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Redeem Our Memories

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
November 07, 2021
Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17 Matthew 5: 1-12

Modern Bethlehem is located on the other side of the wall which divides Israel from the Palestinian territories. This is one trip across the fortified border that every guide takes tourists on. After all, as the Prophet Micah says, But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days. The reference to the Jewish reader is to King David, who shepherded in the fields of Bethlehem in his youth. To the Christian reader it is also a prediction of Jesus, who is born in Bethlehem and descended from David’s line. After your tour guide gets your bus through the Israeli checkpoint, it will take a sharp left turn and descend into the outskirts of Bethlehem, where you’ll drive past a gigantic tourist outlet called Nissan’s—the tour guide will make sure you make a good long stop there later—and walk through a gauntlet of Palestinian hawkers selling tiny manger sets, bottles of real sand from the real desert where Jesus met the Devil, and colorful pocketbooks, to the tomb of Ruth, venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Past that, you are taken to a wide-open barley field, still in use today. You are told this very field is the same one in which David as a young man–and a thousand years later the shepherds who attended Jesus’ birth–watched their flocks by night. Imagine this field at night suddenly brightened by the Star of Bethlehem and glowing angels singing, “Peace on Earth.” This is also, we are told, likely the location of Boaz’s barley fields, where Naomi and Ruth were graciously allowed by their kinsman Boaz to glean the leavings after the harvest so that they would not starve. Somewhere nearby would have been the threshing floor where Ruth, as the Bible euphemistically puts it, “uncovered Boaz’s feet,” and eventually became his wife. Boaz is presented as a gracious and caring man, who goes beyond the call of duty to care for this young woman, not even of his race, who had been widowed by his relative. He becomes her ga’ol, a Hebrew word that means not only kinsman but “redeemer”—the one who frees her from the constraints put upon women by society’s terrible conventions of the time, that might have resulted in Ruth and Naomi both starving—but he not only is kind to her, but he raises her up to great status as his wife. The writer of the book of Ruth wants us to know that this Moabite woman deserves every bit of status she receives, because she herself is loving and loyal to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and even renounces her Moabite religion to worship the God of Naomi, the God of the Hebrews. And God, who is also faithful and loyal, honors her even more by making her the grandmother of King David himself. The very last word in the Book of Ruth is “David.” There is a lot of debate about when the Book of Ruth was written. Regardless of the exact time there are two things very clear—the story itself is older than the Bible—and no matter when it was written, the idea that a woman of a different race—a Moabite—was a key progenitor of King David would have been deeply provocative to many Jewish readers. One controversial idea is that Ruth was written during the period after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile, when Ezra decreed that the returning Jewish “exiles should divorce their foreign wives.” If that’s true, the Book of Ruth was specifically written to challenge certain racist and nationalist notions that seemed not to represent the mercy, love and openness of God. It makes you wonder if perhaps there had been a reactionary period, or maybe a few reactionary periods, where people had tried to re-write the ancestry of David. Maybe there was a time when people who didn’t want to see anything good about non-Jews tried to write Ruth out of David’s lineage, to present David as a “pureblooded,” whatever that might have meant. It reminds me of the Harry Potter stories. Harry Potter, if you recall, was a “pureblood” wizard, meaning that both his parents and his whole lineage were wizarding families. But his good friend, Hermione, had one parent who was a “muggle,” that is, a non-wizard like you and me. So people who didn’t like her called her a “mudblood” and questioned whether she was a true wizard. Which of course she was. From one perspective, to say David’s grandmother was a Moabite woman would have made David a “mudblood.” And some people wouldn’t want to remember Israel’s greatest king that way. But others did. And how we remember the past has implications for both the present and the future. In our liturgy today, we ask God at one point to “redeem our memories.” In many ways that’s exactly what the Book of Ruth is doing. It is redeeming the memory of David’s grandmother, Ruth, by presenting this foreigner in his bloodline not only as faithful herself, but also blessed by God to be the progenitor of Israel’s greatest king. What to some racist people of their day would have been a stain on King David’s ancestry is remembered instead as an amazing act of the faithfulness and gracious love of three people—Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz—and most importantly of God. What was shameful to some is redeemed in memory as actually an amazing blessing. When I was pastor of a small country church in