Dena Douglas Hobbs is doing a month’s worth of mothering posts on her blog, Centering Down: a sort of celebration of all of the different ways we mother, and all that we learn along the way, about ourselves, our children, our world. My contribution to the series is up today – I hope you’ll go see it (here), and read the other wonderful pieces she’s posted, too!
Have you ever been afraid, and amazed? At the same time?
Those are the emotions of the resurrection. Mark is our earliest gospel and most scholars will say our most honest, our most bare, our least re-touched account of these events. The women here do not look faithful; they do not “go and tell” their news – they aren’t even quite sure what it is, or that it’s good. They are amazed, and they are afraid. And of course they are. What else could they be?
A seminary professor of mine, Don Juel, was fascinated by the end of Mark – and so frustrated by our tendency to try to make it all ok. By our desperately saying, “Eventually the women must have told the story – how else would we have it today?”
He said the move Mark always makes is to set the divine free. Earlier in this gospel, the curtain in the temple rips – the holy of holies that it protected, the most sacred place of all, where God was thought to dwell – the curtain around it rips. My classmates said, “It’s to let people in. So now people can approach God. Now there’s no barrier.” My professor said, “Oh, no. It’s not to let people in. It’s to let God out.”
And here, the stone is rolled away. The women come and it’s gone and they are terrified and say nothing to anyone. But here’s what else this means – Jesus is out. Maybe the followers find their voices; maybe they don’t. This doesn’t depend on them. People even more afraid than these women tried to contain the love that Jesus gave away to the least likely among them; they tried to silence the challenge he posed to the powerful; they tried to suppress the stories he told about a reign of God that directly contradicted the rule of their day. But the stone is gone, and that love and that challenge and those stories – they’re all out again.
That’s the story we step into now. Even afraid and amazed, we take our places around the table, and know that the end of Mark’s story – unfinished as it is – is the beginning of ours.
In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus is speaking to the disciples, and maybe a bit more of a crowd, too, and he tells them, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”
My children like to spread out. You may have noticed, if you’ve ever sat near them in an alcove here at Saint Andrew, that though they are small, they can unfold their little bodies, stretch their limbs in every possible direction, and generally make their presence known. Maybe they’ve leaned on you in the process of seeing just how expansive their frames can be. I don’t usually worry about that here, because this place is filled with kind and generous and patient people.
But we were in a restaurant lobby recently, and when we arrived we were the only ones waiting, so my seven-year-old found an empty bench and laid down on it. More people came through the door, they were given longer waiting times and buzzers, and they looked around for seats.
I asked my son to sit up. He groaned, but he obliged – partly: he leaned his back against mine, but kept his legs sprawled out on the bench. People began to fill in the seats near us, some people glanced at him. I asked him to put his legs down, and he did – and then he flopped over, laying his head on what could’ve been some other guest’s seat. I was so frustrated – and so, you know, fearful of being judged – that finally I hissed at him, “Could you please just not take up so much space?”
And as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Because that’s the question I’ve heard in my own head so many times – my parents didn’t ask it of me, but I think so many people hear those words anyway, maybe not out loud, maybe especially girls, maybe especially when they’re young, or maybe especially everyone who has ever felt like their body or their hopes or their quirks or their fears or their passions or their ideas don’t quite conform. They try to make themselves smaller, less visible, less obtrusive, because there is always the echo of that question: “Is there any possible way you could just not take up so much space?”
Of course, there’s something to be said for giving space to others, for giving seats to the older people, balancing gingerly with the help of a cane in the restaurant lobby. And so I hugged Oscar close to me and I prayed that was all he heard me saying.
A few years back, a community theatre did a production of Godspell, that seventies Broadway musical based on the Gospel of Matthew. When the actors began the song whose lyrics are our verses for today – they poured off the stage and down into the audience, spreading their energy through the crowd, picking specific people to sing to.
A grinning cast member approached the woman who had the aisle seat in a row near the back – an older woman who’d come to the show by herself. The cast member took her hands in his, and sang to her, proudly, almost, like he’d written this line of the song, just for her, he sang, “You are the light of the world.” And he squeezed her hands, and he danced away. The woman lowered her hands back to her lap and stared at them for a minute. Then she turned to the man seated next to her, a stranger, and she told him, “Nobody’s ever called me that before.”
