Sunday, 20 May 2012

Ruth - a story of courage and determination

The calendar year has a rhythm to it as one season follows to the next.  How wonderful, today of all days, to see the daffodils blooming all over the town!

The Christian year has a rhythm to it too.  In what way that relates to the rhythm of the calendar year will differ all over the world.  But for me there is a rhythm that pulses with the calendar year.  That’s partly because in true nonconformist fashion I see the Christian year unfold a little differently from the traditional liturgical calendar that our Congregational forebears reacted against.

Maybe it’s because I come from a family of teachers!

What’s interesting then is to notice how, even though we do not stick to a strict liturgical set of lectionary readings, the passages of Scripture we read at each of the great festivals are basically the same from one year to the next.

For me the year starts in September with a harvest festival that celebrates the goodness of God in creation and the challenge God gives to us to be stewards of the whole environment of God’s creation.  And with that festival I associate readings from Genesis about creation, Deuteronomy about ancient harvest offerings that always remember the poor, the widow and the foreigner, the seed-time and harvest parables of Jesus and the psalms of creation.

Then, having celebrated the God of creation, we move on to Christmas and celebrate the way this God of all creation comes alongside us and shares in our humanity in the birth of the Christ child.  And with Christmas there are all the Christmas readings from the Prophets and the Gospels.

Then it’s on to Holy Week, the Passion and Easter.  And the readings are the readings of the Passion.  On Maundy Thursday we often have prolonged readings, in many churches the whole of the Passion story is read at great length, sometimes set to music.  At the 3-00 service on Good Friday afternoon the whole of the passion story from one of the Gospels will be chanted, taking 20 minutes while the whole congregation stands.  That musical tradition comes into its own with the St John Passion and the St Matthew Passion of Bach.  How powerful the whole story is, read or sung at length, simply from the biblical text.

And at Easter the Easter, resurrection stories, and for me how precious the Road to Emmaus has become.

Then, six weeks later the climax to the year.  The Risen Christ no longer to be seen, an unseen power, a strength from beyond ourselves is let loose into our lives at Pentecost and there is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with that passage from Acts 2, and passages about the fruit of the Spirit, the Gifts of the Spirit coming to the fore.

A wonderful cycle.

Jesus and the first followers of Christ knew the rhythm of a year of festivals. 

John 8 sees Jesus in the temple for the festival of Booths when he declares I am the light of the world.

On the Thursday of that great week in Jerusalem it is the feast of Passover that the disciples prepare in that upper room.

And six weeks later as they gather again in that same upper room, Jerusalem is packed with people of all nationalities at what the Jewish people know as the Festival of Weeks, and which we think of far more with the Greek word of Pentecost.

It is interesting that the Jews associate biblical texts with their major festivals too.  After the Law and the Prophets, the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures the writings opens with Psalms, Job and Proverbs celebrating God, agonising over where God is in a world of horrible suffering, and mapping out the choices we need to take to live in that horrible world.

Then comes the Megilloth, the Five Scrolls.  It’s not until four or five hundred years after the time of Christ that each of these five scrolls becomes linked with a particularly significant Jewish festival.  Since that time each of these books has become a prominent part of the Jewish liturgy associated with those five festivals.

The Book of Ruth is associated with the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost.
The Song of Songs with Passover
The Book of Ecclesiastes with the Festival of Booths
The Book of Lamentations with the Ninth of Av – that is the anniversary date of the fall of Jerusalem in BC 587  and in one of those quirks of history the very day on which the Temple was destroyed again in AD 70.
The Book of Esther is associated with the Festival of Purim.

It is interesting that around the time those links are made in the Jewish world, Jerome’s Latin translation of what for Christians has become the Old Testament follows the very much more western, logical, chronological mindset of the Greek translators and orders the books entirely differently.

That comes over into the English translations, even though the English translations have gone back to the Hebrew text.

It means for us Christians the grouping together of these five books, and the link with a particular festival has been lost.

And that’s a great pity.  In the bible Jesus would have used these books would, if not actually a set of Five Scrolls, would have been grouped together somewhere in this third section of the Scriptures.  Different Hebrew texts actually order them slightly differently.  Over the next few weeks we’ll see what happens when we read the next five books in the order they appear in Hebrew copies of the Tanak, the Hebrew Scriptures.  And let’s keep an eye out for the link with those festivals.  Though that link was formally made later, it’s just possible the link was made then because in the remembered history, traditions had sprung up associating these books with those festivals.

In a very 21st century version of the age old custom of pressing flowers I put the ears of corn I plucked walking down from the hill of beatitudes towards the shore of the Sea of Galilee through a laminator and have stuck them inside the cover of the Bible I had with me then and have used ever since.  I did the walk and re-visited that site a year later half way between Easter and Pentecost.  And the grain was nearly ripe for harvest.

The Festival of Weeks, Pentecost is the first harvest festival of Jewish year that started back at the beginning of winter.  This is a time of new beginnings when the first produce of the year is ready to be harvested and communities are given once more a new lease of life.

And what’s at the heart of the Book of Ruth but a story of gleaning in the fields of the harvest?  A natural link to make this the book to read at the first of the harvest festivals.

It may be set in the days when the judges ruled (and located in our English bibles between Judges and 1 Samuel), but it speaks each year into that moment when communities breathe a sigh of relief, gather the first produce of the year and rejoice in that new lease of life they have been given.

Let’s consider what the story has to say into that situation.

