Sticking Together

Primary Scriptures:  Ruth 1:1-17

A big tip of the hat and THANK YOU to Hugh Hollowell and his team at Love Wins, as well as Katie Mulligan. You both inspire and challenge me to listen more closely to the Spirit and what trouble She is calling me to make and to keep loving the people in front of me with ferocity and tenderness.

Today we move further into the story of the children of Israel, well past the leadership of Moses and even after Joshua leads them into the promised land. So we’ve zipped past the end of Deuteronomy, plus the book of Joshua AND Judges. 

In the first part of the book of Judges, we learn that the Israelites failed to keep their part of the covenant, and did not entirely conquer and take control of all the land that they were promised. As happens when we pursue our plans, rather than those God makes clear for us, what started as a problem gets ever farther beyond their control as time goes on.

Much as God provided Moses and Joshua for their times, God raises up a series of judges to rescue Israel. This is the continuation of a cycle of sin-rescue-worship-sin that started with the golden calf incident in the wilderness. Even now in the promised land, the nation’s obedience lasts only as long as the life of a particular judge. The stories of 14 judges are told in this book: the most famous of which are probably Deborah, Gideon, and Samson.

If Ruth’s story had been tucked into Judges instead of existing as a separate book, most likely she would have appeared just after the stories of Deborah and Gideon and before the birth of Samuel.

The story of Ruth begins with several tragic losses. There is a famine in the land, including Bethlehem where Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons live. The family travels to Moab as refugees, in hopes of finding food stability and a better life.

During the next decade, Elimelech dies, and the sons marry Moabite women. Both sons die childless, leaving Naomi, who once lived in a household with three men, a childless widow… in the company of two other childless widows.

From our perspective, this is a sad tale. One that we can kind of relate to. I know people who have lost a spouse and a child in a short span of time. It’s the kind of thing that can put a family into a major tailspin, especially when the deceased was the one who took care of finances.

Imagine living in a society in which women were essentially the property of their fathers, husbands and sons. Where the men provide the family security. Naomi’s little family is not just grieving the loss of loved ones, these women are now well beyond what we would call at-risk. They are about as vulnerable as people can get.

Naomi faces a difficult choice: stay where she is, living as a refugee in a foreign land or return to her home town alone. Not only would it be dangerous for a woman to travel on her own, but there was no guarantee of support or even empathy on her return. After all, she and Elimelech chose to go live in a country that was an on again-off again enemy of her own people. Perhaps her losses were predictable, even earned.

We don’t know why she ultimately chooses to go back to Bethlehem. But it’s not hard to understand why she would expect Orpah and Ruth to stay behind in Moab. Even if she found a new husband, she couldn’t guarantee sons for them to marry in some imagined future. Perhaps if they went to their own people…  

Of course, we don’t know what Ruth and Orpah would be going home to, if anything at all.  All we know for sure is that Ruth, at least, prefers becoming a foreigner herself to leaving Naomi.

The book of Judges tells the story of a people who cannot seem to keep the law of God. In contrast, Ruth’s story is one of people going above and beyond the Law’s requirements. As a Moabite, Ruth is not required to follow the laws of Israel. She married an Israelite, but like Orpah, she was free to go back home.

Instead, Ruth chose to demonstrate hesed, the kind of faithfulness and covenant love that is often attributed to God.  She chose to enter into the covenant of Israel and Israel’s God, out of the love she has for Naomi.
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge;
your people will be my people, and your God my God.

With that promise, she chooses to join her story to the story we have followed from Genesis onward. And like Abraham and Sarah, she leaves all that she has ever known to go to a place she’s never been. She is relying on a God she has met through Naomi, knowing that as childless widows they will also be relying on the kindness of strangers along the way.

More importantly, they will rely on one another.

I can’t read this story without hearing the words of Hugh Hollowell. Hugh is pastor of a congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina, that is made up of men and women who are among the most vulnerable in the community, many experiencing homelessness. Hugh often says that the the opposite of homeless isn’t housed, it’s community.

