Scripture: Ruth 1:22-2:1-16
It's a happily ever after story, on the size and scale of Cinderella or Elsa. At the end of the story, we are told that Boaz and Ruth get married, and have a son. The women gather around Naomi, and shout praises to God - "Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without family! May he become famous throughout all of Israel! He will renew your life and sustain your in your old age..." And the final scene of this amazing story is of this mother, now a grandmother, holding a newborn baby - a baby who will be great, who will be famous, indeed - his name is Obed, and he is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, who becomes the unifying King of God's People.
So great is this story's ending, that the story gets retold and retold, becoming a part of the New Testament. No - it becomes the first part of the New Testament, from the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, where Matthew is giving the lineage of Jesus - the Messiah. "and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David." (Matthew 1:5-6).
It's a pretty good ending, a great happily ever after!
But anyone who is familiar with this story knows there's a lot of drama leading up to this moment. And not just drama. Devastation. Famine. Death. Separation. Leaving. As Thomas reminded us last week, this story begins with nothing but love, love between two women who have lost everything. The story begins in a foreign land, where Naomi, a Jew from Bethlehem, is living with her husband, her two sons, and their Moabite (foreign) wives, Ruth and Orpah. It only takes five verses in the story to paint the picture, "Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband."
Devastating! The whole reason Naomi and her husband Elimelech left their native Bethlehem was because of a famine! Which is such irony! That Bethlehem, literally meaning the house of bread, has no bread. But now, "The Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them..." And so Naomi decides to go home. To return. When Ruth and Orpah begin the journey with her, bound by duty, custom, and law, Naomi tells them to "turn back." A little play on words here...she is returning home, and tells them to "turn back" to their home. But Ruth refuses, and the two women travel together to Bethlehem.
Which is where our story for today picks up. The two women arrive in Bethlehem at an amazing time, at the beginning of the barley harvest. The stage is set, the scene prepared. Most of us have some connection with farming and the land, here, so we know what harvest means. It means abundance, celebrated by state fairs and contests for the largest pumpkin! Activity, work, harvesting, gathering, sorting, preserving, storing. This is the busiest time of the year, the most crucial to survival! The crops have come in! There is food on the table, plenty to share. It is a time of overwhelming abundance, surprise and delight at God's favor up on us again, a time of gratitude for what we have been given, and a time for sharing.
But Ruth and Naomi - they're new here. It's a subtly of this text...the introduction of Boaz. Boaz is Naomi's closest relative, and so we assume that he will care for Naomi at least. But, even though he's introduced here, it's done in such a way that leads us to believe they are not close family.
I've always pictured a happy reunion for this part. I even preached it, many years ago, in the beginning of my ministry. I imagined Ruth, waking up on the roof of the house, stretching and surveying the business of a foreign land. People in the town already on the move, out in the fields, carrying their bags and pulling wagons to hold their efforts from the day. I imagined the long kind of deep sleep when you've come home and know you are finally safe, groggy and disoriented, but also excited at the new day. (I also always imagined Ruth enjoying a cup of coffee, like in that Folgers ad.)
But that was before I knew. That was before I worked with people displaced from New Orleans' after Hurricane Katrina. I was in Detroit at the time, and one of our churches owned homes they rented to low income families, kind of like a Habitat for Humanity ministry. They started it to save Detroit, as the city folks fled to the suburbs and left the city itself starving. A famine, to be sure, as jobs, grocery stores were scarce to non-existent. The once glorious homes of the neighborhood were now burdens to heat and repair. Squatters moved in. And the church took over. They bought the houses, repaired them, turned them into apartments. They took church property and put houses on the church parking lot. When the Hurricane came, they had places for rent. The Presbytery had money for utilities. Good folks in the churches brought food and household goods. It was my job to screen the applicants for these houses - you know, make sure their story was legit, help them find connections in the community, identify skills that would turn into jobs.
That was my first experience with the weary eyes of being displaced. That's what we called it, displaced. Still in their own country, not technically refugees, some determined to go back home. Here's what I learned - I don't think you can fake that. It was easy to tell the people who were truly displaced, who truly had no one, who had no family. They only had what they brought, what they could put in their car, or take in a suitcase on the bus. And they know, somehow, they know that there is no turning back. It will never be the same. And they know, they know that this isn't home. And so life becomes...work. Your job at that point is to stay alive, and you forget, you forget that there ever was such a thing as joy, or safety, or...home. Because you have none. Even if you have shelter. You have no home.
That's how these two women arrived in Bethlehem. Amid the activity of harvest - the gathering and the abundance of harvest - these two women show up bone weary, and needing to eat.
So Ruth says to Naomi, "Let me go and glean the fields of anyone who will let me." One scholar points out that this was the welfare system of the Bible, laws given in Leviticus, where landowners leave a portion of the harvest in the field so that those who are hungry can gather the leftovers. Gleaning the fields. You can imagine what happens. The landowners gather the good stuff, picking up each vegetable, each grain, examining it. If it's good, it goes in the Grade A pile. If it's not, perhaps the Grade B pile, to be sold for less money. And the food that's not worth it...the food you cannot sell because you wouldn't want to feed it to your pigs, that's what gets left. And that's what Ruth goes to glean.
