Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, What a Night! Sermon on Ruth 3:1-18

"Hay Bale" by Jamie Wyeth

Scripture can be found here...

Try to remember a time when you fell in love. Maybe it was summertime.

Maybe you remember a warm evening spent walking through the park, hand in hand with someone you’d had your eye on for a long time. And now, you knew the feeling was mutual. And you were light-headed and giddy with the new reality. Love!

Or maybe you were in an air-conditioned restaurant. A conversation started… “Tell me about yourself.” And the next thing you knew, it was five hours later, and you regretted the early morning commitment that made you say goodnight before you wanted to. It was love.

Or maybe you were watching the one you’d been married to for a long time already. They were fixing a faucet. It was a hot day. It had been a frustrating project, taking longer than planned, requiring a second trip to the hardware store. You brought a cup of ice water, and your eyes met, for just a moment. And there it was… you’d do anything for each other. Still. It’s still love.

In this morning’s passage from the Book of Ruth we are given a window into an intimate moment—but what is it, exactly? Is it the moment Ruth and Boaz fall in love? Is it the moment when they know they belong together? What exactly happens on that threshing floor?

The story is set in motion by Naomi.

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, from different lands, ethnic groups, and religions, have been living in mutual commitment in Bethlehem. Their stomachs were empty, but now they are full. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological needs come first. Then the need for safety. Then connection—love, marriage, family. Explicitly stating that the goal for Ruth must now be marriage, Naomi sends her daughter-in-law, washed and anointed, to the end-of-harvest celebration, with their kinsman Boaz as the object of Naomi’s strategies. Naomi instructs Ruth,

“… 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.”  ~ Ruth 3:3b-4

There are several ways we can look at this. Maybe what we are seeing is a planned seduction. Ruth is bathed and anointed—she’s put on her perfume, taken care as to how she is dressed. Anyone who has been in love knows the ritual of preparing to spend time with the object of their affections. Choosing the right clothes. Fussing with your hair. This is all familiar.

Where the biblical narrative takes an unexpected jag is in what Naomi suggests next. “Don’t approach him until he’s drunk and ready to go to sleep. Then lie down next to him…”

There is a specter hovering over this scene, the ghost of something else entirely. I’ve stated a couple of times over these past three weeks that Ruth and Naomi have no options for employment. But that is not true. There is a profession open to them, the oldest profession, and the hint, the threat of prostitution hangs around this scene like an unwelcome guest. And I promise you: anyone hearing this story or reading the scroll back in the time when it was written would have understood that fact very clearly. The actions Naomi urges Ruth to take—with the specific goal of obtaining a marriage proposal from Boaz—could easily be interpreted as solicitation, with Ruth as the prostitute and Boaz as the client. This is an extremely risky proposition. If you’d like to know all about the significance of the phrase “uncover his feet,” you can catch me at coffee hour or at bible study on Monday at 5:00 PM.

But this is not prostitution. Ruth is not soliciting, and Boaz is no client. And, in fact, after she follows all Naomi’s instructions to the letter, Ruth stops short. She stops short at stopping short—she does not follow Naomi’s instructions to wait to be instructed by Boaz. Instead, she speaks:

[Boaz says], “Who are you?” And [Ruth answers], “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”

We interrupt the flow of this sermon to bring you a brief piece of background information on that phrase, “next-of-kin.” According to the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, close relatives must step up to guard the property rights of the family when there is a death. In this case, Ruth is marriageable, and there is, we learn for the first time right here, property associated with Ruth’s dead husband—property she can’t own outright because she is a woman. “Next-of-kin” is a legal designation. It means that Boaz is not only eligible, he is morally required to step forward—to keep the property in the family by marrying Ruth.

But now: did you notice what just happened? That in a story supposed to have taken place something like 3500 years ago, a woman has proposed marriage to a man? God is said to spread a cloak over God’s people repeatedly throughout scripture (in Hebrew, the word is “wings.”) It is a metaphor for complete care and protection, an act of love and nurture. When Ruth asks Boaz to spread his cloak over her, she is asking him to care for her, to protect her. Ruth is asking Boaz to marry her, and she is doing so in language that deliberately ties Boaz’s action to God’s: love as an act of caring and protection. The Hebrew word for this is hesed. It can be translated love, or loving-kindness, or faithfulness. Hesed is the kind of love God has for us.

