The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Help Give Birth to Hope

Presiding Bishop's Sermon at St. Paul's Church in Atlanta, GA

Proper 27, Year B (rcl)

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


A story like Ruth and Naomi's could probably only be made into a movie if it carried an X rating. We miss a lot of the innuendo in translation, but basically, Naomi is out to procure a husband for her widowed daughter-in-law. That's the only way either one of them is going to survive economically. She says to Ruth, "look, there's Boaz, time to jump the broom with him - and he's OK, he's not a complete foreigner. "Go get gussied up, then get yourself over to the barnyard, and hang around - be visible, show yourself off. Don't talk to him until after dinner, but find out where he sleeps." Actually, Naomi says, "don't make yourself known to him until after dinner." The word to know has the same meaning as "and Adam knew his wife and she conceived and bore a child."

Naomi goes on, "well, when you know where he's going to sleep, get yourself over there, uncover his feet" (feet are a euphemism here), and they're not feet for making a descent, but feet for making descendants! "Lie down, and he'll tell you what to do." I'm sorry, but this is way too racy for children.

Naomi is a very canny widow. She knows that the two of them aren't going to survive if they don't have a male family member - a wage earner or a farmer - and they aren't going to get one without Ruth's cooperation. Julia Dinsmore would call this an example of "the survival skills of the poor." Dinsmore wrote a powerful book titled, My Name is Child of God, Not "Those People." It's about the gifts of the poor, particularly their creativity.

We tend to judge this story from a very different economic location - one that has the luxury of at least some choice about what kind of work we'll take or who we'll marry or not marry. And if we read further in this story of creative survival, we discover that God is at work in the midst of it, for Ruth becomes great-grandmother to David, the hoped-for savior of Israel. When David doesn't pan out so well, God keeps on working. Ruth shows up in Jesus' list of ancestors, along with three other women: the prostitute Rahab; Tamar, a widow who gets sons by seducing her father-in-law; and another foreigner, Bathsheba, with whom David commits adultery, and then makes a widow. God is at work in all of this "inappropriate sexual behavior," which eventually, according to Matthew's gospel, leads to Jesus, born of Mary, husband of Joseph of the house of David.

This story continues, through all the centuries since, with more Naomis and Ruths, desperately looking for hope.

I've just finished reading Edward Ball's, Slaves in the Family, about black and white descendants of the Ball family who started the big slave plantations outside Charleston. There are a whole lot of arranged marriages in the Ball family. On the white side, most of the marriages are with cousins, designed to keep the "property" in the family. Many of the marriages in the black community are arranged by slave masters who decide which slaves will marry whom. There are a lot of uncouplings and widows made as well, when one or another is sold off the plantation. And then there are the relationships between sons of the masters or the masters themselves and the women in slavery. Edward Ball learns about a lot of this by reading the slave records and connecting them with the family stories he hears from his black relatives. The surprising reality is that there wasn't a whole lot of choice about who married whom on either side of the family, and women were usually on the short end of the decision-making.

That's really what Jesus is getting at in his jabs at the scribes and his commentary about giving at the temple. Those scribes who "devour widows' houses" are exploiting the lack of freedom widows have to make economic decisions. The widows of Jesus' day had just as wretched a social position as Ruth and Naomi. They weren't going to make it economically without a wage earner in the family. In Jesus' day, there were basically no jobs or economic possibilities for poor women without male relatives - except "the oldest profession."

The scribes of Jesus' day were interpreters of the law or the Torah. They were more like what rabbis became in the years after Jesus - interpreters of scripture for daily life. Jesus is criticizing these scribes for their self-interest, because they're getting rich off those poor widows. Their legal deals and interpretations just keep squeezing those widows.

That's probably also what lies behind Jesus' comments about the widow and her two coins. He notes the difference between the rich folk who put in lots of money and the widow who gives her last two pennies. In order to be a good Jew in Jesus' day, you had to make an offering at the Temple. In order to keep the Romans off your back, you also had to pay Roman taxes. This widow is giving the very last of what she has. We don't know if it is from gratitude, or to keep her place in the community. Jesus doesn't praise her, he simply notes that she's giving the last of what she has. This often turns into a stewardship story about how generous she was. We rarely hear the critique of a religious system that keeps widows poor by depriving them of economic possibilities and any real hope.

On Friday, I visited Emmaus House and met with the urban interns. These three young women have just graduated from college. One is African-American, one Asian-American, and one Anglo. They're spending a year working with some of today's equivalents of Ruth and Naomi and poor widows. They are working with other young women without much hope or economic freedom of choice, young women who are being trafficked or groomed for exploitation. The urban interns are supported and encouraged by older women and men who are trying to change a system that seduces poor young women into relationships for profit - not their own profit, but the profit of others, who are today's equivalent of slave holders and devourers of widows' houses.

All of the sin in these stories is really about removing creative possibility from others, denying them their God-given ability to make choices, to exercise their free will. That is what is most essential about being created in the image of God - sharing in God's own creativity. Ruth and Naomi didn't have much ability to choose another way because their society limited them to specific roles. Jesus' female ancestors were similarly limited. The widow of the gospel is kept poor by a religious and political system of exploitation. The same was true of the Ball family - and the white side was nearly as constrained by the system of slavery as the black side. Fear of loss and poverty motivated the slave-owners, and fear of death and destruction and further degradation kept most of the slaves in the system. Many young people today are being raised in a system that says that they have value only for the ways in which they can be used - by tricks on the corner or athletic teams or the military.

The freedom we have in Christ is about hope. Jesus' way insists that all God's people are created for dignity, and each one has meaning and value from being made in the image of God. No one is a commodity to be bought and sold.

You and I share Jesus' work of confronting the scribes who diminish dignity and steal hope. Opportunities for redemption are all around us, in the young and the old. God is at work even in the worst of despair nothingness. Our job is to help give birth to hope, and help it keep growing into full and abundant life.

Let there be no more days when hope unborn has died. Lift every voice. Sing hope. Bring hope. Birth hope. Be hope.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]