Karen Weisgerber, Ph.D.
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
This fall at the Union Church in Waban we are engaged in a sermon series entitled: Ancient Stories of a Living Faith, where we are exploring the stories from the Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament, coming to better know the bible Jesus read. Last week we were introduced to the Book of Ruth and the beginning of the story of Ruth and Naomi – where we pick up today.
And we pick up at a very interesting place. My reaction is:
What?? Let me get this straight. The best advice Naomi, a beloved mother-in-law can give to the eternally devoted Ruth is to sneak, well oiled, into a man’s bed after he has had a bit to drink, lie down and wait for him to tell her what to do?
What?? And this story is so profoundly important in the bible that it is one of only two books named in honor of a woman?
This is tough to take. I get my back up a little. This is seamy, and just plain wrong. I have daughters, and I am repelled. This Old Testament stuff is getting old.
Maybe I should take a moment to pause, for us all to pause, and gather ourselves in a moment of prayer.
Lord, help me here. Let my mind be opened and our hearts welcoming of the possibility these words hold. Through them, let us find our way closer to you. Amen.
Before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, before the death of Freddie Grey in Baltimore, before Walter Scott was shot in the back in South Carolina, there was Amadou Diallo. Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book Blink, tells the story of Mr. Diallo. Amadou was an immigrant from Guinea, West Africa, having come to New York City just three years prior. He was poor, he was alone in a dark vestibule, it was shortly after midnight and – by police account – he looked out of place.
In seven seconds it was done.
It’s just after midnight when four plain-clothes officers spot Amadou and yell to come out of the vestibule – one thousand-one. He steps back, likely afraid,– one thousand-two. They run towards him – one thousand-three. Amadou tries to pull something from his pocket – one thousand-four. An officer yells “He’s got a gun” one thousand-five. The shots begin one thousand-six, one thousand-seven – then silence.
Seven seconds. Forty-one shots were fired, 19 of which hit Amadou. He was dead on the scene – trying to pull his wallet, containing identification, out of his pocket. There was no gun.
It is very easy to think we know, to know we know. We quickly assess a situation; form our opinion, shape our reaction – and then we are done. Amadou, black alone at night and out of place, was the drug-crazed robber the cops were looking for. And for that, for the assumptions of others and the conviction they made, he died.
Naomi is a self-serving old lady with few prospects save trading the favors of her daughter-in-law in hopes of a secured future. Ruth is naïve at best, a clueless pawn at worst. For that, I reprimand them in my mind and turn away from any possibility this story holds. I am done and I move on.
We all have mindsets. We all collect data so very quickly: we assess, we decide and we respond – if only internally – in a matter of seconds. And we rarely look back.
Your son, yup, he’s not going to study enough for that test tomorrow, so you ask his plan, but you know he won’t get it done. The wife, she’s gonna talk too much tonight at dinner, so you tune out. That Democrat, Republican, Tea Party member or Libertarian is just nuts. Forget about the Muslims.
It is human to anticipate. It is a survival mechanism to quickly sum up and, with the speed of a reflex, respond. We may even be right.
Yet in this all, we have lost one of the greatest gifts God has given us – that of wonder. We lose the precious silence of a pause as our minds are filled with calculations, judgments and so much noise. We amass what we experience as ‘fact’ to tell a story we already know (he is black, he is alone, he is dangerous)– not to see, listen, learn and be impacted by a story we don’t (he is a stranger, he is alone, he is afraid). We do it at great peril.
Take Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.
When we meet Naomi in this passage, she is a destitute widow. She appears to be plotting for her own security by nothing short of selling Ruth out. Ruth is passively compliant. Boaz could easily be summed up with a four-letter word that is rarely used to flatter: he is rich. He owns fields, he has female servants, and he is the type to be seduced by one more young woman in his bed…right? Not.
Almost unaware, our passive beliefs shape our ideas of we meet. Who are these people?
Naomi and Ruth are bound in poverty by the deaths of men who would care for them. Together they have endured famine, privation, and travel as refugees, arriving at Naomi’s birth home of Bethlehem. Naomi’s wisdom leads them, her homeland offers fields from which to glean. Ruth’s youth and ability allows them to eat, and her arduous work brings them respect. Together they embody something we are not accustomed to – sacrificial love and trust. We nearly don’t recognize it. Yet it is this that leads Ruth to trust Naomi’s instruction, not her stupidity.
Boaz, rather than a rich man getting richer, is a faithful Jew, one of the few in the time of Judges. Just before the passage we heard today, Boaz insists that Ruth stay at his field to gather grain, as she would be far safer than migrating from field to field, which is the way of poverty stricken gleaners. He commands his workers to protect her and assures that she leaves with enough food not just for herself, but for her aged mother-in-law who is too old for the work of the field. All of this for a Moabite woman – a woman of the faith reviled by Jews.
When Naomi suggests Ruth wash, anoint and dress in her best clothes, what is lost in translation is that this is an instruction to present herself as purely as possible, not to lure or seduce. Anointing is to prepare for something, often a type of blessing or transformation.
We use our own inference of what it means to put on oil or scent and one’s best clothes and we think we have Naomi pegged. And it is there, in a matter of seconds, that we have lost her. We lose a true understanding of Naomi herself because of our expectation of who she must be.
How many times a day do we do this? How often do we lose the possibility of really meeting the person with us? Sure, your son might not study… why? Might he be struggling with something? Your wife, sure she natters. Is there something she most deeply wants you to know? From those closest to us to those whose paths we are just crossing, how many times does our certainty of what we are going to hear or see shut out what we might? Could it really make a difference?
