May 10, 2020
by Sara Wilhelm Garbers
Ruth 2:8-13, 17-23
Well, good morning. It’s so wonderful to be back with you in worship again this morning. My name’s Sara, and I am one of the ministers here at Colonial Church. To those of you who mother or are mothers of one form or another: we wish you a special day this day. May you know that you are held and loved. And for those for whom this day is a little more complicated, we also hope that you feel very loved and seen by the God who has created all of us and who, indeed, like a mother cares for all of us. So as we join together in continued worship, let us pray together.
God, on this day where we celebrate and honor those who give birth, those who adopt, those who choose to show up in the world to be people of life, may we indeed incline our whole hearts and lives to you the God who bears us, the God who midwives us into freedom, the God whose Spirit is ever groaning like in the pains of childbirth. That your kingdom and your way of life and of love may indeed come here on earth as it is in heaven. So today God, we rejoice with those who rejoice, and we mourn with those who mourn. And in all things, we trust ourselves to you, the God who is our mother, our father, and our source of all life, for it’s in your name that we gather and pray, Amen.
On Thursday morning of this week, I had the opportunity to be able to spend some time with the Thursday Morning Fellowship ladies. During the course of sharing prayer requests and conversing about the beauty and the pain that was dear to each of our hearts, Pat Peterson (our most recent moderator) brought us into a conversation about questions of purpose.
She invited us to consider: What does it mean to be a people who, in the midst of pandemic, show up in the world, not as human doings, but as human beings—asking God those deeper questions about who we are called to be in this time. She shared a brief poem from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, and I wanted to share it with you today. It’s called “Instructions on Living.”
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it. On this day in the midst of a global pandemic, we all have stories to tell, moments of grace that have intersected our lives.
Sometimes though we forget to tell those stories. Sometimes the world gets so chaotic and feels so overwhelming that we lose sight of those moments of peace and beauty; we forget that some of the most powerful moments and memories we carry with us are moments like going for a walk when you were a little girl with your grandma, like I did. Those moments where you get to have FaceTime conversation with your grandkids over story time even though we’re in the midst of a pandemic. These are the stories of life and of beauty.
And one of the things that I love about the text that we get to spend some time with today is that it is the story of two women in the everyday rhythm of their lives and how God shows up there. It is in the midst of a world that was filled with chaos, deep violence, and pain that they lived their lives. And if you listened last week or if you’ve read your Bible before then you know that the book of Ruth is set during the time of the judges. It was a time of intertribal fighting, different groups grabbing and vying for power. And in the midst of that time, we are brought to this story about real people seeking to live a life. So today let’s take a little bit deeper look into their story to discover more of how “Grace Actually Restores.”
A little bit of context and a quick refresher for us (if you want deeper context, go listen to last week’s sermon). The book of Ruth follows the book of Judges in the Christian canon. This is because as it says at the start of Ruth, chapter one: “During the time of the judges…” this is when this story happened which was a time rife with violence and fighting. In the Jewish canon however, the book of Ruth is part of a section of “Writings” and utilized as a part of the liturgical worship calendar during the harvest festival known as Shavot, The Festival of Weeks. Within this context then, the story of Naomi and Ruth is told.
One of the things I love about this story is that if you think about the different cultural stories we tell like, “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf” is that cultural stories often have a moral, an imperative about how you’re supposed to show up in the world. And Ruth likewise functions as a cultural tale to remind the Jewish people of what it means to be faithful people to God (hesed). It reminds them that during the harvest, they’re not supposed to forget the widow, the outsider, or the foreigner in their midst. The story of Ruth thus reflects to the people who God is calling and inviting them through the story of these women who persist in being faithful in the midst of national violence.
As we move into the story depicted in these mere four chapters, we can note how it begins with loss and barrenness, the negotiation of kinship ties, and Naomi’s deep lament that I talked about last week. As we get to the very end of the text however, the whole story gets reversed. It is a story of how grace restores, where kinship gets renegotiated, where there’s celebration, and where once there was deep loss there is new life, new growth, and a new story that is birthed.
As we turn to chapter two today we are moved more deeply into the story of what is happening between these two women, who were in a really constrained and challenging place. Ruth decides to go ahead and try to make a way for herself and for her mother-in-law. So she heads out to the fields, because one of the practices that they had at the time was when you would go through and do the equivalent of whatever farmers did at that time to plow their fields (disclaimer: I’m not a farmer), they would then leave behind the edges of what they were harvesting from, so that the poor could come along and then gather up food so that they could survive.
