Ruth 2; Mark 4:26-32
Last week we read the first chapter of Ruth, which set up the story of these two women— Naomi, the Israelite and Ruth, the Moabite— traveling together to Bethlehem to start a new life. Their husbands have died, they are not allowed in their time and culture to own land or to hold a job, so they are in crisis. And as if that wasn’t enough, Naomi, in her grief, dives into a deep depression, telling everyone that she is changing her name from Naomi, which means sweet, to Mara, which means bitter. She is done. She is in a mental health crisis as well as a crisis of every other kind.
But the first chapter ends with one line of hope, and that is that Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. There is food growing— and not just growing, but ready to be harvested— and so we were left with just a bit of hope as Ruth chooses to stick with her mother-in-law and go to a new land in order to care for her.
And that is exactly what Ruth does. The moment they arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth tells Naomi that she is going to walk behind the harvesters and glean whatever they leave behind. She begins at sunrise and she is still going when Boaz shows up. Boaz is Naomi’s closest relative, but the only reason we know that is from the narrator! Naomi has been of no help in this relationship. She doesn’t help glean; she doesn’t introduce Ruth to anyone else; she doesn’t make this easy. But Ruth takes matters into her own hands— going to the fields, talking to the harvesters so they know that she is there, doing what was considered a man’s work as she gleans right behind the harvesters, learning from them how to harvest the barley. She works humbly but with dignity as she walks those fields.
Last week I mentioned that the book of Judges, the book that comes right before the book of Ruth in the Old Testament, ends by saying that the people of Israel are doing whatever they please— in other words, they are not following God’s law. But here is a woman who is a foreigner— a Moabite— and yet she is trusting in God more than the Israelites. Here is a woman who is working a man’s job, caring for her mother-in-law for whom she has no legal obligation, and doing exactly what she has a right to do. Somehow Ruth knows the law well enough to know that within the law is exactly this stipulation— that every landowner has to leave grain in the field for exactly this reason. She doesn’t slink around the edges or scratch for crumbs. There is no shame in what she is doing. She registers directly with the harvesters at the beginning of the workday and gleans all day long. She has dignity and does what she needs to do. She comes seeking justice, not charity.
Interestingly enough, Boaz, the owner of the land, responds in kind. He uses the power that he has as a landowner, as a man, as a leader in his community, and he supports Ruth in doing what she needs to do. He shares his wisdom with her about where to glean; he advises his harvesters to leave even more than usual for her; he tells his workers to respect her and not take advantage of her, and then he tells Ruth that when she gets thirsty, she should drink from the water jugs that his men have carried to the fields.
The tables have been turned. This woman is now being offered water that men have carried to her— when it was considered woman’s work to carry water from a well. This foreigner who could’ve easily been made into a slave is working for herself to support her and her mother-in-law. This outsider of the faith, by knowing who she is and what the laws of Israel are, is reminding others how to follow God’s law. You see we can read this story and think that Boaz is offering Ruth charity, but if we go back and read the laws that were put into place— God’s law— then it is obvious that these laws are not about charity— they are all about justice. God’s justice says that everyone needs to have the opportunity to eat at the end of the day. God’s justice says that everyone needs to have the opportunity to work a job that is dignified. God’s justice says that families should be able to stick together and support each other. God’s justice says that everyone has a place in society and that a lot of times those places have to be turned upside down so that the people of God remember that they are the people of God. God’s justice says that it is just as likely that you will experience the ever lasting faithfulness of God’s love through a foreigner, through someone outside of the faith, through a woman, through someone you least expect it, as you will through those we believe are closest to God. Remember how no one in Israel is following God’s law? Except that Ruth is. And because of Ruth’s courage, Boaz is. This isn’t charity. This is justice. This is God’s love in action. And because of that justice, Ruth goes home with her arms full.
So there are a few things for us to glean from chapter 2. First of all, it is important to note that Boaz uses the power he has to offer dignity to Ruth, to offer support to Ruth, to offer safety to Ruth. In his time and place, Boaz has all of the privilege. He has the privilege of being in the dominant culture and not having to find out the rules of what’s acceptable for gleaning. He has the privilege of being a man and not having to worry about being attacked in a field as he’s picking grain. He has the privilege of being wealthy and not knowing what it’s like to literally not know where his next meal is coming from. And he chooses to recognize all of this privilege and to use the power he has to do what is right and just. He does not seduce Ruth. He does not tell her she need not work and send her home. He does not trick her or lie to her about what the law really says. He doesn’t abuse his power in any way. Instead he respects her dignity and her worth and recognizes that her understanding of the law, of God’s justice, God’s love, is true —and so he follows her lead. He shares with her how it is that she has been a faithful person and he blesses her, recognizing that she has been trusting fully in the God of Israel. This is what a man of God looks like. And that’s what justice looks like— dignity; blessing; listening; seeing; admiring; acting.
