The Night the Library Burned


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Accept what is, release what was, create what must be.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Ruth 1, selected verses

Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there [in Moab] about ten years, both [sons] also died, so that [Naomi] was left without her two sons and her husband. So Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me?  Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So Naomi said to Ruth, “See, your sister-in-law [Orpah] has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge;  your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—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.

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Full Text of Sermon

Saints Above, Saints Below

For Protestants, especially Reformed, Presbyterian Protestants, when we refer to the saints, we are careful to include all the saints. Our saints are right here and now. In the Reformed tradition, you, my friend, are a saint. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth addressing them as “saints” in Corinth. We believe that all who follow Jesus are saints, not because we have distinguished ourselves with pious holiness; we are saints through grace.[1] Later in this service, we will read a litany of Calvary’s saints, naming out loud all the people this community grieves since this time last year.[2]

When the Veil is Thin

Presbyterians are set apart from the other Protestants through history. The Presbyterian Church from whom we come arose in Scotland, where Celtic spirituality flourished. Yes, our theology is seasoned, albeit mildly, with the beliefs of the ancient Celts. All of this came about because of migration, the Augustinians migrated into the land of Pelagius, the Celtic spiritualist who believed that at this time of year “the veil is thin.” The gossamer partition separating us from the dead grows more permeable at this time of year. The Celts also believed in “thin places,” like cemeteries and churches.

Phoebe the Partridge

The last time I visited my family’s graves on a grassy hill in northwest Georgia, I stood there alone and spoke to them. I usually begin by apologizing for migrating to California. Standing alone, a bright and windy afternoon, all of a sudden I felt something pull at my the hem of my jeans. A little partridge had snuck up to visit me! What happened next is hard to put into words. A feeling came over me, a feeling I could not stop or slow down enough to make sense of, a internal, spiritual tsunami of deep gratitude and love, feelings of loss and grief and peace all at the same time. The little bird stared up at me. She walked around me, and then she walked away. I knew that I was not alone. My people are with me. They didn’t raise me to leave me. They’re still with me, here in my heart and memories, in my mannerisms and language. I learned right there: the great cloud of witnesses is real. The veil rewards those who watch and wait.

Uncontrollable tears running down my face, I had made a pilgrimage to a thin place, and, for that moment, I was sure that death has no dominion over any of of the saints, here or above.

Prayer for Illumination
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, may we sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon.[3]

Amen.

The Role of Tribal Nationalism

Only two books in the Bible are named for women: Ruth and Esther. The name Ruth means “friend, companion.” How and this be? Ruth was born as an enemy of Israel—Ruth the Moabite. It is through this enemy, this foreigner, this migrant woman through whom the God of Abraham acts with “unquestioning fidelity”[4] to Naomi the Jew.

Moab was a foreign land, ‘over there’ to the east. The Moabites[5] worshiped the god Chemosh, known as the destroyer, the fish god. Although Ezra and Nehemiah were trying to preserve the future by purging foreign influences, Kathleen O’Connor writes “the seemingly simple story of Ruth becomes an acerbic political counterclaim and an implicit theological affirmation of [our] God as the God of all people. The God for whom Ruth abandons everything is [our God,] the God of the lowly, the widow, the stranger and the enemy.”[6]  Our God, the God of the enemy, is not a big fan of racial purity. God belongs to everybody, every color, every political leaning, every beating heart.

What’s more, Ruth, this foreign, Moabite woman, goes on to become the ancestor of King David. It is necessary for the Jesus the Messiah to have this one-time enemy of Israel in his family tree. It all began in love of one widow for another widow. O’Connor writes that “Jesus’ own genealogy is a theological statement that includes the nations, the enemies of Israel, the excluded ones.”[7]

Ruth is the story of never giving up: of accepting what is, releasing what has been and creating what must be. “Accept what is, release what was, create what must be.”[8]

Accept what is.

If you have lost or had to contemplate accepting the loss of a loved one, you know that grief requires all of your energy: a chaotic and sudden weakness that zaps even the heartiest among us. This is the common humanity we find in the women of today’s reading. No one wants to accept a less-than-ideal situation, but guess what? It’s coming.

The Role of Gender

In a few verses, a famine causes a Jewish family to relocate from Bethlehem to Moab. The father, Elimelech, dies. His two sons take Moabite wives. Ten years pass, and, tragically, both sons die, leaving three widows: Naomi the Bethlehemite, and her Moabite daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. They are widowed and childless and grieving.