Virginia, I was good friends with a couple of young women about my age whose parents were active members of the church. These young women had drifted from the church, but also were disdainful of their parents, and especially their mother. It was a strange thing, because they knew their father could be emotionally abusive to their mother, but strangely they blamed her for it. They called her “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” I finally got very frustrated with them over it. Their mother, I told them, had spent her life protecting them from the anger of their father, by taking the brunt of it herself. I knew, for instance, that she’d been abused by one of her own uncles as a child and had worked hard to make sure that her daughters never were in his presence. Yes, she always pretended things were happy—but she was doing what she thought was the right and Christian thing to do, and in many ways they owed their own mental health to the sacrifices she made for their sakes. I don’t know if they took anything I said to heart, but I do know that now that she has died, they remember their mother very differently, as more of a protective and redemptive figure in their lives. In my opinion, that is the right way to remember her. Perhaps simply time and age have given them perspective, and redeemed their memories of a loving woman who lived a sometimes terrible life for their sakes. Mitch Albom, who wrote My Afternoons with Morrie, has written that “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” That is exactly true. We continue in relationship with those who have been part of our lives long after they are gone. I, for instance, have regular conversations with our late organist Mark Scott. So far as I can tell, Mark doesn’t talk back, though I still feel his sarcastic gaze upon me on occasion. I think all of us who knew him can easily list both his strengths and his quirks, but I am sure few would question the powerfully redemptive role he played during the most difficult years of St. Stephen’s recent history. A more difficult memory is his predecessor, Elza Cook. It has taken me years to get to know much about him, but I have always felt that learning about him was vitally important because no one talks about him. The reason for this is simple and sad. Elza was murdered under terrible circumstances that were considered shameful in 1972. The church’s minutes do not mention his death but only that he left some money to the church. A parishioner told me that Elza had asked that music not be played at his funeral and said that going to his music-less funeral really drilled home that “the music had died.” I’ve learned more about him since then. He was an accomplished musician and a delightful and kind human being. He was organist and music director from the early fifties until his death in ’72, and the music program thrived under him. Children loved him. He would call them on their birthdays and sing “Happy birthday” to them. He loved Yatzee and always carried a game board with him in case someone wanted to play. I have a picture of him at Peggy Wadley’s Sweet Sixteen party. He took his exercise by walking around and around this very sanctuary. Often he was joined by a teenaged boy trying to figure out his life who found in Elza an older friend. Elza Cook was the organist and music director from the time that old Broadway Presbyterian Church moved to this site and renamed itself St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. He built a strong and vibrant music program with multiple choirs and was a positive influence on two generations of St. Stephen’s young people. His curse was that he was gay man in a time when our society was homophobic in the extreme. Ultimately that is what killed him. So today I want to redeem the memory of one of the leaders who made St. Stephen the strong music church it is today and has been for decades, and whose influence shaped the fact that we are today a church that is open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I want to say his name, Elza Cook, and redeem the memory of a lovely and beloved man who deserved far better than he got and was an agent of God’s redemptive work in the life of this church. And I want to celebrate that he now leads one of the many heavenly choirs that sing Alleluia to God in the heavens. When we complete the work that we’re doing on the organ through the capital campaign we plan to rename it the Peter Mark Scott Memorial Organ and that’s appropriate. We have portraits and plaques of Rev. Bill Jablonowski and he is remembered fondly. But it’d be nice to have something memorializing Elza Cook as well, to redeem the memory of a man who did so much for so long for this wonderful church. I want all of us to reflect on this All Saints Day on the ways we remember those who have preceded us into the kingdom. Some we remember fondly, some not so much, and perhaps with very good reason. But let us reflect on the ways that our own resentments, our own assumptions, our own unresolved issues can sometimes blur and darken the memory we have of those who have died; and make us miss the ways that, in ways we perhaps don’t credit, who they were has blessed us and made us who we are—the ways that God may have used them to be a blessing to us and others that we sometimes forget. Death ends a life, not a relationship. And it is never too late to heal a relationship. 

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