a woman’s story

A sermon interlude in a series on the book of Ruth.

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This morning’s sermon represents something of an interlude in our series on the book of Ruth. It’s not that we are turning away from that story today, but we take a step back in order to take a slightly different perspective on this wonderful narrative. 

As we take that step back, I want to remind us, or point out, that telling stories is a part of human nature. Even more, our story-telling ability in some sense makes a human, a human. This ability defines us. As human beings we tell stories that reach back into the past, stories that speak about our present experiences, and stories that reach into the future we imagine. The fact that story-telling defines us is particularly shown when we point out that if you really want to know someone – if you really want to know who she is – facts aren’t enough.

She was born on this date;

went to that elementary school;

lived in this house for X number of years;

has these family members;

works in that office tower.

These facts don’t tell you much about the person herself. You will only really know a person when all of these details, these facts, are weaved together in a narrative.

You will only really know a person when you hear how she took action, or responded to events in time.

You will only know a person when you consider how she related to friends and family through time and circumstances.

You will only know a person when you hear how she wrestled with particular decisions she faced.

It is only possible to know someone, who she is as a person, if you know her story.

But let’s add something more into the discussion this morning.

Not only are humans story-telling creatures.

And not only are we known through our own stories.

We also point out this morning that every society and community is defined by particular stories. Every society or community has stories that shape a people’s understanding of themselves. For example, some have said that the narrative of the First World War has been a defining narrative for Canadians. It has been said that the stories of courage and self-sacrifice and loyalty and suffering that came out of the Great War came to define Canada and Canadians. The telling of these stories of the war shaped future generations. Those narratives of sacrifice and bravery shaped this people’s self-understanding and identity.

Every society or community has its stories – and those stories are told over and over again. Those stories shape people –

they shape what we think of as valuable,

they shape how people relate to others,

they might shape our understanding of our land or language or laws.

To tell stories is human, and every human society has its stories – stories shape a people’s understanding of who they are.

But let’s stop and ask a question. What happens if begin to think that the stories we tell, the stories that define us, are problematic. What if we begin to think that the stories that define our culture don’t lead to an identity we any longer consider good or beautiful.

It might begin to dawn on us that

the stories we tell are too narrow and suffocating,

or that the stories we tell aren’t consistent with our identity as God’s children,

or that the stories we tell don’t point toward the fullness of human life.

This possibility means we must be attentive to the stories we tell. For in the repeating of stories over time they shape us and others – is it in a good way?

With this in mind we come just a little closer to our subject for today. In order to lead us forward one more step, I’d like us to think for a moment about the fairytales that are told today  specifically, about fairytales that are told to young girls.

These fairytales, these stories are often rich and full – the young women in fairytales often display courage, they frequently overcome challenges, they often show grace and generosity. To tell these stories is to encourage the same displays of courage, and strength and generosity.

But think for a moment about the story of Cinderella, or of Beauty and the Beast, or of the Little Mermaid, or of Snow White. And think about how each of these stories ends – each of them has what we would define as the classic fairytale ending. Where does the young girl end up – she ends up in the arms a prince. Almost invariably, the fairytales we tell to young girls end with a wedding ceremony.

In most cultures, western culture included, we have lived historically with the idea that the story of a girl’s life, or the story of a woman’s life, should include marriage. And fairytales often reflect this. Our popular fairytales shape our understanding of what it is to be girl or woman – and they push toward the idea that fulfillment as a woman depends on finding the right man – the fairytale wedding. Our culture has been a culture that assumes marriage is essential to the fulfillment of female identity, and the stories we tell in western culture often repeat the message. That’s not all they do, but they include that element.

Of course western societies have in some ways moved beyond this idea – that a woman’s story is only complete if there’s a man in the picture. There is today resistance to the idea that the fairytale wedding is a necessary feature of a woman’s life. There is some resistance to the idea that in order to be fulfilled a woman must marry.

Here, finally, we come back to the story of Ruth. Having read Chapter 3 this morning, we are given a hint about where this story is taking us. Over the past two weeks we have said that the narrative of Ruth is a story that takes us on a path

            from emptiness to fullness

            from famine to feasting

            from bitterness to sweetness.

Last week we saw the beginning of an answer to the poverty and insecurity of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth – Ruth is able to glean in the fields, gathering bits of grain left behind by those taking in the harvest. We also saw, however, that even with intervention of Boaz, who makes sure that Ruth can gather a good amount of grain, Ruth will never be able to collect enough grain to sustain her and Naomi over the long haul. God in his providential care has provided for their needs – but the story must continue to unfold if Naomi and Ruth are really to make the return from emptiness to fullness, from famine to feasting.

We can cheat by looking ahead to Chapter 4, to see where the story will take us. We read in that chapter: “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi: ‘Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!’”

