Readings: 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Luke 1:46-53, True Christianity 394, 395(3) (see below)
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We’ve been jumping around in the Bible a little lately. We spent some time in the book of Ruth, then fast forwarded to the end of King David’s reign. Now we jump back to the days closer to the time of Ruth again, to hear a song of praise from a woman named Hannah.
To set the context: Hannah was to become the mother of the great prophet Samuel. But as we begin 1 Samuel, we find that she is the beloved wife of a man named Elkanah and she is also barren. She yearns for a son, especially since Elkanah’s other wife had many children, and was very nasty to Hannah on that account. So, Hannah went to pray at a holy place named Shiloh. She prayed so intensely but silently that the priest Eli thought she was drunk. But once she unburdened herself to him, he added his prayer to hers, and soon she found herself with child. In gratitude, when her son was weaned, she returned him to Shiloh and to Eli, so that his life might be given in service to the Lord.
It is at this point, that she sends another prayer up to God, the one we hear in our text today. She speaks of rejoicing and of praise, but most significantly she speaks of reversal. She speaks of those with power and strength being humbled, and of those who are empty and vulnerable being lifted up. She speaks of the fact that God is in the business of resurrection, of being present to those who suffer and enacting a change in their circumstances. She sings a song of God’s providence and care for human beings. Like many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures, the story and words of her as an individual character also speaks to the trajectory of the Israelite people as a whole.
Hannah’s words are echoed many books later in Mary’s song, often called The Magnificat. The similarities are obvious. Both are praising God after a miraculous pregnancy, both are drawing attention to the transformation of their lowly state into a triumphant one. Their vulnerabilities are slightly different: Hannah was older and married and despairing due to her barrenness, suffering due to the expectation that women would bear children, and the fact that their worthiness was often tied to their fertility. Mary was younger, inconsequential, as yet unmarried with no real status, a Jew under Roman rule, a nobody. But both received an invitation into a different reality, and both recognized what God was doing. That when God acts, there is always a necessary upheaval.
Swedenborg writes that our love is our life; it is what drives and motivates us.(1) So of course, the quality of that love, *what* we love, determines the direction we are going. And as we heard in our reading today, he organizes the kinds of human love into four main categories: Loving the Lord, loving others, loving the self, and loving the world. What is key, is that none of these loves, even the last two, are inherently bad, rather, it is the order that they are in that counts. Of course we should love ourselves; God wants us to feel self-confidence and self-worth, because we are beloved in God’s eyes. We should all see ourselves as God sees us. And of course we should love the world, not only the magnificence of creation but the ingenuity and the goodness of the societies that humans have built together. God blesses human striving and learning and making. But problems come when love of self and the world are constantly and unreasonably put first all the time. These loves then become shadow versions of themselves. A habitual centering of our selfhood and our benefit above others, a habitual coveting of worldly possessions and wealth and reputation; this is an inversion of God’s wise and loving divine order. That order of things, as Hannah and Mary both knew, will lead to a barrenness of the spirit.
Yet, how easy it is for the order to get out of whack! How easy for us personally, and collectively! How easy it is to be courted and seduced by ideologies of superiority and accumulation! To believe it is a good thing to put our own interest ahead of others because we have come to believe the other is deficient or dangerous in some way. To believe it is a good thing to accumulate as much as possible just because we can, or because we think it demonstrates our cleverness. To believe it is a good thing to win at any cost because our cause is so righteous. To believe it is a good thing to never change our minds, or be open to learning, because certainty is strength and openness is weakness.
But none of those ways of thinking are the gospel. None of those things are what is communicated by the story of Advent. A sweet and cooing baby in the manger is only part of the story. The rejoicing and the angels and the gift-giving are only part of the story. The main part of the story is that God’s providence for us always involves a necessary upheaval, the work of uprooting love of self and the world when they have settled in the wrong order and planting them back where they belong, as a support for mutual love. Even a welcome pregnancy is still an upheaval, it is just one we are expecting and waiting for. And this is why the Advent lectionary usually includes a healthy amount of John the Baptist. His whole deal is “get ready, prepare the way.” He doesn’t mean settle in with a cup of cocoa. He means get ready for a necessary upheaval. He means prepare yourself for the work of changing what needs to be changed.
