“A More Perfect Union” – Sharon K. Youngs

A Sermon Preached at the Covenant Network Conference 1-sharon
November 1, 2013

Text: Ruth 1:1-22

Once upon a time, in a land far away, times were unbearably hard. The land had ceased to flow with milk and honey. The cupboards in the House of Bread were bare.

Famines have a way of shifting the landscape, and this one was no different. The dusty air swirled with uncertainty and dismay. Families were forced to make difficult life-and-death decisions. Did they remain midst the barrenness and place their bets on a rainy season?

Or did they do the unthinkable and pull up stakes for more fertile land and a better shot at survival?

And so it was that this particular family – a husband, a wife, and their two sons – reluctantly joined the ranks of refugees. They left behind neighbors and friends and land and the life they knew to resettle in unknown, unfamiliar, unfriendly territory.

Life was difficult in other ways in their new location. There was nutrition to fill their stomachs, but no sustenance for their souls. And, as if things weren’t bad enough, the husband up and died, leaving his widow on foreign soil with two dependent children and no resources. If they had been uninvited once, now they were surely unwelcome: a drain on the local economy, a disgraceful stain on the national image. But the family kept going, as best they could.

“We will make something of ourselves,” the boys said, knowing what was expected of them.

We will build homes and start families.”

Both of them married local girls – not that the girls’ parents were particularly thrilled at the prospect of their daughters marrying immigrants, but at least they would be provided for, which was the most important thing. They were daughters, after all. And, of course, there would hopefully be grandchildren to spoil.

The grandchildren did not come along. But the mother of these two sons found her home filled with a surprisingly wonderful thing. In her new daughters-in-law Naomi discovered friends, Ruth in particular.

There was a deep connection. Shopping trips and preparing meals became opportunities for extended conversations. They talked about the guys, of course. And they gossiped about the neighbors. But they also talked about life and love. They wondered about the strange circumstances that had thrown them together. They surprised one another with little acts of kindness. They laughed and sang and lost track of time when they were together. And when the talk in the morning spin class turned to complaints about overbearing mothers-in-law, or materialistic and self-centered daughters-in-law, Naomi and Ruth and Orpah just looked at one another and giggled.

A decade of years passed. And then, one day, in the midst of preparations for the evening meal, a neighbor came bursting into Naomi’s kitchen. Her eldest had collapsed while working in the field. “Just keeled over,” is the way one co-worker described it. By the time the EMTs arrived, there was nothing left to do but inform the next-of-kin.

Grief sliced through Naomi like a knife. She had finally begun to heal from the death of her husband, and now the wound was torn open again. Orpah tried on her new identity as a widow, and it wasn’t much to her liking. Ruth saw to it that both women had the comforts she could offer – a shoulder to cry on, cups of tea, a listening ear – presence.

The younger boy also grieved his brother’s death, but in his own time and in his own way.

He was determined to care for his mother, his wife, and now, his brother’s wife. He was the man of the family now, a role that demanded his full attention and firmest resolve. But it was unfamiliar ground, and hard to know what that meant. As always, Ruth provided the voice of reason. Of course his mother and sister-in-law would move in with them. There was no discussing any other options.

The entire family slowly rummaged its way through the loss, and (knock on wood) it seemed that things were taking a turn for the better. For the first time in a long time, Naomi took a deep breath. Until the day the news broke: There had been an accident at the job site. “No one could have seen it coming,” the onlookers said. “What a pity.” The supervisor offered his sincere sympathy. The president of the company wrote a personal letter.

And Ruth, too, learned the bitter reality of widowhood.

And so it came to be that Naomi found herself in a foreign country with no husband, no sons, no means of support, no standing, no prospects, no hope. The name and inheritance of her husband had died with the death of their sons. By virtue of her widowhood, she had nothing and was regarded as nothing.

The weight of grief took its toll on Naomi. Her eyes were cast downward more than up, her shoulders were rounded as if to shield her heart from any further onslaughts from above. Long periods of silence replaced the laughter and the singing. And this trio of women, bound together first by marriage and now by grief, filled that silence with one another’s comforting presence.

No one remembers exactly where they heard the news first, but that was beside the point.

The big news was that the famine in Naomi’s homeland was over. She could return home. Home. Packing a widow’s possessions did not take long, given how few there were. And lingering any longer than necessary just prolonged the terrible sadness her heart had endured in that place.

And so Naomi set out to trace her steps home. It didn’t dawn on her until she was underway that Orpah and Ruth had packed their few things and were going with her.

“Oh no,” Naomi said, “no, no, no. You are not coming with me. There is nothing for you where I am going. I know what it means to be an unwelcome guest in an unfamiliar place.

