Readings: Ruth 1:1-22, Secrets of Heaven 1038 (see below)
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The book of Ruth is a powerful and emotional story. Even though it is told with relative economy, the text is filled with wordplay and callbacks that are often lost in English translations. It explores themes of lovingkindness, community, immigration, loyalty, responsibility and redemption. And it is by no means straightforward; interpreters continue to argue about what the book is trying to say, even today. It is a story grounded in an ancient context, many details of which are lost to us now, but it also functions as an extended parable, one in which we can see even our modern selves reflected.
We will be spending three weeks looking at the book of Ruth together, and today we start at the beginning of the story. We are introduced to the main characters: Naomi, and her daughter in law for whom the book is named - Ruth. We are told that the story takes place during the times of the judges, the period that followed the leadership of Moses and Joshua, but before Saul is established as the King of Israel.
The narrative for Naomi starts out with difficulty: she and her family need to travel to Moab due to a famine in the land of Israel, but, even in this time of famine, Naomi’s personal life is full. She has a husband and two fine sons. And while her husband dies, in short order, her sons find wives in Moab and it seems that all is good. But then suddenly, Naomi is beset by further tragedy. Both her sons die, without heirs. This is a very challenging situation for a women in ancient times, particularly for a widow. Naomi would have depended on her husband and sons for survival. So, she plays the only card she has left, to return home to Israel, her homeland, where thankfully, the famine was now over.
These are the first few instances of a running theme of the book: reversals and returns. Naomi’s life went from full in a time of emptiness to empty in a time of fullness; an enormous upheaval. And in times of such upheaval, we search for solid ground, we think about what we can and should return to, in order to make sense of our lives. And so this first chapter is full of the notion of returning. Naomi makes plans to return to her homeland, and she urges her daughters in law to return to their mother’s houses.
The implication is, of course, that they are still young enough to marry again. If Naomi had more sons, Israelite law would have required them to marry their brother’s widows, but as Naomi colorfully explains, she has no more sons and certainly will not bare any more. Orpah and Ruth should go home and begin their lives again.
Neither want to. It is a testament to the life they all must have had as a family together that they resist. Eventually though, Orpah is persuaded. But not Ruth. Ruth makes a stand for her relationship with Naomi and refuses to leave her.
This speaks to another theme in the story: hesed. Hesed is an extremely important spiritual principle in the Hebrew scriptures. It is often translated as lovingkindness, but that word really only gets to about half of the meaning. Yes, it is about lovingkingness, but specifically the kind of lovingkindness that draws people into relationship with each other, that binds them together as kin and community, that speaks to their responsibility to each other. It is sometimes described as covenantal love, in that it is not pure sentiment, but rather a love that understands that it is enacted again and again over time. For this reason, it is sometimes translated as steadfast love, and is often used in describing God’s steadfast love to us. The idea being that as we experience God’s steadfast love, we are called to model and embody that love in our relationships with others.
Naomi had already spoken of hesed in verse 8, that the Lord might treat Orpah and Ruth as kindly as they had treated her and her sons. She was invoking this notion of lovingkindness and connectedness within relationship as something that should happen to them over there, back in their mother’s houses, where in her mind they would clearly be back in the proper care of God. Naomi, it seems had exempted herself from hesed. And of course, why wouldn’t she? She had lost so very much, and she was bitter and empty. She felt like the Lord had forsaken her. She states: “the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” And so she drew herself outside of the reach of hesed, outside of the reach of God’s lovingkindness, outside of the reach of anyone’s lovingkindness.
But Ruth disagreed. She was under no obligation stay, not by her society’s expectations, but still she re-drew the circle of hesed around Naomi. We hear Ruth not only say “Where you go I will go….” but also “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” She is speaking not only of physical presence but also of identity. She weaves the two of them into relationship at a deep level, and in that moment, creates a community of two. She speaks into being an ongoing covenant between them. She speaks the language of our Swedenborg reading, whereby we are told that union with God comes from our willing reciprocation of love, the return of love to the Lord and the expansion of love towards others.
