“You are the light of the world.” When you hear Jesus’ description of his followers as a lamp placed upon a lampstand, I wonder what image comes to mind? A small bedside table lamp? One of those desk lamps with the bendy necks? A camping lantern? An elegant, tall, freestanding sitting room lamp? When I was thinking of this passage in the context of our service tonight, following on from our Pentecost Prayer Day and our theme of how we can keep on glowing in the power of the Holy Spirit, the image that came to my mind was of Lumiere. Not the festival in Durham, but the character in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast! Lumiere is a living candelabra (he was maitre’d to the prince, but when the prince refused to show hospitality to an enchantress disguised as a beggar, her curse was to turn the prince into a beast, and all his servants into living household objects). As a living candelabra he continued to be both kind-hearted and somewhat rebellious, often thinking he knows best and acting accordingly. Now I’m fairly sure this isn’t the image Jesus had in mind when he described that lamp being placed on the lampstand, but I wonder if that’s sometimes why we don’t glow in the power of the Holy Spirit? Are we sometimes a bit like Lumiere (I know I am!) – a lamp who thinks we know best, a lamp that is able to walk off to where we think we need to be, maybe even a lamp who’s a little bit rebellious? Do we glow a little less bright because some of the time we are using up our energy trying to be the one who does the placing rather than simply being a lamp? In the image that Jesus uses there is the lamp, and there is the one who lights it and places it. If we are that lamp, would we glow brighter and longer if we were content to be where the one who lit us has placed us? What if we were just to trust that God has placed us where we are now to shine God’s light on the people around us and the places we’re in right now? What if we take seriously where we are, and simply get on with shining God’s light to those we know in the places we are? Now of course many of you will have been doing that over the last weeks and months especially as we’ve responded to Covid-19 and lockdown. Your light has been shining on the places and people around you. And it’s not always been easy. In fact although many of our usual activities and ways of doing things have stopped, it’s been quite a demanding time. Many of us are feeling quite tired and exhausted. Perhaps this is where we really need to get Lumiere out of our minds and have some idea of the type of lamp Jesus might have had in mind. Jesus was probably talking about a simple oil lamp. Made of pottery it would have had a well to hold the oil, and then some kind of funnel through which the wick would have come. The wick would be poking out the top. It’s this that would be lit, and that would shine its light around the room when placed upon the lampstand. When looking at the lamp, the oil would be hidden inside the pottery. Unseen, it is the oil that would have kept the lamp burning. Pull the wick up too high and it would burn for a while with the oil it had absorbed, before then burning through the wick itself, and burning itself out. Oil has often been used as a symbol of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If we want to stay alight as lamps, if we want to continue to glow, we need to ensure we stay in touch with the oil within. That which is unseen from the outside, but essential for the lamp to function. This imagery of the lamp comes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, but later on Jesus will talk of the need to pray and to fast in secret. Two unseen ways in which we continue to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit. We see this pattern in Jesus’ own ministry – drawing away to spend time alone with God, that his words, action, and being might continue to shine before others. Sometimes we can get caught up in the shining, the doing of good deeds, that we find our wick runs dry. It’s no longer the oil that’s burning but just us. The imagery of the oil lamp reminds us that we need to pay attention not just to where we are, and trust where we have been placed, but also to be attentive to the oil within, that which cannot be seen from outside but which is essential for the lamp to burn. What are the ways that you draw on God’s Spirit, that you get filled with God’s power, love and life? How have you been spending time with God? Have you been paying attention to this so that you can continue to burn bright, to glow with the power of the Holy Spirit?