And this is not what the man seated next to her said in response, but it is one possible answer; he could have said: Of course they haven’t. No one has ever called you that before because scholars are scared of these verses, and they have effectively waged a campaign to complicate what appears to be some of the most straightforward language we ever get from our holy stories. They want to make Jesus’ words about Jesus, not about us…even though what he says is, “hey, you!” And in the original language, the “you” is emphatic.
But there are scholars who are equally emphatic that “Jesus is the only one who really shines in the Gospel of Matthew” – they’re writing about the transfiguration, that story where the disciples are standing away from Jesus, and they see him sort-of glowing, and hear a voice telling them to pay attention – “Jesus is the only one who really shines in the Gospel of Matthew, but through obeying his teachings, his followers can reflect that light from him.”
And another says, in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that he is the light of the world, so here in Matthew he’s extending that metaphor to include the listening crowd.
But no, he’s not. Jesus does not take an idea he had in John about himself and pass it on to the crowd in Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew is written down probably twenty years before the Gospel of John. And the writer of John is notorious for taking words the community spoke about Jesus and putting them in Jesus’ mouth instead, to give them authority. Which is to say “you are the light of the world” came maybe decades before “I am the light of the world.” And it’s likely that Jesus never said the latter. He didn’t much like to talk about himself.
So, why the work? Why the intense effort on the part of interpreters to make these verses say something they’re not?
Maybe because we have confused promise with pride, identity with egoism, celebration with conceit. We have been taught that it’s not polite to brag, that touchdown dances ought to be modest, that we should apologize before we offer an idea (“this probably won’t work…), that we should shrug it off when we receive a compliment (“this old thing?”).
And so we think that to believe that we are the light of the world – to live it – is to be in danger of taking up an awful lot of space. We think it sounds like talking about how great we are. The only one worthy of that sort of allowance would be Jesus.
But say you’re there. Say you’re on that hill long ago, that you’ve come out to hear this itinerant rabbi speak. Jesus isn’t that cast member from Godpsell. He doesn’t come to one old lady and take her hands and tell her that she is the light of the world. He could, and it would be true. But he says it to everyone gathered. Everyone. He does not know what they believe or how they behave and it’s almost as if he doesn’t care – he doesn’t need that to name them in this way.
He’ll go on, in this sermon, to give more instruction. These verses are the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s filled with imperatives: Be reconciled to each other, give your gifts in secret, pray this way, turn your cheek, do not worry, do not judge, do unto others as you would have them do to you. But before all of these, the very first imperative, the instruction from Jesus that precedes all the others is: Shine.
You are the light of the world. Shine.
The German poet Rilke writes that this has been the message since we first were human. In his telling of the creation story:
God speaks to each of us as God makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
And these are the words we dimly hear:
You – sent out beyond your recall –
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame,
And make big shadows I can move in.
Jesus is not telling people here who they are. He’s reminding them: You are the light of the world. That truth is at the core of our identity – light is the first word that God speaks into being at the creation and in the Psalms, it is the image of God’s own self. For these people, light is already part of their self-understanding and their theology. Jesus isn’t telling them who they are, he’s telling them what to do: let it shine.
And we need this imperative because in us, too, right alongside the light, lives the fear that threatens every day to snuff it out.
And light can be indiscriminate, which is why to shine is not to brag. It is much more vulnerable than that. We may have made peace with the idea that tragedy and triumph have equally brought us to this day and shaped who we are but still, for the life of me, if the light that I possess could only fall on the triumphs, please, that’d be preferable… As if there’s some way to separate them from the tragedy. Some way to only put forward our wholeness, while our brokenness hides in some dark place, unexposed.
But that can’t be what it means to shine – that can’t be what Jesus invites us to, because we are not light for ourselves. We are not called to bask in our own glow. The call here – the identity – is in us and it is removed from us. It is for the world. And the world, my corner of it, is not helped, it does not heal, by hearing only my success stories.
I’m a student; I’m working on my dissertation. And I say that like it’s an ongoing kind of activity, which is a lie. It is a fits-and-spurts, stops-and-starts kind of activity. It goes like this: I read a lot. I get an idea. I’m pretty scared of it because I think it’s great but what if it’s a really dumb idea, or what if it’s already been disproven, or what if somebody else had this idea twenty years ago and I tell it like it’s mine and only expose myself for not having read their work, which of course I should have already done?
So I work myself through all those scenarios and then I go to my advisor and I say: “I have this idea.” And he says to me: “This is a great idea. Get to work.” And I go home and sit down and work and work and work and pretty soon I think: who am I to be writing this? Where did this authority that I’m speaking with come from? I am a fraud, and if I ever find any place willing to publish this it will only be to expose me for the fraud that I am. I should stop now.
