Saturday, August 11, 2018

Ruth--A Story for Our Time: Daring to Act

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 she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 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. Then she 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.” He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.”

So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” Then he said, “Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. She came to her mother-in-law, who said, “How did things go with you, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.” Ruth 3:1-18 (NRSV)

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

Have you ever done something daring? 

Perhaps at the time, it didn’t seem so daring. But, as time passed and you began to reflect upon it, you realized that, at that time, it was a daring thing for you to do.

In 1992, I was the newly-elected president of my local union. We represented courtroom clerks throughout all of Los Angeles County. And my ascendance to the presidency wasn’t really something I planned to do. 

Before I was elected, my predecessor, the president of our local had become quite controversial. We hadn’t had a raise in over 2 years. And, in trying to publicly highlight our cause, he had done several things that had angered the presiding judge--a judge elected by all of the judges countywide to oversee the whole system. So, in response to the situation, I decided to write a letter to all of my colleagues throughout the main courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Suddenly, one day our local president walked into my courtroom and invited me to step into an open position on our local’s executive board.

After giving it some thought, I agreed. Perhaps, I shouldn't have. Because soon, it became apparent that our local president was not only eccentric, but he was also embezzling funds from our treasury. Within 6 months, we had removed him from office. It was then that I found myself elected president, even though I never planned it that way. 

Now, none of this might seem very daring. And, it really didn’t to me at the time. But, over the next four years, as we continued to lack a wage increase, it was under my leadership that, in November 1997, 95% of the courtroom clerks walked off the job across the county, on strike for 10 days. I found out later that it was the first time in a quarter century that any labor group had ever walked out on a judicial system across the U.S. It was a daring act for us. But, it didn’t seem daring at the time. Because for us, it was a matter of survival. A matter of financial survival.

It is this type of daring act--a matter of survival--that is central to our story today. We’ve heard over the past two weeks of the vulnerability of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi, who had moved to another country--to Moab--with her husband because of a famine in Bethlehem. Then, the birth of two sons and the eventual death of all of the men in her life--her husband and her two sons. We heard of her vulnerability as a widow and a childless woman. And, of the vulnerability of her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Also, a widow and childless. We heard of the decision to return to Naomi’s homeland--to Bethlehem. And, of Ruth’s decision to accompany her--just one of many examples of Ruth’s hesed. Her love in action for Naomi. A decision that doubled Ruth’s vulnerability--now, not only a widow, but also an immigrant. 

Over the past 2 weeks, we have also seen a shift in our story--a shift from the sense of loss and emptiness experienced by Naomi and Ruth, to the beginning of hope. Hope that appeared in the person of Boaz. A landowner. A family member. Naomi’s kin.

In today’s episode of our story, we see those buds of hope blossom. Now, if you read between the lines of our story, you quickly see that this is a story of seduction. Of a daring act. An act by Ruth that, one might think is completely out of character for her. An act that is counter-cultural. One that most people would raise their eyebrows at. But it is a daring act by a woman who is desperate to secure her future and that of her mother-in-law.

It is the evening at the end of a successful harvest. You can imagine that there was food flowing. And, especially, that there was drink also flowing. Boaz is, our text says, in a “good” mood. Another translation says that he was contented. He curls up next to a grain pile and falls asleep. 

As this has been going on, Naomi has been instructing Ruth. Take a bath. Put on some perfume. Wear something nice. And, then, go down to the threshing floor. Don’t make yourself known to Boaz until he has finished eating and drinking and has lain down. Then, and only then, go to him, uncover his feet, and lie down. He will tell you what to do next.

So, Ruth does it. Everything that Naomi tells her to do. Except she doesn’t wait for Boaz to say anything. Instead, Ruth--kind, sweet, loyal Ruth--proposes marriage! This is what the phrase “spread out your robe over your servant” means. Ruth proposes marriage to Boaz, who we know is substantially older than she.

Now, we need to step back for a moment to understand what is going on here. There is a custom at work in this story that we need to be aware of. In her proposal to Boaz, Ruth calls for him to fulfill his duty as a go-el. Go-el is a Hebrew word that means kinsman-redeemer. Under Israel’s law, the closest male relative is obligated to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times. So, as she proposes marriage to Boaz, Ruth is saying, “Do your duty!” Do what you are obligated to do as my go-el, as my kinsman-redeemer. Save me!

Now, to our 21st century ears, this may be a little challenging. We think of women as independent today and having their own choices in terms of their future. This is not what ancient Israel was like, however. In this patristic society, women who were widowed or childless were vulnerable. This was why the law was implemented in the first place--to ensure that women who were vulnerable were protected. They relied upon their go-el, their kinsman-redeemer to do this.

It is, however, a daring act for Ruth to make the first move. To call on Boaz to offer her redemption. Yet, there was also redemption for Boaz here. It’s apparent from our story that Boaz is presumably an older man. Ruth could have chosen others--she’s still a young woman. Yet, she chooses him. So, for Ruth and for Boaz, there is mutual redemption.

This Wednesday evening, you have an opportunity to engage in a daring act, just like Ruth. We will gather with our siblings in Christ at Shiloh Methodist. We’ll begin at 6 p.m. with a potluck dinner. This will be followed at 6:30 p.m. by a conversation--a Sacred Conversation--around the topic of immigration. This is a controversial topic in our world today. It is a complex issue. It is a divisive issue--an issue that has separated and continues to divide us to the point where we no longer talk with each other about it, but we talk at each other about it. How do we change the conversation? How do we break through our division and begin to hear each other? 

We have the opportunity this Wednesday. An opportunity to listen to each other respectfully. To hear and to identify our common values and, then, to find a way forward. It is an opportunity that is counter-cultural. It pushes back against a culture that says “it’s my way, or the highway!” It pushes back against a culture that demands that my answer is the only right answer. To choose to be there--to participate in this Sacred Conversation--is a daring act. It takes courage to step out of the mold that our culture teaches us to follow--a mold that will only continue to divide us. Will you be courageous? Will you be bold and daring? Will you come and participate?

I hope you will come. In truth, I dare you to come. Because it is out of daring acts, that redemption comes.  And blessing. We see it already in our story today. And we will see it in full next week. And we know it as children of God--children of a God who sent a Kinsman-Redeemer to us to save us. To redeem us. And, who out of that redemption, gives us abundant blessing.

So, be bold. Be daring. And trust that God will be at work among us. And that God will give us the courage to dare to act. Amen.

Preached Sunday, August 5, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 11
Readings: Ruth 3:1-18 (Matthew 7:7-8).

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