Year B, Proper 26 November 8, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Today we are going to talk about being our very best. We’ll start with the story of Ruth.
This is a very old story. It is hard to tell exactly when it was written, but probably somewhere between 950 and 700 BCE. (It had to be written after the ascendancy of David because this story became important in because it was about his great-grandmother. It is interesting in the scriptures how important just a few families were. A reminder that it doesn’t take a lot of people to change the world). The Book of Ruth is a very old story, and one worth remembering, but unfortunately our lectionary kind of messes it up. We missed the first part of the story due to All Saint’s last week, and today we skip over most of two chapters and it is edited in a way that could make the story seem tawdry or at least make Ruth seem mercenary at best, and as we will see, that isn’t the case. In any case, this is the story of Ruth.
It all begins in the little town of Bethlehem, the City of David, and there was a famine in the land. It is ironic as the word Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” There was a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons. It was a terrible famine all over the land, so they did what people are doing right now across that region: they left. In this case they went to Moab and settled.
Arriving in Moab, the first tragedy strikes; Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Widows didn’t do so well back then. But in Naomi’s case, it was ok, for her sons each married a Moabite woman, one named Orpah and the other named Ruth, and with married sons she had households to support her. The responsibility for widows was strictly delineated in early Hebrew culture.
So all was well in Moab for Naomi and her sons and their wives for ten years, but then again, tragedy struck: the sons died, leaving Ruth and Orpah without husbands and Naomi without a husband or sons. That was no good. They had no way to support themselves as in the oppressive patriarchy of the time, women had no property rights whatsoever. Naomi had heard that God had considered Israel and the famine had lifted back home, so she decided to cut her losses, and at the same time, release her daughters-in-law from their obligation to her, for she had nothing to offer them but a beggar’s life, or even worse, prostitution was a common fate for women in their situation. “Daughters,’ she said, “go back to your mother’s house… May God deal kindly with you.” The daughters, she thought, would do better to stay with their Moabite kin, as foreigners were not embraced in Israel. They protested, ‘We’ll not abandon you!” Naomi insists. She had nothing for them and they’d be better off with their own people. Hard times.
Eventually Orpah relented, she kissed her mother-in-law and went home. “…but Ruth clung to her.” She then gave one of the great songs of fidelity in literature, a common reading at weddings:
“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Ruth was serious. So off they went to Bethlehem, to the house of Boaz, a wealthy member of Elimelech’s family.
When they arrive it was the barley harvest. They must have been so hungry after a hard journey through the wilderness, and there in the fields the reapers bound the golden sheaves of grain. What bounty! How thrilling after a famine. And there was Ruth, presenting herself to Boaz, asking him to allow her to glean between the sheaves, to humbly gather the scraps of the scraps.
Boaz knew who she was and was gracious and generous. He told her to stay with his people, to follow close to the reapers, giving her the chance for more choice grain then the shatter left by the sheaves. He told the men to leave her alone and told her to drink from the water they had drawn. What hospitality! She threw herself to the ground, so grateful she was. Then Boaz said, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me… May the Lord rewards you for your deeds…” Wheh. She was welcomed by Boaz and that was no small feat. Ruth was a Moabite, a foreigner, and if the Mosaic code had one unifying theme it was that of purity, the mixing of fibers in clothes and hybridizing fruit was forbidden, so imagine the mixing of Gentile and Jew. Hospitality, what radical hospitality.
But Naomi knew that Ruth needed more. She was young and foreign and needed the security of marriage. That brings us to today’s reading. She bids Ruth to wash and dress in her best clothes and present herself to Boaz on the threshing floor. She told her all of the customs of her people for how a woman can proposition a man. The way the lectionary tells it, she says to Naomi “all that you tell me to do I will do” and the next thing you know, from whatever happened on the threshing floor she is Boaz’ wife and a son is conceived. Kinda makes the imagination run wild. But that is not at all what happened.
Boaz was an honorable man, he didn’t lay a finger on her. No, he was in the line for her father’s lands and her hand, but he was not the very next of kin, or in the Jewish legal term of the time, he did not have the first “right to redeem,” that role was for another with a closer relationship. He tells her this and tells her to go to sleep, but to get up early and sneak away so her honor would be intact. And in the morning, he sends her off with a cloak full of barley.
