Cloud of Witnesses…Ruth

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 1, 2013)

I love story. I love tradition and repetition. I love finding the threads and themes that carry through lives and generations and history.

Last summer on my sabbatical, one of the surprisingly fun pieces of researching my grandpa’s life was having my own picture taken in places where I have pictures of my grandpa. I stood where he did for his high school football picture, in Alliance Nebraska.

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I stood outside the Hotel Negresco in Nice, France, where he had one week of leave after fighting in World War II.

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I found the same house where he got his picture taken by a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News right before he retired as a mail carrier.

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And I sat where he sat with me as a boy, on the front steps of my grandparents’ home.

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I’m still thinking about the things I learned, and the threads which run through my grandpa and my mom and uncle and myself…and perhaps even on to my own kids.

Earlier this week, I watched a video in an outstanding series that the George Fox religion department has been creating.

I’d seen our own Brian Doak and Phil Smith earlier, and this week I saw our own Steve Sherwood’s. Steve reminded me that the best way to understand the fullness of the beauty in the bible is to remember that there are threads and themes that weave their way all through the bible, threads that are amplified and expanded and deepened as we discover them in so many places.

My own heart and mind are full today with the beauty of these threads and themes, coming together in so many ways. My hope today is to at least give you a glimpse of the beauty I see, encouraging you to push deeper and find where the faithfulness of God’s people and the lovingkindness of God also touch and envelop you and your story, too.

One strand we have, on this first Sunday of Advent, is the rich tradition of celebrating anticipation. We worship through waiting. The nostalgia of the Christmas season is held together with a deeper, older thread, one which can still be found underneath Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, underneath Rudolph and “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus”. It’s the celebration of anticipating and rehearsing again the power of God breaking into our world, a world full of people that have always needed God, and who always will.

Another strand we have here at NFC is this theme of the “Cloud of Witnesses”. Last week at Bauman, we heard from four people who shared people in their cloud of witnesses, people who through their lives and actions helped those four fix their eyes on Jesus.  We want to continue in the coming weeks and months to flesh out the stories of other witnesses, others who can help us run OUR race as we fix our eyes on Jesus who goes ahead.

Bethlehem is another strand weaving through today, as the story we will examine takes place in the place of Christ’s birth, about 1000 years earlier.

The reality is that the story of our lives is woven into the one true story, the “God story” of all creation.

Today we look at the life of Ruth…which, you may think, is cheating; after all, she is an ancestor, not a witness to Christ. Yet she can help us fix our eyes on Jesus, as we look for how Christ will weave into our life story what we see in her: faithfulness, fidelity, trust, and the unexpected blessing of a redeemer who brings safety, provision, and love.

The biblical record situates the story of Ruth “In the days when the judges ruled;” and even this simple line has moved me this week.

One time I said out loud from right here that reading the book of Judges almost crushes my faith in God. Horrible things happen in that book, and it is so difficult to see the goodness of God. Ruth, this book of redemption, this book of rags to riches, of bitterness to joy…the faithfulness and love and beauty of Ruth is working to redeem the period of the judges for me.

The central figures of the book of Ruth are Ruth and Naomi.

Famine drives Naomi and her husband and two sons to leave the land of promise, to leave Yahweh’s country and go to the enemy land of Moab. With an economy of words, the writer of the book of Ruth quickly and effectively conveys the descent into pain. Naomi’s husband dies; her sons marry foreign women, something condemned in Israel and Judah for the way it often leads to disowning Yahweh and following false gods; and then the sons die as well, leaving Naomi “without”… “without her two sons and her husband,” it says in 1:5.

Into this pain, Yahweh enters and acts. But unfortunately, God’s action does not come where Naomi and her daughters-in-law are. God’s action doesn’t come in the enemy land of Moab. Instead, God has provided food for the people of promise back in Judah, the land of the promise. So Naomi leaves Moab to return home, but she does not leave in hope.

When her daughters-in-law try to follow her, she tells them to go back to their own lives and home. She blesses them, with a key blessing in Ruth 1:9: “May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

But it’s too late for Naomi, she thinks. 

There’s no hope for her or with her. Like we discussed a few months ago with the story of Judah and Tamar, there was a law and custom that if a man died childless, his brother or relative would marry the widow and have children in the name of the dead husband, preserving the land in the families as originally intended. But Naomi would have no more sons. Go back, she says. You don’t have much hope, but you have NO hope with me.