Both women’s songs come during a time when Israel was struggling. In Hannah’s time, Israel was still a nation of tribes, suffering under corruption and disunity. In Mary’s time, Israel was captive under Roman rule, no longer captain of its own fate. Yet, into these troubling circumstances, these women spoke of a God who saw those struggles and cared about them, who stepped in to support a change of circumstances.
Hannah would give birth to Samuel, a great prophet, who would preside over the establishment of Israel as a kingdom. Mary would give birth to Jesus, who would transform our ideas about God and jumpstart a new religious movement. But we must notice though, that God doesn’t just change the circumstances themselves, wave a magic wand that suddenly makes everything perfect. God supports change by uplifting the process of new life, of birth. In each of these stories a child is born, who would go on to make choices that would have an amazing impact.
So too is the picture of our inner lives. God doesn’t just change the order of our loves like moving chess pieces on a board. Let’s be honest, we would just move them right back to where they were. God steps in by helping us to take advantage of situations where we can grow. God steps in by saying to us, “Would you like to grow this new life inside of you? Here is a way that you can do it. Do you accept?” And the choice is ours. We can choose whether or not to give birth to something new that will change the way we see the world, and the way that we act within it.
And the way that we act within the world, collectively, makes a difference to all of us. What is so moving about Hannah and Mary’s songs is that they are not just talking about their own journey, they are not just talking about individual people, but systems of power. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more (1 Samuel 2:5, 8). This speaks to physical, social and spiritual realities all at the same time. The necessary upheavals in our own spirit play out in the choices that we make, and the choices that we make act together to create the world we live in.
This is what makes scripture so powerful, that we can see the levels of connection. We can see that Hannah and Mary are speaking of themselves *and* Israel, as well as speaking of us and our own time. We can see that the workings of our own spirit, our own strivings and stumblings and triumphs, they are connected to the same things in our world of now, and the so the mighty question of Advent is not “how will be celebrate the birth of our Lord?” but “how will I be changed by it?” What necessary upheaval will we say yes to this year?
But those who stumbled are armed with strength (I Samuel 2:2:4). This is the promise of Advent, a promise that we all need, this year more than ever. The life of the spirit, the discipline of the life intentionally lived in relationship with spirit, is the acceptance of the necessity of upheaval. There are times, like Hannah, when we are praying fervently for it, knowing it needs to come, making ourselves ready. And there are time we are more like Mary, surprised and puzzled to find it on our doorstep. But either way, the Advent call is to take a deep breath and say “Yes Lord: Reinvent me according to your will.” My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1:46-47).
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #78
1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. 2 “There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed. 4 “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. 5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. 6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; on them he has set the world. 9 He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness. “It is not by strength that one prevails; 10 those who oppose the LORD will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth. “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
True Christianity #394 and #395(3)
There Are Three Universal Categories of Love: Love for Heaven; Love for the World; and Love for Ourselves
We are starting with these three categories of love because they are universal and fundamental to all types of love and because goodwill has something in common with each of the three.
Love for heaven means love for the Lord and also love for our neighbor. Love for heaven could be called love for usefulness, because both love for the Lord and love for our neighbor have usefulness as their goal.
395 When these three categories of love are properly prioritized in us, they are also coordinated in such a way that the highest love, our love for heaven, is present in the second love, our love for the world, and through that in the third or lowest love, our love for ourselves. In fact, the love that is inside steers the love that is outside wherever it wants. Therefore if a love for heaven is present in our love for the world and through that in our love for ourselves, with each type of love we accomplish useful things that are inspired by the God of heaven.
…if these three loves are prioritized in the right way, they improve us, but if they are not prioritized in the right way, they damage us and turn us upside down.