MCC theologian Mona West writes of this passage:

There were only two ways a woman could be valued in this society: as an unmarried virgin in her father’s household or as a child-producing woman in her husband’s household. Naomi is a widow who also becomes childless upon the death of her two sons. As childless widows, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are women who are worthless and on the margins of ancient Near Eastern society.[9]

Release (enough of) what was.

Can you imagine the complicated grief, the feelings of these women: the sadness, the dread, the panic? Yes, some of us can! I know that some of us here in this room or watching online know this kind of grief.  On Tuesdays, I work with the Calvary Senior Center, and we are people who know loss. Last week, one of our seniors, Charlotte Karp, sent me a beautiful New Yorker article by Susan Orlean that ends with the following words that inspire this sermon:

[Amadou Hampâté Bâ once said that] in Africa, when an old person dies, it is like a library has been burned. …Our minds and our souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories catalogued and stored inside, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share; it burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from your internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story told—it takes on a life of its own.[10]

 

Naomi decides to take the volumes of her departed family, Elimelech and her two sons, with her back home to Bethlehem, old and alone. After telling her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and write new chapters, Orpah obeys. The name Orpah means the ‘back of the neck.’ Orpah turns away from Naomi and stays in Moab.

But.

Ruth refused.

Create what must be.

Ruth the companion feels called to author a new volume. Now, you’ll notice that this Bible book is named for the woman who did not obey, illustrating the bumper sticker: “Well-behaved women seldom make history!”[11] Ruth looked around her, assessed the situation. It wasn’t until she accepted that life has fallen apart that she accepted life as it is, she let go of enough of the fear and grief that held her in the past, and she dared to offer a way forward. Ruth created what had to be, with Naomi’s consent and God’s sure hand guiding her, a new kind of family migrating into Judah.

Celebration

You are more than the sum of your experiences, more than your circumstances. If you feel overwhelmed, read the book of Ruth this afternoon. It should be required reading for all who grieve, for all who follow the news and for all who intend to vote. Ruth says to Naomi, “As women, we’ve been taught that we’re powerless, but God has other plans for us.  If you let me love you and if we face this together, we will not be erased.[12]  We will draw on the pain and let it transform us because this is pain transformed by love. We will let go of as much of the past as we can. We will dream a future, and we will create it together, us and God.” Then, Ruth recites this credo, this covenant, this ode to compassion to her devastated mother-in-law: “Don’t pressure me to abandon you or to turn back from following you, even into enemy territory.” Love endures all things! Some call Ruth’s monologue a hymn, sung to Naomi.[13]

Reflecting in Music

That same “thin place” grandmother who sent me the little bird was a Perry Como fan. I grew up singing these words of Ruth along with Perry.

Whither thou goest, I will go.
Wherever thou lodgest, I will lodge.
Thy people will be my people my love,
Whither thou goest, I will go! [14]

 

Invitation to Communion

The saints meet us here and celebrate with us in this symbolic meal. This is why we come together as friends, in our hearts carrying our saints like overdue library books we will one day return. They will come from east and west, from north and south, from just down the street and from enemy territory—to create what must be, a thin place where we meet God.

[1] Leonard J. Vander Zee, “A Cloud of Saints” Reformed Worship, accessed online at <https://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-2008/cloud-witnesses> (November 1, 2018)

[2] The list does not include those who have become homebound or those who have moved away, although we grieve their presence.The Litany of Saints is a list of all Calvary members and Calvary-related individuals who have died since this time last year.

[3] From the prayer of Francis, “patron saint” of our City. <https://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/saints-prayers/peace-prayer-of-saint-francis>

[4] Kathleen O’Connor, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009) Kindle Location 8746 of 12250.

[5] Megan Sauter, Who Were the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edominites in the Bible? Biblical Archaeology Society, May 10, 2018, accessed online at <https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/ammonites-moabites-edomites-in-the-bible/> (November 1, 2018)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] A phrase sometimes attributed to Andrea Balt but found in many places online.

[9] Mona West, The Queer Bible Commentary (London: Orbis 2004) 191.

[10] Susan Orlean, The New Yorker, October 5, 2018. Adapted from the “The Library Book” (Simon & Schuster).

[11] Quote Investigator, accessed online at <https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/03/well-behaved-women/> (October 31, 2018)

[12] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/MCC-Leader-Calls-for-Unity-to-End-Deadly-Violence.html?soid=1101747410130&aid=t2cJ3QL9iw0

[13] Whenever God does a new thing, we tend to “sing God a new song” in accordance with the commands of scripture.

[14] “Whither Thou Goest” by Guy Singer, 1954, sung by Perry Como, accessed online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53BdXs1Ayvg>  (November 1, 2018)

 

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