Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Where you can find the art: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved July 25, 2022]. Original source: Estate of John August Swanson, https://www.johnaugustswanson.com/.
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’
So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do so. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.’
So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, ‘It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.’ Then he said, ‘Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.’ So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. She came to her mother-in-law, who said, ‘How did things go with you, my daughter?’ Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.” ’ She replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.’
Ruth 3:1-18: For Good
“I love it when a plan comes together.” Does anyone recognize that phrase? That’s right. It’s from the tv show The A Team. This show about a group of former soldiers who, after escaping prison following wrongful arrests, end up hiring themselves out for high stakes cases, often helping people in desperate situations. The jobs they are hired for are usually dangerous and often kind of impossible. The plans they devise are usually wild and likely to fail. But, they always pull it off, even though they usually have to do something very silly, like turn a watermelon into a weapon. In just about every episode, after something zany and cartoonishly dangerous has happened and the innocent has been saved, Hannibal, the team leader, says, with cigar firmly clamped between his teeth, “I love it when a plan comes together.” That’s why you watch this show... because someone is going to have a problem and the A Team is going to make a plan. You want to see how the plan will come together.
Maybe I should blame it on the A Team since I watched it at an impressionable age because I really love a movie or a show about a team making a wild plan in the face of impossible odds. Usually, you see this kind of thing in heist stories, like the Oceans movies, where thieves are trying to get at some very hard to steal treasure. Even though they are thieves, we are nearly always invited to root for them and their wild, intricate plans. Sometimes you get stories about teams and plans in shows like Leverage, where former con arts and thieves use their planning powers for good, much like the A Team, to take down corrupt politicians and business owners. Heck, there’s even a kind of romance story that relies on a crisis, like the family business being in danger of closing, that has the protagonists turning to a wild plan, like winning an elite baking competition despite being an inexperienced baker , to both save the business and help the heroes fall in love.
There are, of course, wildly divergent stakes in the kinds of stories I described above. Often, though, the characters in the story risk losing their freedom, or meaningful roles in the community, or meaningful relationships. Sometimes they also risk losing their lives. And yet, inevitably, the protagonist will decide that the risks are worth taking.... they might be able to clear their name or pay off a debt or take down an abuser or impress people who mean something to them. So, they figure out what skills they have, what resources they need, what barriers they must overcome. They figure out who their compatriots are in this impossible task and then they make a plan. And, we, the audience get to watch and see how their plan comes together. And, I love it (and I bet you love it) when a plan comes together.
When we read Ruth 3, our scripture for the day, we need to keep in mind that this is a story about a risky plan. And, the stakes are high... life and death kind of stakes. But this plan is not a Danny Ocean plan. It’s not about glory. It is about survival. But, because we are not from the same time or the same cultures as Ruth and Naomi, it may not be clear what all the plan means or just how high the stakes are. I am inviting you to consider the rest of this sermon to be the part of the movie where the heroes walk us through events that shape their plan. It matters that we understand how and why this plan is so risky and why it seems worth it to try.
As I’ve talked about in other sermons, as poor widows without sons of working age, Ruth and Naomi’s lives were precarious. Mary Joan Winn Leith, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that it was so widely recognized that women in positions like Ruth and Naomi were vulnerable that God gives the Israelites specific instruction to leave a part of their fields unharvested for them to come and glean. You can find those instructions in Leviticus 19.9-10, 23.22 and Deuteronomy 24.19-22. In the last sermon I preached on Ruth, we talked about how Ruth was gleaning in a field, that is, foraging for bits of grain left behind in the main harvest. That is where she met Boaz.
Additionally, with Naomi being of an age where she can no longer become pregnant and Ruth being from Moab, a people whom Deuteronomy (23: 3) says will never be allowed to become a part of God’s chosen people, we are also led to assume that the likelihood that either of these two will be able to remarry in Bethlehem is low. Given their status as poor widows who have few marriage prospects, I think that it is an appropriate reading of the text to say that they are not abounding in options or support. Fortunately, though, there is Boaz... Boaz who chose to see Ruth as a welcome foreigner instead of an enemy... Boaz who remembered one religious obligation when he left grain for vulnerable people to harvest and could likely be reminded of another obligation to tend to distant relatives... Boaz, who might not think to reach out to Naomi when she first gets back to town, but, when reminded of her need through Ruth, goes above and beyond what would have been expected of him in caring for her. In Boaz, Naomi sees potential. So, Naomi makes a plan.
