Sermons

Vulnerability and Risk; Rev. Dee Ledger, November 4, 2018

She works at the office in Tribeca, New York.  He works in LA in some higher up position.  She is in her mid-twenties and single.  He is in his mid-thirties and married.  They have been “instant messaging” each other at work for the past few months, which is a kind of instant gratification for both of them, as the messages have gotten more and more, shall we say, engaging?  It’s a kind of cyber-sex and addicting, but without the hassle of motels and the morning after.  But now there’s a problem-of-sorts, because he is taking a business trip out to her office, and she is afraid that if he travels all this distance, and they are in the same office for just one week, she is definitely going to do more than instant message with this married man.

And it doesn’t bother her… not exactly.  Instead, she calls her older married friend, perhaps hoping that she might have some advice.  Should she or shouldn’t she?  Should she feel guilty?  This is the situation presented to Julie Powell in the book, Julie and Julia.  It’s a good book, acerbic and honest…but Julie’s response to her friend is also troubling.  “Let him worry about the state of his marriage. I say, if he wants to send someone not his wife lewd instant messages, that’s his lookout.” [1]

In another place, in another time, a good and honest man starts to notice that the insurance company that employs him has started rewarding employees for finding reasons to deny their health insurance claims.  A perk here and another perk there, and he realizes that the company is not-so-subtly encouraging its employees to be more aggressive in their denial of claims, while maximizing profits at the expense of mission, at the expense of the people they claim to serve.  It’s not just scrutiny to weed out those who might get unnecessary treatments; it’s denying people who paid their premiums thinking their insurance would be sufficient and cover them in catastrophic and unexpected events.  He is becoming more and more uncomfortable with the company’s practices, but he’s just a few short years from retirement, and he’s got a pension, and bills, and a family, and headaches of his own.  If those in power don’t care, why should he?  But it keeps him up at nights…it really does.

Friends, our bible is filled with messy moral dilemmas.  It is filled with stories about vulnerability and how we handle and respond to each other’s vulnerabilities, including our own.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a wonderful understanding to live by, but sometimes, I have found, it is not sufficient if it is the only understanding we have.  Because there are some folks who believe that a sucker is born everyday and each of us must take our turn.  Some believe that if the other guy isn’t smart enough, or the other woman doesn’t care about her husband enough to keep him from spending nights text messaging another woman, then they deserve the treatment they receive, and they would be quick to say, that if the shoe were on the other foot, and they were the one on the losing end, then they would deserve the same.  Except that we don’t tend to think that we will ever be on the losing side… We don’t plan to be the cheated -on spouse, or the person whose insurance isn’t sufficient, or the one facing a limited future with limited options.  In other words, we don’t mind the part about doing “as we would have them do unto us,” because we figure we will always be smart enough, healthy enough, or in control enough to avoid being in these situations in the first place.

Or maybe it’s our basic survival instinct.  Bill Moyers Journal once aired a documentary called, the The Good Soldier, and more than one good soldier said that idea on the battlefield, the basic survival training, was “to kill or be killed.” It was part of their training and also part of the ugliness of war.  If you wanted to come home alive, then there were certain things that you felt you had to resolve yourself to do.  Killing civilians—that is rationalized as “collateral damage”—part of what you do to keep alive.

But we know that tolerance for “collateral damage” can also be found off the battlefield, among women and men who would never pick up an assault rifle or see the field of combat.  In everyday, ordinary life, they believe that “doing unto others before they would do unto you” is really what Jesus meant.  When survival is at stake, whether it be one’s job, or one’s sex life, or one’s happiness, or one’s ambitious urges, or one’s dreams, or one’s sense of entitlement…moral convictions tend get a little blurry.  And if someone is going to be vulnerable, we tend to think, it best not be us.

Our moral dilemmas are moral dilemmas precisely because it is difficult to distance ourselves and separate our own human motives from the messiness that is human life.  And the bible, which we try to make into a rulebook, also gives us these messy stories that are filled situations that often defy clear-cut, black and white answers.  In addition, we tend to focus on following the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law.  At what point does “thou shalt not commit adultery” apply to instant text messaging a married colleague in another state?  Why is King David so revered if he was hanging out with the married Bathseba and purposely put her husband in harm’s way?  And, in the book of Ruth, in another chapter, Ruth waits until Boaz has had his supper and his evening scotch before she sexually offers herself to him, as a way to secure a future for her mother-in-law and herself.

Ruth’s a widow, and her mother in law is a widow, and if you know anything about widows in the bible, or widows in the world, then you know that they are often a vulnerable group, often taken advantage of.  In fact, Jesus’ gets ticked off at the religious establishment of his day for “devouring widow’s houses” and the early church made special provision for the tender care of widows.  In cultures where one’s husband and sons were one’s pension, retirement, social security, and status, it was truly devastating to become a widow.  Truly devastating.  No one plans to be a widow.

