A Whole New World

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 17 brought us to the end of the story in Ruth 4 as well as Paul’s statement about the redemptive work of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-17.  

 

Did you hear the debate? It was quite a while ago, but – WOW – was it powerful! I wanna tell you, it was a real scorcher.

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The fellow on the right – the old guy with the white beard – he made a strong case for what we might call “traditional values”: you know, a return to the things that made the country great back in the day. He was particularly tough on immigration and what we might call “multiculturalism”, and he was campaigning on a platform that proposed legislation that would not only prohibit marriage to foreign-born people, but would declare any such marriages to be invalid and would immediately deport the foreign wives and any children from such marriages.

It’s all there in the Old Testament book of Ezra, chapter 10. Ezra, and his buddy, Nehemiah, said that the anger of God had descended on the nation because so many foreigners had come and led people away from the truth. The legislation that they proposed won in a landslide – there were only four people who went on record as opposing their action. And so they built a wall and sent the immigrants packing.

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

But then the woman started speaking. It was hard to understand her because of her accent, but she talked about the idea that there is no single perspective that can capture the entirety of God’s majesty. She didn’t say this in so many words, but she sort of implied that if anyone thought that he or she had God fully figured out and understood God completely, then that person had to be wrong because God is so much more than any human mind can comprehend.

She went on to say that we are better off when we walk together toward the truth, and that when we are vulnerable to each other and those around us in love and humility we are more likely to be able to hear the ways in which God might direct our steps. One man, hearing what she had to say, summarized it this way:

[God’s activity in the world is amplified as people go] beyond the limits placed upon them by society. The social definitions of ethnicity and gender are not only unhelpful but they block the successful solution of life’s problems. Inclusion and the violation of role limits become the proper ways of living out one’s faith in the midst of a pluralistic world.[1]

To be honest, the woman didn’t speak nearly as much as the man did in the debate, but she sure showed her intentions and her heart in the ways that she acted. She demonstrated her heart for God and for God’s people in the way that she lived.

This was not, of course, a “real” debate – at least, not one that we saw in person. On the right, as I’ve mentioned, we have the historical figures of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of Israel’s leaders who brought the nation back from a punishing time of exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah understood, rightly, that much of what had led people into the place of exile and separation from God was the pagan practices that they had learned from their neighbors as they gave up on following God and instead followed the selfish desires of their own hearts. They reasoned that much of what had led God’s people to engage in such pagan practices was their willingness to enter into marriage with non-believing, foreign-born spouses, and so the solution that they proposed was simple: ban foreigners, end mixed marriage, and thus stay pure as God’s holy people in God’s holy land. As I mentioned, you can read a lot more about where these folks are coming from in the books that bear their names.

The author of the Book of Ruth gently counters this logic by reminding people that if it weren’t for foreign women, Israel would not have the greatest leader it ever knew, King David. This man who captured Israel’s heart and who led the nation into new places of obedience and success was at least 1/8 Moabite. In David’s story, we find a stunning bit of irony, in fact. A strict interpretation of the law as found in Deuteronomy 23:3 would declare Ruth’s marriage to Boaz invalid, and that any descendants of that marriage (up to the 10th generation) were to be excluded from participating in the worship of God. Since King David was Ruth’s grandson, that means that he should not have been allowed anywhere near the tabernacle. And take a look at the Psalms – the hymnbook that we’ve carried around for 3000 years: all of the best songs were written by someone who, according to the strict reading of the Law, wasn’t even supposed to be here.

What do we do?

Let’s look at Boaz.

Boaz' Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 - 1260)

Boaz’ Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 – 1260)

Boaz’ role in the Book of Ruth is to serve as what is called a “guardian-redeemer”. This role is well-defined in Leviticus 25 and other places in the Law. When an Israelite man dies, it falls to his brother to take responsibility for the man’s widow and to do everything that he can to ensure the survival of the family, even to the point of providing a son who will continue the dead man’s legacy. If there is no brother, then the next closest relative is responsible to make sure that the widow is cared for and that the line continues.

In the book of Ruth, we have seen a young woman, poor and humbled and despised for her status as a foreigner, come to Boaz and ask him to fulfill the role of “guardian redeemer” in her situation. Even though Ruth represents a family that has acted against the strict interpretation of the Law, Boaz acts in grace toward Ruth and Naomi and so presents to them, and to us, a picture of the face of Christ. Boaz sees these widows as those who are forced to contemplate a life of poverty, fear, exclusion, and homelessness and who then takes steps to offer himself to them in the hopes of correcting that.