I asked in my first sermon on Ruth, how do you survive the unsurvivable? Well, in this part of the story, we can see that in order to survive, one must pair deep wisdom with great bravery. Naomi has the experience with the community and their faith to understand how to approach Boaz in the way most likely to garner a positive response. And, Ruth... Ruth is so brave. In an essay about the book of Ruth, Judith Kates outlines all the ways that Ruth, in particular, in vulnerable: she is a woman without a man obligated to care for her (either as spouse or mother) she is poor, and she is a foreigner from a despised people. Naomi’s risky plan will go on to demand even greater vulnerability from her. Kates notes that this plan, which involves a late-night rendezvous with possibly inebriated-from-post-harvest-celebrations Boaz, risks sullying Ruth’s reputation. This reputation is the main thing that is keeping the community offering the little bit of care they have offered Ruth and Naomi up to this point. If the broader community, and Boaz, see this action as a scandal, all could be lost! Naomi, though, is wise and a good teacher. And, Ruth is brave and patient. It is clear that they believe this plan can work. So, Ruth headed to the threshing floor.
It is good storytelling, isn’t it, to see Boaz be, as Kates calls it in her essay, “startled into remembering his connection” to Naomi’s family. Yes, we’ve had some foreshadowing to his response because we saw him go over and above his obligations of hospitality when Ruth was gleaning in the field. Still, though, nothing was guaranteed. The particular obligation Naomi seems to have been hoping he would enact was that of levirate marriage, where the brother of the deceased husband would marry his widow. Boaz was not a brother, but a distant cousin. He technically could have escaped public disdain by not stepping. But, Naomi was wise and Ruth was brave. Their plan works. Kates says, “Ruth and Naomi [are able to] get Boaz to work actively for their good.” In so doing, Kates argues, the book of Ruth demonstrates the notion that humans’ cooperation is necessary for God’s purpose to come to fruition. And, God will do great things through this relationship that Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz cultivate. We’ll talk more about that next week. Until then, I’ll just say this. Thank God this plan came together. And, thank God for the reminder that wisdom, bravery, and risk-taking are absolutely necessary for God to work through us in this world. May we be more like Ruth and Naomi and cultivate enough wisdom, bravery, and meaningful relationships to guide us through the risks that are clearly necessary in the days and weeks ahead.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Judith A. Kates, "Women at the Center," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Psalm 52 Judgement on the Deceitful
To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech.’
Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly?
All day long you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Selah
You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
But God will break you down for ever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous will see, and fear, and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
‘See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!’
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God for ever and ever.
I will thank you for ever, because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
The heading that the NRSV puts above Psalm 52 is: Judgment on the Deceitful
To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
To try to offer the quickest bit of context for this psalm, Doeg the Edomite (the head of King Saul’s servants) tells Saul that David, who is on the run from Saul, had been staying with the priest Ahimelech of Nob, and had been given food, shelter, and the sword of Goliath by Ahimelech. Doeg does this to curry favor with Saul. David escapes, but the result was that Ahimelech and the priests who were with him were summoned before Saul. They were accused by him of the crime and Saul commanded those who were around him to fall on Ahimelech and the priests and put them to death. When they all hesitated, Doeg himself fell upon them and executed Saul’s barbarous order. Eighty-five priests perished by the sword, and the city of Nob was destroyed. All the duplicitous, depraved details can be found in 1 Samuel 21-22.
It sounds like a news report, doesn’t it? Full of attention-grabbing buzzwords.
A great deal has happened in the world of current events since I spent my last Sunday with you all. Plenty of stories that are equally full of individuals who feel like they can victimize others just because it will see them benefit in the here and now. Indeed, this story sounds like it could belong in a hearing on Capitol Hill: “The committee calls Doeg the Edomite!” The psalm itself reads almost like a congressional report, but with added moral teachings.
As theologian Albert Barnes says in his commentary on the text: The fact that [the psalm] is thus addressed to the overseer of the public music shows that, though it originally had a private reference, and was designed to record an event which occurred in the life of David, it yet had so much public interest, and contained truth of so general a nature, that it might properly be employed in the public devotions of the sanctuary.
There is a message here about not just Doeg the Edomite, but about how all of us need to remember to look beyond the desire to elevate our own circumstances and think instead about how our actions impact those in more dire circumstances.
It may seem like a tempting road to go down, the road of short-term gain. “Well, I want to get in with the cool gang, the popular kids, so if I join them in their cruelty, if I give them something else to pick on that other person about, they’ll like me more and maybe I’ll become part of the cool gang!”
Hands up if you’ve either been that person trying to get into that cool gang, or if you’ve been the one turned on by someone you knew just so they could befriend your bullies. It’s not fun, is it? It’s childish. It’s hurtful. It’s so utterly human, hence it’s inclusion in scripture.
So, what does the psalmist say will happen to those who do these terrible things?
God will break you down forever; God will snatch and tear you from your tent;
God will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying, “See the one who would not take refuge in God
but trusted in abundant riches and sought refuge in wealth!
