Calling the Kinsman: Radical Community in Ruth 4

Read Ruth 4

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God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it.

I first saw this hanging from the keychain of a community relations manager trainer. Before I had a slip and fall that led to four months of disability as I dealt with herniated discs and an impinged sciatic nerve, I was 29 and working retail. I knew I couldn’t go back to food service, so retail it was. I had my MA in Theology and had studied for a year at Claremont Graduate School for a PhD in New Testament. A falling apart marriage and a realization that I am not strong with languages other than English led me to conclude, after divorce was requested, that I needed a new plan. I had landed a job as a book seller at a well-known national chain, and the manager took a liking to me. Within three months I was made a manager.

And I had to tell everyone I had an MA in Theology when I was the lead of the religion book section. I was trying to convince myself that I was okay where I had landed. I wasn’t. The people were awesome, but after I recovered from the fall I left, began teaching at two universities, and enrolled in an English graduate program from which I would earn my second graduate degree.

When in doubt, I go to school. Except this time. This time I have no doubt.

I imagine I would have run into the statement somewhere, given that I was determined to study religion. But this was after my conversion and before my becoming serious about my faith. The slip and fall did it. I began to realize that I needed to give more to God than I was giving. That’s another story, though.

Literal interpretations of the Bible make no sense. For a lot of reasons. And this is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the fourth chapter of the Book of Ruth.

We return to the story with Boaz seeking out the man who has a more immediate levitical claim to Ruth. They gather at the gates of the village. Archaeology shows that many communities had parks with benches next to the gates; villagers would gather and serve as juries and witnesses to grievances or legal matters that needed to be settled. But scholars are not certain about what exactly went on, and the story itself seems to explain customs (such as the sandal) that had fallen out of practice at the time the Book of Ruth was written down, not mentioning the ones of Ruth’s contemporaries that are lost to us today. 

God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it.

But what is it?

The Hebrew in chapter four is filled with double entendres, just like with the third chapter. Boaz never refers to the kinsman by name. In fact, the word used is most accurately translated as “so and so,” like many of us might do when we are telling a story in which we forget the name of one of the players, but it makes little difference because the story is not about them. Right? Remember that time when we were, oh, what’s his name, that so and so who worked at the pizza place. 

And Boaz calls the kinsman over for a purpose. English translations lose the sting. What is rendered “So I thought I would tell you of it”falls short. The author uses the same word we encountered in Ruth 3 in relationship to her “uncovering” Boaz’s “feet.” What Boaz is doing, some scholars argue, is uncovering a situation to which the so and so must respond.

Again, as was the case in Ruth 3, there are plays on words regarding redeeming; this time it is in relationship to both the land of Elimelech and to Naomi. What exactly happens in this ancient legal transaction remains a matter of dispute. Some interpreters says that what Boaz is saying is this: “Elimelech had some land in the past, but he left for 10 years. Someone else claimed it, but it rightfully belongs to Elimilech’s heirs. You are first, I am second. Are you interested in purchasing it?” Here redeem is used like one would redeem a coupon.

Others say, no. That’s not it. Boaz is saying this: “Elimelech has passed away and his ancestral lines have been broken; it falls upon one of us to redeem it.” Here redeem is used in the sense of restoring honor and pride.

But the transaction gets more complicated. When so and so says, “Yeah, I’ll redeem it” (and, again, we’re not sure what exactly that means), Boaz says “Acha! Acha!”

“It is not that simple. With the land comes Naomi and Ruth.” We might ask why. Why is this the case? Are the women slaves? Chattel?

Not exactly. And I’m not saying it is ideal. But it might be a good thing for them, given their predicament. Some scholars think that the levitical responsibility that would fall upon whoever purchases the land would include fathering a child that would not be considered of one’s own line. In other words, so and so would have to impregnate Ruth and then raise the child as Elimelech’s. So and so does not want to do this because, in essence, it means that he has to pay the purchase price, and then produce an heir who would, upon becoming of age, have right and title to the land. So and so is in a lose-lose situation.He recognizes that this could impact the inheritance rights of his own children and descendants, and smartly decides to pass.

So the deal is sealed with a sandal and the reader is left…celebrating?

