Over the years, the most common Bible passage people have asked me to read at their weddings is 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind … love never ends.” For obvious reasons, it makes a good text for folks starting out in marriage together.
One of the next most popular verses for weddings comes from our reading today. “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…” Often, when I’m sharing with couple’s possible verses for their wedding, I’ll read this passage, and the couple will say, “Yes, that’s the one, that’s the passage we want.” And then I have to explain that this text isn’t about love between partners. This text describes the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It’s unusual, certainly. Still, though, most couples I meet with recognize that this kind of devotion and commitment is indeed something they want to find in their married life together.
It is a powerful covenant of love and loyalty spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. It testifies to the truth that sometimes the bonds of covenants made before God are as strong as (or stronger than) the bonds of blood.
Throughout history, with one violent war after another, this truth has not always been obvious. In fact, in Ruth’s time the hatred between Judeans like Naomi and Elimilech and Moabites like Ruth and Orpah was legendary. Just before the book of Ruth, the book of Judges celebrates the slaughter of 10,000 Moabites. It was a long and ancient blood feud, not unlike the horrors of genocide around the world even now.
Set against this terrible backdrop of hatred and brutality is this story of the redeeming love of Ruth for Naomi, brought together by marriage and ultimately family tragedy.
So, this story of Ruth urges us to do what we here at Parkminster already do best as a church – make covenants that build strong and diverse relationships. We lift up and practice what Jesus called the “new covenant” of God’s unconditional love – love that in an inclusive and affirming church like ours crosses the usual barriers this world puts in place, such as divisions of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, or nationality. Here we cultivate relationships that cross boundaries that the world outside sometimes considers impossible. Through the outpouring of love, Jesus calls us to come together as a beautifully diverse family at God’s table of grace.
In families of faith, we are called to show the world and each other what God’s love really looks like. Here we do our best to provide an extravagant welcome to all people. Here, we open ourselves to each other with vulnerability and compassion, here, we let each other into our lives and our stories.
For the past 18 months we have clung to each other just like Ruth did Naomi. Forced away from so much that we knew by the pandemic, together we have been thrust into community in new and different ways, staying connected in many ways through our stories. Stories told informally in our virtual coffee times, stories told in our online gatherings and family parties, at the beginning of committee meetings and groups. We have learned about each other’s hometowns, first jobs, favourite places to travel, as well as important information concerning pumpkin pie and whether or not butter tarts should have raisins. (They shouldn’t.)
Throughout this time, we have given sacred space for the stories about times of crisis, times of joy, times when life was dry and barren. Through it all, the presence of the Holy and our connections with each other have provided reassurance and hope. Our stories have helped uplift each other, support each other, and remind us that we are not alone.
Much like these pandemic times, the story of Ruth is a poignant reminder of how we might help others through the wilderness. We help others through the wilderness by providing a simple gift: ourselves. To those who are wandering, we offer the gift of our presence, our full attention, love, and loyalty that goes above and beyond what is expected, even what is deserved.
Now this is not to be at the expense of ourselves, for we have also learned together in this time the importance of self-care especially when the wilderness journey is long and arduous. There is always a balance between caring for self and others. There is always the need to remind ourselves to be gentle, to be kind, not just with each other but with our very selves. But there is something truly remarkable, exquisitely powerful about accompanying someone especially in difficult times. For me personally, that is where the sacred collides with our humanity and we have glimpses of a divine truth and love.
The book of Ruth only gives us glimpses of where God is in this story. The story is like life in that way. We have to discern what is sacred. We have to decide what sustains. In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says that the central claim of the incarnation is that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth. That means that when we look for God we should look to human beings. For me, Ruth is a vision of love incarnate. I think divine love looks like the action of Ruth. Divine love is love that clings to us, love that is loyal and that gives to us above and beyond, love that is willing to risk and sacrifice for our sake. Divine love is love that gives undivided attention and takes the time necessary to offer it.
One of my favorite books is a book by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn entitled, You Are Here. In the book he suggests that when you are encountering others you should say, “I am here for you.” He says this mantra is the mantra of deep appreciation for the other person’s presence. “When people feel appreciated in this way,” he says, “when they feel embraced by the mindful attention of another – then they will open and blossom like a flower.“
He continues, “If the person you love is suffering, you can say: ‘I know you are suffering. I am here for you.’ You don’t need to make a big deal about it, you just generate your own presence. This is the essence of love – to be there for the one you love when they are in need. The fact that you are there with the energy of your presence and understanding, and the fact that you recognize the presence of the other person and their suffering, will give them a great deal of relief. Some people suffer deeply but are completely ignored by others. They are alone and isolated, so cut off from the rest of the world that their suffering becomes overwhelming. You must go to them” he says, “and open the door of their heart so that they see that love is there.”
Giving someone our undivided attention and presence is a sacred act. God is in it, and in our actions when we offer it, showing love and offering care. Ruth and Naomi experience utter devastation. But they bind themselves to each other, and to a path with God’s people that will last them beyond the hopelessness of their present circumstances. I can only imagine that when Ruth makes her decision to stay with Naomi, she makes her choice not only out of loving-kindness, but also with her eyes set on the horizon, into a future longer than her immediate suffering, into a plan and path that is grander than she can see in that moment.
What about us? What is God’s call to us in the midst our suffering, in the midst of our wanderings? Without a doubt, we will encounter times in our lives, seasons when it feels like we have come to a dead end, and the only thing we can do is go back to the beginning and start all over. Or in times such as this where it’s easy to start to feel stuck, restless, frustrated and exhausted with pandemic life. When we find ourselves in such a place, what will we do? Like Ruth, maybe we can turn our pain into compassion, into loving-kindness that keeps us thinking of others, and looking hopefully beyond the horizon to the future and all the possibilities that await us.
In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor quotes artist Georgia O’Keefe who became famous for her paintings of flowers. O’Keefe said, “In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is too small, we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Like seeing, relationships, community, connection takes time. And they take work.
We know that our church family isn’t perfect – because just as in all families, we sometimes disagree, or hurt one another’s feelings – but it’s one that, however flawed, is a family that bears witness to a new way of living – with grace and forgiveness, in faithful love modeled after God’s steadfast love for us.
Like Ruth, I treasure the loving relationships built by so many Naomis among you, who have reached out to me and my family with real hospitality – especially this past spring after my surgery. This is our homeland now. It was great to celebrate with Gary, Rebecca, and their family at their wedding last weekend. It makes me smile when youth group members message me and tell me what’s going on in their lives. It’s so much fun seeing the children of Parkminster dressed up in costumes for our Halloween party because I adore Parkminster’s children and families as my own. I love hearing your stories, your joys, your concerns each week and through the week when we connect. And I take solace that we can grieve together when losses occur. When these bonds of love break – when a family moves away, or when someone dies in the community of the saints – it causes real pain. These are the gifts of our church family. These are the gifts of abiding love.
My prayer for us all, is that we will come to know love and be loved enough as was the love of Naomi and Ruth. When we experience God’s love made visible, we never want to let it go. We want to see more of it, and as we do, we come to trust it more and more – and we try to share it with others. As we move forward together in this time, let’s do so with hope and joy, knowing that we have not wandered these past months alone. As we move into this new and exciting time ahead, friends, let us continue to be a place where extravagant love is seen and lived out.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Heather Power