woman, is all about how she ruined everything. This is not the case. Ruth is lovely little short story about how a daughter-in-law’s love and devotion to her mother-in-law saved their lives and helped to make a new life for themselves in Bethlehem. Ruth the Moabite woman, is the hero of this Israelite story. That alone would be enough for this book to be incredible, it is quite rare in the world, even today, for a man to lift up a woman, especially a foreign woman, as a hero.
As remarkable as that is, the book of Ruth is actually far more radical. Though it may appear as nothing more than a quaint short story about how two women help one another survive, the ending of the book reveals the hidden impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth, the Moabite woman, was the great grandmother of the legendary King David. The great patriarch of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem, the Israelite par excellance, has foreign blood running through his veins. David himself was racially mixed. And if David wasn’t racially pure, than neither were his descendants that ruled after him. The kingdom of David that Ezra and his contemporaries held up as the ideal to be restored through their prohibition on inter-marriage was always a kingdom of mixed race and ethnicity. Racial purity was a myth. It never existed. So the way to God, the way to holiness, cannot be racial purity.
If race or ethnicity is not what defines God’s people, than what does define them? What made Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Ruth, and David people of God if it wasn’t race? The people of God are people who live in covenant relationship with God. Noah lived in covenant with God long before the birth of Israel. Abraham was a wandering Aramean who entered into covenant with God and then became the ancestor of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite, but she too made a promise, a covenant, with God and Naomi when she said, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” What gave Israel its identity as a people was not their race, their ethnicity, or even their homeland, what gave Israel its Identity was that they lived in covenant with God.
As followers of Christ, we too live in covenant relationship with God, a relationship opened to us by Jesus Christ. What makes us Christian is our adherence to this covenant- our promise to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. It is not our history that makes us Christian. It is not our nationality, ethnicity or race. It is not our culture or our good fortune. What makes us Christian is our decision day after day to try to live in covenant relationship with God as we know Her in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ is the very same God as the God of Ruth. This God does not love us because of our race, or our ethnicity, or our homeland, for this God created all lands and all peoples. This God loves us simply because we are Hers, and She calls us into loving relationship with Her and with the rest of Her creation. Racial purity is always a myth, it does not exist and it is of no concern to God. All of our other identities are meant to melt away in the presence of our identity as people of God. We are not American and then Christian. Not white and then one of God’s people. We are, first and before all things, beloved children of God seeking to live in covenant with Her. When we fail to do so, when we value our national, racial or gender identity above our identity as God’s people, we cease to be people of the covenant, we cease to be the people of God. And when that happens it isn’t the fault of women, or of foreigners, or of anyone but ourselves. We must take responsibility for our identity as God’s people and our actions as people who live in covenant with the God of Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.
I’ve been trying to spend less time on social media of late, trying to keep my head out of my phone and to actually experience life rather than read about it on a screen. My success has been minimal, a fact I try to excuse by telling myself that some of my social media use is on behalf of the church, though to be honest, it is certainly a small percentage of the time I spend on theses sites. At any rate, I saw a little video on Facebook the other week, one of those real sappy, sentimental, ain’t the world grand stories. Usually, I don’t particularly like the sappy videos, I try to avoid them, but this one drew me in for some reason. It was a story about a little girl who was very sick and needed a blood transfusion to survive. Unfortunately, she has a rare blood type that means finding the right blood may not happen in time. This leads the doctor and the parents to the girls younger brother who has the same rare blood type. The doctor explains how serious the situation is, that his sister may die without a transfusion, and asks the boy if he is willing to donate the blood to his sister. The boy thinks it over for a long minute, and then says simply, “Ok, I’ll do it.” After the transfusion is complete, the boy looks up at the doctor in confusion and asks, “When am I going to die?” He had given the blood to save his sister’s life even though he thought it would mean death for him.
I have no idea if this story really happened, and it does raise some concerning questions, like what kind of a hack doctor doesn’t explain to his patient that the proceedure they are about to undergo will not kill them. On the other hand, I have met some absolutely amazing children in my life, many of them here, children who seem to instinctually understand the suffering of others, who are naturally drawn to generosity and self sacrifice. What I really couldn’t get over was how the little boy in the story perfectly exemplified the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The story gives precious little background on the boy and his family, we do not know where they are from or what religion if any they happen to practice. Yet somehow, this little boy more perfectly lived out the Gospel in a such a way as to shame myself, and anyone else who might claim to be follower of Christ. When a need arose, he decided to meet that need by sacrificing his very life. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter where it occurs, and no matter who might enact it. It is the embodiment of the love of God we know in Jesus Christ.
The book of Ruth is an absolutely phenomenal short story that sits in the bible right after Judges and right before 1 Samuel. It is noteworthy for several reasons, but the one that kept jumping out at me this week, is that Ruth is a biblical book, a book written by a man of Israel, in which the hero is a female immigrant: Ruth, the Moabite woman.
