Sunday, July 29, 2018

Ruth--A Story for Our Time: Gleaning and Hope

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 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!” Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law. Ruth 2 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, we began the story of Ruth. Well, really, it’s the story of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, the daughter-in-law, and Naomi, the mother-in-law. 

If you will recall, by the end of our first of four episodes in this series, Naomi had tragically lost her husband and her two sons in Moab. Originally, Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, were not natives to the country of Moab. They had moved there from their home town of Bethlehem in Judea, forced to flee there to survive because of a severe famine. Forced to flee to a country where they knew they would very likely not be welcome.

It was there, in Moab, that they had two sons, both of whom eventually married. But, by the end of the first episode, tragedy had struck. Both Naomi’s husband and her two sons had died. So, Naomi made the choice to return to her homeland. And Ruth, her daughter-in-law, made the choice to return with her, giving up her family and her own country. And vowing her faithfulness to Naomi in the words that we so often hear at weddings: “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

As our second episode begins, Ruth and Naomi are in Bethlehem, arriving just as the barley harvest is beginning.

Ruth sees this as an opportunity. They are destitute. Ruth knows that they need food. So, she asks Naomi if she might go into the fields to glean as the fields are being harvested.

This idea of gleaning might be a new idea for some of us. Perhaps you’ve heard the word “entitlement” in political discussions. We often refer to Social Security or Medicare as entitlements--something that our government has determined that certain people, such as the elderly or the disabled, should be entitled to. 

Gleaning was also an entitlement. Rather, though, than an entitlement established by some government, gleaning was an entitlement that was established by God. For the poor. And the immigrant. An entitlement that preserved one’s dignity. “When you harvest your land’s produce,” we read in Leviticus 19, “you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also, do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.” 

So, Naomi sends Ruth on her way to the fields to glean.

In these fields, Ruth was very vulnerable. First, she was a widow, which in ancient times, meant she had no status because everything--money, wealth, status--would have belonged to her husband. But, without a husband, she was then vulnerable.

On top of this, Ruth was an immigrant, which meant that she had even less status than a widow. A widow might have had access to a land grant through her husband. But, immigrants--well, they were given no land grant. And, so, Ruth was doubly vulnerable as she went into the fields to glean.

Then, something unexpected happened. The story reads, “By chance, it happened to be the portion of the field that belonged to Boaz, who was from the family of Elimelech.” 

By chance. By chance. There’s this old saying, “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.” 

By coincidence. By chance. It just so happened that the field Ruth was gleaning in belonged to a man named Boaz, who was a respected relative of Naomi’s now deceased husband, Elimelech. By chance.

Last week, we talked about this Hebrew word, hesed. This word that describes God throughout all of the Hebrew scriptures. A word that means steadfast love and faithfulness. A word that refers to a love that is not an intangible kind of love, but a love that acts. That is love in action. We used it to describe the type of love that Ruth showed Naomi last week in remaining by her side, in giving up her family and her culture and her country to stay with Naomi, knowing how vulnerable Naomi would be. How vulnerable, really, both of them would be. It is through Ruth, that God is working. Through Ruth, Naomi experiences God’s hesed--God’s love in action.

This week, that same hesed is shown through Boaz. This man, wealthy and respected in the community, who just happens to be Naomi’s kin. By coincidence.

As Ruth is gleaning in the field, Boaz approaches. He inquires of his foreman who she is. The foreman’s first identification of Ruth is that she is a foreigner, an immigrant. His second is that she is one who had returned with Naomi. It’s a typical response. Ruth looks different. She sounds different. Clearly, she doesn’t belong there. She is, first, an immigrant. Right?

But, how does Boaz identify her? The first words out of his mouth are “my daughter.” Not foreigner. Or immigrant. Or stranger. Or even widow. But, “My. Daughter.” He claims her as family. And, then, Boaz begins to ensure that his abundance will also be hers. By making sure that there is an abundant amount left over for her to glean. By making sure that she can gather with other women, so she will be safe. By making sure that his men working in the fields will not assault her. And, then, to invite her to eat with him and the rest of his household and to serve her himself.

THIS is hesed. This is God’s hesed at work through Boaz. It is a love that is shown in word and deed. It is a hospitality that is shown to neighbor. and, it is a hesed that is directed to the stranger among us. To the foreigner. The immigrant. The vulnerable. Steadfast love and faithfulness. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness shown through Boaz. Shown through us.
You see, both Boaz and Ruth give us rich examples of what welcome and hospitality should look like in our world today. There is no border that prevents either of them from showing hesed to the stranger among us. There is no border that prevents us from doing the same. Showing God’s love, God’s hesed, to the stranger among us. The poor. The immigrant.

Because there is no border that kept God from showing God’s hesed to us. No sin great enough. Nothing to get in the way of God coming to us in Jesus. Jesus, who welcomes us to his table. Who welcomes everyone to his table. You and I. The poor. The immigrant.

In another week or so, we will be engaging in a sacred conversation around this topic of immigrant. This difficult topic of immigration. It is a complex issue. It is an issue around which there are many opinions--many different opinions that I’d suggest are present in this congregation and in our community. How do we enter into sacred conversation around this topic? How do we identify our shared values around the question of immigration? How do we figure out a way to move forward?

Perhaps, we look to this story. To the way in which Boaz responded to Ruth. To the way to which Ruth responded to Naomi. Before and after she met Boaz. Because Ruth’s hesed towards Naomi did not end with their journey back to Bethlehem, back to Naomi’s homeland. No, after Ruth had eaten with Boaz, she took the abundant leftovers and the 30 pounds of grain that she had gleaned and she brought them to Naomi. She gave Naomi hope.

This is what God’s hesed looks like. Perhaps, as we engage in sacred conversation around this topic of immigration and how we respond to the immigrant--to the foreigner--this is what God’s hesed is to look like in us. Love. Faithfulness. Abundance. Hope. 

Something to think about. Amen.

Preached July 29, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 10
Readings: Ruth 2:1-23 (Luke 6:36-38)

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