Our Balcony People
“Our Balcony People”
So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘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. 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!’ When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them, ‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
“Thanks” by W. S. Merwin:
With the night falling we are saying thank you
We are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
We are running out of the glass rooms
With our mouths full of food to look at the sky
And say thank you
We are standing by the water looking out
In different directions
Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
After funerals we are saying thank you
After the news of the dead
Whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
In a culture up to it chin in shame
Living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
Over telephones we are saying thank you
In doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
Remembering wars and the police at the back door
And the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
In the banks that use us we are saying thank you
With the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
Unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
With the animals dying around us
Our lost feelings we are saying thank you
With the forests falling faster than the minutes
Of our lives we are saying thank you
With the words going out like cells of a brain
With the cities growing over us like the earth
We are saying thank you faster and faster
With nobody listening we are saying thank you
We are saying thank you and waving
Dark though it is.
Let us pray:
O God, may the force of your love infuse our lives, so that in all things we may give thanks, dark though it is.
This sermon is told in the voice of Obed, son of Ruth and Boaz.
“It was a dark and stormy night.” My grandmother always began her stories with those words. Late at night, when I close my eyes against the absence of light, I still can hear her voice. “Listen to me Obed,” I hear her whisper in the “distant call of voices I hear before sleep,” (Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales) “Obed, let me tell you how your parents met.” And so it is that often I fall asleep remembering that my mother, Ruth, was known as the woman with eyes full of hope.
“We were desperate women,” my grandmother would insist, though she looked anything but desperate to me. In the end, Naomi had aged well, and she was full of sweetness and laughter. "We had absolutely nothing in the world. Nothing!” She said waving her hands around, as if the story needed more drama than it could muster on its own. As a child, I always thought that Nana Naomi was exaggerating; she did tend to be a bit dramatic. But as an old man, I see that she was telling the truth, or maybe even toning it down a bit. Naomi and Ruth did have nothing. My grandfather, Elimelech, and their two sons were dead. And as women alone in a man’s world, they were without resources or hope or promise. Naomi and her family had gone to Moab out of desperation in the first place. It was the best choice in a time of famine, who knew things would go from bad to worse, first with the death of Elimelech and later sons? Naomi settled in and her sons married local women, and it looked as if their life would be lived out in a place far from home. But when the men they loved died, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah found themselves empty and desperate and hollowed out by loss and completely out of bright ideas.
“That’s when I decided to go home to Bethlehem,” I always said when my grandmother Naomi got to this point in the story. “Let me tell the story, Mr. Smarty-pants, I was there.”
“That’s when I decided to go home to Bethlehem,” she continued, “at the beginning of barley harvest.” And she always gave me a big wink. “Now why on earth Ruth wanted to come with me, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me. I mean, what good would that do me? Can you imagine, me coming home with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law? Not everyone looked kindly upon foreigners. I mean, Ruth stuck out like a sore thumb.”
It was true, my mother looked foreign, and I thought she was beautiful in that striking, exotic way of women who look different.
“Why did she come,” I would always ask, as if on cue?
“That woman had harvest eyes,” my grandmother would say, emphatically, as if she feared I would argue with her. “Ruth could see hope and possibilities even in the empty, thin times. Ruth had a way of looking around for signs of abundance when all I could see was scarcity. I saw emptiness, but everything looked like harvest to Ruth.”
“It’s a strange thing, Obed,” Naomi would say, “That your mother is the one who taught me to be faithful, full of faith, and she was an outsider, a Moabite.” Naomi would shake her head, as if genuinely surprised that anyone, especially one who was foreign could find a way to live a grateful life in the midst of loss and despair, a life full of hope when all signs indicated that no hope was to be found. “Your mother begged to come with me, so what could I say, what could I do? Who would have guessed how things would turn out?”
Nana Naomi told stories with great color and detail when she told about how my father, Boaz, spotted my mother gleaning in the field, the only way she could scrape together a living for the two of them. But Naomi would get fuzzy on the details when she referred to that night on the threshing floor at the end of the harvest.
If my mind wandered, my grandmother would tell me that I would wish I had listened better to her stories, that one day she would be gone, and I would want to know more about the people I came from. Now that both Naomi and my mother Ruth are long dead, I know she was right. I have so many questions that I would like to ask them. Questions my grandson David asks me, questions I can’t answer. How did they manage to keep moving forward in life when they were so empty? How did Ruth manage to have faith enough for the both of them? And how was it that my mother could look at the world through barley harvest eyes, eyes that saw fullness, not emptiness?
Now that I am old, I have come to tolerate a lot more mystery and lack of order in my life. I know that I cannot always calculate the outcome. And only on rare occasions do I think that I inherited my mother’s hopeful harvest eyes, that is, her ability to see possibilities everywhere. Once in a great while, I am able to give thanks even though it is a dark and stormy night, I am able to see hope when everything looks desperate. And I know that it is a gift.
Nothing is guaranteed in this life. Maybe Ruth and Naomi were just lucky, but maybe they were blessed. But, even in the lean times, times when I feel the famine of the soul gnawing away inside, I remember my mother’s eyes, eyes that were full of faith and hope and gratitude. All my life I have prayed that I would grow up to have her eyes. All my life I have wondered: if I had walked into Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest, would I have seen fullness and not emptiness. Could I have stood in the middle of that season of personal loss and been able to say “Thank you,” no matter what? Even when the end of the story is not yet known, can I be grateful, and full of hope like my mother Ruth? Can I be a steward of God’s hope in a world bereft of hope?
“This is what the community of faith is for,” Naomi would tell me: “To believe for you when you are empty of belief, to sing to God for you when your song has dried up, to bring you into God’s future when you are mired in the past. Ruth was my community of faith in a land of emptiness. “Can you be a community of gratitude, hope, and abundance for others, Obed,” my grandmother would ask me.
I think how fortunate I have been, to have my mother Ruth, and grandmother Naomi, and father Boaz and so many others as my “balcony people.” (An expression used by Carlyle Marney.) They are up there in my balcony, overlooking my life, cheering me on, calling out to me in hope when I falter. My balcony is full of those saints who have loved me into being, who have helped me to see God in my life. Perhaps you have your balcony people too, saints who inspire you to become better than you are, who believe in you and for you in the most cloudy of times.
I have been so blessed by my balcony people. Sometimes it comes to me, this grace of feeling the fullness of life, this moment of being so aware of God’s generous presence that I cry out, “Thank you, thank you.” Sometimes, when I slip back in time just before sleep, I can see my mother, young and afraid, walking into Bethlehem out of a season of loss, not knowing whether feast or famine lay ahead, not even recognizing the signs of the beginning of barley harvest. And in this half-dream, I lean close to hear her whisper: “Thank you, thank you, dark though it is.”