Text: Ruth 1:1-17
Preached at the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 13th, 2018. You can listen to the recording here
As some of you know, I grew up in Japan where my parents were missionaries with the Presbyterian church. Because we only visited the U.S. about every other year, there were certain developments in American culture that stood out to me. Changes that crept in slowly, and that my family and I saw more starkly than others because suddenly, when we were back after two years away something new was happening.
One of these cultural shifts was the dawning of Family Friendly Radio. When I was in 5th grade, Family Friendly Radio was not a thing. When I was in 7th grade, suddenly I had a bunch of friends whose parents only let them listen to Family Friendly Radio stations. Predictably, these were also the friends who were most likely to defy their parent’s rules. They always knew exactly what volume level they could set their stereo at to listen to rap stations without their parents hearing.
Family Friendly Radio really means Christian Radio, and more specifically a station that only plays music and programming produced by explicitly Christian labels. It is part of a larger cultural trend that includes the emergence groups like the media organization Focus on the Family, the political lobbying organization called the Family Research Council and hundreds of independent Family Bible Churches. Some time between 1975 and 1990, a particular brand of American evangelicals decided they got to define and represent “family values.”
I have lots of concerns about this culture of “family values.” One is that their definition of family is distressingly narrow. Marriage is between one man and one woman; families are supposed to have children (but only after getting married); divorce is strongly discouraged; non-Christian or mixed-faith families are suspect; and very little attempt is ever made to acknowledge or respond to the differences between the experiences of white families and families of color. This means that many of my favorite families are excluded.
Worse, they insist that the only way to ensure that these so-called traditional families thrive is by making it more difficult for other kinds of families to exist. Organizations that are a part of this family-friendly movement often oppose same-sex marriage, and lobby to reduce and eliminate government spending on the social programs upon which single-parent families depend. Far too many of my dearest families find themselves attacked by organizations that claim to be promoting “family values.”
And finally, as a Christian pastor, I am deeply concerned by the ways that this stream of evangelicalism uses the Bible to justify their understanding of family. These pastors and politicians believe that God designed families to look and function in a very particular way and that deviating from that plan is against God’s will. So they spend millions of dollars convincing others that families should conform to some kind of Biblical ideal.
But that Biblical ideal is a complete fabrication.
The truth is that the families depicted in scripture rarely look like the conventional American two-parent heterosexual family with two children.
For example, Abraham and Sarah struggled so much with infertility that they coerced Sarah’s slave to conceive a child with Abraham so he would have an heir.
Noah was assaulted by one of his sons while he was passed out drunk.
Isaac got so scared of a hostile king that he pretended his wife was his sister and encouraged the king to sleep with her.
Jacob got duped by his father-in-law into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, and then after marrying Rachel too, his favoritism toward his second wife spilled over into favoritism for her son, Joseph whose brothers were so jealous that they faked his death and sold him into slavery.
And that’s just in Genesis! When my spouse used to counsel clients at an Addiction Crisis Center, sometimes they would ask him where they should start reading the Bible, and he would always tell them “Start with Genesis because it’s full of families just as messed up as yours and God didn’t give up on them, either.”
That’s the thing about the Bible. It doesn’t actually have a lot of stories of healthy people. It doesn’t give us many pictures of what a healthy family might look like, and it certainly doesn’t offer a model of an ideal family. What it does show us is that God is faithful even when we and our families are very broken, and it gives us some pictures of what fidelity can look like in real-life human relationships.
The story we read this morning from the book of Ruth is one of my favorite examples of fidelity in the Bible. The pledge that Ruth makes to Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; your people will be my people and your God my God,” is a line that is often used in wedding services. It expresses beautifully the fidelity we strive for in family relationships. But it’s not a pledge made between one man and one woman; it’s a pledge made by a young widow to her widowed mother-in-law in a society in which neither of them had independent means to support themselves.
Two Women, by Paul Gauguin
The rest of the book of Ruth is the story of how they figure out what faithfulness to each other looks like. It’s a story of risk and sacrifice and ingenuity and no small measure of patriarchal norms. But at the heart of it is this vow between two women and their fidelity to one another.
This is the only Biblical “family value.” Fidelity. Faithfulness is one of the primary ways people experience God in scripture. This quality, which in Hebrew is “hesed,” is sometimes translated as “steadfast lovingkindness,” and I believe it is the chief characteristic of God. All of God’s actions and orientation toward the world are rooted in God’s faithfulness. God provides what is needed for today, because God is faithful; God hears the cries of the enslaved and oppressed and forges the way to freedom, because God is faithful; God sends prophets to recall rebellious people to the way of justice and peace, because God is faithful; God forgives, because God is faithful. God is faithful to this creation, and calls us to kinship faithfulness with one another and with our world.
This family value has nothing to do with what our families look like. It has nothing to do with how many parents there are, of what genders, or races or ages. It has nothing to do with the presence or absence of biological connection. Fidelity is about the way in which we commit to one another.
Fidelity might look like caring for an aging in-law or step-parent. Fidelity might look like a commitment to shared values in co-parenting between two people who are not and will not be married. Fidelity might be expressed in a commitment to intentional community between multiple adults who share a house. Fidelity may lead a person to get herself and her children out of domestic violence even if it might end her marriage.
But this Biblical family value is not limited to nuclear or even extended family relationships.
Fidelity is part of our life together in this church—we make vows as members to support one another. Through supportive friendships, meal trains, prayer teams and the Deacon’s Fund, we find creative ways to live out those promises faithfully. We make promises to infants and adults who are baptized to help them grow in an understanding of God, and our Kids Church and Catechism programs, our book studies and Bibles studies are all ways that we are faithful to those vows.
Fidelity also calls us to political advocacy for the legal rights of families that look different from our own—families that lack legal protections because of the sexual orientation or gender identity of a family member; families that are at risk of separation due to unjust immigration policies; families that have been torn apart due to racial profiling and a criminal justice system that incarcerates a disproportionate percentage of black men.
Fidelity challenges us to curb global warming and ensure a healthy environment for generations ahead of us—great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren we have not met. And it calls us to attend to the harm our way of life causes to the planet, the food systems, the clean water supply and the non-human life on this planet.
Fidelity is the choice to remain faithful even when we don’t know what the future holds, even when we can’t anticipate what kinds of sacrifices and ingenuity that pledge will require of us. Fidelity is always a risk. When we pledge faithful love to a spouse or a parent or a community, we cannot know how those people will change over time. We cannot even know how we might change. But we take the risk of committing to one another, because we believe that in faithful relationship we experience God and we participate in God’s love for the world.
One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry describes faithfulness in his marriage as a rich darkness, like in a dense forest. He writes in one of his poems:
“The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.”
Be brave, my friends. Be brave in your faithfulness to spouses and children, to parents and step-parents and mentors. Be brave with the family you were born into and the family you have chosen. Trust in God’s faithfulness to you and be brave in your fidelity to one another. That’s the only family value we need.