Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions
 

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The Places We Go

Rev. Peter JB Carman, Guest Preacher

11/8/15

 

Scripture Lesson:  Ruth 1: 1-22

 

The Story:

 

One of the most popular books of the Bible is the book of Ruth. One of the most frequently quoted verses in that book, most often has been read in the King James Version at weddings, to give voice to the deep covenant between—traditionally that is-- husband and wife.  We shared it this morning.” And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.””

 

There is something universal in these words. And yet let us notice, let us claim as Welcoming and Affirming Bible-loving people, that in the story these are not the words of a bride to her groom. This is a recently widowed young woman speaking to the Mother-in-Law she loves. These are not traditional wedding vows. They are the vows of one woman to another, pleading and promising across the lines of generation, tribe and nation. Ruth creates a covenant. She creates family, woman to woman, as they prepare to leave Moab, the land of Ruth’s birth, and go to Naomi’s birthplace, a place where Ruth can never fully belong, where she will live as a foreigner forever.

 

There’s nothing new about the fear of foreigners. And there is nothing new about the experience of refugees. The disdain of Israel’s people for their Moabite cousins was well established. So it is a biblical corrective that the foreigner Ruth will be remembered as the ancestor not only of King David, but also of his distant descendant Jesus. Both David and Jesus will be remembered for having an ancestor who was a Moabite woman, who loved her Jewish Mother-in-Law so much that she left everything to stay by her side. Both Naomi and Ruth will be remembered as the foremothers of kings: two women with nothing who came together and made a family despite the suspicion of rival nations and indifferent men. Not marriage, no. Just an ancient same gender prejudice-transgressing covenant: a creative act to wrest possibility out of impossibility, to create joy out of the ashes of grief, and a life together built out of shattered pieces of the past.

 

“Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried....”

 

A Personal Note

 

It is good to come be with you from across the border in Moab…I mean Schenectady. A few weeks from now we will come together again, some of us, to share in a day’s reflection together on the theme “Faithing Up to Racism.” So it’s great that we reflect today on this story, this ancient story of two poor women who choose to insist on family ties not across the lines of race as we think of it in America in 2015—but race as they thought of it back in the day—in Judah and Moab.

 

I want to share a personal note about the connection between this story and your pastor Kathy Donley and my family. I first met Kathy in 2004, at the funeral of my grandmother in Bloomington, Indiana. By the way, my grandmother’s name is Naomi. The Carman clan came together to honor our recently departed and beloved matriarch, who died at 98. As a young woman she had left upstate New York in 1928 with her husband Jack, for medical missions in India.

 

We remembered Grandma Naomi as is our custom as a family, with a service of our own devising, there in her church, where Kathy was a young Associate pastor. When I hear the words “Entreat me not to leave you” I cannot help but remember the last years of my grandmother, the hymns we sang at her passing. We talkative Carmans barely gave Kathy room to say anything, but she represented the wider Christian community and Grandma’s congregation with few words and much compassion. To say I was pleased to find out Kathy was my colleague here at the “other Emmanuel” when I arrived a year and a half ago doesn’t touch the respect and thankfulness I have held her in since that day ten years before my arrival. 

 

 

Crossing Boundaries:

 

Dr. Seuss wrote a wonderful book entitled “Oh the places you’ll go.” It starts…

 

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the
one who'll decide where to go.

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there."
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you'll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you'll head straight out of town.

It's opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And then things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.


            In a couple of weeks, we will come together to start to faith up to the realities of racism and to live into a faith that refuses to continue in the habits of hate, power and suspicion.

 

The chapter we are reading today doesn’t tell us how it works out in the end for the new Naomi-Ruth family that challenges the deep divides, the suspicion, the fear, the history of exclusion. Only how it starts. And that’s a good thing. For today. Because while many folk talk about – and I use this term in quotes—the “Race Issue” as though it were a thing of the past, you and I know full well that to be poor and black in America remains a crime. We know full well that the internalized legacy of white supremacy continues to bite us in the posterior collectively and individually, all of us, but some worse than others:  Black, white, Latino and Asian.

 

When we polite people start talking about race, it sounds often as though we had all been laboring long and hard to overcome racism in our world, and we are so tired and we just don’t have the energy to deal any more. Truth be told, I for one haven’t done much at all yet to undo the economic, personal and law-enforcement versions of racism. Now maybe you’ve done more than I have, in which case, forgive me. But if you and I are at all alike, I want to propose that when we act tired, or what have you, we are actually covering, while we hide from our own interior nausea—because we are scared. Scared to face into something ugly and personal and ugly and systemic. Scared.

 

And so you and I in the US of A, we are only at the beginning of the story of dealing with racism in America. But beginning is a good thing. Oh, the places we will go! We are at the “Entreat me not to leave thee” moment, when we covenant together to say we cannot all just go home separately—because of who God is! This God breaks down barriers; tears through the pretenses of purity and privilege. The Jesus Christ we cling to was someone who talked to Samaritans and healed a Syro-phoenician, ate with those deemed unclean, and had so much contact with leprosy he was himself deemed unclean.  The Jesus we try to walk with was also the descendant of two women, a woman of Judah and a woman of Moab, who refused to let a racial construct of a division define their future or their reality. Two women who tried a different way.

 

Let’s talk about Covenant:

 

In the recent past in New York and in the United States, we finally legally have recognized part of what Ruth and Naomi taught long ago: that family is a matter of a covenant between partners and that gender and orientation ain’t got nothing to do with it. There is a terrible irony in the fact that among the last to face up to this are most of the churches. 

 

            But marriage isn’t the only kind of covenant, and the nuclear family is not the only kind of family we need. In church we also talk about covenant: a covenant with God—actually when we come to the Communion Table we talk about the communion cup as what? “The cup of the new covenant”. In fact the term “New Testament” that we use for the skinnier second half of the bible may be better translated “New Covenant.”

 

The radical terms of the new covenant that we claim as fellow travelers with Christ are the terms of utter Grace; uncompromising Justice; unquenchable burning Love. And let me push this further with you—God doesn’t just declare a new covenant with people who follow Jesus—it is a new promise, a new relationship with all of humanity. The moment when Ruth made the decision to cross over that border with her beloved Naomi, she gave us a foretaste of what that new covenant God wants is all about.

 

I had a grandmother named Naomi who spent her life trying to cross the boundaries of fear, hate and especially racism. Her faith is my faith, and the places she went with it are in many ways the same places I have to go, in different times. But say-- you too have a grandmother named Naomi—if only through the power of a story and the love of a God who will not let go, but clings to you, saying “Entreat me not to leave thee.”  That Naomi’s God is our God too, and the places she and Ruth went together you and I need to go together now, in different times, not retreating to the comforting haunts of the past but braving a new covenant, a new humanity. Utter Grace; uncompromising Justice; and unquenchable burning Love.

 

There is an oft-quoted old hymn by James Russell Lowell I’ll close with, though I adapt the words a tad.

 

(verse 1)

Once to ev'ry woman and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
'Twixt that darkness and that light.

 

(verse 4)

Tho' the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Tho' her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above Her own.

 

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