St. Matthew’s Sermon 11-11-2018


St. Matthew’s Sermon 11-11-2018

Ever-changing Beauty

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

So many people, those of faith and those without faith, look at the Bible as ancient documentation of the interactions between God and humanity. True, some of it is, But the Bible isn’t one book; it’s a collection of books put into a single binding. Some of those books are, indeed, historical documentation; some are collections of sayings; the Psalms, of course, are a collection of hymns; and still others are stories that are intended to make us think, to get us to look at life, faith, and a life of faith from another perspective.

The reason it’s important to recognize this is that, if we look at all the books of the Bible as historical fact, we tend to miss the wonder, the truth, and the beauty that is revealed by the very skillful writers.

One of the clearest examples of this is the book of Jonah. Even we of faith may be challenged to think of it as documentation of a historical event. Did Jonah volunteer to be tossed off a ship in the middle of a storm? Maybe. Did he really get swallowed by a great fish… and spat out onto dry land? Well, could be. Did the people of Nineveh actually dress their animals in sack cloth to show their repentance? I guess it could happen.

But if we insist on arguing the story as ‘fact’ we lose two things; 1) we fail to see the ‘truths’ revealed, like God’s persistence in the face of human resistance, God’s willingness to forgive the repentant, and the lack of human ability to fully understand the nature of God, just to name a few. And 2) we lose the ability to fully understand how to apply the truths of this ancient writing to our lives today.

The book of Ruth is another example. In this case there is nothing that requires us to stretch our limits of logical reasoning to believe that it might be the recording of an actual event. But if we read it as such, we are left with a rather unexciting story that would seem to have no, or little, moral message.

Yet, where Jonah gives us a dry and mostly dark picture of life with God; Ruth portrays a steady journey from dark despair to bright-shining redemption. And within that journey is an ever-changing array of vivid colors.

One of the things that stood out to me as I re-read the text is that, although it is titled “Ruth”, Ruth is a secondary character to Naomi; Ruth is also a foreigner, a Moabite, whereas Naomi is a Judean woman. So, right from the title there is a turn that we must consider while reading the story; is this really about Ruth, or is it about Naomi?

As we begin to read, we learn that Naomi, with her husband and sons, left Judea because of hard times in their homeland and went to Moab, the two sons grow up and take Moabite women as their wives. The twist here is that the Law of God prohibits Israelites from marrying foreigners.

Then, the three women, Naomi and her daughters-in-law, end up being childless widows. This is a fate just short of a death sentence in the patriarchal middle-east of the time. With no husbands and no sons they are on-their-own with no one to provide for them.

Yet their love for each other holds them together… for a while at least, until Naomi convinces Orpah to stay in her homeland, with the people she knows, and try to find another husband or to try to gain support from other family. Ruth, however, cannot be convinced. Just think of how strong that bond of love is that she would stay with her mother-in-law, leaving the only home, culture, and religion she has ever known.

Another scene change and another twist or two, or three: Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem where Naomi is remembered and called by name. In her response “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara” there is a message that we, of the English language would easily miss. In the original language “Naomi” means pleasant; the name “Mara” means bitter. Naomi is no longer being nor feeling pleasant, she is bitter. And, the other turn, she begins to blame God for her misery. And we learn that Naomi has “a prominent rich” kinsman… on her husband’s side… the side of rightful inheritance. Well, things are looking a little different now.

But, another scene change and another twist; Naomi sends Ruth into the fields to glean grain so they could have something to eat, but also hoping she might ‘catch the eye’ of one of the young harvesters and, thus, find a new husband. But it’s Boaz, the rich, old relative, who notices her. He’s heard of all that Ruth has done for Naomi and praises her for that, he instructs the young men to stay away from her, and tells her to stay close to the young women where she can take all the grain she wants. He gives her dinner, and even allows her to take grain right from the sheaves rather than only what’s fallen to the ground.

