By Sarah Thompson, Albany Mennonite Church
4 June 2017
I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.
It is indeed good to be with you today in Albany. The first time I came this way was to begin a cross-country bicycle trip that focused on the needs of young adults in the Mennonite church and raise money for Mennonite World Conference, an experience that brings Anabaptists together from all tribes and nations and tongues. It was a really good experience.
This time I’m here to learn from indigenous and Native American brothers and sisters and leaders of Canadian First Nations communities who are sharing their perspectives on Biblical themes and challenging those of us who are newer to this land to care for it as they have. Many native people and communities continue to face discrimination and police brutality, but what pained people most this weekend was the lack of most in society remembering that we all belong to each other and that our good relationships with one another are more important than our stuff. Those of us who descend from settlers must never forget that we are guests and immigrants and must strive to learn about and from the host people how to walk in a good way in this place.
So before I continue any further into this sermon I want to acknowledge the traditional elders and caretakers of this land, those that were here before this church was here. Today in Sunday School as part of the study of the Kairos Palestine document we spoke a bit about the Kalipuya and this place they called Takina, Albany. I want to acknowledge those who are still living that represent the unbroken lineage of people creating here with creation in this beautiful region.
May all we do and say today in this space, in this church, be a blessing to this land and indeed be good news.
It’s an intense time to be here, in the wake of the murderous stabbing by a white Christian extremist and last year with the white Christian militia’s hold up at the wildlife spot. As people from this place you may see the situation and say “it’s just a few people making noise!” But, because they’ve been given so much air time, and have received differential treatment than if they were people of color, the message it sends to those of us not from the dominant culture is one of unwelcome and uncertainty. So I stand here extremely grateful for those who intervened; with an encouragement for us to continue to intervene.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures that we have for today really fits with these times and the themes of being a guest, taking care of the land, remembering that we belong to each other, lineage, striving to learn from host peoples in a time of unwelcome and uncertainty.
This story of Ruth is about a Moabite. Moabites lived across the water from most Israelites. They were darker, and their family structure was different, and worshipped in different ways, at a time when new Israelite leaders Ezra and Nehemiah were heavy into a campaign to “make Israel great again.” They were deporting people, especially foreign women, and blaming the failing economy and moral corruption on them. It was a time of grave violence and social struggle. Nehemiah hired Israelites to expand the wall to keep people out, and using the latest media to spread their ideology throughout the land. Advertisement and bulletins encouraged isolation and security alerts would have been on high. Be careful! Don’t trust your neighbor! They said. The dominant narrative was anti-immigrant and particularly hard on Moabites, naming them as enemies and basically terrorists, stereotyping that allowing them to enter would only bring ruin and destruction, and if they were allowed to mix in your family it would degrade your lineage and people would look down on your family.
It is in this context that some alt_BibleScribe on independent media penned the story of Ruth. The story features a character (Naomi) that had gone on a journey, and was now returning home with nothing except a possible terrorist as a friend. This book is what you call a counter-narrative. Counter-narratives mean a story that goes against the main story—something that challenges the main narrative that you hear on TV and Facebook and from ads.
But some peace prophet has the courage to write the story of Ruth; as counter-narrative to the prevailing stories of the time. She is a foreign wife, she is a Moabite. When her husband dies she stays with her mother in law. She pronounces a commitment to the wellbeing of Naomi her mother in law and to God. Naomi takes a chance and opens her heart…given that she had received welcome in Moab herself, when she was in need. But it still took courage for Naomi to bring Ruth with her.
