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Ruth and Boaz

Ruth continued...

Here’s the bottom line… our stories have to change before the world changes. The stories we tell ourselves and our children about who we are and who God is are the foundational building blocks of our understanding and the way we behave and function in the world. The evolution of these stories is crucial for the spiritual, intellectual, societal and emotional evolution of our world.

(For the full video version of this sermon, click here.)

Book of Ruth offers sus the opportunity to look at the stories that have been told, and are being told, about women. Here’s a brief look at how I see the evolution of that socio-religious story (because you can’t separate the two).

7,000 years ago (some say as long as 25,000 years ago) Goddess religions flourished in huge civilizations. And where the goddess was worshipped as the Great Mother or Mother Earth, women held property, ran businesses, lent money. There was shared power between genders, men and women both had to approve a marriage, there were priests and priestesses. Sexuality and fertility were seen as a gift of the goddess and violence against women was condemned. In fact, in Sumer if a man raped a woman, he was put to death. Primarily those ancient civilizations were peaceful agrarian societies, but women could also be warriors.

What happened to the Goddess religions?

Northern invaders came in waves, and when they took over they changed the stories of the goddesses, and reshaped society. Aggressive, warrior invaders from the area of Denmark or North of the Baltic brought with them their male storm God who ruled with lightning on top of the mountain and either killed the goddess, or took her as his wife or consort, making her submissive.

So, the strong, independent Creatress of the Universe, was relegated to being merely the wife or mistress of the great Gods (if she survived at all). The priestesses who revered making love as a way to connect to the Divine Mother were denounced as temple prostitutes. And, the symbols of the goddess were maligned. The snake became an evil serpent who tempted Eve. And the owl became the screeching of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who refused to submit to him.

And as for the role of women in this newly structured society, all we have to do is look to the Old Testament to see what happened. Husbands could divorce their wives, not vice versa, and leave them with nothing. The wife referred to her husband as master or lord, and was his possession. A woman could not inherit from her husband, nor daughters from their father. A father was allowed to sell his daughter. Women could be stoned for losing virginity before marriage. And, if raped, a woman was forced to marry rapist, unless she was betrothed or married and then she was stoned.

Story of Ruth took place within this context.

Ruth and Naomi were widows who had no man to protect and care for them. They survived by gleaning the grain left in the fields after the workers had finished. Needing a better long term plan, Naomi devises a scheme to get Boaz, a distant relation of her deceased husband, to take them on. One night, Naomi instructed Ruth to bathe, put on perfume and her best dress, then go to where Boaz wass sleeping and uncover his “feet.” Understand that “feet” was a common Hebrew euphemism for “genitals.” Naomi assures Ruth that Boaz will take it from there and tell her exactly what to do. (Ruth 3:1-5)

Long story short, Boaz accepts what is offered and makes an honest woman out of Ruth by agreeing to marry her and care for her mother-in-law. Eventually Boaz and Ruth have a child, Obed, who will turn out to be King David’s grandfather.

Despite the happy ending, this is not an acceptable bedtime story for our children! And there is no way to preach this that is morally acceptable. It is a story of a woman doing what she had to do in order to survive, but she should not have had to do it. She and all women of the time were rendered basically powerless under the laws and power of the male dominated society, the male dominated Jewish religion, and the male God they worshipped.

Women have basically been oppressed, second-class citizens ever since the demise of the Goddess, whose persecution continued until the last temple was destroyed in 500 CE.

Any equality Jesus and the early Christian communities brought to women disappeared quickly in a few generations and has only begun to change in the last hundred years or so.

Let's fast forward to the 1800s and the Enlightenment. Science advanced in such a way, and especially in the theories of Darwin, that people began to question the authority of the Bible and the Church.

This cracked the story about women enough that, with a great amount of fighting and suffering over many, many years, women finally won the right to vote.

Part of the reason women had such a hard time getting the vote was because men used the Bible for justification as to why women shouldn’t vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the leader's of the Women's Sufferage Movement, grew up Presbyterian, but rejected organized religion as the root of women’s oppression, because the Bible taught that women brought sin and death into the world via Eve, and precipitated the fall of the entire human race. Marriage was to be a condition of bondage, and childbearing painful. It was women’s role to depend on men for material wants, and if women need information on vital questions (like about God and religion) must ask her husband at home.

