Maintaining the Fabric of the Kingdom of God
This morning it’s all about women, unlikely women doing unexpected, unconventional things. As our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry would say, they are turning the world upside down, which is really right side up. Turning the world from what it is to what God would have it be.
Women who are agents of God’s actions in the world, through whom others experience the kingdom of God. And they do it quietly, below the radar. They aren’t setting out to change the world, they are simply responding to the situation in which they find themselves. Their responses are radically different from what the world expects from them. Though it’s not like they are trying to be rebels, more that they are doing what they feel they should, what makes sense to them, even if it makes no sense in the eyes of the world.
Women tend to work like this, changing the world through daily acts, through relationship, through the daily fabric of living. Obviously historically there have been few other avenues open to most women, so the courage, the action, the discipleship of women tends to be covert. And when it affects the world in rather radical ways, everyone is surprised. Power under sneaks up on you.
In our Old Testament text from the book of Ruth we have two women who matter so little in their own time and place that they are at risk of starving to death. They have nothing, and yet… they will become principle players in God’s salvation history. It’s through these two women that the line of David is preserved. The Davidic line will influence and oversee the people of God for the next 400 years, and through this line will come the Messiah. God’s own son will come from and through the radically faithful actions of unlikely people, those on the margins, those who are outside, because God’s son is of and for the whole world.
The story of Ruth is a product of a particular moment in time, based in an ancient understanding of kinship and property, but at its core it is a story about radical loyalty and faithfulness to another. These two women band together to face the hardships of their situation. In a world where they have nothing and count for nothing, they find a way together.
While the historical and cultural dimensions of the story feel foreign to us, this is essentially a story of refugees: people displaced from their homeland, struggling with issues of political status, homelessness, food insecurity and local prejudice. So while this is an ancient story, it’s unfortunately easier for us to imagine than it might have been even a few years ago.
The reader’s digest version of the background: Naomi and her husband and two sons are forced by famine to leave Bethlehem and go to Moab. (In this part of the story they are the refugees.) Naomi’s husband dies, and her two sons marry Moabite wives. After 10 years in Moab, both sons die, and the women are left with nothing, no status, no property,no living. Naomi decides to return to the land of her people and sends her daughters-in- law home to their families so they may live, remarry, hopefully find safety and well being. But Ruth won’t go, instead she decides to go with Naomi, to become a refugee in her mother-in-law’s homeland, where Moabites are hated, and where she will have even fewer possibilities than she does at this moment. Ruth says:
“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!”
Ruth’s radical faithfulness to Naomi makes the rest of the story possible, and a great deal more. Together they make the journey to Bethlehem in the hope that back in the land of Naomi and her late husband they might find a way to survive.
In Bethlehem they find Boaz, Naomi’s late husband’s distant kin, whose kinship Naomi hopes will extend to taking care of her and her daughter-in-law. Ruth gleans from the fields that Boaz is over seeing, and he is kind to her, providing her safety and enough of the grain so she and Naomi will have sufficient food to eat.
In the portion of the text we have this morning, Naomi encourages Ruth to charm Boaz into marrying her as next of kin. And after a few plot twists (establishing Boaz as kind, and wise and above reproach) he claims his role as kin, and marries Ruth. They give Naomi a grandson – and a life, a home, food and shelter, a place in the community, and joy she never expected was still possible.
And if that weren’t enough, this child, born of a destitute, widowed Moabite woman, will be the grandfather of David, who will be king of Israel, and from whose line will come the Messiah. Ruth becomes instrumental in maintaining the line of David, even though she is “one of those people,” and a woman. Her radical faithfulness changes not only her life and her mother-in-law’s, it sustains the fabric of the world. It secures the continuation of the line of Abraham to David, and by extension, generations later, the line of David will produce the Messiah, in Jesus. The plan of God for the salvation of the world made possible in part by Ruth and her faithfulness.
And if Ruth and Naomi matter, really matter in the grand scheme of salvation history – then no one can be discounted, no one is so ‘other’ that they are beyond the reach of God’s salvation. No one is inconsequential. Every human being has the capacity to make a difference, to further the kingdom of God, to provide that one important, radical act of faithfulness that changes everything. If not for the world, at least for one other equally important, beloved and consequential human being. And that may be enough to usher in the kingdom of God. God’s own son comes from and through the radically faithful actions of unlikely people, those on the margins, those who are outside, because God’s salvation is of and for the whole world.
A Story: Ken’s grandmother, Peggy, was this tiny little woman, husband of Al, and a mother of three. She was very proper, knew how things were supposed to be done. She always signed her name, Mrs. Albert Ingram, never with her own first name. Her husband, a psychiatrist, was the secretary of health, education and welfare for the state of Delaware. And she was the leader of the local Girl Scout troop. The troop needed a place to swim as they got ready for a swim meet the troop had organized. Peggy called the local YWCA which wasn’t thrilled, so then she called the “black” YWCA and they were happy to help. It was 1958, and Peggy packed up the little white girls in her Girl Scout troop from the best part of town and took them to the black YWCA, without making a big deal out of it. Next thing you know she was quietly integrating both YWCAs. It made such a difference in that community that she was recognized in 1971 for being a leader in the effort to integrate the city of Wilmington. (We only heard this story after she died, when her daughters were going through the scrapbooks and photo albums.)
Women doing unlikely, radically faithful things can change the world, can bring in the kingdom of God.
We see it again in the story of the widow in the temple, whose radical act defies conventional wisdom and common sense. The widow’s mite is not a stewardship sermon – though I know it gets used that way a lot. With apologies to our stewardship team, this is not about giving money to the temple. But about a widow with very little, no standing, no money, nothing to live on, who gives everything. Not all her money, but her whole life. She gives her whole living. For the Gospel writer Mark this is another of the battles between Jesus and the scribes, another example of Jesus turning the world upside down. Another example of the contrast between the expectations and understanding of the world and the kingdom of God. This is what discipleship looks like – giving one’s whole life to God, whole life living, trusting in God. And in this widow’s act Jesus sees the foreshadowing of his own act – his own giving of his whole life, his entire life.
Karoline Lewis, Lutheran Preacher and Seminary Professor, writes:
“She embodies Jesus’ own ministry. She acts out Jesus’ own call. She believes that what she does will manifest itself in something beyond herself. In the end, that is truly discipleship according to Mark, that is truly salvific according to Mark, and it is what Jesus portrays according to Mark. But more so, according to Mark, this is the essence of God. God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life. God has shown that time and time again to God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures and we should expect no different now. This is the essence of God — to give God’s whole self. And here, now, in this unnamed widow, God is doing it again. God calls us to whole life living. That’s what discipleship is all about.”
The kingdom of God begins with whole life living, with being all in, with radical acts of discipleship, radical acts of faithful relationship. Radical acts of faithfulness by rather unlikely people – like us, ushering in the kingdom of God for the whole world.