Sunday, August 28, 2022

Faith Formation Dream Team Reflections

Faith Formations Dreaming
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Faith Formation Dream Team reflections from Ralph Swartzentruber, Carissa Gredler, John Stoltzfus, and Moriah Hurst.

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Sunday, August 21, 2022

Paula Stoltzfus: Emboldened to Act

“New Life”
Ruth 4:1-22; Luke 1:46-55

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I don’t know about you, but I have valued this opportunity to get to know the book of Ruth more intimately.  However, I must confess that it hasn’t been easy for me. I wrestle with some of the stories of the Bible, this being one of them.  

I grew up knowing Ruth linked with her well known pledge to Naomi, which is lovely and noble. But as I grew older I became unsettled with the patriarchal culture that made it such that there needed to be laws to take care of the marginalized, which often were women. I am stirred to the point of anger when the patriarchy of the day seeps through the calculated and risky actions Ruth takes in order to secure a future and a hope for her and Naomi.  

It is a spiritual discipline for me to dig to search for the hope in this and any one of the difficult stories.  But I can honestly say that I have valued this deep dive and have discovered hope.  

This last chapter, chapter 4, is the bookend to the beginning of the story, bringing hope and new life to what was a story of great loss and grief in chapter 1.  What began as displacement from a climate crisis because of a drought, concludes with plenty, both in the literal harvest as well as with Boaz following through on his oath to Ruth made on the threshing floor.

The city gate was the place where the business of this chapter with the elders occurred.  Boaz, full of knowledge of the religious and social laws, knew where he needed to go to settle things in order to preserve dignity and care for all involved.

In this scene, Boaz is depicted as casual, “Hey friend,” Boaz says. He continues, leading with great intentionality orchestrating the gathering of the kinsman-redeemer and elders to be witnesses to this transaction based on the law. A law that is to ensure care for Naomi as Elimelech’s widow and Ruth as daughter in law.

Boaz seems strategic and measured in his explanation to the kinsman-redeemer’s responsibility to the land and Naomi. For it was only after the kinsman-redeemer replied in his interest in the land of Elimelech that Boaz adds the details about caring for Ruth and making sure to carry on the lineage through bearing children with her.  

At this point, the kinsman-redeemer backs away from following through, expressing the risk this would be upon his own property.  He saw Ruth as a foreigner and a threat.  Therefore, as a symbol of the passing of the kinsman-redeemer responsibilities, he passes his sandal to Boaz.  In the witnesses of the elders, this was seen as a binding agreement and ends with the elders offering their blessing to Boaz.

How was it that Boaz didn’t see Ruth as a threat?  In fact he never seemed to.  From the moment he noticed her gleaning in his fields and found out who she was and her story, Boaz sought to create a safe space for Ruth and Naomi to settle.  Boaz witnessed the virtuous love and loyalty that Ruth had for Naomi.  Her very being shined greater than her Moabite “foreigner” origin or any possible risk her presence would bring.

So, what was it about Boaz that led him to care?

Boaz himself is depicted as having virtuous character, holding his power and privilege with a deep sense of responsibility for his farm/profession and faith. He knew God’s law but also allowed God’s spirit to form the heart of the law deep within him.  

We read Naomi naming Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer, but I suspect Boaz knew his familial relationship to Naomi and thus was extending protection to Ruth as she gleaned giving explicit instructions to his workers to honor Ruth’s efforts.  All of these acts were beyond the laws explicit instructions.

We have heard about God’s hesed, Hebrew for loving kindness. But it is more than those two words as well.

Hesed “inspires merciful and compassionate behavior towards another.”
Hesed “surpasses ordinary kindness and friendship.”
Hesed “runs deeper than social expectations, responsibilities, fluctuating emotions, or what is deserved or earned.”

We see Boaz embody Hesed.  And herein lies my hope.  God’s law here was not designed to keep Moabites or any “others” out or even to have an elite following.  No, God’s law was to create a framework in which Boaz’s very being could be nourished through compassion and grace. Boaz’s personhood became the springboard to offer the same to Ruth and Naomi regardless of their race, economic status, or history.  Therefore, Boaz didn’t see an immigrant or even an enemy, but rather he saw family.

Not only that, Ruth’s example of Hesed towards Naomi was praised as being worth more than seven sons, seen by many around her, including the women who blessed Naomi with grandson Obed.

Boaz grew up with the oral tradition of his faith.  Not only that but of his family lineage.  So he would have known the stories that the elders referred to in their blessing In verses 11 and 12, invoking Rachel, Leah, and Tamar’s names. This not only acknowledges the importance of women in the patriarchal system and lineage, but also includes other stories of conception that are laced with trickery at worst and imperfection at its best. If you want to familiarize yourself with those stories again you may read Genesis 29 and 38.

What we know of their genealogy is that Ruth and Boaz’s son's lineage leads to David which leads to Jesus.

