old testament

Sermon: "Blessing from Brokeness," November 8, 2015 Rev. Ryan Slifka

William, de Brailes, "Ruth Visits Boaz," 13th century manuscript

William, de Brailes, "Ruth Visits Boaz," 13th century manuscript

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

"Blessing Out of Brokenness"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Last week we heard the beginning of the book of Ruth.  Naomi and her family were forced by famine to leave their home in Bethlehem for the country of Moab. There, Naomi’s sons marry Moabite girls, and one of the girls is Ruth. Soon, though, Naomi’s husband died. Then Ruth’s husband died. So they were both left husbandless. But instead of going home to her own family for security, Ruth chooses to leave her own home, her own family, her own people, to journey with Naomi. Ruth “clings” to Naomi it says. Her declaration is “where ever you go I will follow, my people will be your people, your God will be my God.

The book of Ruth is, in its’ basic form, a story about two ordinary women—Naomi and Ruth—who exhibit extraordinary commitment and fidelity to one another. It’s an extraordinary story about two ordinary people who are able to not only cling to each other, but cling to survival. And in the end, they both experience the blessing of God, through Ruth’s baby Obed. Who is the ancestor of David, Israel’s most prominent King. In the end, we discover these two ordinary people become conduits for God. For God’s extraordinary blessing. When all is said and done.

It’s an inspiring story. But there’s a whole lot I skipped over last week when going from point A (the beginning of the story) and point b (the end and birth of Ruth’s blessed baby). It’s no wonder that Ruth especially has been held up in the tradition as a celebrated example of faithfulness in her steadfast devotion and loyalty to Naomi. But in skipping to the end I kind of gave the suitable for network television censored version. Because in this week’s reading, Ruth seems like anything but the kind of person we think of when we think of the word “example,” someone we’re called to emulate in daily life. Let alone someone you’d name a whole book of the bible after!

Pretty soon Ruth and Naomi make it back to Bethlehem. Ruth is assigned to work with the local women out in the fields. There Ruth meets Boaz, one of Naomi’s relatives. Boaz is rich. And influential. Ruth seems to catch his eye. Boaz shows Ruth some kindness, by urging the workers in the field to accept her and treat her as one of her own. He advises her to only stay in his fields and he also tells the local men to leave her alone. Because for Ruthm, life is dangerous for a single, unmarried woman without family or kin to protect her. So Boaz treats her more as part of the family than as the stranger, the foreigner that she is. Ruth is vulnerable. And Boaz shows her kindness. By protecting her.

And so Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi sees an opportunity. And she seizes it. “I have a way for you to get the security you need,” says Naomi. “Alright, Ruth,” she says. “Do exactly what I say. Take a bath, put on something nice. Maybe a little jewelry. A little perfume. Wait until the sun goes down, so nobody sees you. Wait until Boaz in nice and comfortable, maybe after a jug of wine or two, then slip into bed beside him.” Ruth follows Naomi’s directions. And yada yada yada her and Boaz are married. And Obed, the baby blessing arrives. End of story.

Man, if I told my grandmother this story—and left out the fact that it is from the Bible—first, she’d probably be shocked that I would tell her a vulgar story like that. But second, probably lose her mind at just how irresponsible Ruth is. How immoral her actions seemingly are. And she does it all with her mother-in-law’s help! And her blessing! First, here she is, hatching a scheme with her Mother-in-law about how to get in on this rich man’s fortune. And his protection.  Then there’s a pretty obvious act of seduction—using sex to get what you need. And to top it all off there’s premarital sex to boot.

Women, of course, in the world of the Bible have no access to livelihoods outside of their relation to men. Here they are completely dependent on men for survival. For security, whether it’s economic security—whether you have food on the plate. Or physical security—whether you’re at the mercy of male aggressiveness. So Ruth uses the few means at her disposal to make a life for herself. To be fair, it’s not entirely Ruth’s fault that she takes these steps. This is the time she lives in, the society she lives in. This is where she sits on the food chain. Her options are limited, or at least severely reduced, by her life circumstances.

This isn’t exactly how we imagine people who are supposed look up to be like. They are supposed to be our heroes. They are supposed to be upright. Righteous. Strong credit history and clear police record. When there’s a time to make the right decision they are supposed to always take it. I mean, if you remember the election and how many candidates were called out from all the different parties for things they had done or said in their past. We kind of expect perfection from people who are supposed to be our leaders and examples. Maybe not absolutely perfect, but pretty close.

And so Ruth sounds like the last person we’d want to celebrate as an example of faithfulness. At first glance, this looks like a story of brokenness. Rather than a story of blessing.

And yet here we have Ruth. This story would have been just as scandalous to ancient ears as it is to modern ones. She’s no pure virgin. Yet she’s painted in a positive light. And for some reason not only is she the main character in a story in the Bible. She has a whole book devoted to her. And to top it all off, way far ahead in the New Testament, she finds her way in to the genealogy, the family tree, of Jesus. Even though they track the genealogy exclusively through men, she’s put in there intentionally. Ruth seems to break every rule in the book of what a Saint is suppose to look like and supposed to act like. And yet, here she is. Front and center.

A few years ago, I read this article by an Anglican priest that really changed the way that I read the Bible. And in doing so, it changed the way that I see the world entirely. This priest was talking about what Sunday School was like for him as a kind. It always seemed to go like this: “Abraham was obedient. Be like Abraham. Moses was courageous. Be like Moses. King David was wise and just. Be like David. And, of course there was Ruth. Ruth was faithful and she was loyal. Be like Ruth.” The scriptures were taught as sort of a book of upright moral heroes who were there just as examples. Of what we are supposed to do. Who we are supposed to emulate.