Looking ahead in this way, we see that for Ruth and Naomi the path from famine to feasting, from bitterness to sweetness, leads through the marriage of Ruth to Boaz. The highlight of the story is in some sense the fairytale ending of a wedding, where poverty and bitterness come to an end through Ruth’s marriage. What we seem to have here is a story that pushes toward the same conclusion as those fairytales – Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid. It seems that the message is that a woman’s story is only complete if it includes marriage. If you aren’t married, your story is somehow incomplete.

Why should we think otherwise? Why shouldn’t we think that a woman’s story is only complete if it includes a man, a marriage? Why should we resist the idea that a fairytale wedding is necessary to a woman’s narrative?

One way to answer these questions is to say: “Well, times have changed. Our society had progressed and we know better today. We’ve learned that women can accomplish as much as a men, can have lives outside of the home, can lead a complete and fulfilled existence without marriage and a man. We just know better today – we’ve progressed.”

This answer contains a hint of truth, but within the Christian tradition this kind of answer can never be enough. We recall that we are the people of God, shaped by gospel of Jesus – a people who turn to the scriptures in order to understand who God is and who we are. Which means it’s never enough to say “well, we know better today than they used to.”

Within the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, of which we are a part, we have always embraced the idea that scripture interprets scripture. In fact, this is a principle that almost all Christians embrace in some way.

If there is something that troubles us in scripture,

if there is something that is unclear within scripture,

then we try to resolve that trouble, we try to answer that lack of clarity, from within scriptures themselves. Yes, we listen to what the world around us is saying. Yes, we may have something to learn. But we always go back to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, who has shown his face in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Doing so we discover that

there are sometimes new things to be seen in God’s word;

there may be teachings that have been neglected;

we may have misinterpreted something because of our blindness or bias.

But we remain with God’s word, seeking to be faithful to it. 

This morning our New Testament lesson was taken from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. And within those words of scripture is a profoundly important message.  In his instruction to the Christians living in the city of Corinth, Paul says that those who were married when they become followers of Jesus should stay married – and that those who were not married when they came to faith should remain unmarried. They should remain single. Paul is quick to clarify that he’s just offering his own opinion on the matter, but he thinks that the nature and situation of the church doesn’t require anyone to get married. He says in fact that a man who is not married can better preoccupy himself with “the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” He says likewise that a woman who is not married can more easily preoccupy herself with “the affairs of the Lord.”

The key for Paul is not whether a man or woman is married, but whether men and women are giving themselves in service to God, for the purposes of God. The question is whether a man or woman is preoccupied with the things that matter to the risen Jesus Christ.

The argument of Paul is important for us, becomes it tells us that from the perspective of the gospel a woman’s story doesn’t require that wedding, the marriage, in order to be complete. The fulfillment of a woman’s life story is found as she lives in a dynamic relationship with the risen Jesus Christ. Fulfillment for women, and men, is found as they live in the faith, the hope, the joy, the love, and the spirit of service that characterize Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

Marriage is a possible, but not necessary, feature of our life stories. Fullness of life is seen in the story of a woman or man who lives in the service of Christ, for the glory of God. This message of the gospel, we should add, provides a logic for resisting those fairytale endings – calling them into question. The gospel of Jesus Christ invites us to tell different stories – ones that don’t include marriage, the fairytale wedding – but which reveal a life as full as any life story could be.

Where does this leave us with the story of Ruth? Some would write off the story of Ruth saying that it just repeats the same old idea that a woman can’t life a full life without marriage, without a man. Of course, the story of Ruth is from another time and another place. In her culture there was simply no other source of security that the male members of the household – security through a man, a marriage. In that society, there was no alternative. So it’s true that the story of Ruth pushes toward that same old narrative, with the fairytale wedding – against the backdrop of a male-centred culture.

But this can’t mean that we throw out the story. Yes, we have to step back from the story, and take a critical posture – which is what we are trying to do today. We have to point out that this story’s insistence on marriage for Ruth isn’t consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t consistent with the vision of life we are given in the light of his life, death, and resurrection. We can in some sense be critical of the story.

We can also remind ourselves that some change has taken place in the church and in the wider society, and that New Testament witness invites just such a change – to see our fullness of life in Christ and nowhere else.

But having stepped back from the narrative of Ruth in this way we will be able to come back to the story and hear its deeper message – the message that God is at work in our world, in every time and every culture, blessing and restoring his people. In fact, that’s just what we will do next week. We will come back again to Ruth Chapter 3, in order to discover again that our God extends loving kindness to his children, that in Jesus Christ he sets them on a path that leads form emptiness to fullness, from famine to feasting, from bitterness to sweetness. That’s the story of Ruth, and it’s a story worth telling.

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