Vocation: Week 5
The Book of Ruth
This is the final week of our intensive study on God’s call and claim on our lives: or in a word, vocation. So, this is the week in which all your questions will be answers, your life’s purpose will be revealed and it concludes with a tidy, fortune-cookie kind of prescription of how you shall now live.
Or not. Not here, and certainly not from me. In fact, quite the opposite…sorry! This is the week we lay all our wonderings and wanderings in their proper place, at the foot of the cross of Jesus. But first, a closer look at the book of Ruth.
This is one of my favorite stories from the bible because it feels so real. Ruth is a real illegal alien, the author never lets us forget it by always referring to her as Ruth-the-Moabite. Naomi falls from her place of honor about the women of the community – she was married and mothering two sons and now she is grieving the death of them all. This story allows us to stay in the suffering of her story, hearing her change her name to Mara – the name of bitterness and emptiness and the reality of being a widow, the reality of being a woman who cannot support herself is real. And though it was tamed for the telling this morning, there is the moment of compromise – Ruth offering herself to Boaz that he might continue to feed her and Naomi and maybe claim them as family so that they can survive. Just because the bible is really old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t reek of our current, life-tensions. Immigrants, grief, regret, fitting in, fearing the future, being hungry, compromising self for the sake of moving up in the world…somewhere, somehow we enter this story too. It is a hot, holy, mess…just like us!
I’ve often wondered where the cultural practice of dressing up for church came from. Could it be that an attempt to appear right and blameless before God, we dress up a bit for the occasion of worship? Or is there a thought that in order to fit-in at church, one must appear put together? There is a little quote that has been attributed to everyone from St. Augustine to Dear Abby, I don’t know who said it first, but the truth is still there. The church is not a museum of the saints; it is a hospital for sinners. One of the major beliefs of Lutheran is that we are fully both saints and sinners all the time – so hear that quote knowing that you fully, at all times, belong in both categories. I raise this, because I think it could be easy to think that in our five week intensive study of vocation we, your pastors, are hoping that everyone will grow in such a way that we will all progress together from sinner to saint, from messy to all cleaned up.
This is not the call of God on our lives. And that is not why we believe these past 5 weeks and the coming ventures of vocational study are so important. None of us will get to a point where we are cleaned up enough for God nor will we reach a point of being wise enough or good enough – but that is not a statement of hopelessness, it is the beginning of our faith. The one who brings us into relationship with God, the one who says that with him, we are enough is Jesus. Here, at the foot of the cross your stories, your messes, your scars, your illness, your doubt, the vast complexities of your lives are welcomed here. And that is not our welcome that we extend, it is the reality of the cross of Christ – arms of mercy and sacrifice splayed wide open to take on all we are…the saints and the sinners.
I met a contemporary Ruth a few years ago. During my time as a chaplain intern at a hospital here in Minneapolis I was called to a secured mental health unit. After passing through two locked entry ways and getting clearance at the nurses stationed I entered a dark, cold hospital room and saw a young, terrified woman sitting on the bed. Her knees were drawn up in protection and her eyes were, at best, skeptical of my presence in the room. Like it or not, I knew a bit of her story. She attempted to take her own life by swallowing too many pills in hopes of escaping her controlling, abusive boyfriend. She was an immigrant, she was alone and the messiness of her life was displayed all over her chart and this room for everyone to see. With no delicate language, she determined I was too put-together, too prissy, to understand where she’d been and she was angry that her shoes and jewelry were taken away. This young woman was beautiful, but her dignity and identity as a beautiful young woman was covered by the fragile, angry person before me.
In an attempt to level the playing field, I kicked off my shoes revealing my socks and their many holes. She laughed.
I heard her story, full of danger and fear. No support to be found, only dead ends. And in hearing her story, I saw portions of my own come to life in a different way. I saw the scars of my life not as something to be hiding and covering all the time, but could it be that this was a time that God was working in my story, and in her story to make something new? To turn scars into new beginnings? To replace shame for hope?
I told her I knew about this cycle of abuse and fear, I knew about hiding and being embarrassed and only finding dead ends. And she looked at me for the first time and said “You were here….and now you’re there.” I don’t know where “there” was exactly – not perfectly healed and whole, not without pain and regret to be sure. But together, through the healing power of God, we both took a step closer to “there”.
It is a miracle what Jesus has done for us. Loving us so much that we won’t be able to stay exactly where we are when we are constantly being dragged and shoved into the direction of life. The cross raises us to new life, not old way. And, as Nadia Bolz Weber says in our vocation reader, “Resurrected bodies are always in rough shape.” Our scars are not gone, our experiences stay with us – but they are made into something new. This is the story of the cross, the ugliest point of God’s story – the place of abandonment and pain and sacrifice – and it is now our sign of Divine presence, hope and healing.
This whole life of grace thing? It is a miracle.
This whole life of grace thing? It is a miracle.
So, as promised, the life of faith is only going to get messier. But we live into this because our God invites us. We are called to live as people of the cross of life….not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are and all that we bring with us.
There is one final promise in the story of Ruth which comes right at the end, the very last sentence. Did you hear it? It sounds like a bunch of genealogy. The last line of Ruth reads, ‘A son has been born to Naomi. Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, father to Ram, father to Amminadab, father of Nahshon, father of Salmon, father of Boaz, father of Obed, father of Jesse, and Jesse of David.”
Who comes to us from the line of Jesse, from the lineage of David? Jesus does. Yes, the promise at the very end of Ruth and Naomi’s story is that they have been folded into the greatest story on the earth: Jesus entering our world through families lines that include illegal immigrants, bitter grief, generosity and loyalty. Into this life does Jesus enter and make something new.
And into our lives Jesus is calling us rise into new life with him, because of who we are.