What Naomi knows is that Boaz is a kinsman, related through her late husband, Elimelech, and as such, law allows Boaz and Ruth to marry. Boaz is unaware of this. To him, Ruth is a refugee, and while he ensures she is treated with kindness, she is an ‘other.’ If they each live with their assumptions, they will remain forever unknown to each other.
Is there a way to move past expectation and assumption? Ruth is instructed to way to present herself as she is, alone, out of context. What will Boaz do?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have some thoughts about what such a fella would do. He is old and alone and a young woman slips into his bed at night. I’m thinking this might seem like a dream come true. Or the untoward advance of a heathen woman looking for favor. Either way, this doesn’t much seem like a time to pause. But that’s exactly what he does. When Boaz wakes, he makes no assumption. In his startle, he allows himself not to know, not to draw a conclusion. He asks the simple question:
Who are you?
Who are you? Not I know who you are, now that you have climbed into my bed, or that you are in a dark vestibule, or that you’ve closed your text book or natter on and on at dinner or believe in big/small/no government or worship a different God.
Not I know you, but who are you?
And now comes Ruth, the one for whom this book of the bible is named. We might see her as a pawn at first, a vehicle for giving birth, Naomi’s last chance for redemption.
Yet it is Ruth who most embodies the gift of wonder, who allows herself to discover anew. She travels to Bethlehem with Naomi, a place where she could easily expect to meet her enemy. Instead, she discovers her future. She isn’t hindered by the anticipation of being impoverished, shunned, or judged. She is present with wonder and openness.
So we come to the moment. It is dark. She is different. She is out of place in the thrashing room and lying at a man’s feet. He awakes – one thousand one. He realizes a woman is at his feet. One thousand-two. So it begins. He meets a woman, nor the one he knows, but one he never knew existed. In the moments he allowed himself to wonder, to ask who she was and let himself hear her answer, the course of history is changed. She is Ruth (which means companion, friend), she is a widow in the line of Elimelech, but perhaps most fundamentally, she is open to him and he to her.
An indigent immigrant, a rich man, mixed faiths, mixed races, mixed ages. A moment of pause, of recognition, of acceptance. Through their union comes the birth of David, the king of the Jews. This is the lineage of Jesus
The Butterfly effect. A nearly imperceptible event that impacts all that follows. The phrase was coined after Edward Lorenz, in 1961, took a bit of a short cut investigating weather patterns. He rounded 0.506127 to 0.506 – to one thousandth of a decimal point when they entered data. But there was a problem. The weather predicted using the rounded number was entirely different. Hurricanes occurred where none had before. Tornadoes appeared, or disappeared.
From a meteorological point of view, the difference of .506127 to .506 is likened to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. In the initial conditions of weather patterns, an effect as slight as the beating of wings can impact all that follows.
Our smallest actions, those happening in mere second, have the potential for a tremendous effect. The hard part is that at the very moment those actions are taken, we have no idea whatsoever what that impact might be.
She slipped unnoticed through the crowd. This didn’t strike her because she had never been noticed. Men of great standing surrounded her – men, who in fact, were responsible for taking her house away from her when she became widowed. She had to squeeze her way through their disregard, turn sideways to slide through the little space their broad shoulders and grand garments afforded. She dropped two coins of nearly no value in the kettle. It might never have mattered.
Yet, the sound of those coins hitting the bottom of the kettle have rung for nearly 2000 years. A gift so small, perhaps the most miniscule mentioned in the bible, has turned out to be one most remarkable. Within all the fanfare, gloating and largess of the Scribes, this singular woman is the one remembered. Why? Because she was noticed, not for what people were looking for – how much people were giving – but for who she was and how she gave.
Those coins dropping – ‘clang’ ‘clang’ – took maybe two seconds. This small action has been noticed, shared, celebrated, called out from pulpits and mountaintops – the flap of a wing transforming how we think of giving. It took only a moment. And, likely, she never knew.
It was cold – the coldest Sunday we have had thus far, with the first few flakes of snow falling from the sky. No one really anticipated it nor fully prepared for it – but a few hours in the cold never hurt anyone. This was Common Cathedral, and our church had made the commitment to be there and help, so help the volunteers would. There were sandwiches to hand out and some hungry folks to feed. In a few hours it would be over and the helpers would be warm again. Perhaps it made some sense to hurry things along.
In some ways, they look the same, these homeless folks. They line up with ragged clothes in layers, often ill fitting and unclean. But one man looked out of place. He seemed confused, disturbed, disengaged. He had no layers. He was shivering. He had accepted no help. He was bald, and it was so very cold. Perhaps a hat… A call went out for a hat. Did anyone have one?
This man had accepted not one gift thus far. Many offers were made. A blanket next to him was untouched. Aden O’Beirne, one of our youth at the service, noticed this man’s fierce shiver. He also noticed that he seemed a bit off, maybe even scary, slightly out of place. One thousand-one. Aden hesitated. One thousand–two. He felt the warmth of the hat on his own head. One thousand-three. He walked, with some fear, to the man. One thousand-four. He offered the hat, but the man said no. One thousand-five. Aden repeated the offer. One thousand-six. This time the man took the hat. One thousand-seven. He put it on, and slowly walked away.
We don’t know what path this man will walk. At the flap a wing, at the moment of pause, at the time of wonder, we never know what the effect will be. We do know that at that single moment, for a moment, some thing is different. Boaz meets the true Ruth, a widow is noticed and celebrated, a man has discovered safety in accepted a gift and the warmth it holds. We don’t know what will happen next. We do know that so much is possible.
Maybe your son won’t study, and maybe there is something to know that isn’t known yet. Maybe there will be a lot of chatter at dinner, and maybe there is something to hear that you haven’t yet heard. Maybe that man stepping back into the vestibule has nothing to hide but the persecuted person he has come to be known as.
We all have seven seconds. Imagine if we use them.