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Running in Church: Finding Home

Speaker: Jake Joseph

February 16, 2020

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Running in Church: Finding Home
First Church of Guilford, Connecticut
Ruth 1:1-10, 14-18

This month, our children and youth will be focusing on the Book of Ruth in Sunday School, so I decided this morning to go off lectionary to make sure that us “adults” stay at least as informed about the Bible as the kids! Let me tell you that this is hard work because the kids in Guilford are so darn smart. I can attest to this as your Confirmation teacher. You all should know that we have some really brilliant kids in this congregation who think deeply about God and theology. So, let’s get caught-up a little and see what new wisdom can break forth from the Word this morning. Are you ready for the challenge?

In Biblical tradition, there is something cool and ancient called in a Toledot—which is a Hebrew word meaning the “generations.” A Toledot is a genealogy that serves as a cosmic resume, a divine CV, an intergalactic LinkedIn Profile for a prophet. It is the way a prophet is credentialed. In tradition, a Toledot always finds a way to link the prophet all the way back to Abraham and the origins of the faith in order to be authoritative. In the ancient world, family connection conveyed authority and power. Let’s be clear, these aren’t historic or real genetic genealogies, but they are created narratives of family connection more powerful than facts. Ahhh the stories we tell ourselves. Any new prophet needed a good Toledot story—a cosmic hometown of ancestry—a good story of home. As Christians, our genealogy of faith comes through Jesus. 

For this reason, the author of The Gospel of Matthew starts with a resume—with a Toledot linking Jesus to the ancients. Matthew 1: 1-6 reads: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David”…and so on to Jesus.

That sounds normal enough to our modern ears, but in the time of the Gospel writers, and in the scope of Biblical tradition, there is something radical, unconventional, and notable for us today in this Toledot for prophet Jesus! Macalester College professor of religion and author of Matthew's Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community, Dr. J. Andrew Overman comments on this passage writing, “Jesus genealogy is largely patriarchal, but includes four women from the Hebrew Bible Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba breaking from the tradition of reciting only male forbearers. Each [of these] acted independently, in some cases scandalously, at critical junctures in Israel’s history to ensure the continuation of the Davidic line.”[1] The Jesus story is built on a Toledot resume of the lessons and the risks and scandals of King David’s Matriarch Ruth! It is in part from Ruth that Jesus bases his authority for systems change.  

Turning to the Book of Ruth, or as I will refer to it this morning, “The Book of Ruth and Naomi,” Vanderbilt Divinity School scholar and Smith College alumna, Dr. Amy Jill-Levine, takes it a step further, passionately describing Ruth by writing, “In this deceptively simple narrative a poor, widowed foreigner becomes…the great-grandmother of King David…Ruth testifies to the contributions Gentiles can make to the covenant community. Through her loyalty, fortitude, and cleverness, she ensures the future for herself, for her mother-in-law, and for the Davidic line. Yet underlying these idealistic representations are complex social issues, gender relations, and personal motivations…[Ruth’s] various actions, which contravene social expectations, justifiably locate Ruth not only among David’s ancestors but also among the other unconventional women—Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba—who appear in the geneology [Toledot] of Jesus.”[2]

Beyond the reading this morning from the first Chapter, the most well know passage from Ruth where she declares her loyalty to her bereaved mother-in-law, Naomi, let me briefly summarize the whole story of Ruth in as few sentences as possible. The Book of Ruth gives even the most salacious Univision Telenovela a run for its money in terms of family drama.

Naomi and her husband are originally from Bethlehem, yet a famine arrives and they are forced to become refugees with their two sons to the Moab. Their sons grow-up and marry two local, gentile women named Ruth and Orpah. Within the context of the Hebrew Bible, this means that Ruth is a complete outsider. This would have been controversial.

One by one, Naomi’s husband and his two sons die. This leaves Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah alone and in need of help in the ancient world. Naomi decides to head back to Bethlehem and her daughters-in-law and join her. Naomi begs the girls to stay behind and, while Orpah is convinced and leaves for Moab, Ruth pledges her devotion to Naomi, forsaking her god and her people to become part of Naomi's life. Ruth's stubbornness works and she stays with Naomi.[3]

From there the story gets very interesting and strange for our modern ears and ethics. Ruth and Naomi are reduced to taking the scraps, experience food scarcity, and live on the edge together. Ruth finds a suiter named Boaz, but because of the laws of the culture, she is unable to marry him because there is another relative who has the first claim. Ruth and Naomi create a complicated political transaction or trade (of sorts) that allows for Ruth to marry Boaz and they have a son thereby saving the lineage that leads to David. Talk about a “Happy Valentine’s Day”—in a 3,000 years ago Bethlehem Style! This story dates to 950 BCE after all. 

What I want to focus on today is Naomi. Ruth is still young and has a homeland to return to with a future, but she chooses to stay with Naomi who has lost hope. Often the focus is on Ruth’s courage, strength, and fortitude, and that is all fine, but what about Naomi? The Book of Ruth is just as much The Book of Naomi… where is home and hope located for her in the story? Where is home and hope for the hopeless?

