Rev. Drew Stockstill
Under the Wings of God
November 6, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
Reading: Ruth 2
My first Sunday at Christ Lutheran, over five years ago, one of you was wearing a yellow T-Shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “God’s work, our hands.” It’s the motto of the ELCA’s annual emphasis on a Sunday of service in congregations across the nation. The idea is that through us, our hands, God is at work. As God became flesh in Jesus Christ, today that body of Christ is each of you—us. That’s a pretty awesome power each of us have, to embody the love of God really and truly for others. When you care for the person right in front of you, God is working through you. Great is the mystery of faith. Let us pray:
God of heaven and earth, may the hearing of your word today inspire each of us to embody your love in the world in real and tangible ways, and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing to your, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
We’re continuing our reading of the lovely gem of a book of Ruth together, and today we’re half way. I have heard from a few of you that you read through Ruth this week. That’s so great! And now you know where this is heading. You know how it all fits together. You know now, for example, that God does not show up in the book of Ruth the way God shows up in, say, Exodus, in a burning bush talking to Moses; or to Isaiah, putting God’s words in the prophet’s mouth; or to the disciples in the person of Jesus. God is mentioned in Ruth, but much the way we mention God: “God be with you,” we say, like Boaz says to his farm hands. After Naomi’s husband and sons die tragically, she says, “God has dealt bitterly with me.” You hear some folks who are suffering say that, sometimes, that God is somehow, maybe causing their suffering. But God does not show up in this story physically to afflict Naomi just as God does not show up physically today, causing cancer or a car accident or any of the brokenness in the world. Brokenness exists, sin exists, but God is only ever good. God is never an agent of suffering or evil, but God will show up in our suffering to help us through. The book of Ruth teaches us about hesed, (חֶסֶד), that is the Hebrew word that describes loving faithfulness and generosity. While God does not appear in the book Ruth as in other places in the Bible, God’s hesed does show up in real, meaningful, life changing ways throughout Ruth, just as God does show up in real, meaningful, life changing ways in our lives, demonstrating hesed to us.
Today, we’re going to recap a bit of Ruth, remember where we are. And then we’re going to dig into chapter two. We’re going to talk about Hebrew: specifically the words, beth lechem, and hesed, we’re going to address the commonality of TastyKakes and my call to ministry, the law, immigration, and the embodiment of God.
So, Last week we noticed together how amazing it is that Ruth and Naomi and Boaz have a place in the Bible, because they are not royalty, they are not miracle workers, they are not prophets with special messages from God; they are regular people – good but human. They lived likely 3,000 years ago in Bethlehem, in Judea, and today we are talking about them in Harrisburg, PA. They are special, and worthy of knowing because they are like you: they try to do their best, they care for others, they love each other, and they love God. And so they have a place here, here in the Bible, here in the story of God. And so do you! Just as they show up in the story of God, God shows up in their stories. You are part of the story of God, and I wish we could sit down together after church and each hear from one another about how has God been showing up in your story.
We remember in this story that Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi. They are now both widows. They have just returned to the little town of Bethlehem where Naomi is from. But Ruth is new to this nation. She’s an immigrant and she comes from a different religion. We heard this morning that Ruth, new to town, feeling the urgent need to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, decides that she’s going to try to find them some food. Now, Bethlehem, famously the home of the future king, David, and the other future king, Jesus Christ, was also famous for bread. In fact, Bethlehem is Hebrew for City of Bread. Beth- city, lechem- bread. Note then that Jesus, the bread of life, the bread from heaven was born in, the City of Bread. Note also that Naomi and Ruth come to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley and wheat harvests. So, this is an important time in Bethlehem.
