May 10, 2020 – A Conversation of Gratitude for Mothers

Ruth 1:15-22

Click here to watch our worship service and the dialogue: May 10, 2020 A Conversation of Gratitude for Mothers

Dialogue Sermon between the Rev. Victor Kim and
the Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart

VictorGood morning, friends.  It’s my great privilege to welcome our good friend, the Rev Dr Ross Lockhart.  Ross is professor at St Andrew’s Hall and also at Vancouver School of Theology and he is the Director of the Centre for Missional Leadership at St Andrew’s Hall.  Ross is a Presbyterian minister and he preaches all over this wonderful country and into the U.S. as well, in many different settings, and he’s also preached here at Richmond Presbyterian Church before.  So welcome, Ross, and thank you so much for joining us this morning.  
RossIt’s great to be here, Victor, and good morning RPC friends.  What a joy it is to be in worship in this wonderful way that we can still be connected during COVID-19.  
VictorWell, being with you always means it’s the best day ever.  
RossBest day ever, Victor, that’s it!  
VictorRoss, we’re looking at the book of Ruth this morning which is a short but exceedingly interesting book in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament.  I think the book serves a number of different purposes, from legitimizing the rule of David as king over Israel, but also it depicts a very interesting and very intimate relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, Naomi and Ruth.   But perhaps its most important purpose is to give direction about how a community is to treat outsiders.  This is a story where Naomi and her family start as outsiders as Israelites in the land of Moab, but then they have to deal with the death of Naomi’s husband and their two sons, and then she has to return back to Israel, to Judah, this time with her daughter-in-law Ruth, who is from Moab.  So the story is about how outsiders are to be treated, how people, and especially those who are the most vulnerable, are to be cared for, respected, and in the end honoured.    There is so much we could explore in this story.  There’s the history of Israel and Moab.  Traditionally the Moabites were not held in high esteem by the Israelites because of their story of origin.  They were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot, who of course fled Sodom and Gomorrah and then ended up having to create children with his own daughters.  So you can see how the Israelites would say “Oh, those Moabites, no!”.  
RossThat makes for an awkward Mothers’ Day in Moab.  
VictorVery awkward.  We could also explore the status of women in our text, especially widows, those who are left without the men in their lives like both Ruth and Naomi.  The vulnerability of women is astonishing, and in many places even today it hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think it’s changed.    But it is Mothers’ Day Sunday, and Ross, I want to explore a little bit more about Ruth and Naomi and their role as mothers, two mothers whose lives undergo enormous change, challenge, and upheaval, sometimes leading even to moments of bitterness.  But also the faith that undergirds their lives and their journey and their struggles.  And even though God doesn’t have a direct speaking role in the story, I want to explore with you how God still acts and what that faithfulness of God means for Naomi and Ruth and for us today.   So, Ross, you’re looking very much like a therapist with your bowtie and your nice new glasses…  
RossThank you, sir.  
VictorSo let me tell you about my mother.  
RossAh, I will be your therapist.  
VictorMy mother just turned 82 on May the 1st.  For 35 years she lived in Korea, and then for the last 47 she’s lived here in Canada, all in Calgary.  And like a lot of women her age, she was never formally educated beyond a primary school education.  She fled her home during the Korean war as well.  In 1972 she immigrated here to Canada, with her husband and her 2 sons, my brother and I.  She’s worked as a dishwasher, a seamstress, ultimately she ran her own deli and her own convenience store.  So “Kim’s Convenience” could have been modeled upon our family’s life.  
RossYou are the original “Kim’s Convenience”!  
VictorWe are the original “Kim’s Convenience”.   
RossWell done!  
VictorShe didn’t speak any English, she didn’t know anything about Canada when she immigrated here. But I think now she would tell you that she’s had a blessed life and I can tell you she’s been a blessing to many, many people. So I’m going to wish my mom a happy Mothers’ Day.  “Happy Mothers’ Day!”  Do you want to tell us a little bit about your own mom?  