Then Boaz, the honorable man, goes to see the one with the right to redeem. That man was happy to receive the land, but when he learned that a wife came with it, he balked, he couldn’t take care of here, too. So Boaz, with the pass of a sandal, the seal-the-deal handshake of the time, gained the right to redeem. And he exercised it and they were married. And they were happy. Ruth bore a son, whom they named Obed. Naomi was his nurse. (She was going to OK, too, it all worked out). And Obed had a son, Jesse. And Jesse had a son, David and the green grass grew all around, all around and the green grass grew all around. The End.
This, the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz… this is a story of people at their very best. Think of Naomi, to head off to a foreign land in search of sustenance for her family, becoming a refugee. What bravery. The selflessness with which she released her daughters-in-law from their commitments. The courage to undertake the journey home, two women alone; the patience and wisdom with which she guided Ruth. Think of Boaz: his generosity and kindliness, inviting Ruth to glean behind his people, telling his men to leave her alone, filling her outstretched cloak with six measures of barley. He was honorable with a very vulnerable Ruth on the threshing floor, following the custom of his people when he could have been a real lecher. He wasn’t. Then he went to the next of kin and was forthright and honest. And Ruth, what loyalty, what courage, what hard work, what willingness to give everything she had, all the way up to herself, her body and her life to save herself and to save Naomi. Even the unnamed kinsman, he was fine with receiving the land, but when he learned that a wife came with the deal he was honest and declined, it was more then he could take on. He could have taken the land and brought her into his house Cinderella style, but he didn’t, he saw his limitations and passed on the inheritance. People at their very best.
And the other readings for today, people at their very best. The old widow, putting her precious two coins into the coffers giving of the meat, the principle. It is not a morality tale about giving to the temple or church, it is a tale of meeting our obligations, doing what we know is right. And from our continuing cycle from the Letter to the Hebrews, what does Jesus Christ give? Unlike the high priest, offering “…blood that is not his own…” Jesus offers everything He has, His very life unto death to take away the sins of the world, to reconcile us all, everyone once and for all until He returns for those who are waiting for Him. People at their very best.
I struggle with only seeing the bad, only seeing what could be different, what is going wrong, the flaw in the otherwise flawless. I put on a beautiful sweater and I pick at that one little knot. So many of us do that; just look at what we consider important news to report, all the places where we fail, where we do wrong, the tragedies in our social fabric, wars and rumors of wars. Because really, most of the time, most of us humans are pretty good. We can’t ignore that truth, and we can’t let that big truth be obscured by the little knots, the blemishes in an otherwise pristine complexion.
But then again, we also as a species, have the tendency to settle on good enough when it is certainly not. There are terrible things in our world and just being afraid of them, and not wanting them to be true or real or to see any evidence of their existence; that is not good enough. Be it violence oozing out from under our own Imperial boot across the world, or the poverty on our own streets, in our own parking lot, or how erratic we are in how we treat the people we most intimately share our lives with… no we cannot ignore that truth, either.
Jesus Christ offers us a way to hold it all together, being very our best imperfect selves in a very good, imperfect world. Look at Him. He loved, loves everything, everyone. He was in perfect balanced and right relationship with all creation, with everyone He knew, right down to the Pharisees that He took the time to engage with. He even got along famously with His mother, and she was a formidable woman and was actually without sin. And He offers Himself to us in right relationship with every breath we take and at the same time He offers a piercing critique of all the ills of the world and of our selves. He offers a temple cleansing, demon casting, riding into Jerusalem Hosanna in the highest critique of all the wrongs we do to each other, all the sins we cling to in our hearts, from not giving all we have to the poor, to confusing what is important to Caesar with what is actually important, to holding sinful thoughts in our minds and liking them. Jesus loves the entire world to the end AND He tells us time and time again that it could be better. This, all of it, the world, it is fabulous, and it could be better. You are fabulous. Each and everyone one in this room, in this world is fabulous, loved by the source of all life and light, the creator of the universe sings your song always and everywhere; and you could be better. All of us could. No one is too good. No one is too kind, too friendly, too just. This is a call from the heart of Jesus Christ, to love the world with everything we have, to love it fully and openly and honestly and to expect the very best of it. We don’t honor each other when we don’t expect the best of each other, just as we don’t honor each other if we don’t love each other exactly where we are. We love and forgive ourselves and our children and parents and friends and colleagues and priests and bosses and maybe even our political leaders, we love them and we forgive them over and over and over again for not being their best and we don’t ever stop asking, expecting, hoping that it could be better. Because it can be. And God willing and our own hearts and backs enduring, it will be. AMEN.