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Diamonds and Rust
Selections from Ruth, chapters 3 & 4
In 1974, Joan Baez wrote one of the few top-40 hits she ever had, a haunting and beautiful song called “Diamonds and Rust.” Though she wrote it in 74, it wasn’t released until 1975, and it wasn’t until years later that she, perhaps accidentally, revealed that the song was written about her affair with Bob Dylan. In the opening lyrics she refers to a phone call Dylan made to her from a phone booth in the Midwest, where he read to her the lyrics to a song he was working on, which inspired her to write Diamonds and Rust. She lied to him for years that it was written about her former husband, but it was her obsession with Dylan, the rising superstar, the media darling and the musical genius that forged not only the affair that pulled apart her marriage, but also created this incredible song written about an inequitable relationship that was perhaps never going to last.
She writes of diamonds and rust, as this phone call breaks her heart again. She later wrote that the diamonds and the rust are her memories. “Time turns ugly charcoal into diamonds,” she said in an interview decades later, “and shiny metal into rust.” It’s funny how the worst things that can happen to people, their most painful incidents, can become our favorite pieces of art. Perhaps it is because we can hear that pain, identify with it and since something beautiful has come from it, we hope that we too can have beauty amidst our pain. It’s a more likely scenario, I think, than the one we usually seek, where our pain is magically and instantaneously relieved, replaced with sunshine and rainbows. But time has an odd way of changing our outlook on things that are devastating to us. We often learn, we appreciate, we grow from pain and struggle.
Though we may want pure experiences, life rarely happens in clean lines, with all the loose ends sewn up, “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed. More often it is messy and incomplete, complex, uncertain and even contradictory. This is one reason I appreciate the Hebrew stories so much, they are full of complexity and contradiction. And they present us with the awareness that we must seek God in that messiness, rather than expecting God to only show up in the brightest of light, the clarity of perfection. They give us both the diamonds and the rust, all in one story, leaving us to wrestle with the pieces that don’t quite fit together – the parts we like and the parts we don’t.
The Book of Ruth has been critiqued by feminist theologians as both pro and anti-woman, both the story of the power of women and the oppression of patriarchy revealed. In the heavily edited selection today we wrap up this story of women left in the most vulnerable of places finding hope and safety through their dedication and, as we will hear, their participationin an unjust system that is their only avenue. Ruth, at the coaching of her mother-in-law who knows the ropes of this system, goes to Boaz and, depending on your perspective, either (a) this nice love story unfolds; or (b) she submits herself to a patriarchal system in which she is property, and defined largely by her sexual identity.
This is, after all, what is going on with all of this business about lying on the threshing room floor, dressed in your best and, of course, the phrase that gives it all away to the ancient Hebrew audience, “uncovering his feet.” It should be said uncovering his feet,wink-wink, with giant “air quotes,” accompanied by some kind of slinky, wah-wah guitar adult film soundtrack. It’s a euphemism. His “feet” ain’t what’s being uncovered, folks. The stomach isn’t necessarily, the story suggests, the way to the man’s heart. So now how do we feel about this story characterizing Ruth as the heroine? Now how do we feel about the words of Boaz, praising her as a “worthy woman?”
The rest of the story is Boaz dealing with the other relative who holds the “next-of-kin” title over Naomi and her property. See Naomi, as the wife of Elimilech, “owns” this property, but she doesn’t really. She can’t sell it, nor can she hold the profits for women are second-class citizens in the culture at this time. All those resources have to go through her husband, or son, or an uncle or father or some other male – in this case a kinsman never identified but who is apparently next in line for this “ownership” of the claim Naomi has, and Ruth has in connection to Naomi.
That kinsman refuses his claim and Boaz, true to his word, takes up the claim and marries Ruth. Ruth bears a son and we might notice a couple of details that make this story even more subversive. It is Naomi who nurses the child, not Ruth. It is as if Ruth’s dedication this whole time is to Naomi, Boaz is just a means to an end. The child is named Obed, which means “servant” in Hebrew, and he begins the line to King David through this foreign woman’s commitment. But neither Ruth nor Naomi name him. Rather, the text tells us, it is the women of the neighborhood who give him the name Obed.
