A Faithful Risk
Last year, you might remember, the weather had already been much colder than it has been this year. And as the winter wore on, there were many sub-zero days and nights. That was my first winter working at the Bridge House, and I often wondered how people who were sleeping outside survived. It often happens that people lose their sleeping bags—sleeping bags get stolen, or someone finds what seem to be discarded belongings and throws them away. One bitter day, a man left his stuff outside a café while he went in, and his sleeping bag disappeared. It was snowing. I was afraid for him. Coming back into the Bridge House, I saw another man—John, I’ll call him—holding two sleeping bags, and I impulsively said, “John, do you need both of those? This other guy just had his sleeping bag stolen…” Immediately after I said it, I felt embarrassed. When it’s that cold, it might really help to tuck one sleeping bag into another and get a little more warmth and insulation. Who was I to ask? I was going home to a warm bed. So I tried to back off awkwardly, “I mean, only if you don’t need it “[stupid: of course he needed it], or , “Say, maybe you know this other man who needs it” [also stupid, and maybe manipulative, since asking him to do this was unfair when I had nothing at stake myself]. John looked at me, looked at his sleeping bags, looked at me, and thrust one of the sleeping bags into my arms. I could tell by the way he did it—quick and resolute—that he wanted to make the gesture before he could change his mind.
You might call this kind of generosity acting on faith, or maybe in trust, since for John there really has been no guarantee that things will turn out alright. John risked this generosity when his own safety was dramatically fragile. And, because of that, I will have a special place in my heart for him forever. (And I’m glad to say that he made it through the winter and I still see him most days of the week.)
The scripture readings for this week speak to exactly this kind of circumstance. In the story from 1 Kings, Elijah is traveling and comes across a woman gathering sticks. He asks her, as a complete stranger, first for some water and then for some food. “I have so little,” she says, “that I’m going to take my tiny bit of oil and my tiny bit of flour and make a last meal for myself and my son. There is nothing else left. After we eat it, we will die of starvation.” The woman is a widow. She lives utterly unprotected in the society of her time, for women were little more than property and she had no husband to protect her. But Elijah persists: “Yes, go and make a little cake for yourself, but save out a little bit for me.” And that’s what she does. When I read this, I thought of Kris Kristofferson’s song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” But pay attention to what Elijah says to her: “Do not be afraid.” How could she be otherwise? She makes the bread, and shares it, and it feeds Elijah. Then, as it turns out, this tiny ration also feeds her and “her household” for many days. “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.” God had guaranteed that there would be enough. Though it might not seem right for Elijah, from his position of relatively greater power, to ask this of the widow, he brought her the gift of trust, and with her, we discover that God will meet the risks we take with grace.
The story of Ruth and Naomi shows us two people whose trust and fidelity are extraordinary. These two women are, if anything, even more vulnerable than the widow, who at least had a status-conferring son. Naomi had been married and had two grown sons. One of these had married Ruth, and the other another woman. They lived securely for a time, but then both sons and the father died. So we have three women who are left exposed, in positions of great vulnerability. Naomi, as grief-stricken as she is, tells her daughters-in-law, “You two are from a different tribe from me. Go back to Moab where you can return to the house of your mother. You are young and can find new husbands. I have nothing to offer you and no way to save you. Go.” The implication is that Naomi will die alone, and soon. The one daughter-in-law, weeping, leaves, returning to Moab. But Ruth will not go. She refuses to go. She will stay with Naomi.
So here we have a recipe for disaster. There is an older woman, no longer able to bear children: a widow, a person of no value in that society. And there is her daughter-in-law, a person from outside the tribe, and therefore hardly marriageable. Socially, they are invisible at best. They are nonentities and, if anything, burdens on the culture in which they live. We know they are homeless and hungry because they walk to Bethlehem to join in the barley harvest—something like contemporary migrant workers.
