November 8 2015

Introduction

Jason McElwain was a boy with autism who loved basketball.[1] But because of his autism he could not join the basketball team in his high school. Instead he was given jobs as a team manager. This may sound rather fancy, but his main responsibility was to look after the players: getting fresh towels for them, looking after their equipment, etc.

In the last game of the season the coach however decided to give Jason an opportunity of a lifetime: he allowed Jason to play as a player in the team. Everybody knew that the coach did it just make to Jason happy so they didn’t expect much of Jason. Regardless of that the crowd and his teammates were very supportive of him.

And Jason showed that their confidence was not misplaced. He sank six three pointers in the game plus another shot. Altogether he contributed 20 points to his team, a record for any player in his team!

And the crowd in the basketball court grew wild. After the game Jason's teammates and supporters ran towards him and put him up on their shoulders as a hero. His team didn’t win the game that day, but he had shown what was possible when you give someone like him the right opportunity.

Today’s readings are also about the underdogs of their time. So let’s now hear their stories.

Readings
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

Address

The two readings that we have, one from the book of Ruth and the other from the Gospel of Mark, were rather strange especially for the people to whom the stories were told. Indeed for people living in ancient patriarchal society it was rather unusual to have stories in which the heroes were women. And they were not only women: all of them were widows: one of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in ancient society. To survive in a patriarchal society a woman must depend on an adult male in her family, like her son or her husband. Being a widow thus would throw a woman into a serious financial crisis. That is why we hear often the call to care for the orphans and the widows in the Bible. Without these calls these people would simply be ignored and neglected.

The book of Ruth indeed tells the story about two widows who had to depend on each other because they had no one left. It began with a tragedy that befell Naomi, an Israelite woman who left the land of Israel to go to the land of the Moabites with her husband and two sons. There her two sons took Moabite women as their wives; one of them was Ruth. But after ten years Naomi’s husband and two sons died, leaving her without any adult male in the family to support her.[2]

One of her daughters in law returned to her family, but Ruth stayed with Naomi despite of the dire situation that they were in. But Naomi and Ruth refused to play the role of the victims. In their difficult circumstance they showed character, strength, and resourcefulness.

First they went back to Israel. There Ruth went to a field to gather leftover grain after a harvest. The field was owned by Boaz, a rich relative from the family of Naomi’s husband.[3]

In our passage today Naomi then asked Ruth to approach Boaz. And there was no mistaking the purpose of the approach: Naomi asked Ruth to charm Boaz with her beauty and youthfulness. The plan is teemed with ancient sexual innuendos that modern people like us can only guess or imagine.

But their plan worked! The next morning Boaz acted as the next of kin who took the responsibility to marry the widow of a deceased relative. In this case Ruth was the widow and Boaz took her as his wife in front of the elders![4] Not long after Ruth bore a son for Boaz. They named him Obed and he would become the grandfather of David, the King.[5]

Friends, God may be silent in the story, but God was always there. The story ends with the people proclaiming that God was the “restorer of life”.[6] God never abandoned Ruth, a foreigner in the land of Israel and a poor widow. Even more God made her the great grandmother of the greatest King in Israel. Indeed God worked through the life of these two poor and marginalised women to bring about God’s plan for God’s people.

In our Mark’s reading we encounter another poor widow who stood as an exemplary role model. In Mark this story is presented immediately after Jesus’ warning to the disciples about the behaviour of the scribes. Indeed Mark must have wanted to show the contrast between the poor widow and the scribes.

Unlike the scribes whose behaviour was done to garner honour for themselves, the poor widow humbly gave little that she had to the temple’s treasury. But according to Jesus her gift was the greatest of all gifts because even though it was small, she gave everything that she needed to survive. Unlike the rich man who got disappointed after Jesus told him to sell and give everything to the poor,[7] the poor widow gave everything that she had with no qualms.

Now unlike Naomi and Ruth the poor widow in Mark is not named. Perhaps this un-naming highlights her invisibility in her society at the time. Unlike the scribes and the rich people this poor widow’s presence was not important enough to be acknowledged. Her gift would not create the slightest of difference to the bottom line of the temple’s treasury. Her gift and herself were insignificant in the eyes of most people.

But not in the eyes of Jesus. In his eyes this poor widow stood out as someone who lived out the principle of the Kingdom of God. In ancient Israel poor people were not required to give.[8] So this poor widow gave what she had not out of a sense of duty, but out of a genuine sense of gratefulness despite her poverty. She may not be named, but her action stood above the action of the so-called respected people of the society.

Friends the two stories that we hear this morning remind us that God never ignores the plight of the marginalised people of our society. In God’s eyes they are as important as the rest of us. In many occasions they stand as an exemplary role model for all of us.

I don’t follow Melbourne Cup, but I think no one in Australia can ignore the history-making event in this year’s Melbourne Cup. For the first time in its more than 150 years of history a female jockey, Michelle Payne, won the Melbourne Cup. But the more I delve into her life the more I realise that her life is defined not by her victory in Melbourne Cup, but by her endurance to get there.

She is the youngest of ten siblings. Her mother died tragically in a car accident when she was only six months old. Her older sisters took the role of her mother and cared for her and her older brother, Stevie, who has Down Syndrome.

She learnt how to ride a horse since she was young. Whenever she was thrown off a pony her father would say to her, “Get back up or you never will.”[9] Obviously Michelle has always followed this advice that her father gave her when she was only four.

At the age of 18 she fell off her horse face first, fracturing her skull and bruising her brain. She would cry herself to sleep wondering whether or not she would be able to continue on.[10] Not long after having recovered from this injury she fell again, this time breaking her wrist. But she pressed on with the sport.

In an interview after her victory in Melbourne Cup she claimed that the sport was such a chauvinistic sport. That day she was the only female jockey amongst 24 riders on the field. In the betting world her chance of winning the cup was only 100-1. Even some of her horse’s owners wanted to replace her with other jockeys simply because she was a woman. But her trainer stood by her and history was made. The story was made even sweeter when she celebrated the victory with her brother and strapper, Stevie.

Friends, Michelle never mentioned God in her comments, but it is hard to imagine for me that God was not involved in all this. Her and her brother’s story was similar to the stories of the ‘underdogs’ in the Bible whom God used to prove the world that they were wrong.

Just like Naomi, Ruth, and the poor widow in Mark, Michelle and Stevie were often overlooked simply because of who they are. But history has proven once more that the world has had the wrong expectation and seen in the wrong direction.

Our God is a God of history. Every now and then God uses people from the margin to teach us not about what has always been, but about what can be. And it is important for us to listen to what God is saying and pay attention to the people whom God is using. Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Kathryn Hawkins, Five Incredible Underdog Stories, on http://gimundo.com (May 31 2009)

[2] Ruth 1:1-5

[3] Ruth 2:1

[4] Ruth 4:9-10

[5] Ruth 4:13-17

[6] Ruth 4:15

[7] Mark 10:17-31

[8] Emerson Powery, Commentary on Mark 12:38-44, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (November 8 2015)

[9] Peter Hanlon, Reality Eclipses Dreams of Melbourne Cup-Winning Trainer Darren Weir and Jockey Michelle Payne, on http://www.smh.com.au (November 4 2015)

[10] Peter Hanlon, Passion and Payne, on http://www.smh.com.au (November 4 2015)