Today we come to the end of our story. The tension over who will provide for Naomi and Ruth is resolved in a rather busy scene where we are introduced to a whole range of characters – there’s another relative of Boaz and Naomi, a group of 10 men at the city gate, as well as people gathering, and women blessing Naomi. Then the book ends with a birth and a whole list of names. But where, in all of this, is God? You might think this a strange question – after all, we’ve been looking at a book of the Bible, surely it’s all about God? One of the reasons the book of Ruth appeals to many is because it’s a very human story – we recognize the characters, the struggles and dilemmas facing them, and their emotions, but God appears to be strangely absent. In the whole story, God is only mentioned 21 times, and the vast majority of these times God is only mentioned in a greeting or prayer. There are no instructions from God, no-one hears God speaking. Only twice are we told that God actually does something – once at the start, when Naomi decides to return from Moab, because God has considered the people in Judah and given them food (1:6), and once at the end, when God enables Ruth to fall pregnant (4:13). Apart from this it seems as if God does nothing. Perhaps this is another reason why the story appeals to many. Isn’t this often our experience? It’s not always obvious that God has something to say and is trying to speak with us. It’s often not clear to us how, or even if, God is at work around us. We journey through life and many times God doesn’t seem especially present. And there are times, as Naomi and Ruth experienced, when it seems God has utterly abandoned us. Yet the testimony of the women who gather around Naomi after Ruth gives birth to Obed is that this is not the case (4:14). They praise God because they see that God has not left her without someone to care for her, provide for her, protect her. It’s perhaps not so much that God was absent, but that God was hidden. With all the tragedy that had befallen her, Naomi could not understand how God was at work, and she had given up trying to comprehend God’s ways. But Naomi’s inability to see God at the time within her circumstances does not mean God was absent, even if God was hidden. And such hiddenness is temporary. At the end of the story, as the women look back, it becomes clear how God was working. One of the messages of Ruth might well be to encourage us not to despair when it appears that God is doing nothing in a particular situation, but to continue to trust in God’s providence. To reassure us that even if we cannot see God at work, God’s hiddenness is not absence. But if God was not absent, how was God at work? How was God moving events towards the outworking of God’s plans? God’s hiddenness within the story reminds us that God’s way of working his purposes out is through people. God chooses people through whom God influences events in the world. Even if God’s presence is sometimes imperceptible, God continues to shape and love the world through people, through their actions, through their prayers. This is what we’ve been exploring over these last few weeks. Through Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi we have seen something of God’s hesed – his faithful, loving kindness – towards humanity. In Ruth’s struggle for justice, and the generosity of Boaz, we have seen God’s care of the vulnerable. Even in last week’s difficult chapter, with Naomi’s dubious, manipulative plan, we can see God working to redeem the situation through the response of Boaz. A response that comes to fruition in today’s reading. A fruition that indicates a much bigger horizon than Naomi had possibly imagined. Through the redeeming of her land, and of Ruth, Naomi was seeking provision for herself and Ruth, for a continuation of her husband and son’s name. But God was using her and Boaz’s actions for so much more; not just the redemption of one family, but of all humanity. That’s the point of the genealogy – the list of names – at the end of Ruth (4:17-22). It leads us into the bigger story; Ruth’s son Obed becomes the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king. A genealogy that the gospel writers continue for us, for from the line of David comes Jesus, the ultimate Redeemer, who saves us from our sins. But this journey into the bigger story only happens because God chooses to work through ordinary people. Although Ruth and Naomi are not named in the genealogy, the witness of the people at the city gate, and at the birth of Obed, make it clear that none of this would have happened without them. Most stories end with death, but the story of Ruth ends with a birth. It stands for the promise of life that God is working to bring not just for Ruth and Naomi, but for all creation. That God will continue to work through Ruth’s descendents to bring life in all its fullness to all people. In doing so, perhaps the ending of the story is suggesting that each of us is pregnant with God’s promise. If the story of Ruth reveals to us the wonder that God chooses to work through ordinary people, what of God’s plans and promises is pregnant within you? What is God wanting to bring to birth through you? How might God use our ordinary lives to lead people into God’s bigger story? How might God be present to us, working in the lives of those around us?
