(Almost) Too Good to Be True
This week is the second half of our whirlwind through Ruth’s story. We’re really only taking a glance at this book, a whole lot of the action is missing from the texts we’re reading, so I want to begin where we ended last week: by encouraging all of us to read this story on our own. Use it in your devotions for this week, let the beauty of the tale speak something about God and shape us in God’s promises. Don’t shortchange yourself. It’s only four chapters!
It’s only four chapters (3 pages in my bible), but there’s a whole lot packed into this handful of verses. And because we don’t have time to cover all the details, I wanted to think today specifically about what Ruth can mean for the Church, here and now. What does this ancient story about a Moabite woman and her mother-in-law, in a backwoods village in Judah, have to tell us about being followers of Jesus, people caught up in God’s grace in 21st century Vancouver: women and men, children and grandparents, in-laws and outsiders, all working—living, moving, and having our being—in the broad space of God’s grace? How is our story—the ins and outs, ups and downs or our lives—bound together with Ruth’s, across millennia, by God’s work for God’s beloved world?
We might begin by reminding ourselves again that although Ruth’s conditions are radically different from ours in some ways, are also strangely familiar. Last week we heard that her story takes place in the time “when the Judges ruled,” a time marked largely by conflict and disorder, idolatry and disunity. The last line of the Book of Judges is totally honest about the situation. In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. We may not know a great deal about kings, but we know something about conditions of relativism and discord; we may not know anything about Moab or Judah, but we know something about the shifting sands of individualism and the problems that arise when what people are concerned with is mostly themselves and their choices.
We also know something about Ruth and Naomi’s personal conditions: we know about loss and death, we know about heartbreak and dashed dreams, we know about racism and poverty, we know about famine and refugees. We may not have intimate, personal experience of all these things, but the headlines are full of them. We don’t have to look very far to see that although we have quite a few more things to distract ourselves with, life on the ground is not altogether different. On the ground, in the dust of everyday life, we can easily find ourselves like Naomi: unable to see through the brokenness of the world, and into the promises of the prophets, the promises that God has not and will not abandon this world, but is even now working to heal all creation and make it whole.
Then Ruth arrives and gives us a glimpse into another possibility. She clings to that possibility with everything she’s got. This woman, a Moabite, an outsider who shouldn’t know any better, reminds those of us who should, that the ways and means of God are not limited by unfavorable conditions. In a world where it’s easy for our imaginations to be overwhelmed by the headlines, by 24 hr news cycles that make us fearful, by relentless social media feeds that reminds us of all the things we should be angry at, by the bombardment of information that can make us feel as though we are powerless to do anything and the most we can hope for is to build a sufficient security system around ourselves and our loved ones, Ruth steps in and reorients our imaginations to something more. Her tenacious clinging (she clung to Naomi) draws our attention from mayhem and catastrophe, and reminds us that there is more: there is God. God: at work in the day-to-day; God in the overlooked and underwhelming; God, in the local and the personal; God, in your life and mine.
And it’s certainly not all rosy. We opened with Naomi’s wretched tears, her insistence that God has cursed her. Her cries are not silenced. They are given bold voice. She says straight up to her friends that she doesn’t even want her old name anymore. Naomi means pleasant; she needs to be renamed Mara, bitterness. Ruth doesn’t capture our imaginations by pretending that everything is ok. She commands our attention by refusing to let the way things are have the last word. She clings to Naomi, she teaches us a God-song of radical commitment and self-giving in the midst of a time when fend-for-yourself taking is all the rage. Ruth catches us off guard with her irresponsible commitment to another possibility. Her reckless unwillingness to put herself first is startling. She brazenly invites us to imagine that self-protection and self-concern are not actually all that interesting.
She gives of herself. She puts one foot in front of the other when her mother-in-law can’t take another step. She goes to work. Almost oblivious to what she doesn’t have, she uses what she does have—her strength, her mind, her body—to serve, to bring life in the midst of death. What we don’t see in our drive-by tour of her story is her working in the fields, gleaning the leftovers from Boaz’s crops as the poor are left to do. Her bent-over frame reminds me of the heroines in lots of places in the world—women who work tirelessly for families and communities. She reminds me of a woman I met on a mission trip in the mountains of Guatemala, who seemed to have more or less nothing, and gladly shared it in the form of salty bean soup and simple flatbread, making our comfortable middle-class attempts to fix her problems seem kind of paltry; reminding us that the world is quite a bit more full of grace than we’re often able to see.
Is this not something like what the Church should be about? Aren’t we meant to do for the world what Ruth does for Naomi and for us? As people caught up in the grace of God, we are people who cling to another possibility, a possibility that’s caught hold of us in Jesus: the One who let go of everything that was rightfully his in order to grab hold of this broken and beloved world. Ruth invites us to the same kind of recklessness that Jesus does. She invites us to hold nothing back, but to give all we are and have for the sake of God’s way in the world: the way of self-giving, of grace, of extravagant generosity; the way that looks reckless and irresponsible in a world consumed with self-protection and self-promotion. It’s a way that defies the headlines, refuses fear-mongering, pays no mind to threats that there won’t be enough for us and everyone else. It’s the way of hope. Ruth invites us to live the kinds of lives, no matter the circumstances, that St. Peter describes centuries later: lives that might make people stop and ask who we are and what on earth makes us so hopeful. Always be ready to give an account of the hope that you have, he says, which suggests that, following in the way of Ruth and Jesus, there will be something different about us. Living in hope is not wishful thinking, it’s a tenacious clinging to another possibility, to the Truth that the way things are is not the way they will always be, but that God will get the world God wants; that God’s healing kingdom of love and justice and righteousness is breaking in even here, even now.