RossYes, I’d love to.  My mom is in Winnipeg, in what I call the “Holy Land of Manitoba”.  Prairie people at RPC will understand that the prairie is of course the best place, however the west coast is great as well.  My mom is turning 80 next year, actually.    For my mom, she had kind of a hardscrabble upbringing in what is known as the north end of Winnipeg, a blue collar neighbourhood.  I would not describe her home life as happy, it was actually quite grim at times.  She grew up in a house that was half solidly atheist, hardcore atheist, and the other would be kind of affable agnostic.  Where my mom came to faith was when her home life was particularly unsafe she ended up going to the local Baptist church around the corner.  There, in the kindness of people in that community, in the teachings from the bible, in the protection or the shelter that was given to her there she encountered the Lord, and her faith has been so vibrant as a result. That little Baptist church was just for a few years, and then her 2 closest friends attended Kildonan Presbyterian.  So that became her home church and indeed the graveyard surrounding has a number of our relatives buried in Winnipeg.  Her modeling of faith to me growing up had a profound influence.  So I too would wish my mom a happy Mothers’ Day.    There’s this history going back all the way into the early church where we have these great examples.  I think about emperor Constantine and his mother Helena who prayed for her son before he became a Christian.  I think about St Augustine, who literally tried everything under the sun.  Meanwhile, his mother Monica was praying for him, and I think not only for us but I imagine for a number of people watching at home they can reflect on how their lives and their faith have been deeply enriched through not only the modeling of faith from either their mother or another significant woman of faith but also through their prayers for us down through the years.  
VictorCertainly something that I’m very familiar with in my own family with my mother and her mother and all of the women in my family.  You know, Naomi and Ruth, they’re a very unlikely pair, right?  One an Israelite from Judah, Bethlehem, the other from Moab.  Mothers and daughters-in-law are not always the easiest of relationships sometimes even at the best of times.  But given the reality of this story, it starts with famine, the loss of the men in their lives, the move from one country to another where they’re almost refugees.  Ruth would be an outsider in the land of Bethlehem.  Naomi would have to live as a widow without a family.  It’s a difficult and unlikely relationship, but how do you see God being present?  Not only in how this family is stitched together but in how many of our families are stitched together today.  
RossIn so many ways as a Pastor I’ve had, and you’ve had this too, we’ve had parishioners who will say you pour your whole life into your children but who they choose to spend their lives with you have almost no control over.  But who they choose to spend their lives with impacts your life so profoundly.  Certainly as pastors we have these really painful stories of parishioners over the years who essentially have lost contact with their own children, they’re unable to see their grandchildren and so forth.  And so I think one of the things whether it’s Mothers’ Day, whether it’s Fathers’ Day, we need to recognise that society has this kind of idealised notion of family but then the rest of us live something quite different.    Which is why the Ruth and Naomi story is so interesting, because they are an unlikely pair.  We often don’t mention Orpah, who was the other daughter-in-law who actually sets out on the road with them.  I’ve heard Orpah get a bit of a bad rap over the years because she abandoned her mother-in-law and so forth.  (We know Orpah often because Oprah Winfrey was named for Orpah but her mom misspelled the name.)  But really, all Orpah is doing is honouring her mother-in-law’s wishes.  She’s being a good daughter-in-law, which actually then makes the relationship between Ruth and Naomi all the more curious because Ruth in fact is disobeying her mother-in-law’s instructions.  But we have the passage that’s been read for us already in worship this morning, the beautiful “Where you go, I will go, your people my people, your God my God.”  There’s a binding, there’s almost a clinging, a cleaving one to the other.    We see the sense in which there’s such a deep, profound sadness that links these two women.  When you think about a young Naomi newly married thrown into this difficult time in Bethlehem—Bethlehem in the Hebrew literally means ‘house of bread’, so there’s the irony that there’s no bread in the house of bread—and then just when she appears to be starting again in Moab, grown sons, imagine their family parties together and everything’s going well, and it all falls apart again.  So there’s this sense in which God is at work through these relationships but you see how in this particular case a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law seem to really need each other, and they are fused together because of the circumstances.  If everything was OK, would they be as close?  We don’t know.  But it’s because of these circumstances that God had led them one to the other.  