Just two days ago, I was at Octavia books with Ruth looking around for a new book for her, and they had this great little one called Baby Feminists, on each page is a picture of a famous feminist with a sentence about her life, and underneath the picture is a baby. For instance, Before she was a Justice on the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a baby! The message being, of course, that the baby reading the book could one day also grow up to be a feminist. I love this book, I love that book exists, because I like Ruthie to see female role models. However, the book as I found it, was in a special part of the children’s section which was dedicated to Women. As though women were a special subgroup and not a little over half of the world’s population. Seeing that centering women in our stories is still seen as novel and new today, makes the centering of women in the book of Ruth all the more remarkable.
The story of Ruth begins with Elimelch and his wife Naomi who live in the town of Bethlehem. When a famine comes to the land of Israel, Elimelch and Naomi and their two sons, immigrate to Moab to find a better life. There both of the sons marry Moabite women and live happily. Until one day, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi to the care of her two sons. Then tragedy strikes again, and both of her sons die as well. Naomi, by now and old woman, is widowed and without any male relatives.
In our time, not having any male relatives might seem like a fluke, an odd coincidence, or possibly good luck. In the Ancient Near East however, men were the only ones with rights, with the ability to own property, with the ability to generate an income. To be without a man, was to be desperately poor and incredibly vulnerable. Naomi is alone and vulnerable in a foreign land. When she hears that the famine in Israel has lifted, she decides that she will be best off returning to her home and throwing herself on the mercy of her people.
Naomi’s two daughter-in-laws are in a somewhat less precarious situation. They are still young and still have living parents. Each of them could return to their mother’s homes and try again to create a family. Out of their love for her, both Ruth and her sister in law, Orpah, walk with Naomi to the border of Judah. There Naomi tells them to go back to their land and their mother’s homes, for she will not be able to provide for them in Judah. Both of them insist that they are going with her, but Naomi carefully explains that they will both be better off at home in Moab. Orpah hears the truth that Naomi is speaking, that her chances at a happy life are better if she stays at home, and decides to return. Ruth does not, instead she clings to Naomi. When Naomi tells her to follow her sister, Ruth again refuses to leave her saying, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In this beautiful statement of personal devotion, Ruth insists that she will never leave Naomi. There is nothing that Ruth is willing to place above her love for Naomi.
What makes Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi all the more amazing is that Ruth has no reason to think that this decision will benefit her. Naomi was correct in saying that the better choice for each of the two daughters was to stay in Moab. Ruth knows this. She knows that choosing to go with Naomi will be difficult. They will have to risk a dangerous journey together, they will have to search for food and shelter, they will have to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Ruth knows that it will be difficult for both them. So why does she choose to go? Why not obey Naomi, and choose the better life at home? I believe the reason that Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, is because she knows how desperate and vulnerable Naomi is. As hard as it will be for the two of them, it will be impossible for Naomi to start a new life on her own. Ruth places her love for Naomi, above her personal well-being. She places her compassionate love for Naomi above her nationality, her family, even her religion. Ruth gives up her very life so that Naomi might live.
Ruth’s generosity saves Naomi’s life. Ruth’s generosity transforms her own life and the life of Israel, for Ruth becomes a mother, and a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. And her great-grandson, a shepherd boy by the name of David, becomes the Lord’s annointed King over all Israel. Without the bravery of this poor immigrant woman and her love for her friend Naomi, there is no David, there is no Davidic Kingdom, there is no house of David, and there is no Jesus Christ. Ruth’s choice to place her love for Naomi above all else, to give her very life for Naomi’s, has incredible and reverberating consequences even to this day.
Today we had several new members join the congregation here at St. Paul’s UCC. This is always a joyous occasion, it is our little family growing in numbers, in love, and in the impact our work has on the community. One of the greatest functions of a church is the opportunity it gives us to practice self-giving love and transforming generosity. The world will always give us countless reasons not to be generous, reasons not to care about others, reasons to limit our loving relationships to family, or race, or creed, or country. You’ve heard them repeated again and again, “We have enough poor people here, we can’t care about poor people born in other countries,” “If they wouldn’t break the law, they wouldn’t get shot by police.” “Nobody ever gave me a handout.” These are all excuses for why we don’t need to see the suffering, the vulnerability, and the desperation of our neighbors. They are reasons to limit our love and concern to those most like us. In this world, we need the book of Ruth, we need her example of transforming generosity, we need to continually practice widening our circle of love and care. For the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about making the choice that benefits you the most, it is about freely giving of your very self so that others may live. I’m overjoyed to have these new members become a part of our community, because just by being who they are, they will challenge us to expand our circle of love to include their unique individual selves and they will help us to model here at St. Paul’s that love is the highest law. They will help us to practice placing love for God and others above all other loyalties, above our loyalty to our country, our family, and our very selves. With the grace of God, we have a chance to practice growing in love here at St. Paul’s and we have the incredible blessing of seeing with our own eyes how this love transforms our lives and the lives of others. May we continue to grow in ministry, in numbers, and most importantly in self-giving love and transforming generosity.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast