Red Tulips Arise!

2000 Covenant Conference
Opening Worship, November 2, 2000


“Red Tulips Arise!” 

Ruth 1: 1-18 

Angela Ying
Pastor, Bethany United Church of Christ, Seattle


Have you ever felt like a square peg amidst an array of round holes? As a woman in ministry, I continue to struggle with the temptation to simply fit in rather than be myself as God created me. Growing up with such fairy tales as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, one can get rather confused with the message conveying that bliss comes only when you find a man who will love you, if and only the shoe fits!

You have to be drugged up by that infamous shining apple, or you are too comatose to enjoy the kiss anyway, and this, we are told, is what will lead us to “happily ever after.”

On the other side of the spectrum are those international films where, in general, men and women struggle and fight for their livelihood, but most of the characters in the end are dead by the end of the film. It’s no wonder that many of us amidst everyday life come to feel rather heavy burdened. It’s not just that the expectations we face are high: Downsizing and working with smaller staff and budgets continue to be the trend. It’s not just that the demands to be parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, partners, wives, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and friends, as well as carry a professional career are so stressful: It’s perhaps that many of the expectations are mutually exclusive as we work in the community of faith.

We are to be in our office at all times and yet visiting the community. Dynamic and articulate, yet soft-spoken, emulating grace. We are to be capable and tough, yet able to submit at the drop of a pin. We are to have great wisdom and experience and still look under forty. We are to be organized and have long-range plans, yet be able to go with the flow. A success in the real world, yet have dinner ready when the real breadwinner comes in, and the children fed, bathed, and nicely tucked in bed. Given our heavy hearts and a real longing for relief, we often look to quick and easy answers. But I’m not so sure it’s that simple; nor are we called to figure it out on our own, independent of God in the larger community.

In my longing, struggle, and vision to be a part of a genuine, authentic community where all are included, I have come to know the need, my own need, of knowing who I am so that others will not define me: to know I am loved and that I am capable of loving, and to know I am not alone in the journey as we build an inclusive community that is multiracial, multicultural, intergenerational, inclusive of gay and lesbians, bisexual, transgender people, and people of different economic backgrounds.

How do I know this is so? This is my community. This is what I believe. This is my neighborhood. This is my worldview as I pastor at Bethany United Church of Christ in south Seattle. To know who we are, to know we are loved, to know we are not alone. As the African people in their wonderful sense of community say, “I am because we are. You are because we are.”

In our scripture passage, Naomi and Ruth are two witnesses who dare to give us a clue: two square pegs amidst an array of round holes. Ruth and Naomi grow together in their journey; but it isn’t always that way, for they were very different women, two strangers to each other. And unlike the Western fairy tales we are accustomed to, their friendship, love, and their sense of community grows out of their ability to relate to someone different, and it comes from famine, death, and even after needing to leave that which is secure.

Naomi and her husband and sons were open to different people. They moved from Bethlehem in Judah to Moab, when the situation in their own land showed signs of death while that in a foreign land showed promises of new life. And Ruth later reveals that she, too, is open to a different people as she chooses to move with Naomi from Moab to Judah. Two women, two widowed women, two widowed foreign women — or you could say, two black women, two gay men, two people made homeless . . . blurring the lines, cutting through and breaking the barriers, being risk-takers rather than rhetoric-makers.

After the husband and sons’ death, the main link Naomi has is to her two daughters-in-law. And she says, “Go!” in her despair. “Return, each of you, to your mother’s house!” But Ruth and Orpah respond, “No, we will return with you to your people.”

There’s a sort of dance we see with these three women — a deep and intricate dance full of tension, tension in learning to live with that tension, a both/and rather than an either/or. Living with two cultures, belonging to both, belonging to none; living with one foot in the culture grounded and rooted and one foot outside the culture. Living with death and the possibility of new life; with despair and hope, doubt and faith, fear and love; holding on or letting go, turning back or moving forward, living amidst security or taking risks.

It’s a complicated dance of life and one, we often find, that is never clearly marked. Ruth, the courageous Moabetess: You have to love her! We should recruit her for the Network! She’s terribly Tenacious, with a capital “T.” Not one of the faint-hearted. She does not ever fit the mold, especially that of the great-grandmother of a king. Not your ideal daughter-in-law, either.

No, Ruth has a mind and heart of her own. “Go! Return!” And she responds, “No! We will return with you, Naomi.” “Turn back! Go your way!” Naomi lovingly and despairingly demands a second time. Orpah, also a daughter-in-law, realistically recognizes her limitations and the limitations of the women, and she makes a valid choice to return, which we as a community need to respect, for Orpah does what is right for her.

Then Naomi turns to Ruth and tells her a third time-things always happen the third time-and she sees that there’s no other alternative, and amidst her own despair and her love for another, she says, “Go! Go!” and yet Ruth, the text says, clung to Naomi, refusing to return. Ruth was so determined to go with Naomi and so passionate to share in whatever will come that Naomi has no words to say, and the two women begin their trek together.

Paradoxically, I believe that in Ruth’s holding on and clinging to Naomi, she was actually letting go and letting God. Ruth, a woman in Jesus’ family roots, dares to stand with another person in grief, not denying the grief or the temptation to avoid it — for how often we in our everyday lives do, as good, nice Christian men and women, “the frozen chosen,” hold back and refrain from being who we really are, from telling it like it is, and thus keeping our real selves from being part of the story, the history, herstory.

No, Ruth, Naomi, and Orpah, as we read the text, are not afraid to lift up their voices and to weep, to genuinely weep. For in shedding their long held-back tears, they discovered they were still alive! To weep, not alone or in self-pity, but in solidarity with others; to weep, not because we have all the answers, but because we are open and vulnerable to the possibilities. To weep, not to hold on, but to let go, knowing we’re not in control. As a Hassidic saying states, “We need a coat with two pockets: one pocket that carries dust and in the other pocket there is gold.” We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.

It’s not clear when the Book of Ruth was written. Many scholars believe that perhaps it was written after the exile. For post-exilic Israel, the community of faith wrestled, not only with their own identity, who they were as a wider community, but also unfortunately wrestled with who was in and who was out. Who was exclusively of the chosen people and who was left out? Sound familiar? Who was to be invited to the inner circle and who was on the periphery?

Let’s face it. It’s much more simple when the lines of race, class, and sexual orientation are clean, clear, and unblurred, everyone fitting in their proper places, their nice, neat, nailed-down boxes.

Or is it? For maybe it is only more simplistic, giving us the illusion that it is more simple. For if we would dare to dig deep, deep below the surface, we would discover something much more complex, yet life-giving, something open-ended and embracing. I love the saying that says: “To every problem there is one clear and straightforward answer — and it’s wrong.”

In the Skagit Valley every year, just north of Seattle, hundreds of people come during springtime to experience the annual tulip festival. It’s quite a sight: Spanning various fields lie rows and rows of perfectly planted tulips.

My husband John and I, having lived in Seattle for a number of years, decided to go, knowing that it’s something that you’re supposed to do, although usually the tourists see it first. We went there this spring, walking through the tulips. It sounded romantic, and yet as we approached this supposedly magnificent tulip festival, our first encounter were cars bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go, trying to get that “perfect” picture. Though it tried our patience a bit, we would not be discouraged. At the local restaurant, there were maps: “For white tulips, go there! For yellow tulips, you’ll find ’em there! For purple tulips, to the left! For pink tulips, to the right!”

When we finally found a place to stop, we walked and walked around. We noticed signs warning any wanderer to “Please stay carefully on the marked paths.” Here we were, amidst an array and fields and fields of beautiful tulips, and yet something was missing, and we couldn’t put our finger on it. How could such beauty feel so static, staged, and sterile?

And then we spotted it from a distance. So small, so subtle, it might have gone unnoticed. We could have easily ignored it or passed on by, but somehow it could not hide itself from itself. Yes, buried deep in the strategically planned and carefully segregated fields of white and yellow tulips stood a bright red tulip! In their midst, radiant, no, alive and on fire, as if it were the burning sun itself that dared to stand tall and blossom.

As Ruth, Naomi, and yes, that red tulip, took the risk to blossom and grow, we, too, are to do the same. For if we courageously stand tall with those on the periphery, we give other people permission to do the same. Despite their fears, they, too, can stand tall and join us in building and growing a new community, a real community which is inclusive of all God’s people.

And yet we need the Spirit to do this. I have a hunch love takes practice, and the Spirit that moves us to include all people, including our gay and lesbian friends, calls us once again to be that rare tulip.

Spirit of God, come into this place. Build anew. Help us to connect with people of different backgrounds, races, cultures, sexual orientation. For only with the Spirit can it happen.

“Spirit of God, everyone’s heart is lonely,
Watching and waiting and hungry until. . .
Spirit of God, we long for you only.
Fulfill the earth, bring it to birth, and blow where you will.
Blow, blow, blow ’til I be
But the breath of the Spirit flowing in me.”

My friends, stand tall and blossom, and let the red tulips arise!

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