And then I do, and I wallow for a while, and then I drag myself back into my advisor’s office and I say: “I had this idea…” And he says: “It was a great idea. Get back to work.” And I go home again, and sit down again… And finally, after this cycle had played itself out too many times, I could barely meet my advisor’s eyes but I sat across from him and I said to him: “Here’s what happens. Here’s what happens when I come in to tell you my idea and you tell me it’s a great idea. Here’s what’s going to happen over the next six weeks…” And he listened to me, kindly.
And then, after I admitted all of this terrible, ongoing cycle, he did not tell me all over again that my ideas were good ones and that I should get back to work. Instead, this time, he said, “Yeah, me too.”
He said, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t fear I’ll be exposed for a fraud. There is not a lecture that I give or an article that I write that I feel like I have any authority to do so. He said, I wish I could tell you that it goes away. That you’ll graduate and feel like you’ve earned it and be released from this anxiety. But everyone I know struggles with it every time they try to say or write or teach something that matters to them. It never, ever goes away.”
And somehow that confession – somehow the light falling there, not on my advisor’s publications or awards or tenure, but on his fear – the illumination of that convinced me that I could keep moving through it, too.
The writer and teacher and activist Parker Palmer says it’s no surprise that all the world’s wisdom traditions speak of fear: he says all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And despite the diversity among the traditions, they all issue their followers this high calling: “Be not afraid.”
Palmer says that as someone who is no stranger to fear, he’s had to read these words with care to make sure he doesn’t twist them into a “discouraging counsel of perfection.” But be not afraid does not mean that we cannot have fear, he says. It means that we need not be the fear that we have.
What would it mean, to admit that we can both have fear and be light? That we can both take up space with our lives and create it for someone else? What would our lives look like if we let shine our true selves, not only what we were proud of but those moments that connected us to one another, in our weakness, in our sorrow, in our insecurity?
What if the good works that Jesus speaks of – the ones that others will see, and know God through, and praise God for – what if that goodness was nothing more than the way we embrace one another through our fears, the way we say, “yeah, me too,” and in so doing, light someone else’s path a little farther?
If we really want to live out the light that we are, it is probably not possible to control exactly where those beams will land, or what they will make visible. Probably some of our tragedies, and some of our triumphs, all at once. But what might your lit-up life make possible for someone else? God only knows.
One of the hardest things for me to do is talk with my kids about violence – honestly, but without scaring them; hopefully, but without glossing over difficult truths; justly, but remembering that they’re young and tender. My reflection at the Practicing Families blog today (here) tells some of that story.
On this mountain, the Lord All-Powerful
will prepare for all nations
a feast of the finest foods.
Choice wines and the best meats will be served.
Here the Lord will strip away
the burial clothes that cover the nations.
The Lord will destroy the power of death
and wipe away all tears…
At that time, people will say,
“The Lord has saved us! Let’s celebrate.
We waited and hoped—now our God is here.”
The powerful arm of the Lord will protect this mountain.
The Moabites will be put down
and trampled on like straw in a pit of manure.
They will struggle to get out, but God will humiliate them
no matter how hard they try.
The walls of their fortresses will be knocked down
and scattered in the dirt.
Maybe on your drive West across this state, you’ve seen signs for the Garden of Eden. If you detour less than twenty miles, just north of I-70 to a town called Lucas, you will come across this cement-sculpted paradise, what’s been called the most unique home for the living or the dead, on earth.
The giant trees, the creatures captured in mid-crawl or -swim or -flight, the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the all-seeing eye that peers down from the highest point on the property – it all took twenty-eight years to construct. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor began the project when he was 64 years old. He’d been a teacher, and a politician. He’d been raised in a deeply religious home, and those stories, that frame, that was how he knew to make sense of the world. And then he’d served as a nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War. And after that, like so many soldiers from so many wars, he didn’t really know, anymore, how to make sense of the world.
So he began this project of concrete, and wire, and native Kansas stone, and vision. He bought a lot in the middle of his small town and even when his neighbors tried to run him out he persisted, adding on to his creation until he became blind. On the west side of the property, he built the Garden of Eden, and on the north, he constructed his understanding of modern civilization. He said if anything is wrong about the north, he’s to blame. But if anything about the garden is wrong, visitors should blame Moses. “He wrote it all out,” Dinsmoor said. “I just built it.”