RUTH chapter 3 I want to share my three R’s with you. Not the three R’s of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, but using Dr Rachel Starr’s headings in her notes on the Methodist Bible month: Resisting, Redeeming and Restoring. RESISTING Chapter 3 begins with Naomi scheming and planning a way of obtaining a greater degree of security for her daughter in law Ruth. Some of the events recorded in the Book of Ruth probably make us feel rather uncomfortable. There are issues here about seduction and abuse and certainly degrees of sexual inappropriateness. Naomi suggests Ruth bathes, anoints and adorns herself then goes to Boaz at night while he is sleeping and lies down next to him. There appears to be a resistance to normal patterns of conventions and behaviour in the culture of the day. Ruth is encouraged by Naomi to take some initiatives towards Boaz. Ruth does not resist anything Naomi suggests, she goes along with it, she colludes with the plan. I wonder if we are guilty of colluding with things we perhaps should have resisted. Take for example the whole issues of statues to slave traders. Edward Colston’s statue was pulled from its plinth and Bristol and his symbolic figure was rolled down the street and cast into Bristol dock. There have been campaigns for many a year to remove him from his honoured place as we now see he made his money from an horrific business. History is unfolding all the time, it is not just a static deposit of facts, our perceptions of people change as we become more sensitive to issues. The programme on TV “a house through time” by David Olusoga has provided a fascinating insight into the people who lived in Guinea Street, Bristol, the first owner being a slave-ship owner who was trading in black captives from Africa as the name of the street suggests. It now houses a refugee who lodges there with the family who own it. Whatever our view of someone like Winston Churchill, we are probably aware now much more than ever that all people are a complex mixture of good and bad, glorious actions and grimy dimensions too. I was brought up to remember from my grandad what Churchill thoughtshould happen to striking miners in a previous era! Most of us are a complex mix of good and evil. Sometimes our motives are less then they might be. As human beings we are capable of great acts of honour, service and self-sacrifice but we also all have the potential for scheming, plotting and less than glorious words and deeds and attitudes. We must make a real concerted effort to ensure that we resist evil and do good. REDEMPTION I heard Peter Stanford’s Private Passions on Radio 3 last week. He told the story of his meeting with Lord Longford some years ago and Longford’s passion for the release of Myra Hyndley. Longford as a Christian was passionate about prison reform and made the comment to the young journalist Peter Stanford that if you ever slip into believing that someone is incapable of rehabilitation you are actually saying something about human nature that goes against all we proclaim in the gospel. Longford believed passionately in rehabilitation, as a campaigner for prison reform, and as a Christian in the concept of redemption. In an old hymn by Thomas Ken of “Awake my soul and with the sun” we sing in verse 2 “redeem the misspent moments past and live each day as if thy last”. It seems to suggest we can make good what we made a mess of in the past. We profess to believe in a God who redeems, who continues to work his work of grace in the life of the world he loves and has redeemed in his Son. Boaz awakes to find a beautiful woman lying next to him and he asks “Who are you?”. I wonder how good we are at seeing the whole person in the folk we encounter and seeing their potential rather than who they seem to present themselves as to us. The shabbily dressed person we might encounter probably has a sad story to tell if only we make time to listen to it, if we could only take time to get to know the person behind the appearance we might shun. They also have potential. Boaz sees Ruth more than just a foreigner as he did in the previous chapter, he now sees her as the widow of Elimelech’s son. Boaz comes to see her as a kins-woman, one of his own kith and kin. And he wants her to know God’s blessing, to see things go well for her, after her disappointment and calamity. She goes home with a plentiful supply of barley. Bill Gowland (founder of the Luton Industrial Mission in the 1960’s) was passionate about the Church needing to stand alongside people in their daily lives and work. He coined a phrase “that we cannot redeem what we do not understand”. Of course, it is God who redeems but he does call us, as his followers, to share in the work he is doing, for God’s work continues. Part of our task as disciples of Christ is to get alongside people in all the daily struggles they encounter and to look and listen for the signs of God’s kingdom around us and among us, to see God’s work of redemption in situations in our world today. We believe in a God who takes what we are and what we offer and transforms them by his grace. So we can