Naomi won’t really be able to hear or feel the fullness of that gift of hesed for a while. At first, Naomi is so fully within her own bitterness that she basically ignores Ruth when they arrive back in Israel. But we cannot be too harsh with her, for that is just the way grief works sometimes. “The Almighty has made my life very bitter,” she laments. Our reversals of fortune, our losses in this life, are sometimes so very hard to take. They hollow us out, and it is hard to believe that we might ever experience fullness and meaning again. But as you might have already guessed, the story of Ruth will have something to say about that, and we will hear more as go.
But for now, there is one more theme that is being introduced in this first chapter. As beautiful as Ruth’s sentiments are, this is not just simple story of kindness between two people. The context of the story speaks powerfully about insiders and outsiders and the purposes of God. This is a thread that runs throughout the entire Hebrew scriptures. Again and again, outsiders to the people of Israel are woven into the fabric of Israel’s story in important ways.
Ruth was a Moabite, a people despised by Israel for generations. Perhaps this is a part of the kindness that Naomi offered in advocating for their separation. Surely, they both knew the difficulty that Ruth would have being a Moabite in Israel. We can now even more fully appreciate the act of courage that Ruth offers; in drawing the circle of hesed around Naomi, she placed herself in an uncertain position. As I preached two weeks ago, Israel’s God and Israel’s laws consistently advocated for the ethical treatment of foreigners, but as we all know even now, the distance between the ideal and the practice; that is where the hard work is. As the story progresses, this sense of Ruth being an outsider to Israel hovers over everything.
I hope this doesn’t spoil things too much, but by the end of the book we will come to understand that this is not just a story about two random women. This is the story of King David’s ancestors, about how “King David’s family tree [is] rooted in the loyal behavior of a foreigner…”(1) and about how the purity of bloodline is much less important than loving, ethical and courageous behavior. And so the story begins with a reversal of the readers expectations: that someone designated an “outsider” would model hesed so touchingly.
Now, at the end of the first chapter, with the characters and the stakes setup as they are, it might be fruitful to to ask: where do we see ourselves reflected? This need not be prescription, only observation. Which parts of ourselves are Naomi right now, emptied out? Which parts of ourselves believe we have somehow been placed outside the circle of hesed, or that we don’t deserve to be included? Which parts of ourselves feel like an outsider, or conversely wish to despise an outsider? Which parts of ourselves are willing to fight for relationship and community? This is the power of ancient story; that we might see ourselves looking back at us through the millennia, and we might know that God journeys with us both then and now.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible, pg263
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. 8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!” 14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” 22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
Secrets of Heaven 1038
The fact that a pact [or a covenant] is the presence of the Lord in love and charity is evident from the nature of a pact. Every covenant exists to tie people together; that is, the goal is for people to live in mutual friendship, or in a state of love. This is why marriage too is called a compact or covenant.
The Lord cannot unite with us except in love and charity, because the Lord is love itself and mercy; he wants to save us all and draw us to heaven — that is, to himself — with a powerful force. So we can all see and conclude that no one could ever be united to the Lord except through that which is the Lord, or in other words, without doing as he does, or making common cause with him. To do this is to love the Lord in return and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the only means of union. This is the most essential element of a compact. When union does grow out of it, then the Lord, of course, is present.
Readings: Leviticus 19:1-6, 9-20, 32-37, Apocalypse Revealed 586:3 (see below)
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Something that may have been on our minds lately is the topic of immigration. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has meant that a large number of Afghani evacuees have entered the United States for their own protection. Many agencies, churches and communities (ours included), have and are stepping up to welcome them and to support their transition. This is fantastic and wonderful and gives me hope for humanity.
And, we can contrast that with images made public last month of ICE officers rounding up and intimidating Haitian refugees on horseback, evoking terrible images of slave patrols in days past. The current administration has vigorously repudiated these actions by ICE but still, also, is sending most of these Haitian refugees back to Haiti. And even further, we have all observed how some politicians use the specter of immigration, illegal or otherwise, to rile up their base, to center their followers in fear and anxiety and the notion of white centrality and white supremacy.