What does your Eden look like? How would you bring that scene to life, or fix it in stone? If you were to imagine a world without a hint of destruction, a reality in which God might say about every corner, every detail, “it is good,” and “it is very good” – what would that be?
I think it’s worth noting that our ancestors – their prophets, even, the poets, the ones charged with visioning a new way – they couldn’t do it. Our passage for today, that really is a grand, sweeping story of the fullness of redemption, some future day when sadness and sorrow and death will be no more – it’s a movement of beauty and rejoicing for all the world that comes to this screeching halt when they stop to remember, ‘Oh yeah – we hate our neighbors. So they can’t be invited. Let’s edit that original vision: all the world, except for Moab. Because, sure, we all trace our roots to Abraham. And yeah, their language is related to ours, and they have a patriarchal clan-deity, just like we do. But we hate them.’
‘Yes, of course we remember that it was in Moab that Moses climbed the mountain to show his people – our ancestors – the land of promise, the place they would call home. And we know that he died and is buried somewhere in Moab. Even still – even with that shared essential story – we cannot, today, imagine a day when we will not hate them.’
And if that’s the best the prophet can do, the people are in trouble.
Who are the exceptions to your Eden? Who can you not imagine sitting next to at a feast like that?
Some of you read the devotional I wrote a few weeks ago, about my neighbor. He’s alone in his house now, after his wife and their kid moved a few states away. They moved because he’s an addict, and she, and the kid, grew scared when he got a hold of substances, and when they got a hold of him. The person he became was not one they could share a home with safely. They came to tell us, my boys said goodbye to their good friend, and now only he remains, alone, in that house so close to us.
And I am torn between being angry at him for running off my boys’ playmate, and being a good neighbor to him, because surely he needs one. I’ve been trying to figure out how to invite him over for dinner. It seems like that should be simple enough but it’s taken on these monumental proportions in my mind. I haven’t summoned the courage yet.
And then this week things started to change at that house. By which I mean, a lot of traffic started coming by. Every afternoon, the driveway had a new rotation of cars in it. People would pull in, go around to the back of the house, come back usually just a few minutes later, and drive away. Some stayed longer. In my mind, they looked kind of nervous when they first arrived, kind of relieved, or more relaxed, as they were heading back out. And I imagined….
And one afternoon, a mom pulls up. She’s got a kid in her car. I know this because I’m at my mailbox, and I see her get out of her car, totally frazzled, and open the door to the backseat, but walk away without her kid. He’s still strapped there in the carseat. He starts kicking and screaming. I’m torn, because I don’t want her to leave her kid, and yet, I’m not sure I want him to witness whatever it is she’s sneaking around to the back of my neighbor’s house for, either. …
But she hears, and comes back for him, and as she’s unbuckling him she looks over and sees me. She says, “Oh, hi! What do you think of what your neighborhood has become?” And I thought, “Is she really asking me this?” And then she said, “It’s so nice of him to offer this… I mean, we didn’t really know where to go… Before, we’ve had to go so far…” And I must have looked confused, or, more likely disapproving, when I said, “Oh – I didn’t know he was – offering – uh….”
And she said, “Oh, do you not know? The monarchs are here! They’re right here!” And she told me that, for some reason, those majestic butterflies on their migration had chosen my neighbor’s tree to gather in. And he had been talking about it around town. So every afternoon, photographers and butterfly enthusiasts were coming over, to witness this beauty. And he was leaving his fence gate wide open, so people could come right in.
And in my wildest imaginings, I would not have come up with that.
But why not? Isaiah 25 is wild imagining, too. It is situated in a series of prophecies, of verses called the “little apocalypse.” That title means it is full of dreaming, full of the fantastic. And even still, it is limited by what the people think they know; their imaginations are captive to the worst of their suspicions, the hatreds they inherit, the prejudices they don’t even hear weaving their way in, poisoning the feast they propose.
What they said was, “We imagine a world where all people come together to celebrate who God is and what God has done – all people, that is, except this neighboring tribe we have a complicated history with. We’ll just assume that in the end, we’re right, and they’re forever punished.”
And what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people live together in a secure and sustainable peace – all people that is, except the ones we’ll have to kill to achieve that peace. Because while their violence is abhorrent and untenable, ours is qualitatively different – it is necessary, and honorable.”
Hear that difference? Oh, wait – you don’t, do you?
Try this: what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people have access to the same freedoms, rights, benefits, and justice – all people, that is, except the ones for whom securing those rights would mean rethinking some of our own privilege, of course.”
Now do you hear it? Still no, huh?
