“Chosen Family”

A few weeks ago, a young man named Mohammed rang the church doorbell. “I saw your sign,” he said. “Immigrants and refugees, welcome. That’s me. I’m a refugee from Somalia.” He was looking for help with a problem getting his green card. He had taken our banner very literally—thinking it meant we were an agency that offered immigration-related services. “Oh,” he said, looking puzzled when I explained that we were a church and I was the pastor. He seemed ready to leave, and then even more surprised when I went on to say that perhaps I could help him find an immigration attorney. This encounter left me smiling, and it left me thinking. I realized that in our time, expressing kindness toward immigrants and refugees—in the form of real solidarity that makes a difference—requires more than good will. It takes intentionality, skill, and the willingness to take risks. I remembered our work over many months of studying immigration issues. I recalled the long and intense congregational meeting at which we declared ourselves an immigrant welcoming and sanctuary supporting congregation. And I gave thanks that through the University Area Sanctuary Coalition and ISAIAH we have been learning how to act together.

This encounter with Mohammed came back to me as I reflected on the book of Ruth. When famine struck Bethlehem, Naomi and her family left behind their land and went to Moab, a place where they were hated foreigners, a place where they knew no one and had nothing. And there, in that strange land, the disasters and the griefs piled up. Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons died. She was left alone with her Moabite daughters-in-law. The three women were all vulnerable, as widows, but Naomi was in the most precarious situation. She had no source of support, no household to belong to, and no hope of finding such security, since she could not re-marry. She decided to return home. Her situation there would still be very difficult. She would live at the margins of society; gleaning the leftovers in the fields and getting by on charity.

The situation of refugees, forced to leave their homes, reminds me of the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. We heard the last stanza earlier. These are the words that open the poem:

“Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things,/feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth./What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved,/all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape/can be between the regions of kindness.”

The power of kindness, in the face of loss and disaster, is a key theme in the book of Ruth. Kindness, in this context, is not sentimental sympathy. It’s not “Minnesota nice.” In biblical Hebrew, hesed is the word. Hesed is deep and loyal kindness. It is often used to describe the strength of God’s feelings for the people and God’s covenant commitment to them. The famous Rabbi and Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, noted that there is an extravagance about hesed. He writes: “In most cases, the prophetic books use the word hesed in the sense of practicing beneficence toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you.”[1]

Naomi told her daughters-in-law to remain in their home country of Moab, because there they could remarry, and build futures for themselves. Ruth; however, refused to leave Naomi. In choosing Naomi as her family, she took an enormous risk. She willingly chose the life of a refugee and a foreigner.  In this way, Ruth showed Naomi hesed, loyal kindness, divinely inspired kindness, kindness that goes beyond what anyone could expect of her. The role of Boaz was also one of hesed. When Ruth appeared in his field one day to glean food Boaz treated her with unusual generosity: giving her water; letting her gather grain before the harvesters had gone through rather than after; making sure the workers did not harass her. When Ruth asked why he showed her such kindness, he replied that he admired the extraordinary kindness and faithfulness she had shown Naomi.

Jewish law sought to protect widows by requiring that the brother of a man who died act as a “redeemer”—marrying his widow and taking her into his home. So Ruth and Naomi hatched a bold and dangerous plan. Though Boaz had no obligation to be the redeemer, they would request this of him. They would ask him to marry Ruth and buy back Naomi’s husband’s land. Then Boaz would hold the land in trust for the son that he would one day have with Ruth. In this way, the family name of Ruth’s husband would be carried on, and Ruth and Naomi would find belonging and care within a new household.

So Naomi sent Ruth to the threshing floor one evening after the day’s harvesting was finished. Boaz had eaten and had something to drink and he laid down to sleep there on the threshing floor—perhaps to protect the valuable barley crop? After he went to sleep, Ruth also laid down and she uncovered his “feet.” Now maybe “feet” meant “feet” and maybe it meant genitals—the language is purposefully ambiguous. At midnight, Boaz woke up, startled. Ruth took the initiative and said “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” In other words, marry me! Professor Tikva Freymer-Kensky says this about this moment between Ruth and Boaz:

It is clear that Naomi is sending Ruth to do something which is totally inappropriate             behavior for a woman, and which can lead to scandal and even to abuse. [Fortunately]        Boaz recognizes that [Ruth] is acting in loyalty to Naomi and to [her husband’s] family        and blesses her for pursuing this path, declaring that this hesed of coming to him is             even greater than her first hesed of coming back with Naomi.[2]

Recently, I watched “Won’t you be my neighbor”, the film about Mr. Rogers. I grew up on Mr. Rogers but I had no clue how intentional he was. In this intentionality, I realized, Mr. Rogers embodied hesed, loyal kindness. Everything he said and did was undergirded by a profound awareness of child psychology. He crafted his program to respond to the fears and questions of children surrounded by the struggles of an adult world, tackling topics such as war, racism, death and divorce. He used puppets to express his own self-doubt and sadness as a way of validating the feelings of children. He moved slowly, communicating his full presence. He allowed for silence, even on television. He viewed the space between the television and the viewer as “very holy ground.”[3] As film critics have noted, one of the most striking things about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is the emotional response it evokes in many of us. Remembering the gentle grace and authenticity of Mr. Rogers causes us to grieve—grieve the lack of respect for basic human dignity we experience in our leaders; grieve the loss of emotional intelligence in government, on television and social media, in our work and personal lives; grieve that in this era of globalization, we seem to be in danger of losing the capacity to form a neighborhood that connects us across differences and gives us space to negotiate our conflicts peacefully.

Professor Freymer-Kensky observes that God never acts directly in Ruth. Instead, “The characters in the book of Ruth themselves act to fulfill the blessings they bestow on one another in the name of God.”[4] The message of Ruth is that hesed is a gift from God. Yet it requires our initiative, our action, for hesed to take flesh in the world. Giving and receiving hesed is the balm for our loss and sorrow, our hopelessness and fear. It holds the power to bring life out of death, to create family where family did not exist before.

The first chapter of Matthew provides the genealogy of Jesus going back to Abraham. In this list of ancestors, only four women are mentioned, one of whom is Ruth. What I hear in this editorial choice is that Ruth passes on important traits to Jesus, that she is part of his DNA. Ruth is one reason that Jesus preached, and lived, an inclusive Gospel, that he gave birth to a church in which we are free to loved and be loved “just the way we are.”

Our work, in this time, is to anchor ourselves in hesed, even when such a stance seems laughable to the larger world around us. Our work is to ask, what does loyal kindness, divinely inspired kindness, extravagant kindness look like? What is hesed in relation to the tent encampment on Hiawatha Avenue? Or our own households, or that one particularly annoying kid at school? What skill, what knowledge, what risk is required if hesed is going to shape our sanctuary work or our way of relating to each other at coffee hour? How will we center hesed in our politics, our elections, our governing?

Like Ruth and Naomi, let us take bold and hopeful initiative.

Let us join ourselves to God’s chosen family.

Let us live toward God’s neighborhood of grace and inclusion and justice.

Amen.

[1] From The Guide for the Perplexed; https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ruth-and-lovingkindness/

[2] Reading the Women of the Bible, 248

[3] From “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

[4] Freymer-Kensky, p. 245.