David A. Davis
July 4, 2021
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The bride was a member of the Philadelphia Opera Company. The groom was a Presbyterian minister who happened to have a trained tenor voice. I was standing where I always stood at weddings, which now would feel uncomfortably close to the couple. They had just exchanged their vows and the rings. Before I offered what the liturgy calls the nuptial prayer, they broke into song. I wasn’t surprised by that. I knew the plan. What surprised me was sheer volume coming from the both of them that pretty much seared my eyebrows. They sang a duet that was musical setting of a biblical text:
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
The Book of Ruth, chapter 1. I didn’t have to point out to the couple that the text, just like I Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind) has nothing to do with marriage. They knew that. It has nothing to do with marriage but they did know that the text from Ruth has everything to do with covenant and commitment.
The Book of Ruth tells of a couple from Bethlehem moving to the country of Moab with their two sons because there was a famine in the land. Unfortunate, Elimelech, the husband and father died, leaving Naomi with two sons. The sons eventually married but after ten years or so, they both died as well leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi hears that the famine in the land of Judah had ended and decides her best hope of survival in the ancient world as a widow is to return to Bethlehem. She pretty much tells Ruth and Orpah that their plan ought to be stay and meet and find a nice Moabite man to marry rather than show up in Bethlehem as a foreigner. All of them wept together at the thought of parting and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and headed off while Ruth clung to Naomi and expressed her intent to stand with, be loyal to, never leave her mother-in-law. Thus, “entreat me not”. When the two women wandered into Bethlehem, the bible says that “the whole town was stirred because of them.” Two unaccompanied women, no doubt tattered by both the journey and life itself. After ten years, the other women in town barely recognized Naomi. They arrived in town just at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Ruth’s idea to go gleaning in someone else’s field to gather food for her and Naomi is actually supported in the ancient law of Israel recorded in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do this.” (Deut. 24:19-22)
In her commentary on Ruth, Dr. Kathie Sakenfeld (a member of the Nassau Church community) points out that Boaz goes over and above the law when it comes to Ruth. He doesn’t just allow her to glean. He asks the head reaper about her. He gives her instructions that will help keep her safe in the field. He offers her water that his reapers have drawn. He invites her lunch with the rest of the workers and serves her a “heaped up” portion. And when they went back to work, he told the men to allow her to glean among the standing sheaves not just the ones that have fallen to the ground as would have been the custom and the law. So, this “prominent rich man” offers generosity, hospitality, and security to the daughter-in-law of the wife of dead, perhaps distant relative he hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. He offers generosity, hospitality, and security to a vulnerable woman with little to nothing to her name who is referred to over and over again as the Moabite, which is the ancients’ way of emphasizing that she was the foreigner, the stranger, the other.
In addition to generosity, hospitality, and security, Boaz invokes the promise of the God of Israel. “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 come have for refuge.” The prayer of Boaz is that Ruth would find refuge under God wings. You may remember that God is a very minor character in the four chapters of the Book of Ruth. It’s not quite like Esther where God is not even mentioned. Here in Ruth, God doesn’t speak and any mention of the action of God is very limited. Naomi gives credit to God for food coming back after the famine in Judah. Naomi references the Lord’s hand turning against her in all the emptiness after the death of her sons and husband. And when Ruth becomes pregnant at the end of the story, it is according to the text, “the Lord who made her conceive.” Where the action of God is not mentioned, where God is not given credit is when it comes to Ruth finding refuge under God’s wings. That refuge for Ruth comes in the form of the generosity, hospitality, and security at the hands of Boaz.
One doesn’t have to understand much of ancient culture and practice and history to come to the conclusion that Boaz’ actions were life saving for Ruth and Naomi, lifesaving, literally. Refuge, literally. With generosity, hospitality, and security, Boaz became an agent for the very wings of God. And one does not need to hear the last judgmental part of Jesus teaching in Matthew 25 shouted from the rooftops (“just as you did NOT do it one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”, you do not need to wait for Matthew 25 to ponder the flip side of the refuge of God in Ruth. For if the refuge of God sought by Ruth is dependent upon Boaz and his generosity, hospitality and security, then to withhold generosity, hospitality, and security or to not offer generosity, hospitality and security to the alien, the orphan, and the widow is, then, to withhold the promised refuge of God. It is to clip the sheltering wings of God.
It is hardly a shocking or outside the box theological conviction to believe that God’s actions are often experienced in and through the hands of humankind. That divine agency is at work in the action of people like you and me. What is startling, what ought to stop the people of God in their tracks, what ought to give the followers of Jesus more than a just a little to think about, is that theological conviction turned around. On the one hand, to say that human sin hinders the action of God in the world is pretty much plain as day. As easy to see as your hand in front of your face. But on the other hand, to be confronted with the idea that the lack of offering generosity, hospitality, and security threatens the refuge God promises to the alien, the orphan, and the widow…well, that leads to a conviction of a different kind, doesn’t it? It sort of hits a bit closer to home when it comes to the Christian church, the history of the church, the action of the church. It ought to be more than a bit convicting there in the collective heart of the church of Jesus Christ. For the church to ponder the possibility and the pretty plain reality that it has role to play in clipping the sheltering wings of God.
A few weeks ago, I told you about the retired funeral director who thirty some years ago told me he didn’t favor stained glass windows in church. He was telling me about the church where they worshipped during the summers in Maine. The windows were clear. He would sit on the same side of the church each Sunday so he could look out at the cows on neighboring farm. “It’s not that I don’t listen”, he said, “I just find it easier to listen to the gospel while looking out on the world.”
Here at the table, after the elements have been distributed you sometimes hear one of us say “has everyone been fed?” Some churches have those words etched in the front of the communion table: “has everyone been fed?” It could be a simple practical, liturgical question. Has everyone here received the bread and the cup. It could also be understood as bit of a theological retort to traditions who so clearly “fence the table”. Instead of reminding those gathered at the Table of who is worthy or allowed or invited to partake, the one celebrating the Lord’s Supper stops to make sure all are included: “has everyone been fed?”
But one can imagine sitting in a sanctuary with clear windows that looked out on the world. One can imagine worshipping virtually on a television, a computer, an iPad where more often, most often, you are watching again and again all that goes on in the world. And the one celebrating communion stops to ask: “has everyone been fed…has EVERYONE been fed”. And then, as stays silent for an uncomfortable amount of time, all those gathered at the table in the room and virtually, realize the question is really about the body of Christ and the sheltering wings of God. The question is really about offering, generosity, hospitality and security to the alien, the orphan, and the widow. The question is really about Jesus and his call for justice.
In the Presbyterian Reformed tradition, we believe this meal is a sign of God’s kingdom. Yes, it is a foretaste of glory divine. But it also provides nourishment for the journey of faith which includes some ethical nutrition as you and I go forth into the world to work for and serve God’s kingdom. Yes, it is about remembering all that Christ has done and proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes again. But it is also an empowering, encouraging, meal of exhortation. A sort of pre-game for those who are sent into the world as disciples of Jesus Christ.
What parent hasn’t told a child that eating vegetables, trying the fish, eating a good meal will help you to grow up big and strong one day? So come to the Table this morning. For it comes to the sheltering wings of God, we have some work to do.