June 10, 2018

Image of God, VIII: Spiritual Surprises from 23andME

Passage: Ruth: 4

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Then the women said to Naomi,
‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day —Ruth 4:14

 

Since Easter, we’ve been working, Bill, Jo, and I on this sermon series called “The Image of God: Theological Resources for a World of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.” At the heart of this is the idea that everybody is created in the image of God and yet sometimes we don’t treat each other as if we understand that; as if we don’t see God’s image in one another, and so we harm one another; as if we forget that there’s something holy, sacred, good, and beloved in each of us.

Both of these cultural phenomena, both of these important/popular hashtags curate a critique of our world that is both individualistic and systemic. On the one hand, individuals are at fault for their own individual horrifying violations of sexism and racism while on the other hand, our systems and institutions have built in bias, prejudice, inequality, or discrimination. The #MeToo movement might say that the history of gender roles, gender norms, ways of treating women, ways of men inherently being powerful in this world create a context or (make it possible) for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to exist. The #BlackLivesMatter movement might say that the history of race in America—slavery, Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” redlining, racial profiling, and institutional racism—create the context in which innocent black men are shot, Ferguson makes the news, and Trayvon Martin’s name becomes known across the country in the same way Emmett Till’s name was known across the country decades ago.

Turning to the Bible in times like these seems cliché on the one hand and impossible on the other. Biblical platitudes like “love your neighbor” can lose their teeth in the fray, become fraught with meaninglessness, and overuse. And, because #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are distinctly 21st century phenomenon, and 21st century America is increasingly secular, turning to the Bible somehow seems out of place—not to mention the ways that the Bible has been seen as a legitimizer of patriarchy and historically was a critical player in the justification of slavery. It’s complicated to turn to the Bible in times like these.

The story of Ruth, I find, is a text that speaks into these two social movements in ways tender and complex. If you know the arch of the story, you might remember that Ruth married into a family from Bethlehem (a town distinctly familiar to Christian listeners) who had moved to Moab (a sworn enemy of sorts) in order to avoid a famine. Ruth’s husband dies, her husband’s brother dies, and her husband’s father dies. In a patriarchal society, in which women had no power except in relation to the men in their lives, Ruth was powerless. Her best bet was to move home with her mother and begin again, looking for a husband among her own people.

But Ruth won’t go. She instead pledges her allegiance to her mother-in-law Naomi who has equally lost everything. Why? The text doesn’t say. But Ruth, instead of going home to the protection of her mother’s house in Moab returns to Bethlehem (where she will be a foreigner) with her mother-in-law Naomi. On the way there is no protection. In a world brazenly giving men power, without a man accompanying them along the way, the unthinkable could have happened to the two widows on road to Bethlehem. Thankfully they make it there safely.

When they get to Bethlehem, Naomi immediately sets out to find a family to take her in—an extended family member, technically from her husband’s family, who are willing to begrudgingly follow Levitical law and take care of her in her old age: a widow whose sons died far from home, who had no children of their own to provide a hope for her future. Would you take care of your great-uncle’s widow or your dad’s cousin’s widow? All that it means to care for someone in the last decades of their life? Could you pour yourself and your resources into extended family in this way? Do our laws say that you should? You must? Maybe you have? Naomi seeks for someone in the family tree to take her in, to take them in.

In the meantime, Naomi encourages Ruth to go glean in the field—pick up the produce left behind after the harvest. Legally, they are allowed to do that—Levitical law gives provision for the poorest of the poor—that they can have the leftovers, the leavings, and the bits that are left after the best is taken.

All this hopefully prepares us for our scripture reading. I will read Ruth 2:7–12. Let us listen for God’s good word to us today.