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Scholars believe that this story was written during the time of the return under Cyrus the Persian. Many Jewish men had married foreign wives. There were clashes over what it meant to be Jewish and how. Much like now, there were varying views on the merits of immigration and integration. Of syncretism.

Recall that Ruth is a Moabite, the tribe that emerged from Lot being raped by one of his daughters. A similar story is linked to the Bethlehemites. They are related to Judah through Perez, who is one of the twins that is born after Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her. In fact, all of the women named as matriarchs are wily tricksters.

The return to the land was accompanied by the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, who wanted to cleanse the land of any foreigners or foreign elements. It is possible that the Book of Ruth was written in order for people to see that God often works with those we least expect, and for Jews of the time the idea that they might interfere with God sending another King David would have been enough to make them pause.

For Christians historically, Ruth is necessary for Christ, given the lineages described in Matthew.

For Christians now, the message seems clear. We are once again asking questions about what it means to be part of a covenant community. Our national covenant is the Constitution. The Bill of Rights. The inscription upon Lady Liberty. The words of Woody Guthrie. This land is our land.

We leave Ruth as she has worked the system to protect her and Naomi. They fought for radical community. For inclusion. For a grander sweep in how we view one another. May the ingenuity and pushing of the system help us to think about policies and attitudes in our own surroundings that marginalize people because of their ancestry. Because of our presumptions or assumptions. Because of a hijab. Let the story help us think about the ways God might be working in our own lives, and where we might not be paying enough attention.

Rejecting Whiteness

There were four of us guys in the van. Driving through a neighborhood of Dayton known for money. Racist money. Don’t read that as a castigation of people who live in the neighborhood. Like most other places where we Americans lay our heads, there is a mix of people. Good people and bad people. Giving people and taking people. Privilege and responsibility. But this neighborhood has a history and scars.

Four of us. Three Black. And me.

“You don’t really want to be caught on the side streets here after dark. You will get pulled over.” I advised. One guy responded: “We need a White person in the car.” A second looked back at me in the rear seat and said, “Not you, Aaron. You Black.”

We all laughed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart swelled. I felt a not insignificant degree of pride. And why that is the case is complicated.

Cultural appropriation is real. It is damaging. It is insulting. And sometimes, it is literally deadly, like when Whites take the intellectual or creative property of a person of color and monetizes it for their benefit and not for the benefit of the artist. Read about the history of rock and roll. Black artists saw their creations repackaged and made palatable for White America; record companies and managers got rich; artists like Elvis Presley, even though he personally despaired of the inequities, made millions off the creations of Black writers and musicians, many of whom died in penury and obscurity.

I’ve written before (and before and before and before) about issues of race and Whiteness. I feel like anyone who knows me and wants to actually follow my philosophy and theology needs to read my blog. And I think it is fair to say that; I have grown tired of having the same conversations around Whiteness. I am exhausted by White fragility. And that has become clear to some people. As a result, I have been called divisive. Exclusionary. Angry. It pains me to hear this, and believe me I have done everything I reasonably can do to make people who accuse me of this to feel heard and listened to. To me, the problem is that I just won’t say, “We can agree to disagree.” If you want people of color to simply stop talking about their race or experiences and just see everyone else as “the same,” I’m not going to say I’m okay with it. People have the right to their opinions, yes. But your right to your opinion does not mean I have to stop talking about mine because your feelings will get hurt.

I just spent the week with fellow doctoral students at United Theological Seminary. We heard from Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Pastor Rudy Rasmus, Pastor Roz Picardo, incredible men of color who are bringing the light of Christ into the world in loving, positive, affirming ways. Each of them took time to talk with me or pray with me, to encourage me and ask about what the Lord has laid upon my heart. Yet, I know that each one of them, pulled over at the wrong time by the wrong cop or in the wrong situation, they could die. Sure. Any of us could. But their chances are much, much higher. Seriously. Click on the hyperlinks and check out these men and what they are doing. It is incredible.

I attend an amazing seminary.

I have locs. I wore a zoot suit at my wedding. I’m loud and wear wild clothes and shoes. As I write this, I am listening to Miles Davis. My favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee. James Cone’s God is Black changed my life and my theology. I’m the only one who is not a person of color in my cohort, including the mentor. United’s doctoral studies student body is predominately non-white. I feel completely at home and have never been given the stinkeye. In other contexts, I have been accused of being a wigger. Of wanting to be Black.