Soon enough, though, once he did some further reading, the bottom of Sunday School really started to fall out. He read and found obedient Abraham pretending his wife was his sister to save his own skin—twice!—and offered his own son up as a willing sacrifice. Then he found courageous Moses’ first act of courage was in killing an Egyptian guard, making him the ancient equivalent of a cop-killer. Then ge found wise and just King David sending his best friend to the front battle line to be killed so he could have his wife. (Not to mention the fact that he had 700 wives). And then he found faithful, loyal Ruth, lying in bed with Boaz, using what she had. To get what she needed. He discovered that these upright moral heroes weren’t what he thought they were at all. So he lost faith in the scriptures. And lost interest in the church. These, he thought, are the best people God has to offer? Instead of blessing, he seemed to find nothing but brokenness.

But then something dawned on him. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s not about how amazing these people are, but how utterly unremarkable they are. Maybe the Bible is not a book simple full of perfect people to be like. But maybe it’s full of imperfect people like us. Maybe it’s not about how upright and faithful people are to God, and about how we just need to be like them. But about how faithful God is to them in spite of their imperfections, their brokenness, and their sin. And about how faithful God is to us in ours.

Ruth stands tall in our tradition, not because she is perfect. Or even that she is totally good. Her life circumstances don’t permit Ruth perfection and goodness can be an afterthought. Things are broken from the get go. But even out of this horrible situation, God is able to bring about an incredible blessing. Maybe the Bible is about broken and imperfect people, living in a broken and imperfect world. And about God using them to create a new one. The story of the scriptures is not about a bunch of really perfect well scrubbed heroes: it’s a story of God bringing blessing out of brokenness.

And this is the same promise made to us. The promise that we live and die by. That God is at work in our lives and in our world, broken, and as imperfect as they may be. Bringing brokenness out of blessing.

Abraham sold out his wife Sarah and offered up his son—but God still used him. Moses was a murderer—but God still used him. King David was a betrayer, a conniver and a cheater—but God still used him. Ruth did what she had to get by in a patriarchal society. Ruth took advantage of the system to get what she needed. She used every trick in the book. But somehow God still found a way, and Godstill used her to bring hope where there was none and brought a blessing beyond her immediate sight.

You may be a liar and a cheat. But God can still use you. You may have hurt everyone you know. God can still use you. You may be an addict or a recovering one. God can still use you. You may be a middle class white guy who wishes life could be more interesting and laments that he's not doing more. Yes, God can still use you, even you. And will.   

This is why the cross stands at the center of the story, and why the cross stands on the wall above our heads today. That even in humanity’s worst sin, our brokenness, God can somehow bring about blessing. That even out of our worst failures, God can bring about a future. God is bringing new life.

So “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything—it’s how the light gets in” (with thanks to Leonard Cohen).

Light out of darkness. Peace out of war. Life out of death. And blessing out of brokenness.

And for this, thanks be to God. Amen.

A Little Intro to the Psalms

Image from the Introduction to the Psalter from  Evangelical Lutheran Worship .

Image from the Introduction to the Psalter from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

At St. George's we're beginning our worship and sermon series on "The Psalms and the Life of Faith" that will run through the whole week of August. It's sure to be an interesting series, with two great guest preachers book-ending the series.

If you aren't too familiar with it, the book of Psalms is found in the Bible, and is the book containing prayers, hymns and meditations of the people Israel, the precursor to both contemporary Judaism and Christianity. It's something of a compilation songbook, containing the treasured poetic pieces read and sung in worship. They range from praise and giving thanks to God, to laments, anger and distress directed at God and others. "Psalm" itself means "praise."

Many are said to be "of David," implying King David as the author, as David in known by the tradition as a musician himself and lover of music. While this may be possible, it is likely that the Psalms are from a variety of authors and editors, as it contains pieces from all parts of Israel's history. They have been a fixture in Jewish and Christian worship since the beginning.

The Psalms have been a treasured spiritual resource for Christians and Jews for centuries. One reason that this is the case is because it seems to contain the whole breadth of human emotion. The great 4th century theologian Athanasius once wrote that "in the words of this book the whole of human life, its basic spiritual conduct and as well its occasional movements and thoughts, is comprehended and contained. Nothing to be found in human life is omitted" (Ad Marcellenium). It's a sort of "greatest hits" of the human experience that speaks deeply even to our own centuries later. They were mostly meant to be sung, not read. Even now, Reformed Christian traditions like the United Church of Canada often have parts of their hymn books devoted to the Psalms, and a Psalm is always read in worship (not always the case at St. George's).

Not only is it a "greatest hits" of the human experience, it also represents a sort of "greatest hits" of theology and the Bible. The great reformer Martin Luther once said that the Psalms "might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible" (Luther's Works, 35:254) and the other great reformer John Calvin said that "there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of eternal salvation" (Commentary on the Psalms). The Psalms, in effect, are a kind of summary of the story of the whole Bible in relation to God--you find their themes everywhere else in the scriptures.

And that's why we're diving into them this month, in the hope that the same Spirit that has spoken through them to our ancestors in faith might do the same for us. Take a moment to read our texts leading up to Sunday service. Enjoy the poetic language, the metaphors, the vivid imagery. But, perhaps more importantly, listen for where they are speaking to you, your life, and our world. "Find in it also yourself," as Martin Luther once wrote, "as well as God himself and all creatures" (Luther's Works 3:257).