We are in the second week of doing something a bit different. We are walking through a book of the Bible, specifically we are walking through the Book of Ruth. I want to encourage you that if you were not with us last week, when you go home read the first chapter of Ruth. Additionally, you can go online and listen to last week’s message as an introduction to this book of the Bible.
The Book of Ruth is a small book in the Bible, but it is a book full of a lot of good and juicy stuff. There is deep heartbreak, there is grief, there is redemption, there is seduction, there is love. There is so much is this small little book, that makes it a compelling story—even today.
To remind you where we have been thus far, we are introduced to some of the people in our story. First we have Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons. They own property around Bethlehem and probably have a pretty comfortable life, but famine strikes the land. Their fields are no longer producing, and they are hungry. Desperate, they flee as refugees to a foreign land, they flee to Moab. Things don’t get better. Elimelech dies; Naomi sons marry two women in their new county, but then her sons also die.
In the time that Naomi lived, women depended on their male relatives to survive. So, not only is Naomi a widow and childless, she is economically destitute. Grief abounds, and grief is stalking Naomi. She learns that the famine is over in her home country, so she and one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, travel to Bethlehem, more hopeless and more desperate than when Naomi originally fled her home.
Last week we focused on how grief happens, how it has no time table, and how it changes things. Even as Naomi participates in this homecoming, she is full of grief; those she loved are gone and she thinks she has nothing left.
That’s where we pick up the story today. Naomi and Ruth have to figure out how to make a life and survive back in Bethlehem. The news that Naomi heard about the famine being over was true; in fact, Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. There is a lot of activity going on and a lot of food being harvested. There is a glimmer of hope for these two women.
Naomi is still full of grief, but we are going to find is that God provides for and cares for Naomi in a very specific way. Though Naomi is full of grief, her grief will not be chronic, instead God is going to help her in a way that gives her a new hope. And I think that, as we see what unfolds in this, you will find a pattern to notice how God offers a hand to you, even when you are down, even when you are full of grief.
Let’s take a look at Ruth, chapter two. If you have a Bible, you can turn with me to follow along. Here we read:
Now Naomi had a respected relative, a man of worth, through her husband from the family of Elimelech. His name was Boaz. 2 Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field so that I may glean among the ears of grain behind someone in whose eyes I might find favor.”
Naomi replied to her, “Go, my daughter.” 3 So she went; she arrived and she gleaned in the field behind the harvesters. By chance, it happened to be the portion of the field that belonged to Boaz, who was from the family of Elimelech.
Here, we learn that Naomi has family in Bethlehem, and we learn that Ruth is trying to do something to provide for herself and Naomi. We already know that it’s the barley harvest, so she goes to the fields, walks behind the harvesters, and gleans or picks up what is left behind. Now, this might see a strange practice; you may think that the farmers are going to run her off the field.
If you are a farmer, I am sure that you want to make sure that as much of your crop as possible is collected in the harvest to make you as much money as possible. This is simple economics. Just because this makes sense, though, we find that biblical law followed at the time actually prohibited this. In Leviticus 19 and 23 there are laws that forbid Israelite landowners from taking all of their crop in the harvest. Those working in the fields were supposed to leave grains standing on the edges of their fields, and if any grain fell to the ground in the regular harvesting it was supposed to be left as well. The idea here is that the poor and the immigrants will be able to gather some of this grain left so that they can survive.
This ancient practice is what Ruth is participating in. She is walking behind the harvesters trying to gather up enough grain for herself and Naomi. This is an act of love and devotion. Ruth owes nothing to Naomi. Ruth could have stayed in her homeland. Ruth could have married again and had a family. Instead, Ruth shows love and devotion to Naomi in unexpected ways. In a real way, Ruth is showing the love of God to Naomi. Naomi, full of grief, perhaps suffering from depression stays behind, and Ruth goes out, in love, to find food for them.
Then we also learn that Ruth just so happens to be gleaning from a field that belongs to Naomi’s relative Boaz. We continue reading in verse 4.
4 Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem. He said to the harvesters, “May the Lord be with you.”
And they said to him, “May the Lord bless you.”
5 Boaz said to his young man, the one who was overseeing the harvesters, “To whom does this young woman belong?”
Boaz comes out to check on the harvest and he sees a new young woman working in the field. This is a small area, and he likely knows or, at least, knows of most of the people in the town. But this woman, working in the field, is new. Even though there are laws that are supposed to protect Ruth, people are people and Ruth is probably at risk. If the landowner didn’t like her or want her gathering, he could run her off or harmed her. Next, Boaz inquires about this young woman working in his field.
6 The young man who was overseeing the harvesters answered, “She’s a young Moabite woman, the one who returned with Naomi from the territory of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean so that I might gather up grain from among the bundles behind the harvesters.’ She arrived and has been on her feet from the morning until now, and has sat down for only a moment.”[a]
8 Boaz said to Ruth, “Haven’t you understood, my daughter? Don’t go glean in another field; don’t go anywhere else. Instead, stay here with my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that they are harvesting and go along after them. I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you. Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs and drink from what the young men have filled.”