The other text we heard read this morning was Mary’s Magnificat. Perhaps an unlikely time to hear it. However, there are threads of similarities between Ruth and Mary.  Ruth was an unlikely recipient of such generosity of grace and compassion within this context, yet she exemplified Hesed. Mary as a young virgin was also an unlikely participant in continuing the lineage and story of God’s redemption. She also was a woman embodying God’s hesed. Both women of valor. The blessing of the women to Naomi and Mary’s song both offer praise to the God who offers Hesed to God’s people.

As I have held this story, I have wondered about our cultural and religious context.  I can lament the patriarchy of Ruth’s day, but also know full well we still have structures and a culture that is built on patriarchy. A culture which needs laws in which to care for the vulnerable. It is easy to come down hard and negative. I believe a gleaning from Boaz is about being aware of one’s power and privilege within a system.  In other words, asking ourselves personal questions:
What are the various spheres of influence that you hold in your family, profession, church, neighborhood?
What power does your gender, skin color, economic, or educational status give you without even asking for it?
How are you cultivating your awareness of the people around you, their stories and needs? For instance, Harrisonburg and Rockingham county have a visible presence of  people without a home in our midst.  Open Doors is between two different sites to offer shelter presently. How are we informing ourselves of the stories of our neighbors who struggle to secure work and housing?  
What are the names we use to describe what we see?  Lazy, crazy, felon, addict, scammer, or leechers of the system, OR friend, sister, brother

Personal awareness of one’s power and influence is beneficial.  Another gleaning is that of cultivating one’s spiritual practices to nurture God’s lovingkindness within our being.  In other words,
How are you opening your spirit to receive God’s hesed for you?
What are your spiritual practices that nourish your hesed of self?  
What ways are you cultivating hesed for others, especially those on the margins?

In the book of Ruth it is this loving kindness embodied in the people that carries it on.  As was mentioned other Sundays, God is not mentioned by name in this book.  But rather it is communicated that God was at work in the ordinary, the day to day, and through each person’s acts of lovingkindness towards one another.

Sisters and brothers, what is clear in this book is that God’s gracious, merciful, lovingkindness, otherwise known as God’s Hesed is for all and endures forever. It endured before Rachel and Leah, Tamar and Ruth, Mary and Elizabeth, Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich, Mother Theresa and Maya Anjelou and continues in you and I today. Get that.  You and I, through our everyday interactions have the opportunity to offer God’s hesed to ourselves and to others.  This is a form of worship, honoring our Creator.

We, the bearers of God’s compassionate grace, are also in need of God’s grace when we don’t have wisdom to act with such loving kindness.

I invite you to join me in confession as we acknowledge our shortcomings.

🔴    one    Day and night we cry out to God for help. We ask for:
        all    food for the hungry,
            power for the powerless,
            justice for the oppressed.
       one    In the middle of the night our hearts cry out,
        all    “God, do something. Make things right.
            Grant us peace. Change the world.”
🔴       one    In those moments of darkness, God asks us to participate in creating
            a more righteous and peaceful world.
            We confess that too often we look for a miracle
            when our hands and hearts can be God’s means of granting justice.
🔴            The God who made heaven and earth helps us to live justly.
        all    Emboldened by God’s strength, we remain steadfast
            in our pursuit of what is right and holy and just.

It is possible for this love to SHINE in each of us, beyond borders, beyond social order, beyond economic status, beyond racial background, beyond gender, beyond family system, beyond last name, beyond all circumstances. For God’s Hesed endures forever! To this we say, Thanks Be To God! And by God’s grace and wisdom we will carry it wherever we go.

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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Moriah Hurst: Bold and Brave

“Daring to Act”
Ruth 3:1-18; Psalm 27:1, 4; Matthew 7:7-8

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Bold and brave. I’ve had to laugh that the third chapter of Ruth was given to the unmarried female pastor to preach on. Sure, I work with young people but what am I supposed to do with a text that has racey bits and a slightly risque encounter. Nothing stated, so much as implied. As Sarah Bixler said when she preached on Ruth 2, that the author might be winking at us in a telling way. Or in Ruth chapter 3 there may be so many winks it could sprain your eye. 

As commentator Rev. Dr. Alphonetta Wines puts it “it is impossible to overlook the sexual overtones in the book. Just as with the Song of Songs (another biblical book in which a woman speaks and God does not), the church has long been embarrassed by the sexual innuendo concerning Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor.” end quote

So, thanks for the chance to preach on this text.

    It might be all about how you tell this story. Is Ruth being a brave hero here trying to save herself or is she the temptress seducing Boaz? When I was studying biblical storytelling we talked a lot about the power you have in the way you tell the story. Take the story of David and Bathsheba.

2 Sam 11:4

“So David sent messengers to get Bathsheba, and she came to him, and he lay with her. Then she returned to her house”

It’s all about how you tell the story.

Ruth and Naomi’s “story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.”

    This chapter opens with Naomi saying she is seeking security for Ruth and she has a plan that has been brewing as Ruth has been gathering grain in Boaz’s fields. Naomi lays out this plan asking or telling Ruth to put herself in a very vulnerable position. And like Queen Esther, who prepares her body to be able to risk her life for her people, Ruth washes and prepares herself to approach the threshing floor.

