Do You See That Woman? Ruth, The Widow’s Mite, And God’s Perspective

Do you see that woman?

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? The test is named for the cartoonist and playwright Alison Bechdel, recently famous for her Tony Award winning musical “Fun Home.” She came out with the test in a comic strip back in 1985. The Bechdel test is a pretty straight-forward way to analyze a movie or other narrative work. To pass, a movie only needs to meet three criteria:

1) The movie has to have at least two women in it.
(bonus points if they have names)
2) The women have to talk to one another
3) about something besides a man.

A surprisingly small number of Hollywood blockbusters pass the test. Even today, movies that feature long conversations between women that don’t have to do with men, they’re not likely to get studio backers. These movies are also not likely to draw big audiences. We live in a society that still literally values men and men’s stories far more than women and women’s stories.

Which is part of what makes the Book of Ruth so remarkable. We live in a time where the Bechdel test exists, and is being applied. The storytellers and writers who developed the texts of the Bible did not live in a time like ours. History has been written by the winners, and for a long time the winners have been men. The Book of Ruth shows us that sometimes, sometimes, in our sacred text, you can find another perspective. Society may have historically valued one gender, one orientation, one race, one perspective. But God has been working God’s purpose out, (and I know this comes as news to you at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion) but it turns God doesn’t just work through rich white straight men. Our God is the God of the least likely characters.

The story of the Book of Ruth puts women at the center. Naomi and Ruth are an unlikely pair. Naomi finds herself a refugee. With her husband Elimelech and her sons Mahlon and Chilion she leaves Bethlehem because of a famine. The family comes to Moab looking for food. Mahlon and Chilion marry local girls, one of them named Ruth. Naomi’s husband dies, as do her sons. Chilion’s widow leaves looking for better prospects, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi destitute. She decides to return to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, an act of love. “Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people” Ruth says. Our story today picks up when they are back in Bethlehem, and Ruth has been keeping them alive by gleaning in the fields. Two women rely on one another to survive, and as we learn today, come up with a plan.

The narrative in the Book of Ruth finishes with one of the most radical lines of the Bible, the line that ends our reading this morning: “A son has been born to Naomi. They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Why is this radical? Why, Mike, with all this great story, would you read a genealogy to us? How can a genealogy be radical? Because it tells us that David, David, the quintessential ubermensch, the epitome of power and privilege and masculine domination. David, the king, upper hand of history, David owes his existence to a couple of unruly women, who had the gall to talk to one another, to plan, and to fight for their survival.

It’s more than that. Naming a book of the Bible for Ruth is radical because Ruth is a double outsider. She’s a woman. We’ve covered that. She’s also a Moabite. That identity means something in ancient Israel. Remember in Genesis after Sodom was destroyed? Lot leaves his land and his wife (recently turned to a pillar of salt). He and his daughters make their way to some caves outside Zoar. The daughters realize the family line is about to go extinct, so they get their father drunk and seduce him. Lot’s daughters conceive sons, one of which is named “Moab” meaning “from my father.” That’s the story the Israelites tell about their ethnic neighbors. As a Moabite, Ruth is a supposed descendent of this illicit match. Ruth is an ethnic and sexual outsider, and Ruth is King David’s great grandmother. What is God doing?

Before we transition, I want to say a word about s-e-x in the text. As you can tell from the story I just told about Lot’s daughters, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t shy away from sexuality. Our text this morning is no exception. When Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet, yeah, that’s a euphemism, but again Ruth makes a radical assertion. In this story, a woman’s sexuality is liberating. Most of the time in the Bible, men were making decisions about women’s bodies (Like when Lot offered his daughters to the men of Sodom, or when Ruth’s great grandson David interrupts Bathsheba’s bath). But Ruth makes her own decision. As the Scripture scholar Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams puts it succinctly in her commentary: “She consents.” Never undervalue consent. Ruth makes her own decision about her own body, a decision which brings her closer to a worthy partner, Boaz.

