Ruth 1:16-17 Message (MSG)
But Ruth said, “Do not pressure 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. 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!”
On the morning of October 17, 2014, U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick’s ruled on two federal cases, declaring Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Arizona’s Attorney General Tom Horne advised the state would not appeal the ruling and instructed the county clerks to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
That evening, there were tears of joy flowing like a fountain at our UCC Southwest Conference office in central Phoenix. Everyone in the packed room and those listening from speakers outside cheered as our then Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, announced to a standing-room only crowd that he had performed Arizona’s first legal gay marriage ceremony. As is John’s nature, he quickly turned the attention away from himself and focused on the true meaning of that historic day. “It’s about love,” he said.
The Spirit was thick in the room and I feel it now as I recall hearing that simple sermon over and over again. I first heard it on the radio that morning through Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s voice as he witnessed a judge marrying a gay couple in his office. I saw nervous brides and grooms at the Maricopa County Courthouse receiving this message when offered free flower bouquets and celebratory bubbles by Dena Covey and other laity. I first heard it in person while taking pictures for fellow clergy members Barbara and Rich Doerrer-Peacock as they co-officiated a lesbian couple’s service on the front steps of that same courthouse. And I read them in a beautifully colored sign waved gleefully by a young daughter as I married her two moms late in the afternoon.
The book of Ruth shares the story of hope through the unlikely pairing of two destitute foreign women. During a bleak famine in Naomi’s homeland of Judah, her family decides to move to the pagan land of Moab. Instead of answered prayers, she finds more misery over the course of the next decade. Her husband dies, her two sons marry Moabite wives, and neither marriage brings her grandchildren. Naomi feels God has judged her too as both of her sons die. It is in the deep grief of these tragedies Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem.
Ruth is the young poor Moabite widow of Naomi’s son Mahlon. She understands the hopelessness shared by the much older and wiser Naomi who tries to persuade her to stay in Moab. But determined to support her, no matter the outcome, Ruth accompanies Naomi home responding “where you go, I’ll go.” There Ruth is working in the fields during the next harvest when a wealthy landowner by the name of Boaz first sees her. Based on the customs at the time Boaz is able to act as a brother to Naomi and eventually he marries Ruth. Like any good soap opera, Naomi’s shenanigans play a part leading to Ruth’s wedding. It isn’t until the conclusion of their misery-filled story we learn they have played a part in bringing God’s plan together for the future of the Israelites. Through Ruth’s and Boaz’s son Obed, father of Jesse, Naomi becomes the great-grandmother of King David and is a direct ancestor of Jesus. It’s a surprise to find that hope can be found in hopelessness.
What is hope? It’s expressed through the imperfect lives of Ruth and Naomi as being faithful, patient, trusting, kind, selfless, and even strong in conviction. It’s believing God will provide in the midst of great tragedy. It’s knowing in those seemingly Godless moments that we have a purpose and we keep moving forward. Hope is God’s love for each of us.
As we celebrate the first anniversary of legal same-gender marriages in Arizona, we’ll be celebrating it with newlyweds Nelda Majors and Karen Bailey. Nelda and Karen were the lead plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that eventually overturned Arizona’s ban on gay marriage. In fact, Nelda and Karen were the first couple to receive a marriage license in Arizona. Karen told me the nuptials that followed a short time later “were a celebration.” They have publicly shared how they lived their lives in hope, but never really thought they would be allowed to legally wed. Nelda and Karen, like most of Arizona’s lesbian and gay couples who’ve married over the last year, have been together a long time. The State’s recognition of their relationship is simply an affirmation of what God has witnessed for decades.
Their journey began during the late 1950s with a new college friendship. Within the first year they became a couple and have now been together longer than they’ve been apart. Nelda and Karen share a love story of light even in the darker times they spent living in the closet. What I’ve witness in them is a faithful pairing. Two people that stuck together, determined to move beyond the odds. Two people that created a beautiful family. Two people whose heartfelt confidence in each other led to creating a better world for the rest of us. It’s true there are similarities between their journey and Ruth and Naomi’s story. While sweet, that is not what I’m left discerning on this historic anniversary.
I’m wondering why so many couples identify with the Ruth and Naomi story? Is it the early tragedies they feel and/or the hope they seek? Or are they merely wanting confirmation of a happy ending before they promise to stick around through thick and thin? While life is beautiful, the Bible reminds us it isn’t fair. And where do we fit in the story? Is it possible that Nelda’s and Karen’s journey offers us Naomi’s sage wisdom? What a wonderful representation of Naomi that would be today! And If so, does that mean we are Ruth in relationship to them? If our postmodern Christian faith rests in a call to action, what are we supposed to be doing after all the cameras have gone and we start moving toward Karen and Nelda’s second anniversary?
One of the most powerful pieces of the marriage liturgy we celebrate through Rebel & Divine UCC is a moment after the vows when the spouses are asked to turn and face all of those present. They recognize their chosen family of witnesses and realize, sometimes for the first time, who is there to support them. AND THEN the community creates a covenant with them. Through love they promise the newlyweds to be there in both good times and bad. The covenant is supportive, patient, forgiving, trusting, steadfast, and loyal. It recognizes the divinity within love. Acknowledges it is bigger than all of us. Knowing wherever we find love, we find God, and it is holy. Whether straight, gay, or somewhere in between.
Maybe the story of Ruth is calling us to do the hard back-breaking work in the fields as she once did? Can our first anniversary gift to Arizona’s same-gender loving newlyweds be a promise? Can we join with our churches to keep pushing our southwestern states toward full LGBTQ equality? First, by fighting for justice in healthcare, taxes, housing, adoption, and employment? Second, by practicing kindness through intentionally finding ways to recognize the milestones in the lives of LGBTQ families with simple rituals? Third, by remaining hopeful in the midst of great social change? This weekend we celebrate how our diversity makes us stronger. Ruth remained steadfast and loyal while living into a difficult decision and new way of living. Her patience rewarded everyone. Will we follow her lead?
Where You Go, I’ll Go! Ever faithful God of many names, languages, and voices. Help us to move beyond current laws and perspectives as we live into a hope-filled new world. A heaven on earth where we recognize you in our love for each other. This weekend we celebrate the first anniversaries of legally wed same-gender couples in Arizona. In doing so we ask you to bless them and all of the couples (straight, gay, and somewhere in between) whose life journeys are lovingly leading them toward the ever-evolving institution of marriage. Amen and let it be so.