10/21: Your People, My People, Ruth 1:1-17 (CEB), Rev. M. Drew Bongiovanni, guest preaching
Your People, My People
Ruth 1:1-17 (CEB)
Rev. M. Drew Bongiovanni
It is such a delight for me to be here this morning, celebrating homecoming with you all as a child of this church. I am so thankful that you have asked me to speak with you this morning.
Many of you all have known me all of my life. My parents, Fred and Dee, came to Macon and this congregation in 1985, and you were there for them when they were new in their careers and marriage and adjusting to life in a new city. You were there when my brother, Brice, was born in 1988, and you were there when I was born three years later.
And when I say you were there... I really mean that! When my brother and I were growing up and were told the stories of how we were born, this congregation had a part in both of our birth stories. My brother made it “known” that he was on his way into the world minutes before my mother was about to teach the Bible study at Wednesday night supper. And when it was my turn, my family were on their way out the door to church on Sunday morning; they rushed to drop off my brother off Sunday School before heading to the hospital.
Although my brother and I each managed to skip church successfully the first time (haha), from the very beginning of my life, this congregation has been a part of my story, and part of who I know myself to be. With my parents’ families living far away in North Carolina and Maryland, this church functioned through my growing up as surrogate family. When I look out on this congregation, I see the faces of people who are to me, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, and friends. You have been there to celebrate my milestones and teach me values that still guide my life. Your story is inextricably woven into mine.
Our text today offers us another insight into what it means to be family. The book of Ruth, at only 4 chapters, tells the story of two women thrown into a precarious situation by the circumstances of their gender.
Naomi and her husband were Israelites living in the foreign land of Moab, and while there, their sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. When all three men die, the women are left without security or recourse in a society that granted women little in the way of individual rights. Deciding to return to her homeland, Naomi pleads with her daughters-in-law for their own sakes to leave her and stay in Moab, where they may be able to find new husbands, securing their safety within a male-led household. Naomi is anguished that she can no longer offer these women security, her care for them clearly expressed in her pleas for them to save themselves.
In a tearful goodbye, Orpah leaves, hearing the guidance in Naomi’s warning. Ruth, on the other hand, makes an impassioned pledge of loyalty, that she will not leave Naomi to fend for herself. She recommits herself as Naomi’s daughter, even in the absence of any guarantee that this will benefit her or give her refuge, and her promise makes them a new family.
Together, Ruth and Naomi return to Naomi’s homeland, to Bethlehem in Judah, where Ruth stands out as a foreigner. Ruth’s identity as a Moabite is one that the writer reiterates throughout the text. The Moabites were ancient enemies of the Israelite people, and are described in negative and derogatory terms in various places in the biblical canon. Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is not only a promise of loyalty despite their vulnerable position as women, it is also one that puts her in an unsafe position due to her race and ethnicity.
Later, the story will show us how Ruth and Naomi struggle to survive and the strategies they use to ensure household stability despite their vulnerable situation as women. But before that, in Ruth’s moment of declaring that “she goes where Naomi goes,” there is no assurance yet of success or survival. Threat abounds, and the situation is dire: Ruth and Naomi are facing starvation, homelessness, and marginalization. Naomi knows that for her daughter-in-law to stay with her could be tantamount to a death sentence.
And yet, amidst the uncertainty of their future, Ruth identifies what these women still DO have, when Naomi fears that they have lost everything: they still have one another. What Ruth asserts in this moment, is that secondary to survival is the need for family, for community, the need for belonging. What point is there in living if they are living alone? Ruth’s pledge to Naomi asserts that there is more to be gained through relationship than the prospect of her finding a secure living situation. Ruth, quite literally, risks her life for the sake of companionship.
In our Western society, the lines of who makes up a family unit is, in these days, drawn very small. We use terms like immediate and extended family, in-laws, step, and biological, to specify how we are related, to describe who is really one of us, and who is not. Our qualifiers perhaps point to our larger problem with community. Often, nowadays, we don’t even know the names of the people who live right next door to us, and we can feel isolated and alone even when surrounded by others.
In the theological sense, however, family has no such artificial boundary of blood lines or geography. The family that Ruth and Naomi form is subversive and counter-cultural. You know that the language of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is so beautiful that it’s often used in weddings, but significantly, this text is frequently used in the marriages of same-sex couples, because, although theirs is not a romantic relationship, Ruth and Naomi’s commitment reflects the same qualities of a family that exists outside normative culture, and survives despite oppressive powers that would threaten their life.
It is no understatement to say that the Bible has a complicated record with the notion of family. We see examples of betrayal and redemption between spouses, siblings, and children, and more than once, biological family is called into question as the be-all-end-all place where we find belonging and love. The realities of family we see in the Bible are ones we might experience in our lives as well. Too many of us have experienced disappointment or betrayal from those who were supposed to embrace us unconditionally because we are related to them. Others of us might have experienced being separated from families, through moving location, or through the passing of loved ones. Our experience of “traditional” family can be one littered with landmines and rocky terrain, grief and loss. Like Naomi and Ruth, we might find ourselves suddenly losing the safety and security we expected to have from family.