Readings: 2 Samuel 23:1-7, True Christianity #490 and #440 (see below)
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So today we hear a text centered in the final period of King David’s life. We spent the last few weeks in the book of Ruth, the story of a loyal Moabite woman who followed her mother-in-law to Israel, and became David’s great-grandmother, establishing kindness as central to the linage of a great king, rather than purity.
Now we fast forward past a couple of generations, past the great prophet Samuel and the tragic King Saul, to the end of King David’s reign. And we hear in our text what are called his “Last Words.” Now, if you keep reading in 2 Samuel, and I Kings, you’ll see that David doesn’t actually die quite yet. He continues long enough to establish his son, Solomon on the throne, and in truth, his actual final words are to Solomon, giving him advice for his future reign.
The text in 2 Samuel is David’s final public words, his final prophetic utterance as God’s anointed, and as author of many psalms, his final work of art and praise. For we remember, David was once a young boy who played the harp so beautifully that it calmed the troubled King Saul.
However, as we read the text, we certainly might pause in puzzlement. We might wonder, how can David say that the spirit of Lord spoke through him, how can David speak of ruling over people in righteousness and in the fear of God, and having a house right with God, when David himself undertook gross abuses of his power, the consequences of which played out in the bloody disarray of his family in the final years of his reign? There is a real tension that exists in the Hebrew scriptures around the exultation of King David, who was a terribly imperfect person and ruler. In fact, throughout the bible as a whole, there are many more imperfect characters than there are model ones, and as we learned through our study of the book of Ruth, even the stories of the model characters are more complicated than they might first seem.
David said: “If my house were not right with God, surely he would not have with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part; surely he would not bring to fruition my salvation…” It might chafe to hear David speak so, the first part being such an obvious glossing over of the disarray we will only need to turn the page to find. This is a truth filtered through the ego of a king, through the fuzzy lens of nostalgia and through royal deference.
But what is it trying to communicate at its core? That the existence of God’s covenant with us really doesn’t have anything to do with how good we are. Now, the efficacy of the covenant certainly does, but not its existence. Can you imagine what would happen if the covenant depended on our perfection? It quite simply would not exist at all. The everlasting covenant is not centered in human power or will in any way, it is centered in God’s. And God is steadfast, period. The covenant will remain, and God promised that way back with Noah and the rainbow. Thank goodness, for we will all continue to screw up in ways both new and exciting as well as habitual and everyday. Is our house right with God? I’m sure there are many ways I’m we can all convict ourselves, large and small.
David’s house was certainly not right with God, in the sense that nothing needed to be improved. But it was right enough in spirit, even if there was much to be desired in execution. David was not unrepentant on the whole; he had learned many things along the way. And what he had learned was this:
The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.
What does this communicate? That while the existence of the covenant is never in question, that the chance to live into the covenant is never in question, the efficacy of the covenant, what it produces, is not guaranteed. When we consciously align ourselves with God’s purposes and intention, clarity and generativity are brought forth. David uses nature metaphors to express what the quality of ideal Godly rule looks like, and by extension, what it looks like when we all live into the covenant. That dawn light filled with color that seems to hold infinite possibility within it; it’s like that. The way the earth glistens and smells alive after a rain, the way green shoots respond and push upward; it’s like that. Who wouldn’t want to live their life within that kind of moment?
But a couple of notes: first, the *fear* of God. I think we can safely read that as a reverence or an awe of God, rather than actual fear. God doesn’t not wish to evoke fear from us, even if that were to mean we stayed in line. A reverence though, a holy awe, that kind of stance puts us in our place but in a good way, one that keeps us open rather than closed and cramped, one that naturally invites gratitude rather than grievance.
And second, notice that we are not promised that we will get what we want. Living into the covenant, aligning ourselves with God - the text tells us what that is like, not what it will get us. It is like the quality of being in the dawn of a day, it is like being able to see clearly, it is like feeling nourished and ready to burst into growth. Those are all qualities of life that are very different to the sense of “life going well” or success in earthly terms or getting what we desire, even if we what we desire is good and reasonable.
