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July 29, 2015, 9:23 AM

חֶסֶד (Chesed)


Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17         
1-2 One day her mother-in-law Naomi said to Ruth, “My dear daughter, isn’t it about time I arranged a good home for you so you can have a happy life? And isn’t Boaz our close relative, the one with whose young women you’ve been working? Maybe it’s time to make our move. Tonight is the night of Boaz’s barley harvest at the threshing floor.
3-4 “Take a bath. Put on some perfume. Get all dressed up and go to the threshing floor. But don’t let him know you’re there until the party is well under way and he’s had plenty of food and drink. When you see him slipping off to sleep, watch where he lies down and then go there. Lie at his feet to let him know that you are available to him for marriage. Then wait and see what he says. He’ll tell you what to do.”
Ruth said, “If you say so, I’ll do it, just as you’ve told me.”
13 Boaz married Ruth. She became his wife. Boaz slept with her. By God’s gracious gift she conceived and had a son.
14-15 The town women said to Naomi, “Blessed be God! The LORD didn’t leave you without family to carry on your life. May this baby grow up to be famous in Israel! He’ll make you young again! He’ll take care of you in old age. And this daughter-in-law who has brought him into the world and loves you so much, why, she’s worth more to you than seven sons!”
16 Naomi took the baby and held him in her arms, cuddling him, cooing over him, waiting on him hand and foot.
17 The neighborhood women started calling him “Naomi’s baby boy!” But his real name was Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.
 
חֶסֶד
 
Breaking…Krumping…Locking…Popping…Jookin’. Does anyone know what these are? (pause) What if I said, instead, swing…ballet…contemporary…ballroom? Dance. All of these, from Jookin’ to Ballet, are forms of dance. I am a HUGE ‘So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD-dance competition)’ fan…HUGE. I have watched avidly since season 2, and it is now in its 10th year. I love the variety, the talent, the choreography, the teamwork. What took me by surprise when I started watching, and has enthralled me throughout the 9 years I have watched, is the elevation of the new forms of dance most commonly seen in street performance. Until I watched SYTYCD, I thought break dancing, hip hop dancing, and club dancing were cool, but not to be held on the same level as studio dance, stage dancing. What I have learned is that those self-taught street performers and alleyway dancers have been completely underestimated. They are incredibly talented and what they do is inventive, artistic, purposeful, and extraordinarily difficult. Street performers have won the entire competition!
 
This type of dancing is evolving so fast and incorporates moves that are so new to the dance world that new words are needed. This has given rise to those awesome words—krumping, popping, breaking, jookin’. A word has been commandeered to cover the entire genre of self-taught or apprenticed non-studio dancing—‘Street.’ I think, in the near future, we are going to need a brand new word as, even now, this ‘street’ dancing is moving to studios and crews that are teaching the next generation. As they move from the street to the stage, what word shall we use to speak of this style?
 
That is a cool aspect of being human; when we have a new experience, new trend, or new phenomenon, we create new words. Ancient writers wished to differentiate God’s love from forms of human love and ‘agape’ was created, a new word used to speak of divine love. ‘Charis,’ translated grace, is the overarching word for all the unconditional gifts God pours upon us. Today however, instead of lifting up new words, new songs, new movement in the life of the Spirit, I want to give new life to an ancient and little known word that is critical to life with God in the Hebrew Scriptures—Chesed (חֶסֶד).
 
This little word that is extremely difficult to translate turns up almost one hundred times in the books we call the Old Testament. Sometimes it is translated “loving kindness.” Sometimes it appears as ‘steadfast love,’ or ‘loyalty.’ One ancient rabbi proclaimed that the Law, the Torah, begins and ends with chesed—in other words, it is the underlying principle of God’s instructions to God’s people. Chesed is the word used to capture the mutual relationship between God and God’s people, to speak of God’s love, God’s kindness and mercy, God’s constant and abiding presence, God’s commitment to God’s creation. A worship meme online coined Chesed—the love that will not let you go. Psalm 136 proclaims boldly, “Give praise to the Lord for the Lord is good. God’s ‘chesed’ endures forever.’ God’s steadfast love endures forever.
 
