“Generosity of Spirit in the Wilderness”
Scripture Lesson: Ruth 1:1-18
I invite you all to take a deep breath.
It’s been quite a week for many of us since our country entered a new, frightfully indiscernible era with the election of a new president. For many across the U.S., the grief goes beyond dashed political hopes or devoted partisanship, and into the realm of the dystopian—where a Muslim woman can have her hijab forcibly removed while shopping, or high school students can walk through their hallways chanting “white power,” where trans persons have to wonder about their access to healthcare and children about whether their schoolmates will be deported—signs of ignorance, hatred and violence that are at the risk of becoming all too commonplace.
I know that in this very congregation, as many of you have expressed, there are feelings of bewilderment, and disillusionment. There is a concern that the work you’ve done today in the name of justice and rightness will all be dismantled tomorrow. There’s feelings of fear and anxiety about our future as a nation, and about our present simply because of who we and the ones we care about are: Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQ+, differently abled, woman, black, prisoner of war (and all veterans), Latinx, persons who’ve been sexually assaulted and who are at increased risk because of the carte blanche granted by the new president… fear and anxiety about the wellbeing of our planet. And, some of us feel the hurt of getting the message from millions and millions of your fellow citizens who chose to ignore or to agree with Trump that we—who have been targeted by words of vitriol and promised actions of discrimination—we do not matter. And still others try to have hope, as they believe themselves to have taken steps to escape the heavy burden of economic and social disenfranchisement. Many of those feelings are in this room, and we’ll continue to encounter them within ourselves and in our neighbor on the job, in our classrooms, while walking down the street, at the Thanksgiving table. In this context, in this country where we have long lost sight of each other and especially the “other,” we’ve managed to disregard one another’s humanity through distancing that dehumanizes and indifference that dismisses. Truly our nation has entered a wilderness.
Likewise, the story we hear today of Ruth and Naomi, tells us about the experience of a wilderness. Ruth, Naomi, and Orpah found themselves on a journey they wouldn’t ordinarily take because of the death of their husbands,
and the loss of their source of security and safety in their patriarchal culture. While on this journey together, Naomi suddenly offers to let Ruth and Orpah turn back, even to her own detriment. In this wilderness, each one makes a choice: Orpah leaves. Ruth stays. Naomi goes on with Ruth—two widows in the barrenness and despair of their loss decide to take journey through their personal wildernesses.
I’m sure everyone here can tell about their own experiences of a wilderness. It happens in our personal lives with the loss of a job, a broken relationship, an illness, an addiction. And often, it’s in those wildernesses that instead of expanding and being open to possibility, we contract: in our feelings of loneliness, we withdraw, and in heartbreak we detach, in the face of what appears to be insurmountable circumstances we retreat… and you know, maybe there is a time for that. A season for regrouping and tending to wounds. But there’s also a response that beckons to us in the deep and shadowed wilderness—one that is not easy, but can be as organic and freeing, as it is necessary. That response is to open up and give of ourselves—to be generous in spirit.
I love the way Khalil Gibran states it. He says, “There are those who give […] as in a valley, the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.” This generosity of spirit is an organic and freeing way of being (not just doing) because it calls us to live powerfully from our deepest selves: the self that wants, out of love, to enflesh a generous spirit as naturally as a flower liberally releases its fragrance, even in a wilderness. It arises from the profoundly faithful act of offering oneself to the Higher Purpose, and being courageous enough to be. So often, to protect ourselves (for better or for worse) we suppress that generous impulse. Thoughts about scarcity and loss, rejection, wasted time, and the idea that if we care for another we won’t be taken care of all stand in the way. The answer in the face of these things is generosity of spirit—giving not merely of things, but of your greatest gift, which is yourself.
Giving of yourself is embodying generosity of Spirit— Opening yourself wide, and pouring from the bounty of your beautiful and beloved soul. Ruth had a choice. It would have been perfectly reasonable, practical, and expected for her to return to Moab. Yet, instead, when Naomi could only see her affliction and was deep in the despair of her wilderness, with generosity of spirit, Ruth had Naomi’s back in solace and solidarity, assuring her she would not walk alone,
giving of herself even while the wilderness experience was also her own. In times of disaster and the unknown, there can be a generosity of spirit that flows from us
with the capacity to change us and our worlds—a stream in which we all can be refreshed and someday in which we all can dance.
My friend recently spent a few days at the Standing Rock Camp to help prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While at the camp, my friend met one of the water protectors—a Lakota woman who had been on the front lines since April. As they began to settle in on a cold November night, they talked about her experiences at the camp. He asked about the helicopters constantly flying overhead. He asked about the armed officers, the armored vehicles and police barricades. As an ally, he perceived these presences as an encroachment and something to be upset about, and was surprised at the response of the Lakota woman. For each offense he named, she replied that she’d already forgiven them. She stood in her wilderness with steadfast commitment to forgiveness, but also with an equal commitment to protest and challenging injustice. Each day at the camp she gave of herself, embodying generosity of spirit—in her forgiving, in her commitment, in her justice-seeking.
I think this woman’s story is so powerful not necessarily because of the particulars of what she did, but because of her way of being—her capacity, in the wilderness, to draw from that deep well within herself, and to let that generosity of spirit flow out of her to yield streams of change. Forgiveness, justice-seeking, and accountability is what generosity of spirit looked like for her. For Ruth, it meant offering herself in compassion and empathy to walk with someone in their wilderness, and receiving love in her own wilderness. What does generosity of spirit look like for you? What does it mean for us as a faith community in this wilderness season?
Friends, I want to offer to us all today that we ought to take the time to feel the grief, and sadness, anger, and fear in ourselves and with our neighbor. There is a season for these feelings. Yet, even while this season transpires, something powerful is happening. As my colleague Alexis Francisco so eloquently stated,
“And now this becomes fertile ground for power we didn’t even know we were capable of.” I encourage us to be expressions of that power as we give of ourselves. That’s the greatest act of resistance to these shadows and hate: to be generous of spirit—not holding back your healing words, your serving hands, your comforting embrace, your resources that can help build a powerful movement, your presence, your gifts, your love, your work to resist the evil of injustice and oppression, your time… You. Give of yourself in the face of the temptation to recoil.
And know that when we take these steps to embody God’s reign, the God of love, justice, and righteous courage empowers us, strengthens us, sustains us, and walks with us, and know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God will see us through this wilderness.