As you might imagine, not everyone can do that. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, there was a man who was, legally, more responsible for their care than was Boaz. He could have, and perhaps should have, said “yes” to their plea, but he did not. He passed the torch to Boaz and said, “If you would do this, you’ll not only be helping these women, you’ll be helping me, too.” And, as you saw, Boaz was able to act in the interest of Naomi, Ruth, and the entire community by offering himself.

Many scholars have looked at the way that Boaz embraced the role of “guardian redeemer” and have seen an example of Christ. One writer puts it this way:

Through his actions, Boaz communicates Christ. His person and character illustrate the incredible hesed (compassionate loving-kindness) that Christ possesses for his people, as well as the great measures he is willing to take to redeem his bride. Though Ruth arrives at Boaz’s bed empty-handed and humbled to the core, Boaz treats her with respect and kindness (3:10-13). Disgraced by her position and despised for her ethnicity, the young Moabite woman appears to have little to offer. Yet, despite all this, Boaz views her as a worthy woman (3:11). Though Ruth comes from a family that has turned their backs on the Lord, the Lord turns his face towards Ruth and reveals himself to her through Boaz. Boaz foreshadows Jesus Christ, the ultimate kinsman redeemer who will redeem a bride for himself—the church.[2]

Jesus, like Boaz, took on a problem that was not his so that we could have a chance to become what we were created to be.

In this way, I’d suggest that Boaz and Jesus ended any debate between Ezra and Ruth. Each of them acknowledges the truth that when we leave God’s intentions, we can die; when we seek out less than God’s best, we are diminished. It is possible, but surely not wise, for us to pollute ourselves and our world by embracing things that are counter to God’s purposes. Yet as they call us to remember this truth, they also remind us that it is God, not us, who gets to define those purposes. It is God, not us, who sets the boundaries for the world.

The solution for Ruth and Naomi and Boaz was not to build higher walls, to spark more violent protests, or to shout louder than their adversaries. That was clearly not the solution for Jesus, either. And that makes me wonder why I would imagine that it’s a solution that would work well in my own life.

It would seem to me as though this story of Ruth invites me to look across at someone whom I might identify as being “other” and do my best to discern in what ways I am called to walk – with that “other” – into the intentions of the One who created us both.

I think that there is a word here for the protester and for the policeman… for the light-skinned and the dark-skinned… for the one who trumpets adherence to “family values” (however that one chooses to define that term) and to the one who wears all the colors of the LGBTQ rainbow… to the one who just got off the boat and to the one whose great-great-great grandfather was born here… To the born-again, sanctified Christian and to the Muslim as well as the Jew and the atheist… It seems to me that the key is not to push against each other and yell and scream more loudly, or, worse, to blow up more of theirs before they have the chance to blow up yours… but rather to walk in the steps that God has laid out for you in the hopes and in the expectation that God knows God’s heart, God’s purposes, and God’s intentions and that if we are able to submit to those things we will discover how to live more Christ-like lives ourselves.

Can we embrace the concept of redemption? Can we acknowledge that things are a red-hot mess in the world right now, but that the best hope through this mess lies not in violence and the extermination of the “other”, but in the transformation of each of us? Author Anne Lamott posted something incredibly true on Facebook Friday morning:

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. it will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.[3]

I know that this sounds incredibly idealistic. I know that you may think me to be naïve; and yet it is apparent to me that the way of Boaz and Ruth and the way of the cross requires me to choose to act first out of love and humility and inclusion rather than in hostility or revenge. I confess that my heart is not pure, and that one way for me to make it purer is to learn to sing some of the songs that were written by the descendant of a Moabite woman. I want to offer the strength of my arms and my back and my legs, not to wreak havoc or inflict judgment or mete out revenge, but to protect the weak and restore the broken and search out the lost. And I’ve come here, to this congregation and to the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, to meet with those who, like me, are called to walk in the way of the cross. May we remind each other, and the world around us, that grace does bat last. That the game isn’t over. And that love always, always, always wins. Thanks be to God for the One who sought to reach out to us when we were so far away. Amen.

[1] Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, A Social and Historical Approach, Fortress Press, 1995, pp 223-225.

[2] Stephanie Van Eyk, “The Ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer” in Ligonier Ministries blog: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/ultimate-kinsman-redeemer/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/894203970709247

The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.

 

Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 3 included Ruth 2:8-23 and James 2:14-17 

Our story began with a famine that drove a couple named Elimilech and Naomi from their home in Judah into the land of Moab. While there, the couple’s two sons each married Moabite women. Elimilech died in Moab, as did both of the couple’s children. Grief-stricken, Naomi hears that there may be food once again in Judah and seeks to return, urging her daughters-in-law to remain in their own country. Orpah does as she is told, but Ruth clings to her mother in law and accompanies her to Bethlehem, where she discovers how tough life can be for a poor, hungry, female refugee.