“It is more bitter for me than for you,” Naomi says in 1:13, “because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!”

Naomi interprets all of the pain she has experienced as God turning against her– as so many would, as so many have in her situation. This final outburst of bitterness leads one of the daughters-in-law to go back home to Moab; but Ruth, 1:14 says… “but Ruth clung to her.”

Sometimes powerful good begins without any hope at all.

It isn’t hope that turns the tide here. It’s just love. Ruth simply loves Naomi, and can’t be separated from her. Maybe there are more prospects back in Moab, but Ruth cannot bear the thought of being without Naomi. The poetic words she is most known for come out of nothing more than the truth that her love for Naomi is so deep, she can’t go anywhere else.

Love, not hope, causes her to speak in 1:16:

But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

It’s a great speech, but it isn’t all that hopeful. She’s basically saying she’s going to die with Naomi because she loves her so much. There is a powerful commitment to Yahweh expressed as well, and it is worth drawing special attention to the fact that the commitment to God comes after her commitment to Naomi. Her love for God, at first, is dependent upon her love for Naomi.

We invite people into the story God is weaving into our world when we love them into it.

And just in case you aren’t convinced I’m right that they have returned to Bethlehem without hope…Naomi changes her name to “Mara”, which means bitter. She ends chapter one bitter, convinced that God has hurt her and brought misfortune on her. The author, however, sums it up with a phrase of hope: “Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning…”

God’s work has gone ahead of them, bringing rains for the crops and now a full harvest of provision.

But…how in the world will Naomi and Ruth get access to what God has provided? Naomi has her husband’s land, but is too old to work it and indeed can’t plant when the harvest has already begun. And she is a woman, without the right to be responsible for that land. Ruth is the one who comes up with the way forward.

She will humble herself. She will do the dangerous and difficult menial labor of gleaning. One way to look positively at gleaning is that it was a way that society, under God’s direction, provided for the poor. As people harvested, gathering sheaves of barley, whatever was left behind on the ground was fair game for the poor of the community to “glean”. But in their society, as in ours, there was stigma and there were pressures associated with poverty.

The harvest workers were under pressure from their landowner boss to provide a good harvest. For the workers, the gleaners were a threat to their responsibility to provide, and they would fight off the gleaners if they came too closely behind. Knowing the gleaners were poor, and often women, the male workers would take advantage in every possible way. A foreign woman like Ruth would be especially at risk.

This is the risk Ruth willingly takes on herself because she has bound herself to Naomi.

She will risk hard work and physical and sexual danger to gather enough food for the both of them to survive. Naomi gratefully accepts her offer, with no other prospects before them. And “as it turned out”, it says in 2:3, Ruth ends up gleaning in the field of Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi’s dead husband.

That “as it turned out” is a wonderful phrase. Scholars are convinced it is intentionally ironic, a sly wink by the writer to the readers. “This didn’t just happen. It isn’t a wonderful coincidence. No, we all know what’s happening here-this is the provision and providence of Yahweh.”

And sure enough, Boaz bursts on the scene, and the first thing out of his mouth is Yahweh, the Lord. “The Lord be with you!”

But here’s the thing.

When it comes to Ruth and Naomi, God’s blessing does not fall out of the sky. God’s blessing does come, without doubt! But it comes because Ruth is willing to risk and work. It comes in the person of Boaz himself. He speaks this blessing to all the harvesters and gleaners, but then Boaz lives it out…he becomes the blessing, the answer to his prayer, so to speak: Boaz becomes the redeemer for Naomi and Ruth.

Ruth catches his eye right away, and he asks about her. She gets derogatorily referred to as “that foreigner” Naomi brought back from the enemy. But Boaz immediately realizes and acts on his responsibility to care for Naomi, the wife of his relative. Come glean only in my field, he tells Ruth. I’ll keep it safe for you. He even tells his workers to leave extra food for her, and he feeds her himself at the break time.

“Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me-a foreigner?” Ruth replies in 2:10. She receives the gift from Boaz with humility and gratefulness. Boaz in turn has noticed what she has done for Naomi, the deep commitment and love she showed by leaving her family and home to live in Bethlehem. In fact, he uses the great biblical word “hesed”, lovingkindness and faithfulness, to describe how Ruth treats Naomi.

