A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
July 29, 2018
When I have casual interactions with strangers in public places, such as airplanes, coffee shops, or car dealerships, the question I hate the most is “what do you do for a living?” Being a female pastor in Idaho has it’s challenges. Once, a man exclaimed as I confessed to being a pastor, “you’re the first lady preacher I’ve ever seen”! (Lady Preachers should be the name of a softball team) It was like I had just been released into the wild and photographed at a game park, a rare lady preacher sighting.
I also don’t want to lie when I meet people and tell them I’m a rocket scientist or a lion tamer. Because what if they show up to a funeral here and see me leading worship? I do sometimes tell people, on airplanes especially, that I’m in “direct sales”. It’s not not true…
Pastors have to tell the truth, no matter what conversation might ensue.
So last week, when I was test driving cars, the nice young salesman was totally excited to have met a church person because he was really active at his church and wants to be a pastor some day. If I were to tell you the name of his church, you’d have a sense of how very different it is from this one.
He asked what my text was for preaching this week, and I told him Ruth.
“My pastor preached a sermon on that book! It was great. What was the main guy’s name again?”
“You mean Ruth? or Naomi?” I asked.
“No. The guy? Barabbas?”
“Boaz”, I said.
“Yeah! That’s him. The pastor told us to become like Boaz, and take care of women”.
“Yes, Naomi and Ruth were lucky they found a Boaz, and he’s a good guy, so sure, be like Boaz. But maybe consider also working for systemic change in the world so women aren’t so vulnerable economically and physically in the first place. Wouldn’t it be nice if women could survive without having to be saved by men?”
“So, let me tell you about the safety features of this car….”
My car salesman was a very nice guy, and he’ll be a good pastor someday for his flock.
And he’s not alone in lifting up stories of the people who help people out, but we often lift those feel-good stories up at the expense of the stories of the people who are vulnerable and need the help, and without considering our culpability in creating a system that leaves people vulnerable.
Boaz does a good thing for these distant kinswomen. If it happened today, it would be come a viral, heartwarming facebook post.
The one I read last week was a teacher on a plane was talking to her seat mate about the challenges of being a teacher in an era when school funding means no supplies, no help for teachers to set up their classrooms, no help for kids who can’t buy their own stuff.
By the end of the flight, the seat mate had asked for her school’s address so he could send something to help out. And the guy behind her handed her $500 cash, and the person across the aisle handed her the cash he had on hand.
And it’s all very nice and good. Very Boaz-like. But at the end of the day, the rest of the teachers in the rest of the schools around the country, are still wondering how to buy crayons for their classroom.
I also heard about a new reality TV show where recent college graduates will be able to compete against other recent graduates for the chance to pay off their college loans. We’ll get to celebrate a few feel good outcomes, while crippling student loans for college tuitions that have far outpaced inflation go on, unchecked. The average salary for a person in their 30s today is unchanged since the 1970s. Want to know what has not stayed the same? The cost of college.
Game shows will not fix that discrepancy.
I often get emails, and I’m sure you do too, asking for support of go fund me, crowd funding accounts to help people pay for medical bills. And I’m glad to help out as I can. But it’s hardly the most efficient way to deal with our ever rising healthcare costs and ever decreasing insurance availability.
Clearly we should help each other. Don’t hear me suggesting we should not help out the people we see in need. I just want to make sure we are clear that creating a more just and generous society in the first place will be of more help to more people than any of our individual efforts will be. If we want to make sure everyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps, let’s make sure they all have access to boots.
It probably feels better, and more immediately gratifying, to help one person and see the difference you make, and feels less gratifying to pay taxes, or pay a pledge to the church, or a contribution to another agency that pays off further down the road, in ways that feel disconnected to you.
I don’t know if Bethlehem in Boaz’ day had the same level of political rancor we have today. But they had similar problems. Women who didn’t have men to protect them faced hunger—on the good days—and physical violence on the bad ones.
Did you notice that as the story was read? The biblical account hides the danger a bit. Ruth was warned to stay near the other women for protection. Boaz said he’d ordered his young men not to “bother” her. By going into the fields to glean, she was very vulnerable and at risk. Boaz guaranteed her access to food and water, which was not assumed. He even gamed the gleaning system for her, telling his men to harvest less so that she could glean more.
Gleaning is was lifted up in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as a system to allow the hungry poor to gather grain, olives, and grapes after the crops had been officially harvested.
Leviticus 23:22 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 for the foreigner: I am the Lord your God.”
It’s a biblical attempt at a food bank, of sorts—using what’s left over from the harvest, what isn’t worth the financial cost to harvest, to feed people.
And it is the economy in which Ruth and Naomi found themselves. Last week, I spoke about how when individual self interest meets individual self interest, it’s a pretty sad world. When compassionate concern and love is extended, it cascades out. Love and compassion engender other acts of love and compassion. Faith kindles faith. Concern extended by one person serves as a reminder to others to also extend concern.
We see that continue to play out here as well. Ruth asks Boaz why he is being kind to her, a foreign woman. He replies, ‘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. 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!’
I’m gonna continue to be the person who advocates for structural changes in our community and society to make peoples’ lives better. Because that’s who I am.
I also want to acknowledge and lift up that even in the midst of unjust systems, there are blessings to be had. And we are both the people to extend those blessings, as in the stories I shared earlier, and the people on the lookout to receive them.
If we are to extend the blessings, we will have to pay attention to who is struggling in our communities. I worry today we wouldn’t get to know Ruth and Naomi because we’d say, “they should have stayed in their own country”. Or we wouldn’t have the watchful eye of Boaz to even notice them, because we’re so busy ourselves. I thought about Ruth and Naomi this week when I drove past a homeless person holding a sign. I was in a hurry to get somewhere on time. I was too busy to extend a blessing to a stranger.
And as hard as it may be to extend the blessings, of being like Boaz, I know it can also be a challenge to be on the receiving end of them.
We may not experience the same level of injustice and difficulty as Ruth and Naomi, but when we find ourselves in those moments where challenge and bad news are the order of the day, can we glean blessing from the nearly empty fields?
If we look at a field, or our life, and say “nope, nothing good here. All of the crop has been harvested”, what do we miss that is there to be gleaned?
Poet, artist, and minister Jan Richardson wrote a blessing that made me think of Ruth, gleaning in the fields:
BLESSING THE FRAGMENTS by Jan Richardson
Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome what comes.
knows the secret of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
that may hide
in what has been
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
Look into the hollows
of your hands
what wants to be
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
will offer itself
from the fragments
What Ruth gleaned was an ephah of grain. I looked it up because my biblical Hebrew agricultural vocabulary has gotten a little rusty over the years. From what was left behind in the fields, Ruth was able to gather a bushel of grain. And because my agricultural vocabulary in my own language is also rusty, I looked that up too. A bushel is about 8 gallons. A lot.
From what was left over in the fields, Ruth was able to collect enough to get them through.
I experience you gleaning blessings out of what other people might consider empty fields. In hospital rooms, and after finding diagnoses, even as people are dying, the conversation is often about blessing.
I pray we can continue to be the people who both work for bigger, systemic changes to build a better world for everyone AND also be the people who glean an ephah of blessings from fields where people see emptiness.