Choosing the Kin-dom
Good morning, beloved! I am so thankful to have this opportunity to be with you this morning and to share a sermon with you for the first time. I have been so blessed to have so much support and encouragement from our community thus far, and I can’t wait to keep learning from and growing with you as this year together progresses.
Now that I’m in the pulpit, I want to use this opportunity to share a little something about myself with y’all: I am a total sucker for weddings. As a native Southerner, this may mostly be a result of my upbringing, but very little in this world can make me happier than the combination of big love, a big cake, and a really big bridal hairdo all together in one room.
Being the amateur wedding connoisseur that I am, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the words of this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, as performed so beautifully by (Merle, Jamie, Susan, and Sharon). Indeed, much like an overly ambitious catering budget or any hit song sung by Karen Carpenter, this passage from the Book of Ruth is a wedding staple:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn my 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.”
Despite the rich tradition and beautiful language of these words, however, many people who hear this speech read at weddings have absolutely no idea where it comes from.
As a gay seminary student, it’s particularly satisfying for me to note that while many folks across our faith consider this reading an ultimate statement of love, these words are actually shared between two women in a family situation completely unlike those we tend to see on cheesy tv sitcoms or atop wedding cakes.
A lot is happening at the beginning of the Book of Ruth. In just five short verses, a whole family moves from Bethlehem to the land of Moab because of a famine. Soon after arriving in their new home, the father of the family dies, the two sons marry Moabite wives, ten years of life pass, both sons die, and three women- Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, the main characters of our story- are left to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Now widowed and childless, they have absolutely nothing to hold onto but each other. Like so many people- perhaps, even, like so many people sitting right here in this sanctuary- they have to figure out how to survive in a world that does not seem to have room for people like them.
And, finally, as if things couldn’t get any worse, another famine hits, this time in Moab.
Sounds like a pretty feel-good story thus far, right?
Facing the grim sight of a nearly-empty food pantry, Naomi knows that she and her daughters-in-law have limited options. This is why she tells Orpah and Ruth, who are still of child-bearing age, to return home and look for husbands, to try to squeeze themselves into a “traditional” family while they still can.
“Go back each of you to your mother’s house,” she tells them both, tears stinging her eyes. “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”
Naomi has lost everything. She has said goodbye to her homeland. She has watched her husband and both of her children die. She has seen the small garden she faithfully tended to feed her family turn to dust in the bitter heat of drought.
And yet, despite all of this loss, she is still willing to give up the last thing she has- the love she has shared with Ruth and Orpah in the middle of unthinkable tragedy. Even as their world has crumbled around them, these women have taken care of one another, have done laundry and cooked and fed the animals and held one another’s hands in the dark. They have mourned and laughed together.
This new kind of family that Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah have forged with one another matters. We know this by the pain we can hear in the cries of this passage, and feel it in the gentle, heartbreaking kiss Orpah gives her mother-in-law as she says goodbye for the very last time.
As Ruth tries to make sense of Orpah’s departure and Naomi’s painful command for her to leave as well, the Hebrew word used for her clinging to Naomi’s dress is the very same word used in Genesis to describe the clinging of a man and woman to one another in marriage.
In that moment, Ruth and Naomi are a family, with the same love and care that we so often reserve only for those who fit into our very limited images of what a family should look like. Ruth, knowing this fact down to her very bones, lets go of Naomi’s dress and declares their love into the face of anyone who would claim that they are not a family, that their care for one another doesn’t matter.
Her words echo across the centuries, and they still ring in our ears now. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
At this moment, I like to think that Naomi, a mix of gratitude and love-tinged sadness in her chest, silently grabs Ruth’s shaking hand, and the two set off down the dusty road out of Moab toward an uncertain future together in Bethlehem. They do not know what is before them, but they know that they will not face it alone.
Like so many other outsiders who have been left behind in our world, Ruth and Naomi are part of a family of their own choosing, a family outside our narrow definitions of biology or culture. Many folks in the queer community, both past and present, who have been left behind by their families of origin have also lived, laughed, and loved in chosen families. For instance, the top photograph on this week’s bulletin cover comes from the archives of Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent Jewish-German doctor and early advocate of queer rights. In this photograph, he sits among members of Berlin’s vibrant (and, let’s be honest, exceptionally well-dressed) queer community, posing together in the style of a traditional German family portrait.
This picture was taken just before the Nazi Party rose to power.
Many of those photographed might have been exiled by their birth parents for their sexual and gender identity, and all of them would have faced the threat of persecution and death at the hands of the Nazi regime. But no matter the fear and the terror of the world outside, in this sacred moment, in this photograph, they are a family.
