Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Story of Ruth and Naomi

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 8, 2009; 23 Pentecost; Proper 27, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17) – Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

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The Book of Ruth is a wonderful story about two women who claim a path of life in an imperfect world, and find God has been moving deep within their trials to bring blessing. Our first reading today was from a pivotal moment in the story, but I'm going to try to retell the whole narrative.

The story begins with famine in Bethlehem. Naomi and her husband must migrate to another country, to Moab, a perennial enemy and competitor of Israel. They start anew as immigrants in a strange country. They raise two sons who grow up to marry their local sweethearts.

But tragedy strikes and all three of the men of the family die. Naomi is destitute in a foreign land. In a patriarchal culture, without a man, she has no standing, no property, no protection. She has no food or shelter, s0 she determines to return to Bethlehem where she hopes she can renew her family ties. She urges her two Moabite daughters to seek similar refuge within their own families.

But her daughter-in-law Ruth refuses. Ruth's primary loyalty is toward her mother-in-law. Ruth expresses a kind of fidelity that is so deep, so matter-of-fact, that to her there wasn't even a choice to be made. Naomi tries to argue and reason with Ruth. But from Ruth's perspective, there is nothing to talk about. Her fidelity toward Naomi is simply what it is. "You are my mother-in-law. I love you. I am staying with you. That's that." Or more poetically, from the King James Version, "Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." These two women are from different tribes, different nations. They are not blood kin. But Naomi and Ruth manifest fidelity, family at its best. Ruth aligns her fate to this destitute widow rather than seeking her own welfare among her own people. The women find safe harbor within their relationship.

There is a Hebrew word that describes this relationship. Hesed. It means steadfast love, kindness, loyalty, fidelity; caring for another who is in need within the context of relationship. Over and over hesed is a word used to describe God's steadfast love for us. Ruth sticks with Naomi just because that's the way she is; she has hesed for Naomi, steadfast love. God sticks with us just because that's the way God is; God has hesed for us, steadfast love. Fidelity, kindness, loyalty. God says to us, "You are my children. I love you. I am staying with you no matter what. That's that."

Hesed is expressed within established relationships. Family and church are great teaching grounds for hesed. In family and church we learn to live with people we didn't choose. We are stuck with each other, just like God is stuck with us. So we live with a certain loyalty and fidelity toward the other, because that's the way it is. We belong to each other.

So Ruth, the young widowed Moabite follows her older Jewish mother-in-law Naomi to Israel, to Bethlehem. And Naomi devises a plan for securing their survival in this marginal and threatening situation.

Naomi knows the system. So she creates a survival strategy for the women. We all live in systems. To thrive, you got to understand the system and know how to maneuver in it. If you work the system well, follow its rules, there are ways to produce a good outcome – generosity and virtue. Naomi works the system actively and appropriately, with courage and wit.

Naomi has to coach Ruth about how to negotiate the customs of the system in a land that is foreign to Ruth. The system says that land is passed through the sons. If a male landowner dies without leaving a male heir, the next-of-kin has a right to claim the land so it will remain in the family, and an obligation to marry the widow in order to bear offspring to continue the name and the family line.

Naomi coaches the Moabite, and tells Ruth to go to her kinsman Boaz. "Wash and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes," she says. Ruth is to wait until Boaz retires to sleep, and to join him there. The text says, "When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain" on the threshing floor. Following Naomi's instructions, Ruth "came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, 'Who are you?' And she answered, 'I am Ruth your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin."

To spread one's cloak is an act to symbolize a proposal for marriage. Ruth tells Boaz that this is his right as next-of-kin. In the warmth of this intimate moment, Naomi's strategy works. Boaz agrees to fulfill this duty, but informs Ruth that there is another kinsman who has a prior claim. In the next scene, Boaz goes to the city gate where justice is administered in order to give the other claimant his rights. The other wants the property, but not the responsibility of raising an heir. Boaz legally secures his rights as next-of-kin and marries Ruth. The story comes full circle with the birth of Obed, a name meaning "servant." In a beautiful image, the infant is laid in the arms of his grandmother Naomi who nurses the child. Out of death has come new life.

One more thing. Obed will become the grandfather of David, the greatest king of Israel, whose beginnings can be traced to the faithful actions of his Moabite great-grandmother, Ruth.

There are two underlying narratives going on here. Most importantly, there is the quiet presence of God, working in the background. I'll get back to that in a moment. But there is also an underlying political narrative here.

Many scholars believe that this story was written with some proximity to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the exiles were returning to rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing, banning inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews, and breaking apart the families that had already inter-married, sending away the foreign spouses to their countries of origin, Moabites and others. Some believe that the book about Ruth the Moabite was written as protest literature to counter the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah. Others suggest that this story has a message for our time when migration and immigration have become a contentious issue. The senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church, Martin Copenhaver suggests a maxim for this story, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained the great-grandmother of a king."

I'm particularly drawn to this story as a metaphor for the quiet presence and work of God. In this narrative, God is quietly in the background. The focus is on the women and Boaz and their choices. God never directly intervenes. But God's hand is behind the plot. While mentioned only in passing, God is the glue in this story.

God is present in all corners of life. There is no place where God's work is not in process: in the loss of livelihood and the fate of transient immigrants; in the journey into a strange place and the putting down of new roots; as young children grow up and marry; in joy and tragedy; as death claims some and as wise planning seeks a survival plan; in deep loyalty and love; through risks in the field and self-interest in the courts; something new is born. "The wily wisdom of the old woman and the courage of the young combine with the generous heart of an older man; ...an old and broken heart is healed. Tenacious faith in God proves trustworthy.

"God works every day. God labors on the ground, in the heart, among the folk, and through life circumstances. God weaves simple gestures, feelings, decisions, and actions in ways that bring good things. All this arises despite loss and trouble, opposition and tyranny, displacement and pain. That is huge. It shakes the powerful... It elevates the tender and dirt-real lives of the many." (G. Malcolm Sinclair)

God is at work in Ruth, the poor, childless foreigner. By now that shouldn't be surprising to us. It is a major biblical theme that God works through the most unlikely people – outsiders, strangers, and outcasts. And even through you and me.

God, unseen but never absent; the glue of life, full of surprises and keeper of ultimate promises.

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Acknowledgment: Much thanks for the help I got for this sermon from the WJK series, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, 2009. This week's commentaries were written by Marcia Mount Shoop, Martin B. Copenhaver, Frank M. Yamada, and G. Malcolm Sinclair. Many of the ideas and phrases for this sermon come from this fine resource.
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