VictorYou’ve touched upon this, but as we read through the entirety of the story of Ruth in the scriptures, we discover the extraordinary strength of both Ruth and Naomi.  They’re people that we would call extremely disadvantaged, both socially and also financially.  But they’re incredibly resourceful and courageous.  As we read through this story, what do you think scripture’s trying to teach us, both in the depiction of Ruth and Naomi, the strength that they embody, and maybe how we see roles today?  Roles around gender, around sex, and around privilege.  Do you want to touch upon that, Ross?  
RossI was thinking when we selected this Ruth passage, I have often times in my own kind of discipleship had to guard against what I call a “stained glass” reading of scripture.  And there are actually, if you Google, some beautiful stained glass windows of Ruth and Naomi, but the challenge there is they become kind of an icon, frozen in time, and quite apart from our living reality.  When you, as you’ve done, Victor, digging this up, as you recognise these are two women without social power or location, who are living in a culture of patriarchy, as we see when it comes to gleaning from the fields.     We have the sense in which the Israelite society was structured to be a witness based on how they cared for widows, orphans, and the poor.  So a scholar like John Bowen would argue in his publications that Old Testament evangelism looked different than New Testament evangelism.  New Testament evangelism  we often think is about someone in a speech act telling people about Jesus, where Old Testament evangelism was more in the way that the community, the society lived and cared for people.  An outsider to Israel would come from somewhere else in the Mediterranean and say “Look at the way these people care for their widows and orphans! That’s unusual, we haven’t seen that anywhere.  I wonder if it has something to do with their God?”    But the story today gives us evidence that while the rules may have been in place, there may have been a social safety net about gleaning on the outside of the field, but…  You’ll recall of course when Ruth goes home from Boaz’s fields on the first day, and Naomi says “Oh, that’s good, he’s an ancestral kin of ours, you should go back there, because you won’t be mistreated, but you might be if you go to another field.”  So there’s this sense in which these are women in peril in a society that even though it claims to be structured for the care of widows and orphans, obviously the scriptures themselves are giving us evidence that that was not the case on the ground.
VictorRoss, you said earlier that we see a lot of these stained glass depictions of this story.  It is a story that has a happy ending, sometimes we can overlook the reality of this story. Naomi speaks plainly of her bitterness.   
VictorShe says “Call me Mara.”  She has every right to be bitter.  I think the reality is that many mothers, many women in our culture, have also experienced life in ways that are bitter.   Sometimes because of abuse, often early on in life, sometimes because of violence, sometimes because of the culture in which they live.  All of these things can also lead to women being forced to make difficult choices in life, choices that they wouldn’t ordinarily make all things being normal.  So how do we honour and respect, how do we bring dignity to the way we see and engage with women, mothers, who have had much to be bitter about in their lives?  How do mothers we know, that you and I know, how have they dealt with the bitterness that they’ve experienced?  
RossI would say first of all that as pastors we have all kinds of experiences of individual stories and I think that’s where we meet people, in the particularity of their life story.  We honour that story without trying to solve or fix necessarily what we hear.    There is a danger, though, in remaining in one’s own bitterness.  You and I have both journeyed with people after a significant loss where they are deeply bitter and we can understand why that is, and yet we pray that over time, God’s healing might take place in their lives.  I often will say, for example, at the funeral of a suicide that the mourners have a choice to make and which choice they make will profoundly affect their future.  One is will they choose to remember the person who has died for the life that they’ve lived, or will they go forward mourning the life that was never lived.  I have watched as a pastor people making that second choice and it’s just a downhill spiral into darkness and bitterness.    And yet I would say of course you also have to create space for people to respect where they are at in their journey with the Lord.  I can think of my first church in northern Ontario, I had just a really lovely woman in our congregation.  She would come out to any church dinner, any fundraiser, work really hard in the kitchen or in another part of the church, but she would never come to church on a Sunday.  I remember going to visit her once to find out why, I thought maybe she didn’t like the new preacher which, let’s be honest, was reason enough. She told me that a decade earlier, her teenage daughter had been walking home from a party at night, along the trans-Canada highway—it was far up north, just one highway—and was hit and killed by a car.  She said that after the day of the funeral, she could never go into the sanctuary again without seeing her daughter’s casket.  So I just honoured that.  She hadn’t turned away from God, but for the time I was her pastor, that was such a significant bitterness block that through my own human agency I couldn’t overcome.  All I could do was to be present as a representative of the Lord and to try and pray with her through that.  