Seeing these two together gets the whole town of Bethlehem talking. Naomi experiences a time of great grief, and Ruth, this Moabite, is there with her through it. They become close and at the time of the barley harvest they figure out how to survive together as a blended family—to get food and recognition. It’ll be tough because they are women and an interracial team, but they use their bodies and sharp minds to connect with powerful people and edge their way back into society. Throughout the story we see them finding ways to get in and partake of the harvest of the high quality of life that Boaz and his people have. Boaz is righteous enough. This means that he is leaving the grains that fall from the workers hands to be gleaned by the poor (as God instructed). He takes mercy on this vulnerable woman Ruth who collects from the edges of his fields…he sees her need as a refugee of a marriage, an economic migrant. Through Boaz’s business negotiations, Ruth is able to stay. Boaz “redeems” her is the word in Hebrew (Go’el). Her impact on Hebrew society is felt through the generations, as she becomes great grandmother to one of the most famous kings of ancient Israel, David.
At first this story might have been considered wacko, but later this counter-narrative of Ruth became yearly reading in Jewish households and synagogues.
We can draw a number of meanings that apply to the moment. We can use the story to look at our relationship with host peoples here, to learn how to be good guests…and to be grateful for the welcome this land and people continue to give and to see how we can glean respectfully from native society and its practices.
Or we can read it as people who are numerous here now and have proximity to dominant power in society and consume mainstream media. We can think about immigrants and our so-called enemies. From this angle the story of Ruth reminds us that society is made up of many peoples who are welcome in the family of God. And it is a story to help us remember that God’s redemptive work is happening in places and through people whom society despises, and covers in stereotypes, and builds walls against, and deports…we can be Boaz and reach across divides. We can be peace prophets and share counter-narratives.
And I yet there is another meaning I want to draw from the reading of Ruth today; that comes from its liturgical context. Why read Ruth now? It’s Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. There doesn’t seem to be something directly connected about the Holy Spirit in here. The answer is liturgical.
The answer is within how we are connected as Christians to Jewish stories and celebrations. When practicing Jews read Ruth each year, it is a time that celebrates first fruits of the land (such as apricots and barley…remember Ruth was picking barley in Boaz’s field so there is a connection there) and God’s first fruit of Torah. The Torah is a harvest of many oral history stories into a written copy that the community can gather around and learn from consistently together. It is a celebration of the gathering in of the people of God—Ruth’s included—and the stories of God. The celebration is called Shavuot.
It was because of the holiday of Shavuot that Pentecost happened the way that it did. Jewish Christians were gathered in Jerusalem with their families and communities for the holiday. It was kind of a big reunion, first time a lot of people had seen each other since Passover. They had been through a lot. They may have been joyful, because of the holiday, and because the Torah was important to them.
But they were also extremely fearful because their new views on Torah and Jewish tradition were not popular at all. They believed that Jesus had fulfilled the laws and had inaugurated a new era, and they believed that Jesus was God’s word in human form. This made them detested by many. And, now more than ever they were easily identified as people associated with that murdered, possibly criminal, leader who had tried to rise up against Roman in the oddest way possible.
The core group of scattered disciples traveling back to Jerusalem would have also seen people who had been a part of the fledgling community when Jesus was alive, but who returned to their traditional practices and jobs and families now that he was gone. Everyone was traumatized, and Rome’s pressure continued to beat down on the Jewish community like the hot desert sun. What to do? Members of the little Jesus group crammed into the place where they had last been with him, in the upper room. Jesus had said that he would not leave them alone and would send an Advocate, but none had shown up yet. Was there enough momentum to keep the movement going? What did this all mean?
They prayed together. Prayed like their lives depended on it. They prayed and yearned for the renewal Jesus was calling for. They shared stories about values believing in Jesus called them to. It was as they shared that the Holy Spirit came on to them and gave them the ability to communicate their precious message with everyone that would listen!
Tongues of fire!
Speaking in tongues! The people who heard asked themselves: “are not all those speaking Galileans? How is that we each hear them in our own language?” What does this mean?
The disciples had gathered in the context of the celebration of the writing/giving of the Torah. This was a celebration of the way in which the broad, oral narratives of the stories of God, liberation, the formation of the Jewish people, and their community guidelines, were gathered in, written down, formalized, set in a certain language, etc. (Hand motions broad to narrow) That’s a really important process for any community that wants to continue, to go through…that type of Shavuot celebration.
