The following is a sermon I delivered at Church of the Common Table as one of three reflections on the book of Ruth in conversation with the Syrian refugee crisis. To read those, and other brilliant musings, visit our Tumblr.
Earlier this week, while riffling through the Pandora’s box of chaos that is our Tupperware drawer, I came across an old lunch container. It’s the sort with three separate compartments divided by plastic containment walls. Walls, designed to keep one food product from touching another. The kind they market to kids terrified of food-to-food cross contamination, which on the list of kids all-time worst fears ranks just above clowns and floors made of lava.
Having been one of those anxiety-ridden kids, I still couldn’t tell you what I was afraid might happen, should the applesauce accidentally graze the side of my sandwich; Soggy bread? Some sort of biochemical reaction? Or gamma ray exposure? I’m not sure…
The most likely explanation for why this product exists is that we humans like to keep things simple. Science tells us that our brains naturally compartmentalize, categorize, and synthesize the world around us. But of course things do not often remain within the neatly defined boundaries we draw for them. Take, for instance, the subject of today’s service.
Despite its title, the book of Ruth is really a story about two women: Ruth and her mother in law Naomi. The story begins, after all, not with Ruth but with the introduction of Naomi, her husband, and their two sons, who move from Bethlehem to Moab. Ruth enters the story as a secondary character. The editors of the NRSV bible point out that Ruth’s sole purpose in the narrative is to redeem Naomi; A fact reinforced by the repetition of the word “redemption,” which occurs twenty times in only eighty-five verses. Later, Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi extends to include her new husband Boaz. The book we call “Ruth” is really about an interwoven tapestry of relationships.
If we read closely, even the characters themselves transcend easy definition. After deaths of her husband and sons, Naomi changes her name to Mara, meaning “bitter” (1:19-22). Naomi is not the first person of faith to name her depression, and nor is she the last.
Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes often about her depression, which she named “Frances” — after Frances Bean, daughter of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. Although she imagines Frances is more like Courtney Love herself, with a drink her hand, smeared lipstick, wearing an antique nighty.
I decided recently to name my depression “Lisa,” when —after what I thought was a successful phone interview— I received a rejection letter that read:
“Hi Lisa, I regret to inform you that we have decided to move forward with another applicant. It was nice talking to you though =)”
I was tempted to respond: “Bite me. Xoxo, Lisa”
But I digress…
In the mire of overwhelming grief, Naomi renounces her name (meaning “pleasant or “sweet”) for a more fitting reflection of her internal landscape. But interestingly, despite her change of name, the text continues to refer to her as Naomi; a subtle nod to the complexity of identity. She is a wife, mother, mourner, and friend, a hidden universe of contradictions and fears, hopes and desires. She is Naomi and she is Mara. She is one thing and many things all at once.
[“Ballad of Love and Hate” by The Avett Brothers]Quaker educator and writer, Parker Palmer, writes at length about the struggle to integrate those aspects of our nature that feel at odds with one another. One story he tells quite often is when, in the midst of a serious bout with depression, a spiritual guide offered him these salvific words: “Parker, you seem to keep imaging your depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Why don’t you try imaging it as the hand of a friend, trying to press you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”* This bit of wisdom, he says, helped him realize that while he could not dismiss his depression, he could attempt to befriend it; He could take the fractured pieces of his soul and hold them —carefully, lovingly— together.
I hear this same sentiment echoed in the prayers of the German Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes in his volume The Book of Hours: Love poems to God:
“I’ve been scattered in pieces, torn by conflict, mocked by laughter, washed down in drink… It’s here in all the pieces of my shame that now I find myself again. I yearn to belong to something, to be contained in an all-embracing mind that sees me as a single thing. I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart…” (137)
Like us, Naomi is an integrated being, and like us her story is shaped by all the stories that intersect with it. Reading this book again, it seems pretty clear to me that Ruth and Naomi’s destinies are bound together. We cannot fully understand one without considering the other. The importance of this relationship takes on even greater significance when we read the Gospel of Matthew, which recognizes Ruth, Boaz, and their son Obed, in the genealogy of Jesus.
In a sense, we can see the book of Ruth, and the rest of the bible as 66 distinct, books. Or we can see them as we do our own family histories. A series of stories layered, upon stories, layered upon stories, distinct yet inextricable, anything but separate and compartmentalized.
As the media coverage of refugees fleeing Syria grows, I am tempted see myself as a third party observer – someone neither connected to the situation, nor to the people climbing over fences and sleeping outside train stations. But in 2015, this simply isn’t true. Our globalized world is not like my tri-sectioned Tupperware, carefully guarding our lives from touching one another’s. We may not recognize the connections but they are there. And they are affected by what we buy, how we vote, the wars we wage, and the silence we hold in the face of injustice. As the prayer of confession says, forgive us Lord for what we have done and what we have failed to do.
I think our response to this crisis, and the one’s sure to follow, must begin with befriending the disparate parts of souls. Asking the darkness what it can tell us of the light. And like Naomi, it’s possible that our redemption lies somewhere outside of ourselves, maybe even in the pledge of a friend who promises to stand by us no matter what.
Finally, we can acknowledge the ways our stories intersect with people we don’t know, and may never know. In very real, tangible ways, we are connected to each other, which means we have a stake in what is happening on the other side of the world. I don’t know right now what steps your or I can take claim those relationships, but I think asking this question is a start.
*Interview with Parker Palmer, “The Soul in Depression,” On Being with Krista Tipett