In our Gospel reading for this morning, I think Jesus is also describing a similar kind of family, a family that is as wildly inclusive and shockingly welcoming as God herself. In his conversation with a scribe, Jesus moves immediately from a central belief of his Jewish faith- that the “Lord our God, the Lord is one”- to a focus on the miracle of human love itself, both our love for God and for each other. In this passage, Jesus is reminding us of a core claim of our tradition- that everybody, every single person we will ever meet, is made in the image of the same God. Our realization of this truth compels us to love our neighbors. And notice that Jesus does not say “Love your neighbor, but especially your biological parent,” or “Love your neighbor, but especially your spouse.”
Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus says, and it really is that simple. Because guess what? We are all already members of God’s family, all shared inheritors of the sacred and mysterious miracle of simply existing at all. God’s love, and the love we are called to share with one another, is too big, too inclusive, too wild to fit into any narrow, traditional box of “family” we might try to squeeze it into.
This God of unity and welcome, of radical and all-encompassing love, is not only the God of Jesus in this passage, but also the God of Ruth and Naomi, clinging to one another on the road out of Moab. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
At the end of their conversation, Jesus tells the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of God, and I suspect that Ruth and Naomi, in that simple moment, their hands held tight as they bring a new kind of family into being, might not be far from the kingdom, either.
But if Ruth and Naomi are not far from the kingdom of God, what does that kingdom actually look like? Theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has suggested using “kin-dom of God,” a play on “kingdom” using the word “kin,” meaning “family,” as a way of re-imagining this revolutionary message of Jesus.
The kin-dom of God looks like choosing to build a family that is open rather than closed, wide rather than narrow, embracing the spark of God flickering in the heart of every single human being. The kin-dom of God looks like an unlikely family portrait, a beacon of belonging and joy in the midst of so much fear and exclusion.
The kin-dom of God tastes like a hot meal offered to a complete stranger. The kin-dom of God feels like a hand lighting a candle in memory of a loved one who has died, speaking their name aloud, marking them as a saint, declaring to the universe that they were- and are- part of God’s family.
The kin-dom of God sounds like a voice at the vigil that cuts through the din of so much hatred and brutality in our world and says:
My brother, my sister, my sibling: you are not alone in this. I am with you. I know the light of God is in you, exactly as you are, just like it is within me. We are a family.
In my own life, the kin-dom of God looked like a ragtag group of high schoolers, gathered in an art room, munching on cafeteria hot dogs among a gallery of amateur paintings and dented clay sculptures. The people at this table were my best friends in high school, my rocks in the stormy sea of adolescence, and some of them are actually sitting here with us this morning.
Our North Carolina hometown was not always a welcoming place for kids like us- queer kids, awkward kids, smart kids, boys who were “too soft” and girls who were “too loud.” While my high school experience was not as traumatic as those of many other queer folks, that constant refrain- you don’t belong- reverberated through our hallways, in the slurs I heard whispered during class changes, in the notes taped to backs or the stifled giggles echoing in locker rooms.
An older fellow student, observing a day of silence in protest against the bullying of queer students, had his car tires slashed in the school’s parking lot. Our school’s principal, despite multiple attempts, openly refused to allow the founding of a gay-straight alliance, and even forced another student, a masculine-presenting young woman, to pose in a dress for her senior yearbook picture or risk being left-out altogether.
And above it all, a simple and vicious refrain: You don’t belong. You don’t matter. People like you don’t fit here.
My senior year, a small group of us decided, just like so many generations of queer people before us, that we would create our own space, a sanctuary where we could sway our hips and raise our voices and be whatever fabulous beings we knew the universe called us to be.
When we were uninvited from the table, we built our own.
Every afternoon, when the lunch bell rang, I would hurry to grab my meal and then dash past the lingering eyes of any chaperones toward the art room. When my feet finally crossed that threshold, I would look up and see those people that I love, gathered around a mishmash of desks and chairs, waiting to greet me. I would see their smiles, their raw, simple joy at knowing I would be there with them for another afternoon, and I would think to myself:
Home. I’m home.
For some of us, that table was a safe harbor in the midst of an unsafe school environment. For others, exclusion also seeped into their churches and biological families. For them, this makeshift lunch was also the one truly nourishing family meal they might have that day, the only table around which they could feed their souls as well as their bodies.
In that classroom, around that clumsy and beautiful table, the kin-dom of God was near, so near that we could taste it in our stale cafeteria food and hear it in each other’s laughter. It was the same kin-dom present in a family portrait from Berlin and between two women on a dusty road out of Moab.
It was, and is, and always will be, the kin-dom of expansive love and wild welcome that is right here, right now, with us. We don’t have to wait for it. We can choose it now, in this very moment.
The table is set. Welcome home. Amen.