A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Ruth 4

We heard the end of the story this evening. The story of Ruth. The words that place her story right at the heart of the story of God’s salvation. Ruth’s story doesn’t seem like that initially. A story that will have such significance in God’s eyes. Ruth’s story seems to be woven with ordinary things.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work reflects on the power of story. The book is the first in a series of three books about pastoral ministry. When I arrived on my first parish placement in my formation for the priesthood, the parish priest gave my family a box of chocolates and gave me a book. Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson was my companion and guide throughout that time. This book told me who I was and what I was meant for.

“What pastors do, or at least are called to do, is really quite simple. We say the word God accurately, so that congregations of Christians can stay in touch with the basic realities of their existence, so they know what is going on. We say the Name personally alongside our parishioners in the actual circumstances of their lives, so they will recognise and respond to the God who is both on our side and at our side when it doesn’t seem like it and we don’t feel like it.”[1]

Armed with such beautiful words, I had to read more so I bought the other books in the series. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work explores what are sometimes called the five scrolls of the Old Testament, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Esther, mining each book for its resonances with the work of pastoral care. We read from the Book of Ruth this evening and Eugene Peterson explores what he calls the Pastoral Work of Story making, reflecting on the story of Ruth.

Peterson explores pastoral care as listening to a person’s story and helping them know that their story is held in the story of salvation, the great story of God. Peterson writes, “The Book of Ruth, [is] a single instance of local storymaking in the context of the great salvation story of Israel and Church …”[2] The Book of Ruth relates the story of Ruth and Orpah, two women of Moab who had married two sons of Elimelech and Naomi, Judeans who had settled in Moab to escape a famine. The husbands of all three women die; Naomi plans to return to her native Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to return to their families. Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, accompanying her to Bethlehem and later marries Boaz, a distant relative of her late father-in-law.

Eugene Peterson explores the three main characters, Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. “The three main characters show three ways of getting into the story [of salvation].” Naomi, he says, entered the story by complaining. She leaves her home because of a famine and then finds herself bereaved of her husband and her two sons. Naomi is presented as a complainant before God, a stance which Peterson writes is utterly appropriate at times. Complaint is at times the voice of one who takes God seriously. “Ruth enters the story by asking.” The words from the book of Ruth that we know well, “Where you go I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” illustrate her loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, but it is later in the story that, encouraged by Naomi, she makes her request. Ruth effectively asks Boaz to marry her. Boaz has a covenant responsibility to Ruth through his relationship to her and he enters the story of salvation by welcoming and taking up this responsibility.

Eugene Peterson sees a profound connection between story-telling and pastoral work:

“Biblical pastoral work “takes a history” and with that raw material creates a story of salvation, like the Ruth story fashioned out of famine, widowhood, barley harvest, levirate law, God’s steadfast love, providence and peace, the town of Bethlehem and the land of Moab. The storyteller assembles the local, personal and seemingly disparate details … and makes a history that is significant, meaningful and redemptive.”[3]

The final verses that we heard read this evening from the Book of Ruth, leaves us in no doubt that Ruth’s story plays a profound part in the unfolding story of salvation: Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. David who was to be King of Israel. And, so, the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, find their home.

Peterson explores the way the Book of Ruth embeds the story of a few people in a particular time and place in the story of God and encourages those engaged in pastoral care to see their work in the same light. As we gather this evening at Choral Evensong with the Friends of the Diocese of Willochra I wondered if we might not think this is exactly the vocation of friends, is not exactly what deep friendship entails. The holding of story. The treasuring of story. I remember one of your clergy, Andrew King, priest at Whyalla and Point Pearce, saying just this to me as we pondered priesthood, that priests are “repositories for stories”. I think friends do the same. Take the ordinary details and hold them with such care that, saying the word God accurately, alongside the story, so that as Eugene Peterson said in that first book I was given, congregations of Christians can stay in touch with the basic realities of their existence, so they know what is going on.

The distances are vast in the diocese of Willochra. And so the stories of this diocese are often about travel, stories of travel on horseback for days in the early days, of travel in cars for many hours nowadays, of days and nights spent by bishops and clergy, staying with parishioners as it is too far to go home, stories of a bishop’s wife Marion, now a dear member of our Cathedral congregation, who learnt to fly a light plane, to help her bishop cross the distances to reach his clergy and congregation in this vast diocese. Flying also nurtured his prayer life, so Bishop David McCall told us, one day.

The vast distances between small farming congregations meant that from the very early days the model of the congregation gathering in the local parish church didn’t always fit. The Book that tells the story of the diocese, published in its centenary year, is entitled In a Dry and Thirsty Land… and that title sheds light of the lives of so many who live out the Christian faith in country South Australia. Bishop Augustus Short described a good bush missionary as having “Considerable physical power, much energy in character and a zeal not to be quenched by hardship and occasional rudeness or neglect, the ability of a ready preacher, the meekness of a ripe evangelist, and the refinement of an educated gentleman…” Well, gentleman of course in that time, but now we have come to understand, what the scriptures surely know, that God’s love and forgiveness can be taken across this land by women and men, lay and clergy. As your own Bishop John put it, “In ‘being the Church’, we are actively engaged in listening to our communities and responding to their needs in loving service. We need to be connecting with people and connecting them with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That responsibility is not some onerous weight we should carry, but rather it is our ability to respond which when aligned with God’s mission will bring joy and a fulfilled life.” The diocese of Willochra holds in its memory precious stories of joy and a fulfilled life, of ministry done in creative ways, ways made necessary by the harshness and the vastness of the land.

Friends, good friends, I think hold our stories. Help us to know they find their home in the great story of God. Help us to know that, as in the story we heard read this evening, Ruth’s story, all aspects of human expression are seen and heard by God, complaint and request, grief and joy, the willing acceptance of responsibility, the struggle to work out what God’s vocation for us might be. And friends help us with listening ears and warm hospitality, with the treasuring of memory and the telling and retelling of the story of God. The Friends of the Diocese of Willochra have this, I think, as their vocation, to be a repository for the stories of the diocese, to help us know that these stories find their home in the great story of God.

[1] Peterson, Eugene Under the Unpredictable Plant , p172.

[2] Peterson, Eugene Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, p97.

[3] Ibid., p86.