Ruth 1:6-18, 4:13-22, NRSV
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ 11But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.15 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then 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! 15He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ 16Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon,21Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
My friends, this has been a monumental week for us. Saint Mark has always been a beacon of light and hope for the marginalized communities, and this week, the Supreme Court of the United States of America announced two rulings that put an issue close to our hearts into the headlines. Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state of California, was thrown out based on standing. And, the Defense of Marriage Act (known as DOMA) was struck down. Signed by President Clinton in 1996, DOMA allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. Until Section 3 of the Act was ruledunconstitutional on Wednesday, DOMA, had also effectively barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal laws, or receiving federal marriage benefits. With its repeal, thanks to the courage and determination of Edith Windsor, the 83-year-old plaintiff, same-sex marriages will now be recognized at the federal level in the states in which they are legal.
If you don’t know their story, Edith and her partner, Thea Spyer, were together 44 years before Thea passed away in 2009 of a heart complication after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis many years prior. Their life was beautiful, and they were the subject of a powerful documentary entitled “Edie and Thea: AVery Long Engagement.” It chronicled their life together and their decision to marry legally in Toronto in 2007, after more than 30 years together. When Thea passed away, Edie was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance of her wife’s estate simply because their marriage was not recognized. It was this injustice that led her to file suit against the federal government in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, where Windsor sought a refund because DOMA singled out legally married same-sex couples for “differential treatment compared to other similarly situated couples without justification.”
Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, which was handed down on Wednesday. In the Supreme Court decision, Kennedy writes that “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity…By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
I was driving to the church after dropping off my boys at baseball camp on Wednesday as I listened to the news coverage of this decision. I will always remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt. This is the first time the US Government has taken a side for equality of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. President Barack Obama has taken a strong stand in favor of marriage equality, and President Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law, has argued for its repeal. There is still more work yet to be done. I, for one, would love to see the day when marriage equality comes to all 50 states (and the US Virgin Islands). And, I will weep tears of joy when I am permitted to officiate at one of these ceremonies. The church and state have a long way to go, but this week marked a huge step in the right direction for the personhood and dignity of the LGBTQ community.
I spent most of Wednesday in a haze of Facebooking joy, and was glad to see so many positive responses to the news. The one argument that consistently came to my ears as journalists interviewed “church leaders” who opposed the ruling, were those who argued that this was a rejection of “Biblical marriage” and “the way God intended the family to look.” I dare say that fewer things have brought my blood to boil more than these arguments. It made me thing, strongly, about what Biblical marriage was. I didn’t get very far into Genesis before running into the story of Rachel, Leah and Jacob. If you remember this great story from Genesis 29, Jacob (son of Isaac, brother of Esau) leaves his home after he swindled the birthright of his older brother from their father. Esau is furious, and threatens to murder Jacob, so Isaac sends him to take one of Laban’s daughters as a wife. Laban was his mother, Rebekah’s, brother. So, Esau sends him to marry his first cousin. Biblical marriage sounds great so far.
When Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, he falls in love with his cousin Rachel and promises to work for Laban for seven years for the right to marry her. At the end of those years, Jacob asked his uncle for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Laban tricked Jacob, and sent his elder daughter, Leah, into the marriage tent, and when he awoke the next morning, Jacob discovered that he had been deceived. So, he served Laban for another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.
Unfortunately, the Lord saw that Jacob preferred Rachel, so God closed her womb. Rachel was despondent, and she gave to Jacob Bilhah, her maid, that she might have children on Rachel’s behalf. So, Jacob took Bilhah as his wife and she conceived and bore him a son, Dan. This is three wives that Jacob has wed, simultaneously. In the meantime, Leah had stopped bearing children (she and Jacob had already conceived Ruben, Simeon, Levi and Judah), so she sent her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob, who bore him two more sons, Gad and Asher. Leah prayed again to God, and with Jacob she bore two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and for good measure, a daughter named Dinah. Then, God remembered Rachel, who bore Jacob a son, Joseph (he of the Technicolor dreamcoat) and, later, Benjamin (during whose labor she died). Four wives, 12 children, and a history of deceit and broken trust (Jacob’s son, Ruben, also took the handmaid Bilhah as a wife). Yet, Jacob is the man with whom God wrestled. God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. His children are the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it is upon this family that the foundation of our faith is built. Yet, I would argue that none of us would uphold the Jacob saga as being the guidepost for “traditional” marriage. And, this is just one story of many.
Several of the Christian opponents of same-sex marriage have quoted a line from scripture that comes to us in both the Gospel of Matthew and Mark. The quote is as follows: “6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” (Mark 10:6-9). This is what gets cited as the argument for marriage between one man and one woman, time and again. The trouble with this passage is that Jesus isn’t talking about marriage. He’s talking about divorce. The Pharisees ask him in verse 2, so as to test him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus responds, “What did Moses command you?” They answered “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to divorce her.” But, in verse 5, Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Jesus isn’t making a statement explicitly about the nature of marriage, he’s reminding the Pharisees that a woman cannot simply be cast aside simply because her husband writes her a certificate of divorce. The covenant of marriage is more sacred than that. The two have become one flesh, and what God has joined together, no one should separate. This is not a condemnation of same-sex marriage, it’s a reminder that our vows are sacred and not to be taken without serious cause.