Isaiah is our prophet, and we don’t do any better than him. We can imagine an idyllic beginning. Maybe not think that’s where we come from, exactly, but in our mythology, in our dreaming, we can get back to an Eden in which there was no violence, no harm, no disease – just life abundant, shared and celebrated. But we cannot get to there from here in our present-day. We have fallen prey to the criticism that says that kind of vision is nothing more than naivete, that kind of imagining could never take root in the real world. We have let cynicism about what is curb our dreaming about what might be, and in so doing we have limited ourselves and our world and our God.
Just a few years ago, a team of five moved to Lucas temporarily, and they lived in two small houses across the street from the concrete Garden of Eden. They came because some roots had started to push through the stone, some of the sculptures had seen better days. They came because the Garden of Eden is famous – because even though their permanent homes were scattered as far away as Minnesota and California, they knew who Dinsmoor was. They knew he spent two and a half decades shaping stone into a representation of humanity – naked and unashamed. Blessed and good. On the west, an original vision and on the north, a current reality.
Maybe they each knew something of his struggle – maybe each of them had tried, also, to understand the current reality through the original vision. Maybe the reason volunteers were willing to spend their time shaping a new set of antlers or ears for the deer in the garden is because they were hoping to hear something new, also, from setting these two scenes side by side.
Because – forgive me for how obvious this is, but – Dinsmoor did not invent the Garden of Eden. He just saw a world so distorted from that original story that he tried to build what it might have once been like. In the war, he saw such horror that the only response that made sense to him was to offer his imagination and energy to the crafting of an age-old vision where life was abundant.
And maybe this is our role, too. It’s not that our prophets from long-ago failed us – it’s that they only got us most of the way there. We don’t need a brand-new vision because really, you can’t get much better than an enormous feast with wine freely flowing and food enough to satisfy all who hunger and the whole crowd joined in celebration of a world in which death has had its last day.
We don’t need to start over. We just need to start cooking. We just need to set the table. And we need to head on over to wherever or whoever our own Moabs are, to hand-deliver a sincere invitation to join the feast.
Or, if you’d rather, here’s the audio.
A long time ago, when judges still ruled over Israel and the land was dried up with famine, a man from Bethlehem, which ironically means “place of bread,” left his home to live as a foreigner in the land of Moab. He traveled with his wife and their two sons. His name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi; their two sons were called Mahlon and Chilion. They had settled and made lives for themselves in Moab, but soon after, Elimelech died leaving Naomi in the care of her sons. Each son married a woman from Moab—one was named Orpah, the other Ruth—and they lived together for 10 years before Mahlon and Chilion died also. Naomi was left alone, without her husband and two sons.
Word had reached Moab that the Eternal One had once again brought life back to the land of Israel and blessed people with food. Naomi prepared to return with her daughters-in-law. With Orpah and Ruth at her side, she began her journey back to Judah, leaving the place where she had lived.
Then she said, to her daughters-in-law: “You have accompanied me far enough; you must both return to Moab. Go home to your mothers’ care and your people. May the Eternal show loyal love to you just as you demonstrated it to my dead sons and me. I hope God will bring you new husbands and that you will find the rest you deserve in their homes.”
She drew close, kissed them, and turned to go on her way, alone. But Orpah and Ruth wailed and sobbed, crying out to her.
They said, “Do not leave us! We insist you take us with you to live with you and your people.”
But Naomi said, “Go back to your homes, my daughters. What possible reason would you have for returning with me? Do you think there are more sons inside of me? Will you marry these unborn sons? Listen to me, daughters, and go back. I am too old; I will not marry again because I cannot conceive. But even if I could—if I still believed there was hope for me, or if I had a husband and conceived sons tonight— would you waste a lifetime waiting for them to grow up? Would you let this hope for the future keep you from remarrying now? Of course not, my dear daughters. It is obvious that the Eternal has acted against me. My life is much too bitter for you to share with me.”
At this Orpah and Ruth wailed and wept again. Then Orpah kissed Naomi, said goodbye, and returned the way she had come. Yet Ruth refused to let go of Naomi.
And Naomi said to Ruth: “Look at your sister-in-law. She has returned to live with her people and to worship her gods; go and follow her.”
And 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 will be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die I will die, there will I be buried.
May the Lord punish me, punish me and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”
When Naomi heard this and saw Ruth’s resolve, she stopped trying to talk her out of returning. The two women went on together to Bethlehem.