The question of immigration is complicated one, for many countries the world over. The reality is that climate change, the pandemic, and active conflicts are creating large numbers of refugees world wide, and many countries are grappling with the logistics of accepting and integrating these refugees effectively and humanely. It takes a lot of resources and positive intention to do so, as well as foresight. I read recently that in the U.S. we are using asylum laws were written in the Cold War era to deal with our current refugee challenges, and I think we are finding that these laws are really not up to the task. And so, as the world and our country grapples with the question of how to manage the flow of immigration thoughtfully and charitably, I think it is worth taking a moment to see what our system of faith offers the conversation, to ask how it grounds our guiding ethos and intention.
When one is wondering how the bible talks about immigration, one often turns to a famous passage in Leviticus:
‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Lev 19:33-34)
We don’t often refer to Leviticus in church. It represents part of our history as a tradition, but the tradition has evolved over the millennia and parts of this book might feel irrelevant to our modern context. This is understandable. Leviticus represents the faith and practice of a specific group of people in a specific time period; we no longer share their context and so we no longer share many of those practices. But, it remains one of our sacred texts. Why? Because we recognize and worship the God from which it came, we recognize that as specificity may fall away, principle and ethos remains.
A good part of the book of Leviticus, which specifically includes Chapter 19, is often called The Holiness Code. We can see this reflected in how Chapter 19 begins: Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. Throughout the book of Leviticus, this statement or one similar occurs 152 times(1). But what is holiness exactly and how does it relate to all the very specific laws the book contains?
Holiness is one of those words that seems easily definable on its face, because we use it all the time, but more slippery when we interrogate it. Essentially, something that is holy is set apart, or different, or other, than what we experience in our everyday life. Think about how we understand our holy spaces, like this church. We treat them differently, reverently, because we want them to be something else, other than our everyday spaces. Or, when we want part of our everyday spaces to be holy, what do we do? We might arrange them differently, act in them differently, or speak a blessing (like grace at the dinner table) over them so that, even momentarily, the space is differentiated for us. Or perhaps you have had a holy experience? Maybe on a mountain top, or in meditation, or relationship with another. What was it about that experience that caused you to call it holy? I think it is likely because it felt different, it felt like the veil had been lifted back for a moment, you felt and saw and knew things differently, even though you were right here in the world as you always are.
This is why God is called holy. Not necessarily because God is good (although God is) or because God is powerful (although God is) but because holy is the word that we use to explain that God is “other” than us, or “beyond” us in some way. God is the source of whatever it is that is “different” to us in our experience of holiness.
But, God doesn’t want that essential otherness to equal remoteness or distance or inaccessibility. And so God is always inviting us into ways of thinking, appreciating, loving, seeing, and acting that bring us closer to God, that bring us closer to what we call holiness. You might recall that I preached on this two weeks ago, about having the kind of eyes that can see the holiness that is all around us. And this is what the book of Leviticus is really about. It is a long list of rituals and laws the purpose which would be to help the people of Israel live the kind of life that would let them feel and be close to God, a holy life.
But it is so important to recognize that the point of God inviting us into holiness is not for the purpose of rescue or escape, that we might become better than others, or so holy and pure that we can be drawn away from our world to get closer to God. As you might have noticed from our reading, so many of the laws were ones that would bring us into healthy relationship with the people around us. While the Hebrew word for holy means set apart, the english root for the word holy means whole, and both are getting at something important.
Recall how many times, just in our reading let alone in the whole book, we heard the phrase “I am the Lord.”
I will paraphrase: Leave the gleanings of your harvest for the poor, I am the Lord. Do not defraud, do pervert justice, do not anything that endangers your neighbors life, I am the Lord. Do not hate a fellow, do not seek revenge, I am the Lord. Over and over and over.
