Saturday, November 7, 2015

It Ain't Necessarily So! Thoughts on Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17 (RCL Proper 32B, 8 November 2015)

RCL Proper 32B
8 November 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            When I was growing up, one of my favourite programmes on television was the series of concerts for young people produced by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  These concerts introduce me to the world of classical music and, in particular, to the works of American composers whose music still remains high on my list of favourites.  One of the composers I met through Leonard Bernstein was George Gershwin.
            One of Gershwin’s most famous works is his opera, Porgy and Bess, first performed in 1935.  Many of the songs are famous and have been sung by various artists, both classical and popular.  There is one song, sung by a disreputable character, a man by the name of ‘Sportin’ Life’, which casts doubt on some of the stories of the Bible.
It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The ti’ings dat yo’ li’ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.
Sportin’ Life casts doubts on the stories of David, Jonah, Moses, the Devil and Methuselah.  Some of his doubts many people of faith probably share, but, if you know the opera, Sportin’ Life’s motives are definitely questionable.
            But when we hear the story of Ruth, it is very tempting to begin to hum, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’.  Here we have a wonderful story, almost a fable, in which a Hebrew woman loses her husband and her sons.  In despair she decides to return to her homeland and the only thing she has to show for her long absence is a foreign daughter-in-law.  Now this daughter-in-law is brave and loyal, but, if the truth be told, Ruth is a liability in the Judah Naomi calls home.  Two widows who have no direct male family members upon whom to rely have a limited future ahead of them.  But Naomi is determined and Ruth is willing to take risks.  Boaz, a distant kinsman, becomes the object of Naomi’s plans and, through Ruth, her goal is achieved:  security in the here and now, security in the future in the person of Obed, Ruth’s son by Boaz.
            Underneath this story there is a darker history that we must confront.  This short biblical book probably emerged at a time when the Jewish people had returned to Judah and were re-building what the Babylonians had destroyed.  Feelings were running high and, in the biblical books we know as Ezra and Nehemiah, we read prohibitions against the marriage of Judeans with any foreigners.  The crisis of the Babylonian Exile had led many to look inward and to draw the circle of kinship smaller and smaller.
            In the face of this closing of the kinship circle Ruth bursts in like the fireworks of Halloween.  This simple story makes a simple claim:  the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest hero, King David, was a foreigner.  By the rules set forth in Ezra and Nehemiah, David would not have counted as a Jew.  The book of Ruth is an eighty-five-verse-long rendition of ‘It ain’t necessarily so, Ezra!  It ain’t necessarily so, Nehemiah!’  God’s saving purposes cannot be neatly confined within select blood-lines.
            I remember some years ago attending the bar mitzvah of the son of a rabbinical colleagues here in Vancouver.  As is the custom, the young person reads a portion of the Torah and then offers a reflection on the text he or she has just read.  My colleague’s son stood up and said, ‘I know that the rabbis have taught that this text means “x”, but I don’t agree.  I think that we can understood it to mean “y”.’  My jaw fell to the floor.  Here was this young man in his early teens daring to say ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ in front of witnesses.  How many of us would have the courage to stand in front of a room full of adults and say, ‘I know that we've always understood such and such a thing in this way.  But I think we can understand it differently.’
            Human beings have many gifts.  We can build walls to protect us and we can build bridges that link human communities.  In times of stress our natural tendency is to build walls so that ‘our way of life’ and ‘our culture’ can be shielded from the threats that we perceive put this way of life and this culture at risk.  Building walls is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is always the need to remain just a little bit skeptical about our motives.  In the poem, ‘Mending Wall’, the American poet Robert Frost describes his neighbour and him mending the stone wall that marks the boundary between their land.  The neighbour remarks that ‘good fences make good neighbours’, but Frost questions this:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me ---
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

            For example, there has been anguish throughout our country regarding the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women.  In the north of our own province we have the notorious ‘Highway of Tears’.  Many have been calling for a national inquiry, but in the polarized political climate of recent years, this notion was hotly debated and no decision reached.  Our new government has indicated that such an inquiry will take place and, at the end of this week, the interim leader of the Opposition, Ms Rona Ambrose, indicated that her party would support such a proposal.  She said that this was a matter beyond partisanship.  I applaud her for building a bridge rather than a wall.

            I think that it is our vocation as Christians to ask whether we need to build walls or whether we need to build bridges.  After all, we believe in a God who chose to come among us in human form, building a bridge of flesh between heaven and earth.  We believe in a God who chooses to move in us through the Spirit to form communities of real people, living in real places, facing real challenges.  There are voices in our country and in the Christian movement who urge the building of walls, because they see walls as protecting us from whatever they describe as the ‘other’ or ‘them’.  In times such as these we need to join our voices to those of Sportin’ Life and Ruth.  Sportin’ Life may have been a scoundrel and Ruth may have been a foreigner, but they certainly knew the right song to sing at the right time:  ‘It ain’t necessarily so!’

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