sing in the words of Kevin Nichols “In bread we bring you Lord” (689 StF) “Take all that daily toil, plant in our hearts’ poor soil, take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream, the chances we have missed, the graces we resist, Lord in your Eucharist, take and redeem”. Or if you prefer , In the words of Charles Wesley “Great is our redeeming Lord in power and truth and grace”. RESTORING The story of Ruth chapter 3 ends with Ruth returning to Naomi with six measures of barley, the plans Naomi has hatched is working and coming to fruition, her mission is almost complete. Boaz is seeing Ruth in a different way and the fortunes of the family are looking up. There looks like the potential of some restoration of fortunes, the redeeming of the land that once belonged to Elimelech, there is hope for the future and promise filled with potential. In these days of Coronavirus restriction and the gradual lifting of those restrictions, I wonder what we are hoping might be restored. Many of us are probably longing for a restoration of things as we knew them at the beginning of March. Chances are that those days are either some way off yet or perhaps will never return as they were. In the life of the Church we probably will never return to how things were and perhaps we shouldn’t, because some of the things we did and the way we did them were already long past their sell-by date. The restoration might well be quite different from how things used to be. So, I end with some questions to ponder, “What work of restoration is God calling us to?”, “What things have been restored during these odd days of Coronavirus that we had lost sight of? “ (and I know the way we have been looking after each other is perhaps one such thing, “watching over one another in love”). “What things are we hoping might be restored? And what things should and what things should not be restored?”. And how do we decide? Renewal is perhaps a better word because God is continually making things new. We are going to sing a hymn now which speaks of such a renewal in the life of God’s Church…..Lord your Church on earth is seeking… StF 410/ HAP 774 Lord thy Church on earth is seeking
Chapter two of Ruth is about the transformation of Naomi. Chapter one ended with a very despondent Naomi. She returns home to Bethlehem, telling the women of the town not to call her Naomi (which means pleasant), but instead to call her Mara (which means bitter) [1:20]. It’s a reflection of the tragedy which has befallen her – the death of her husband and sons in a foreign land leaving her poor and vulnerable. As she says, she went away full and has come back empty – no wonder she feels that God has dealt harshly with her [1:21]. And yet by the end of chapter two, Naomi is full of praise – praying God’s blessing on Boaz and declaring that the Lord has not forsaken the living or the dead [2:20]. So how does this transformation come about, especially when the story focuses not on Naomi but on Ruth and Boaz? It is through Ruth’s struggle for justice, and Boaz’s generous response, that Naomi realises that God has not abandoned her.
RUTH Chapter 1 (begin by reading Chapter 1)
The first chapter of Ruth is a story of famine and migration, one of journeying, death loss and inter-marriage. There are powerful examples of people searching for a sense of belonging, experiences of embracing new cultures as well as feelings of bitterness and emptiness. The family unit of the widow Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth is quite an unusual family unit. Your own experience may reveal that the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law can often be tense and strained. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs spoke on “Thought for the Day” recently about the story of Ruth and said it was essentially about kindness. It is a demonstration of the Hebrew word “hesed” which we tend to translate as loving kindness in English which is manifested in deeds rather than romantic or sentimental displays.
Ruth travels with Naomi back to Bethlehem and finds kindness. So, in order to get inside the issues of the story of Ruth, I wonder if you have much experience of moving to a new place. Have you ever moved to a new place? How did it feel to move from the familiar to an unfamiliar place? I have often moved during my life and being a Methodist minister has meant I have lived in five different circuits in the last 29 years. But this is nothing compared with some people.! My grandmother (albeit in in a very different time in the 1920’s) moved about nine times in her long life and this included moving three times in three years to different farms as her husband, my grandfather, took tenancies on ever slightly larger farms. It wasn’t just the two of them moving, it was with an increasing large family of children also. They did eventually settle at a farm of 119 acres for about twenty years before my grandad retired from farming at the age of 76. Most of the moving was within two neighbouring parishes of Egton and Glaisdale in the North York Moors, so there were not cultural challenges as far as I know!