And, honestly, I guess that’s kinda true.

I hate the concept of Whiteness. I hate what it represents and what it has done. I hate how it has attempted to homogenize complicated and different European and Scandinavian cultures into some boring amalgamation that is also violent. Destructive. There are very few places left on the earth where this insidious creation has not imprinted itself. It has pervaded my faith tradition. It violates those of others. It necessitates something like Black Pride. Latinx Pride. Native Pride. No culture or group should have to shout and scream that their cultures or lives matter. Whiteness does that. Whiteness causes that. And I want no part of it.

But I can’t just pretend that I’m not “White.” I am. I reject the label, but not the consequences. Not the reality. Not the responsibilities that come with the privilege. And I will use my privilege until I don’t have it anymore.

I use that line a lot. Recently, someone asked me what I meant by it. “Well,” I said. “I see three ways I lose it. One, I end up in prison because of justice work. Two, I die. Three, the culture changes and it no longer exists. And if I can only chose two out of the three that I think will actually happen, I know my decision.”

It’s not that I want to be Black in that I want to change my skin tone. I don’t. I love my parents and my family. I am deeply proud to be my parents’ son, and that includes being fiercely attached to my Irish and Finnish heritages. And the way that I choose to be American is heavily influenced by African-American history, culture, religious practices, intellectual contributions, and entertainment. I don’t want to be color blind. I love African-American culture and attitudes; the fierce ways that love and faith are expressed; how laughter is often loud and raucous, smiles quick to come, individuality encouraged.

But I know I’m not Black. I can shave my beard, cut my hair, cover my tats, and close my mouth. Well, theoretically I can do those things but anyone who knows me will attest that Aaron doesn’t shut up easily. And Aaron is gonna do Aaron.

I’ve got a couple dear friends who are designers. They run a rad shop in YS I will be blogging about at some point in the future, but I’m pitching a T-shirt idea and if you think you might want one, comment and let me know. I think if we can gather enough interest, we might be able to get it done. The shirt will say: “I’m not White.”

The great thing is, almost everybody gets to wear it. POC can obviously wear it, and it might spark some interesting conversation. But the thought of White people wearing a shirt saying “I’m not White” is provocative. It makes a statement. I don’t accept that label. At all. I now check “other” and write in that I identify as Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. While there are no genetic tests that can “prove” this, genealogy and family lore lead me to believe the chances are good enough that saying so is not appropriative. The beard and locs honor my ancestors and the culture that is part of my heritage.

But when it comes to understanding myself as an American and a Christian, rejections of Whiteness are most authentic to me. For me. And while I try not to judge those who embrace Whiteness or see things differently than do I–and I certainly try to show respect–the notion that my speaking about these issues consistently and loudly is somehow divisive will simply not fly. I will not sit down. I will not shut up. I lead with love, but love does not always speak words you want to hear. Love isn’t always about feeling good. Sometimes love is about feeling bad. And I don’t mean that as suggesting persons should feel bad about themselves: I mean that love is sometimes about making us feel the bad that results from our impacting someone else in a negative way.

Racism is real. We have major, important changes to make. We are in the midst of another Civil Rights movement and I plan to play my part, to do what I can when I can with who I can for as long as I can. I will make mistakes. I may not see them, but if they are pointed out I will respond and make changes. I will apologize. I will try to see my error first next time.

But I will not ever stop. Not until I’m dead and gone or racism has given up the ghost.

This week has been amazing. I love my cohort and I feel filled with the Spirit of God. I’m going to enjoy the rest of this day that the Lord hath made by taking a nap while snuggling with a cat. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

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Yada Yada Yada: (T)ruth on the Threshing Floor

Click here to read Ruth 3.

The Yiddish expression yada yada yada derives from the Hebrew word yada (pronounced with a long first a), which means “know.” So yada yada yada essentially means “you know, you know, you know.” A way to indicate that you’re cutting to the chase, making a long story short.