She said, ‘Please let me glean so that I might gather up grain from among the bundles behind the harvesters.’ She arrived and has been on her feet from the morning until now, and has sat down for only a moment.” Boaz said to Ruth, “Haven’t you understood, my daughter? Don’t go glean in another field; don’t go anywhere else. Instead, stay here with my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that they are harvesting and go along after them. I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you. Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs and drink from what the young men have filled.” Then she bowed down, face to the ground, and replied to him, “How is it that I’ve found favor in your eyes, that you notice me? I’m an immigrant.” Boaz responded to her, “Everything that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death has been reported fully to me: how you left behind your father, your mother, and the land of your birth, and came to a people you hadn’t known beforehand.  May the Lord reward you for your deed. May you receive a rich reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you’ve come to seek refuge.”

Please pray with me: Holy God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 We live in a world where genealogy matters. At least one family member in both my mom and dad’s side of the family have taken a deep dive into the family tree. Visiting the grave sites of great-great-great-grandparents was a normal part of my childhood. Maybe you have an account with ancestry.com, too. Maybe you know the name and birthplace of your great-great-great-grandparents, too. Maybe you’ve swabbed your cheek to find out the migration history of your genetic relatives through 23andMe. A friend of mine did this recently, and it is fascinating: the maps that reveal family histories, the idea of Haplogroups and possible Neanderthal roots, the ways that we are all interlinked, somehow, through some variation of the distant past.

Genealogy matters. And, sometimes genealogy is even politicized. Any mention of Barack Obama in this context could serve as a reminder of how one’s family tree matters when it comes to politics.

And, not only that, we live in a world where royal lineage matters. I'm not sure I would have put it that way a few months ago, but then all of America, it seems, tuned into the royal wedding with such intensity… I was surprised by how enchanted we were. An American in the royal palace? African ancestry in the royal palace? A Hollywood celebrity in the royal palace? Oprah on the guest list? All seemed to intermingle in our attentiveness to this regal ceremony (or was it the diamond tiara? The wedding dress reveal? The incredible Bishop Michael Curry? The question of what monarchy means in the 21st century?)

In any case: Genealogy matters. Genealogy is sometimes politicized. Royal lineage matters. And if that is the case, then this is also true: while everything changes, everything remains the same. Or, as the bible says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” —Ecclesiastes 1:9

There is nothing new under the sun because in the ancient book of Ruth, Genealogy matters. Genealogy is sometimes politicized. And as it turns out, royal lineage matters.  This sacred family tree helps us see who God is and how God is at work in the world. In order for us to get to this idea that God can be present for everybody, that everybody is made in the image of God, that God’s redemption is for everyone, that no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, God’s love is open to you—we have to attend to this idea that genealogy matters. That Ruth belongs in God’s family tree. That Ruth’s love, embodied in her sacrifice, is an important part of the royal Davidic lineage, and thus, an important part of Jesus’ genealogical story.

If genealogy didn’t matter, then we wouldn’t ever hear about Ruth. If the politics of who you are and whose you are didn’t matter, then Ruth would be insignificant. But, the fact is, within our faith family tree, there is an outsider. And that outsider—Ruth—makes holy every outsider. Somehow, by the grace of God, as an outsider, she finds protection under someone who was an insider.

Did you notice how Boaz tells the men in the field not to assault her? That he needed to tell the men to keep away from her? That he needed to tell her that he’d done so? Did you notice how she wonders why she’s even being noticed by Boaz? Why would he do something like that? Make sure she was fed, safe, and kept from harm? This story is a story of hope for women who are living in harm's way, for women who don’t have someone to tell the men to keep away. This is a story of hope for those who are powerless, who find themselves without protection. This is a #MeToo story of redemption, that another assault was avoided, that another woman was safe at work, that another woman found an ally who supported her whole self.

By the end of the Book of Ruth, she bears a son with Boaz, one of Naomi’s husband’s next of kin, and her son will become the grandfather of David, and part of the family tree of Jesus. It’s a short enough book—four chapters—you could probably read it in the time it takes for your Uber to arrive. But the legal systems that Ruth and Naomi and Boaz play within to become family to one another are complex—probably as complex as our legal codes today. Within the ancient legal system, which is designed to keep widows and orphans and foreigners and outsiders safe and protected in times of need, there are always people on the lookout to skirt their responsibilities.