Secondly, what gave Boaz an easy way to do what was just, is that the system was set up for justice. It was written into God’s law that justice is the desired outcome; that leaving barley in your field is just; that caring for widows and orphans and the poor and the outsider and the stranger and the foreigner are not just nice things to do— it is God’s law that we do them. It is justice not just to be kind, but to create systems where people can’t fall through the cracks. Boaz was able to follow the law, to lean in to being generous and kind, because the system was set-up to encourage him in that way. It is our responsibility as people of faith to create systems of justice in our world today, to create laws that encourage people to follow God’s law of love. Instead so many of our systems are failing; so many of our systems are unjust. Look at what’s been happening in the past few weeks as families are being torn apart. That is not justice. That is not God’s law. And if it is, indeed, the law of our nation, than those laws need to change. These are people coming out of desperation to seek hope and a new life for their families— people like Ruth and Naomi— and we can change how we respond.
But it’s not just happening on our borders. In the past few months, some of you, along with other church people in St. Cloud, have been knocking on doors and asking people how they are doing through our work with the Great River Interfaith Partnership and ISAIAH. You know, it’s amazing, that when you knock on a door, people like me expect that the person has an agenda— that they are pushing for me to vote for a certain candidate or think in a certain way. Instead of doing that, we have been showing up and asking people, “how are you really?” And what we have found is astonishing. So far, of the 400 households that we have talked to, 84% of those households have either themselves or someone they love who is in a care crisis of some kind. This could be a health crisis, a mental health crisis, a financial crisis because of health. It could be not being able to pay for childcare or elder care or having to decide whether to quit their job to take care of a parent or put them in a nursing home they can’t afford. What we’ve found, is that there is a crisis of care happening in central Minnesota that is affecting people of all races, classes, religions, and identities. It is the story of Ruth happening all over Central Minnesota— and my guess would be that it’s happening all over our nation. And it’s definitely happening in a majority of places in our world. It is the Ruth story happening all over the place. Only there aren’t many systems set up to create justice. And the ones we do have seem more broken than ever before.
So I ask you, how are we going to be Boaz in Central Minnesota, and set up systems that will create justice for those who aren’t making it, of no fault of their own? How are we going to be Ruth in Central Minnesota and go way beyond God’s laws of love to take care of those who are in our lives who have given up all hope? How do we create systems and reach out in love so that people who are experiencing mental health crisis like Naomi can find the help they need?
We can do this, when we do it together. When we try to do it alone, we end up in despair like Naomi; but when we do it together, we find dignity and hope like Ruth. We as a church community choose to be a part of GRIP/ISAIAH because we need to be connected to other faith communities that care about the St. Cloud Region. We need to tell our stories of care and bear witness to the fact that so many of us are experiencing crisis and say out loud that we are not alone. We need to start speaking up, using the power we have not just for charity— although there’s nothing wrong with charity— but to use the power we have to create systems of justice.
So this morning I’m going to ask you to take a step and participate in the CARE survey. This is the survey that we have been asking people to fill out to learn more about the concerns of people in St. Cloud around care. And I hope that you won’t only fill this out, but that you will want to hear more. Adam Whitten and Rebecca Kotz are going to collect the surveys in a couple of minutes, and they’ll be in the entryway if you want to ask them more about getting involved in GRIP/ISAIAH. And if you’re really interested and want to do something to change our community and the politics that are dividing us, come on June 26th to church and hear more about how we are working across all kinds of barriers in St. Cloud, connecting all kinds of organizations, so that we can lift up what needs to be done around care in St. Cloud. We are working to unite people, rather than divide us, because it is in doing this together that we will find hope; it is in doing this together that we will be able to live out God’s love; it is in doing this together that we can all be inspired by what God can do in the St. Cloud region when we come together and choose love first.
This is about justice, not charity. And what is at the root of God’s justice? Love. In our Gospel this morning we heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a seed, planted in the soil. Have you been amazed at how fast things are growing in your yard? I have! Everything is growing by leaps and bound! The Kingdom of God is like a seed that grows and grows— and we don’t know how. One little seed grows into a huge shrub that houses the birds of the air. What can it look like when we plant seeds here in St. Cloud— seeds of love and justice. Imagine what it will look like when God takes those seeds and grows them so that everyone can find a home. That is the Kingdom of God. That is God’s justice at work. That is what God’s love in action looks like.