Above is a clip of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, when Elaine yada yadas sex. In Hebrew, the word “know” can also mean to know someone sexually. Same with the Hebrew word for “lie down.” It can be literal, like lying down with someone. Or it can mean to know someone carnally. Similar to our English word sleep. If I were to say, “I slept with someone not my wife last night,” you would probably ask for clarification before smacking me in the face. Maybe not😉

The words “know” and “lie down,” along with the idioms used in connection with a cloak or wing being spread for protection are throughout Ruth 3. The Hebrew is filled with double entendres; and add to that the fact Ruth and Boaz meet on the threshing floor, biblically the site where prostitutes meet their johns, and you’ve got yourself an exegetical stew going.

Seminary is not the most risque place. Most of what we study is really important and heavy. We have to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of possibilities. But every now and then, things get juicy. I’ve found there are two types of religious people when it comes to talk about sex. There are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get interesting; and there are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get uncomfortable. I’m certainly the former.

The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the canon, but also one of the most enigmatic. Lots of congregants have come up to me after service over the past few weeks to express they feel like they are understanding the story for the first time. I mention this not to commend my own preaching, but rather to say that sometimes English translations fall flat. What is at play here in Ruth 3 are commentaries on the nature of power. Who is really in control? Is it Naomi, who sets the plot into motion? Is it Ruth, who goes to the threshing floor to uncover Boaz’s “feet,” which is clearly a euphemism for male genitalia? Is it Boaz, who wants to bed Ruth but is looking for a way to make it culturally justifiable? Numerous books and articles have been written claiming one over another.

Power is as power does.

Boaz clearly has no levitical responsibility to Ruth,that is no legal requirement to marry her as a next of kin. She is a Moabite and not a blood relation. He might have a legal responsibility to Naomi, but most likely not, as she is beyond child-bearing age. We must ask why Naomi forms her plan: is it for her safety or for Ruth’s? Both? Why does Ruth go along? Because she has pledged herself to Naomi? Or because she understands this will be the only way she can discover any sort of protection.

Also at question is the sort of protection she is asking for; is it marriage? Is it permission to live on the land and do more than glean for food? Does she present herself to Boaz to seduce him and trick him into protection? Or does Boaz meet her there so he can purchase her services. The bestowing of six barley complicates the matter even more, as it could be seen as a bridal price, a payment for, ahem, services rendered, or something even more symbolic, like the restoration of six generations of Elimilech’s line. Interpretations abound.

What is the protection here? What is the security? What is the bond between Boaz and Ruth, Boaz and Naomi, Ruth and Naomi? What kind of family will they be?

The system has let Naomi down, and Ruth is an outsider. Can it be made to work for her, and in turn for Naomi, too?

God is in the business of redemption, or forgiveness, of bringing wholeness out of brokenness. But God does not work with magic wands. God works through people and situations. And here, in this beautifully complicated story, we see the ultimate outsider, Ruth, being an agent of redemption. Being one open to God using her to bring together what life has rent asunder.

So often we think we know what a good person looks like; we imagine that if God were going to use someone for good in our lives, those people will likely look like us. Think the same things as us. But this story shows us that God works in mysterious ways, unusual ways, ways that may seem foreign or even uncomfortable for us.

For Christians, the example of Christ mirrors that of Ruth. Jesus went to those who were forced to the periphery and affirmed their blessedness. He brought them into the center of his community because they are at the center of God’s heart. Are we open to that happening with us? For us? To us?

I’ll meet you on the threshing floor.

On Turning Forty: Over the Rhine, Divorce, and Wanting Everything These Latter Days

Press play:

I’ve fallen in love five times. Well, actually five million. But I’ve had five sustained loves. I won’t use names. Four of them know who they are; the other, well that’s another story. He knew but he didn’t know. The closet is a hell of a thing.

I had a magical summer back in the 1990s. After Ireland. I had dropped out of K College to try my hand at being a working musician. Four years later I would realize I was a great bartender and that it was time to go back to school. But before that, in the midst of boy bands taking over the airwaves, I met my ex. She was rad. Still is. Strong. Funny. Talented. Beautiful. Smart as all get out. Like, damn smart. Still is.

Things ended painfully.

I still love her. Or maybe I confuse her with the memory of her. That’s possible, too.

We had a summer. A summer in which dandelions sparkled and clouds sang. A summer in which we had our clothes off most of the time, and not just when we were alone. With our group of friends we were living our own Summer of Love. Right here in the Shire. Clothing optional.