This text is strong stuff, I’ll grant you. In the Book of Ruth we learn that God can use women, and God can use sex, to work out God’s purposes. Our society today may still not be entirely comfortable with either idea, but here it is in the Bible. This book is good news if you’ve ever felt like an outsider. The book is good news if your perspective isn’t always valued. Ruth is good news for you, if your romantic life isn’t quite a fairy tale. This book is good news for you, and for me, and for all of us, because it tells us that God uses surprising characters.

We’ve already talked about the genealogy at the end of Ruth, but I want to talk about the beginning of our passage. Naomi tells Ruth about her plan because she wants it “to be well” for Ruth, to be well. Around a thousand years after the writing of the Book of Ruth, a woman mystic named Julian lived in Norwich England. Among many revelations she received from God was a simple phrase: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Naomi and Julian, a thousand years or more apart, understand the same truth of God: God seeks our well being. All shall be Well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

These women’s words have been a great comfort to me on many dark nights of the soul. When I lived in Honduras, I used to use Julian’s phrase as a prayer. I repeated the words again and again as I passed rosary beads through my fingers. “All shall be well, and all shall be well.” I needed the reassurance so far from home, so far out of my comfort zone. As I struggled with Spanish and struggled to comprehend the poverty and violence of Tegucigalpa, these words were a life raft for my prayer life. They helped me gain perspective. God works, always, for our well-being, even when we can’t see God working.

In the words of the psalm:

God gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
God sets the prisoners free;
God opens the eyes of the blind; *
God lifts up those who are bowed down;
God loves the righteous;
God cares for the stranger; *
God sustains the orphan and widow.

Those words all describe God’s pursuit of our well-being. God lifts, and loves, and cares for the stranger and the orphan and the widow. God is working for the least likely characters. God is using the unlikely actors, and because God is who God is: All shall be well. No matter how dark it might seem in our world, all shall be well. No matter how difficult our lives may appear, all shall be well. No matter what the world tells you about you, God is working that you may be well. It’s a question of perspective. Do we hear the doomsaying of the world, or the hope of God? Do we listen to the naysaying of the world, or the loving voice of God? What’s your perspective?

This question of perspective lies at the center of our Bible, of our Gospel, of our faith. The Scripture invites us to see the world as God sees the world. Can we give up the lenses the world gives us? The dark lenses that focus us on the powerful and privileged? Can we pay attention instead God’s action, God’s mission, among the poor, the women, the outsiders? If we want to see God in our world, we have to look to the characters our world deems unlikely.

This perspective is at the heart of Jesus’ question to his disciples this morning. “Do you see that woman?” We know this story well. We hear it often as the church goes through its annual fund-raising season. The widow’s mite. The story is a story of perspective. The widow’s two copper pennies are worth more than all the gold of the rich lawyers and scribes. In the eyes of God, our giving matters, no matter the number of zeros behind the integer. The way of Biblical generosity is not a simple mathematical formula. Yes, but there’s so much more.

Do you see that woman? Have the disciples eyes have been drawn to the long robes of the scribes? Have their ears been distracted by the long prayers? Beware, Jesus says, the powerful and privileged are devouring widows’ houses. They like to show their faith off. They like to display their wealth and education. They like you to think it is a sign of God’s blessing, God’s favor. Jesus wants us to see: economic success is not a sign of a great faith. Do you want to see great faith? Do you see that woman?

Jesus points to an unlikely character, a widow giving just two pennies. That’s faith, he says. That is the work of God. That is generosity. God is paying attention when we are distracted by the world. God is working God’s purpose out when wealth blinds us. If it has ever seemed the world has given up on you, take heart, God is paying attention when society can’t be bothered.

If our scripture tell us anything this morning it is this: watch what the unlikely characters are doing when it seems no one is watching. Watch out when women talk together, about something other than men. Those women very well might be plotting the work of God. Because God is in the business of using the unlikely characters. God uses unlikely gifts. God could even be in the business of using you.

Our world needs some unlikely characters, some unlikely stories. Our world is addicted to a narrative that says some people aren’t valuable. Our world believes the doomsayers. Our world needs a word of hope.

