Tuesday, 14 December 2010 16:48

December 12, 2010 Sermon

“The Gift of a Shoe”
Ruth 3:1-4:12
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 12, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The story

I really shouldn’t be here in Bethlehem.  I came here because my husband Mahlon was from here.  You see, my husband, his brother and their father all died.  That’s really where my story begins.  I’m what you call a survivor.

Three widows.  Me, Orpah and Naomi.  Widows are damaged goods.  People you pity, but kind of keep away from too.  They get the corners of the field, the grain left over.  Charity cases.  Naomi told us that’s all we would ever be.  But I knew better.  Orpah went home to Moab, but I was determined to make a better life.  Not just for myself but for Naomi too.  She was so sad.  She even changed her name to Mara which means “bitter.”  It broke my heart to see her suffering like that.  I told her that I wouldn’t leave her.  I gave her a vow like at a wedding:

Where you go, I will go.
Where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people.
Your God shall be my God.
Till death do us part.

So we went to Bethlehem, her hometown.  The hometown of my dead husband.  We went there looking for handouts, something to keep us alive.  But I was looking for more.  I wanted to help Naomi regain her dignity, her sense of self.  I wanted to exorcise her demons, to cure her depression.  I wanted her to no longer be bitter.  I knew it wasn’t all within my power, but I also knew that she needed me.  The truth is that I needed her, too.  Isn’t it funny how you go intending to help someone else and you end up receiving more than you give?

We picked a field from which to get the scraps of food leftover from the harvest. I caught the fancy of one farmer.  He intentionally dropped grain from his basket so I could pick it up.  He did so with a smile.  I shot him my best smile right back.  He also instructed his compatriots to leave me alone, which is a good thing.  I heard stories of people raped in those fields.  Boaz was his name.  Turns out it was his field.  It also turns out that he was a kinsman of my husband. As Naomi and I made cakes out of the grain, she hatched a plan.  “Ruth,” she said, “I think I have found a way to get us some land and some dignity.”  It required me to marry Boaz and having an offspring so that the line of progeny doesn’t die out with us.  I could have done worse, I guess.

The problem is, Boaz isn’t next in line.  There’s a closer kinsman.  We need to get his permission first.  There’s this strange law from our holy book of Deuteronomy that says if a man dies without having a son, the next closest kinsman is required to have children with his widow.  Barbaric isn’t it?  They call it Leverite marriage.  It’s all about preserving land and the family name.  But there’s a loophole.  If you can get the next of kin to sell off his claim to someone else, you can marry who you want.  The cost is a shoe.  I know, it’s weird, but that’s all he needs to do is hand over his shoe and he rescinds his rights to you.

So at Naomi’s insistence, I bathe, put on some perfume, wait until Boaz is good and drunk and then I snuggle up real close.  He wakes up and is pretty excited, but I stop him and tell him we ought to do this right.  I remind him of his kinsman to whom I technically belonged.  The next day, Boaz got permission from him.  Permission, and a shoe.

We were married, even had a child.  But instead of Boaz raising him, I put my son, Obed into the arms of Naomi.  She reclaimed her name Naomi.  You know that means  pleasant.  I hope I can inspire others not only to be brave and do what needs to be done in order to save yourself and get your rights.  But I hope and pray that you will see that I could only do it because of Naomi.  She’s the one to whom I made my lasting vow.

Now I’m an old woman.  Obed has had children and even grandchildren.  One of them is named David.  They say one day he’ll be king.  Maybe even king of kings, if he learns from his old great-grandma.  It’s about devotion, keeping your vows and making sure that you always remember the widows and orphans.  All leaders need to remember that.

The sermon

Most of what we know of the Bible has come from men.  Male writers, male scribes, male interpreters, male priests, male professors.  Only in the past century or so has the prominence of women’s perspectives come to the fore.  They bring with them a new set of eyes on the old stories.  They bring with them a new set of concerns that are bound to show all of us an aspect of God’s mind.  I’m glad we’re spending Advent hearing from the stories of women.

The book of Ruth is a unique story.  A whole book about one person’s story.  Actually it’s about two people. Ruth and Naomi.  It’s about their devotion to each other.  It’s about the way that they do what is needed to do in order for them to survive and thrive.  Like Tamar and Rahab before them, the book of Ruth shows us the creativity, audacity and downright bravery of women in a patriarchal world.