If we’re not careful, there’s a hint of unhealthy teenage melodrama in that declaration, right, that famous vow Ruth speaks? Think back to your first real crush. Wasn’t there some part of you that said some variation of those promises? “Where you go, I will go. Your friends will be my friends, and your music will be my music, and your favorite pizza topping, that’s…exactly what I was…going to order anyway sojustgoahead.”
These verses – Ruth’s intense speech here – they’re often read as the height of romantic confession. But that’s not what’s happening here at all. The story begins with romantic couplings – women are bound together by their connections to the same men – but in just a few short verses the romance is literally dead. This is a promise Ruth makes to her mother-in-law.
Where you go, I will go. Your people, my people. Your God, my God.
In the time and place of this scripture, there is no such thing as religious conversion. People did not study the sacred words of various traditions and choose one that resonated with their own personal philosophy; they did not grow disillusioned with the religion of their ancestors and set out on their own quest to find a doctrine or a practice that struck them as more inspired. Religion and ethnicity are so deeply tied together in Ruth and Naomi’s world that there is no separation of one from the other. Ruth’s identity as a Moabite also pegs her as a pagan; just like Naomi’s Jewish blood reveals who she will worship. So when Ruth promises to come alongside Naomi, the words she speaks mean even more than we might initially hear in them.
The midrash – that is, the stories the rabbis developed, over the centuries about the Biblical texts – the midrash suggests that Ruth’s famous speech here isn’t a monologue, but half of a conversation. They say as the women walked, Naomi told Ruth what would be expected of her.
The rabbis say, here’s what’s missing:
The mother-in-law said, “You understand, it is not the way of Israel to go to theaters or to spectacles, but only to synagogues and study halls. Nor is it our way to go a great distance on the Sabbath.”
And in response, Ruth said, “Where you go, I will go.”
And as they walked on toward Bethlehem, Naomi told her, “We have rules, you know – a man cannot be alone with a woman, and especially with a married woman. That’s a really important one to my people.”
And Ruth promised, “Your people will be my people.”
And finally, Naomi told her the commandment — one she would have known, we would think, from being married for ten years to a Jewish man — but Naomi told her anyway, “Idolatry is forbidden to us.”
And Ruth said, “Your God will be my God.”
It really is an extraordinary declaration.
Phyllis Trible, a Hebrew Bible scholar, says this story is passed on to us because in it, “One woman has chosen another woman in a world whose life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.”
It’s a decision to stay with loss. A decision to move forward into a future that seems only tied to the past. Naomi can’t understand why Ruth would go with her; it’s not even clear that she wants the company.
If we read the text together with the midrash, we see that Ruth has all the trappings of privilege. She’s young. There seems no doubt that she could marry again. She comes from a land of plenty; she may even come from its most powerful family – the midrash suggests that she’s the daughter of a king in Moab. To go with Naomi, Ruth must give up a future shaped by all of that good fortune. And she does.
Ruth chooses the uncertainty of entering a foreign land, over the security of going home. She chooses vulnerability over strength, because she chooses relationship. She chooses not to let go of Naomi, but to walk with her – and to do that, she has to say, “I will not be who I have been.”
All around her, people notice Ruth’s difference – the book of Ruth is only four chapters long and she’s called a Moabite eight times – which is to say, she does not totally shed her original identity. She can’t. She is recognizably not the same as the people in the context she’s chosen to enter. But she does – to the extent that she can – she does shed the privileges that accompany her identity. She chooses to let go of those so that she might really be on a journey with this woman whose life and struggle and sadness is bound up with her own. She could let it go – that’s what privilege is. That’s what it allows. But she chooses not to.
And now, in the wake of Ferguson – which is to say, in the wake of yet another loss that highlights how deep the legacy of racism runs in this country and how far we have to go to reach anything approximating a just society – in the aftermath of that reality, this might be just the choice we’re asked to make, too.
Not to shed our identities. We are who we are; we come from where we do. That’s not the same story for all of us, but many of us occupy places of privilege. The choice we’re being asked to make, now, is how far we will carry that. How tightly we’ll cling to it. Whether or not we can summon the courage of Ruth, to just walk alongside those who suffer. And not turn back. Naomi is not only mourning – she is bitter. She is angry. She believes that God has been unfair to her. She tells Ruth to go away. And Ruth does not argue and she does not give answers and she does not defend God. Ruth says, “Your world will be my world.”