It will be no better for you there. Here, you have your mothers’ homes. Here, you will have new husbands, perhaps even children. There, you will have nothing. No security. You deserve more than that. You deserve more than the bitter hand I have been dealt. Please, turn back. And may my God bless you with hesed – with the faithfulness and steadfast love you have shown me all these years.”

Orpah and Ruth protested, but Naomi again pleaded with them to go back. Finally, tears in her eyes, Orpah did turn back and left them. No one knows for sure what happened to Orpah when she parted ways with Naomi and Ruth that day. She may or may not have remarried. Rumor had it that she fell deeply in love with the color purple, of all things.

Word also spread that she began a daily routine of hosting a gathering of friends in the middle of the afternoon to talk about all kinds of this and that.

And then there was Ruth, the daughter-in-law who refused to go back. She clung to Naomi – the same word used in the Genesis 2 passage that Frank read last evening.

“Ruth, dearest Ruth, please, go home. Go back to your people and begin a new life, a new marriage.”

“Oh, Naomi,” Ruth replied. “What is married? Does it mean I am to go back and be joined to one I do not want or love because it’s expected of me, just so I will have ‘security’? Look at us. Look at this partnership. I am not here out of obligation. You showed great kindness and caring to me, and I to you. We set up house together. You are my family. This is a more perfect union to me, Naomi. I am in it with you for the long haul.

“You’re right – I don’t fit into your culture, but I fit in with you. We fit together, you and I.

“You make the crusts and I do the fillings. You cover the lower drawers and I reach the higher shelves. I choose you, Naomi. I choose your God. I choose your people. I choose you.

“Don’t send me away. Don’t even try, because I’m not going. My commitment, my loyalty, my bond, my life is with you. I’m playing for keeps.”

*******

What is married?

Bob Cantrell is a retired Methodist minister friend of mine back in Oak Ridge. When I was telling him about this conference and the theme, he told me about Jim – a fella in his 60’s, great in every way, and single. Bob said he finally asked Jim one day why he had never married. Jim paused a bit and then asked Bob, “What is married?”

What is married? At one level, the answer appears to be somewhat simple. Married means that a couple has mutually agreed to enter into a legal contract to become spouses in the eyes of the law. The PC(USA) Constitution currently specifies (emphasis on currently) that being married is something that happens between “a man and a woman.”

Of course, we could just move to the secondary definition: Marriage is “a combination or mixture of two or more elements.”[i] Wouldn’t that make headlines?!

What is married? What does it look like? Sometimes the wedding itself is a predictor of what married looks like. What is it going to look like when it begins with something that resembles an episode of “Bridezillas” or “Say Yes to the Dress” or “The Bachelorette”?

The sister of my good friend Janie got married a couple of years ago. It was a springtime wedding in southern Indiana. A small gathering was planned, since this was Lois’ fifth marriage. I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been.

As Janie tells the story, she arrived well ahead of time to set up the food for the reception.

She had a birds-eye view through the window as the wedding party arrived. First came Lois, the bride … and then the groom.

Janie says she continued to watch as the fella who was going to officiate – or should I say “perform” – the ceremony stepped out of the car, dressed from head to toe as Elvis. Next came the best man – none other than Abraham Lincoln, complete with top hat. Finally, the maid of honor — Annie Oakley, rifle in hand.

Early on in the ceremony, there was the traditional “if anyone thinks these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace,” complete with Annie Oakley scanning the crowd through the sights of her gun. And, as you can guess, Elvis concluded the ceremony with, “Thank you, thank you very much.”

I chatted with Janie a couple of weeks ago to learn that Lois is currently making plans for her sixth marriage.

What is married? Does married look like June and Ward Cleaver? Marge and Homer Simpson? Or does it look like Cam and Mitchell on “Modern Family”?

I’ve often wondered about those release forms we have to fill out before we do almost anything these days. Name, address, social security number, and then there’s always, “Check one: single, married, divorced, widowed.” Occasionally, “domestic partnership” makes the list. Then, “spouse’s name and contact information.”

Whether I’m having blood drawn or a tumor removed, why does it matter if I am single, married, widowed, or divorced? Will I be treated differently depending on what I check? Why does it matter? The cynic in me says that somebody needs to know where to send the bill if I happen to die or fail to pay up.

I’ve often thought the better question on the form would be, “Who do you want by your side when the bottom drops out?”

Maybe you’re a “Grey’s Anatomy” fan like I am. It’s the TV show about young medical residents in a hospital in Seattle. Two of the characters, Christina Yang and Meredith Grey, are very close friends. In one episode, Christina has gotten engaged and she’s trying to explain to her fiancé Preston why he has to wait to announce their engagement until she’s had a chance to tell Meredith.