Three times that summer we saw Over the Rhine live. It was their Good Dog, Bad Dog tour. Karen’s voice. Linford’s piano. I didn’t know enough of the back catalog  yet to call myself a fan. But that album. That goddamn album with twelve perfect songs provided the soundtrack to one of the most intense and vibrant three month periods I’d ever experienced. I had really thought that after the heartache experienced with my first love–for whom I would still do just about anything because she’s got a piece of my heart forever–I couldn’t ever really love again. I was wrong.

I don’t write details about periods of my life that involve others and their pain, especially pain I caused. Or at least contributed to. Breakups suck.

After our divorce, I tried to listen to Good Dog, Bad Dog again and I couldn’t. It hurt too much. It made me feel like a failure, like I had let myself down. I had let her down. I had let our love down. While it takes two to end a relationship, I did everything I could subconsciously in the marriage to push her away. I think we both held on for a few years longer because of that summer. Because of what we had once had.

All we needed was everything.

As time passed, and especially after Mimi and I committed to each other (on our first date!), I have listened to Good Dog, Bad God from time to time. I smile most often. Sometimes I cry, but because the songs are so beautiful. Because that time was so beautiful. A group of us numbering from 4-12 would gather almost every night. The first apartment. The irresponsible decisions. The parties and laughter and love. The love. The love.

Being a Christian, in many ways, means needing less. Wanting less. There are times, though, when I want everything again. The everything I defined as everything then. For my world to be less complicated. Less filled with uncertainties that nip and bite slowly, but insistently, until I become agitated. Inflamed. I want to feel invincible again. That the future will take care of itself. To have the energy to work a double shift and then go out to the bar.

Well, maybe not that. But I sometimes miss those friends. That time. Don’t get me wrong, a vast majority of the people from that time in my life are still my dear friends. They are fantastic human beings, and I love them. But from time to time I miss who were were then. The stupid, wild, reckless and intense relationships. The sense that tomorrow would never come. Or always come. Perhaps both.

God has given me a wonderful life. I try to embrace the blessings of each day. I try to serve and love and respond with an open mind and a full heart. (Can’t lose!) Today, I miss that kid. That uncomplicated life. I’m going to go back there in my mind, in my heart, for a little while longer, and then I’ll look up.

I wonder what I’ll see.

Press play:

Giving Until it Hurts

The mosh pit went still when Trent began to play the opening chords. The lights went dark. It was in the days before cell phones everywhere. We were young. Post-Kurt, pre-9/11. The future. Decked out in flannel.

A still mosh pit is rarely good.

This was good.

Voices flowed together. Hands joined. Hurt was released. I cried. No one laughed.

Don’t look for it now. You won’t find it. Some things are just gone.

But if you listen real close to Johnny, you might just feel it. Like a whispering breeze on a sweltering day. Fleeting. Almost torturous, but a blessing all the same.

Even then, I was preparing myself for religion.

**

I almost forget what I thought pastoring would be like when I decided to attend seminary. Clerics tried to tell me. War stories. Confessions. Scars I couldn’t see because I had not been initiated into the club were offered for viewing.

Blindness can sometimes be unwillingly willful.

My scars were a different color at the time. A different shape. Born on the inside.

 

**

I sometimes think it was a mistake. Parts of my life simply don’t belong to me any more. I feel tethered. Controlled. Watched. Monitored.

Judged.

People having conversations about my livelihood. Talking about what I’m allowed to do.

I guess I found my price. It is a lot lower than I thought it might be. It doesn’t facilitate end meeting end.

Pastors aren’t supposed to talk about things like this, it might reflect badly on…

If then answer is the pastor, I have no sense of self.

**

It is bigger than me. Don’t ask me what. The answer is too complicated to fit in a three letter word.

Grind Out Disappointment.

**

I’m told it is not about me. But can it be, sometimes? Please?

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

But let’s go slow. I’m feeling a little uncertain.

I hope that’s okay.

I really need that to be okay.

 

 

Ordination Destination

I’ve been a die hard U2 fan since 1983. Like, an insufferable U2 fan because I legit loved them before they became huge and it pissed me off that people only started pay attention after The Joshua Tree. If you didn’t know all the words to The Unforgettable Fire, you were just a poser in my book.