In all kinds of literature, from the Book of Ruth to Little Women to The Color Purple, we see women group together, with dedication and determination, to manage and, at times, to resist, a system not built for them. Ruth and Naomi both lament this way of life, with their safety and grief tied so closely together, and knowthis system, working around it to create a future for themselves amidst a strange combination of love, commitment and survival. It is a common story for women, one we have heard from the experiences of women of color during slavery or incarceration, from the lives of Nicaraguan women we have come to know and the complexity of seeking life and love outside the “norms” of patriarchal gender and sexuality definitions in the lives of people right in this church. All stories of the desire for freedom and identity in a world that seeks life, but only with a particular set of characteristics.
Is Ruth the story of one woman’s dedication and determination, or is it the story of how women, when faced with few options, get praised for staying in their lane? Should we lift up the Book of Ruth as an example of how the larger Biblical narrative, including the genealogical line of Jesus himself, pays attention to the outcast and marginalized as part of God’s vision, or should we highlight it because it shows, once again, that exceptionalism for women is seen most often through the lens of patriarchy? Is this a Biblical example of God’s love, which stretches across our boundaries and makes life where we typically try to squelch it?
The story of Ruth may indeed be a story of a woman trapped in a system that devalues her in almost every way save one, and it is also a story of perseverance and dedication in the face of injustice. It can be both. In the same way we can hold up the stories of people coming to this country fleeing poverty and violence as stories of determination and hope as we also cry out against the injustices that cause such stories to be written. This kind of complexity is the ground in which God stands, never the simplistic, heroic figure come to set all things right, God’s power flows up through the cracks in our lives, making meaning and creating light from the dark and seemingly vacuous places. It’s the complexity present as we acknowledge the sacrifice given by so many veterans today while we also decry the predisposition towards the glorification of war, often by those who haven’t been in a war. We can love soldiers and hate war.
The story of Ruth is not a simplistic claim that you should somehow be thankful for your suffering, nor happy about injustice, pain or the conflict we often feel about complex moral issues. What it does reveal for us is the possibility that at some point in the aftermath of struggle we can find gratitude for the journey, and that justice, or some semblance of it, can come in the most unjust of circumstances. Our greatest strengths can develop from our deepest wounds, our most beautiful songs sung from our broken hearts as we bear witness to the presence of a God who protects us from nothing but sustains us in everything.
Something happened this week, and maybe we missed it in the deluge of election postmortems and the bitterness of more wildfires and another mass shooting – this time in the exact same place. As we struggle with just how routine the reaction is becoming to such tragedy, and the slow, hard realization that we do have a “new normal” when it comes to gun violence and climate change, we may have missed the presence of that God who sustains us. It’s easy to do, because God doesn’t deal in the dramatic very often. Instead of arriving in one fell swoop, descending on us in an instantaneous display, God settles in, like a cold front, like the autumn that has both turned our trees into fiery beauty and sent those same leaves down to the ground like an auburn snowfall, all in the matter of a few days. You could have missed it if you weren’t looking.
In this week, almost 90 women were elected, including the first two Muslim women, one a Somali refugee and one the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress. We sent the two youngest women to Congress in the nation’s history and while we may not have changed party control here in Oklahoma, we have changed the complexion considerably. That’s really not a partisan statement, for these women came from all parties. It’s a statement about who is going to be making the decisions. It’s a statement about change. Maybe not a universal one, maybe not even one that will be immediately sustained and transformative. I don’t claim that simply having a woman in a position of power is a guarantee of more just and equitable governance, or of meaningful change. I do claim that the chances just went up a lot.
Maybe that’s why I think that this story that shifts the genealogical track of the Bible matters so much. This survived all of the edits, after all. They could have jimmied the family tree, and made it work out another way. Something was compelling or maybe even important enough to keep this tale of the line that Matthew tells us goes all the way to Jesus marked, shaped, changed, by the influence of the outsider, herself seeking survival in a place not built for her – in fact, built againsther – and calling that story holy. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us – not syrupy sweet, romanticized love story about the kindness of Boaz, who really does the basics of decency here, but the roll-up-your-sleeves, deep love of Ruth, who will not sit back quietly, nor be satisfied with the gleanings, but who stands with this God who she is just learning about, seeking a better future not only for herself, but for others, too.
The world is changing, my friends. I believe it and I hope you do, too. It is changing slowly, like a river flowing towards a sea, bending, curving, slowed by dam and lock, bridge and levy, but flowing nonetheless, replenished by the blood, sweat and tears of the people carried along in it, seeking that new day. Our story is connected to this story, from thousands of years ago, full of the complexity of justice and injustice, darkness and light.
The election is over. The struggle continues.
May we have strength and courage for the journey.