On the surface, it sounds very virtuous of Boaz. But remember, Ruth is there in hopes of finding a new husband among the “young men”. (hmm) Is there some manipulation going on here? And, if Boaz was at all familiar with the Law, he would know what is written in Deuteronomy, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD… because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt… You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live. (23:3a, 4a, 6).

Now we come to the first part of today’s reading and to where things really turn around. Naomi hatches a plan to assure Ruth’s future security, she’s going to be the wife of Boaz. Naomi tells Ruth to go to Boaz but wait until he’s had dinner and a few drinks before she approaches him and “uncovers his feet”. Innuendo abounds here; most noticeable when you understand that the “feet” is a metaphor for… um… another part of the body that’s usually kept covered. Let’s just say that, at the very least, there is some romance going on here.

Ruth does as her mother-in-law instructs; except that she doesn’t wait for Boaz to tell her what to do, she tells him what to do, “…spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” But isn’t it actually Naomi that is next-of-kin? And, here again, there is innuendo; “spread your cloak over” is a phrase that could be a request to be kept warm, or for support and protection, or a hint to taking the romance a step further. But wait, isn’t there some law about being too close with “next-of-kin”? And then another twist as we suddenly learn that there is another man in line ahead of Boaz as next-of-kin.

Another scene change, it’s the next day, and yet another twist; we now learn that Naomi’s late husband owned land too. So not only does Moab have to negotiate with his relative for his right to Ruth, he has to work a deal over the ownership of precious land as well.

A deal is worked out in accordance with the law and customs of the time. But what would seem odd to us in our time is that Ruth came to be Boaz’s wife as a part of the package while Naomi, the matriarch, isn’t mentioned to have received neither money nor a promise of future care.

One more scene change, one more twist. A male child is born to Ruth and Boaz but the women speak of blessings on Naomi, not Ruth and Boaz, and Naomi takes up the child as the one that will restore her life.

Now we’re turned all the way back to the very beginning of the story, to the title itself, where we asked, “is this really about Ruth, or is it about Naomi.

 

Reading the story of Ruth is like looking into a kaleidoscope; with every turn there’s something new to look at; each new view wipes out what was before, never to be seen again, and rearranges what was so clear a moment ago into a new, but no less beautiful scene. And in this beautiful creation are so many reflections for us to consider, in our lives today, and questions we not only can, but must, ask of ourselves.

Who is the main character in our lives and who are the secondary? By what rules to we determine those positions? By what means do we evaluate those positions?

The patriarchal society of the time left widows with little hope. How does the same patriarchal attitude of our time affect the lives of women and children, and others who suffer misfortune.

How much does devoted love in any relationship add to our ability to survive hopeless situations?

Is God responsible for our hardships? Can we justifiably blame God for the calamities that befall us?

God’s Law tells us who we can accept into our community and who we cannot; who we can show kindness to and who we cannot. But does the acceptance and kindness and love shown to us by those excluded create cause for an exception to the rule; or, in sufficient quantity even call for the deletion of the rule?

God’s Law also tells us who we can and cannot marry. But, again, how much does dedicated love add to a call for exceptions?

And, just one more of many, is bending the rules justifiable if it is for the redemption and fulfillment of one more embittered, broken life.

Our Bible, each book, each word, is so much more than the black and white of the pages and print. It is truly an ever-changing array of beautiful, vivid color that calls us to see our own present reality, lacking of merit as it is, held against God’s redemptive, restorative, inclinations. In that, is the beauty of the Word of God.

Amen.

 

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
3:1 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.
3:2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.
3:3 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.
3:4 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.”
3:5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.
4:14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!
4:15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
4:16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.
4:17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Psalm 127
127:1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
127:2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.
127:3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.
127:4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.
127:5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

 

Hebrews 9:24-28
9:24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
9:25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own;
9:26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.
9:27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment,
9:28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Mark 12:38-44
12:38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
12:39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
12:40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”