Rev. Debora Rolls, Interim Moderator
Scripture Readings (both from THE MESSAGE)
Matthew 20: 20-28, Ruth Two
Hymn #642 O Master Let Me Walk With Thee
Last Sunday we spoke about the integrity crisis that is dominating our headlines and which is resulting in an erosion of trust in elected officials, our police force, our sports organizations and yes, even in the leadership of our churches.
And we asked, how did we get here? Why is it that neighbourhoods are becoming either isolated silos where everyone keeps to themselves and minds their own business or else battlegrounds where neighbourhood block parties turn into places of death as guns are drawn. Why is physical violence or bullying increasingly preferred to constructive dialogue? Why it is that we view each other more with suspicion than friendliness?
Lots of questions, fewer answers.
We seem to be at a time in history when society has normalized unethical behavior. At times, it feels like almost anything goes. The lines between right and wrong have been blurred, leaders’ actions are not matching their words, and accountability is lacking.
Don’t believe me? My cell phone # has a 416 area code, but I live in an area where 705 is the normal area code. So if I call someone who has call display they often don’t answer my call because they assume I’m a scammer. (PAUSE) It has become normal to expect the worse. The integrity of those who call us as become suspect.
Our integrity, or lack of it, flows from our character – who we are. To protect ourselves from actions and words that display a lack of Integrity we need to develop some character traits that are so deeply embedded in our identity that they protect us from saying or doing anything that would harm ourselves, the organizations we serve or the vulnerable in our midst.
Our normalized ethical behaviour as Christians must be an ethic of love. Of loving others as ourselves. Of putting others interests ahead of our own. If we’ve deeply internalized Christ’s teachings then our words and our actions will be in alignment with those of our Saviour. The Book of Ruth shows us the love ethic put into practice, so today we will learn what happens after Naomi and Ruth settle back into life in Bethlehem.
But before we dig in, let us pray:
Dear Gracious God, as we turn to your word for us, may the Spirit of God rest upon us. Help us to be steadfast in our hearing, in our speaking, in our believing and in our living. AMEN.
Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow
Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
If ever there was a time that Naomi and Ruth needed someone to lean on it was now. The two widows have arrived safely in Bethlehem. They are penniless and heartbroken. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It would be the easy thing to do to give into despair, to wallow in their grief, to give up.
But this is not Ruth’s choice. No, Ruth isn’t a wallower. She doesn’t say to Naomi, ok, I’ve held up my end of the bargain, I helped you get safely back home, now what’s next? No, Ruth’s service to Naomi is just beginning. She sets her alarm clock for dawn and determines to do something. She tells her mother-in-law she intends to find work gleaning in the fields. You see, there was no social safety net in Ruth and Naomi’s day. You couldn’t trot down to the local Service Canada outlet and apply for welfare. But there was something she could access. Earlier in Israel’s history, God had established a system whereby the poor could be provided for. And we have a record of God’s instructions to farmers in the Book of Levicticus 19: “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.”
According to this command in Leviticus both farmers and the impoverished had responsibilities. For the farmer’s part they were to intentionally leave portions of their fields unharvested and it was the poor’s responsibility to go out and work to gather up what was left so they and their families wouldn’t starve. It is charity, but is charity with some dignity.
So Ruth intends to do just this, because it “just so happens” that they have arrived back in Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest. And yet, although this was the law, Ruth doesn’t have a sense of entitlement. Before she begins she asks permission of those in charge of the fields to go out into the field and pick up after the reapers.
Now it “just so happens” that the field that Ruth chose to work in was none other than that of Boaz, who we learn is a relative of Naomi’s, a member of the same clan as her late husband Elimelech. After Ruth had been in the field several hours, Boaz arrives and greets his workers: “The Lord be with you,” he says. “The Lord bless you!” they answered.
Wow! Although Boaz is the landowner, “the boss,” it’s clear that he recognizes that he answers to a higher authority. He places his trust in God. And he runs his farm according to God’s law as we’ll soon see. Surveying the field, Boaz’ eyes settle on Ruth and he asks his men, “Who does that young woman belong to?” And they respond: “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.” Now the thing is with our Bible is we never hear the tone of people’s responses. We can only guess how this line was delivered. But if we use our theological imaginations we can surmise that this woman has been the subject of more than a little gossip. Boaz’ men refer to her as “the Moabite.” Hey Boaz, this is the woman who came back with Naomi…haven’t you heard? And indeed he has heard. He has heard that she chose to leave the security of her own country and family to journey back with Naomi to ensure her safety. And further, he sees that she’s no couch potato, but a hard worker, out here in his fields trying to provide for herself and her mother-in-law. She wins his admiration, but also something more.
