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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