Sermon for November 8, 2015
When I go the the grocery store in the U. S., waiting in a long line at the check-out counter, my eyes, as if to a magnet, are drawn to the screaming headlines of the tabloid papers positioned at eye level: Wife Leaves Husband in Pool of Blood over Secret Life, and Secret Wife! and other equally fascinating and lurid reports. I assume they are not true, so I carry my groceries away calmly, smiling, shaking my head at the endless material that love gone wrong provides.
Love makes the world go ‘round, Love is the answer, all ya need is love—you might think that there is only one subject on the planet, for all of history, and that is love.
Or lack of love, the material for all the serious news that the papers carry each day. I don’t even have to name the places where love is not the driving force: the purges of Christians in northern Iraq and Syria, inhuman daily violence in the Central African Republic, the third civil war in South Sudan, and here, also: the refugees who witness to those places from which they have come, still numb from shock, fleeing from the brutal violence that has wrecked their lives.
We can read only so much about all this. We can take in only so much.
In his poem Four Quartets T. S. Eliot wrote:
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
So we turn to true love, the theme we cannot hear enough about, the possibility that is always so near, and we try for it in our own lives.
The Old Testament reading that we are given for today is a passage from the book of Ruth, one of the greatest of the world’s love stories, told in one of the most beautiful pieces of literature ever written.
The book of Ruth is short, only four chapters. It is about a relationship of love, not between a man and a woman, but between an elderly widow and her non-Israelite daughter-in-law. It takes place in the days of the judges, before the institution of kingship in Israel, before the year 1000 B. C.—a very long time ago.
There was a famine, and so Naomi, the heroine of the story, journeys with her husband Elimelech and their two sons to Moab. The two sons take two Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. But then Elimelech, and both sons, die. The famine has now ended in Judah, so Naomi makes the decision to go back home. But she gives her daughters-in-law a choice: their home is there, in Moab, and she tells them to remain, and remarry, so that they will have security. Orpah turns back, but Ruth does not, and, embracing her mother-in-law, exclaims:
“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. Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
These words of love are so elemental, so extraordinary, that they are often chosen to be read in the Christian marriage ceremony.
And so as our reading tells us, Naomi accepts Ruth’s declaration of faithful love and allows her to accompany her all the way back to the town where she came from, Bethlehem, where everyone recognizes her, and are moved by the sight of her foreign daughter-in-law with her. And it is the beginning of the harvest.
In ancient times in Israel, if you were a female with no male kin, either a widow or an unmarried woman, your life was precarious. Ruth immediately goes out to gather up the leavings of the reapers in the fields. She needs the protection of the owner of the field so that she will not be harassed, and will be allowed to get enough to feed herself and Naomi. Providentially, she is noticed by Boaz, who is a wealthy kinsman of Elimelech. Boaz tells her to stay in his field. He also instructs his reapers to leave extra grain behind so that she may gather it. Ruth falls on her
face to the ground, and asks him why he has chosen to protect her in this way? And he answers that her faithfulness to Naomi has been told to him.
In ancient Israel, the continuation of the family was of supreme importance—it was still a culture of survival; the average life expectancy is estimated to have been less than thirty, and even less for women who had also to survive multiple childbirths. Because of these things, Naomi instructs Ruth to ask Boaz to assume the duties of the next of kin, that is, to marry her, and so ensure the continuation of the line of her family. This was not the result of a passing flirtation, of Boaz being physically attracted to a young woman working in his field; it was a matter of life and death, of honor and of right.
Ruth obeys her mother-in-law: she goes and in the middle of the night she uncovers the feet of Boaz and lays herself down there, on the threshing floor where Boaz is protecting the harvest. Startled, he awakens, discovers her, and realizes why she is there. And she asks him to spread his cloak over her, to marry her.
This is what he answers: “May you be blessed by the Lord; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.”
So they become man and wife, and Ruth bears a son. And the women say to Naomi: “Blessed be the Lord, who is to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne this son.” And this son becomes the ancestor of King David.
So that is the love story of the book of Ruth. The line of the family that becomes the royal line of the House of Israel is preserved through the courageous acts of women: one old, the other a foreigner.
What kind of love is this story about?
In Hebrew, the word for this kind of love is hesed. It means a loyalty of love
arising out of commitment.
First comes Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law, because of who she is, because she is already bound to her—her love for her flows out of this.
For us, and for the world we live in today, this concept of love is almost incomprehensible. Romantic love is what we care about, what we talk about, what we read about. Romantic love does keep flaring up, mostly among the young— sometimes it lasts—sometimes it is transmuted into something richer and deeper, something infused by God’s own passionate love for His creatures. A divine love that wills the good for all persons, in romantic love with one another, or most often, not.
To the willfully self-obsessed drive for romantic love for ourselves, at any expense, the book of Ruth offers this other kind of love: hesed. It is a startling alternative.
Hesed means a loving loyalty, a love springing up out of our enduring commitment to another to whom we have been given.
We commit ourselves to the other first, and then this commitment brings forth love.
This kind of love is a love that is real,
this kind of love is a love that endures,
this kind of love is a love that reflects, truly, the all-encompassing love of God for all human beings.
Our age, our culture, is one of deep confusion about the nature of love and the nature of reality. We construct endless alternatives to help us avoid it. We are, in another phrase from Eliot’s Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as we frantically chase an image of love that is an illusion, even for movie stars. We avoid loving commitment, among other means, by entertaining ourselves with images on screens of all kinds. It is easier to avoid God, other people, and also ourselves. No age has been able to bear reality—”ours is simply the first that has been able to construct a virtual alternative that is more to our liking,” as a critic has said.
If we are to know anything of the fullness of life, the abundant grace and joy that God destines us to have as His beloved creatures, created in His own image—if we are to know this fullness, we must face up to the reality of who we are. This is not easy, and only in and through the grace of God can we achieve any measure of self-knowledge.
In Christ we are offered a binding together in a body of love that will, in the end, save us from ourselves, from all the false images of love that we pursue. It is the
same love that Ruth showed to Naomi, a hesed, a love that springs from a loyalty that came before. God in Christ has loved us from before our birth, from the beginning of time………Christ knows us, even if we do not know ourselves. And Christ will bear us up through all our feeble attempts to find love for ourselves.
In the person of Jesus Christ we meet grace and truth in a reality that is greater than any supposed reality the world has to offer. He is Love, and He invites us to partake of that Love.
We may be weak, we may fail ourselves and others in all the ideals we set for ourselves, we may “seek love in all the wrong places,” again and again. But the reality of the love of Christ for us, for each of us, and for all the world, is a reality that we can embrace with gladness and with eager longing.
May we open ourselves to that kind of Love! Amen.
The Rev’d Dana English
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome November 8, 2015