Ruth does just what her mother-in-law instructed her…until she doesn’t. Naomi had said to wait until Boaz had eaten and had drunk something and laid down to rest. Then Naomi instructs her to “uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (insert knowing laughter here).”

But Ruth doesn’t wait for Boaz to act or tell her what to do. She takes initiative beyond Naomi’s instructions and asks for what she needs.

“when Boaz wakes up in surprise to discover a woman lying beside him, it is she who tells him what to do: …To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman is to marry her. Ruth, in other words, proposes to Boaz!”

Virginia Wiles puts it this way “In the barley field, Boaz had piously pronounced a blessing upon Ruth, for she had taken refuge under the wings (kanap) of God (2:12). And now Ruth dares to command, ‘Spread your cloak (kanap - same word used) over (me). Ruth has called on Boaz himself to fulfill his own pious prayer of protection that God spread a cloak over Ruth, and now Ruth calls Boaz to take the necessary action.” end quote (p.18 Study guide - Inside Out: God’s Radical Love in Jonah and Ruth, Virginia Wiles)

It was a risky and unconventional act. Ruth dares to almost demand something of Boaz.  

The choices for Boaz after a night together on the threshing floor were either to shame Ruth or marry her. And for Ruth her sexual purity was one of the few curencies of power avalible to her in that society.

Ruth is not a passive participant here. In earlier chapters things happen to her. But in chapter three Ruth is acting out of some of her own agency. She is not just letting things unfold, she is stepping out, going towards, and asking in bold terms for what she needs. Was she placed in a terrible situation by life circumstance and cultural confines, yes, totally. But Ruth risks her body and integrity to make life better for herself and her mother-in-law.

And one might ask: is Naomi looking out for Ruth’s future or her own. Maybe it’s both. Once Ruth sneaks off the threshing floor in the morning, still under the cover of darkness, and returns home to her mother-in-law, it is interesting to notice what they talk about. Naomi asks: how did it go? And Ruth tells her about the barley. No scandalous details that might have been included in the night or at least that is skimmed over by the author. Ruth says “he gave me barley so that I wouldn’t come back to you empty handed”. For me there are two possible reasons for this, out of what could be many. Was this really about survival for Ruth? The risky action she had taken so that she could survive - literally trying to have enough food and shelter. Was the barley what was truly important? And I wonder what women all around the world have to do to make ends meet for themselves and their families. What does it take to get the basics of food, shelter and safety?

Or does it go back to Ruth’s relationship with Naomi? Was Ruth holding what little dignity she had after just prostrating herself before a man on the floor of a barn? Holding what little autonomy she had to be able to tell the story how she wanted, only revealing the bits of the story that she chose.

Does Ruth talk about the barley Boaz gave her because that was important to her or because she wanted to maintain a shred of decency or power over her privacy and sexual experession. While Ruth was acting out of a need to care for herself and her mother-in-law, was she also trying to hold onto her dignity, claiming her worth as more then a sexual object to be pawned off for food and protection.

And Boaz does act to protect her. He does not shame or cast Ruth aside. But he does the work to follow the law and also to extend his protection and to share his life with this outsider, this Moabite woman.

    After reading this story I ask the common questions that I normally do as I study biblical texts. What do we learn about who God is? What do we learn about people? What do we take away?

“God does not appear in the story.” (p.8 Study guide - Inside Out: God’s Radical Love in Jonah and Ruth, Virginia Wiles)

“God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s hesed (loving kindness) is embodied in human action.”

 “There is in the Book of Ruth no miraculous event, no mighty hand of God, no intrusion from heaven. All the acts of kindness in this book are human acts, suggesting that, through human kindness, God’s salvation will be accomplished.” (p.9 Study guide - Inside Out: God’s Radical Love in Jonah and Ruth, Virginia Wiles)

Professor in Old Testament, Cameron B.R. Howard suggests that “God intersects with the characters of the book of Ruth the way many of us experience God today: not as a divine physical presence, not as a booming voice from heaven, not as a visible mover of events, but as the one to whom we attribute some amount of agency in our own circumstances, as well as those of the world at large. In this way the book can feel more accessible than other parts of Scripture, where God is portrayed speaking directly to the prophets, kings, and heroes.” end quote

How do we tell our own stories and the stories of others? Do we see how God might be showing up or are we looking for more flashing lights and booming voices? Do we see God entering into risky, daring spaces with us? Not micromanaging our path but enbodening our steps, giving us creativity to act for the good of ourselves and others.

Is our loving kindness bold and brave? Not just following with the shoulds, our roles or social norms that culture projects onto us. Can we follow in Ruth’s footsteps to go to an unexpected place and dare to ask for what we need, while holding our dignity and self worth? Can we consider how we might be like Boaz, not just following the letter of the law in what we should do. But going over and above to include and protect the vulnerable, standing up for their dignity and worth in the face of a system that oppresses and undermines them?
This is where I see one of the invitations in Ruth, are we meeting with God’s hesed, giving oneself fully, with love and compassion. May God help us to be people who are bold and brave in our loving kindness to each other.

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