“She’s my person,” Christina says. “Don’t you get it? She’s – you know, my person.”

Preston has a hard time understanding what she means. Christina keeps searching for words: “She’s my person…she’s…she’s… If I murdered someone, she’s the person I would call to help me drag the corpse across the living room floor. She’s my person.”

Who is your person? I hope there are no corpses involved, but who do you call in the middle of the night? Who do you talk to about the most important things in your life?

Who is it that you count on to be there for you, and vice versa? Who is your person?

What is married? We say it all the time at weddings, we say it to partners getting ready to marry, we say it to couples working hard to stay married: At its core, marriage is not about passion or emotion or physical attraction. It is not about feelings. At its core, marriage is about covenant, commitment. It is about shared hopes and shared struggles and shared life.

At its very best, marriage is an embodiment of God’s hesed – God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

Who do you want by your side when the bottom drops out?

That’s why, at a marriage ceremony, we invite couples to make such extravagant promises to one another. “Will you love, and comfort, and honor one another to the end of your days?

Will you cherish one another and be faithful to one another always? And will you promise to do these things not just when you feel like it, but even – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for the entirety of your days – even when you may not feel like it at all?”

What is married? I find myself going back to the story of Ruth and Naomi, a story rooted in God’s hesed – loyal love, kindness and mercy.

Kathy Sakenfeld says that hesed always takes place in the context of an ongoing, positive relationship; hesed always responds to a genuine need; hesed always goes beyond what is required on the part of the one showing kindness. Hesed winds its way through this story and these relationships. Hesed is divine action that issues in human action. [ii]

It is God’s hesed through the person of Jesus Christ that invites us to this Table. It is by coming to this Table that we are filled and then sent forth to show God’s hesed in and through our own lives and relationships.

*******

You know the rest of the story about Naomi and Ruth, of course. They returned to the house of bread. Between the two of them, they managed to keep food on the table. And, between the two of them, Ruth met Boaz, who turned out to be a relative of Naomi’s husband, thus resurrecting the family inheritance. Ruth and Boaz married and had a son who would be the grandfather of King David – and right on down the ancestral line to Jesus himself.

I recently ran across these short lines from Nancy Rockwell. They speak to me of what we learn of life and commitment and partnership from Ruth and Naomi. She says:

To learn, to encounter, to unravel mystery, to belong to God alone, all these require leaving, really leaving, in order to be open to the unexpected and unknown presence of God, who will be found not according to the rules, and not by the book, and not in the customary places, and not without fear, passion, deep prayer, and reflection on the strangers you have found each day, and the homelessness you have known.[iii]

Oh, and one more thing. Do you know what Ruth did first when she held her newborn son? She handed him to her partner. She handed him to Naomi. Of course she did.

And they lived hesedly ever after.



[i] http://bit.ly/1aKGyNf

[ii] Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges, Ruth in the Westminster Bible Companion Series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2002), p. 269.

[iii] Nancy Rockwell, “Leaving Home,” [http://biteintheapple.com/leaving-home].

Comments

  1. Sue Beard says:

    Thank you for sharing. Extremely thought provoking.

  2. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says:

    Sharon K. Youngs’ powerful sermon challenges and then confirms my perspective that the historic, orthodox, Reformed definition of marriage as established by God and re-affirmed by Jesus and which the PC(USA) Constitution in doctrine and polity (Books of Confessions and Order) point to as a rule of faith and life: restricted to a woman and a man.

    Consider this from Sharon K. Young’’ sermon: The “person” for Naomi was Ruth. It seems that the “person” for Ruth was at one point Naomi and another it was Boaz. Ruth does marry Boaz, but Naomi doesn’t marry Ruth. The Scripture shows marriage is more than just a commitment between two people who are each other’s “person”. Sharon K. Young seems to disagree with that analysis.

    It is noted that if Sharon K. Youngs’ view of marriage as lives lived in hesed is the Scripture’s teaching, then the marriage definition would not include the number two – the so-called “couple” view that many proponents of same-gendered marriage hold to as normative, and thus their push for “equality” between same-gendered and different gendered couples. Based on this sermon, Sharon K. Young is not an advocate for equality in marriage as are most of the speakers and writers for the Covenant Network are.

    The definition of two persons of whatever gender combination in a long-term covenanted (committed) relationship with some degree of monogamy is not what Sharon K. Youngs’ sermon points to. She does not provide a specific definition by answering her question: “What is married?). In her approach to the Biblical story of Ruth, any number or combination could constitute a marriage, if the various parties all mutually embodied God’s hesed.

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