What Ruth and Naomi model for us is an understanding of family that defies the typical categorization and societal norms. They create a radical family born out of necessity and adversity. Community in this sense, is not a conveniently laid-out relationship offered by society. It’s one patched together through solidarity, pain, and most importantly, hope. It’s a relationship that involves a strong degree of risk and sacrifice in order to protect others. It is this notion of family that we in the church are invited to form, again and again.
Present in Ruth’s pledge is the African theological concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the notion of communality, a declaration that each of us form and affect one another. Contrary to the Western European Descartian concept of “I think, therefore I am,” Ubuntu declares, “I am, because we are.” Ubuntu was a guiding principle in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, used by both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Bishop Tutu writes of Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.”
When we declare this truth of communality between people, we are, of course, then also saying something about the nature of God. Our being designed for community is the reflection of our God-created selves. We are created in the image of God, designed to need community and to create community with others. The biblical examples we have state clearly that often, this life-giving notion of family is one crafted out of and cultivated in loss and suffering.
I believe that these concepts of community and togetherness are ones that this congregation knows well. My memories are full of moments where this community came together to form something valuable, something that extended beyond itself as merely and place where people who share the same religious tradition gather together. I had so many hands helping to raise me as a child, that the boundaries of family and friendship were expansive and life-giving. Often these relationships existed within differences of circumstance and politics. The belief acted upon again and again in this place was there that there was more to be gained by being together than by being apart.
These convictions are evident on this very Sunday, in which we are celebrating homecoming. Now, part of our Baptist heritage and tradition is that a Baptist’s membership is to a specific congregation, rather than a denomination at-large. It is easy, I think, for that to mean that we see our congregations as islands unto themselves, where we are only known within a singular place. Homecoming, however, is a day to remember and celebrate the broader community of members and friends that exist even if distance and time have separated us. To observe homecoming is to assert that a member doesn’t stop being a member just because they’ve transferred their name from one set of books to another. Whereas membership is often a measured by a yearly giving figure and eligibility to vote in church, homecoming is about remembering and honoring the relationshipsthat exist beyond those parameters. Homecoming is a day when we say, even if we haven’t seen you in while, even if you are now far away, we still know you. We are a part of each other.
As one of your many members from afar, I have watched the work of this congregation to declare over and over again that community and relationship are to be found not only within the doors of this church, but in the far-flung reaches of the wider world as well. In your work, you, like Ruth have risked your own security in favor of building community. family
You have crossed lines of race to form friendships with the congregation at First Baptist New Street. This process has required taking the risk of acknowledging the wounds of racism in our congregation’s history. In this partnership, you have taken the risks of discomfort and the risk of learning about the transgressions of white supremacy that exist around us still.
You have forged interfaith friendships with our Catholic and Unitarian Universalist neighbors, coming together to help create and support Daybreak, the day shelter which welcomes those experiencing homelessness. You have worked broadly in the Macon community to build homes through Habitat for Humanity and provide food through our Crisis Closet. In all of these, you are walking alongside our most vulnerable neighbors as they seek refuge and safety, offering them the companionship of meals and fellowship.
You have made decisions to radically welcome all people as fully included members of this congregation, through ordaining anyone who has been called to ministry, and recently by declaring to LBGTQ members of this congregation that you will celebrate their marriages. You took the risk of taking a stand for love and acceptance in the face of those who would exclude others, putting yourselves on the line for those in your church family who have been marginalized.
As I have watched this good work from afar, I cannot tell you all the pride that I have had for this congregation. The values you instilled in me of community, togetherness, and kindness that you taught me in Sunday school classes, GAs, Choir, and Sunday Worship are ones that you believe and more importantly, act upon. My notion of family as a child was, because of this congregation, expansive and theological, and it meant including others, no matter what.
This congregation knows who it is, and how to love others across the space of adversity and oppression. The risks you have taken in the past few years have both deepened and widened this congregation’s sense of family. Just as you honor your members from afar on this Sunday, you are continually creating spaces where people can find a home through this fellowship. Just as Ruth saw how staying with Naomi was valuable despite risk and uncertainty, this congregation has not shied away from stretching out the hand of friendship into new and unknown spaces.
In the wake of spaces where so many people experience betrayal and isolation, this congregation has the ability to expand its family. When we think about the kin’dom of God, kinis indicative of the familial relationships of love that we seek to create. Doing the work of God is hard work, but it can begin at home, it is home.
This work of expanding our community is ever unfolding, and there are yet places that First Baptist can deepen and explore what it means to know others and be in community with them. Places where members of our human family are still hurting, are marginalized, and are in need of belonging. There is risk involved, yes, in forming relationships in uncertain spaces, but that does not mean that there isn’t something for us to gain. I am because we aremeans that as we form relationships, we are transformed. It means that as our family deepens and widens, so does our relationship with the Holy. Will you pledge, will you commit, to go where those who are hurting will go? Because where it takes you, is further into the Kin’dom of God. Amen.