The book of Ruth is written from a woman’s perspective—something rather unique in Biblical literature.  The focus of the story is on two women and their devotion to each other.  Ruth is the widowed daughter-in-law of another widow, Naomi.  Naomi means “pleasant”.  But her grief makes her bitter.  She even changes her name to Mara which means “bitter.”  Mara is the name of Jesus’ mother.  And where do Ruth and Naomi settle, but Bethlehem.  What does this have to do with Mary or Jesus?  What indeed.

Matthew must have been pointing to something when he wrote his gospel.  Matthew and Luke are the only ones who have any mention of the nativity of Jesus.  They both include genealogies.  Luke’s genealogy goes all the way back to Adam.  Matthew’s only goes back to Abraham.  But isn’t it odd that both genealogies trace the male lineage to a supposedly adoptive father in Joseph?  What’s up with that?   I submit that the key to unlocking this mystery is in the four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy.  These four women point to something about Jesus’ life, his origin and his presence in our lives.

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.  What do these four women have in common?  Jane Schaberg points out that al four find themselves outside of patriarchal family structures.  Tamar and Ruth are childless widows.  Rahab is a prostitute and Bathsheba is an adultress and then a widow pregnant with her lover’s child.  All four are wronged by the male world.  All four risk damage to their own social order and condemnation because of their actions—actions which result in children.  All four are also redeemed by men who either admit their guilt or forgive their sins.  They are brought under patriarchal protection.  They each point to the Jesus who obviously has an out of the ordinary origin.   And most shockingly, each story holds a lack of intervention by God.  It is as if since more was needed from these women to survive, so much more will Jesus need, so much more will we need in order to survive.

David Coleman preached about Tamar two weeks ago and claimed that she encouraged us to exercise civil disobedience when faced with not just vague injustice, but with losing our on your dignity and your ability to live as a full-fledged member of society.

Last week, Gayla Marty preached about Rahab, that woman who harbored terrorists, committing treason.  Rahab, like Moses lead the people onto the promised land, vanquishing the enemy.  This woman of power has been dismissed or diminished as a prostitute—someone beneath our notice.  And yet there she is at the key moments of the Hebrew story.

Then there’s Ruth.  The foreigner who seems more devoted to her mother-in-law than her husband.  She uses her wiles and savily manipulates Boaz to carry on the family line by marrying her.  She knows the law well enough to know that she must get the next of kin to give Boaz a shoe in exchange for Ruth’s hand in marriage.  I keep thinking of that scene in Life of Brian where Brian loses his shoe and everyone takes it as a sign.  They follow him with shoes in the air.

While from a male perspective the book is about carrying on the line and giving a son to Boaz and Ruth, I think the story is really about devotion.  The kind of devotion that we need to pay attention to in our highly dysfunctional world.   It’s also about redemption.  But it’s not about Ruth’s redemption.  It’s about Naomi’s renewed life.  
How might we similarly be redeemed from our deep despair?

The four-chapter book of Ruth opens with Naomi, her husband Elimelech and their two sons leaving their homeland to hang out for a while in Moab.  They were travelers who had to leave because of the famine.  Hebrew and Moabite people did not have a good history.  Over the years the nations fought each other and the book of Deuteronomy actually forbade the financial support of Moabites because they did not welcome the Hebrew people into their land when the Hebrews were fleeing slavery in Egypt.  But somehow this family was immune to all of that political infighting.  A famine was on and they went to Moab.   Things must have gone pretty well for them in Moab, because Naomi’s two sons Mahlon and Chilion married women from Moab by the names of Ruth and Orpah.