10 Then she bowed down, face to the ground, and replied to him, “How is it that I’ve found favor in your eyes, that you notice me? I’m an immigrant.”
Boaz shows her generosity and kindness, and she asks him, why are you showing me this kindness? Boaz opens the field to her, and gives her even more than what she is asking, and Ruth wants to know why.
11 Boaz responded to her, “Everything that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death has been reported fully to me: how you left behind your father, your mother, and the land of your birth, and came to a people you hadn’t known beforehand. 12 May the Lord reward you[b] for your deed. May you receive a rich reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you’ve come to seek refuge.” 13 She said, “May I continue to find favor in your eyes, sir, because you’ve comforted me and because you’ve spoken kindly to your female servant—even though I’m not one of your female servants.”
14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here, eat some of the bread, and dip your piece in the vinegar.” She sat alongside the harvesters, and he served roasted grain to her. She ate, was satisfied, and had leftovers. 15 Then she got up to glean.
When Ruth asks Boaz why he is so generous with her, his response is powerful. He says, I’ve heard your story and how you expressed loving kindness and devotion to Naomi even though you didn’t have to. This way that Boaz describes Ruth’s actions is remarkable in that he uses words and phrases that people usually use to describe God’s love. Time and time again, in the Bible, we hear about people neglecting their duties or being unfaithful to God, and time and time again we hear of how God remains faithful in this.
The way this faithfulness of God is described in the Old Testament is with a term we often translate as steadfast love. No matter what a person does or where a person goes, God’s love remains steadfast. We see here, in the person of Ruth, this steadfast love being shown to her mother-in-law. In her commentary about Ruth, biblical scholar Lynn Japinga, writes “Ruth is the image of God in this story.”
Humans always resist God, but God continues to show God’s steadfast love. Again and again, Naomi, full of grief, resists the love of Ruth, but Ruth remains steadfast.
One of the problems of our world is that people, and likely you, have tendency to think you need to do it on your own. Or you think that you don’t want to burden anyone else with your problems, perhaps your grief or your loneliness. Maybe your family is in crisis, a crisis of health, a crisis with a child, a crisis with a parent, a crisis with a marriage. And might be thinking that you need to do it alone. That it is your responsibility to fix it or on yourself without bothering anyone else. This is what Naomi was trying to do. She was trying to deal with her problems by herself. She was dealing with her grief and her loneliness alone.
But friends, you can’t do it alone. You can’t do life alone. When things get tough, when things are difficult, when things seem impossible, this is the time that you need someone else. This is the time that you need the presence of other people in your life. This is one of the main reasons that it is important to be in a community of faith where you are valued and loved. Sometimes, though, you and I are stubborn and think that we don’t need the care of others.
In our story, we find that Ruth is the presence of God to Naomi. It is through Ruth that God blesses Naomi and gives her a new sense of hope. When the days are difficult, it is easy to isolate yourself, but if you do this you just might be isolating yourself from the blessing of God. Because there are people like Ruth that are all around you. There are people like Ruth that care for you and want you to experience the life-giving love of God.
When you are in a community of faith, there are people that want to come around you and care for you and walk with you and help bring you to healing.
I saw this fact pretty dramatically this week in our community. We all know the problems of drug addiction in our community. Here lately we have heard a lot about the opioid crisis in our nation and our state. If the statistics are right at least one in three of you know someone addicted to opioids. More than that, likely half of you have a family member or close friends who is touched by addiction. If our congregation is like the rest of the county, about a third of us have or have had an alcohol use disorder in our lives and about ten percent of us have or have had a drug use disorder. These numbers strike close to home.
The health and spiritual leaders in our community are concerned about this and are struck by the lack of resources for hope and healing in our community. In a meeting last week, I saw health leaders and faith leaders beginning to think and pray about how we can come together as a community to help bring hope to people and families.
The next step of this initiative is that we are going to work to gather as many pastors as possible for a meeting here on November 4thto educate faith leaders and to begin to imagine how God might use our churches to bring hope to our community in a new way. When I think about this story of Ruth, to me I see that we are seeking to learn how we can act like Ruth with those who are hurting in our community. We are seeking to learn how our churches can come alongside those who are hurting and provide hope and life, just as Ruth provides this type of hope and life to Naomi.
This is not just about addition. Things can go wrong or hard in life in a multitude of ways. I want to encourage you, when your life seems to go off the rails, when things seem go wrong, remember Ruth. Surround yourself with people who care, and allow them to share the love of God with you. Allow the love of God, through other people, to sustain you and to give you hope.
Right now, I want to pray for you and pray for our community. And then when we sing our closing song, I want you to know that the chancel rail is open. If you desire to come forward and pray, please feel welcome, please come.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.