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Ruth 1:1-18 & Mark 12:28-34
When the book of Ruth comes up in the lectionary, you preach on it. That is advice that I have been given by lots of preachers because Ruth only comes around every three years, and even then only a snippet or two. It’s one of the rare books in the Bible that features a female protagonist who is even named…like out loud and everything!
It’s more likely, of course, that you will hear this passage read at a wedding than in church. Like the section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians on love, reading this at a wedding takes it way out of context. I know that it’s read because of Ruth’s declaration of dedication, as Paul’s words are read because they describe love, and, of course, love and dedication are part of marriage. But Paul is speaking of the kind of love we all need, married or not — the connective, benefit-of-the-doubt, compassionate love that ought to rule our world as much as our marriage. And this passage from Ruth, though it has lovely words about commitment, takes place in the shadow of devastation and grief, not celebration and promise. These words don’t come in the “best of times,” as we think of weddings, but rather in the “worst of times.” Famine forces the move of Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to search for food in Moab.
Another way to say it would be that Elimelech and his family were immigrants, refugees in a land not their own, seeking not just a better life, but fighting for survival. Somehow they made it through. Then, just as it seems that they have “made it,” Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi and her two sons to make it on their own. The boys marry local women, Orpah and Ruth and they seem to have adjusted to their “new normal.” Then both the boys die. The losses were devastating.
For Naomi, it meant not only grieving the death of her husband, but also not once but twice, feeling the interminable loss of her sons. No parent expects to bury their children, and the unanswerable question, “Why God, why?” lingers in the subtext of this story, adding to it’s bitterness. Naomi even changes her name…call me “Mara,” she says, which means bitterness.
There are certain moments, often shocking and heartbreaking moments, which imprint themselves on the memory with improbable vividness and clarity. That is surely true for many of us after this week, as we sit here on our own sabbath, remembering sharply the images and the news of the eleven who were murdered in their own synagogue. They were there for shabbat services, for a bris, the naming ceremony of a child. They were welcoming in new life as a man stepped inside to end life. It is the clarity of the moment, the vividness that strikes us as we struggle to accept the worst anti-semitic attack on US soil in our history. And we cannot absorb it alone without thinking also of 9 people gunned down after a bible study at a church in South Carolina by a man wanting to start a race war; or 6 people murdered in their Sikh gudwara by someone who wanted to kill Muslims and just didn’t know the difference; or 26 killed in Texas, during church, while they worshipped. These are not unrelated events, and our response to them is a clear indication of what we affirm. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. We are bound together with both our siblings of faith, and our siblings who do not practice a tradition – where THEY go, WE will go; we say together…where THEY lodge, WE will lodge; THEIR people shall be OUR people, and THEIR God OUR God.”
It is the only way that I know how to be faithful, in community and across as many boundaries as I can manage, and I know after this week that I’m not alone. We stood, almost 1500 people, at Congregation B’Nai Emunah on Tuesday night, many of you were there. We were there because of what happened in Pittsburgh, but also because we know something of tragedy in Tulsa – as Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls reminded us. Here was the end of the Trail of Tears, the site one of the worst race massacres in US history, the state where the worst domestic terror attack happened. All powerful trauma residing in us, even if only by association, by cultural osmosis. I think, deep down, that we KNOW we need each other, but that need is such a vulnerable admittance, it rarely reveals itself. It comes out when the tornado hits, but we quiet it with talk of our self-made-ness, by shaming ourselves and other with the rhetoric of hyper-individualism or the fallacy of machismo. We can have it during the crisis, we just can’t seem to sustain it when the policies get made or the candidates line up.
One week before we make decisions about our future together we made some claims about our present – here and now. Our mayor spoke of what we ought to be, of the Tulsa that he loves, referring to that room of gathered, united, diverse and intentional people. Leaders from all over spoke of our religious instruction to be faithful by being loving, and my pal Rev. Alexis Carter, associate at The Met, brought us all to our feet by calling on us to have good mourning (m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g), by being the change we wish to see in the world, seeking more humility than homogeny, waking up to the voices and realities of others. It was the clarion call of people of good faith, dedicated to working together for a world that is headed in a very different direction than we seem to be being pulled right now.
That’s why we gathered Tuesday, because we have the fabric in place. I was not there amongst acquaintances, nor even colleagues. I was there amongst friends, because of the strong interfaith work that is done daily by people who care about creating and maintaining that social fabric that we rely on when the crisis hits but cannot manufacture during the crisis. We heard powerful words of commitment and connection, even from people I do not agree with or, frankly, trust as of yet. But perhaps, like Ruth, new connections can be made in the turmoil, new possibilities from the grief, new hope and dedication in the bitterness – FROM the bitterness.
