Monday, November 9, 2015

Sermon: "Beyond Faith", Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 (November 8, 2015)


(Video of this sermon)

We love stories. I mean, as human beings: we may structure our system of education around lessons and lectures and sermons, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the things that really stick with us the most are the anecdotes, the metaphors, the colorful illustrations that take us out of our heads and into our hearts, and allow us to connect with whatever it is that’s being taught. Think about it: are your favorite sermons the ones where Andrew carefully explains a complex theological idea, or the ones where he relates it to a story about his kids? How many of us prefer to read fiction books over non-fiction? Maybe not all of us and maybe not all the time, but certainly a significant number. The writers of scripture know this fact about human nature and use it to their advantage. But don’t worry; this doesn’t make the Bible any less valid as a witness to God’s Word. In fact, scripture turns out to be less a pedantic work of history that barely makes it past our ears and more a work of art that succeeds in capturing our minds and penetrating our hearts.

So particularly when we approach a book like Ruth, we ought to be careful not to force ourselves into the old habit of hearing a history lecture when we’re really being read a story. Even my study Bible introduces this book by claiming that it’s “more like an extended parable than a historical report.”[1] The important message of Ruth, I think, isn’t the record of its historical account, but the things that it’s able to tell us about God, humanity, and, ultimately, ourselves by tapping into our emotions and imaginations.

Picture this: a woman, well past retirement age and settled in her way of life, falls on some hard times and needs to move with her husband and unmarried sons to a strange land—Utah, let’s say—to try and stay financially afloat. Out there, her sons meet some lovely women and, although they’re no Idahoans, they fall in love and get married. Just as the old woman starts thinking that things might not be so bad after all, tragedy strikes, and both her husband and her sons die. Maybe it was a long, drawn-out battle with cancer, maybe it was an unexpected accident; I don’t know. But suddenly, the woman finds herself without a livelihood, without a family, and, she feels, without her God. She feels trapped, helpless, abandoned, and alone.

Are you connecting with the story yet?

In Ruth, it’s pretty easy for us to relate to the plight of Naomi, the now-childless widow left with nothing but two foreign daughters-in-law. We’ve all felt hopeless and alone at one time or another. Recognizing her dire situation, Naomi urges the two younger women to return to their people and seek a better life—after all, Naomi has nothing further to offer them, and they in their youth could at least could remarry and find stability and safety elsewhere. Ruth, as we know, refuses to leave her mother-in-law and binds herself to Naomi in all things. This extraordinary loyalty eventually leads Ruth to the grain fields, where she spends the day working to gather food left behind from the harvest to feed herself and her mother-in-law. Now, as in any good story, there’s a plot twist: this particular field happens to belong to Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, who invites her to eat with him and watches out for her during the rest of the day. When Ruth relates these events to Naomi, the older woman realizes the familial connection and begins to hatch a plan to ensure her and Ruth’s future.

In all this, the Book of Ruth is uniquely interesting because, although I’m standing here claiming that this story tells us something about God, God is noticeably silent. Naomi is constantly connecting different events to the work of the Lord—she bemoans, for example, the death of her husband and sons as God’s dealing bitterly with her—but until the very last chapter of the book,[2] nowhere does the narrative actually attribute any actions directly to the Lord.

Does this mean that God is absent? That God is an unimportant part of the story? Of course not. This isn’t a history lesson, remember? We’re not supposed to be sitting here memorizing facts about God; we’re meant to absorbing a greater understanding, going BEYOND facts. But in order to go beyond facts, we need to make sure we understand the framework of the story first. You wouldn’t get the full impact of Les Misérables without first obtaining a basic understanding of the French Revolution or the realities of wartime, so why should we approach a story of God’s people without a similar appreciation for its larger context?

In order to properly understand Ruth, we need to try and understand the Hebrew concept of chesed. Although the word itself is only used three times in Ruth, many Biblical scholars argue that the idea is essential to understanding it. This Hebrew term is notoriously difficult to translate because of its vast range of meaning. Many English translators use the term “lovingkindness” to translate chesed, but this covers a dismally small portion of what the Hebrew word actually implies. Love and kindness are definitely central to the idea, but it’s far more than that. Chesed is loyalty, faithfulness, and mercy. It’s a love that’s persistent and completely unmerited. It’s a kindness that comes from a place of strength, not weakness. It’s similar to the Greek term agape, but chesed is its own category. It’s a relational word—chesed is not a one-way street; it ALWAYS appears in the context of relationships. It’s entirely unrelated to merit; it says more about the person giving it than the person receiving it. And most importantly, chesed always, ALWAYS, involves practical action.[3] It doesn’t exist for its own sake, but for the sake of its object. Chesed is the type of love that drives you to fight for the people you care about or to create a better future for your children. Chesed is, by definition, a game changer.

Most often in scripture, this term is used to describe God or God’s actions towards Israel. Psalm 136 is the perfect example of this. God’s “steadfast love”—God’s chesed—is used in a refrain to recall and explain all of the remarkable deeds and salvation works done on Israel’s behalf. And there sure are a lot of them—like I said, chesed is a game changer. But it’s not unheard of to describe it in the context of human relationships. Our capacity for chesed might be more limited than God’s (I don't think any of us have ever created an entire planet or delivered a people from bondage out of sheer loving-kindness) but we’re capable of a version of it. The thing is, in this context, we’re meant to understand our chesed as a reflection of God’s: after all, we love because he first loved us.[4] So those mere three times that chesed is mentioned in Ruth are actually really important in setting the tone. The first two times, [5] God’s chesed is invoked as a comparison to the kindness of a human being: first Naomi’s daughters-in-law, then Boaz. The third time,[6] Ruth’s own chesed is named in conjunction with calling the Lord’s blessing upon her. It seems pretty clear to me that we are to understand the actions of the human characters in this story in light of the chesed that God offers and they—Ruth in particular—reflect.

