November 11, 2018

Pentecost 25  November 11, 2018   Psalm 42, Mark 12:38-42: Ruth 1:1-18,3:1-5, 4:13-17

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In the days of the Judges, one of Israel’s darkest times, a period of chaotic social break-down and deep divisions leading finally into civil war – a time of utter disregard for the law of God and the way of righteousness – a time when leadership fluctuated between useless and blatantly disobedient to God… In the time of the Judges, a certain Israelite family migrated to the nearby nation of Moab to the Southeast. The husband, Elimelech, whose name means “my God is king” died there, leaving his wife an impoverished widow. Naomi’s name means “sweetness” but as our story opens she is feeling bitter and forsaken. Her sons Mahlon (the name means “sickness”) and Chilion (the name means “spent” or “perishing”) have also died in Moab.

Now, with no visible means of support, Naomi hears the famine that caused her family to migrate is over, so she starts home, bidding her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and seek husbands for security. She refers to the early Israelite custom of a brother marrying his brother’s widow to raise up children for her, the closest thing then to social security – saying she’s too old to have sons who they could marry. Her daughter-in-law Orpah (whose name means “back of the neck”) turns back to Moab. But Ruth, whose name means “friend” or “companion” insists on accompanying Naomi as she returns to Bethlehem in Israel…

Ruth insists she will go wherever Naomi goes, saying “where you go I will go, where you live I will live – your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” And she lives the words she speaks, as she journeys to Bethlehem with Naomi.

Back in Naomi’s hometown, Ruth goes to work gleaning, gathering leftover grain in the wheat and barley fields, working behind the harvesters. The humblest kind of farm work, at the bottom of the economic ladder. Every day she’s first to arrive, last to leave, working hard all day. Winning the praise of Boaz, owner of the field, who, as it turns out, is a relative of Naomi. His name means “in God is strength.” Like all the characters in the story, Boaz acts out the meaning of his name, doing what the word of God says to do – welcoming the stranger, treating Ruth as a neighbor – instructing his workers to treat Ruth well, ensure her safety, let her harvest extra grain… He shares his lunch with her… and doesn’t make anything out of her being a Moabite – a member of a despised nation that Israel’s had a long and troubled relationship with. Back in Exodus days, Moabites tempted and troubled Israel in the wilderness. As a result, Deuteronomy forbids Moabites from entering the temple.

But now Moabite Ruth serves as a stellar example of the Hebrew word hesed, meaning steadfast love and faithfulness – a Hebrew word often used to describe God.

As now Ruth, loyally following Naomi’s instructions – seeking security for both Naomi and herself – takes the initiative with Boaz – an honorable man, a nice guy with a good heart – who seems a bit slow in figuring out how to act on his obvious admiration for Ruth. Till, again, following Naomi’s instructions…Ruth boldly lies down at the feet of Boaz as he sleeps following a long day of harvesting and winnowing… Startling him in the middle of the night… as she tells him to throw his cloak over her – an expression that in Israel of old meant “marry me.”

Again, Boaz seems to take longer to decide than we would hope… But again, he’s a good guy – so lets give him the benefit of the doubt – probably he just wants to be very sure this really is true love…

And as the harvest season is completed, Boaz and Ruth are married. And the matriarchal initiative theme – widows helping widows – continues – as the son born now to Ruth and Boaz is named by all the women of the village, who recognize what’s going on – and praise Ruth now, calling her better than seven sons for Naomi – whom they now name as co-mother of baby Obed along with Ruth…

We were just talking about biblical genealogies the other day in our bible study group. Genealogies are a frequent feature of biblical narrative that notoriously cause many to glaze over… Lately though, genealogy has become cool again, and tracing our ancestors is a booming hobby industry. But in the world of the bible, genealogy has never been out of style – it’s always been is a time-honored way of highlighting aspects of our ancestry in faith… A way of zoning-in, selectively, on a particular line of our ancestors as a means of giving us who, when, where, what-for, and sometimes why information… (The other day on the radio there was a linguist who’d spent time with aboriginals in Australia… She talked about how their language didn’t have words for left and right… Instead, people always spoke in relation to North, South, East, and West, and everyone always knew exactly where they were – their minds, parallel with their language, kept them knowing their geographical location… If you ask “how are you?” people reply “I’m heading North by Northeast, for quite a while…” The linguist herself developed this ability quickly once she began to think in that language… which makes me think of genealogy as a language system….)

The women of Bethlehem know their history, know their genealogies – as they now link together the Ruth and Boaz with Tamar and Judah from back in Genesis (38). Where Tamar, a Canaanite foreigner, has twin boys through an irregular union with Judah, son of Jacob (aka Israel). And Canaanite Tamar and Israelite Judah now serve as a precedent of sorts for the uniting in marriage of Israelite Boaz and Moabite Ruth….And as we start to fade finally to the credits, Ruth is identified in a quick flash-forward as future great-grandmother of King David… And – though this of course could not be known yet at the time Ruth was written – making Ruth also the great-great-great-many-generations-later-great-grandmother of King Jesus… Jesus, whose eyes are notoriously always on the widow, the orphan, the poor and the sojourner…

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Ruth is a quietly under-stated masterpiece of biblical narrative that we can read on many levels. On one level, Ruth is the least political book in the bible, a simple love story…Till the very end…Where we see how this simple story of love and faithfulness in one family… flows into the larger story of Israel…. And her neighbors… Making Moabite Ruth and Israelite Naomi a preview of the gospel according to Galatians, where in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free…

The world isn’t ready for this gospel yet in the time of Ruth and Boaz. And by the time of King David, Israel is still not ready – again at war with Moab – again also caught up in civil war (a son of David risen up against David, dividing the country)… And on many levels – we’re still in the dark age of the Judges as we read the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz today – as a biblical prequel to Romeo and Juliet… and West Side Story – (which is Romeo and Juliet translated into 20th century New York City). Like West Side Story, with it’s Jets and Sharks cultural turf battles, Ruth is a border-crossing, border-transgressing story of love between people whose families and tribes have been enemies practically forever…Just like life on earth continues to be in much of the world today…

Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a war I’ve tried to understand but still have only the vaguest idea of what it was all about…

And I’ve been thinking a lot about Ruth this past week…Watching election results… and reflecting on what is it that makes us humans so quick to make enemies and do battle… so slow to forgive and make peace…

I’ve been saddened to hear many candidates and supporters aggressively disrespecting their opponents… And I’ve been glad when I’ve heard a few candidates… like state Senator Vinny DeMacedo and Deb Rudolph who ran against him – both saying yes, they disagree on many issues – but both of them saying also how glad they are – their election race was kept free from bitterness… How good to hear them both say good things about each other, in spite of their differences…

Reminding me of going once to visit a friend in the hospital who was undergoing surgery in upstate NY. Jim was still in the operating room when I got there, but Edna, his wife, also a friend and parishioner, was in the waiting room. We visited. As it happens, it was election day. I asked if she’d voted. “No,” she said, “I didn’t think it would be fair.” Explaining Jim couldn’t vote that day, and he’d forgotten to vote absentee. “We always cancel out each other’s votes” she said. “And since he can’t vote I won’t either…”

The book of Ruth is one of the most beautiful stories in all the bible – the simple but deep story… of Moabite Ruth and Israelite Naomi… and the steadfast love and faithfulness that binds them together in one family…

The story of how God loves us one and all… And calls us all to love one another… Giving and receiving all, together, all the help we all need…

by all means appropriate…

All for the glory of God.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.