Let me read you a short response from Sara, who works with Hugh at the Love Wins hospitality house.  As part of a panel discussion, she answered the question “what do you consider to be the root causes of homelessness? And how do we combat this issue?

Think of it like this: homelessness is a series of losses. Let’s take my friend Allison.

About two years ago Allison’s husband lost his job, then they lost their house, their car, and then their kids. And then their marriage. Throughout that chaos Allison’s friends slowly drifted away. They had judged Allison for becoming and being poor, and/or they didn’t know what to say to Allison. There came a time when Allison had no one to call and say, “Hey, can I sleep on your sofa?” No one to cry to. No one to have supper with.

If Allison could have afforded a cell phone, she had no one in her contacts who could help her. So it was Allison against the world for a long time. Her entire story is… much more complicated, but it’s one she shares with many people.

When you love your neighbor, their problems become your problems. There’s no telling how Allison’s story might look if someone in her life saw through the stigma of her losses and decided to stick by her, or at least to promise to have her over for supper every night or to let her print her resume on their computer.

Despite the supper and resume copies, Allison still could have ended up without a place to stay. Because there’s not one magical fix-it for anyone who finds themselves experiencing homelessness.

But if we’re called to ease suffering, maybe we can do that by being Allison’s friend. Listening to her, encouraging her, and sharing food with her. Maybe easing her suffering doesn’t necessarily mean exhausting all of our resources to make sure that she has temporary housing.

Or as we like to say, the opposite of homelessness isn’t housedness – the opposite of homelessness is community.

We can think of homelessness as series of losses…
Naomi lost her husband.
She lost one son and another.
She lost Orpah.

But Ruth stayed.

Because when you love your mother-in-law, her problems become your problems.

Ruth really only had one thing to offer – herself. Her presence. She couldn’t promise that they would make it safely to Bethlehem, any more than Naomi could promise Ruth a warm welcome if they got there. But had each other, a shared story. Their bond as family was not based in any legal kinship, but in hesed – covenant love.

Love, lovingkindness, loyalty, sticking together like glue…It’s can be hard to come by when you find that you actually ARE one of the least of these.

What Ruth did for Naomi, what Hugh and Sarah do for the vulnerable in Raleigh… it really is the fullness of the gospel that we are called to carry into the world.

When we feed and clothe and offer clean water to those who are “the least of these,” we are assuring that Christ himself is fed and clothed and does not thirst.  When our compassion and love for our neighbors guides our actions, everybody wins.

But as Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth, If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Nor does the community.

The truth is that the church – God’s people wherever we gather around the world – well, we tend to do a better job talking about lovingkindness and caring for the aliens and strangers among us than we do demonstrating it.

It is as if the church doors were a portal to an alternate universe, a theological Bizarroworld, where our understanding of what God requires of us is turned inside out and upside down, and live without compassion, we ignore the commands to love.

How many times do we hear… sometimes even from our own mouths… derogatory and dehumanizing statements about people who rely on governmental assistance to feed themselves or their families?

Or people who have immigrated to this country?

Or people whose struggles with addiction or learning disabilities or mental illness make it difficult to keep a job, much less housing?

Candidates for the highest office of our nation who identify loudly and proudly as Christians have made statements that make it increasingly difficult to believe that they read the same scriptures you and I do.

And they are being applauded for those statements by people who claim to know Jesus as Lord and Savior as well.

I’m not saying I am above this hypocrisy; that would be a lie. And lying in a pulpit seems doubly wrong and possibly unsafe.

Truth is, even as I sit and listen to the stories and theological conversations between our neighbors who come to eat lunch on Fridays, I must fight the feelings of superiority and cynicism that creep into my heart.

But on good days – my good days, not theirs – I can see hear them and seem them as flawed, forgiven, beloved children of God, just like me.