What unlikely story will you write? What unlikely ministry will our church be a part of? What unlikely plan is God hatching to turn over the perspective of the world?

Do you see that woman?

What nourishes you?

What is your daily bread? What nourishes you? Before we roll into this sermon, know that I wish these lessons did not come up during summer. I’d rather we read all this about bread from John during the majority of the year when we serve a big breakfast on Sunday morning. September can’t come quickly enough. We’d be better able to hear this Gospel on a full stomach. This week I was talking with Ellis about the Gospel, and he summarized it this way: “Jesus said, O ye of grumbling bellies.” The heart of this lesson is hunger, but not physical hunger. What nourishes you? What is your daily bread?

Jesus moves quickly beyond the literal hunger of the people. The Gospel of John leads me to believe Jesus wasn’t a literalist about very much. “You’re here because you’re looking for the loaves,” says Jesus. But the Good News is bigger than food. The Good News is deeper than what you see and touch. God’s bread is what gives life to the world. Jesus wants people to move beyond thinking with their stomachs. Jesus could be singing that old song by the band Cheap Trick, “I want you to want me.” Jesus wants the people to long for God, not for bread. So again, I ask, What nourishes you? What feeds your soul? What gives you life? What is your daily bread?

I want to touch on three streams of soul-nourishment, that I believe are critical in the way of Jesus. These three sources of spiritual food will be no surprise to those of you who grew up going to church, but I ask for you to consider them with me again this morning, in light of the Gospel. Ask yourself whether your belly is grumbling. The three I want to touch on this morning are Prayer, Community, and Worship.

First, prayer. We often practice prayer as a series of petitions and thanksgiving to God. Asking is a form of prayer, indeed. But the Christian tradition of prayer has more to offer than a litany of requests and blessings. Jesus actually doesn’t say much about prayer in The Gospels. The disciples memorably asked Jesus how to pray, and he gives them the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” And in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus complains about the long public prayers of the Pharisees. He exhorts his followers to go into their closet, and to pray in secret.

That advice about praying is secret thickens when we consider Jesus’ own practice of prayer. He may not speak much about prayer, but he teaches by example. We see Jesus draw away for solitude a great deal. He often pulls away to a garden, or the desert, or a mountaintop to pray. Jesus sought peace and stillness. Arguably, such peace did not come easily. We’ve just ridden in boats with a crowd of thousands chasing Jesus as he tries to escape across the sea of Galilee. He was in demand as a healer, a preacher, and a generator of bread. Yet, though he was popular, we often find Jesus seeking a place apart.

Thomas Merton once said, “Prayer is wasting time, conscientiously with God.” Prayer is a return, a relaxing, a slowing down. Many traditions teach that the first step in contemplation is to consider our breath. How often do we need to catch our breath these days?

Prayer understood through the example of Jesus is looking for a time to return to ourselves. Prayer is looking for space between the busy-ness of our life to remember that we are not finally human-doings but human beings. We need time just to be. In that space, God will meet you.

I say these words partly because I need to hear them. Over the years I have had fits and starts at the practice of centering prayer, a Christian practice taught by the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating. The goal of Centering Prayer is to quiet all of the busy-ness of our day, to quiet the busy-ness of our minds. The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian.

What practices help quiet your mind and bring you the nourishment of prayer? How do you find the stillness that all of us need? How do you snatch enough quiet to survive the business and busy-ness of our everyday world? Prayer is an important, central stream of nourishment that we need to find that life Jesus talks about. How does your life of prayer feed you, keep you fully alive?

The next stream I want to discuss I have called community. I have to confess, I’m not entirely satisfied with that term. Community seems too easy. We throw the word “community” around in our language, to the point that it can mean very little. Is “community” a geographical region: the “community” of University City? Is “community” a type of education: Community College? For followers of Jesus, “community” describes something more integral.