David misunderstood many things, but he understood the most important thing. He needed to keep returning to God, he needed to keep God at the center of his rule and his life. David was trying. Not always succeeding, but trying. Many of the kings that would come after him would not have even that barest quality. They would nakedly, plainly, chase after their own self-interest time and again.
The key, the only key, to living into the covenant, is the quality of openness that de-centers our selfhood and centers God instead. This is not so much an act of submission as it is an act of inoculation. There is such a thing as a healthy selfhood; God has given us that gift. But, it only comes if are willing to give it up, if we refuse to cling to it. Habitual self-centering, instead, little by little builds a precarious and desperate type of success; it will never be enough, it can never countenance it’s own limit, and so it turns into something that David likens to thorns, something that in the words of one of my commentaries, “chokes life and causes pain.” We heard similar language in our Swedenborg reading: that a focus on self leads to “a stifling and an extinction of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor.” These are our options, in essence. Do we want to be the ground that lets life arise, or the thorn that chokes it?
And so we find ourselves in the week of Thanksgiving, where we intentionally practice gratitude in community with each other. What I like about where this text is placed in the lectionary calendar is that it identifies not only what we can be grateful for, but how gratitude naturally arises. For it is one thing to make a list and say thank you; this act of gratitude de-centers the self for a moment, and that is good. But the ongoing spiritual work of Thanksgiving is to the de-center the self first and proactively so that gratitude can flow in every moment, so that our natural inclination is to look away from our ego and give thanks.
And so we say thank you to our steadfast God, who has covenanted with us to always be present and open and ready. We are about to enter into Advent which makes much of “Do not be afraid.” We need not fear that our God is capricious, we need not fear that our shortcomings, or our history of shortcomings, will chase God away. They never can and never will, for God keeps God’s promises.
And also, we receive an invitation, for the shape and form and quality of the covenant, like any agreement between parties, depends upon our partnership. What do we want it to be like? Perhaps like a Thanksgiving bounty brought in by people who work the earth with love, like a feast born from cooperation between guests, like a table with one more chair squeezed in, like a quiet and contemplative sufficiency. Perhaps like a clear sunrise, like morning, like the brightness after rain, like the grass that rises from the earth. That sounds good to me.
2 Samuel 23:1-7
1 These are the last words of David: “The inspired utterance of David son of Jesse, the utterance of the man exalted by the Most High, the man anointed by the God of Jacob, the hero of Israel’s songs: 2 “The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me; his word was on my tongue. 3 The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: ‘When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, 4 he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.’ 5 “If my house were not right with God, surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part; surely he would not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire. 6 But evil men are all to be cast aside like thorns, which are not gathered with the hand. 7 Whoever touches thorns uses a tool of iron or the shaft of a spear; they are burned up where they lie.”
True Christianity 439
As Long as We Believe That Everything Good Comes from the Lord, We Do Not Take Credit for the Things We Do As We Practice Goodwill
It is damaging for us to take credit for things we do for the sake of our salvation. Hidden within our credit-taking there are evil attitudes of which we are unaware at the time: denial that God flows in and works in us; confidence in our own power in regard to salvation; faith in ourselves and not in God; [the delusion that] we justify and save ourselves by our own strength; contempt for divine grace and mercy; rejection of reformation and regeneration by divine means; and especially disregard for the merit and justice of the Lord God our Savior, which we then claim as our own. In our taking credit there is also a continual focus on our own reward and perception of it as our first and last goal, a stifling and an extinction of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor, and total ignorance and unawareness of the pleasure involved in heavenly love (which takes no credit), while all we feel is our love for ourselves.
True Christianity 440
The pleasure of doing good to their neighbor is their reward. The angels in heaven feel this pleasure. It is a spiritual pleasure that is eternal. It immeasurably surpasses every earthly pleasure. People who have this pleasure do not want to hear about getting credit - they love doing good and feel joy in it.