The character of God, the holiness of the Lord, was to be embodied, grounded, was to be found and excavated in the care that the Israelites showed one another. This is an ethos that we can draw from Leviticus that transcends time and context. It is as important to us now as it was to the Israelites then. And, then as now, loving our neighbor as ourselves is not just a rule to followed so that we can be called good, it is a reality to be evoked and created, it is completing a sacred circle. We are told: Do this, align with the character of the Lord, and bring it back around to become a holy connection with the people around us.
Which finally brings us back around to immigration. The Lord entreats the Israelites to be kind to the foreigner among them, directly confronting tribalism by telling them to treat a foreigner as if they native-born, with no distinction. And how were they to be in touch with their own best motivations in this practice? Through empathy: Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
God understands who we are. God understands how hard it is to love others sometimes, how easily we get possessive and protective, how easily we retreat or get distracted. God understands how seductive group-based dominance and hierarchy can be, how it can provide us with a surge of powerful but shallow personal significance. God understands who we are.
So God tells us to be guided by empathy, to remember our commonalities as human beings, as images of God. For the Israelites, they had a literal experience of being mistreated foreigners. These stories filled their narrative imagination, their escape to freedom defined their identity. So God called upon that memory as a guide, paraphrased by Jesus’ contemporary Rabbi Hillel as: what is hateful to yourself, do not do to another. The Israelites had a visceral experience of trauma at the hands of a despotic ruler, and God said: remember that and do not perpetuate that trauma upon others.
And the same spiritual principle works for us now. We thankfully, may not have personal stories of political persecution or trauma or displacement to guide our empathy, but we might not have to go very far in either our family histories or relationship networks to find someone who has. My grandmother was a Latvian refugee in the second world war. I’m quite sure it changed her, as it did her whole family. And at minimum, at a basic level, we all know what it feels like to be afraid, to be despairing, to not know who we can count on, to not know where we belong, to be afraid that we don’t in fact belong anywhere.
But we do, we all do, belong that is. This is the ethos of the holiness code. God stands apart, but only because *we* choose to be petty and small and blind. Of course God stands apart from that. But God, and God’s holiness, is deeply deeply present in the love that we show to one another, not as sanction or reward, but because when we love one other, enfold one another into community, especially when it is hard, we are living into the true reality that is the character of God, we are living into whatever it is that is behind the veil, that we can sometimes glimpse when we are quiet and open and ready.
With the eyes of our spiritual tradition, we can look upon the earthy challenge of immigration and see that it is an opportunity to practice holiness, that it is an opportunity to embody the character and ethos of God in our everyday. Of course, that is going to take a lot of work, political will, give and take, and probably some mistakes. And it also doesn’t mean that God doesn’t support healthy boundaries (and that is a topic for another day.). But what *is* clear, is that if we are looking to the bible to justify in-group and out-group thinking, it doesn’t. Our text today takes that completely off the table. That kind of thinking does not express the character of God; it is the opposite of holy.
Our Swedenborg readings makes the distinction, that a spiritual life is not about being holy per se, but about being a vessel, a dwelling place, for truths and goods, for ways of thinking and acting, that are holy. The Lord alone is holy; may we reflect as many precious points of light as we can.
(1) The New Interpreters Bible, pg 520
Leviticus 19:1-6, 9-20, 32-37
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. 3 “ ‘Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. 4 “ ‘Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the LORD your God. 5 “ ‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. 6 It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up.
9 “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God. 11 “ ‘Do not steal. “ ‘Do not lie. “ ‘Do not deceive one another. 12 “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. 13 “ ‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “ ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. 14 “ ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. 15 “ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. 17 “ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. 19 “ ‘Keep my decrees. “ ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. “ ‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. “ ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.
32 “ ‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD. 33 “ ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. 35 “ ‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. 37 “ ‘Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD.’ ”
Apocalypse Revealed 586:3
Those people who live according to the Word's truths are called saints, not because they are holy, but because the truths in them are holy; and truths are holy when they come from the Lord in them, and they have the Lord in them when they have His truths in them