Ruth Gleaning, by Marc Chagall (1960)

Ruth Gleaning, by Marc Chagall (1960)

Determined to keep her promise, however, Ruth doubles down on her efforts to care for her mother in law by engaging in the ancient, if demeaning, task of gleaning. She joins a line of destitute women who follow the farmhands through the fields, picking up anything that is edible in the hopes that it will be enough to sustain them or their families. It is back-breaking, humiliating work…but it keeps her alive – or, I should say, it kept her alive through the end of last week’s scripture reading. What about today? What’s next in our story?

The owner of the field, a man named Boaz, sees Ruth working with the gleaners and for whatever reason, he congratulates her for working so hard. She’s done so well, in fact, that by the end of the day, she is able to collect about 3/5 of a bushel – five or six gallons – of grain. She takes this home to celebrate with Naomi and thanks God for the provision of the day.

After he speaks with Ruth, Boaz pulls the foreman aside and asks him sternly, “What is wrong here, Zadok? Why are we losing so much of our product? Can’t your men be a little more careful as they bring in the crop?”

Frustrated, Boaz goes out that very evening and spends a few thousand shekels buying one of those new, efficient harvesting combines he’s been reading about. After all, he reasons to himself, it’s only good business sense to cut down on the wasted crops. If he can increase the yield per acre, he’ll have a higher profit margin, and with more profit, he’ll be able to do more work with the local charities, right? The more grain Boaz puts into his silos, the better able he’ll be to help some of the deserving poor who have become so common in Bethlehem.

So the next day, Ruth shows up, ready to glean again, and there’s Boaz with a nice bottle of chilled water to give to her as she begins her gleaning. He encourages her to admire his new harvesting technology, and says, “Go ahead – help yourself to anything that’s left over!”

Ruth does as she did the previous day, but finds that Boaz was absolutely correct about the harvesting combine – in spite of the fact that she works two hours longer, she comes away with less than half the grain she was able to get the day before. As the dusk settles on the Bethlehem sky, she turns for home, passing Boaz along the way, who shouts, “Ruth! Glad to see you! You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers today!”

The third day seemed to dawn even earlier, and Ruth was so weary that she got to the field half an hour later. By the time she arrived, the entire field had been mown down and other gleaners were out. She crouched in that blazing sun for seven hours and still only managed to find a cup and a half of barley to take home. She was frustrated and embarrassed by the thought of appearing before Naomi with such a pitiful offering.

As she sat and contemplated her future, Boaz came upon her and offered her a water bottle. When he saw that she was discouraged, he invited her to apply to his foundation for assistance. All she had to do, Boaz explained, was to stop by on the second Tuesday of the month with the appropriate identification and proof of need, and his people would be more than happy to consider her request for assistance. He then gave Ruth a little leaflet describing his charitable enterprise, on the back of which was printed a lovely prayer asking God to bless the poor. Ruth, of course, thanked him profusely and started for Naomi’s home, wondering what kind of recipe she could find that would stretch twelve ounces of barley into a day’s meal for two adults… but thrilled by the thought that she was included in Boaz’s thoughts and prayers. She went home exhausted, but happy.

Nope.

Nope.

Nope. I can’t do it. You know that is not what happened. You know, I hope, that is not the narrative that is found in the Scripture.

Landscape With Ruth and Boaz, by Joseph Anton Koch (1823-1825).

Landscape With Ruth and Boaz, by Joseph Anton Koch (1823-1825).

That’s not what the scripture says. You heard a story of a wealthy man who noticed the striving and difficulty of a poor widow and who went out of his way to encourage her; a man who, in fact, made it easier for this woman to sustain herself and her family by embracing a pattern of behavior that affected his personal bottom line negatively. You heard how Boaz understood Ruth’s presence in his community to be a means by which she was seeking the shelter that God, through his people, provides to those who are vulnerable. You heard how Boaz ensured that Ruth’s experience of seeking to care for her family was safer and more effective as he changed the ground rules for gleaners in his fields.

You know what happened. And you know that the alternate reality I tried to paint in the beginning of this message was a lie. The scenario I described is neither what actually happened nor what ought to have happened. So what is our take-away from this part of Ruth’s story? What do we see, and what can we do? Some observations…

A Yazidi woman and her family , Iraq, 2014 (Reuters)

A Yazidi woman and her family , Iraq, 2014 (Reuters)

The world can be a dangerous place. If the Book of Ruth teaches us anything, this is surely something we’ve got to remember. Economies fail, crops get parched, factories close, people we love die. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, we’ve got to remember that when we are down and out, people will try to take advantage of us. Did you hear Boaz telling Ruth to stay close to the people that he trusted, and not to venture into other fields? Boaz knows the dangers that face young vulnerable women who have to take calculated risks with their own dignity and personal safety simply to survive in a world filled with predators. Nothing in our story minimizes the harshness of Ruth’s struggle or the dangers that she encounters with regularity.