And that they are making room for me, the outsider.

The regulars know each other and see each other on Wednesday evenings at the Baptist church. They give each other grief and know what buttons to push to get someone going. They also know what soothes and calms the ones who get a little too riled up.

Some of them may be living outside, but they have a home… a place…
in their friendships,
in the people with whom they have been vulnerable and between whom they have built bridges of trust.

I want to share part of a sermon my friend Katie Mulligan, a youth pastor in New Jersey, delivered last Sunday. She was inspired by a picture in a news report out of South Carolina after the floods. The picture was of a floating colony of fire ants.

Now, I could have told Katie those ants float, having walked into a batch of them back in the day when the streets between my house and my high school flooded after a late summer rainstorm.

But Katie did some research, and here’s what she found

It seems that fire ants build their tunnels underground, and when the flood waters come, their tunnels are destroyed. With nowhere to go, the fire ants band together and form a raft with their bodies.

Hundreds and thousands of ants quickly weave together, using pincers and mandibles and whatever they can to hold on to one another. With a strength of 400 times their body weight, the ants cling to one another.

Their exoskeletons repel water, and woven together they form a waterproof fabric that can float for weeks, if necessary. The queen and the larvae are thrown on top, out of harm’s way. The hardier adults form the bottom layer, protecting the rest of the colony. As needed, the ants on the bottom of the raft trade places with ants on top.

The communal movement of the ant raft functions as a superorganism, allowing the entire colony to relocate in times of disaster, saving their leader and the babies. And of course they are fire ants, so when they reach dry land, they disperse, rebuild, and devour every living organism they can find.

Fire ants are fire ants, not humans. They have a strength we do not have. They have instincts we do not share. But we humans have the capacity for learning from metaphor, and perhaps we might take something from the raft of the fire ants.

Here’s where Katie’s reflections on fire ants and people and my thoughts about Ruth and Naomi began to collide…

In so many ways we humans have lost our ability to move as a colony. Many of us function as nuclear families without a lot of support or networks to hold us up in times of crisis. For fear that we too might drown, we do not always band together with the rest of our people during the flood times.

Individual ants, while somewhat water resistant on their own, will drown quickly in a flood. But the colony together, using all of their smarts and strength and natural abilities, can save each other. We might do that too.

As the waters flood their homes, the ants grab on to one another. Quickly, oh so quickly they form a blob that floats, and they do it by pinching and biting and squeezing and grabbing. It’s surely not a pleasant process!

Oh, can you imagine it? It is not our nature, here in the U.S. We treasure our individual success and security with a fierceness that borders on idolatry. We pay lip service to community, but few of us want to rely on the community for our lives. How many of us truly open our homes to strangers? How many of us truly rely on someone else for our needs?

No, we do not have the instincts and talents of the fire ants. But we have a capacity for metaphor and learning.

See, Ruth and Naomi and later the people of Bethlehem and Ruth’s eventual husband Boaz all had to expand their understanding of who they are meant to hold onto… who was in their tribe. Just as we must do when we look around and see that there are not enough of us to keep things going around here… not for long anyway.

We will need to make space in our hearts for others even those who are are different, so that we can ALL learn to stick together.

Sticking together can be painful, even for the ones who are already in. Just like ants with their pincers and teeth… We step on toes, we break hearts, we shed tears, we slam doors – both figuratively and literally. And learning new ways of being… well, that hurts too. 

You know, what happens here on Fridays is about food, but it’s about so much more than food. Just like what we do here on Wednesday evening is about more than a meal, and what we are doing here this morning is more than gathering for spiritual nourishment through song and prayer and words.

All of it is about sticking together, about being the ants who hold tight to one another and about bringing others along to safety as the waters rise around us.

Being a community.

And community is a beautiful thing, fragile though it can be.

May we each and all reflect the lovingkindness of the God who draws us to this place, to one another and to all who come in need of grace, to all in need of a place to be home. AMEN

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