When the story of Ruth gets told during the Festival of Weeks for the Jewish community, as is outlined in Deuteronomy, we read about how indeed the Lord, God commands the people that they’re supposed to leave a portion of the harvest for the poor because God takes care of them and they are likewise called to be people who take care of everyone, particularly those the most at the margins.
As we move more deeply into chapter two, Ruth has shown up to glean from the harvest and she ends up at a field of a man that the text tells is named Boaz. Names matter a lot in the Jewish community. And his name means “one of strength or valor.” We know that he’s well-to-do, he has access to resources, which is in stark contrast with the reality of these women. And she goes to his land, and as Boaz appears on the scene, he pronounces a blessing on all the workers and the people, and he notices this woman who’s out of place. It’s like you think of a small town: if you’re in a small town and there’s a new person in town, well everybody knows about it, right? The same is true even here at church, right? If you’ve been sitting in the same pew for 25 or 45 years, and suddenly you come to church and someone is sitting in your seat, you notice, right? And so he pays attention. He sees this new person and he asks, “Who is this?”
As I noted last week, one of the things I love about this text is how often it talks about Ruth is a Moabite. If you haven’t figured out that she’s a Moabite by chapter one, the editors will tell you about 20 more times by the time you get to chapter two. The important thing about her being a Moabite is these were the hated outsiders. These were folks who were thought to defile the Jewish people and that women were particularly were dangerous. And yet here’s this woman, this Moabite who (Oh by the way, she’s a Moabite, did you know?) well, she’s new and she’s sitting in my seat in the pew, what is she doing here? So she tells her story to Boaz, about what she’s doing and that she is there to gather food.
As he comes on the scene and there’s so many different ways he could respond to this woman, Moabite outsider. The tension rises: what will he do? One of the things I love about what happens with Boaz is if you contrast his character with the men in the book of Judges, you get a beautiful example of what it means to be a man who is participating in God’s kingdom, for instead of the violence that we read at the end of the book of Judges, here in this chapter, Boaz employs his power for good in order to ensure that Ruth is unmolested. The text depicts him knowing that given her identities that he knew she was at threat for becoming a victim of sexual violence, because she was a Moabite outsider female. And he says to his male workers: do not molest her, in fact, he goes beyond pronouncement. He evidences the way that God’s faithfulness shows up, embodying what it means to be one of God’s hesed. To follow the law is not just at the bare minimum, but to supersede it with the law of love: the law that is in solidarity with the most vulnerable in our midst and so he sits down with this woman Moabite outsider and by doing so basically communicates to everyone, “She matters here, you cannot harm her in any way.”
So indeed, Ruth continues to go through the field and pick up grain and she goes home and Naomi’s like, “What is this? And how did you get all this food?” Well, Ruth tells Naomi what happened and how she got the food, and Naomi’s like, “Oh my goodness. I just had a realization: Boaz is a possible kinsman redeemer for us!” Now, what’s a kinsman redeemer? Well, this is something in the Jewish community that would have been well known to them at the time because land functioned so integrally to people being able to eat. Thus it mattered a lot if a man died an untimely death, because his family wouldn’t have a social safety net to catch them other than this. It was up to the community to ensure that the people who were most vulnerable would be taken care of. Having a kinsman redeemer was a way for a woman who had experienced the death of their male spouse, to be able to be cared for. And Naomi and Ruth realize: “Oh my goodness, Boaz could indeed be that person. We might not actually starve to death and might have a viable future!”
Now, there’s way more to this story that we weren’t able to read today because I didn’t think you wanted to be here for a two hour long worship service, which included like 3,000 verses from the book of Ruth. But essentially, what happens as we continue to go through the next two chapters of the text, is that we find out that Boaz, even though he was very kind and in many ways was in God-honoring solidarity with Ruth by ensuring her safety, in being kind to her, and letting her take grain from the harvest, he doesn’t actually identify himself as a kinsman redeemer. So one of the powerful things that happens as we move into chapter three and four is that the women take charge. They utilize the resources and the capacities that they have in order to ensure that they can live. They also called Boaz to account; they remind him of what God is calling him to do in being a kinsman redeemer.
Part of what I love about this story, particularly on Mother’s Day, is that throughout history, there have been women who have done what they could do to care for their families: to love, to invite, and to challenge people who have access to power to live in deeper faithfulness to the way that God desires us to live. And Ruth and Naomi, they indeed do this work, and Boaz awakens to it and says, “All right, fine, you win. I’ll do the thing that I need to do and live in deep faithfulness to who God is calling me to be as well.” And as we get to the end of the story then, it’s a story that literally flips on its head from the opening in chapter one where there was barrenness and loss, and deep grief and deep vulnerability. It now becomes a story of new life, and new possibility, and new ways of being in the world. It’s a story about how “Grace Actually Restores.”