Phew! That sounds about right, eh? That sounds like the justice we want for those Doeg’s in our lives, right?! I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find these angry descriptions of God’s judgement really quite scary. They don’t marry up with the forgiving and all-loving God I feel like I know. Sure, Doeg did a pretty scummy thing, but to be broken down by God forever? To be “uprooted from the land of the living”?
But it’s then that I remember just how human our Bible is. In those moments where we feel angriest, where we want nothing more than for our tormentors to be torn down and forsaken forever, these are the words we share. This is the God we want to have turn up on our side. We are tired of being laughed at or teased. We want to do the laughing for a change.
I must confess that I have been in a very psalm 52 state of mind every time I glance at the news headlines. All I see are Doeg’s everywhere I turn. Petty, greedy people who care more for their own comfort than the comfort of those directly impacted by the words they say. All day long they plot destruction, saying these words that devour rather than build up. I’ve been feeling more and more like they could use a bit of that tearing down by God. Maybe a healthy helping of uprooting from the land of the living…
But then I look around and realize that maybe God is looking at me. Maybe God wants to see how I will react. What will I do in the face of such deceitful, treacherous words and actions? I don’t think uprooting from the land of the living is really my style. I’m not much good at physically tearing down people’s tents… but I’m quite good at laughing. Not the cruel, teasing laughter of the bullies. No, I’m quite willing to laugh at the concept that real riches are what you have in your bank account or declare (or don’t) on your taxes. You have to laugh because it’s so absurd. There’s a reason so many plays, novels, and films are based around a wealthy person separated from their riches only to discover that that is not the key to happiness. I can tell those stories, I can preach those sermons. I can encourage others to laugh at the absurdity with me.
Think about the image the psalmist uses for those who live in the house of God. It’s not that of a nobleman surrounded by laughably large jewels and cartoonish stacks of gold coins. It’s a tree. And olive tree. That’s what someone who has the right idea is like. The nice thing about olive trees is that they aren’t all perfect little replicas of one another, they’re not beautifully manicured popsicle sticks. They’re often twisted and gnarly. David himself was not a popsicle stick tree of beauty and perfection. These are what decorate the house of God. Not gorgeous tapestries spun from gold thread, not BMWs and framed pictures of all of God’s followers’ achievements, but lumpy, rough twisted trees that bear good fruit but all of which have little pits in them. I find that a much more pleasing image of the house of God, don’t you?
I was taking Buddy for a walk yesterday along a street not far from our home and I paused to take a video of the gorgeous day and the beautiful oak trees all around me. I wanted to send it to some friends online, to share a bit of that calm and peace with them. As I was chatting with them, we got to talking about trees and I realized that my iPhone camera roll is positively teaming with pictures of trees. Something about them arrests my attention and puts me in a very reflective mood. But maybe my favorite thing about trees is the sound of the wind through their leaves. I stand under them and listen to their response to the movement of the breeze. How do trees respond to the winds that blow their leaves all day? They laugh. They flutter and shake and yet, if they are firmly planted, they remain there for a very long time.
Here’s an odd confession, but I sometimes cannot help but reach out and touch big trees as I walk by them. To me they are almost like time travelers. They’ve seen so much and yet remain alive and active still. They still laugh. They know the truth that we sometimes forget in our 24-hour news cycle world: Breezes are fleeting things, much like all those riches Doeg might have been eyeing as reward from Saul. You see, the trees have the right idea. Laugh at those breezes. Stay planted in the good soil of the house of God and you’ll be fed by the things that last, the steadfast love of God that doesn’t care about your bank account or your diplomas, but that sustains you forever. Offer shade to those in need of rest. Maybe you drop a branch or two in a particularly nasty storm, maybe all of your fruit have pesky pits in them, but God doesn’t mind. If you use your voice, the sound of your leaves, to spread love, laughter, and healing, God’s house will always be your home, your arboretum of rest and comfort forever. Amen.
Ruth 2:1-16 Ruth Meets Boaz
Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.’ She said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’
Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.’ Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’ Then she said, ‘May I continue to find favour in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.’
At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.’
How do you survive the unsurvivable? Ruth shows that the first step is to find your people. She found Naomi and declared that she would walk alongside her into a future that is made more hopeful simply by them facing it together. Naomi, who still calls herself empty and bitter when talking to former acquaintances when they arrive in Bethlehem at the end of last week’s reading, shows us that a good first step doesn’t fix everything though. Ruth and Naomi are still in mourning and are still particularly vulnerable. But, we can see that they are alive and now among people who are more likely to support them. Complex problems are rarely fixed by one magical change. But, when the situation looks bleak, it matters to take the first good step.
