Ruth Chapter 1:1-18
My friend Emily has a beautiful quilt. Her mother made one for each granddaughter in the family following her grandmother’s death from scraps of fabric collected by her grandmother so that they might remember each other when they are far away. As Emily has traveled from her hometown in the desert of California to college in Nebraska to work with me at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, TN to Seattle where she is working on alleviating hunger, she takes this quilt with her and remembers the presence and love of her family. Emily says that is especially important to her because it reminds her of the women in her family. Its warmth and memories often provides unexpected blessings when the going gets rough.
Likewise, Ruth is a book that provides unexpected blessings. Scrunched in between Judges and First Samuel, this small book, only 100 verses, slips in almost unnoticed. In reading it, we get the story of a small Israelite family living in Moab because there was a famine in Judah, undergoing many hardships until the only people left, the women, head to Judah. Naomi and her daughters in law are extremely vulnerable, as there were not many protections for widows, and women were susceptible to the will and exploitation of men. Her daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, were freed from their duty to Naomi’s family when their husbands died. Because both women are foreigners, from the point of view of the Judean writer, they have no reason to return to Israel. Their heritage is with the Moabites, and since they are not cut from the same cloth of Israel, the chosen people of God, they might as well get themselves home. Sending her two daughters in law away is, in a way, the most hospitable thing Naomi could do, since she knows they have no legal obligation to her, and that she has nothing to give them but a way out. She hopes there is a better life available for them back with their fathers’ families Moab.
I love that the main characters in this book are women, which is rare, only comparable to the book of Esther, in that matter. This story of Ruth pledging to stay with Naomi has always been one of my favorite Biblical passages. There are so few times when the relationships between women, especially women of different generations, are celebrated. And to have this story be part of one of the two books in the Bible named for women is nothing short of incredible. How often do we hear, even today, stories of women protecting each other and loving each other, instead of cutting each other down and shaming each other? Not all that often, if we trust mainstream media sources and teen movies. In the Bible, stories of women are often read (and many are written this way by the patriarchal ancient authors) to pit women against each other: think of the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Mary and Martha.
But when given the chance, Ruth will not leave Naomi, and the Bible says, she “clings to” Naomi. The Hebrew word for this is “dabaq”, the same word used for the love that Adam felt for Eve. Remember that in Genesis 2, God made woman out of the flesh of Adam’s rib to be a “helpmeet” or “companion” for him because “it is not good for man to be alone.” Adam was lonely, the only one of his kind, and God provided for Adam in the form of Eve, a human being like him, and one that could reciprocate his love and match his place in the good Creation. This likeness of language is to be noted in our discussion of Ruth because the story of Ruth and Naomi has been read over time to validate homosexual relationships. This passage, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” is often used in marriage ceremonies, as two people pledge to be family to each other. The book of Ruth also provides a model for intergenerational community and healing, as Naomi returns to her kin emptyhanded and “bitter,” as her name change to “Mara” tells us. She knows her redemption lies not in Moab, but in the land of her birth, among people she has not seen for a long time, but who are family to her. And through it all, Ruth proves her worth, despite her status as a foreign wife, and shows her love for Naomi as she follows her chosen family to the land of Judah. Truly, the story of Ruth and Naomi is dynamic and applicable to many life situations that have to do with unity and family in God’s eyes.
The story of Ruth is so amazing to me because, it should be recognized, she is one of the only women listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the book of Matthew. She shows up as David’s great-grandmother, and Jesus follows from the Davidic line (through his earthly father Joseph). Scholars posit that the author’s purpose in writing this book was to show that taking wives from nations other than Israel is acceptable, that Ruth was a good egg, and the era which disallows inter-tribal marriage is over. Thus, King David himself, one of the best-known leaders in Israel’s history, is a leader from the margins, arising with a back-story that is not purely upstanding, law-abiding Israelite. His great grandmother was a Moabite, part of a kinship group that had a complicated relationship with Israel, sometimes at war, sometimes allied, sometimes in peace—but always Other. And Ruth is not even the only woman in Matthew’s genealogy: Rahab and Tamar, other women praised for their unconventional acts of courage for God’s people. These women have been traditionally seen as outsiders, because of either the way they use their sexuality or their ethnicity. And yet: they courageously rise to the challenge of helping God’s people. Perhaps this suggests that we, too, should look for leadership from the margins, because difference and diversity are integral in the family of David and Jesus. Jesus, who in the stories of his life continues to show us the way to prepare the world for God’s kin-dom of peace rooted in justice, was made possible because of the faithfulness of God in including all people in the vision for salvation, in God’s family.
