We’re glad to share a sermon from Jack Clark, our administrative assistant and a 2nd year ministry student at the Div School, which she preached at All Saints, Ravenswood on November 8.
November 8, 2009: Ruth
Good morning. My name is Jack Clark. I’m the other seminarian here this year. And I’m at All Saints because I went to Notre Dame. Some people think Notre Dame- Touchdown Jesus. But we’ve got another icon, too. The golden statue of Mary on the dome. Notre Dame is Latin for “our mother”- Mary. And its where I reconnected with my faith. At Notre Dame, belief inspired action- like volunteering, or social justice work. Faith was dynamic and made a difference. That faith made sense to me.
But Notre Dame wasn’t all pigskin and incense. For three years, I performed in the campus production of The Vagina Monologues. It wasn’t just a play. It was the only women’s organization on campus. And became a community. It was a space to talk about things like body image, sexuality, discrimination and sexual assault. Notre Dame was a pretty patriarchal place. There are plenty of examples. Low rates of tenured women, priests- effectively men- in important positions, and rules applied differently in men’s and women’s dorms.
Through the play, we were trying to fight sexism, many of us acting as women of faith.
How should I say this…our efforts weren’t universally appreciated. The opposition censored the word “vagina” from front page rants in the paper. They prayed outside of performances. The bishop condemned the play. And one priest told the women at Sunday mass that everyone involved with the play was going to hell. The play, they said, was about voyeurism, promiscuity, and abortion. We were mad. We were furious. But mostly, we were hurt. We thought their concerns were totally unfounded. But, we tried to address them anyway. We wrote our own monologues. And we called it “Her Loyal Daughters,” referencing Mary, and talking explicitly as women of faith.
Then, the University President sided with them. The Vagina Monologues, he said, threatened the Catholic Character of the University. What about the skits about rape and virginity conquest performed by men? Oh, those, he said, they were just entertainment. But the Vagina Monologues were dangerous. So, he relegated our performances to a classroom. Worse, he made us rename our play. If we spoke about sexuality in a morally neutral way, it would seem intentionally offensive and blasphemous to Catholic who revere Mary.
Mary wasn’t up for our interpretation. We couldn’t try to understand her through our own experiences. The cleaned up, tamed official interpretation was preserved in that golden statue. Mary was the mild, obedient, virginal ideal for all of us women to imitate. But we didn’t quite buy that interpretation.
This feminine ideal isn’t unique. Not to Notre Dame, or to academia, not to the Catholic Church or any other denomination. It’s in this made up Mary, in women’s roles in Hollywood, and in commercial for laundry detergent. It’s everywhere.
That is why it is good to be at All Saints, and good to stand in this pulpit.
This is also why I love our first reading, why I love Ruth. She, and Mary, are among the biblical women who fight this ideal- if we let them. We know about them because they were bold. And because God acted in and through their boldness.
At the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, there’s a genealogy- a long list of begets. It traces Joseph’s ancestors. And it mentions four women. There’s an adulteress. A prostitute. A woman who dresses like a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law. Ruth. And of course, Mary. It’s crazy that women get a mention at all. And then these women with strange sexual histories. Yet, also, the foremothers of Christ.
Let’s talk about Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite. There’s a famine in Bethlehem, so Naomi’s family flees to Moab. Ruth marries Naomi’s son. Then, he dies. And Naomi’s husband, too. Both are widows. Naomi goes back to Bethlehem. She tells her daughter-in-laws, “Go back to your families. I’m a widow. I’m not gonna bear any more sons for you.” But Ruth refuses. She says,
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.
Ruth has every reason to turn back. Her whole life has been in Moab. She doesn’t know anyone in Bethlehem. Historically, the Jews are not big fans of the Moabites. She’s got no money, no property, can’t earn a living. And Naomi’s in the same position. But Ruth sees that Naomi is grieving, alone, and poor. Ruth has compassion. And with loving boldness, she sticks with her.
Now, when they get back to Bethlehem. Ruth toils to pick the grain left behind by the reapers, so that she and Naomi can eat. She gleans in the field of Boaz, Naomi’s relative. And Naomi thinks, maybe Boaz could marry Ruth. He could be her “redeemer,” and save her from destitution.
And that’s where the reading picks up. It’s also where we hear about Ruth’s ambiguous sexual history. Ruth sneaks in to the threshing room, and when Boaz lies down, uncovers his “feet” (an ancient euphemism). He wakes up, surprised to find her there. And she asks him to marry her and to buy the family land. Again, Ruth is bold. Her actions are bold. And Boaz judges them to be loyal and righteous. By choosing him, she chooses security for Naomi too.
Boaz is called the “redeemer” in this story. But Ruth is the true source of redemption. And Naomi is the chief recipient. At the beginning, Naomi loses everything. But through Ruth, there’s a kind of restoration. Naomi is childless. But she grows to call Ruth daughter. She’s worth, the women say, seven sons. Naomi is a widow. But Ruth provides the security of a husband through Boaz. And Naomi is without progeny. But Ruth bears Obed, and the women say, “a son has been born to Naomi.”
Ruth redeems Naomi, but she also redeems us. Ruth mothers Obed, who fathers Jesse, who fathers David. And Matthew traces this all the way to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. The unusual fact that Matthew includes Ruth means something. He’s connecting her to Mary. Both these women resist the mild, obedient feminine ideal. Their stories are scandalous: Mary, with her extramarital pregnancy, and Ruth, making the moves on Boaz. Matthew connects them to reassure us that the scandal of Mary has precedent in this other bold women generations before. He shows us that God works through the loving boldness of women. This was true many generations before Mary, and is true many generations later.