(Maintain hands in narrow position, after speaking these words move it out and down and broad) But what happened on Pentecost showed that this codification did not have the last word. The Holy Spirit moved through that place where the disciples and friends were gathered and busted through the written words, carrying the message into oral story once again. And this time, not in one language, but many!
From that moment on, it became impossible to keep Christianity in one language or culture. It leapt off the page and became oral once again. It’s return to oral moved to connect with people in their mother tongue—Arabic, Lybian…Parthians, Medes, and Elamites understood it—not only the official liturgical language was communicating holiness, but the language of their hearts and their daily lives was telling the story of God’s redemption (Go’el) throughout history and inviting them to respond to it in the present moment. They stood in confidence that though their experience was a current counter-narrative, that it too may one day have validity and power and be a message of inclusion and friendship and transformation of enemies into friends.
Pentecost does not replace Shavuot. This is not replacement theology. Rather, replacing our theologies in connected religious movements, and re-placing them into the place where we live and worship today. I am not connecting our story with Judaism for the purposes of Zionism and the white-supremacist state politics of US and Israel. Rather I am connecting our stories because of our shared roots…our shared experiences as Earth-based religious practices that pay attention to the seasons and that celebrate the dynamic motion of God in the world as Breath of Life (Hand motions that show the movement from broadness to narrowness to broadness to narrowness to broad) that is in all things.
Thinking about our traditions in dynamic motion rather than part of a “forward march of progress” can lead us to our shared human experience of vulnerability on this planet and toward authentic interaction (as modeled in the Ruth story). We need each other for survival, and we have to figure out how to live on this planet with people of different and similar truth claims. For us here in Oregon, it can lead to a reconnection with those who are first people’s here to find strength to step up to the dangers of this time. (Pause)
Those who heard the disciples asked, what does this mean? Well, what does it mean to you today? For your work? For your church? These are questions that Shavuot and Pentecost help us to ponder.
The process of tightening and codifying and loosening and listening is a dynamic process that all healthy communities live. When you tighten and codify it is a moment to ask questions such as “where are we in our journey as a community? who are we now? How do we record and share this coherently? How can we make what we value formal enough that others who are interested in us can know how to join?”
When you loosen and listen, the questions are different. “what must adapt at this moment? What new message are we hearing? How can we open to places of discomfort?” What counter-narratives can we welcome in? What does this mean?
So this dynamic process is key, and it is the gift of the story of Ruth, the celebration of Shavuot, and the experience of Pentecost. A few more thoughts…
Ruth put herself in a vulnerable position, to come out of her usual community and become involved in another one. What does this mean for you? It may mean making friends from other racial or class backgrounds. And not just to eat one another’s food—but to talk together about what kind of future we want, how we can support each other’s quality of life. How we can stand up for each other when we are being harassed, like we saw this week in Portland? How we can challenge the stereotypes or stories, and change institutions that produce inequality and hatred?
When Jesus cites his lineage, Ruth is there. A thread in our religious history is one of making a choice toward inclusivity, whenever there is a doubt. This willingness to be inclusive will change us. You have been changed by all the people who have come into your life, into this church. And you are strong. I see that you are strong because you are seeking to stay together as a community at a time of increasing border patrol, policing, terror alerts, white supremacist violence…at a time when everyone is saying “be careful! Don’t trust your neighbor! Keep going, this is a testimony to the world. May you know that the work you do here has impact worldwide, and delights God’s heart.
We will soon come to the communion table today. As you approach, hold the question “what does this mean?” We partake in the bread which has been harvested by a lineage of people who spun counter-narratives against the mainstream media. Early believers called Jesus the first of God’s harvest of redeemed (Go’el) ones. We are partaking in that narrative and the symbols of his body and life-force. What does this mean? What is the message the Holy Spirit is giving you today to speak in your life? Amen.