During the month of August, we are reading the book of Ruth. This message from August 17 focused on the third chapter of Ruth, which contains some (wink, wink) suggestive language about what happens when Ruth meets Boaz on the threshing room floor in the middle of the night.
Despite the fact that reading the third chapter of Ruth in front of my congregation makes be blush a little, I love this scene because it’s so real. This is a story about real life. The whole book of Ruth is like this: ordinary people going about their lives. The point of Ruth is that it is real life. Real life includes complicated families and death and marriage and mothers-in-law and hunger and sex and heartbreak and joy. Real life is lived out in these bodies of ours, these God-created bodies in which we breathe and pray and eat and love. We live out our faith in these bodies, and God is no less present in the barn with Ruth and Boaz than in the temple with the high priests. This is faith in real life.
So, Ruth goes to Boaz — and we should note, actually, that this is pretty bold of her. And it was Naomi’s idea! This is a sort of daring action, these women taking matters into their own hands, not waiting around for something to happen to them.
Boaz, for his part, seems happy to see Ruth, even appreciates her boldness, and again points to it as an act of loyalty, the same way he did when they met in the barley fields and he commended her for her loyalty to Naomi. He appreciates her boldness and her faithfulness, and he promises that he’ll marry her.
We shouldn’t miss the point that she’s a foreigner — he didn’t have to accept her. In fact, he goes out of his away again, to welcome her, to make sure that she’s taken care of. He doesn’t have to do this (we’re told later that there’s another relative who actually could also take Ruth in). But Boaz does. Again, here are these people acting with hesed, with steadfast love, acting with love beyond what’s expected of them.
And here’s the thing: This is the way God acts toward humanity, throughout scripture. Notice this. God is always more gracious, more hospitable, more generous, more loving than God has any right to be, then the people ever deserve, than anyone ever expects. And here in Ruth, the people are acting out the same lovingkindness – the same hesed – to each other that God always acts toward us.
Now, I have to stop here. Because, if I can be really honest, right here is where I got stuck. Right about here, with Boaz taking care of Ruth and Ruth taking care of Naomi and everybody getting along just fine — right about here is where I got stuck. What I mean is, I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what this nice little story has to say to us right now, this week.
The world has been a hard place this week.
Israel and Palestine., where a cease fire seems tenuous at best.
Ebola in Africa.
The Yazidi refugees trapped on the mountain in Iraq, caught in a conflict we barely understand
The suicide of Robin Williams, reminding us how powerful the forces of mental illness and depression truly are.
Michael Brown – another young unarmed black man killed on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, bringing all the questions about race and violence and authority back to a head again.
The world has been a hard place this week, and I have to tell you that I was about ready to toss the book of Ruth out the window.
I love the story of Ruth. But I realized this week that one of the reasons I love it so much is that everybody in the story behaves pretty well, all the time. They love each other, they take care of each other. In the context of their time and culture, they go beyond expectations to make sure everybody gets taken care of. They live graciously, humbly, lovingly, faithfully.
And I have to confess that I watched the news this week and read this book, which I’ve always loved so much, and felt a little bit let down. Where in this sweet, gentle story full of well-behaved people was I supposed to find any good news for us?
There’s heartbreak here in this story, and hardship — theres untimely death, and famine, and poverty… but there’s not the kind of injustice that seems to have happened in Ferguson, where witnesses say that Michael Brown was shot multiple times while backing away from from a police officer with his hands up.
There’s not the kind of injustice that has happened to John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezelle Ford, Dante Parker, and countless, countless others — the statistics are staggering — all with names, all with mothers who love them.
In the sweet little book of Ruth, there’s not the kind of injustice that makes me think of a friend of mine who I shared an apartment with many years ago. She has two sons now, the oldest just started kindergarten this week, and her sons – because of the color of their skin – when they grow up will look a whole lot more like Michael Brown than my children will, and I’m guessing that she worries about her sons in a way that I will never worry about mine, and that breaks my heart.
I thought of my friend and her boys. And about Michael Brown’s family. And about the police who try to keep us safe. And about all the ways the world is broken.
Ruth, it seemed, didn’t have much for me this week.
I wanted to turn to the psalms instead, and find an angry psalm of lament, one where we could shake our fists at God in anger and grief.
I wanted to read Psalm 60:
O God, you have rejected us, taken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us.
You have caused the land to quake, you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering.
I wanted a Psalm that cursed at God, that asked:
Where are you in all this, God?
Where are you?
Where are you in the deaths of Michael Brown and the protests on the street in Fergueson? Where are you in the all the other unjust deaths?
Where are you, and why can’t we figure this out? Why can’t we love each other better than this? The world is falling apart: where are you?
How long, O God, how long?
I wanted the agony of the Psalms.
Or the prophets. I wanted to leave Ruth behind and turn ahead to the prophets. I wanted the thundering voice of Amos or Elijah or Isaiah… I wanted a voice that wouldn’t mince words, that would yell and scream to get our attention I wanted a prophet that calls the people to repent, to turn back to God, to stop killing our children, stop treating each other like we are disposable. I wanted a prophet to tell us in no uncertain terms that this is not the world God wants us to have, not the way God wants us to live. I wanted a prophet to say woe upon us if we don’t change our ways.
I wanted the thundering voice of the prophets.
Or Jesus. I wanted Jesus. I wanted to hear Jesus stand up in the synagogue and quote those prophets: God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free.
That’s what I wanted when I watched the news this week.
I wanted the psalms to cry out in grief.
I wanted the prophets to tell us to stop.
I wanted Jesus to give us some hope.
I didn’t want Ruth and her well-behaved family where everything turns out ok.
For a brief time this week, when the highway patrol took over security in Ferguson, things calmed down for a bit. The police took off their gas masks and Captain Ron Johnson, who’d been put in charge, actually got out in the streets and walked with the protestors and listened to them. And they listened to him. And he said yes, we want answers, we want justice, and they could see he meant it, and the night was peaceful.
Then the weekend has been rough, again, and the story is clearly not over… But for a brief moment there, we saw what might be possible if we talked instead of shouted. If we walked with each other instead of getting in the way. If we took off our armor, literally and metaphorically. If we assumed the best about each other instead of the worst. If we went out of our way to be kind. If we went beyond what was expected of us. If we looked out for each other. If we acted out of love instead of fear.
And that, finally, is what brought me back to Ruth. Because maybe this is what the book of Ruth offers us. Between the shouting prophets and the weeping psalms, here’s a quiet little glimpse into what the world might look like if we followed the way of God, if we lived with the hesed – the lovingkindess, the steadfast love – that God has always shown us.
Don’t get me wrong: We need those Psalms and we need those prophets and we need Jesus, but we also need Ruth.
We need Ruth to remind us that this is faith in real life, right here in and now, in these bodies and in these lives, that God is at work here. We need Ruth to remind us that the way of God calls us to a new way of life.
You know, the end of chapter 3, where we’re stopping today, is a bit of a cliff-hanger. Boaz and Ruth have their rendeveauz on the threshing room floor and Boaz promises to marry her — but there’s a catch. As it turns out, there’s another relative who’s actually closer in the family tree than Boaz, and if this other guy wants to marry Ruth — according to the laws and customs of the time — he gets first dibs. So Boaz promises to go see the other relative and see if he can sort things out.
And that’s where the story leaves us, and where we’ll leave the story today, with the promise made but not yet fulfilled.* Which is, of course, where we live all the time – this place called hope. There is hope for Ruth. There is hope for Ferguson, Missouri. There is hope in the words of ancient scripture and there is hope in the courageous actions of bold people today.
There is hope for our world. There is hope for us.