Readings: Ruth 3:1-11, 4:13-17, True Christianity 599 (see below)
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Here we are in the third installment of our series on the book of Ruth. Let’s recap where we have been. Naomi is an Israelite women who goes to live in Moab due to famine. Her sons marry local Moabite women, one of whom was named Ruth. After a time, Naomi’s husband and sons die, and she has no choice but to return to Israel. She is bitter and feels forsaken by God. But, even though it means leaving her homeland, Ruth will not abandon Naomi, and so she travels to Israel with her.
Once they arrive, they must contend with how they will survive. Ruth attempts to glean the leftovers from the harvest in the fields of a local wealthy landowner named Boaz. Boaz had heard of Ruth’s act of loyalty to Naomi and orders extra grain to be left behind for Ruth to collect. Naomi is glad to hear of this development, and points out that Boaz is related to her husband’s family and thus has a responsibly for their welfare. She calls him their guardian-redeemer, a specific term with both social and legal meanings.
Today we hear the climax and the resolution of the story in chapters 3 and 4. Naomi has a plan for securing their future, and so she gives Ruth some very specific instructions. These instructions probably sound pretty strange to us now - uncovering feet? - and we might not really feel clear about what is happening.
But what might confuse us a little in English is very plain in the Hebrew. The original text contains a lot of suggestive wordplay and euphemistic terms. Given Ruth’s model behavior in the previous chapters, our first instinct might be to resist what is suggested in the Hebrew text, to make her completely chaste, non-transgressive, uncalculating, and demure. But the fact is, Ruth takes a risk here, and acts outside of what might have been considered acceptable behavior in Israelite society. We might wonder: was it right for her to do so? Was it “right” for Naomi to ask Ruth to act in such a way? And what does “right” in this context even mean?
Boaz must have been aware of his relationship to their family, and of his responsibility as their guardian-redeemer. Yet, as of Chapter 3, he had not done anything more than allow Ruth to glean a little extra grain. We might also ask: was he intending to act? Why was he taking so long? What would have happened if Ruth had done nothing? Was it not “right” for Ruth to call him to account, to remind him of his responsibility?
Like many stories in the Bible, these characters are all very human, feeling real human emotions, acting with mixed human motives, trying their best within the context they are given, sometimes falling short, and sometimes bringing about miracles.
As one of my commentaries notes:
“We have to acknowledge that what Ruth did was scandalous in the eyes of the world, *and* that it was an act of loving kindness.”(1) It was an act that sought to take care of her mother-in-law, to alleviate her emptiness; it was an act that gently called a “pillar of Israelite society to responsibility”(2) as well as relationship, it was an act that would heal a family and begin a line that would culminate in one of Israel’s greatest leaders.
And so the text prompts us to ask ourselves, in what ways might *we* be called to risk, might we be called to push against social norms in order to practice connective and covenantal love, what in the Hebrew is called hesed, love that enfolds people into community. Is there a place in our lives that is calling out for accountability, for relationship, for encouragement, for change, but we are constrained by what feels to us like social respectability, social expectations, and the embarrassment and fear associated with with pushing against those norms?
Because, the next most important question to ask is: What occurs as a result of Ruth’s risk-taking? One thing, among many, is that Naomi experiences a reversal of her emptiness. Her overall and understandable bitterness drives the narrative of the first chapter. But by the end of the story, we find her heart is filled again. The narrative is signaling that her personal trajectory mirrors the trajectory of her people as a whole, that her grandchild, so precious to her in a personal way, will also play his part in leading a whole people towards redemption, as a link in King David’s familial line. An act of risk, courage and hope, grounded in hesed, that first *uncovers* and lays bare human vulnerability and need, and then culminates in the *recovery* of hope and meaning.
The text aims to drive this home in its use of language. The Hebrew scriptures often like to juxtapose similar sounding words in order to contrast their meaning. In chapter 3, we notice the juxtaposition of the word gala, meaning uncover, reveal or remove, and gaal, meaning recover, redeem, or restore. In the words of my commentary again: the “narrator encourages the audience to consider the ways in which uncovering can lead to recovering - the redemption of what was lost.” (3)
Ruth acts to uncover the feet of Boaz - and in the Hebrew this has a suggestive association. And yet, this uncovering leads to a recovering. Her vulnerability and his responsibility are uncovered, and into that place of need a relationship is formed, and dignity is recovered.
