God: A Love Story (10/28/2012)

“God: A Love Story” Kathryn Henderson, Student Intern

“God: A Love Story”

Kathryn Henderson, Student Intern

I hear a heartbeat echoing through time… It is in the words of Ruth to Naomi — Where you go, I will go… It is in the songs, prayers, poems, and lives of all who have loved God, lived together in God, throughout the centuries. I hear this heartbeat of love in the words of the psalmist as he — or perhaps she! — invites us to bless God, magnify God — to taste, to see, that God is good. We celebrate today our shared refuge in God. We celebrate our great love, because it is All Saints’ Sunday, a day dedicated to remembering those we love.

It’s a chance to really think about how much they’ve meant to us — shaped our thinking, shaped our lives. We remember them, whether they are living or have passed on, and give thanks, with love. We remember our connections, our shared experiences, the communities that have been built by laughter, tears, hugs, and passionate disagreements — hours of hard work. We remember what it means to have a life together, in God.

So I love All Saints’ Sunday, and remembering and saying THANK YOU, out loud, with prayer and song — thank you! to everyone who has gone before me, been part of my life — even if I never met them. Even if some days I might wish I’d never met them. They are my “saints” — my teachers, my friends. I’m wondering, who are yours? Let’s pause for a moment of prayer, to remember, and hold them in our hearts……

Holy One, bless our remembrances. Bless all those we love. And be with us as we celebrate them, and our love for you, on this special day. Amen.

You may know that the term “saint” comes from Paul’s greetings to the people of the early churches, who were considered to be holy because they belonged to God. In his letters, Paul would offer the grace and peace of God, to the people of God — the sacred ones, the saints. As we greeted one another with signs and words of peace this morning I was thinking about that, and how, for 2,000 years, there have been people connecting their hearts and minds in peace, in love, the love of God. And this great chain of being, stretching from centuries ago to today, is the foundation of love that we live now.

Because of this great foundation we can learn from and be influenced by someone who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago — someone like Ruth or Naomi. Their story is as powerful a testament to the kind of love we celebrate today as I have heard. Biblical scholars will tell you the background of when and why this was written. It is one of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, in the form of a short novel, probably written sometime during the last few centuries before Jesus was born, although it took place about 1,100 years earlier. They will also tell you that it is, at least partly, a statement in favor of intermarriage between Jews and foreign nationals, a topic of debate during the time it was written.

But this story is much more than that. It is one of the great love stories of the Bible, right up there with Jacob and Rachel; Moses and God; Jesus and his disciples. The Book of Ruth gives us a glimpse of what it means to be loved by God. Sometimes this might seem to be a mixed blessing. Perhaps Ruth and Naomi felt that also. But despite their hardships, their story ultimately tells us about the love that the people have for one another and God, and that God has for them. Listen again to Ruth’s words:

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Ruth could not have expressed her devotion more fully, more passionately, for that time and place. What Ruth is saying, and Naomi understands, is that she will risk everything to protect her. This is a tense, dramatic moment. Naomi is so anguished that a couple of verses later she wishes her name, which means “pleasant,” were instead “Mara,” which means bitter, because she believes God has dealt bitterly with her. The women are hungry and alone. And in danger. They could starve or be persecuted or worse. They are women who no longer have men to protect them — they are totally vulnerable. Perhaps even worse — they no longer have an identity. By choosing to stay with Naomi, Ruth risks everything to care for her mother-in-law. It is hard to imagine someone more steadfast. It’s no accident that her name comes from the Hebrew word for “friend.”

The passage for today ends just as the real story begins. So, spoiler alert: ultimately Naomi and Ruth persevere to a happy ending. Ruth meets a good man who gives her a secure home and a family, and so she becomes the great-grandmother of King David and, generations later, the ancestor of Jesus. And Naomi embraces her new family, and finds a new life. But first they endure a great test of faith. Although not written in the text itself, it’s easy to imagine that during this uncertain time Ruth might have asked herself whether or not she had made the right choice; that she may have wondered if her faith were strong enough to carry her through the feelings of loss and fear. Her faith and love do carry her through. Because Ruth loves with her whole heart, and is one of the sacred ones, she belongs to God. And God carries her through. And we can imagine that Naomi’s care and guidance do also — because for Ruth, Naomi is a reflection of God’s love, and she is determined to walk God’s path, to go with Naomi:

Where you die, I will die— she says.
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

The writer of Ruth does not tell us how Naomi felt after Ruth’s declaration of devotion, only that she realized there would be no changing her mind, and so Naomi “said no more to her.” But don’t you wonder how Naomi felt? Was she relieved? Or even more anxious, now that she had to be concerned about her own well-being and that of Ruth also? Perhaps she felt happy, knowing that this young woman whom she had loved for so many years was staying. Maybe, despite her suffering, Naomi felt consoled knowing that someone truly loved her, enough to risk everything for her — and not because there was anything to gain. Whatever she felt, she gave Ruth a great gift, by receiving her love and support.