But Naomi has an idea, a risk that she proposes to Ruth. “I have a wealthy relative. Hmm--relative? I’m not actually related to him—he was related to my husband. We will go and work with the laborers in his fields.” Naomi is banking on Ruth’s youth, hard work, and apparent attractiveness to capture Boaz’s attention. Well, he does notice her, and his language here is indicative of the status of woman in the culture: “That woman, her, the one who has been working so hard—to whom does she belong?” Even under the best of circumstances, Boaz first thinks of Ruth as property. Discovering that she is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, he takes her under his wing, but his very protectiveness tells us something further about the dangers to women in her position: “Keep working, but stay close to my women. I have told the young men that I am watching and that they are to leave you alone.” Later, Naomi is pleased to see that Boaz has taken notice of Ruth, but she repeats what he had said: “Stick close to the women, otherwise, you might be bothered in the field.” Rape is added to the many other perils these two women face. They live in a threatening world.
Ruth has risked everything to show her loyalty to Naomi, but Naomi is going to ask something more. “Tonight, watch the threshing floor where Boaz is working. Prepare by bathing and anointing yourself. Put on your best clothes. And then, after he has gone in to sleep, go in quietly and lay yourself at his feet.” There is something really shocking in this. If Boaz is not a decent man, he could rape Ruth with impunity. Or he could send Ruth from his presence, shamed, a true outcast.
But he does not. He honors Ruth’s trust, and her trust in Naomi. He gives her an ample supply of barley to share with Naomi and promises that he will do right by both of the women. Boaz becomes Ruth’s husband, and Ruth goes from being a foreigner, a widow, someone who works the fields, to living in the fullness of family life with her new husband, her children, and Naomi.
The Bible is especially rich with stories of people who are the most poor, the most sick, the most low-status who give themselves up to radical trust in God. Think of the youth David before Goliath, or the slave Joseph interpreting dreams for the Egyptian king.
We like to think that trust is the product of deliberation: we get to know a person or a situation, and we make an informed decision to trust. Nevermind that even the most trustworthy people can let us down. Nevermind that this kind of deliberation demonstrates a caution that is at odds with the risk that defines trust. I am reminded of what the poet Frank O’Hara said about making poems, which also applies to the life of faith. He compared it to being chased by a mugger. When that’s happening, you don’t turn around to your assailant and say, “Give it up, I was a track star at Mineola Prep. You go on your nerve.” You just run.
Trust requires that kind of nerve, and God requires trust from us. I want to propose that trust is a process of discovery. It doesn’t come with guarantees. Our investment in the relationships or projects that call for our trust can be disappointed. Or they can turn out very differently than we, in our original trust, could have anticipated. Ruth didn’t know that she would end up happily married to a wealthy man. She just knew that she loved Naomi, and she trusted in that love to see her through. In that way, I think that the bible stories are teaching us that trust is serendipitous. God leads us into things that we don’t expect and would not even have known to hope for—or known that we could accomplish.
Let me try this yet another way: trust is the art of faith. Say we are cooking up a recipe that we have made many, many times and this time, instead of oregano, we throw in a little lemon juice. It is different, but still good. In the midst of the garden we carefully planted with flowers, a little volunteer tomato plant springs up. The contours of the garden we had planned are changed, but it is still fertile. We can respond in trust to what is given.
So many of the stories that we encounter in the bible are stories of privation and scarcity. The Israelites wander in the wilderness, hungry and homeless, barely better off than when they were enslaved in Egypt. And often these stories focus on trust that, in a harsh land, divided by tribal loyalties and political strife, there will be enough. The Elijah story is very similar to the loaves and fishes story.
So, finally, let me propose that trust allows us to see that God is present in the large and the small. We can trust God to provide enough. Trust opens our eyes to a different sense of fulfillment. One sleeping bag, not two. Food enough to share with the stranger. Commitment to beloved friend rather than the security of your mother’s home. Trust becomes a form of abundance.
By taking the risk of trust, we are welcomed into an abundance we had not understood before, a deeper understanding of the ways that God is always, always here, with us, saying—just as Ruth said to Naomi:
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people.