 So that made me real fun to hang out with circa 1990-1996.

I remember seeing Rattle and Hum in the theater with my best friend Shane Delbianco; we were in a “band” called Ace, which was comprised of me strumming on an out of tune guitar (without knowing a single chord) and him refusing to use his drumsticks on books because our band teacher had said it ruined them. The sticks, not the books. So that also shows what an immature ass I was at the time. I did album art for two offerings, “Learning to Drive” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” While I listened to a lot of U2, I also loved Tiffany and Europe. And not Final Countdown Europe, but rather Wings of Tomorrow Europe, their “other album” with songs like “Ninja.” I have always been a romantic lad.

Ace broke up by the time we hit 7th grade and there are no rumors of a reunion tour.

That period between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby was interminable for me. I kept reading that U2 was breaking up. Friends who saw a leaked photo of the song lineup ridiculed me because “One” was clearly the name of a Metallica song on the greatest metal album of all time, …And Justice for All. No way could there be two great songs with the same name. It was a dark time for the loyal Feedback fans (look it up) until the video for “The Fly” was released and Stephen, my brother, and I went apey. Totally apey. I got the cassette on the day it came out from the Upper Valley Mall in Springfield, and that Walkman did not leave my head for months. 

Months, I tells ya. 

It’s a long way from the Joshua Tree to Zoo Station if you want to rock and roll.

Six years ago, my mantra was Destination Ordination. It was my Joshua Tree. It took three years to achieve. Now, on the three year anniversary of ordination, I am at the precipice of something new. Something radical. Something scary. A nonprofit that right now has $90 in the tank thanks to a nascent Go Fund Me campaign; no offices, of course; projects that need to come together in the next few months while I start teaching again and continue to work on the doctorate (and, I dunno, pastor a church). It’s scary, friends. Scary.

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This picture was taken moments after I left the sanctuary freshly ordained and went to the office for my first called position. Well, my only called position. I’m a contract worker now. A supply pastor. That title pisses me off to no end, but that’s the subject of another entry. 

I had waited so long to see that title, “Reverend,” in front of my name. The sense of accomplishment lasted about a week. And then I became obsessed with becoming Rev. Dr. Aaron Maurice Saari.

I’m working through that with my therapist.

I’m not really chasing a title anymore. It is not Destination Doctor-ation. (Sorry; that’s lame, but the whole rhyming thing seemed necessary, begging your pardon.) Now it is Ordination Destination. Where is this path going to take me? What communities am I going to be able to serve while providing a living for myself and my family? We’ve cut back as far as we can. There is no more to give up. We’re to the bone, and that’s okay. We’ve done this together. We support one another and believe in what we do.

But this is a leap. A huge, frightening, uncertain leap. I’m not looking for another job. I’m trying to create something with others trusting me and my skills, my leadership, my abilities.

I’m fucking terrified.

Which makes me pretty confident that I’m actually following Jesus.

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And That’s the Truth, Ruth: Of Moabites and Muslims

There are some ridiculous things in Scripture. Head-scratching things. Make you slap your mama things. But then there are those things that make me wonder how I ever didn’t believe. I mean, really believe. In God, yes. But even deeper than that; believe that there’s a reason why billions of people across space and time keep reading this book. This damn book. This book that makes me cringe and weep; a book that I can’t stop reaching for, a book that keeps revealing things about myself. About who we are as persons. About how we get so much wrong in the pursuit of doing right.

And I’ll be goddamned if the Book of Ruth isn’t laying the smack down on me right now.

Since I rapped at you last week, there’ve been goings on in the macro and micro. We all know about the shit show that is Drumpf; in my ministry world, people are dealing with a tremendous amount of pain and fear. My therapy is unearthing some stuff I didn’t know was there, and I am asking a lot of people to put a lot of trust in me as I attempt to launch The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs. I start teaching at Xavier again next week; well, not really. I’ll be in doctoral seminars for the first week, but classes start. So it’s more like

I’ve been living with the second chapter of the Book of Ruth all week, reading it each day, doing the research and study that normally attenuate sermon prep. Faithful Reader knows that I started preaching without a manuscript during Lent and have continued since; the congregation has indicated that with this style they feel more connected to me, and I admit that it forces me to prepare much more thoroughly, and also to rely on the Holy Spirit. I generally go into the service having bullet points in my mind; I craft about three lines in advance that I use as tent poles, and the sermon is built and advanced by my knowing what fifteen minutes feels like, and attempting to end with both an affirmation and a challenge, something that will hopefully stay with people after they leave the sanctuary. That’s the goal. Sometimes I hit the target, sometimes I don’t.