What we have seen so much of these past few weeks is the reality that people can live in the same city and occupy different worlds. Different, and unequal. And we have for so long denied the difference, or we have ignored it, because to acknowledge it would mean to make ourselves vulnerable, and to give up privilege, and we are scared of what that might mean. At least, I am.
A man who did antiracist organizing for two decades describes stepping out onto his porch one morning, holding his small child in his arms, and seeing five young African-American men. He didn’t recognize them. And he was afraid. And as soon as he registered that feeling of fear, he was ashamed. He says, “It’s not something people committed to anti-racist work like to admit feeling.”
It’s not something any one of us would want to say out loud. But he admits the fear, he goes on to say, “because this isn’t a time for false pretenses to protect our egos. This is a time for white people to recognize that our irrational fears of Blackness are the result of the logics of white supremacy… When I experience these irrational fears, I remind myself that this is the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow apartheid, of anti-Black racism used to justify economic exploitation and social violence, that these fears are one of the ways that white supremacy lives in my body and subconsciously works to organize my life by dividing me from Black people, supporting their subjugation, actively or through indifference, and uniting me to ruling class agendas of concentrating wealth and power through structural violence and inequality.”
What would it even mean to step away from that? What privilege might we lose if we just acknowledged it, and we decided it’s not worth the cost it comes with: broken individual bodies, and a broken community, and a broken body of Christ?
Because there are other legacies that run through us, as people of faith – other impulses in our bodies – that run counter to the fear we’ve been fed. Living in us also are the words of the prophets, ready to spill off our tongues, calling out injustice and reminding the world that it was created beautiful. And living in us also is the story of reconciliation – the central story of our tradition – that acknowledges deep division but says that just the act of being together can be redemptive. It’s true that dangerous ideologies can run deep in us, even ones we would deny, or spend our lives working against. But it is also true that we are made of more than that.
Imagine a mother, who has lost a son – to famine, or to fighting, or to God-knows-what – and she is walking back to her community. Or maybe to a vigil. Or a protest. And you try to accompany her. And she tells you to go home.
Maybe you say, “Where you go, I will go.”
And she says, “You understand, where I am going, a mother loses her black son to police or vigilante violence every 28 hours. Where I am going, I go to console other mothers, who worry every time our boys step outside the house.”
She says, “Because where I am going – anything – a wallet, a cell phone, even a colostomy bag – can be mistaken for a weapon, and get a man beaten or worse. Where I am going, an unarmed teenager can be shot and killed, and end up looking like the criminal instead of the victim.”
Maybe you can’t quite say back to that, “Your people will be my people.” Something about that sounds disingenuous. Maybe you can’t say anything at all.
And maybe that’s fine.
Because maybe this is where people of privilege listen, and learn, and lift up other voices. Maybe this is where we confess, and pray, and light candles; where we bring bread, and break it, and share it.
Then the privileges we’ve lost are those of ignorance and indifference. And, let’s be honest, those are necessary losses if we hope for a future.
What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this, all of it from about twenty years ago. I have more than redeemed those early disasters.
Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always be … a terrible cook. There’s no getting out of that identity for me. The story makes it stick.
There are stories we tell in the church that do much worse damage than this.
There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Some of us, every week. Scripture readings change and music changes and our own lives change but regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in a worship service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed.
Body broken; blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not. Whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not.
Maybe he didn’t. Mark gives us just a few words about the betrayal – it’s a story interrupted, even, by another, a story about anointing…
We ritually tell the betrayal story. Some youth I work with were preparing to serve one another communion and trying to remember the words of institution, and it was so telling: of this ritual they participate in every week, all they knew for sure was that it began, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”
But the other story is gorgeous, filled with luxurious detail: Jesus is reclining; he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she lovingly pours this expensive perfume on his head.
The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached, this is the story to tell: her courageous generosity. Wherever the good news goes, he says, say also that there was this woman, who offered what she had, who did what she could, and it was beautiful.
But we don’t tell the story that way. We tell it like whatever else there was – whatever beauty, whatever faithfulness – whatever other details help fill it out, the center of the story is betrayal, and brokenness, and blood. That’s what churches tell, ritually, when we gather for communion.
We took a rebuke from the apostle Paul, and made it liturgy. When he offers the language we still use as sacred, he’s telling the church at Corinth they’re doing this ritual wrong – they bring private meals, and at the end of what should be communion, one person goes home hungry and another leaves drunk. He’s chastising them for this when he says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” I’ve tried to imagine how that language might have come about. I wonder if there’s some conversation the disciples have about the meal. They’re mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe one says, “How does this go?” And another answers, “Well, there was bread, wine. Like always.”