I love the imagery of my friend Emily’s quilt in relation to the Ruth and Naomi story, in part because I can imagine the two women sitting knitting or sewing together at night, mourning over their losses in Moab, or planning and supporting each other during the first nights back in Judah. I can just see them–sitting close together, embroidering their lives and stories and all they’ve seen into the quilt, including Naomi’s questioning God and Ruth’s conversion and the care shared between generations.
Indeed, when making a quilt, having company helps. This does not need to be a solitary act, but it can involve quilting circles of people who chat and exchange news about loved ones and trials in their lives. Women’s circles have, in fact, always been subversive places where women share the truth about their lives–a truly radical conversation. Women telling the truth about their experiences have changed many lives, as with the women who were instrumental in starting the environmental movement by sharing about the illnesses their children were facing around the Love Canal disasters. Think also of Emmett Till’s mother, who knew the truth of her son’s violent death and that it could send a powerful message to the people of this nation rent by conflict and the evil of racism. Last year in Nashville, during my fellowship in an intentional community of young women doing social justice work, I was part of multiple circles of women who gathered to talk about feminism and how the so-called “fourth wave” can be hospitable and inclusive to women of color and transgender women. Even here at Oberlin College, the circles of women who surrounded me to share stories about abuse, eating disorders, distorted self-image and mental health were instrumental in how I came to feel affirmed by the forces outside academia—they helped me recognize my calling to ministry. These truth-speakers in our lives are like living clouds of witnesses, encircling us and covering us with God’s quilt of love.
Look around you. We are all part of God’s family quilt, with one square for each of us, clipped from a favorite garment, a baby blanket, or a funeral shroud of a loved one. We are all included, no matter what fibers make up our being, what color we were dyed, what type of garment we were clipped from. Instead of being satisfied with a quilt made of one color from basic cotton, made in China, we should look for the vibrancy of all the colors and shapes and sizes and beings in Creation. We should rejoice in the beauty of the finished product of the quilt, but also remember that the process of becoming something beautiful can be long and difficult. In constructing a quilt, the material is ironed and pierced with needles and pulled tight and cut down to size. It is in the dedication and passion for the craft that the quilt becomes whole.
Remember that it is the same for becoming God’s quilt. We need to remember that it’s not easy to practice inclusive love. Even Naomi resisted bringing Ruth with her to Judah, because she knew that crossing the boundaries of ethnicity between Moabite and Israelite society would be difficult. And Ruth, too, knew it would not be easy, but she persisted because she viewed Naomi, a woman from a different homeland, was her chosen family.
In becoming God’s quilt, we too have holes poked through us and through everything we know, challenging ideologies and assumptions. Imagine the talk in Judah when Naomi and Ruth returned: where have they been, who is that foreign woman, what will they do without a man? But Ruth and Naomi show them a different way, show them the meaning of family.
In the process of becoming God’s quilt, we are pulled tight, stretched and challenged and sometimes cut down to size. The process of living into our destiny as part of God’s family is hard, because diversity is hard, because recognizing our privilege is hard, because recognizing our complicity in destructive and oppressive behaviors is hard–because love is hard. But we have each other and in the end we make something bigger and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined, and more than we could ever have been by ourselves. God’s quilt, crafted by brave people who tell the stories of the generations and who practice love daily, is made from diversity and has incomparable beauty. God’s quilt becomes a reminder to notice people on the margins of society, the folks who hang around the edges; when we see them for who they are, outsiders and addicts and emotionally unstable and incarcerated folks–it is then that we can spread the beautiful quilt of God’s family over the shoulders of people experiencing pain and sorrow, and even spread before us as we prepare a table to partake of the Eucharist. When we look for God in the outsider, on the periphery, about to slide out of the edge of our vision, then we are ready to receive unexpected blessings.
(Sermon preached at Peace Community Church in Oberlin, OH on November 8, 2015)