I grew up in a small town of bread, of sorts. Thomasville, GA is home to Flowers Foods, which is a mass producer of breads and baked goods: Nature’s Own, Wonder Bread, Sunbeam, TastyKake, they own all that and their bakery is right downtown. When the wind and weather are just right, the scent of baking bread wafts all over town. Mr. and Mrs. Flowers were very active members at First Presbyterian Church, and were some of the first people to ever tap me on the shoulder and suggest that I might consider that God may be calling me to become a pastor one day. They knew about bread, business, and the need for regular people to speak up when God puts something on your heart. God never showed up to me and said, “Son, time for you to do the work to become a pastor,” but God sure showed up in the little town of Thomasville, through some very successful bakers, among other human saints to usher me along the way. And I’ve always since depended on listening carefully for God’s voice and presence to discern my call in the world.
Ruth goes to this field and, like the image on the cover of your bulletin, she begins to glean. That means that she’s following behind the farm workers who are picking barely, and she’s collecting what they leave behind. Now some may consider this stealing, but the practice of gleaning was actually mandated in the law. Deut. 24:19, “When you reap the 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 immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.” Ruth checked two of those boxes. She trusted the faithful people of Bethlehem to follow their law which provided for those in just her situation. Does God show up? Well here’s God’s law and here’s God’s faithful people.
“The Gleaners” Painting by Jean-François Millet
Leviticus 19:9-10 says “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the immigrant. I am the Lord your God.”
Being mindful of the needs of others in your community, regardless of your assessment of their worthiness, is mandated by the law of God. So, there is Ruth, gleaning in the field. And as it just so happens, this field belonged to a man named Boaz, who was related to Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelech. He noticed Ruth, discreetly asked the workers about the woman gleaning in the field and learned that she’s the widowed daughter-in-law of his cousin. The story continues in verse 8:
8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”
11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 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 have come for refuge!”
Now, God does not show up in the book of Ruth, but Boaz teaches us, with Ruth, that in fact God does show up all the time in acts of mercy, kindness, love, hesed. And here Boaz is the embodiment of God’s hesed. He is faithful to the law, but he is also faithful to the human being in front of him, of her needs, of her situation. She is overwhelmed by his kindness, that he would encourage her to not worry about going to other fields, to take what she needs. He sees her, truly sees what she has been through, he feels compassion for her loss, he admires her courage and sacrifice, the courage and sacrifice so many refugees and immigrants in our own day. Ruth is surprised by this hesed this loving kindness, but Boaz does some amazing, authentic, humble evangelism here. He says what he is doing, it’s not his work it is God’s work, it is God, “under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Does God show up? God’s work, our hands. Ruth did not know well the God of Israel, but Boaz, through his compassion, is showing her exactly what God is like.
“Landscape with Ruth and Boaz”, Joseph Anton Koch, 1823
13 Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”
14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.” “Landscape with Ruth and Boaz”, Joseph Anton Koch, 1823
Here is Boaz, not just giving Ruth from his left overs, but teaching his workers to give out of his principal, give out of the harvest. Pull some handfuls of grain out of the bag so she has even more to collect. This is hesed, this is love, this is what God does for us. God gives us, not out of the leftovers of God’s love, God gives out of the very core of God’s heart. And Boaz gives in such a way that Ruth doesn’t feel like she’s getting a hand out, because she is working hard, but Boaz is making her hard work go even further by making sure there’s more grain there for her. And so God does for us, takes the work of our hands, and then expands it, makes it go further, matter more for those we serve than we will ever know. Great is the mystery of faith.
17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. 19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” 21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” 23 So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.
God isn’t a character in this story, because people in this story are the embodiment of God. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God, that means the infleshment of God. God with human-being on. But Jesus sends his Holy Spirit upon us, the church that we may be the body of Christ, which means that we embody God. God’s work, our hands. That’s what All Saints is all about. We honor our loved ones, not because they were Sainted by the church, but because they were sainted by God, because, we know well, they were human, they were not perfect, but in so many ways they embodied God for us, and you embodied God for them. Boaz embodied God. As he told Ruth, “you are under the safety of the wings of God,” and that was true, because she was under the safety of the loving embrace of Boaz.
Beloved, you too, are the community of saints. Just think of the ways that God has shown up for you, as Boaz did for Ruth, as Ruth does for Naomi. Beloved, just think of the way that you can embody God for the community. I know you have for me. And thanks be to God for all the saints. Amen.