November 8, 2015

Pentecost 24   November 8, 2015   (Mark 12:38-42) Ruth 2:1-15, 3:1-5, 4:13-2

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Our family recently watched again The Fiddler on the Roof, the grand saga of one Jewish family in one small village in Tsarist Russia… A parable also of Jewish life through the ages, in which God is always present, and life is always celebrated as a gift from God, even in the most difficult times… Fiddler on the Roof is one of our daughter’s favorite musicals, so we’ve seen it many times…(I bet many of you remember the movie; because at our Slow Church book reading group last week when we mentioned watching the movie, everyone in the room started singing “If I were a rich man… da-da-da-da-da-da...”)

But the scene I love best is where Tevye, the father asks Golde, the mother, “do you love me?” And Golde replies: “Do I love you? Do I love you? For twenty five years I’ve cooked your food… For twenty five years I’ve washed your clothes…Do I love you?” (What kind of question is that?)

A reminder true love is seldom about the swept-off-our-feet head-over-heels romantic love we see in most movies. Real-life true love is more like the book of Ruth… Where true love is found mostly in the everyday love of family, friends, neighbors, community…expressed in the everyday labor of love…

We began the story of Ruth and Naomi last week – Israelite Naomi, Moabite Ruth; mother-in-law, daughter-in-law. Both of their husbands have died, and Naomi now has set out to return to her ancestral home in Bethlehem of Judea, after at least a decade away. Naomi tells her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, ‘turn back, go home. There’s no future for you with me…’ Orpah does go back. But Ruth says, “Where you go I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. Your God will be my God.”

Now Naomi and Ruth have resettled in Bethlehem. Ruth is off to work, gleaning grain in the fields, working hard every day to bring food home for Naomi and herself. Gleaning, meaning gathering what’s left behind by harvesters. The bible says gleaning is always to be permitted for the poor and resident alien, those without land of their own. Gleaning is laborious tiring work, with lots of bending and stooping down and picking up of grain off the ground. And it’s humbling to be identified publically as poor enough to need to glean. But gleaning is a life-saving option for those in need of daily bread….And now…

Ruth’s faithfulness in this humble work of gleaning attracts the notice of Boaz, a prosperous landowner, who turns out to be fortuitously a relative of Naomi’s late husband. He’s my candidate for Best Supporting Actor alongside our two very strong lead actresses in this redemption drama – playing the role of a go’el, a biblical term meaning redeemer. Meaning a relative who bails another family member out from slavery, or debt, or both… And…

The book of Ruth is a parable of redemption… In which those who show love for others find love and redemption themselves… And…Redemption is soon flourishing… As we watch steadfast love and faithfulness meet and embrace, metaphorically, as Psalm 85 says, also personified, now, in the quiet, courteous, courtship between Ruth and Boaz… (And…)

There is romance here, I’m very sure, but – like the Do you love me? song in Fiddler on the Roof, at least at first this romance is more implied than expressed directly. Those of you who’ve read the whole story know Ruth and Naomi eventually have to be a little assertive in getting Boaz to the altar. There’s a generous tinge of humor here, but like the humor in Fiddler on the Roof, all this humor is in the service of the serious work of true love and faithfulness…

And through the ages some have heard Boaz as being a bit slow to ask Ruth the big question as being about him being too timid. Maybe. But I’m more persuaded by those who see him as just trying to do the right thing. Because in the conversation between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor late at night (that we don’t get to hear today), I get the strong impression Boaz has been thinking Ruth might prefer a younger husband. He has been generous and welcoming to her all along, but he may be holding back on showing his affection, deferring to her feelings…till she shows her heart’s inclination.

Real love does take time to develop… Partly because we know… love exposes us…   and makes us vulnerable. And the author of Ruth reveals, skillfully, the nature of real love in the details of the narrative… For example, Boaz blesses Ruth, saying: “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” And the word translated here as wings also means cloak. And later when Boaz is threshing grain, and Ruth comes to him by night and tells Boaz to throw his cloak over her… She’s throwing his words back over him – reminding him of the blessing he has spoken over her – calling on him to do his part in fulfilling the blessing. And in those days saying “throw your cloak over me” meant “marry me.”