What is the ecosystem of relationships that feeds you? Just like prayer, I think we have much to gain from being conscious and conscientious about how our relationships are feeding us. Who are the people with whom you break bread regularly? Who informs your worldview? Who is there for you when you are hurting? When you need to celebrate?

Jesus describes his vision of community a bit. He talks about welcoming children and centers the least of these as the gatekeepers to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ practice again blows these teachings wide open. Jesus’ followers are known as an eclectic bunch. He eats with tax-collectors and sinners. He shares a table with women and outcasts. Notice too, the Pharisees and the Romans are at his table as well. They wouldn’t be complaining that Jesus invited the “wrong people” if the powerful weren’t also gathered. Jesus welcomed everybody.

It’s not that to Jesus those differences didn’t matter. It’s not that Jesus was color-blind, or wealth-blind, or gender-blind. No. Jesus saw diversity. Jesus wanted a diverse community around his table because his table was God’s table. All of these crazy diverse people are God’s people, he says. To God their stories matter. To God their lives matter.

“Black Lives Matter.” That slogan has become forever linked to the movement that began here in the community of St. Louis just short of a year ago. I confess I find the media’s sense of controversy around those words amusing. I’m still waiting for some absent-minded reporter to simply ask one of these absent minded presidential candidates, “Do you think that Black lives Matter?” What are they going to say, “no?”

The talking point for many of the talking heads has been to turn the slogan around. They say, “All Lives Matter.” This is true, but it is a subtle “no” to the movement. The young people, the activists, are asking us to remember that our system has not valued ALL lives. Historically, black lives were sold in this country, in this very state. Still today, Black lives are lost at a disproportionately high rate to violence in our city streets. Still today, in 2015, black lives are ended at a disproportionately high rate by our law enforcement, and by our legal system. Saying “Black Lives Matter” causes us to question whether All Lives REALLY do matter to our community. “Black Lives Matter” confronts the injustice. The words matter.

Yes, all of us have work to do when it comes to integrating our communities. People of every race can work to build a network of relationships that reflects God’s diversity. We can all work to build new friendships. Our souls will all be better fed if we encounter people who look different, think differently, speak differently, vote differently. But we also have to face the systemic nature of exclusion and racism. The power to make a change in our systems rests overwhelmingly with those empowered by those systems. Until we learn to systemically value black lives, we will continue to cut our society off from the potential God has for us. We will continue to waste the gifts God has for us that come from the talented women and men that our society excludes based on race, whose lives end at an alarming rate.

In the midst of all the brokenness in our society, I ask you to consider: what community feeds you? Where do you draw on the multifaceted wisdom and love of God to be found in a diverse community? Where do you find nourishment from people who work to love you fully, and who you work to love fully? Who else could be part of your community?

The final stream of nourishment I want to talk about is worship. Worship is what brings us together this morning. We are part of a tradition that values gathering the community for prayer. See how I just tied the other two streams together? The architects of our tradition were sage when they called the book we share “The Book of Common Prayer.” They acknowledged that something special happens when God’s people hold prayer in common, when we waste time together conscientiously with God.

I admit, coming to worship is not always the easiest thing for me to do. Even though I’m up here in fancy robes, still there are Sunday mornings when I leave my coffee and New York Times behind at my house a bit reluctantly. Yet, almost unfailingly, something about what we do here draws me back. Somehow the fragments of bread and sips of wine become more for me than meets the eyes. Somehow the food that we share, the stories that we tell, the songs that we sing, they become more than the sum of the parts.

When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are fed by God. That’s the faith of the church, and I’ve found it to be true for me. Worship nourishes me, even when I come reluctantly, even when I come tired, and frustrated. Especially when I have come in grief or with anxiety, I have found nourishment in the time we spend together.

When we share Holy Communion, as we are about to do, we encounter Jesus’ invitation to be fed deeply. We are invited to take God into our bodies, into our souls, into our lives more fully. We come to this table to be fed, that through us God might continue to give life to the world.

Where do you draw nourishment? Through Prayer, and Community, and Worship, how does Christ feed you? How could God be your daily bread? Questions to consider for a people with grumbling bellies.