Today we have in front of us the Book of Ruth, a tiny little story that is set in the early years of Israel’s settlement after the Exodus. Ruth is just four short chapters long and details the story of a widowed and bereft woman, named Naomi, her daughter-in-law, a Moabite, name Ruth, and a prominent leader in the city of Bethlehem named Boaz. In short, Naomi with her husband and two sons move to Moab from Bethlehem as the result of a famine. In Moab, Naomi’s husband dies. Her two sons marry Moabite women, and after a time they both die, leaving widowed women behind, but no children. Naomi decides to return to her homeland of Bethlehem and urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families to see if they can remarry and make a new life for themselves. One daughter returns to her family, Orpah, as is expected of her.  Ruth, however, refuses. In perhaps the most famous lines of this little book, Ruth proclaims;
“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!”
 
Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. Boaz enters the scene as a wealthy and well-respected leader of Bethlehem, who also happens to be related to Naomi through her husband. After a few encounters and a ‘town meeting,’ Boaz marries Ruth and takes in Naomi. As we see in today’s reading, the story of Ruth ends with much restoration, redemption and rejoicing.
 
There is much that makes this seemingly tiny story significant, not the least of which is that Ruth is King David’s great-grandmother. But one piece often overlooked is the frequency of the word Chesed, and the ways in which it is seen in this story. God is only perceived as acting in two instances in the book—God brought food to the people of Bethlehem in chapter one, ending the famine; and God gifts Ruth with a son in chapter four. Otherwise, though God’s name is invoked in prayers, blessings, and conversation, the main action is these three main characters; Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth. And their actions are loaded with Chesed!
 
One of the central themes of Ruth is that God’s beloved community, peaceable kingdom, comes to fruition through the faithful actions of extraordinarily ordinary people. God’s Chesed is glimpsed in the actions displayed by those who rise above and beyond normal expectations.  Naomi’s one daughter-in-law returns to her family home at the urging of Naomi, and nothing negative is said about her. It is what is expected. But Ruth rises well above what is expected, in fact she shatters expectations in favor of loyalty and love, commitment and kindness—she chooses radical Chesed above even the letter of the law. Boaz does the same, echoing Ruth’s actions. He showers Ruth with generosity beyond any expectation on her behalf and Naomi’s. He takes a foreign widow as his wife, shattering societal expectations of marriage to non-Israelites. Ruth and Boaz both reflect for the community of Bethlehem, and all readers of the story, the essence of God’s Chesed.
 
This tiny four chapter narrative about the small city of Bethlehem and three simple, ordinary people provides a microcosm of God’s glorious promise of the beloved community. Stepping away from cultural details of an ancient society that do not reflect our cultural lives, we can see the overall proclamation of Chesed, the underlying principle of God’s kingdom. That proclamation in the Book of Ruth states:
  1. No one is left destitute, not even foreigners, not even enemies.
  2. Loneliness and despair must never be ignored-Ruth endures Naomi’s bitterness until she finds hope again.
  3. Children and the elderly are valued, at a time when that was not always the case.
  4. Insiders and outsiders must reach across the ‘divide’ to become one, all labels cast aside.
Chesed! Beloved Community! Ruth’s story calls for us to commit ourselves to this work of creating the beloved community, of being a people who embody God’s chesed for all the world to see.
 
I think that is what I see when I watch SYTYCD. I see validated and esteemed dancers who have given their lives to ballet or tap or jazz and all the years of training. I see these dancers who are considered the ‘insiders’ reaching out and across the divide to dance alongside the outsiders. I see overlooked and disregarded self-taught performers, inventing it as they go, reaching across the divide to be pulled onto the stage by the insiders. Together they create something new, something wonderful—rooted in dance’s history, reimagined for the future. Ah, Chesed! You surprise us in where you reveal yourself to us. May you reveal yourself through us as well.  Amen!

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