And, as we mentioned last week, we each have an obligation to do what we can to take responsibility for ourselves in a broken and fearful world. When Ruth and Naomi show up in Bethlehem, they’ve got to develop and implement a plan for their survival. Gleaning, while far from attractive, provides these women with the opportunity to sustain themselves even as they hope and pray for something better to come along.

As we consider the other participants in today’s chapter, we see another truth emerging: those who have resources do well to employ them in order to serve and support the weak and the marginalized. As we’ve noted, Boaz takes the opportunity to make sure that he’s not wringing every last cent from the ground he’s been given, but rather allowing that acreage to become a blessing in the lives of those who are less fortunate. Additionally, he uses his “male privilege” to create safe space for a vulnerable female refugee, literally surrounding her with people who will see to her personal safety.

While he doesn’t say so explicitly, there seems to be a strong connection in Boaz’s mind between the sovereignty of God and God’s care for the world and Boaz’s call to use the assets at his disposal as a part of God’s care for the world. Moreover, one can read in Boaz’s behavior and conversation the notion that he perceives this kind of partnership in the Divine purpose to be a gift that he’s received, and he goes above and beyond in his efforts to share what he’s been given. Boaz knows the core truth of scripture as contained in Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s (not mine) and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it.” Whatever Boaz has, he’s been given by the One who truly has the right of ownership.

Similarly, how would it be if we each spent a few hours this holiday weekend taking inventory of the gifts that we have received and looking for ways that we might channel those gifts so that they reflect God’s blessings in the world around us. Our culture is busily training us to see all the things that we do not have, all the places where our neighbors have it better than we do, or how someone else is getting ahead of us. The perspective of faith, I believe, calls us to acknowledge our gifts and strengths and to employ them in such a way as to become a blessing to someone else.

Boaz and Ruth, woodcutting by Gustave Dore (1900)

Boaz and Ruth, woodcutting by Gustave Dore (1900)

And because we live in a dangerous world that is too often filled with toxicity, we do well, as a community, to create and dwell within structures that facilitate the loving of our neighbor. There is a sentiment that has found favor with a large number of religious people that the only meaningful charity and assistance comes as a result of individual action and autonomous choice. I’ve heard some people speak against a food stamp program, for instance, because “the government shouldn’t get involved in feeding people, it should be up to the individuals to care for their neighbors.”

Now while I’m not here to advocate for a so-called “nanny state”, especially on Independence Day, I think it is worth noting that the practice of gleaning wasn’t Boaz’s idea. The idea of refusing to wring every ounce of productivity from your land specifically so that the poor and disenfranchised might benefit from it was at least a societal norm and civic expectation. Boaz and his fellow landowners were following the law instructing them to leave sustenance for the poor – they weren’t just being nice or extra faithful.

In the same way, I believe it behooves us to create some sort of a societal “safety net” that allows the most vulnerable to receive some of the benefit of life in the richest society the world has ever known. I’m more than happy to share a sandwich with a friend who I know is hungry. If my neighbor needs help, I can see that and will offer it. But the problem is that just as Ruth was unknown to Boaz, so many of the people in our world who are most at risk are not my friends. I don’t know who they are. But they are my neighbors. And so I appreciate being able to contribute towards some sort of structure that allows the marginalized to receive help when they need it that does not depend on me knowing who they are.

This is, as I’ve mentioned, Independence Day. Take some time to reflect on what it means for you to have participated in and, most likely, grown up in this land of abundance. When you hear the fireworks in the next few days, I hope you get down on your knees and thank God that you get to hear explosions as celebration, and not as bombs dropping on your home or invaders coming to wreak havoc. We live in a place that has received a great many blessings, and we ought to acknowledge that.

And at the same time, ask yourself, where are the Ruths and Naomis in your world? What will you do to extend these privileges and benefits to your neighbors – especially the neighbors whom you do not know personally?

I promised you when we started the Book of Ruth that it was a love story with a happy ending, and we’re moving toward that ending. But today, let’s not ignore this crucial part of the middle, which teaches us that we are, by God’s grace, bound together. We are connected. And we have the responsibility to care for and to seek God’s best for the other, even when the other is a stranger, a refugee, a person of poverty. Let us, this day, commit to giving thanks for where we are, and who we are with, and what we have been given… and let us move beyond “thoughts and prayers” to create a world wherein it is normative to share our gifts with those for whom they seem to be out of reach. Thanks be to God, Amen!