In any case, with the newly acquired ability to vote, the crack in the story widened, and then there were a number of significant events that continued to help story about women to evolve. After WWII women proved themselves in the work force and then weren’t going to go back to being barefoot and pregnant just because men came home from the war.

Simultaneously, the religious story about women was changing. The ordination of women was being accepted in a few of the major Protestant denominations in the 1950s and then in the 1960s Vatican II allowed women on the chancel area and allowed them to be readers.

In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment, was passed in congress and Senate, but never became an actual amendment because it wasn’t ratified by enough states. To this day, only 37 states have ratified the amendment.

Our songs and our movies and television also help to tell our stories and change our stories. Helen Reddy's song, "I Am Woman" broke through cultural norms and touched the frustration being felt by women in 1972. Do you remember the lyrics?

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

Here's part of the story as told by NPR: This song was one of the best-known anthems of second-wave American feminism might, but it almost didn’t happen. In 1970, singer Helen Reddy's manager and then-husband, Jeff Wald, met with an executive at her label to discuss recording her new song, "I Am Woman."

"Capitol Records said, 'That women's lib crap is gonna kill her,' " Wald remembers. " 'Why are you letting your wife do this stuff?' "

Wald, who identifies as a feminist himself, told the label executive that he and Reddy both believed the song would speak to liberated women of the era. "He said it was a piece of s***, and that he couldn't stand it, and that it was gonna end her career.

"So I jumped up on his desk," Wald says, "and I peed on it. And the cocaine had nothing to do with that behavior."

Wald took "I Am Woman" to a small radio station in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — chosen because it was filled with secretaries and other independent women working pink-collar government jobs. Soon, Wald says, the station's phone was swamped with requests to hear a song that spoke to women at that moment.

"Market by market, we were working that record, you know?" he said. "Just one market at a time."

"It was so hard," Reddy recalled in 2014. "So hard. You know, so many radio stations would say, 'Well, we're already playing a female record.' "

It took nearly a year for "I Am Woman" to work its way to the top of the charts. After it become a No. 1 hit in December 1972, Reddy won a Grammy for best female performance. She thanked Wald, "because he makes my success possible." And then, God: "Because she makes everything possible." 

That was 46 years ago. Her song helped change the story for women, giving them strength and the conviction of their innate worth. But, she also understood spiritually that the male God was helping run the show against women, and that story had to change as well.

Here’s another way women’s stories have been told and changed…think about the animated movies Disney put out in the 30s, 40s, and 50s? Among others were Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). In the 1950s and 60s our television shows included Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie, and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

My, how the stories have changed! 75 years after the original Snow White was released, Mirror Mirror came out, a 2012  Snow White remake with Julia Roberts as the evil queen. This time around, the dwarves teach Snow White to fight and she saves the prince! Plus there are many other female heroines and strong female leads in television today.

We are our stories, whether those stories are movies, laws or church rules. And all of them tend to evolve simultaneously.

For example, I don’t think it is coincidental that as church is changing, there are more women preaching than ever before. But we still have the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, the Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and many other evangelical, fundamentalist churches who still refuse women that authority.

I also don’t think that is simply coincidental that as the societal treatment of women is changing, church attendance is dropping!

Right now, we are in the middle of a huge shift in story, in consciousness, in society. As far as religion goes, the shift is away from a formal, rule-oriented, rigid church organization and toward a spirituality that is more interior, mystical, experiential and knows the connection of all things – human, animal, and the environment.

This shift in consciousness is like rehabbing your house. In the middle of construction you can’t really see what the end will look like and everything is a mess. This is where we are, everything is a mess. So, we have to keep going. We have to keep learning and growing to finish construction on this new phase of our socio-spiritual houses.

In order to help facilitate this evolution, I honestly, and with my whole being, believe we all need to consciously begin shifting how we understand and speak about God. It matters. At the very least God must come down from the sky and stop being exclusively male. God must be seen to exist in every person and in all of creation. Only then will we take all people into account when making decisions for our society and our planet. 

And, I’m not saying that God is female, any more than God is male. But as long as God is exclusively male, women’s story is stuck. Please change how you refer to God and where God is. Consider using she for God as much as you use he, or use only gender inclusive language (spirit, essence, divine). We owe this to our children and grandchildren.

Be a part of changing the story.

Love & Light!