But Naomi’s pleasant persona was shaken when the men in her family all died.  Perhaps it was an ethnic cleansing and all of the foreign males were slaughtered.  We don’t know.  Elimilech, Mahlon and Chilion were dead.  Their lives reduced to some tiny bells on banners.  Naomi, Ruth and Orpah grieved.  They wept and tore their clothes.  They wailed about their loss.  And if that wasn’t enough, they slowly came to the realization that not only had they lost the loves of their lives, but their livelihoods were in serious jeopardy.  In those days, widows, at least in Moab, were not treated with the respect they had in Judea.  You were valued by how many sons you had.  A woman could not own land and a widow was left destitute.  At least in Judea, there was a welfare system for widows.  Naomi could be taken care of.  But her daughter-in-laws could not be taken care of because they were Moabites.  There was a ban on marrying people from Moab.  Maybe this is the root of the interracial marriage bans in more recent history.  Maybe it’s like the present-day ban on same gender-marriage, a cultural ban that lasted for a short amount of time and had no basis for judgements about today’s marriages.  The point is, that they were outsiders.  The fact that Naomi and her family had been in Moab for so long would make them persona non grata were they to return to Judea.

Because of all of this, Naomi was no longer pleasant.  She was bitter.  She had lost her known way of life.  She had lost her offspring and her husband.  She was too old to have children again. An infertile widow with no heirs was a non-person in the eyes of the patriarchal society of the time.  Naomi was bitter.  She even changed her name from Naomi (pleasant) to Mara (bitter).

Ruth meets up with Boaz who might be able to redeem her and restore Naomi’s persona.  Naomi tells Ruth that she wants to help her by devising a plan to win Boaz.  The bitter and empty Naomi is being resurrected.  She is not being resurrected by God as happens in most other biblical and especially old testament writings.  She is being redeemed by Ruth.

They devise a plan.  The men are pounding out the grain from the harvest on the threshing floor and getting drunk.  The scene unfolds like an opera libretto.  It’s that absurd, but what a story.  The end of a harvest always carries with it a party.  “Go now, Ruth, take a bath, put on some nice clothes and some perfume and hang out in the shadows until they are all good and drunk.  When they pass out, go and uncover Boaz’ feet and lie down next to him and he will show you what to do.”  (Wink wink, nod nod).  So Ruth does all that she is told by Naomi without objection.

Amid the drunken snores of the harvesters, Ruth crept up to Boaz and uncovered his “feet.”  Now the Hebrew word that is translated here as feet is actually a word which refers to the tip of the toe to the top of the thigh.  Ruth uncovers the whole bottom half of his body and lies down next to him.  At midnight, Boaz wakes up after we assume feeling a draft.  He realizes he is not alone.

“Who are you?” asks Boaz, fumbling around in the dark. Ruth response, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are my next of kin.”  The Hebrew word Ruth uses is go’el.  Spread your cloak over me, for you are my go’el, my redeemer.  To spread one’s cloak over a woman is to take her as a wife.  If Boaz took Ruth as his wife, Ruth would no longer be a widowed foreign servant.  She and Naomi could live as redeemed people in the house of Boaz.  Boaz could control the land of Naomi and Elimelech.

Boaz is flattered by it all.  He says in 3:10, “May you be blessed by YHWH, my daughter; this last instance of loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. You have chosen old, ugly me.  Aw shucks.”

We don’t know if Ruth was attracted to Boaz or not.  We know that Boaz was attracted to Ruth.  Ruth’s loyalty always stayed with Naomi.  Naomi taught Ruth how to play patriarchy’s game and win.

Ruth was in an extremely compromising situation which immediately reminds us of Tamar and of Lot’s daughters from the book of Genesis.  It would have been simple for Boaz to have taken advantage of her in such a situation.  But Boaz was a unique man by Biblical standards.  He wanted to do the right thing.  Boaz says: “Now, as much as I would love to do the next of kin thing with you Ruth, alas, I am not the closest kinsman to you.  There is someone even closer whom we need to get out of the way first.”

You see, in the Jewish law called Leverite marriage, it was the right and obligation of the nearest kinsman to marry the widow of another kinsman and to have children in the place of the dead husband.  And as much as Boaz would like to be that person, he knows that there is someone even closer who must first be consulted.
So he sends Ruth away in the pre-dawn blur of eyes back to Naomi, before the others awake and without having a smudge on her dignity or her record as a worthy woman.  He even gave her six measures of barley, which is the price given for a bride.

So Ruth comes to her mother-in-law, Naomi.  This formerly bitter woman with no ability to help her is now the imparter of profound wisdom.  Ruth unloads her mantle full or barley and watches as more of Naomi’s bitterness turns to pleasure.  Naomi says: “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.”  Boaz is anxious to be the next of kin.