One of the things I also love about this text is that I love the name, Ruth. As I said before, names matter a lot in the Jewish scriptures, and they remind us what we ought to be paying attention to. The name Ruth means “beloved.” Fundamentally, she is the character in the story who represents and best reflects God’s faithfulness to us ad the way that God shows up in our lives, reminding us and inviting us to be a people who we are called to be. And in this way, we’re told at the very end of this text that Ruth, by her action (and then Boaz’s reaction and response to that), becomes the embodiment of God’s faithfulness. She lives as a person of God in faithful response, and he too lives in faithful response to those who are most marginalized. Then as Boaz responds and Ruth responds, we see that what happens is that the child that is born them is not identified as their child, it’s identified as connected to Naomi. And the power and the beauty of this is that it’s a story which evidences the grace that restores Naomi to community. It reintegrates her as a woman who had lost everything—where suddenly now she has standing again in her community—she has a future and a hope that is assured. This is what it means to be a people who live as the beloved: it’s to be a people, who live our lives in faithful response (hesed) so as to notice those who are outside of the bounds of what we think are going to be able to be cared for in our communities, and to make possible the way for them to come back home.
An additional thing I love about this, is at the very end of the text, we’re told some of the lineage that flows from Ruth—this Moabite woman. This Moabite woman is indeed the great, great-grandma of David. And we as people who identify ourselves as one who follow Jesus, know that David is indeed the patriarch and part of the lineage of Jesus, right? And who is Jesus, if not God’s beloved son, right? This is said of him during his baptism. Jesus is the fullness of the embodiment of God’s love here on earth (the beloved), with the invitation to each of us to be restored and reintegrated into God’s community. To be able to be brought back to table fellowship with the God who desires this for us and I just love this! Like, Ruth gets to be the first example, an embodiment who by her faithfulness, lives as the beloved. And her faithfulness gives birth and makes possible the fullness of God’s embodied belovedness in Jesus. And in turn this invites us to become people who indeed live, “Welcome beloved,” right?
And part of what I love about this story, it’s not the story or the lineage coming out of the book of Judges that we remember. It’s not the story of the princes and the heroes in the ways that we often write history books. It’s a story about these faithful women, who trusted this God, and shook their fists at times, and used the resources they had to build a future. So to those of you who have made our lives and our futures possible: we give you thanks. For you who have mothered, who have led, who are doctors, and nurses, and teachers, to who are people who have faithfully sought, to care for and see the belovedness in those who surround you, we give such great thanks.
I was reading recently the story from Janet Hagberg, about some work that she had been doing and reflecting upon about power. Power and the analysis of it has been a big part of her work and leadership throughout life. And she asked us to consider what does power look like in the time of pandemic? Which echoes for me, the question that Pat brought up on Thursday, what does it mean to be people who live with purpose?
Janet writes that the stages of power in a pandemic are: we often we start with the first place asking, how will I survive? And in stage two we ask: how will I help myself and my neighbor? Then as we dig a little bit deeper, we begin to ask how we can achieve something that makes a difference? And then if we allow ourselves to go a little bit deeper into that vulnerability, we can begin to ask what deeper questions do I need to begin asking? And if we go even deeper and deeper, we can ask, how am I called right now to be a person who mends this world? How do I then live differently and in solidarity with others? And if we can go all the way into that dark, into that fear, we discover that the final level of power is wisdom, to ask when and where is my presence most needed? The living of these questions in the face of the book of Judges is the story of Ruth: a story about women who go deeper in, who ask the questions about what God is inviting them to do and to be, and they show up in the world with their presence to bring healing and restoration.
So I wonder for us, instead of being like the people in judges, who grasp onto power or live from the places of our fear, what happens as we continue to root in a little bit deeper? What happens when we look at the people around us, to find the joy in the little children, and a really cute dogs named Blue (that’s my dog), to remember that the power of how God shows up in pandemic is through faithful people like you and me who live into being beloved, and in so doing, are then able to be the people who help to restore others to their position in the community.
Let’s be a people who bear witness to that way of being; let’s be a people who join with this God in birthing all of creation anew. And then as Mary Oliver challenges, and reminds us, let us be a people who followed the good instructions on living: to pay attention, to be astonished, and to tell about it. Let’s look for those stories where Grace Restores and then let’s tell each other about them. May you tell the people in your lives today, especially those faithful women, of your thanks and gratitude for what they’ve done in your life. We give thanks. Amen.