The Angel

Ruth is a woman with a half-acre cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The cemetery was her mother’s doing; an eccentric person who wanted part of her family cut off from their burial grounds, Ruth’s mother bought the whole of Files Cemetery, which then became the property of Ruth Coker Burks.

Ruth grew up in The United Methodist Church. She belonged to Hot Springs UMC. But when Ruth responded to God’s calling, her local church let her down. Motivated by fear, her fellow congregants threw away the pens she used to write and the coffee mugs she used to drink.

Ruth grew up in the 1980s during the height of the U.S. AIDS epidemic. Although she had no formal medical training, Ruth came to be an angel and a mother to many gay and bisexual men who were dying of complications from HIV. Medical professionals were afraid. Patients’ families were afraid. Ruth’s own associates were afraid. Twice, people burned crosses in front of Ruth’s home – fearful and furious over the funerals that Ruth and her then four-year-old daughter had begun performing for men whose own mothers would not claim their ashes.

Then, Ruth started receiving phone calls from hospitals. More patients needed her. In life, they received Ruth’s care; in death, they received Ruth’s tenderness. For many men whose families would not visit, claim, or bury them, Ruth’s cemetery became their final resting place. Files Cemetery – the strange gift that Ruth was given – was needed for such a time as this.

Ruth went on to serve as a White House consultant on AIDS education during President Bill Clinton’s administration. She now lives a quiet life in Arkansas. She’s a grandmother and a public speaker.

The Parable

There’s a story that Jesus tells his disciples according to the Gospel of Matthew. It reminds me of the story of Ruth Coker Burks and Files Cemetery.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, “Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.”

His master replied, “Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.”

The second servant also came forward and said, “Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.”

His master replied, “Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.”

Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.”

His master replied, “You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.”

The Gift

One interpretation of this parable is that to whom much is given, much is expected.

Ruth was given an unusual gift. She has a cemetery.

As for us, we may not have a cemetery, but we have an equally unusual gift: we have a Church – a gift just as complicated, just as full of possibility.

We have a global connection that spans over 12 million people. We have missions, universities, disaster relief efforts, and more. We have a bulwark and voice against tyranny and injustice. We have the tender hopes of children taught in our local congregations and the steady passions of those who are called every day to ministry. We have a heritage, a togetherness, a kinship that defies the separateness and isolation of a hurting world. We have a loyalty to each other.

We have been given much, and much is expected of us.

In the parable of the valuable coins, it was not malice that led the third servant to hide his coin in the ground: it was fear.

So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground.”

While we have been given much in The United Methodist Church, there are some among us who have worked to promote a climate of fear in our midst: fear of LGBTQ United Methodists and the myriad ways in which they are called into obedient ministry; fear that African and Filipinx United Methodists have voice, autonomy, and increased representation; fear of correcting a tradition of exclusion; fear of our bishops’ guidance and the process by which we as a Church have come to this moment.

But fear will lead the Church to respond with exclusion, isolation, stigmatization, and hatred. We are not called, Christians, to hide what we are given in the ground. What we can make from our global connection, missions, universities, disaster relief efforts, voice, children, ministers, heritage, kinship, and loyalty – there are no limits if we respond instead with openness of minds, hearts, and doors.

Ruth’s obedience with what she had, despite the rejection of her church and peers, paints for us a vivid picture of how we can be present in the pain and joys of the world for the glory of God and the healing of God’s beloveds. Before us is an opportunity for obedience.

To whom much is given, much is expected.

We may not have a cemetery, but we do have a Church.

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