Monday, November 12, 2012

The threshing floor

Ruth 3: 1-5, and 4: 13-17, page 243 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Sermon The book of Ruth is the story of great risks. Naomi, the mother-in-law from this lesson in Ruth, and her husband and sons left their home in Bethlehem during a great famine. They were bold to believe, as many have before and many will again, that life might be better somewhere else, so they left Bethlehem for Moab where their sons married Moabite women. Life for these immigrants was better in Moab, but then Naomi’s husband died. She lived there for 10 more years until both her sons died and her only family in this foreign land was her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. This relationship between Naomi and her daughters-in-law was a special one, as even after their husbands, Naomi’s sons, died, Orpah and Ruth wanted to stay with her. Eventually Naomi was able to convince Orpah to go back home, but Ruth was determined to stay with Naomi, even after Naomi decided that there was nothing left for her to do but return to her homeland in Bethlehem. Now this has happened before too, and it will surely happen again, that having lived away in a foreign land and exhausted all opportunities, there was nothing left but to return home, as word had it, there was food once again in Bethlehem. So Naomi returns to her childhood home, and brings her daughter-in-law Ruth with her, but surely while Naomi would find Bethlehem familiar, everything about Naomi had changed. Years ago she left Bethlehem for Moab with a husband, and now that husband was dead. She left home hoping for a better life, and now she returns not having found it. Like so many who leave home, she left hopeful about the place she would make for herself, but she returns to Bethlehem saying, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” She returned home destitute, homeless, either she had failed or God had failed her, and to make matters worse she was stuck with only her daughter-in-law. She was probably like most daughters-in-law too, didn’t want any advice, didn’t know how to cook – it’s no wonder her son was dead, he probably starved to death. She would wash the dishes but Naomi had to wash them over again because Ruth didn’t do it right. She never was good enough for her son and now this daughter-in-law was following behind while she went back to Bethlehem because there was nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. Certainly things were bad, and Naomi is so sure they won’t be getting any better she renames herself Mara, “for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” The two of them survived only because of this ancient tradition among the Israelites, that when grain was harvested reapers were only allowed to pass over the field once gathering as much grain as they could in one pass, everything they left behind belonged to the poor. To survive, Naomi sent her daughter-in-law Ruth to glean a field, and this particular field that Ruth searched for grain in belonged to a man named Boaz. Boaz happened to notice Ruth, and with his notice Naomi saw her chance – if Boaz would marry Ruth than Ruth would survive even beyond the barley harvest. She tells her daughter-in-law, “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor.” The threshing floor plays an important role during harvest season – this is the place where the barley is brought so that the grain can be separated from the chaff. The grain is saved, and the chaff is burned – it’s one or the other. That Ruth goes there she must know that there’s a chance that like grain she might be saved, but considering everything she’s been through, all the hardship, all the pain and disappointment, surely she knows there’s a greater chance that like chaff she will be swept away. The thing about hardship is that since it’s happened once it could happen again, but there’s something incredible about Ruth who still goes to the threshing floor despite how life has been in the past. Regardless of whether she’s the kind of woman who puts all her hope for survival on her ability to attach herself to a good man, there’s something worth admiring about a woman who has faced as much bitterness as Ruth has but goes on believing that life could still get better. I’ve seen that kind of determined faithfulness before, and believe what you want to believe about illegal immigrants, after working beside them for a lawn-maintenance company I saw a strength in them, a refusal to give up, that I will always admire. You think about how they cross the border; so many of them who get across only get across on their second or third try. It takes some strength to pay someone thousands of dollars to get you through, to cross a river, climb a fence, walk across the desert, only to be sent back and then want to try it all again. There are desperate people – who no matter how many challenges they face, no matter how bitter their lot, no matter how cruel or violent their days who keep on going, and this kind of desperation has something to teach you and me because while I know I would have given up Ruth goes on to the threshing floor to face the chance of disappointment once again because she hasn’t given up on the idea that life could still get better and that God might still have some joy and security in store for her. How many would never have gone. How many who get knocked down by life never get back up. How many who have seen their dreams crumble never dream again. How many who have been laid off define themselves by it and are never able to try again for fear that they are chaff and deserve to be swept away. On this Veterans Day I am reminded that every soldier faces unimaginable trials in combat – and for so many, after seeing so much death and destruction – even returning home becomes a trial. To believe, after seeing so much to the contrary, that life could be good again takes the determined faith of Ruth, for Ruth faces the threshing floor again, and finds that she is worth saving. But not just worth saving; Ruth goes to Boaz and now history knows her as the grandmother of King David, the greatest King of Israel and the ancestor of Jesus Christ the Son of God. The book of Ruth is the story of great risks. And I pray that you’ll be so bold as to take one yourself, for God is still about the work of saving us all and defining us not by life’s tragedy, but by miracles beyond your imagination. Amen.

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