Today's stories are about the power of people to cope when life hasn't gone as planned. Most of us can relate to the story of Ruth and how it unfolds in our lives. This morning's lessons are focused on the question, how exactly is it that we face the difficulties in our lives?
In the story of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth find themselves struggling to survive because they are alone in a culture that expects them to be married. Ruth has been widowed and she is at risk in her culture as someone with no husband. Being married then wasn't like being married is now. There was no institution of marriage, but there would have been a folk ceremony where promises were made and there would have been lots of drinking and dancing, a big celebration and women became the property of men. In this world it was crucial to belong to a man so that one could be looked after financially.
In Ruth, Chapter 3, Naomi and Ruth plan what they might do for the sake of their future well-being. Naomi proposes a way for Ruth to find her security. The story is full of action filled with double meanings. "Do not make yourself known" uses a verb "to know" that can also mean sexual intimacy, threshing floor and feet also are associated with sexual activity. There is no doubt as to the content of the story. We are sophisticated readers and we know what is happening in this narrative.
Then the scene is played out. At the end of the harvest Naomi devises a plan. She advises Ruth to wash, put on perfume and her best dress, go down to the threshing floor and go to where Boaz lies down after eating and drinking. At this time, she says, "He will be content and he will tell you what to do."
These sexual undertones move the text's interpretation into a reflection on what it means to risk offence for the sake of survival.
None of us would want to be in the situation Ruth finds herself in. Nor would we want our daughters, or granddaughters to be caught in this precarious situation. Then, as now, this story continues. But, these women find a way to survive. It's interesting that in the entire Book of Ruth, in a time where it's important to acknowledge an all-powerful God, God is only mentioned once.
So, having said that what do we do with this story now, today? This Sunday has sometimes been marked as stewardship Sunday. We could be stewards of relationship. Llater we will talk about stewardship of resources.
The widow in Mark's gospel story is in the same predicament as Ruth. She is a widow, she is alone, and she looks after herself. She is the one Jesus holds up as an example of goodness and as a woman who goes beyond what she is capable. The Mark reading begins with a sort of ethical discourse where Jesus says; "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance, say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
Then what follows is the widow's story and it is full of praise for her action. In a commentary I read, they write that Jesus condemns the scribes for among other things, consuming the homes of widows, which probably refers to the practice of appointing some supposedly well reputed and pious man to oversee the affairs of a widow, only to have the individual use the estate for his own gain. The widow who comes to the treasury then, is not only disadvantaged by poverty, but also by her vulnerable status, which make her almost invisible in the legal, religious, political and social eyes of her society. It is interesting to note that Jesus is involved in the work that leads to change in the social, political, and religious world so of course he understands her plight.
This morning we have these two stories that stand side by side: one story inviting us to think about how relationships come together, and the other about the stewardship of money, or how we choose to use our money. These stories ask: Are we stewards of both relationships and resources?
We could ask: How do we move from a place of vulnerability, fear, and anger to a place where we can live a full and meaningful life in relationship with others. I name those dynamics of vulnerability, anger and fear, because the women in the stories we heard read have found themselves in a precarious situation that is difficult to move out of if not almost impossible to escape.
I'm going to tell you a story. This story is about Gail and that is her real name, she has always given me permission to tell it. People either find this a story that is delightful and it works for them, or else they dislike it intensely and it doesn't work. It is a story about the human desire to be emotionally well and the story leads us to understand the work that is required to find ways to be in healthy relationship with others.
It is the early 90s I had met Gail at University. She was doing a masters degree in Educational Psychology. She was easy to get to know and she told me that her husband had left her to be in another relationship. She had some money, but she was worried about her finances and that adds to her anger. I went to visit her at her apartment and what she had there at the door were boxes of clothes that her now x-husband was supposed to come and pick up.
She said to me, "What am I supposed to do with this stuff? It's been here for months and he doesn't come to pick his things up!"
I had a long list of ideas as to what she might do with them, but she didn't reply. She just looked very sad. I suspect she lived in some hope that he will come and remain there with her.
Time went by and I continued to visit and she continued to grieve, complain, and to be angry. But one day when I arrived she had the boxes open and she had a pair of scissors in her hand and she was ripping his clothes into long strips. At this particular moment she had a navy terry clothe robe in her hand and she says to me, "See this," and she made a slash in it and starts ripping.
"Yeah," I said, "I see." Really I didn't see, not yet. But, in the months to come, I get to see very clearly as she created long thin pieces of fabric out of his clothes and then she made them into rugs and then she put one rug at the door, one under her table, and one beside her bed and in that process she was made well.
She really was made well. I never heard her complain about him again, in that process her grief and anger came to an end. How long did the ripping and rug making take? Maybe a year, maybe longer.
Gail had one thing in common with Ruth and the widow; she took charge of her life, and she made it work.
We don't want to suffer like Gail, like Ruth, or like the widow, but all of us at some point, suffer. We meet hard times, and we have to make our way back to some state of wholeness. Like Gail and the women from scripture we are called to find a way to wholeness. That is what the Spirit calls us to.
What about the church and what about each one of us as individuals? If what is required of us is a right relationship, then how will we get there? Most of us attempt to live in right relationships with one another. We attempt to be kind to each other. For the most part we wouldn't be rude to one another. We might mutter under our breath, or we might murmur a little, but we try not to be mean spirited. We try hard not to be like the scribe who is blatant in his wrongdoing. We want to be more like Boaz who does the right thing; he is out of step with what we consider to be the right thing, but he believes he is doing right and he follows through with the ways of his society. The culture, the society always dictates the ethics of the time.
In a United Church Observer (2012) there is a piece by Parker Palmer and he says, there is a fix for the mainline church, but we will have to stop counting money and start counting life. He says we will have to reach out to the needs of the community and when we do that, we will fill our spiritual selves in a different way and no, we won't be rich, but we will be filled with the spirit. He says we might even experience a bit of growth, likely not much, but what the heck, we just want to live.
Joan Chittister's book, "The Gift of Years," is on ageing and it is talking about how to live this full spiritual life. We never just do it on our own, but in community and we have to have a perspective that is ever willing to change and be challenged. It is the same for the church.
I have said this before, but the difficult part is that we don't know what our future church will look like. Nor do we know what life will be in the future. All we can do is forge ahead. We can learn and practice good leadership; we can learn and practice conflict management. We can empower one another into being who we need to be. These skills will take us a long way. We need to remember Gail and that making that first cut in the blue terry cloth robe was a process.
Let's think about Gail for a minute. Metaphorically isn't our church in the same place? We are in many ways like her. Many of us in the church today are discontent, we are frustrated, we are grieving our past and sometimes we are angry. Like Gail, we are facing the frustrations of growing older and things are not working out exactly as we planned. If we had boxes of left-over clothes that needed transforming what would we make them into? How long would it take us to be transformed?
We will continue to explore and to ask questions that will lead us forward. We will journey together thinking about transformation and how it could unfold. It won't be easy work. We will struggle. Like Gail's path there will be times when we won', and can't, understand why we can't just go back to the old ways.
I invite you to think about relationship. How do you sustain relationships with others, and how do you use your resources?