Risk and Restoration

Risk and Restoration

Ruth is a charming, human and very earthy story. It is a good thing we have the kids out of the sanctuary.  Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, and Naomi’s kinsmen recognized her and greeted her.  But Naomi, who was still deeply in grief said, “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for I am very bitter over my losses.”  But Naomi could not remain paralyzed by her grief.  She had already picked up and moved from Moab back to Bethlehem in order to try to survive, and like other survivors, she soon had a plan to try to secure her and her daughter-in-law’s future.

Naomi was a wise woman.  She recognized Ruth’s beauty and sent her daughter-in-law to glean in the fields of a relative in hopes that Ruth might be “noticed.”  When Ruth was indeed noticed by Boaz, Naomi made plans to take advantage of the situation.  “Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?”

So Naomi had Ruth take a bath, put all of the moisturizer and perfume on her they had left,  washed Ruth’s best outfit, and sent her to Boaz’s threshing floor in the evening with instructions.  “Go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”

Now we are all adults right?  So let me let you in on a little piece of Bible trivia.  For sensitive or prudish ears, this part of the story may be too risqué.  You may want to put your fingers in your ears.   I know your fifth grade Sunday School teacher didn’t  mention this, but feet in the ancient Hebrew was often a euphemism for genitals.

Naomi and Ruth were using time honored feminine strategy for survival.  Neither Ruth or Naomi, because they were female could make a claim to Elimelech’s land, but Boaz as a male kinsmen could.   As it turned out there was another kinsmen who was a closer relative who was ugly and not nearly as nice as Boaz, who could have claimed Elimelch’s land, if he was willing to marry Naomi or Ruth, so there is in the story a moment of suspense.  Will the two, now lovers, be able to marry?  Or will they be torn apart by the ugly relatives desire to get his hands on Elimelch’s land?  (Marilyn Puett should write this up as a Romance.)   As it turns out the nearer relative would love to have had Elimelech’s land, but he didn’t want the added complication of incorporating two additional women into his family.  He wanted big land but not big love.  So Boaz was able to claim Ruth as his bride and Naomi then had a place in the household.

Naomi ceased to be Mara for her bitterness was gone, and when Ruth gave birth to a son, Naomi became the caregiver prompting her friends to say:  “A son has been born to Naomi.”  All’s well that ends well.  From death and grief Naomi is restored to life and joy.  And one reason the story was remembered is that Ruth was the great-grandmother of the Great King David.  And that is why the story was finally written down in the time after the exile.  For when the scribes began trying to force men to divorce their foreign wives and disown the children of those unions, the writer of the story was reminding everyone that their greatest King had been the descendant of the marriage of a Hebrew and a Moabite woman.

What do we learn from this story?  Faith is not a bunch of ideas – faith is not beliefs.  Faith is life lived out in relationships – earthy, messy relationships in covenant with other people and ultimately with God.  Faith is Naomi sending Ruth to the threshing floor, Ruth obeying Naomi out of love, and Boaz knowing what to do.  It’s complicated.  And faith is also the assertion that in this very human covenant making God was somehow in the midst of it.  Faith is recovery from grief and restoration of land and promise.  Faith recognizes that great leaders can come from irregular liaisons.  (Just check out Jesus’ pedigree in Matthew chapter 1.  It’s not just a bunch of begats.)  Faith also involves risk taking.  Will Boaz still respect Ruth in the morning?  Will the claim of the nearer kinsmen prevent the two lovers from marrying?  We live by faith and not by sight.  It’s messy!  So all of the play it safe, no nonsense, prove it to me, neat and tidy people just need to get over it!

Risk and restoration, is there some risk God might be calling you to make?   Risk is hard.  On Thursday nights I am constantly asking people around the sharing table to pray for me for courage and faith.  Human relationships are so messy.  I feel special compassion for young people today, because they are setting out in life in a culture that is even messier than the world in which I began my life.  The younger generation does not rush to make commitments.  Maybe today’s young people are just smarter than I was.  When many of us were young we thought we could choose a career and a life partner, and those decisions would hold us for the rest of our lives.

Today young people expect they will not only change jobs, they will probably change careers at least four or five times in their lives.  There are some estimates that suggest  most people will change careers not just jobs as many as seven times in their lives.

Even churches are being called upon to change and take risks.  Part of the cautiousness of the younger generation in making commitments means that younger people are not joining churches.  They don’t want to make a commitment to an organization that may not fully embrace them, and will probably inevitably disappoint them.  And because relationships are messy even in congregations most churches will at times disappoint us.  We can’t keep doing what we have always done, and expect the church will continue.  We will have the risk change.

Even for those of us who are older change is all around us.  Assumptions we made only a few years ago about retirement age, health care, 401K’s, pensions are all shifting and changing.  When I started working the retirement age was 65.  Now I am supposed to work until I am 66 and 2/3’s might as well call it 67, and who knows what will happen after congress is done trying to fix the fiscal cliff.  Also as we get older despite our best efforts our bodies change.  These wonderful bodies that are God’s gift to us.  We are awesomely and wonderfully made.

Like it or not, however, bodies are messy.  All of the emotions, appetites and drives that go along with our wonderful bodies are messy.  And as we get older our bodies get messy, a keratosis here and keratosis there, warped joints from arthritis, blood struggling to supply enough oxygen to our brains, bladder and bowel control, cataracts, memory loss, we become a mess.  Thank God for modern medicine that keeps us alive, but when we live long enough, we are no longer smooth and beautiful.

So if our theme is risk and restoration, where is the restoration?  Where is the hope, the good news?  Let me start with the wisdom of the Velveteen Rabbit.  You remember the story?

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the other toys.  He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces.  He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else.   For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room.  “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.  “You become.   It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.   Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit.  And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.  But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.”

Risk and restoration, the promise of faith, earthy, messy, human faith, is that if we take the risk of loving of being vulnerable, we become real.  Not the materialist kind of real you can see, or touch or put your hands on, or deposit in the bank.   No, a spiritual real, that lasts for always.  Follow the way of love, and trust the kind of real that is for always.


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