And Boaz’s answer?

[Boaz says], "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.” ~ Ruth 3:10-11

There’s that word again, hesed, only here it’s translated “loyalty.” But it’s the same word. Love. Loving-kindness. Faithfulness. The kind of love God has for us.

And here it seems like a good time to notice: this chapter is usually portrayed as an attempt to get Boaz to save Ruth (and, by extension, Naomi, and their family’s property and heritage). But here Boaz, with incredible grace, and humility, and honesty, points out a poignant truth: Ruth is saving him, as well. He reveals that he thinks of himself as less worthy, maybe less desirable. He is honored.

I wonder. Do you think maybe the best relationships are the ones where both parties think that they are the lucky one?

Can you remember a time when you realized that this was the person you wanted to spend your life with? And it was not because they were beautiful or buff or even smart or brave… but simply because you could see their goodness shining through? Their heart? When Ruth looks at Boaz she sees a man who didn’t chase a foreigner, a stranger, away from his field, but provided for her safety as well as her empty stomach. When Boaz looks at Ruth he sees a woman who devoted herself to the well-being of her widowed mother-in-law, despite her own self-interest, and who, even in this act—this bold and daring proposal on the threshing floor—continues to care for Naomi.

Boaz urges Ruth to sleep. Because the author of Ruth is a brilliant storyteller, the happy ending—the fullness and healing the reader is longing for—is not so quickly or easily accomplished. There is another who is a closer relative; this must be dealt with. Boaz, mindful of the conclusions that might be drawn if Ruth were to be spotted leaving in the wee hours of the morning, helps her to leave undiscovered. Still, the atmosphere is light and the symbolism heavy: Boaz loads Ruth down with grain to take home to Naomi. Seed and fertility—fullness of every kind—are promised. Ruth leaves, we have to believe, with a heart as full as her cloak.

Naomi’s question to Ruth upon her return home is translated “How did things go with you, my daughter?” but the Hebrew is a much more spare and enigmatic, “Who are you, my daughter?” Who is Ruth, now that she has returned home from her assignment? Is her reputation intact? Did Boaz understand what she was angling for? Has she returned home a woman promised marriage or not? Ruth’s response, if the text actually reports it in total, is equally spare, and equally enigmatic: “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” [3:17] If Naomi’s question (and ours) is, “What happened, exactly?” it goes unanswered. Some things are better left a mystery.

What a night! An assignation on the threshing floor, full of sexual tension and anticipation. And yet it carries with it even more pressing questions of long-term safety and well-being, life and death. Which, if you think about it, is true of every relationship of deep commitment, certainly of every marriage. I have a minister friend who likes to remind marrying couples that they make their promises in the face of death—that, despite the relative ease with which they can change their minds and go their separate ways, in the moment of marrying they commit themselves to staying until either they or their spouse are widow or widower. “Love is stronger than death,” the Song of Songs reminds us, “and passion fierce as the grave.” In love we set a seal on the heart of one another. It isn’t easily erased.

Much like the love of God. God sets a seal upon our hearts and lives, too, and God’s passion is without doubt stronger than death and fiercer than the grave. And God cares about us, our lives and our loves matter to God, in all their messiness and unpredictability and moments of embarrassment and grace. Dr. William Willimon wrote a gorgeous essay on weddings and marriages, in which he concludes:

Our God, thank God, does not wait until we get our lives cleaned up and aesthetically acceptable, until we know what we’re getting into, until all the psychological factors indicate that we are ready to mate, and until we figure out the real meaning of what it means to love another human being forever. Our God -- the one who began his ministry at, of all places, a wedding in Cana of Galilee -- entered the flesh, the tackiness and transitoriness of it all and said, strange as it might seem to us of little faith, that our human unions are of divine consequence.[i]

God’s hand continues to quietly guide the characters in our story. Next week, all will finally be revealed. But we can already see the ending, like a well-plotted romantic comedy. We see it in Ruth, cloak full of grain, moving quietly through the mist of a very early morning to show Naomi the promise of what lies ahead, this very human union that is of divine consequence. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] William Willimon, “Cleaning Up the Wedding,” the Christian Century June 6-13, 1979, p.653.

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