Swedenborg writes about how the act of “uncovering” in the bible represents a removing of external things so that internal ones may be apparent(4). Often, external things (learned perspectives, attachments, anxieties, habits) get in the way of spiritual progress. But, as suggested in our Swedenborg reading, this is just part of the process, a process of redemption that has been built into the divine design. We are called to uncover the truth about ourselves, to quiet the ego long enough for truth to be revealed to us, and then to remove that which cannot serve love, cannot serve hesed. This act of faithful gala — uncovering— makes space for, makes a path for, gaal — restoration.
And so as we consider divine design, and God’s intention for us, we might ask, where is God in the book of Ruth? Even though the narrative is dealing with very human problems and very human interactions, God’s presence is very much woven into the story as well. There are no prophets speaking God’s word directly, the settings are fields and roads and threshing floors rather than tabernacles or a burning bush, and yet God feels very close to this story, we see God within this story. The way God is known in the book of Ruth is through people. There is loss, and there is death and God responds with loyalty and hesed from a daughter-in-law. There is poverty and uncertainty and God responds with mutual relationship and kindness from one who can help. There is bitterness and perceived abandonment, and God responds with new birth and new life.
In chapter 3, verse 9, Ruth asks Boaz to spread his garment, or his cloak over her. The word for cloak, kanap, is also the word for wing, and Boaz had previously used that word in chapter 2, when he praised Ruth for her loyalty “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” We might wonder though, how much at the time he said this, was this some vague blessing, or did he consider the reality that many times the love of God becomes real and palpable through human decision. Ruth makes that connection clear to him, that if God’s wings are to give her refuge, that refuge in a physical sense must come through him. One of the ways that God’s love finds its way to us, is by the care and concern we show each other.
And so we find ourselves back to asking the question: what is our part? We are all sometimes Naomi, sometimes Ruth, sometimes Boaz. Naomi’s bitterness was not where she began, or where she was destined to end up. She was taking a detour, a necessary and understandable one, one that we all take from time to time. But God’s wings were over her the entire time. May we all find the courage to step into our place in the divine process, the uncovering and the recovering, one that brings all people into redemption. Amen.
Ruth 3:1-11, 4:13-17
1 One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. 2 Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 3 Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” 5 “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. 6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do. 7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! 9 “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” 10 “The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” 16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
True Christianity 599
During the battles or conflicts within us, the Lord carries out an individual act of redemption, much like the all-encompassing redemption he brought about while he was in the world.
While he was in the world, the Lord glorified his human manifestation, that is, made it divine, through battles and inner conflict. In a similar way within us individually, the Lord fights for us while we are undergoing inner conflict and conquers the hellish spirits who are assaulting us. Afterward he "glorifies" us, that is, makes us spiritual.
After his universal redemption, the Lord restructured all things in heaven and in hell in accordance with the divine design. He does much the same thing in us after crises of the spirit - that is, he restructures all the things in us that relate to heaven and the world in accordance with the divine design.
Readings: Ruth 2:1-12, 15-20, True Christianity 126
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Today we hear about what happened to Naomi and Ruth as they settled into life in Bethlehem. Without husbands, and more specifically, without ancestral land, they had no way to support themselves other than gleaning from the fields of others, essentially collecting leftovers from the harvest. This is how Ruth meets Boaz, a wealthy landowner. Now, as we had heard a few weeks ago, the book of Leviticus stated that provision should be made for widows and foreigners, people exactly like Naomi and Ruth. And it seems that this is what Boaz had been doing and we can imagine that Ruth probably wasn’t the only one gleaning leftovers from the harvest. However, we hear in the text a particular kindness from Boaz: he instructs his workers to leave extra gleanings behind for Ruth to gather.
