Many of us are surrounded by people. Family, co-workers, those folks we see at the soccer field or stand with at the checkout line at Target. Yet often many of us feel alone, disconnected, uncertain. It’s like we’re fish out of water. Or maybe fish in the school who wonder about our place there.
At my parish, we’ve been talking about out passions—those things that bring us life and joy. Those conversations, and this great story from the book of Ruth, gelled for me.
Ruth is a stranger in a strange land. Early on in the book named after her we learn that she’s a Moabite woman, and not from the land of Israel. She does, however, marry an Israelite man who had come to Moab with his mother, father and brother to avoid the ravages of a drought. During a span of ten years, Ruth’s husband dies, as does her father-in-law and her brother-in-law too. Her mother-in-law Naomi—having lost all of her family— is stricken with immense grief, and decides to return to Israel. She says her goodbyes to her two daughters-in-law, and begins the journey home.
But Ruth follows Naomi. “Your land will be my land, and your God my God,” she tells her. Naomi politely refuses her, encouraging Ruth to stay in Moab and start a new life, but she refuses. These two widows, one a little younger and one a little older, set out together. And Ruth becomes a stranger in a strange land; a Moabite woman living in the land of Israel.
But when they get there, they are destitute; they have no way to make a living. Ruth is industrious, and she gleans behind the reapers in the fields of a man named Boaz, who just happens to be a 2nd cousin once removed—or is it a third cousin twice removed?—of Naomi and her family. Regardless of his official connection, Boaz is kin. He looks kindly on Ruth instructing the fieldworkers to leave something extra to be gleaned—to not harvest all of the grain in the field—so Ruth and Naomi have a little extra to eat.
Additionally, Naomi wants some security for Ruth, so she begins concocting a plan. She tells Ruth to wash and anoint herself, to put on her best clothes—that is to leave the time of mourning for her first husband, Naomi’s son, behind—and then to go to the threshing floor late one evening and pay attention to where Boaz lies down. She’s then to go and uncover his feet and lie next to him. She does all this, and then, at about midnight, Boaz awakens, very surprised to find a woman lying at his feet. He wraps her in his blanket, and asks her to stay the night with him. She does and then quietly slips out in the morning before it gets too light out for the others to see her. He tells her that he will act as her kinsman-redeemer, the one who is able to bring her security and marry her, if he can. There’s another relative—someone a step closer than he is—who has the option first of marrying her and receiving the land of the family (remember women couldn’t own land in that day). As it happens that relative would like to purchase the field but doesn’t want to marry a foreigner, so he declines.
But Boaz loves Ruth and marries her. Ruth conceives and gives birth to a son. All the pain is redeemed; there is laughter and joy where there once had been tears and despair. Oh, by the way, this son is the grandfather of the most well-known king in Israelite history. Of course Ruth and Boaz also happen to take their place in the genealogy of another king to be born many years later, whose name just happens to be Jesus.
One of the things I’ve learned through the course of my ministry is that there are a number of lonely people out there. We are busy and overwhelmed as we juggle families and careers and volunteer opportunities and medical issues and all the rest, but even in the midst of all that busyness, people feel tremendously alone. They believe that the issues and loss and demons and hurts that they are dealing with are theirs alone to bear. They think this either because they feel unable to tell the truth about their lives, or they believe that they are the only ones experiencing difficulty and the rest out there have it all together. So we become isolated and insecure and pull back from the community we so desperately want and need.
Almost every evening at the dinner table we do a form of the daily examen. This practice, established by St. Ignatius, looks back and reflects on the day. So we’ll ask What is something good that happened today? or What brought you joy today? The question’s corollary is also asked: What didn’t feed you today, or what took joy away? I’m amazed again and again that our answers around the joy often includes relationships—time we spent together throughout the day, or maybe a meal with a friend. We talk about the games we played or kicking the soccer ball together. And, also just as telling, the times that took joy away often include the times when a relationship broke down, a disagreement with a friend, or when one of us acted inappropriately toward someone else. Times when the connections were lost.
A few of weeks ago we wrote down our passions, those things that brought us joy and life and made us feel most ourselves. Those gifts, given to us by God, that brought out a deep sense of authenticity in our identity, that this is who we are. Family and reading and walking and the outdoors and singing and helping others and hiking and gardening and crafting and a whole host of other themes emerged. Two weeks ago, upon seeing those passions in a word cloud, we broke up into small groups to reflect how we might connect with one another. You all talked and talked and talked. What emerged included book studies and walking clubs and maybe a talent show or a cooking class. Some suggested doing a community dinner for anyone in our town or hiking trips or engaging in mission work. Some suggested we support families by bringing in outside speakers or opening our beautiful church building up to local concerts. The list generated spoke of great possibilities centered on the ways we could connect.
Last week our new presiding bishop, Michael Curry, was installed at a glorious service at the National Cathedral. Bishop Curry has spoke of his deep love for Jesus and his desire that we engage in the work of the Jesus Movement. In a video introducing himself and his passions he says, “God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way. He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love. He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending. That’s why, when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words ‘Follow me.’ ‘Follow me,’ he said, ‘and I will make you fish for people.’ Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be. Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” (See the video and transcript here.) Bishop Curry then invited us to go out into the world, because the time has passed when the world just shows up in our churches, we must go out into the world to share this good news of God’s deep love.
Because the nightmare for many is loneliness. It is not experiencing love. It is feeling as if there is nothing truly worth living for, and giving in to despair and hopelessness. What if our God-given passions, our love of writing and cooking and singing and sports and our families and all the rest, what if these things and the way we connect with them are an opportunity for us to bring love to the world? What if the opportunities to share our lives with one another over a meal or in discussing a book or in taking a walk through the St. Mark’s woods, what if they are meant to bring about redemption in someone’s life?
Because that’s why we gather each week and hear these amazing stories of God’s redemptive work and are fed at this table: so we can bring God’s love to the world. We don’t come just for our own needs or healing or restoration—although those things do often happen—we also come to find bread so we can share that bread with others. We come to experience love and connectedness so that we can offer those to the ones who continue to live in the nightmares of this world. The lonely and forgotten and hurting ones who live in our midst every day. They need Jesus. They need to know that God loves them.
God is in the redemption business. God takes a desolate desperate foreign born woman and makes her the great-grandmother to the most beloved king of Israel. God can take our hopeless situations and create more life in them that we could ever imagine. And God wants us to share in that work. God wants us to realize that the things that bring us the most joy in this world is deepening our relationships with one another. It’s in looking beyond our own wants to the needs of others. It’s in sharing ourselves with someone who is hurting. We are called you and I, as the parish of St. Mark’s to change the world through the sharing of Jesus’ love. Can we do it? Will we do it? Will we open ourselves up to that love to experience our own redemption and then share that love with others?