But I’ve been living with the Book of Ruth as a parable. I can’t remember where I read ti first–it might be from The New Interpreters Bible or one of the articles I read by Hebrew scholars–but as soon as I made that connection, it was like I was able to read the book in a whole new way. And, honestly, the Book of Ruth has always been a struggle for me. Many of the interpretations that I encountered in graduate school and seminary left me flat. I just didn’t see how the story was relevant outside of highly spiritualized readings that are anachronistic or ahistorical. But Ruth as parable?

The Moabites have a how you say, interesting history. They arise from Lot’s daughters raping him. Through various time in history, they are both inside and outside of the covenant community. As I wrote about last time, scholars are divided as to when the Book of Ruth was penned, but I am swayed by a later dating from the time of return under Cyrus the Persian. Why does this matter? Because it reflects a time in which the community as a whole is thinking about who is in and who is out, having just experienced for themselves a multi-generational period of diaspora. In the story world, we have Naomi, an Israelite, who has lost all the males in her family. Kinda. In Ruth 2, we learn that Boaz is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased hubby. And if that is the case, we might expect that Boaz marry Naomi. Maybe. But since she is beyond childbearing years, she has no cultural value and therefore has fallen through the sparsely woven safety net that exists for women. And who does she bring in tow with her? A Moabite foreigner who exists as a threat to good Jewish men whose children would not be legitimate, given that Judaism is a matrilineal religion, were they to bed her. The Moabites were much like the Samaritans: distrusted and seen as dangerous.

And let’s look at the Jewish man who is present. There are some odd details in the story. Scholars point out that Boaz and Naomi both speak in a more ancient and formal Hebrew, perhaps meaning to indicate that they are traditionalists that act in nontraditional ways. Even Boaz’s name is significant, given that he bears the moniker of a pillar in the Temple of Solomon which, if we go with a later dating, has been destroyed by the time of Ruth’s authorship. In the story world, though, Boaz is the pillar upon which these relationships will be built. He seems to push the boundaries of the law, which requires leavings for gleaning, to be more generous and inclusive than strict, literal adherence to the law would permit or facilitate. So, too, does Naomi act beyond tribalism. She refers to Boaz as “our kinsman” to Ruth; her legal obligations to her son’s widow ended with his death. But Ruth’s loyalty, expressed in chapter one in terms that scholars regard as the “first conversion,”results in Naomi ignoring law in favor of relationships.

When you think about this story as a parable, you begin to see that God works in contradictions, but also contradictions that lead to more life.

deep

I was going to preach a different sermon until I read the story last night of an imam and his assistant being gunned down in the light of day. Granted, there is no evidence yet that this is a hate crime. But the shooting is not just a shooting. Of course, no matter the specific details it is a terribly sad situation. The fact that the victims were Muslim, though, cannot be ignored. We cannot just think of them as two victims of a violent society. We must think of them as Muslims before anything else. Whether good or bad, that is the case. And that’s because we have done a terrible job as Americans equating Islam with positive attributes. We don’t think of Islam as just another religion, even though if you watch the Why We Fight propaganda series during WWII you’ll see that Mohammad is cited as one of the historical influences on democracy. Since 9/11, Muslims has been the other. The Moabite. We don’t see them as Americans or New Yorkers or even men. We think of them as Muslim, and for too many people that automatically makes them suspect.

Sweet Jesus forgive us.

So what are we doing to be Naomi or Boaz? I write this to Christians especially, but to all Americans in general. What are we doing to bring the Ruths of our communities into the fullness of relationship? To do more than just glean on the leavings, but to be inheritors of the crops? What are we doing to listen to the Moabites, the ones about whom we have preconceived notions or improper preconceptions? What are we doing as pillars in our community? As ones who can speak in terms of “we” in order to make that more expansive?

What are we doing?