Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

January 21, 2007

 “Whither Thou Goest”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

(Readings: Ruth 1 and an excerpt from the Minns Lectures by Alice Blair Wesley)

Ruth says, “Whither thou goes, there will I go.”

Naomi says, “Get out of here, Kid.”

Naomi has nothing to offer Ruth. Naomi is a widow with no sons in a time of famine, and she’s walking back to her home country by foot, where any bandit could rob or kill her. Ruth, Orpah and Naomi stand on the plains of Moab. Orpah and Ruth can walk back to their home villages, where their mothers are, by the afternoon. Back home, they might meet with a cool reception as the family sees that there is another mouth to feed, but they know that they will be welcomed and cared for. Back at their mother’s homes, they have fathers and brothers and uncles who would surely protect them and take care of their material needs, now that they are widowed. Naomi wants both of her beloved daughters-in-law to do what is best for themselves. With one last tearful hug, Orpah, indeed, returns to her family of origin. It was really the only choice.

But not so for Ruth. Ruth just had to be where she felt called, in her heart, to be, even if it didn’t make sense. She felt called to be with the woman she had come to adore, and for whom she felt great responsibility. After all, years earlier, Naomi had taken Ruth into her family, and Ruth, who was the native to the area, must have, in turn, helped Naomi to become familiar with the Moab territory and the Moabite women. These two had helped one another through hard times, had laughed together, and wept grievous tears together as they watched all three of the men of their household die. Ruth could not leave Naomi after all they had been through together and all they had meant to one another. She chose to walk together with Naomi into an uncertain future. And she spontaneously speaks a covenant to her beloved mother in law:

Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, And there will I be buried.

Ruth has made a commitment to one she loves, to walk together, to bind her heart and her life to this woman who had, quite obviously, earned not only her love but her trust, her admiration and her respect.

We here as Unitarian Universalists are much like Ruth and Naomi. First, as religious liberals, we have a choice. Our decision to come to this congregation is a choice made with full awareness of the impracticalities involved. We could have made Orpah’s choice, to do what society would better understand and endorse. Ruth certainly must have wondered along the road if she should have made Orpah’s choice. Orpah had chosen so much more prudently. Orpah had chosen what was culturally expected. As sad as Orpah was to leave the mother in law who had inspired such affection, Orpah had had the brains not to wander into a foreign land during a famine with one old widow and one young widow by her side. Orpah went back home to mom, where she had the security of a family who would care for her, though it would be a struggle. Orpah chose prudently. Orpah was less like a UU, more like an Episcopalian. Very respectable.

Ruth, on the other hand…. Ruth could not disobey her heart in order to fit into the society of her day. And so, she entered into a covenant with Naomi—whether Naomi liked it or not—and cast her lot with her mother-in-law, saying, “Where you follow, I will lead.”

When we enter into any religious community, we agree to be led. A religious life is not religious if there is not some element of allowing ourselves to be led. But who is doing the leading?

In one very obvious sense, the minister is the religious leader. But in our tradition, I as the minister am led by you as much as you are led by me. I was flipping through TV channels the other night, and happened to land on a Catholic mass during the homily. The priest, as it happened, was talking about himself as the priest, what his role was. “It’s fine to discuss things,” he was telling a packed house, “But, really, there’s not much to discuss. I am a part of the hierarchy, sent here by the bishop to teach the faith. The bishop gets his instructions from God. I am here by the authority of God, as expressed through the bishop’s choice, and I am here to teach you on his behalf.”

There could not have been a more perfect statement of the difference between the model of an episcopal system, where authority lies with a bishop, and a congregational system like ours, where authority arises from the covenant that each of us make with the whole, as Ruth did with Naomi, to walk together, by free choice, in bonds of affection. And so, in our tradition, it is your Board of Trustees who are the leaders. But they, like the minister, are not appointed from on high, but must be led as much as they lead.

While Ruth bound herself to a specific individual, here we bind ourselves to a dream, an idea, a vision, as expressed in this congregation, lived out with the specific individuals who bind themselves as well to this vision. Here we have gathered for a common aim, a purpose that includes but also goes beyond our personal affection.

Whither thou goest, I will go. The UU addendum is: unless I don’t agree with you. Then I get to lead.

The spiritual work of being a member of this congregation is learning both how to lead and how to be led. The spiritual work of being a member of this congregation is learning how neither to blindly follow, nor to tear asunder, but to gently lead and also be led.

If Ruth and Naomi had been forming a UU congregation, then Naomi would have had to turn to Ruth and say, “Where you follow, I will lead.” Imagine the scene on the plains of Moab. Ruth says, “OK, Naomi, I will follow where you lead.” “No, no, no Ruth, really, I will follow where you lead.” “No, no, no…”

As thinking people, we value our free minds highly. Often, as UU’s we’d rather hear “Whither thou goest,” than say it. We value our right and our duty and our ability to speak our minds, to advocate for our understanding of truth—and so we don’t attend a congregation where there is a priest that says, “We can discuss things, but it won’t make any difference because I obey the bishop, not you.”

But the spiritual work is to learn both how to lead and to be led.

This is both outer work and inner work. The outer work is to speak in a way that the other person receives as polite and considerate. The success of the outer work is determined by the feedback we get from others. Do they experience me as speaking humbly and with a teachable heart? That is something that is difficult to determine if I am the one speaking. It is best judged by the recipient. And so, as members of a community, we listen to what we are being told. Unlike the priest who says, “Well, you can give your opinion, but it doesn’t matter,” all of us here, as co-leaders of this congregation, are both leaders and are led. And so the opinions of others do matter. If you will, it is through others that God speaks, to hold a mirror up to us, no matter how much the image might not be what we want to see.

SNUUC must live its mission to be a place on this earth where honest concerns can be spoken, but will always be spoken with humility and a teachable heart. We live in a world where “honesty” is too often an excuse for unkindness. When we have opportunities to express our opinions, we so often misuse that freedom. I don’t watch American Idol, but I saw some excerpts of the audition show for this season on a news program. Over and over again, the judges mocked contestants and used “honesty” as an excuse for disrespectfulness. One young man who was openly made fun of for not only his performance but also his physical appearance, was later revealed to be mentally retarded.

Here, as co-leaders of this body, we have the opportunity to create a new kind of society. I can think of no better guidance than that set down in Dedham four hundred years ago:

In those times, the host would begin, speaking to the agreed-upon question. Then everyone else could speak by turns. Each one could, as they chose, speak to the question, or raise a closely related question and speak to that, or state any objections or doubts concerning what any others had said “as long as it was humbly spoken and with a teachable heart, not with any mind of caviling or contradicting.” The resulting deliberations are reasonable, characterized by love and laughter, and edifying.

To be a member of a body like ours which is founded on covenant takes a personal spiritual discipline which will be on evidence in our meeting this afternoon more than at any time.

Learning both to lead and to be led is outer work, but it is only accomplished within the soul of each one of us. The humility and teachable heart that are the foundations of congregational life are the work of a lifetime.

Ours is a faith of the free. Ours is the faith that Ruth had when she chose the less trodden path. Our spiritual work is to seek to lead and be led as we move forward together to bring freedom to all.