Ruth 1: 6–17, Luke 7: 36–50, Psalm 23

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord,
my strength and my redeemer.

It is a great privilege for me to be invited to share a few thoughts
from the word of God with you in this great Cathedral. I am sincerely
humbled. May we find in our today’s readings renewed inspiration to
affirm our dignity, faith, courage and solidarity with each other as we
rejoice in God’s faithfulness.

Restoring dignity through courage, faith and solidarity is the theme
derived from texts we read in the book of Ruth and the Gospel of Luke.
The women in these texts crossed the boundaries, jumped the hurdles of
culture, tradition and religion and stood firm on what they believed, so
as to regain their dignity and hope in a better future.

Naomi had settled in Moab from Bethlehem. She had two sons who were
married to the foreign Moabite women Ruth and Oprah. However, tragedy befell
them with Naomi first losing her husband, then the death of her sons,
leaving two widows. This is a rather familiar story in many African
countries where many mothers have lost their children/sons to diseases
such as HIV and AIDS, war and poverty.

The conversation in the text that has just been read takes place at a
time when Naomi has made the resolve to return to her homeland. Ruth,
being an obedient and faithful daughter-in-law, decides to accompany her,
but it seems there is more to the narrative than this. Her faithfulness
must have been derived from the solidarity of widowhood and common
challenges faced by women in patriarchal societies in general. The
encounter between Ruth and Naomi in this part of the text takes place at
a time of anguish, and while still nursing the loss of their husbands
they were faced with the prospect of losing each other. They had to
struggle for basic needs like most widows in rural set ups and alienated
urban centres in a foreign land. This was the nature of conversation
between Ruth and Naomi amid the struggle that is perceived as the
“test of faith” from God. The hermeneutic derived from this
conversation is signified by the climax in which Ruth responds
immediately to Naomi’s resolve to travel the lonesome path of
solitude back to the land of Judah. The text is an inquiry of faith
between women faced with an existential predicament in which they have to
reinvent themselves, especially as shown more radically in the case of
Ruth, a Moabite, a foreigner by Jewish consideration. She makes the big
leap of faith to embrace an alien people and faith in a God to whom she had no
historical nor cultural linkage, and this ironically becomes a beacon of new
hope in times of scarcity. Hence she becomes a model of faithfulness to Yahweh in
her land of adoption. These women, in their loss, were both yearning to
share the same destiny.

Naomi resisted becoming part of a hegemonic project; instead she
encouraged Ruth and Oprah to go back to face their own solitude and find
their own truth. It is interesting that Naomi is not trapped by
temptation to objectify her companions in terms of otherness, or make
distinctive claims of privilege on her part as mother-in-law or a Jew.
Yet we know in the world of xenophobia, racism, tribalism, poverty,
displacement etc., one who names the other claims authority and
privilege based on the false notion of the self. However, Naomi creates
an environment of freedom in which the choice of Ruth and her companions
will only find an authentic expression of faith in Yahweh based on their
own experience. But this does not take away the paradox, for God is
still intimately invoked by one who is considered an outsider. From the
conversation of these women we learn that it is possible to be intimate
with one another before God as we are, and embrace each other’s faith
through respectful encounter of each other’s sacred ground. Like Moses we
are called to remove our shoes of prejudice as we listen and enter into
the histories, cultures and religious experiences of other people who
are different from us.

As we, too, share this paradox, having embraced more than one culture,
speaking a multiplicity of languages, sometimes embracing the same faith
with a myriad of interpretations, we are often tempted to say with Naomi
“Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me.” It is as if Naomi
is saying: these are my definitive words, unfurled by the silence of
conviction. Take these words and let them guide you to the sanctuary of
your own familiar world and let me face my own fate and uncertainties
alone! Ruth refuses to accept this admonition, and yet as if unfamiliar
with the world of Naomi’s faith, Ruth embraces the ineffable with those
profound words of intimacy, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return
from following you. For where you go I will go and where you lodge I
will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you
die I will die and there will I be buried.” Her faith translates mere
words into praxis which sometimes borders on insanity. Our encounter
with God does not always fully respond to our need for rational
comprehension of reality but rather, as in the context of Ruth’s
experience, it is more often an existential leap of total submission to
what is intrinsically connected to the liberating power of the Spirit in
our day-to-day encounter with life’s contradictions. Ruth’s testament of
faith reminds us that as we sojourn upon this cosmic garden somewhere at
the dark corner of an unknown universe, the very basis of our existence
is often questioned and tested beyond any rational comprehension.

In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, similar courage, faith and
hope for change—a better reality expressed by Ruth—is exhibited by the
so called sinful women who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears. When she
heard Jesus was dining with the elite in the town, she decided to break
the barriers and cross through class barricades to embrace Christ.
Suffering the humiliation of male audience, broken, wounded and
miserable, she took courage defying all the names she had been given.
The conversation that ensues unravels the attitudes of male power in the
presence of a radical act to claim Christ by a vulnerable and an
oppressed woman. Jesus affirms her and releases her from the bondage of
public opinion. It is her faith in Jesus Christ that ultimately frees
her from the chain of her past.

Breaking the chains of poverty demands a radical break with our past
histories. We need to and must be ready to be in solidarity with each
other. The issue of gender equity and justice in our faith communities
must take a radical turn around with a new type of ecclesiology—the
household of God. In this household, God alone is the sovereign
authority as we stand in solidarity with one another. This is a
household where when women work unpaid and are constantly abused,
raped and demeaned, it is God who is rejected.

In the narrative of Ruth, we have encountered the dignity of a woman
who had lost honor in her widowhood—she had become poor and a
nobody without a man, a husband, but chose to be courageous enough to be
in solidarity with Naomi and accompany her to rebuild her life in a
foreign land. Defying all categories of identity, the so called sinful
woman also took a great leap of courage and went to Jesus and shared her
love, knowing that only He alone could release her from chains imposed
on her by society. All these women took courage to accept God’s
faithfulness even when the world around them lost faith in their
capacities. Today we celebrate these women of the Bible and those amidst
us who continue to cross the boundaries of prejudice and oppression, who
continue to seek justice and embrace each other in the spirit of
solidarity to change structures and systems of exclusion,
marginalization, poverty and dehumanization.

As we create the bond of solidarity and covenant to overcome poverty,
may we experience the profound moments of grace when we are crossing the
valley of the shadow of death, towards the mountain where we shall dream
new dreams and go back to the market place of life in order to serve the
ordinary communities from which we come, and to which we are called to
serve. This commitment is often described with the ambiguity of one
word, love. To love as the women of the Bible have loved is to serve. To
overcome poverty is to serve and share. In loving we enter into
solidarity with one another to protect each other’s dignity. In loving
we gain the courage to stand up for truth, justice, peace and freedom
for all.

To conclude,
Lord, help us break down the walls of poverty that separate us;
Lord, help us break down the chains of poverty that enslave us and hold us back;
Lord, help us to stand together in solidarity to share with one another;

In the words of the psalmist, Lord, create in us clean hearts and
renew right spirits within us.

As we launch Women, Faith and Development [Alliance], let us remember the words
of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are called to suffer and sacrifice
with dignity and discipline for truth and justice with good will and
strong moral sensitivity.”

Let me conclude by sharing briefly an experience I had a few weeks ago in
South Sudan where I met a bishop of this Church—the Episcopal church
of the USA. This bishop with his team was in the bushes and jungles of
southern Sudan where there are hardly any basic services. Inside the bushes
the bishop was in solidarity and expressing compassion with the people. This
was for me an expression of standing together with the needy and poor people
and sharing resources God has endowed to us. God bless.