Sometimes moves for people involve different countries and cultures. My aunt, who married a Warrant Officer in the RAF in 1940, a few years later sailed by boat to Singapore with two young children which took weeks to get there. She had a house-maid in Singapore. A couple of years later she moved back to the UK with three children and on to numerous RAF Stations until her husband came out of the RAF and they settled in York!
Traditionally the history of the world often involves women and children moving due to the man in their life changing jobs. I have a cousin who as a child moved five times in the first seven years of her life, as my uncle moved from farm to farm finding sometimes annual work. The story of this area involves many migrations of people from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and other parts of the UK to work in the coal mines of the Durham Coalfield. Often people were moving as industries declined, in their home areas, in search of better prospects. Contact with family in the old place was often only possible by letter in those days.
Mass emigration from Commonwealth countries to the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s is a story of often not finding a welcome. “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” was a common sign displayed in boarding houses that did not wish to rent rooms to certain people. The Windrush generation was not welcomed with open arms here in this country. It was all too often a story of discrimination and racism. Kindness has not always been shown to everyone. The events of the last week or so in USA following the death of George Flyd in Minneapolis have sparked much outpouring and tension over racial discrimination in the US. It would seem that the old wounds of the 1960’s and segregation, which many naively belived were overcome, are still endemic within that society. Many of the deep issues of racial justice seem not yet to be resolved. Whilst we do not live in the US, issues of racial justice and the related issues of welcome and belonging may well be concerns that our own society has not fully addressed. And the Covid19 pandemic has revealed we are not all equally susceptible to the virus, but black and Asian citizens are at a higher risk of being infected by the virus.
So, let us think about that sense of belonging that is a powerful force. What makes you feel you belong somewhere? I don’t just mean a geographical place, I also mean to a group or organisation, perhaps the church.
Ruth decides to move with her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem, “where you go, I will go”. How good are we at welcoming those who come among us from other places? All too often we might give the impression that new people must become like us when they join in our group, and that they must leave behind their roots. A better way would be to see what they bring and allow those qualities to enrich the community they become part of.
In the life of the Church belonging is a very strong emotion. It is often more powerful than believing. People feel a strong sense that they belong to a particular church community and this often comes before they really grasp what it is that that particular denomination’s doctrines are. It may be to do with the relationships with other people, or the style of worship. Sometimes we might give the impression that new people are welcome but there might be a slightly hidden agenda that to fit in the new people must become just like us, think like us, share all our views and even prejudices. For some it might be the only church they have ever known, whilst others choose from a range of options. People sometimes talk of feeling they have come “home” even if they have never been there before! (sometimes our roots might be in a particular place even if we have never lived there ourselves but our forbears may have and we feel attached a place because of family members who we visited there in the past. In an ideal world, church should give us a sense of belonging as well as the community in which we live, whether we were born there or not. It does however take effort to get to that position.
Moving on and making changes is not always easy. Perhaps the Coronavirus has enabled many of us to engage in new hobbies. If you believe all you hear from people like, Kirstie Allsop and Grayson Perry, we are told that many people are crafting, sewing, creating and discovering or re-discovering talents they either never knew they had, or are bringing out what has laid dormant.
It may well be the case that some expressions of kindness have laid dormant within us. We may need to find them and demonstrate them more fully and effectively. We may well be inter-acting with our neighbours in a new and deeper way.
I wonder what issues from Ruth Chapter 1 you have discovered.
“Be kind” is a phrase I have heard often during recent weeks. Be kind when shopping so as not to take more than we need, mindful of those more vulnerable than ourselves. Being kind by being more aware of our neighbours perhaps and their needs, checking they have all they need. Being kind by being more aware of those in our communities who are in need. These are some examples of that outworking of the Hebrew concept of Hesed, loving kindness. We are going to sing a hymn about kindness in terms of Jesus hands and our hands, that some of you will remember from times past
Jesus hands were kind hands.
And another hymn about thanking God for people friends and others who help us, challenge us, shape us and transform us as we journey through life
Thanks for friends….