The passage from Chapter 1 that Paul read for us is the moment in the story when Naomi realizes that she too is still worthy of love, of home and belonging… in Ruth’s heart. And it is a paradoxical reversal of roles and norms. 

Dr. Amy Jill-Levine also noted this relationship of hope in her research, “Through the dialogue and action, Ruth…attempts to move Naomi from emptiness to fullness…Not recognizing that the Moabite women might want to remain with her because of love or loyalty, Naomi describes her worth as reproductive only…she sees herself as cursed by the hand of [God]. Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye, but Ruth…clung to her and refuses to leave her.”[4] 

14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Verse 14 stirs my heart at its depts this morning—"They wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her a final farewell, but Ruth clung to her.” The Hebrew word, “davak” translated here as “to cling” can also mean to join, to overtake, or to catch someone. Orpah kisses her and leaves, but Ruth catches Naomi as she falls and refuses to let Naomi be alone in her grief, to let her potentially die, to send her away homeless. This story is about a nomadic people, home is where people love you. Home isn’t a place in Ruth. It is wherever the people who are catch you when you are in freefall.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
what wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

What Wondrous Love is this, First Church!? This is a love that won’t let go. Naomi believes that she is no longer worthy of love, or family, or purpose. Ruth won’t let her believe that. Ruth won’t let her go. Ruth, the outsider, the gentile, the dangerous one...saves Naomi and through that act of selfless love sets the universe on a new course. This is also what church is at its best—as the spiritual descendants both of Ruth’s courage and fortitude and Naomi’s need for a companion and a love that will not give up. 

February is my favorite month of the church year because it is, in the UCC, when newly reconstituted boards and committees meet for the first time. Last week, during the first meeting of the deacons, we had a time of sharing of our faith journeys. What was supposed to be a couple of minutes in the agenda, turned necessarily into most of the meeting—and that is a good thing. As we went around the room, sharing stories of faith journey, a common metaphor emerged. Earliest memories and recent realizations were that running in church as a metaphor for belonging, for finding a church or a home that won’t force you out, that won’t let you go on your worst day, your meanest, your saddest, you most misbehaved. Many remembered the church being a second home, or seeing their children find that place to run here among us as the greatest sign of a place that clings, that catches, and truly loves. What wondrous love is this… a congregation that lets us run free and acts as a safe container for our whole selves? This is what Ruth provides to Naomi, and it is what we are called to provide to each other. Let’s run, First Church, let’s run in church together.

Naomi tries to push her away, to reject her love, to say “no.” Naomi, like many of us at our most vulnerable and raw and unvarnished, push away signs of love. Is it trustworthy? Can it really be the real thing? Can this church be home? Can you be home? Is this a place where I can run—where our children will be free to find a spiritual run with God? For me, it is more of a slow jog or walk. What wonderous love is this?

Ruth wasn’t a stranger, and yet Naomi is still reluctant. I think many of us are often Naomi in this story: shame, fear, worthlessness, and giving-up are tempting. Naomi doesn’t realize that Ruth needs her too. She isn’t aware of her own sacred worth for Ruth. Do you know for whom you are the sign of home? Ruth clings to Naomi because Ruth needs Naomi too. Do you know for whom you are the sign of home? Are you the one who welcomes us into a home? Are you the one who demands to be part of our journey? I believe that we are all Naomi and Ruth in this story—we all need to find home but also be home. 

I don’t remember much about my Candidate Sunday in June. It is a blur of anxiety and stress. I think I preached a sermon and I think you voted. The only thing I clearly remember is the color red. After preaching, I was pacing in the chapel waiting for the outcome of your vote when a young family appeared at the door—it was Becca and Mark Mitchell with their daughters Emily and Lucy. The girls approached and without a word lifted a little green box of raspberries they picked for me and Gerhard from Bishop’s Orchards that morning towards me. They were so red. I took the box fighting back tears of gratitude.  The last time I was in Guilford, I was about the girls’ age picking berries with my sister at Bishop’s Orchards. I remember running through the rows of berries screaming with joy at every new, fresh pick, feeling the freedom, sensing the love of family and knowing that God loves me. That is the sensation of running in church. That is the sign of welcome, of home.

Our story today is about finding home. It is about finding belonging and extending it to others on the journey. Naomi didn’t know that she was Ruth’s home. Ruth needs Naomi. Naomi also needs Ruth to reopen her heart.

Run, run First Church—not in safety and the norms of the day—but run home.

Run to the arms of those who love you.

Run through the arbors and vines of Bishop’s Orchards.

Run through the West Woods.

Run past our ancestral home at the Henry Whitfield House.

Run run run run in church! Find your scandal, find your pace, find your people… then let them know it! “This is a long journey, and we aren’t letting you go.”

What wondrous love is this… oh my soul…oh our soul!! 

[1] J. Andrew Overman, “Mathew,” The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins, edits. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), NT 9.
[2] Amy Jill-Levine, “Ruth,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, edits. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 84.
[3] Summary Adapted from: https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/bible/ruth/summary
[4] Amy Jill-Levine, “Ruth,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, edits. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 84, 86.

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