VictorThanks for sharing, Ross.  We know many other stories of how people have had to deal with the reality of suffering, pain, and bitterness in their lives.  One of the things that often gets overlooked in this story of Ruth and Naomi is that because God doesn’t have a speaking role, that oftentimes God might get overlooked in this story, especially when things start to go sideways.  The story begins with famine and death, loss and grief, but it does end with abundance and new life, hope, and celebration.  The story is that this Moabite widow Ruth who along with her widowed Jewish mother-in-law Naomi endure and overcome amazing obstacles, but Ruth ends up becoming the great-grandmother of King David, the greatest king of Israel.  So I think we can’t forget that God is still present with us in our suffering, in our grieving, in our struggles.  The story of these two amazing and resilient women, faithful women, speaks to the inclusive, barrier-breaking love of God for all people.  Anything you’d like to touch upon that presence of God in all of this?  
RossIt is interesting, some of these Old Testament books that don’t mention God very often have sometimes raised questions about why are they in the canon and so forth.  A far more extreme example, of course, would be the book of Esther where God literally is not mentioned.  And yet there’s something in the world that we live in, that I would call in my work as a missiologist a post-Christendom society, where the name of God is not commonly invoked in public life, in public space.  Unlike say in our neighbours to the south, our politicians for example don’t invoke the name of God in their public speech.  If you’re offering condolences publicly today you no longer talk about prayers, you say they’re in our thoughts and so forth.  So in some ways, these books of the bible I think are quite helpful now to say what is it about a space in which the name of God is not so readily invoked?  Now, of course in the book of Ruth—friends at home who have been reading (it’s only 4 chapters so there’s no excuse why they can’t read the whole thing)—the name of the Lord is invoked, including by Boaz and others.  And yet, it’s not like there’s a theophany, it’s not like God speaks directly, and in some ways that’s comforting for a lot of us because we don’t have that kind of direct revelation experience in our own stories.  Instead, the question that comes to me when reading Ruth is “Do I trust that God is at work as much in my life and your life and the lives of the people at RPC over a long period of time?”.  Even when things look very grim, do we trust that God can bring new life out of it?     As Christians, we have that fundamentally in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in Holy Saturday and waiting for some sign of hope that doesn’t come on Holy Saturday, and then the dew-soaked grass of the garden on resurrection morning.  The people who were out in the fields that Boaz owned would never have seen in their lifetime the fruition of what God was actually doing right there and then.  So for all of us I think there’s that invitation to say “What is God doing in our lives now that we may never actually be able to see except perhaps by God’s grace as a member of the communion of saints one day?”    I think Mothers Day is also an opportunity for us not only to reflect on the women of faith now in our lives, but to recognise going back generations the women who have sacrificed, who have shown courage and grace, who have shaped the conditions for the way in which we now live today.  
VictorRoss, I want to thank you for spending this time in conversation with us.  
RossMy pleasure.
VictorWe have looked at a couple of different mothers, Naomi and Ruth, as we have explored their journey through the challenges and the hardships of their lives, but also the blessing that ultimately they know and that they share with us.  And we have shared in this time about the gratitude that we hold for not only the Naomi and Ruth story, but the stories of mothers in our lives, your mother, my mother, for the stories of the mothers that each of us listening to this service know intimately and uniquely.  So I want to thank you for sharing that time with us.  I want to thank you for sharing in our gratitude to God for mothers everywhere, and we recognise that our mothers are an amazing gift.  While we do realise that not all stories have happy endings, there is a faithful God who does redeem all of our stories.    On behalf of Ross, I want to wish all of you again a happy Mothers’ Day, and pray that God’s peace and God’s blessings will be very, very present in your lives.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

This dialogue was recorded on May 10, 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online.