So Ruth, the outsider, and Naomi, her mother-in-law, return to Naomi’s homeland to make a go of it.  Now, Ruth is doubly vulnerable because she is an immigrant in a foreign land, without papers, if you will.  This is the context of her looking upon Boaz as a benefactor.  And what do we know about Boaz?  He is Naomi’s kinsman; he has fields and property; he has status in the community, and connections.

But we also know this about Boaz—he doesn’t abuse Ruth; he doesn’t take advantage of her poverty or her vulnerability, or even her person on the night in question.  He could have charged her high interest rates or bombarded her with credit offers; he could have employed her at minimum wage and refused to offer her basic health care; he could have received her advances and then used his power or his position to keep her silent and his reputation intact; he could have had sex with her and thrown her out like a dirty dish rag; he could have humiliated her or her mother-in-law in the community or led her on with promises that he would ultimately fail to keep. But he doesn’t.

This is what we know about Boaz: he’s a good man, a kind man.  When Ruth first immigrates to his community, when she is hungry, Boaz tells his young workers to leave some grain in the field for her, so that she and her mother-in-law might eat.  He tells these workers “not to molest her,” which as far as I can tell, means more than not harassing her.

He tells them not to take advantage of her in any way.  When Ruth asks him why, why are you being so kind, Boaz says something that tells us more about his character, and less about his own motives.  He says, “I’ve seen how you treat and care for your mother

in-law.”  He says that he respects this.  He tells her that it has made a difference in his

eyes.

So when Ruth takes the risk to lay down at his feet, we can see that she has taken the risk that Boaz will act with integrity.  He will marry her—without substantial and humiliating delays that make it seem as though he doesn’t care or was just using her.  He will not take advantage of her vulnerability, or the precarious position that society has placed her and her mother-in-law.  He will do right by her.  In this way, he reminds us of Joseph, who could have cast Mary out from his sight, but instead chose to heed an angel’s voice.

Friends, how we treat each other’s vulnerability, how we risk our own safety and well-being for the safety and well-being of another, how we share both risk and vulnerability, even and especially when it is difficult, says more about our character and our society and our church than all of our pious proclamations.  How do we handle when our actions hurt or cause “collateral damage”?  Do we pretend that the children don’t see, or the spouse really doesn’t care, or the immigrant is less in the eyes of God?  Do we give away our power or responsibility because we believe we are just a working stiff—only following our orders, only doing what everyone else is already doing?

Another story about the messiness of life.  When I worked in Florida, I ministered to a man who was dying in a nursing home.  When I met with the spouse, she wanted me to know that she loved this man deeply and they had had ten good, happy years together.  She came to the nursing home nearly every day around dinnertime and would often feed her husband.  She also shared that she had a companion, a male companion.  I believe she told me this because she didn’t want me to feel sorry for her in any way.  She was no longer lonely, she said.  Over the next six months, she continued to be the dedicated wife, faithfully showing up each day to care for her husband.  At one point, though, she began to visit the nursing home with her companion, in her husband’s room.  She believed that her husband, who suffered from periods of dementia, would never notice.  The only trouble was that he did.  The staff nurses, the hospice nurses, the doctor, and myself all noticed measurable distress in the patient–the husband– after the wife and her companion left.  Later, when the husband died, I was plagued with questions.  Who had the greatest vulnerability in this story?  Had this good woman somehow abandoned her husband, even though she still faithfully came every single day—which was a lot?  What role or responsibility did we, as observers, have in this situation?  And the most troubling of all—what would I have done in similar circumstances?

The good news is that God works in all aspects of our lives, even the messy, unfinished ones.  There are people like Ruth, who risk themselves for those they love, and they do so even when it is frightening, inconvenient, hard, and filled with setback after setback after setback, and the cost is terrifyingly high.  There are people like Boaz who act honorably and who choose not to take advantage, when they clearly could, or when they clearly want to.

No one ever believes that he or she will be in a vulnerable position.  Most of us do not plan ahead for the messy choices that we must make…nor do we plan ahead for the messy and difficult consequences of those choices.  But considering the vulnerability of another before we consider our own is a place to begin.  Considering whether our choices say more about our character or our troubled motives is also a place to begin.  Recognizing the potential “collateral damage” is another step.  And trusting that God will not abandon us in our misery or dilemma is foundational.  The story of Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi are examples of vulnerability and risk taken on behalf of others.  What about your story?  What about you?

 

[1] Powell, Julie.  Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.  (New York: Back Bay Books, 2005) 122.