He says to her, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the mean are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”
Boaz desires to protect her. He says stay here so I can ensure your safety.
But he doesn’t stop there. He invites her to lunch with him and his staff, and he tells his employees to pull some extra grain from their sheaves for her and not to reprimand her for picking up what they leave behind. This is unusual, because the customary practice was for gleaners to only be permitted in the field after the harvest was done for the day, but she is invited to follow behind them and to pick up the fresh grain.
Boaz has not just fulfilled God’s law….he is going above and beyond. Now this is even more remarkable when we consider that this may be the first decent harvest after a prolonged famine in Bethlehem. Perhaps no one would fault Boaz if he had said, look, I know that the law says we have to leave some crops behind for the poor, but listen, we’ve had a decade of drought. I’ve got to recoup my losses.
Isn’t that what we are experiencing right now? After three years of disruption brought about by Covid we have seen many businesses faltering. Staff are hard to find, supply chains have been thrown into disarray, perhaps customers slow to return. In such an environment business owners may say, we’ll have to suspend our sponsorships in the community, we can’t afford to give product away or to keep our fees at pre-Covid levels. And perhaps here in the church we’ve re-visited our offerings to the church, we’ve cut back as we tighten our belts overall.
Yet in this story Boaz is described as a prosperous man, a wealthy man. We get the sense that he has stored up extra when times were good, so he can still be generous when times are bad. And they have been bad, very bad, but he still obeys God’s word to provide for the poor. Because he trusts God’s provision for Him. That He has been blessed to be a blessing.
And Ruth takes notice. She knows she is being treated with unusual favour. She asks Boaz: why are you treating me so kindly? After all, I’m just a foreigner. And he explains that he has heard about her kindness to Naomi, he recognizes her sacrifice to serve her. And he wishes to reward her for her loyalty and devotion.
Both Ruth and Boaz choose to serve rather than be served. To put the interests of others above their own. This is a life of integrity born of a character that is grounded and secure in the knowledge and love of God. In Ruth and Boaz we see a foreshadowing of the selfless sacrifice of our Saviour, who left behind the privilege and comfort of residing with his heavenly Father to come to earth, take on flesh and walk among us. To live without a home, to rely on the kindness of strangers and friends for his daily meal and then to give his very life away for our sake.
How can we do likewise in this place? Will we be people so secure in God’s love and provision that we don’t need to cling tightly to what we have? Will we seek relationships with people with love as our only motive, rather than what they can do for us?
Today we will enjoy a community BBQ, a way that St. Stephen’s is trying to connect with this neighbourhood. And I wonder? How do our neighbours here perceive this event? Do they feel we are honestly trying to be good friends and neighbours? People interested in getting to know and care for them, warts and all?
Or are they suspicious – do they see this as our attempt to sell them something? Join their church! Enroll your kids in fabulous Sunday school! Come to Jesus! Of course, if any of those things were to happen, we’d consider the BBQ outreach a “success.” Our self-interest would have been achieved. We’d have made St. Stephen’s great again. And lest you fear I’m picking on St. Stephen’s, St. Paul’s has to examine its motives as well. But what if instead of wanting to make our churches great again…we want to make Christ great in others eyes?
If we can suspend our self interest and instead focus on showing love, care and genuine interest, we will be more like Boaz. If we use the BBQ and other events as a springboard for deeper fellowship, to uncover the hidden needs of our neighbours and attempt to address them in some way, then we have sought first to serve, rather than to be served in the way of our saviour. We will have understood that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We will have embodied your congregational motto: “Loving God, loving neighbours.” We will have demonstrated that our character as individuals and as a church is one of integrity. Trust can be rebuilt.
If we choose to imitate the character of God. To choose God’s ways. To honour him in our choices. Ruth could have chosen to become a prostitute, a thief, to jump from man to man to try and secure her future. But none of these would have been God-honouring. Boaz could have chosen to maximize profits, to take advantage of the young foreigner who was without the protection of male relatives. But neither would those choices have been God honouring. In choosing the harder paths, both of them revealed their true heart’s condition. That they leaned on God in the midst of difficulty and trusted Him to be their ultimate protector and provider. Do our choices reveal the same?