It’s Ruth’s tenacious clinging to another possibility, her steady walking in the way of hope, that really brings us to the point that our passage begins today. Chapter 3 is a turning point in the story. When Naomi tells Ruth to get washed and anointed, to dress in her best clothes, that’s not just to help her dating prospects. It’s an embodiment of the fact that her time of mourning has come to an end. It’s a physical reminder that although we have all sorts of resources for expressing our pain, that grief is a very real, very human experience, we refuse to allow it to have the last word on us. It will not. It cannot. Because we are bound up with the God whose goal it is to wipe away every tear, to satisfy every hunger and quench our deepest thirsts. We are living and moving and having our being in the presence and power of the One for whom even death is no obstacle. Ours is the God whose default is resurrection: whose Spirit turns valleys of bones into choirs of praise, whose voice orders chaos into beauty, whose throne pours forth freedom and wholeness. Ours is the God whose kingdom has in its center the Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Ours is the God whose dream is swords beaten into garden tools; who longs to be peace beyond all understanding, for us and for all things. When she trades sackcloth and ashes, sweat and dust, for her best dancing dress and the sweetest perfume she can get her hands on, clean and anointed, Ruth stands as a testimony to the stuff God is about. And the instruction comes marvellously from Naomi’s lips, the one who had not long ago given up all hope.
Isn’t the church called to be something like that? We are a people shaped by Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. We can testify to the brokenness and loss of Friday, we have walked with the disciples who had hoped, but don’t hope any more. We’ve known the demands of Saturday: when life has to go on, one foot has to be put in front of the other, meals need to be made, floors swept, prayers said. Left to our own devices, that’s as far as we can get. We can cope. We can move forward. But Sunday comes as the hope we couldn’t have hoped for. Sunday comes like light in the darkness, life out of death, rescuing us from resignation and drawing us into resurrection. Rags will be traded for robes.
I recently heard a preacher point out that St. Paul’s instructions for faithful living are rather strange. Sitting in a prison cell, he writes to the church in Philippi: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep doing the things that you have learned and received and heard…and the God of peace will be with you. As the Church, as followers of Jesus, crucified, risen, and reigning, we may be called to great things and extravagant things. But mostly the Communion of Saints seems to be populated with folks simply called to do what we’ve learned, and received, and heard: to let our steps fall each day in the way of Jesus; to let the yeast of the Kingdom get worked in, one knead at a time. No matter the situation, knowing the God we’re bound up with, we can keep offering ourselves to bless others; we can keep loving and caring; we can keep refusing hatred and anger and bitterness; we can keep clinging to another possibility, holding tight to the promise that nothing in heaven, earth, or hell can separate us from the love of God, that we will be more than conquerors; that Christ’s victory over sin and death is, by some gracious surprise, ours too. And when we live that, when we testify in our day-to-day lives to the hope that we have, at work, at home, in the checkout line and on the playground—wherever and whenever we find ourselves—we might just capture the attention of others, we might just invite them to stop and wonder what on earth gives us hope; we might even draw them into the possibility we cling to: that sorrow will last for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
Ruth’s story reminds us that all our days are bound up in God’s days, all our work in God’s work. God’s intervention is only hinted at in this story. We catch a glimpse in the last verses. I think that’s because Ruth’s biographer wants to develop our ability to see God at work, God’s gracious touch, God’s marvellous healing, not in breathtaking miracles or supernatural experiences. There’s time enough for that stuff; it happens, but not mostly. Mostly we experience the grace of God “as silent as light,” as the old hymn puts it. Ruth shows us that our work, our relationships, our bodies, our hearts are the materials with which God patiently shapes redemption and molds salvation. Our lives are enough to bear witness that there’s something more going on than meets the eye, that what we do here and now is all mixed up with eternity, with God Alive in the world.
Of course, one truth is that we may not see all, or even most of the fruit of our living. Strangely, Ruth invites us to know that not as a disappointment, but as a promise. Ruth calls us to live boldly and hopefully anyways. *[She calls us to love radically anyways. She calls us to give generously anyways. She calls us to comfort the broken anyways. She calls us to use what we’ve got to be grace and peace in a sin-ravaged, death damaged world, anyways. She calls us to see that we are caught up in something truly greater than we can really ever ask or imagine, something we can’t quite give adequate voice to, something we may not see in this lifetime. She calls us to see that our lives are not limited by our limitations, they are not conditioned by our conditions; they are not the sum total of our best will and effort.
Instead, in this time and this place we are caught up in the breathtaking scope of God’s redeeming work, which is quite a bit more that we can accomplish on our own. The wonder is that we do have a part to play. We are called to reach out when the world says it’s dangerous or foolish; called to draw near in love and mercy, when our instinct is to move away in fear and self-protection. We are not simply being swept along by the currents of fate. Our lives, these bodies, are sufficient to tell the world something about God’s story, about God’s promise, about the hope that we have in the God who will make all things new. You can do that. I can do that. Ruth testifies to it. We’re made for it.]
The ending of Ruth’s story is almost too good to be true, which is to say that it’s all grace. It’s almost too good to be true and she won’t see most of it. We find out that Ruth, against all odds and expectations, because she has clung to another possibility, is King David’s great-grandmother. In other words, although we started in the time when there was no king and things were a mess, we end, through her unlikely faithfulness, with the promise that there will be a king, chaos will not reign. And from that king, centuries later, will come the King of kings, the One who will order not just Israel, but all things—all things made new and whole, every tear wiped away, every hunger satisfied. We end with Ruth smiling on, as Naomi dandles King David’s grandfather, the seed of Jesse’s tree, on her knee.
See it: Naomi the Cursed cradling the promise of Christ, the hope of the world.
It doesn’t get better than that. It’s how our God is.