But nothing, not in Genesis and not in the Gospels, says more to me about “Biblical marriage” than the story of Ruth and Naomi. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, it is likely you’ve heard the words exchanged, “Where you go, I go. Where you lodge, I lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” These words were spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who had lost both of her sons and her husband. When her sons died, she told her daughers-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return to their homeland of Moab. Orpah kissed Naomi and bid her a heartfelt farewell. Ruth, however, responded by taking these vows to her mother-in-law. Vows that we use today in our (heterosexual!) Christian marriage services. Vows that make promises to remain steadfast, loyal, and faithful to a God that was not her own. These are mighty promises, and Ruth makes them to Naomi, a woman committed deeply to her own sadness. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, the whole town comes to greet them, but Naomi refuses to answer to her name, and insists that they call her Mara, which means bitter, for that is how the Lord has dealt with her.
Over time, Ruth meets Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman. Ruth gleans in his fields and he takes a special liking to her, allowing her all the space she needs and permission to drink from their well without trouble. Upon hearing that Boaz has been kind to Ruth, Naomi encourages her to find him in the threshing room floor, and “uncover his feet,” that he might decide what to do with Ruth. It is clear that he would like to take her for his wife, but to do so, he must consult with the next-of-kin, who would be set to inherit the land that belonged to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, as well as the hand of Ruth in marriage. (To be clear, Biblical marriage was often arranged as a result of land acquisitions. See what progress we’ve made!). When the next-of-kin said that he could not redeem it for himself without damaging his own inheritance, he exchanged sandals with Boaz (thus confirming the transaction), and Boaz became the proud owner of Naomi’s land and Ruth’s hand in marriage. The witnesses at the gate of the city praised Boaz, and said, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who built up the house of Israel.”
This brings us to the conclusion of Ruth and Naomi’s story. Indeed, Boaz took Ruth to be his wife and she bore a son. What happens in the text is worth noting, “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. He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:13-17).
What is most remarkable about this story is not just that Ruth demonstrated such an unabashed fidelity to her mother-in-law, it is that God used these women to create a new family. When the child is born, he is not praised as Boaz’s son. No, he is attributed to Naomi, who becomes his nursemaid. She and Ruth raise the child, vows solidified and God’s blessing upon them. It is not my place to surmise anything about their relationship other than what is in the text, but what the text tells me is that they have found a new way, a beautiful way, to create a family together. They “define their own understanding of kinship and responsibility to one another” (Mona West, “Ruth” in The Queer Bible Commentary). The best part is that this child is referred to later on, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, which is the genealogy of Jesus. This genealogy begins with Abraham and concludes with Joseph, the husband of Mary, to whom Jesus was born. The only other woman named in this genealogy is Ruth, mother of Obed (Matthew 1:5). The vows that Ruth and Naomi took to one another were about more than just establishing a next-of-kin for a woman who had lost everything. This child, Obed, is the son of women who loved each other dearly; this child, Obed, is in the lineage of our Messiah. He was King David’s grandfather, the father of Jesse about whom we sing at Christmastime. This child was no less important to us than all the tribes of Israel. This child, this son of Ruth and Naomi, was meant to be. He is a part of our salvation history, the means through which God came to be one with us in the flesh of Christ Jesus. I have a firm enough faith in God’s providence to believe that this was always what God intended – for Ruth, for Naomi, for Obed … and for us.
When Matt and I were first dating early in our seminary career, he served on a panel to discuss the issue of homosexuality and its theological understanding. The panel included students and faculty from both sides of the issue, and we listened patiently as each person told their story. Matt was invited to speak, and he told the story of his older brother, John, who came out to their family when John was in his 30s. The response from their family was overwhelmingly positive, and today, he and his partner, Mark, who are celebrating 16 years of marriage this summer, are the proud parents of two boys who are now, unbelievably, in high school. As person after person spoke about their perspectives on the issue, Matt told the story of what it was like to watch his beloved older brother endure the pain of coming to terms with his sexuality, and watching as his acceptance turned into a beautiful life together with a wonderful partner. Matt lived with his brother during the summer that John and Mark were married, and he proclaims proudly that he was in a gay wedding before gay weddings were cool. At the end of his conversation, Matt told the audience and other panel members, “I respect your opinions and your thoughts on this issue. But for me, this isn’t an issue. It’s my brother.” Matt’s argument was that the Bible says things that we are given the gift to interpret, and if we are to interpret some things literally (like the passage in Leviticus that states that a man laying with another man is an abomination), then we cannot choose to interpret other passages figuratively (like the passage in Leviticus about how eating shellfish is also an abomination). We must establish our hermeneutic, that is, our way of understanding scripture, and read the text with that hermeneutic consistently. This means we will make choices in our understanding of the Bible. But, if we are to err, Matt told us all, we should err on the side of love. (I think it goes without saying that I knew at that moment he was the man I wanted to marry.)
My sisters and brothers, this is our call. To love God, love one another, and to do all we can to choose love above all else. It is my call to love you, which is easy. It is also my call to love my enemies, who are much more difficult to love. But, we saw some remarkable things happen this past week. We saw the shut-down of ex-gay reparative therapy organization, Exodus International, which publicly apologized to gays and lesbians for “years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organization and the Church as a whole.” The slow, steady move toward equality for the LGBT community is happening right before our very eyes. Now, it is up to us to continue the push, slowly and confidently, with the tenderness and compassion of Edie and Thea. With the quiet yet ever-present witness of Bill and Matthew or Don and Dave. With the faith and steadfastness of Ruth and Naomi. It is up to us to keep pushing, and always, always to err on the side of love.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Latest posts by Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming (see all)
- Sermon: “To Err on the Side of Love” - June 30, 2013
- Why I’m in favor of Same-Sex Marriages (Or: My most controversial post to date) - January 7, 2009