When Naomi hears about the connection that Ruth made with Boaz, she is happy for more than one reason. Boaz is not some random benevolent landowner. He has a connection to their family, a connection that puts him in a position of responsibility for their welfare. She calls him their “guardian-redeemer.”
This introduces another important theme in the book of Ruth: redemption. It is a theme that is explored at many levels. On one level, the term “guardian-redeemer” has specific meaning in Israelite law, one that has more to do with property and linage than with spirit or emotion. But we can also see that the book is exploring redemption in a deeper sense: how was Naomi going to be rescued from her bitterness? How might Ruth be rescued from a life of uncertainty and poverty and otherness? How might God be working for the benefit, the redemption, of the Israelite people? Scholars believe that the book of Ruth, while placed narratively in the time between the judges and the kings, was probably written in the days following the Israelites exile in Babylon, as commentary on how, and with what values, the Israelites might rebuild their nation. It was a book that spoke into the embodied redemption of beginning a society again.
So I thought today might be a good time to explore the idea of redemption in a theological sense. We are just a few weeks away from entering the liturgical season of Advent, where we will hear plenty of “redeemer” language, as we tell the story of how God reached out into the world to be incarnated as a person like you and me. In the gospel of Luke, after meeting the baby Jesus, Zechariah sings “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.” (Luke 1:68) A question we might have is: What does it mean to be redeemed? And how does a little baby born millennia ago redeem me now?
To redeem something, in basic everyday terms, means to buy, recover or exchange something (like redeeming a coupon). The word redemption starts to bring in more existential shades of meaning, defined as deliverance, rescue or atonement.
Both of these definitions start to give shape to our discussion: they reflect a situation of being or having one thing, and wanting or needing to have another. The word redemption describes the journey from the first state to the second. The term redeemer describes someone to enables that journey to occur.
In the book of Ruth, we have our two main characters mired in a state of bitterness and poverty, and the story is tracing their journey from this first state into another different state, as we will see, an objectively better one. Boaz helps them on that journey, and is called their guardian-redeemer.
Likewise, in Advent, we tell a similar story in terms of the whole of humanity. The gospel of John begins with themes of light and darkness. The world was a dark place, as were the hearts of people, and something needed to be done. Jesus, the light of the world, comes to help people on that journey of redemption.
But often times, the theology of redemption is presented in very transactional terms. A lot of traditional Christian theology pictures a God who is angry because the people of the world are so sinful, with hearts so dark that they are not listening to all the ways that God has offered redemption before. And when people transgress, according to ancient religion, there must be a consequence, there must be a price paid to God. So, some Christian theologies say, that Jesus stepped in to pay that price for us, to pay the price due to God for our sins, then and forever more. The ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate act of redeeming that will last forever.
So this is like if perhaps we decide we want to do a dine and dash. We eat a meal at a restaurant but leave without paying. So Jesus steps in to pay the bill, stopping the police from coming after us.
However, Swedenborg has a different understanding of redemption. For, as kind and selfless an act as Jesus’ atonement our sins might have been, it is undergirded by untenable assumptions. For Swedenborg, it was impossible that God should be angry and vengeful. God can only be divinely loving and wise, mourning our evil choices but never despising us, and never demanding restitution for God’s own sake, only desiring a holistic accountability anchored in our transformation. And if God is not angry and vengeful, demanding a price for our transgressions, then the whole substitutionary atonement thing fall apart. And if it does, then was Jesus’ sacrifice all about? How was Jesus redeeming us if not paying our bill?
Because what Swedenborg was seeing in his own religious circles, was people praising Jesus paying the bill, but continuing to dine and dash, because, you know, Jesus is paying the bill. And Swedenborg wondered how this could ever be what the divine wanted or intended. Where was the room, where was the imperative, for human emotional and spiritual development?
Not surprisingly, Swedenborg, scientist that he was, was interested in the systemic questions. Why were people turning away from God? And what might God do to help us not sin in the future?
Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences allowed him to see a broader view of the trajectory of humanity, within the context of our constant connection to the spirit. Heaven and hell are made up of people from this world, and they remain connected us who are still living. Which unfortunately means that the more people choose selfishness and domination as the anchor of their life, the stronger hell will be over time. Swedenborg explains that, in Jesus’ day, God needed to subdue hell for the sake of us all, and could have vanquished it by the power of the divine in seconds. But God continues to love all creatures forever, and so needed to put things in order in a way that still respected human autonomy and human life, even those who choose evil.
So God, instead of solving things from outside of the process, entered into the process that has been ordained for us, became human, became a form that could actually be tempted by hell and used our common humanity as both a model for living and a way to overcome evil and the love of power.
And so, this like instead of using explosives to clear a blocked drain by blowing the whole drain up, God became a plumber, clearing away the blockage with the appropriate tools, so allowing for the free flow of water once again, while preserving the structure of the drain.
The way the God accomplished that clearing away, also had ongoing implications for each of our spiritual journeys. By entering into the process with us, God created a connection and a closeness that continues to serve us. Think about how much harder it would be to deal with a blocked drain if we: didn’t know that plumbers were a thing, didn’t know how to reach one, didn’t think they could make it to our house because they live too far away, didn’t have access to a phone. And think about how much more secure we feel when we know we have a good and competent plumber on speed dial who will always always respond. God saved us, redeemed us, as in moved humanity from one state to another, cleared the drain for us, by entering into a deeper relationship with us, by creating a new opportunity for connection and responsiveness.
In this view, redemption is not just about transaction. Not just about our bill being paid. We human beings can suffer in a multitude of ways, both of our own creation, and completely not our own fault. And how we make the journey out of that suffering can be complicated. Our need is not always just forgiveness, sometimes our need is one of letting go, reframing, patience, evolution. And so redemption is a journey, and if God is to effect our redemption, to be our redeemer, God has to be on the journey with us, has to be responsive to what we need in the moment. Paying our bill is indeed be a good and kind thing in many a case, but is not sufficient for the totality of human spiritual development. The end goal, as we heard in our reading, is partnership with God. For that, we need more, and thankfully, God gave more.
What kind of redemption will we be be seeing in the book of Ruth? We will see Boaz taking a sustained interest, waiting to hear about what Ruth needs, dealing with that particular specificity in their culture and situation, and doing so with kindness and respect. The story understands that redemption is indeed a journey, with many moving parts, actors and beneficiaries. Redemption built on relationship, built on partnership. It’s the more complicated way, but it bears so much fruit. Thanks be to God.
Ruth 2:1-12, 15-20
1 Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” 3 So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek. 4 Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The LORD be with you!” “The LORD bless you!” they answered. 5 Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?” 6 The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” 8 So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. 9 Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” 10 At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” 11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
15 As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. 16 Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her.” 17 So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. 18 She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough. 19 Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!” Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said. 20 “The LORD bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers. ”
True Christianity 126
Suffering on the cross was the final trial the Lord underwent as the greatest prophet. It was a means of glorifying his human nature, that is, of uniting that nature to his Father's divine nature. It was not redemption. There are two things for which the Lord came into the world and through which he saved people and angels: redemption, and the glorification of his human aspect. These two things are distinct from each other, but they become one in contributing to salvation.
In the preceding points we have shown what redemption was: battling the hells, gaining control over them, and then restructuring the heavens. Glorification, however, was the uniting of the Lord's human nature with the divine nature of his Father. This process occurred in successive stages and was completed by the suffering on the cross.
All of us have to do our part and move closer to God. The closer we come to God, the more God enters us, which is his part…
The union itself [between the Lord's divine and human natures] was completed by the suffering on the cross, because this suffering was the final spiritual test that the Lord went through in the world. Spiritual tests lead to a partnership [with God]. During our spiritual tests, we are apparently left completely alone, although in fact we are not alone - at those times God is most intimately present at our deepest level giving us support. Because of that inner presence, when any of us have success in a spiritual test we form a partnership with God at the deepest level. In the Lord's case, he was then united to God, his Father, at the deepest level.