A good second step is putting the knowledge you have to good use. In her commentary on this text, Mary Joan Winn Leith notes that Ruth is following Jewish religious law when she offers to go glean in the fields to get food for them. Leith reminds us that their religious practice required that farmers leave part of the harvest for impoverished people, immigrants, and widows. Now, Ruth likely wouldn’t have known this custom without Naomi telling her. While we don’t read Naomi specifically tell Ruth this in any part of the story, we have learned that they had been a part of the same family for 10 years at this point. If Ruth knew this detail of Jewish religious practice, it is because Naomi or someone else in the family had shared it with her. This generous practice stuck in her memory. When it was clear that they would need to eat, Ruth put this knowledge to use.
The author Mona DeKoven Fishbane noted in her commentary on this text that Ruth’s primary values are “connection, loyalty, and caring.” These values are what led to bravely set out with Naomi, despite Naomi’s wise council to stay behind and what allowed her to pay close enough attention to her in-laws to both learn about their religious practice but also put them in use in order to meet her basic survival needs. Fishbane calls this her “faith in interpersonal connection.” It is this faith in interpersonal connection that allows her to make the best out of a fortuitous accident. The field she ended up gleaning in was that of a well-respected man in the community, Boaz. Boaz was also a relative of Naomi from her husband’s side of the family.
In their culture, the family of a widow’s deceased husband had certain responsibilities for her care, especially if she had no sons to support her. I’m not sure why Naomi didn’t immediately go to him for support. Maybe she was worn out from the trip. Maybe she was still deciding what to do. Maybe she was still holed up, nursing her grief. Whatever the reason, Naomi wasn’t the one who reached out to Boaz. Ruth was. Or, more accurately, Ruth accidentally met Boaz and Boaz, being a righteous man, was especially kind to her upon realizing their familial connection. Boaz must have had some faith in interpersonal connection, too. And, a commitment to his religious values of care for the immigrant and care for widows. When you are clear about your values, it should guide your behavior. Both Ruth and Boaz were clear about their values. And, this clarity allows them to connect over the harvest in ways that will prove to be life-saving.
In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that in some books of the Bible you know God is at work because there is a burning bush or a fiery prophet communicating the will of God. In those kinds of stories, where seas are parted or angels show up with good or very bad news, you can see and hear God at work through some kind of supernatural manifestation. That is not how God works in Ruth. Schifferdecker argues that God works through circumstances and “the faithfulness of ordinary human beings.” There is this Hebrew word hesed. In English, it gets translated as “loving-kindness.” God’s hesed, loving-kindness, is clearly alive in Ruth but is embodied through people’s actions towards each other. Within this grim situation, the divine loving-kindness Ruth showed Naomi becomes the foundation for Boaz to treat her with loving-kindness in return. Their shared values allow for a connection to bloom during an accidental meeting. This is perhaps a third way to survive the unsurvivable... being willing to make the best out of lucky accidents by fostering life-saving connections.
While there’s probably plenty more lessons from today’s reading, one more sticks out to me. It is about working within a place of refuge. Not all people who need refuge have a lot of choice about where they land. Some, though, are able to be more intentional about their destination. Ruth’s bravery and skills in cultivating interpersonal connection afforded her the space to be discerning about whom she trusted with her well-being. First, she trusted Naomi and Naomi’s confidence that her God could provide for their survival back home, in Bethlehem. Then, she trusted Boaz when he reached out, acknowledging her care for Naomi and her hard work in the fields. Ruth was able to cultivate a kind of discernment that allowed her to arrive in a place of refuge as a person in need and receive the trust-worthy care offered to her. Not every place that claims to be a refuge is truly safe. Thank God Ruth ended up in this field with this man who understood God’s command to care for the widow and immigrant and to support one’s own family.
Boaz describes his God as “Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” Mother hens... mother eagles... both powerful metaphors of God the protector and comforter that appear in other parts of scripture and Boaz uses here to describe his own understanding of his role in this situation. He is an agent of God’s loving-kindness, providing refuge to those who need it. Would that more powerful people understood their role to agents of grace rather than hoarders of power. The vulnerable would have to work far less hard if that were to happen. As you look towards the coming weeks, weeks that may appear bleak, I hope that you will remember Ruth in this story. May you cultivate life-giving relationships. May your actions be rooted in you most cherished values. And, may accidental meetings become occasions of grace. And, if you’re feeling more like Boaz that Ruth, may you remember that God calls you to hospitality and to creating refuge. You never know who is going to need it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-2-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-21-23 lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-2-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-21-23
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Mona DeKoven Fishbane, "Ruth: Dilemmas of Loyalty and Connection," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (New York: Ballentine Books, 1994)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.