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)
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.