But Naomi, she has a plan, and this is where Boaz comes into the picture. You see, Boaz owns land, and maybe, just maybe, if Ruth happens to find the right field, maybe it will be Boaz's. Maybe Boaz will find favor with Ruth, and look kindly on her. Maybe, just maybe, Boaz will help his family without it being a burden.
And so a spark of hope flickers in Naomi's eye.
Maybe, even though they are widows, they won't be burdens.
Maybe, just maybe, this land of plenty will return their lives.
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, professor of Hebrew Bible at University of Chicago points out the Hebrew concept at play here. This is miqreh...more than a coincidence, more than providence, it's "a serendipitous happenstance that makes one wonder about causality." Ruth, does indeed, glean in Boaz's field. Boaz, does indeed, notice her.
I wonder what Naomi was hoping for here? I wonder if she was hoping that Boaz would give extra portions to Ruth (which he does) and let it go at that? Enough to see them through the winter, until they can establish themselves as widows and start receiving the aid widows should get. I wonder if she understood that there's a reason the Bible is always talking about the outcast and the widow? And that because of culture and society, she had really just brought them both home to starve. Widows and orphans had no one to care for them, to provide for them. They were often just forgotten, except maybe at the holidays.
But remember...there is a happy ending here! This is a story of promise and hope! This is a story that weaves through the anointing of a shepherd to be a King and a carpenter to be the Messiah!
Phyllis Trible, theologian and author of "A Human Comedy" argues that Ruth is "A man's world [that] tells a woman's story...The aged Naomi and the youthful Ruth struggle for survival in a patriarchal environment. Those women bear their own burdens....No God promises them blessing; no man rushes to their rescue. They themselves risk bold decisions and shocking acts to work out their own salvation in the midst of the alien, the hostile and the unknown." (p.166)
We have long interpreted this story as a story of hope for those who are hopeless, strength for those who are weak, God's intention to include those on the margins of society. And for good reason. Boaz looks with favor upon Ruth, but he does not take advantage of her. In fact, even though the Biblical text leads us to believe there is a romance there, Boaz does not act on it. It's a mystery to the reader, those of us who celebrate that there is, indeed, someone to provide redemption for these two women.
For weeks, Ruth gleans, taking the best food, not the worst, eating at Boaz's table, until she's full. She's gathering more than enough food to provide for both Naomi and Ruth, but something else is now happening here. It's no longer a story of survival, it's a story of redemption, of salvation, of being brought back from the margins into the center of society. Until this story ends, as the women gather around Naomi and a newborn baby boy, praising God. And the next generation's story begins.
"[T]he message is indisputable, 'God is on the side of the marginalized.'2 Not that God is unconcerned about people who live on the center, but God's care for Naomi and Ruth are indications that God cares even when the world is indifferent. The implication is that 'Yahweh ... [is] God of the whole world.'" 3 Alphonetta wines, Methodist pastor in Texas.
I'm afraid that's a notion that gets challenged a lot. I almost said these days, but it's maybe just a growing reality for us. We are aware here, in this congregation, of the divisions in places around the world, in Northern Ireland, in the South Sudan. And we're growing every day in our awareness of the divisions in our own country. Even while politicians one very side urge us to embrace unity, the rhetoric of division is already out there. And I am very aware, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, of our history in this land. I am proud of what we stand for as a country, but I also grieve our past, and am embarrassed by our behavior. And so, while not wanting this story to be political, I find myself wondering how it can NOT be political. I have spent the last year wondering how we will walk back from the brink. Because fear and hatred are powerful, and both are coming from somewhere really deep inside of us, on every side, in every person. But I have to be honest with you and tell you that I myself, am afraid and uncertain. And I wonder just how it is that we will every find a way out of this mess.
And then miqreh. Something unexpected happens.
For me, it happened a week ago, as I was unpacking my "treasures"...Christmas decorations...my nativities. And as I was, I was telling the story (or trying to) of each one...the bear nativity I received for my birthday, the littlest nativity, made out of marbles, the hand carved nativity from a dear friend, the nativity made out of mud from the Mississippi River. And I got to this nativity from Ecuador. And Phoebe, who I thought wasn't listening, exclaimed, "Wait! Mama! I know this one! I learned it at church! And she started to sing...He's got the whole world in his hands."
And I think that is the message of Ruth. That is the importance of this story, for us, today, at this time, in this place. That's why I refuse to live in fear and uncertainty. Because miqreh. God is the God of the center, and of the margins, and of all the people in between. And I'm not sure how this will all work out. But I do believe that God is making a way, and that we are each called to be a part of it. I believe it is a story with potential for a great happily ever after. Amen.
Rev. Melodie Jones Pointon Senior Pastor