Here’s yet another thread: it’s Ruth’s love for Naomi that causes her to stay with Naomi. It’s Ruth’s love for Naomi that causes Boaz to notice her. This thread of love which Ruth demonstrates, this thread of community, of fidelity and deep faithfulness is attractive! Centuries later, Jesus tells his disciples that people will know they are his followers by how they love one another. Millenia after that, we still sing, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” It’s a thread of loving faithfulness woven through the ages.

Ruth comes home to Naomi with way more grain than should have been possible to collect in one day, and brings as well this story of Boaz caring for her and promising future gleanings.

All through the barley and wheat harvest, Ruth works in Boaz’ field; and she lives with Naomi, providing food. As the weeks go by Naomi, bitter “Mara”, begins to hope again. This provision of food is nice, but she has bigger hopes and dreams. In Boaz, she sees the lasting provision of a husband for Ruth, and a redeemer for their family’s land.

Naomi plans it all out. It’s a provocative plan, but also one where Ruth and Boaz both keep propriety and integrity. Many clues in the text let us know that Boaz is an old man, and didn’t think it possible that Ruth would want to marry him. So Naomi tells Ruth to make it crystal clear. Make yourself look good, and then she tells her to go to where he’s sleeping by the grain and uncover his feet and lie down by him.

Now, the bible is not nearly as prim and proper as we sometimes make it out to be. It has no problem at all talking openly and honestly about sexual things. Going to a man in the night and uncovering his legs and laying down at his feet is definitely suggestive! Some recent scholars even note that “uncovering feet” at times can be a euphemism for uncovering a more private part of a man’s body.

But there are several things which clearly show that is not the intent here. First, the euphemism uses a Hebrew word specifically describing feet; here in Ruth, it’s a different Hebrew word that means the foot or leg. Second, the Greek translation of this book, done before the time of Christ, does not use a euphemism but definitively refers to literal legs being uncovered. This shows the ancient Jews interpreted this literally, not as a euphemism.

In addition, Boaz wants everything to have integrity. He recognizes someone else was a closer relative and could marry Ruth, and wants to honor that. Why show concern for having integrity in that manner, and then break the law and customs of that time in a sexual way? Instead, Boaz is honored by the clear invitation to marriage that Ruth makes. He again blesses Ruth, cares for her, provides for her. And the next day, he does everything necessary to make himself the proper kinsman-redeemer, and marries Ruth.

God’s care is woven into this story through people.

Boaz acts as redeemer, showing God’s goodness, love, and care, bringing good out of nothing.

But Ruth stands as one like us. Ruth stands for us.

She binds herself in loving faithfulness to Naomi. She takes the risks, does the hard work. She offers herself vulnerably to Boaz, not knowing how he will respond or what the outcome will be.

This is faith! This is the Hebrews 11 kind of faith: acting in trust, even before she sees the results.

Receiving the grace and redemption of God, for us today, is very much like Ruth at night on the threshing floor. We go to God and vulnerably just lay down at his feet. Nothing to offer. A foreigner. No home and no hope. Utter dependence, without any “plan b” if this doesn’t work out.

This vulnerability is when the power of redemption comes, where God, like Boaz, makes all the arrangements to secure our present and our future.

I love the beauty of the story telling at the end of the book of Ruth!

The elders and the people of the gate even reference Tamar, the other foreigner, the other forgotten one, the other woman without hope. As we saw weeks ago, Tamar had to go through horrific things to get the blessing of a child. Ruth’s story is like the beautiful way, the right way that redemption can come.

Naomi returns to joy! We see her take her curtain call cradling the new child of Ruth and Boaz in her arms, and it is Naomi’s provision; it is Naomi’s child in a sense. God has not forgotten Naomi! God is not against her…God has redeemed her!

And then there’s the child. The child’s name is Obed, who becomes the grandfather of Israel’s greatest King, David from Bethlehem. There is a provocative word here. The book of Ruth became well known in a time long after David, when Ezra and others were condemning foreign marriages and calling the people of Israel to separate themselves from their evil enemies. But here comes this provocative story of God’s redemption, reminding everyone that the great-grandmother of the great King was “that Moabitess who came home with Naomi.”

So many threads! So many themes!

Faithfulness, inclusiveness, love. Redemption, vulnerability, hope. As we celebrate Christ’s coming at Christmas, as we fix our eyes on Jesus…may these threads be woven into our lives as well!

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