And another asks, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What’d he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was … that night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” Others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”
I can imagine that happening. But the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. Broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal.
Ephrem would say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”
How did we lose that? Why do we use Paul’s context of betrayal every week? What if we came to communion and said, “When a hungry crowd followed Jesus, he told them, ‘I am the bread of life. Come to me – never hunger; believe in me – never thirst.”
Or we said, “When people gathered around Jesus, to hear him teach, he promised, ‘Blessed are you who are hungry; you’ll be satisfied.’”
Ritual language matters because rituals are acts of re-creation. What is it we speak into being when we share story and bread and wine?
There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Thirty-one times since the year 2000, we’ve told a new story about mass murder. They’re each unique – a movie theatre, a workplace, an elementary school, a temple – but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly.
We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We try to understand, and explain. We collectively deny that these stories shape who we are. We buy more weapons. And we defend them more fiercely. We argue whether violence will save us from violence.
And I wonder how much all of that is connected to our practice of ritually telling a story of redemptive violence. I wonder if repeating a story of betrayal and horror – even one that ends in awe – might breathe more of that into the world.
As it is, there’s a terrible disconnect between the abundant life we preach and the violent liturgy of our sacred moments. It’s as if because the table ritual is ancient, we can’t touch it. Banners, hymns, prayers can reflect liturgical seasons, or congregational concerns, or world news, but we can’t imagine another way to share bread and wine.
But this story, of betrayal and blood, is not really what connects us to Christians across all time and space. … We know now earlier Christians used life-giving images, spoke of sacred identity – Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord…”
Early Christians did not deny the realities of violence and suffering and sin, but they did tell more than just one story.
And if we did, too – if we loosened the hold the story of betrayal has, and began to ritualize stories about abundance, and care — what else might we do?
It may sound far-fetched – this idea that the words we say become the worlds we inhabit, that if we make sacred stories if courage and beauty and generosity we’d breathe more of all of that into the world, but… we are people of faith. The story about us is that we believe impossible things. Do we?
(This is excerpted and re-worked a bit from a longer sermon, The Stories We Tell, that you can find here.)
My family spent last week in the mountains, in Colorado, and we made the long drive back across Kansas on I-70 yesterday. I always try to pay attention to the signs on that road – the details change but the home-cooked Christianity remains the same: now, there’s one of Jesus holding up a few fingers, with the line, “Jesus, I trust you” across it… There’s one that just proclaims, stark, italicized capital letters on a plain backdrop, that “JESUS IS REAL”… There’s one with no words at all, just a long-haired Jesus head peeking out over a golden field of wheat, and holding a few stalks of it in his hand…
I was playing this game in my head, wondering about what a suburban equivalent of these rural highway signs might be, thinking about what Saint Andrew’s message, boiled down to billboard-slogan style, might be…
And then we came upon another. Not as polished as the others; it wasn’t professionally done. Just some hand-painted block letters on a big white sign posted in some central Kansas farmland. And it said, “I Need a Kidney.” And across the bottom, the phone number.
I looked it up when we got home – James Nelson, who used to paint murals, rented the sign after he got the idea from a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. He drug a ladder out into the field where it stands and and hiked his 70-year-old self up to paint the message for his wife, Sharon. They’ve had lots of calls, but so far none of the offers have worked out. They’re still hopeful that some kind soul, with the right blood type and enough time to slow down and copy the phone number, will find them.
I’ve never felt like those other signs are particularly loving – those theological arguments posted along I-70. I’ve thought they were sometimes clever… sometimes threatening… but this one, that just spoke of the woman’s need – something about it reached off the painted wood and into my spirit as we drove by. Her acknowledgment of her need forges a connection between her and all who see that sign. And in that way, I think, it says more about God, about faith, about love, than any of the others out there. It says, honestly, this is who I am. I am, literally, broken. I need you. For healing. And it opens up the possibility that maybe, we need each other.
It’s the same thing a communion table says, right? This table is not clever, or threatening. It is not a theological argument. It simply invites us to be who we are. To acknowledge where we are broken. And maybe when we do, and we come — broken selves to broken bread — we begin to find wholeness.
On living with my grandma (and so, with dementia), and the kids who show me how it should be done.
Here’s an article I wrote (a few months back) about the trouble I sometimes have, talking to my kids about the cross. It’s posted at a great blog full of lots of people’s contributions on family and faith… If you sense these same tensions, I’d love to know how you live in them…