It is all we have left. It is, perhaps, all we ever had. To be faithful is, after all to practice the basics. ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ To this Jesus adds, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the scribe, nodding in agreement, declares this, “…much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
As Robert Bowers, the man who shot those guns at the Tree of Life, was brought into the hospital, the nurse to take charge of his care was Ari Mahler, the son of a rabbi. A Jew saved Bowers’ life. What Mr. Mahler says is that when he looked into Bowers’ eyes, he didn’t see evil. What he saw was, “a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion.” After reflection, Mahler sees him as a man who, “probably had no friends, was easily influenced by propaganda, and wanted attention on a sociopathic level.” Such people, he reflects, are easily swayed by people with multiple agendas and a microphone. His care for him wasn’t an act of good versus evil, that’s far too simple a narrative, my friends. Don’t buy that kind of simplicity. Not good versus evil, Nurse Mahler’s care for Bowers was an act of dedication, like Ruth to Naomi, an act of love, which, as Mahler later wrote, gives meaning to life, and reaffirms why we’re all here.
And now the words of Paul drift back into my mind – love is patient, kind, forgives all things, bears all things, not arrogant or rude, always protecting, trusting, hoping, persevering. What do we know of this love, we might ask in the wake of the violence and hatred we see played out in brutal acts and in brutal words, in the realization of hate and the language of hate, the participation of ferocity and the polemic of political fear, spread before us like a self-serving weapon used to gain and maintain power at any cost? What do we know of love?
Well, I’m here to say that I have seen more love and care in the past week than I can effectively share with you this morning. Dedication that rivals our heroine, Ruth, as a collection of people step up to protect and hope for and trust in a young transgender woman from Honduras, swept up by ICE on our border and placed here in Tulsa, who is trying to make a live with the help of DVIS and a network of people who stand against the culture of fear and hatred of the immigrant. It is found in the actions of a nurse in Pittsburgh, amidst the pain and the fear – not as a solution to it, but as a way of being in the world…not as magic elixir that takes away all suffering, but as a way to stand next to the suffering and give meaning and hope. This is the love that practices what Jesus asserts, love I have witnessed from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Unitarian, Sikh siblings that is more Christian than anything I see from so many Christians. Hope that settles in as the winter approaches, giving us the glory of leaves that burn brightly as they die, leaving us with the promise that there is a spring on the horizon, that hope endures and love perseveres, and that death, no matter how difficult to take, is not the final answer. That dedication springs up once again, as improbable and foolish as Ruth’s declaration to Naomi, as ridiculous as a mother’s choice to leave her homeland and walk with her children across a thousand miles to a place where she may have no chance, either.
My friends, I’m afraid that we have dark days ahead of us. The politics of fear loom larger seemingly each moment and if we can survive the election cycle without tearing ourselves apart in the process, perhaps we have some chance to actually work to create a future together. I have less and less faith that we can do that politically, but I have more and more faith that we can do that collectively. Community organizing through ACTION is helping people understand the power of working together. Interfaith actions are peaking, attorneys turned out in big numbers yesterday to train themselves to be pro-bono advocates in a legal system that will stand against hateful policies, and the city is launching “resilience dinners” to engage Tulsans in meaningful discussion around the issues that divide us.
On this Sunday after All Saints Day, we can remember all of those who have come before us, striving as we have, imperfectly and partially, for the kin-dom, for wholeness and the kind of love that Paul lays before the church in Corinth, knowing, I think, of how daunting a directive it is, but longing for it so much that we step forward, vulnerable and dedicated, towards a new world – here and not yet here – as Ruth did. For we must be dedicated now, my friends, the stakes are too high and the costs too great, for us to be anything else.
Let us remember – and be very aware – that we do have what we need, right here and right now. The roots are established, the soil is rich, the light is good. It does not assure an easy growing season, nor even a plentiful harvest. It means that the tree is alive, and so are we – together, regardless of what happens on Tuesday, no matter what the next tragedy may be – and there will be one – we are firmly planted. For the promise is not the things we call success, the promise is that the practice – the planting of hope, the watering of trust, the nurture of love – these things produce life, in ways we could never plan or strategize or scheme. As we gather to eat this meal, a commemoration of what we call the “last supper,” eaten when Jesus knew how the world of his disciples was about to be shattered, let us do so with that same awareness. We eat, we rejoice that the tree of life lives, and we dedicate ourselves to one another – to those who will stand with us, and with whom we stand, in the darkness with our candles held together. For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.