And settle it he did.  He did so in a most comical way that is so strange to our way of doing things.  I am sure that our customs and arrangements would seem strange to them also.

He went up to his unnamed kinsman with the appropriate number of witnesses and said, “hey, Naomi, who has returned from Moab is selling this great piece of land which belonged to the late Elimelech.  Since you are his closest kinsman, you get first dibs to redeem it.”

There we have that word, go’el again also translated as “next of kin” and redeemer.  Jesus is called our redeemer.  Are there echoes of Ruth in his life?  So the kinsman says, “it sounds good to me.  I’ll redeem it.  I can always use some more land.”  Here is where Boaz throws in the catch.  Oh, by the way, if you acquire this land, you are also acquiring the widow Ruth and you must do the next of kin thing with her in order to maintain the dead man’s name on the inheritance.”  At this, the kinsman changes his minds and says: “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance.”  He would have to share his wealth with all of his offspring, including Ruth’s.   “Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”  And as the symbol of this redemption is the giving of one shoe.

And so it was that Boaz legally received the hand of Ruth along with the property of Naomi and Elimelech.
It happened because Boaz made a choice.  His choice was not only to marry Ruth, but to also to respect her.  He chose not to take advantage of her.

Ruth made the choice to risk her dignity, her body, her reputation, her means of having a living all in the name of bringing her and Naomi into a favored place in the town of Bethlehem.

Naomi made the choice to impart her wisdom and the knowledge of the convoluted Jewish laws to Ruth.  She chose to act when she could have simply laid back and accepted her lot in life.

It occurs to me that the message of Ruth is that we are redeemed in large part by the choices we make.  We make choices every day.  We choose what to wear, what to say, how to act, how to react.

When Jesus said, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”, I believe he meant that we are set free to make the choices we need to make.  We are free to make the choices that are in line with God’s plan for us and for the world.

Think about great people who have made choices:

Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer and could have lived the prosperous life of a British-educated attorney, but instead made the choice to take the salt march and set the Indian people free from British rule.

Dorothy Day made the choice to start the Catholic worker movement in order to feed the hungry and clothe the poor and make the world a bit more just.

Rosa Parks made the choice to sit down at the front of that bus and no longer be mistreated by the lions of segregation.

Thousands of others made the choice not to ride buses in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Martin Luther King was a scholarly clergyman who could have had a quiet safe ministry, but he made a choice to be the trumpet of justice and the conscience of America.

People who march in picket lines or stand vigil, do so because they made a choice.

People who join a church or hop onto some political campaign or join some kind of movement do so because they make a choice to do something that will bring healing to themselves and perhaps to someone else, too.

People who purchase scholarships for Nicaraguan children, tithe their income, or serve Meals on Wheels or Loaves and Fishes or bring Advent gifts or participate in some other form of volunteer work make choices about how to use their time and how to spend their resources.

We all make choices every day.  Some of them are monumental and some of them are mundane.  But how do we know how to make the right choice?

That’s the clincher.

It seemed impossible that Ruth or Naomi could ever do more than simply survive in Bethlehem.  Naomi knew of the high probability of failure and encouraged Orpah and Ruth not to follow her.  But the incredibly good news of Naomi’s redemption was too tempting and compelling to forsake.

What we need to do is make choices that will bring good news to people.  The choices that matter the most are often the most difficult for us to absorb and fulfill.  But when we do, people are changed.  The world is changed.  And God is pleased.

Sisters and brothers, we have choices in your lives, even though it seems at times like we don’t.

If we know anything about Jesus, it was that he was always looking for the redemption and the restoring of status and community standing to those left out by powers and principalities.  Jesus acted like Ruth in the way he sought to redeem us—restore us from our bitterness—our immobility of despair.  He sought to help us to eschew our bitterness and restore our dignity.  All it will require is a shoe.  That’s the symbol of a radical new life.  It’s no accident that we receive shoes here today.  God said to Moses to take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Ruth has Boaz have his kinsman take off his shoe so that he can show the new ordering of life and ministry.

All of this happened in Bethlehem, the home of another redeemer.  And so Ruth joins in our story and is woven into our stories.  Our stories are made up of choices that become the fabric of redemptive lives.  Lives of substance.  Lives worthy of the genealogy of Jesus.