And Ruth could be a great movie. Except it’s not packed full of action, and most of the action there is involves the humble daily labor of harvesting grain… Yet with patience we can see…

Real love at work… in the motherly counsel of Naomi for Ruth, mother-in-law looking out for daughter-in-law. Real love at work also in the actions of Boaz (whose name means strength and reliability), who steps, cautiously at first, then very affirmatively at the right time, into the role of redeemer, accepting God’s choice of mate for him graciously, though Ruth, is a foreigner of low social status. (Of course Ruth is also a charming attractive young woman.)

And all of the events of this family redemption drama are guided by the unseen yet ever-present hand of God… As Boaz shows up at just the right time to see Ruth working and learn about her faithfulness… As Boaz then offers extra food and help and courtesies to Ruth… And as Naomi remembers Boaz is a kinsman, well-situated to help her and Ruth… (and yes…)

It takes patience to hear and see the work of God. The bible was written long before this age of haste and hurry. The bible is full of stories of old-fashioned farmers and farm workers. Who can relate? (I remember picking apples for several weeks, back in my early twenties. That was awhile ago. Most farm work now is done with lots of machinery. A hundred years ago most Americans were still connected with farming and the land; most at least had relatives still living on farms.) Now almost anything connected with farming needs a lot more explanation than it used to.

Which is also true of the bible. Here in Ruth we encounter the ancient Hebrew practice of levirate marriage, in which a childless widow is matched with a brother of her late husband for procreation, protection, and carrying on the family name and inheritance. This practice was in view last week as we heard Naomi reminding her daughters-in-law that she’s too old to have sons who could marry them. Which sounds at least odd (if not downright weird) now. But readers in days of old were familiar with levirate marriage. Which technically probably shouldn’t even apply in Ruth, since Boaz is a relative but not a brother of Naomi’s deceased husband – and Ruth’s late husband is no relation at all. Yet still the basic principle of family taking in and looking after family is assumed to be right and proper. And Naomi and Ruth, with some help from Boaz, greatly expand the definition now of what it means to be family…

Likewise the concept of biblical redemption may need a little unpacking. Redemption is the mega-theme of the biblical year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) in which debts are canceled, slaves are freed, land lost due to poverty and debt is returned to original owners. This Jubilee theme is very central here in Ruth, where the Hebrew words for redeem and redeemer occur twenty times. This is a mega-theme of Jesus also, and when he announces himself as the fulfillment of the Jubilee (Luke 4) in his hometown synagogue, and everyone’s glad to hear this. Till he also says this Jubilee is for all the nations, not just us. Which is already the message, here in the book of Ruth.

And the book of Ruth is a parable of redemption for all people, in which all the main actors – Naomi, Ruth, Boaz – model the Hebrew word chesed, meaning steadfast love and faithfulness. Each modeling the attributes of God through faithful love for one another. (And…)

Now again we see ancient biblical patterns at work…As God works through those who look least likely to succeed… to change the course of history…

And God brings Naomi, who has lost her husband and both her sons in Moab, who has told her neighbors in Bethlehem, “call me Mara, meaning bitter, not Naomi, meaning sweet and pleasant, for God has dealt bitterly with me.”

Yet God brings Naomi, now, who represents Israel and the church, deep blessings and healing and redemption… through the love of her daughter-in-law Ruth, the Moabite, who represents those who have not yet known our God, our gospel, our good news…

And God blesses Boaz, also representing Israel and the church, into joy and redemption as he acts as redeemer for Naomi and Ruth…

And God gives this story to teach us that the fruits of our labors of love are not always going to be visible in a hurry. Sometimes it takes generations for the seeds we sow to be seen… bearing fruit… And we study the past prayerfully to better understand the present and the choices we face for the future.

And its only in the closing verses of Ruth that we see – through this child, baby Obed, born to Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi (all three have parental roles)… Boaz and Ruth will be become great-grandparents of King David. And all the women of the village together name the child – reminding us we are all family now in God,   and it takes beloved community to raise a child in the ways of God…

And soon we’ll be in Advent, reading again Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the genealogy of the family of Jesus, Messiah… Where again we hear the names of Ruth and Boaz – now named as ancestors not only of King David… But of David’s much greater son… Who teaches us exactly what true love truly looks like. And walks with us still… on the dusty road to Bethlehem… the holy highway to Zion…

Thanks be to God. Amen.