Now, Naomi doesn’t always get much attention in this story — Ruth is the marquee name, after all. But Naomi is just as important, because it is her choice that makes this love story possible. Although devastated, and determined to protect her surviving loved ones, Naomi accepts Ruth’s devotion. It sounds simple, but it’s not really. She did not want Ruth to be in danger, to give up so much. She loved Ruth, and wanted her to be safe with Orpah. If Naomi had refused Ruth’s steadfast devotion — insisted that she go with Orpah — then there would not have been a great love story. Ruth’s love would not been received, completed, and multiplied through the centuries. By saying yes to Ruth, however grudgingly, Naomi created a mutual relationship of love, trust, and giving. She left the door open, even if it was just a crack, for God to return to her life.

There is a word in Hebrew that embodies this kind of devoted give-and-take: chesed. We translate it as loving-kindness or mercy or compassion, but none of these fully express its deep meaning for the ancient Israelites. For them it meant absolute loyalty: the kind that God shows to the people, and that they return through prayer, worship, and right living. It is what the psalmist means by I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.

This is the fundamental principle of the Book of Ruth, because at the heart of this story is the great love story of the Hebrew Bible, the story that is told in a variety of ways, but always makes the same essential point: God cherishes the people of Israel and will deliver them. In return, the people will “bless the Lord at all times,” as the psalmist writes. This is life in covenant, and chesed is its ethical and emotional foundation.

This principle is demonstrated both by the characters in the story, as they relate to one another, and in their reflections on their covenantal relationship with God. The bond between Naomi and Ruth mirrors the all-encompassing protection that God has for Israel. When Ruth commits herself to caring for Naomi, and Naomi accepts, their bond symbolizes the mutual protection and love of God and Israel. It reminds us, as it would have the ancient Israelites, that God’s love can transform loss of home, family, identity, into a new life.

Why does this matter to us today, more than 2,500 years later?, in a society that is very different? Because…it reminds us that struggles with fear, loss, faith, and relationships are universal, whether it was thousands of years ago or today. It reminds us that covenant matters. Right relationship matters. It is still fundamental to how we live our lives. And it reminds us that the love story between Israel and God is still unfolding, right here, where we are living our love story with God today, by the covenant of The Union Church in Waban.

This agreement describes our love of God and one another by our commitment to live life together in mutual giving and receiving. To nourish and sustain our common life, and also to extend that hospitality to all persons, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Much like Ruth, who was a stranger in Naomi’s homeland, then accepted as her kinswoman, we welcome everyone to join with us here in worship and fellowship. And also like Ruth and Naomi returning from Moab, we are all like strangers out in the world, but when we enter into this community, we have a home. Ruth gave up all that she had known to follow the woman who mirrored God’s love for her. We agree to do essentially the same thing every time we join together under the covenant of life together. We “nourish and … sustain our common life.” And in turn, it nourishes and sustains each of us. That is a bond of mutual trust and love that is enduring — Eternal, as the psalmist says.

And so on this day, when we recall our connections to everything Eternal — everyone whom we have loved and been loved by — we remember what it means to live in this particular way. We give thanks for the give-and-take of genuine loving-kindness, which builds relationships that can endure disagreement, support us in our grief, and create peace, helping us to emerge into a new way of life.

This is also a day that has a bittersweet feeling because we recall those no longer with us. But we also recall the promise of God, described in the story of Naomi and Ruth. The promise that we will be held in the midst of joy and sorrow, and know that we also have a sure path through hard times. Not everything will work out the way we want it to. Like Naomi, we may know times of bitterness, and perhaps even feel that we have been forgotten by God. But just as Ruth traveled with Naomi, we can be assured that God is steadfast. God travels with us.

I’m wondering, who are the Ruths in your life? Who are the Naomis? Who has gone with you no matter the circumstances? The person who said to you — by his or her actions and kindness and strength — “where you go, I will go”? Who are the people whose faith has inspired you, helped you to trust your own faith, your own ability to allow God to see you through?

And, when have you been that for others? Perhaps you don’t even know the lives you have touched, the hundreds of subtle ways in which you have helped, strengthened, encouraged, cheered, loved. And the difference that devotion has made. The difference that being willing to be in mutual relationship makes.

As we celebrate this All Saints’ Sunday, let us say THANK YOU, PEACE AND GRACE TO YOU. Let us bless the Lord at all times! Let us share these moments with one another, and with God. It is in our shared life that real love can flourish and bless us all — and bless God.

The psalmist tells us that with these blessings, our souls will be glorious, and our faces radiant. We will become the light that has been carried through the ages by saints known and unknown. And we will carry that light into the world, illuminating the path for ourselves and all who go with us — and all who will come after us. Amen!