So back to storytime. Now that we have a better understanding of chesed, we are better equipped to go beyond the fact of God’s apparent absence in the story to the deeper significance that the story has to tell us. By keeping God in the background, the writer naturally draws our attention to the story’s protagonist. Now, even though the book is named after Ruth, your high school English teacher would be quick to remind you that the titular character isn’t always the protagonist: we could easily make the argument—and intend to—that the real focus of the book of Ruth is on Naomi.

By the time the narrative reaches our scripture reading for today, we’ve already heard two of the three declarations of chesed in Ruth, so we’re primed and ready to comprehend not just the facts of the events, but the meaning behind them. Now that she understands her relationship with Ruth and the lengths to which the younger woman is willing to go on her behalf, Naomi finally RESPONDS. She stops feeling sorry for herself and taking Ruth for granted, and she begins to participate: she comes up with a scheme and shares it with Ruth. In comprehending the magnitude of the chesed directed towards her, Naomi begins to see that the best way to honor their relationship isn’t to sit back and let it happen to her, but to jump in with both feet. As much as a word that’s translated “loving-kindness” can, chesed demands a response. And as much as I’m sure Ruth appreciated the fact that Naomi trusted her to provide for the two of them, imagine the way her heart must have swelled when Naomi finally began to demonstrate that she really was all-in.

In my opinion, every good story has a solid extended metaphor. This scene where Naomi finally responds to Ruth’s chesed is the reason that I see Ruth’s relationship with Naomi as parallel to God’s relationship with us. This is where it becomes clear to me that this isn’t just a history lesson, but a tale that is meant to speak to us about divine realities beyond our immediate understanding. When Naomi opens up to Ruth, sharing her desires for the two of them and her dreams about how they’ll accomplish them, to be honest, it makes me think of prayer. No longer taking for granted the fact that her daughter-in-law would always be there, no longer simply assuming that everything would be taken care of, Naomi is beginning to go beyond her plain faith in Ruth and invest in her relationship the same way we do when we pray. Talking to God is such a simple way to respond to God’s chesed, to show that we’re on board, and yet such an important one. It shows that we’re listening, that we’re responding, that we’re ready to begin going beyond our faith and outside of our comfort zone.

And in return, how does Ruth, in her loving-kindness, respond to Naomi’s “prayer”? “All that you tell me, I will do.” Beloved ones, God’s chesed will never let us go. Even if we never manage to make that leap from faith to beyond faith. Even if we spend our entire lives in a Naomi-esque pity-party, there is nothing we can do that will separate us from God’s loving-kindness. But brothers and sisters, if we never do move beyond faith, if we never respond to the complexity of chesed to become an active participant in it, then we can never truly appreciate everything it has to offer.

You see, it’s only through our own participation in God’s chesed that we are able to find redemption. This particular story is about redemption of a secular nature, but like any good parable, we can (and should) look beyond the “facts”. By definition, redemption is “recovery of that which was lost”: for Naomi, that meant security and familial connection. Through her chesed-motivated actions and her acceptance of Naomi’s plan, Ruth was able to restore these things to her. Theologically, our own “redemption” is also about recovering something that's been lost. But we haven’t lost something tangible like property or a bloodline. When we talk about our redemption as Christians, the stakes are much, much higher: we’re talking about our relationship with God, lost to our sin. And consequently, we need a redeemer whose chesed is utterly unshakable and inexhaustible.

Fortunately for us, we've been given that gift in Christ. But it’s a gift that must be actively and joyfully received. So how do we go beyond faith to participate fully in this chesed-based relationship that God so desperately desires for us? Prayer is just the beginning. I can’t tell you what going “beyond faith” will look like in your story. But I can tell you this: when we accept God’s chesed and we let it completely permeate our being, we can’t help but respond, and our response can’t help but seep into every aspect of our lives, from our work to the choices we make to our relationships with one another.

The second half of our reading today skips ahead to the ending. Apparently those who put the lectionary together were the kind of people who flip right to the last chapter of a book. It tells us the fruits of Naomi’s plan and Ruth’s chesed: a son, born to Boaz and Ruth, named Obed. And so Naomi was able to recover what was lost—kinship and security. Might this have come to pass without Naomi’s engagement in her relationship with Ruth? Perhaps. Ruth’s chesed meant that she would have done everything in her power to lift up Naomi, regardless of Naomi’s merit. But without it, would Naomi have been able to see how far Ruth’s chesed could take her? Would she have been able to understand the events as her redemption, rather than just a lucky break? Would she have been able to embrace Obed as the son of her heart, and not just her bloodline? Again—perhaps. But then, this is Naomi’s story. The question is—what’s yours?



[1] New Interpreter’s Study Bible
[2] Ruth 4:13
[3] “God’s Grace in the Old Testament: Considering the Hesed of the Lord”, Will Kynes
[4] 1 John 4:19
[5] Ruth 1:8, 2:20
[6] Ruth 3:10

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