The story begins when there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah journeyed the seventeen miles down through the wilderness, across the Jordan up into the hill country beyond and went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.

It’s brilliant story telling as it lulls you into a false sense of security that we are going to be told the story of this man and his sons.  Their names are virtually forgotten, and certainly aren’t everyday names in our culture!  Elimelech and the two sons Mahlon and Chilion.  Their names are forgotten because they don’t figure in the story.  Tragically they die.  Not before the two sons have taken Moabite wives.  One  of those wives remains home in the land of Moab and so the name of Orpah is not one we come across in our culture.

But the widow and the daughter-in-law have names that are as familiar as any to our ears because this is a book about them, where they are centre stage.  The widow, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.

Hearing that the famine has ended Naomi decides it’s better for her to go back to Judah.

It’s touching to see the love and concern Naomi has for her two daughters in law as she makes her way down towards the Jordan and the journey back through the wilderness to Bethlehem.  She prays God’s blessing on them, bids them return to their own land and their own people.  With a kiss she and the two younger women break down in tears.

Naomi insists – and there is a logic to her reasoning.  The two Moabite women will have no security in Naomi’s homeland of Judah, Naomi can offer no security in her home. They must return.  Orpah kissed her mother in law but Ruth clung to her.

The scene is poignant and touching as Orpah begins to walk away.  Naomi turns to Ruth and insists.

‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16But 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 shall be my people,
   and your God my God. 
17 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!’ 

There’s then the wonderful silence of companionship.

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

It’s so easy to read this as a lovely romance.  It’s more like a story of daring and courage.  Notice that word ‘determined’.  Ruth’s decision took great courage and determination.  This is the story of a determined woman.

And you immediately see why it took courage.

The two cross the Jordan make that seventeen mile journey up through the wilderness and arrive in Bethlehem – the whole town was stirred because of them and you recognise the courage and determination Ruth needs in the question the women ask.

They see the two women approach and they say, Is this Naomi?  The younger woman is ignored.

The bitterness and the anger of Naomi wells up.

‘Call me no longer Naomi, [the name means ‘Pleasant’]
   call me Mara, [the name means ‘Bitter’]

   for the Almighty
 has dealt bitterly with me. 
I went away full,
   but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
   when the Lord has dealt harshly with
   and the Almighty
 has brought calamity upon me?’

Just notice the tone of Naomi’s homecoming.  There’s no sense of relief in her voice. There’s no joy in what she says.  There’s bitterness.  I detect an anger too.  Is there also fear, apprehension, uncertainty?

Notice in the skilful way the story is told there is no response.  No one says, it’s going to be all right.

What is the response of the people of Bethlehem?

We’ve already been told in verse 19 ‘the whole town was stirred’.

That’s a very ambiguous word.  It could be positive as in the modern Jewish Tanak Translation

the whole city buzzed with excitement over them.

Holladay’s Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament suggests two quite negative ways of translating this word …

‘thrown into confusion’

‘be in an uproar’

Maybe the reaction of the people is not all welcoming. May be there is something that stands in the way of an over-effusive warm welcome.

Let’s take the text as it stands.  Seeing the two women, the city are thrown into confusion, the women ask, Is this Naomi, ignoring the other younger woman.  Naomi responds with bitterness.  And there is no response.

Verse 22 maybe explains the coolness.

One word is repeated.

It reminds us, twice, where Ruth is from.

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.

That’s maybe why there is such confusion.  Naomi has brought with her a younger woman who is a Moabite, from the country of Moab.  A foreigner.

Then comes a lovely sign-off.

And they come to Bethlehem at the beginning of the Barley Harvest.

It’s the time for new beginnings, it’s the time when the community to breathe a sigh of relief – there’s going to be food on the table!  There’s a new lease of life … how wonderful for the people of Bethlehem.

We’re pretty sure that it will turn out to be wonderful for Naomi as she returns to her home.

But for Ruth?

Will it be a new lease of life for Ruth?

I had thought to continue the story.  But it’s his bi-centenary year, and so I am going to take a leaf out of one of Charles Dickens’ serialised books and leave us with a bit of a cliff-hanger. What will become of this very determined young woman, Ruth?

What does this story do for us, reading it at Pentecost?

Pentecost is a time of new beginning, when the community breathes a sigh of relief – a new start to be made.

That’s what we do with the out pouring of the Holy Spirit.  We can see it as an event – we can also see it as something we need after the dark days are done.  The Spirit is a new lease of life that ushers in a new harvest, the fruit of love, joy and peace and patience.

It’s easy to overlook, but Luke goes out of his way to draw our attention to the fact that among those who are ‘all together’ on the Day of Pentecost are women as well as men.  It’s sometimes tempting to see it as the twelve.  But the opening chapter of Acts is about the 120.  Among them ‘certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers.’.

These are determined women as well as men who have stuck with Jesus to the end and beyond to resurrection.  These are courageous women as well as men who have been prepared to make a commitment to Jesus and say,

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;

And as the Spirit is poured upon those determined women as well as men Peter is absolutely certain,

this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams. 
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 

Not once, but twice, comes that word of Peter that it is the task now of these determined courageous women as well as men to prophesy, speak the truth of God’s Word to the powers that be and to all no matter who they are.

This indeed is exciting, challenging stuff.  It is as we come together women and men in the body of Christ the church, with determination and courage that is strengthened by the Spirit of God that we can sense a new beginning, a new lease of life once more bearing fruit in the love of God.

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