Sermon: The Risk-Takers August 5, 2018
On Facebook last week I saw a couple of videos that spoke to me of a quiet, determined courage. One was of a young woman in Iran who was filming herself walking down the street without her headscarf. She was obviously afraid – her voice was shaking, and she said she was scared people would bother her; she was worried the religious police would catch her, but she felt she needed to do this to affirm the right of women in her country to choose whether or not to wear hijab. She felt the cultural demand was degrading not only to her but also to men, who seemed to need protecting from the sight of a woman’s hair, lest they lose control of their impulses! Her courage in literally going public was impressive.
The other video was of a 21 year old Norwegian woman – probably about the same age is the woman from Iran. She is from a society so different from Iran you would think these two women had nothing in common. Ellin Ersen refused to sit down on a plane leaving Norway that had a passenger onboard being deported back to Afghanistan. She insisted she would comply with all regulations as soon as the man was allowed to deplane, arguing that a flight being late was a small price to pay for saving a man’s life. It was a tense 15 or 20 minutes, with some passengers harassing her and one taking her phone away, while other passengers supported her and a crewmember gave her back her phone. Her act was perfectly legal, and once the man was allowed to deplane she sat down and the flight carried on. When someone asked her, “How do you know he will be killed?” she answered “It’s Afghanistan.” These two women shared a willingness to risk.
Another woman of courage can be found in the story of Ruth. In our third installment, Ruth takes the biggest risk yet. She goes to Boaz in the night, lies down near him, and uncovers his feet – then waits, to see if he will take advantage of her or speak and act kindly to her. As I mentioned last week, Ruth would have already been considered a bit shady because of her status as a poor foreigner. This action is not something a decent woman would do in those days – especially as “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism for another part of the body in the Hebrew Bible. Whether it was feet or something else she uncovered, she has compromised herself by being in this position. It’s a great risk, but one worth taking to provide security for herself and for Naomi.
When Boaz wakes with a woman lying beside him, Ruth tells him what to do. In fact, she tells him to marry her! “Spread your cloak over me” is not only a request for physical shelter but for the shelter of marriage. Thankfully, Boaz responds with the same kindness he has exhibited earlier in the story. He invites her to stay there, shelters her with his own cloak, and sends her home in the morning with no-one the wiser. He promises he will marry her if he can get permission to do so. In order to provide protection for widows and the continuance of the husband’s line, the closest male relative is supposed to marry her and give her children his protection and the family name. We’ll hear what happens next in the last chapter we read next week. Boaz praises her faithfulness and integrity for not running after a young man, whether rich or poor, but for choosing him, the older Boaz, to care for her and Naomi. He asks that God’s blessing be upon her.
Is this a tender interlude between people who found themselves attracted to each other? Is it a marriage made from practicality and religious law? Is it a match made in heaven? Possibly all three. What we do know is that risk-taking in this story is worth it, especially when guided out of love and concern for the other as much as for ourselves. Such risk-taking, it appears, has the blessing of the God of Israel, the Holy One whom we worship as well.
I am not by nature a risk taker. My mother once said that if she could go back and re-parent all of her children the one thing she would emphasize more is taking more risks. Risks are messy, uncomfortable, alarming, and disturb our peace. But risks are necessary, especially when the lives we are presently living cannot or should not be sustained – like Ruth and Orpah and Naomi in Moab, like Naomi and Ruth in Bethlehem, like the young woman in Iran who craves freedom, and the young woman from Norway who challenged her own political system to save a man’s life.
There are risks that demand to be taken, whether they are for our own lives or for the lives of others. I have colleagues who have been arrested over the KinderMorgan pipeline protests, because they see the expansion of fossil fuel transport as a matter of life and death for the West Coast waters. I have a friend who has accompanied Palestinian children to school and lived with farmers on the West Bank in order to keep them safe, while risking arrest or even being shot. One friend of a friend (Tom Fox) was killed while on a similar mission in Iraq several years ago. I know people who give every spare penny they have to help homeless and vulnerable people, while living on the edge of poverty themselves. And of course, we know of hundreds and thousands of people who have fled war-torn or environmentally ravaged countries to preserve and improve the lives of their families. All of this takes enormous courage, and we shouldn’t downplay that, whether or not you are a in a hundred percent agreement with these actions or not.
Nelson Mandela, one our modern heroes, was not always considered that way. He was accused of communism, arrested for his part in planning acts of sabotage against the white dominated apartheid state, and was considered a terrorist by many. He risked his life and his freedom, and spent 27 years in prison. He famously said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. “ He also said, “Difficulties break some men [I would add women] but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” The faith behind these statements is evident. Trusting that one is sheltered and held by the living God, and that even should we die, we die into love and into new life – that is powerful armour for the risk-taker, regardless of gender or social-standing or whatever… It’s an arm around the shoulders, both reassuring and urging us onward.
The challenge I hear in this reading, is to step out boldly – to do what frightens us because it holds out hope of something better for us and for the people around us. The Good News I hear is that God blesses our risk-taking – that God meets us in our fears as we step out, whether it is with great confidence or the shaking, quivering fear of someone who does not know what the costs may be.
Scripture urges us repeatedly to “be strong and courageous” – those are the exact words. In Deuteronomy, in Joshua, in 1 Chronicles, and on through the Psalms, Isaiah and into the New Testament we are urged not to let our fear control us, but instead, step out and risk, trusting that God will be with us. Ask, seek, knock, and see what door opens before you. May it be so for you, for me, for this church and the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.