If you read the book of Ruth, you’ll see one of the next-of-kin doing just that, trying to skirt his responsibilities—it just wouldn’t suit his lifestyle at this time to take Naomi and Ruth in. But Boaz sees Ruth and says yes. He protects her. He takes her in and provides for both Ruth and Naomi. He lives up to the responsibilities of care and love and duty that society values.

The book of Ruth is important to our faith family tree. Jesus’ grandmothers are not mentioned in the dozens of ancestors, except for Ruth and three other women in his family tree. But the gospel writers highlight Ruth, maybe because of her outsider status, maybe because of the sacrifice she made for Naomi to go, not home to safety, but into a foreign land where her status would be in question and her life might be at risk. She was a person made vulnerable by her loyalty. You see these same qualities in Jesus, yes? Sacrifice, risk, vulnerability because of loyalty. As one of Jesus’ great-grandmothers many generations over, she became a symbol bearer of the way God’s love works.

One of the things that is at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the #MeToo movement is the fact that the systems of justice and the ideals of American freedom sometimes fail us; that, within a country that has means and opportunity to make all things good, there are still people who feel they must be silent about the oppression or violence they experience; that the things we learned in kindergarten—share what you have, be kind, be honest, and keep your hands to yourself—don’t seem to apply to the adult world in the ways we might hope.

If the story of Ruth helps us to see how God’s love works, what does that mean? In a world where vulnerability can lead to catastrophe, moral compromise, terror, or trauma, the story of Ruth helps us remember that we are called to love anyway. Ruth could have turned back. Ruth could have abandoned Naomi. Ruth didn’t need to be part of Jesus’ family tree. She could have said no. But she chose vulnerability. She chose to love anyway. As Liberian peacemaker Leymah Gbowee might put it, she chose to “step out and do the impossible.”[1]

Anthony Bourdain’s sudden death by suicide caught the culinary world by surprise this weekend (and as many are reminding us in the wake of his death, mental illness and suicide can affect anyone regardless of income or success. If you or someone you love is in need of more support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help 24 hours a day.) In one of the many glowing obituaries about this complex, storied chef, someone recalled the story of Bourdain in an episode of Parts Unknown sitting down at a meal with one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale. They didn’t just talk about the food. They talked about history. They talked about the black freedom movement. They talked about how the Black Panther movement stood for things any of us would want for our own family: a quality education, a place to live, a job, and basic civil rights.

The writer of this obituary reflected on how brilliantly and bravely Bourdain wove political education into the food culture in a way that provided the kind of historic context and compassion for the oppressed that Americans need more than ever. And he did that across the board, welcoming Americans to see the world through a new lens. He stepped vulnerably into places others might not readily travel and did the impossible—built bridges over a meal.[2]

If there’s some part of the gospel, the good news God has for us, in the words of this Liberian peacemaker, then how can we, like Ruth, “step out and do the impossible.” What ways do we have power or privilege within our own worlds to enact even the tiniest of shifts toward justice for another one of God’s beloved? What power do we have to enact change? In what ways can we be like Ruth, stepping out into the unknown? In what ways can we sacrifice? In what ways can we, like Bourdain, build bridges over a meal?

One theologian says that if God is love, then humans are made by love for love.[3] Yes, we are stuck in impossible situations. We will never have the power, individually or together, to completely undo the injustices of the world, to completely untangle the suffering of this world. But, we are made by love for love. In such love, how do we step out and do the impossible? In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] “Parenting as Spiritual Practice and Source for Theology: Mothering Matters.” Claire Bischoff, Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo, Annie Hardison-Moody, editors. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p. 248.
[2] Jackson, Sarah J. “Anthony Bourdain Was the Kind of ‘Bad Boy’ We Need More Of.” The New York Times. June 09, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/08/opinion/sunday/anthony-bourdain-death-bad-boy.html.
[3] “Christian Doctrines for Global Gender Justice.” Jenny Daggers, Palgrave Macmillan, UK. 2015.