Sermons don't necessarily convey the message the preacher intended. The distance from mouth to ear is formidable; the separation between brains, even greater. I have often been astounded by the comments of worshipers at the door following a Sunday service, thanking me for inspirations I hadn't begun to imagine... and on some occasions blaming me for convictions I never voiced. In the pulpit no less than in ordinary conversation we lose control over words once they are uttered. But I do believe (why else would I spend fifty years doing it?) God takes human words and transforms them into The Word, far above and beyond anything the human being behind the words had in mind.
So it came to pass Sunday morning as I listened to a sermon about Ruth and Naomi, from that little book nestled between Judges and I Samuel in the Bible. It wasn't the first sermon I've heard on that text. Feminists have latched on to it, mostly to illustrate the precarious existence of women, how, even more than men, they have had to live by their wits, wiles, and courage. And I've presided at weddings at which Ruth's pledge of allegiance to Naomi, her mother-in-law, is ripped out of context to become the promise of a bride to her husband. You've heard it too: "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God."
This Sunday morning the preacher drew four themes from that little book: first, a moral lesson, about the faithlessness of Ruth's family, an unfaith leading to their undoing; second, a spiritual lesson, about Naomi's eventual return to Bethlehem, going home again to God's care and protection, how when we repent we are always welcomed; third, a practical observation, that salvation history is written every bit as much in ordinary days as with extraordinary events; concluding with a fourth, a theological observation, drawing upon Jesus' genealogy in Matthew, populated as it is with several women of questionable reputation, (including Ruth, though the preacher did not list her in that category, questionable; I do) that God always welcomes the sinner no matter how bad the sin.
Well, I was in a Presbyterian Church, and John Calvin, 16th century divine in Geneva, Switzerland, that church's spiritual grandfather, is on record as requiring those who are addressed by God's Word on a Sunday morning to divide wisely what they hear and measure it against their own understanding of the Scriptures. So, when in Geneva do as the Genevans do.
Beginning with this overlooked (because thought to be boring) passage of Scripture from Matthew 1:1-6: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. (Thered lettering is mine, not the NSRV's.)
The main reason the little book of Ruth is included in the Old Testament canon is: the woman is King David's great-grandmother. More to the point, she is a Moabitess. That is, she is a gentile. She's been brought into the sacred history to play a pivotal role. Her pledge to her mother-in-law, quoted above, puts her in the same league with the Canaanite woman, the one who by her bulldog persistence, absolutely unwilling to let Jesus be put off by her Gentility, is saluted for her great faith.
In the Hebrew Scriptures a tug of war plays out between the impulse to universalism and another to particularism. Think Isaiah vs. Leviticus. Think Reform Judaism vs. the Hassidim. Ruth belongs in the lineage of Jesus for whom Jewish universalism is a creed. The Galilean rabbi makes a career, albeit a short one, of collecting strangers, outcasts, foreigners, and the disenfranchised. He even makes room in his circle for children. Women flock to him... and stick to him better than his men friends. That he should die on the cross with his arms stretched wide could very well be heaven's design, a poignant reminder of his desire to include all of us.
Our family spent Saturday morning and afternoon at a bar mitzvah. During the party at the Pond House in the heart of Elizabeth Park, West Hartford, the young man at one point stood in front of a candleholder with twelve candles. Friends and family members, with a special connection to bar mizvah boy Matthew were called forward to light a candle, by way of thanking them. Somewhere around the ninth or tenth candle, I heard the guest of honor describe the next candlelighters as friends and neighbors. Then to my surprise I heard the names Carnes and Howard. When we returned to our table, a relative of Matthew sitting across from me smiled and gently teased that he was envious of me. This gentile pastor welcomed as one of the family. Shades of Ruth.
But, of course, in the name of "David's greater son," I would welcome and cherish and stand by and uphold and encourage Matthew anytime.