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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 31, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
November 4, 2012

Ruth 1:1-18; Mark 12:28-34

Courage, creativity and collaboration

The Book of Ruth is a precious short story in the Hebrew Bible. At just four chapters, it’s just about the story of solidarity and friendship, overcoming adversity by way of persistence and ingenuity. It’s also a story, for Jews and for Christians, of the outsider (Moabites were regarded unworthy, untrustworthy) without whom there is no salvation, without whom there is no Saviour. Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, and a distant great-grandmother of Jesus. God be with you

The Hebrew name, Ruth, means “Beloved”. We shouldn’t miss the more harrowing aspects to the story, however. Ruth is the foreign daughter-in-law of the Ephraimite, Naomi. Two newly widowed women traveling, walking to Bethlehem. Very vulnerable. Naomi is the more forlorn. On arrival in Bethlehem, Naomi (her name means “Joy”) will call herself Mara, “Bitterness”.

The story is about Ruth’s love – in spite of sadness and bitterness. Ruth will accompany Naomi home, and will ensure, by way of work and remarriage, that both women find security – a future together. Israel’s own future also turns on the courage, creativity and collaboration of Ruth and Naomi – which is why, presumably, future generations preserved the book, and why it is a treasured part of holy scripture for us. It inscribes within the story of God’s people (a familiar story, a comforting story for insiders), the story of the outsider beloved of God.

It’s hard to overestimate its importance. The Book of Ruth is a story for anyone who has ever known the pain of disconnection, isolation, desperation. The Book of Ruth is a thorn in the side of cultural arrogance, a thorn in the side of triumphalism, a thorn in the side of institutional self-regard. Ruth’s love – let’s be theological – is akin to the love of God: She empathises, She accompanies, She commits to another, She sees it through. When Ruth says to Naomi, “Your God will be my God”, I hear that on a number of levels. It may be heard as meaning that the God of Israel, the God of liberation, will be the model for Ruth’s own commitment to liberation.

Yesterday, I said that the three simple words, courage, creativity and collaboration, were apt terms for the holy, for God. It’s striking that we have this lection today, for all around us are signs of this courage, creativity and collaboration – the presence of God, which, in the experience of hurt, is felt as the persistence of hope. Alana Valentine and the community weavers and readers, like Cathy Kezelman and the ASCA team of carers and councilors, bear witness to holy courage, creativity and collaboration, to God whose Word or Wisdom is ever made flesh, is ever made fish … swimming upstream, and towards recovery.

One of the strong themes of ASCA’s Blue Knot Day commemorations this year has been the theme of optimism about recovery. At Thursday night’s ASCA fundraiser dinner at Darling Harbour, singer-songwriter Rose Parker shared songs of self-awareness and empowerment. Cathy Kezelman and Pam Stavropoulos have authored Practice Guidelines for the Treatment of Complex Trauma, Trauma Informed Care and Service Delivery and made presentations to the federal parliament. Their work is bearing witness that childhood trauma can be resolved, that those who have experienced childhood trauma can recover. This good news comes by way of professional support, education and training workshops, and advocacy for a public health response to the trauma of child abuse and neglect. In other words, healing can happen in the wake of truth-telling, and when we acknowledge that the abuse of one child affects us all. The statistics are horrifying – an estimated 4-5 million adult survivors of childhood trauma (abuse, neglect or violence) in Australia.

Alana’s play, Swimming Upstream, read so brilliantly yesterday by Heather, Catherine, Norrie, Maidie, Dorothy, Pam, Margaret, Julie, Vanessa and others, was so moving, so real – I felt a shiver upon standing at the pulpit to read aloud one account of abuse. “It stands to reason that the most devastating types of trauma are those that occur at the hands of caretakers” [Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy (New York: Norton, 2002), p. 258]. Truth-telling must happen within the churches, within our institutions and society, if we are on about healing. I felt another shiver at the very end when the chorus of narrators “sang” for all kinds of fish/people and Pam helped “weave” a long blue ribbon from pew to pew, from person to person. There was truth-telling and there was some kind of hope for healing. It was, as I tried to say yesterday, incredibly humbling and an honour to be among friends of ASCA – to be part of that courage, creativity and collaboration. I was gathered up into it.

Ruth means “Beloved”. It’s not a coincidence that we refer to Jesus as Beloved, nor that we make a sign of the cross and refer to the Triune God as Lover, Beloved and Spirit of Love. To know oneself beloved is to be gathered up, with Jesus, into the very life of God.

I’ll conclude with a comment about the Gospel for today – something noteworthy about the commandment to love. The grammar is a little unusual. What the Inclusive Bible renders as “You must love …” is more accurately rendered “You shall or you will love …”. Greek scholars call it a future form with an implied command. The command is softened by something with a hint of promise to it. The whole command reads: “Hear O Israel, God, our God, is one. You will love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” The emphasis of command is actually the command to “Hear …”. The “You will love …” is what we are commanded to hear, and it has this blend of promise and implied command. The meaning is held in creative tension between: “You all are commanded to love” and “Listen up folks, there’s good news. The day is coming when we will all love God and we will all love one another”.

The command might be the prompt we need to make an extra effort (beyond complacency, cultural arrogance, institutional self-regard) but the desire to love and to be ever more loving is already a part of us. The command can be one of the things that help keep us pushing on towards the goal. And that’s where the promise comes in – the promise that changes the whole feel of the command. The promise tells us that the striving is not in vain. The promise tells us that every little forward movement, every movement “upstream” and towards love of God and neighbour is worthwhile because it prepares us – Ruth and Naomi, Alana and Rose, Cathy and Pam, Jesus and all of us – for a future together, a kindom of heaven and a reign of love. Amen.