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Gracious Gleaning -- Ruth 2:1-16 (21st Sunday After Pentecost)

This morning’s Scripture comes from Chapter Two of the Book of Ruth.[1] We may be more familiar with Chapter One – the story of Ruth and Naomi – dislocated, displaced, disoriented – re-orienting themselves on their journey through the desert. I’ve preached that story here. Joanne has preached it. Virginia Thibeaux made a stunning banner of the scene – Ruth and Naomi, clinging together in love, surviving together in love.

As Chapter One opens, there is a famine in Judah – and Naomi and her husband and her sons have to flee to the land of Moab – they are refugees there. The sons get married – to Ruth and Orpah – but over time the men die – leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law vulnerable, powerless, and poor. And so, Naomi sets off for Judah – on the move yet again – undertaking a perilous desert journey – and Ruth and Orpah insist on going with her. At some point, at Naomi’s urging, Orpah goes back – but Ruth persists in accompanying Naomi. They know that if Naomi goes into the desert alone, she will likely die. And we have these words of steadfast love and commitment – Ruth to Naomi:

Where you go, I will go.

Where you live, I will live.

Your people will be my people.

Your God, my God.

Where you die, there will I be buried with you.

May God do thus and such to me,

if anything but death separates you from me.

(Couples borrow those words sometimes for weddings.)[2]

In a disorienting world, Ruth and Naomi re-orient themselves in steadfast love – in that hesed we talk about – God’s unshakeoffable love – alive in them. And they continue on their perilous journey.

In Chapter Two, in this morning’s Scripture, they arrive. Displaced – seeking a new home. Chapter Two picks up as Ruth and Naomi are trying to figure out how to survive – Ruth, a stranger in a strange land – Naomi, technically back in her homeland – but a woman in a land of patriarchy – with no men and no power. So together, they come up with a plan.

Ruth will go into the fields and glean. Gleaning is going behind the harvesters in the field and picking up what’s left over. In their world, where so many people are poor and vulnerable, the opportunity for gleaning is required by law. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, it’s actually unlawful for a landowner to strip their fields bare – to take all that there is. Instead, the law requires that the landowner leave something behind for the poor, for the stranger among them, for the widow and the orphan. That’s Old Testament language for the vulnerable in your midst. Leave something for the vulnerable – for the hungry to eat. It’s a command.

So Ruth goes to glean, and she happens upon the fields of Boaz who just happens to be a distant relative of Naomi. Boaz isn’t there, but Ruth asks to glean – and she follows the reapers – in the heat of the sun – all day long – gathering what she can – so that she and Naomi won’t starve.

Boaz shows up and asks his workers who the new woman is – and they tell him – “She’s the daughter who came back with Naomi after all those years. She showed up today, asked to glean, and she has been working from morning until now without rest, except for one short break.”

Boaz is moved. And he goes to Ruth and says, “Don’t go to glean in any other fields. It’s not safe. Stay here, glean with my servants, where you know you won’t be harmed. I’ll tell my men not to touch you – and to give you water whenever you need.” And not only that, Boaz then goes to his men, tells them not to lay a hand on Ruth – to make sure she has water – AND, to leave a little extra behind. He tells them not to leave only what happens to get left behind – but pull out some handfuls of what you’re harvesting – the good stuff – and leave it where she can gather it.

At mealtime, Boaz calls her over and heaps her plate with roasted grain. And he says to her: “May God bless you for what you have done. You left the homeland of your mother and your father – risked everything to care for and accompany Naomi – you’ve come to live with a people you don’t know. May you find shelter under God’s wings.”

This is the story of Ruth and Naomi – displaced people seeking a home in a strange land. This is one story in the Bible of displaced people – people on the move – dislocated by famine and flood and war – in search of shelter – in search of a new home.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Bible – from beginning to end – is the story of people on the move – displaced people – in search of a home.

Think about it. Adam and Eve – displaced from the Garden.

Noah – and his family – and all those animals – adrift on the boat.

Abraham and Sarah – leave their home in the land of Ur – they sojourn together across deserts – called to a new home – along the way, threatened by armies and kings.

Hagar and Ishmael – thrown out by Sarah and Abraham – cast out into the desert and left to die – Hagar left to make her way – ultimately seen and accompanied by God.

There’s Joseph. Taken into slavery with the help of some lousy brothers – displaced to Egypt.

Then there are his brothers and father and their families – when famine comes to the land of Canaan – they have to flee too – all of them displaced to Egypt – all the twelve tribes of Israel.

And a new Pharaoh rises up and enslaves them all.

And then Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, with God’s help, lead the people out of Egypt – toward a Promised Land – wandering through a desert for 40 years.

Even when they settle, they’re not a kingdom for long before the Assyrian Empire sweeps through and conquers all the northern tribes and scatters them throughout the known world.

It’s not too long after that when the Babylonian Empire sweeps through – razes Jerusalem to the ground and takes the people living there into captivity into Babylon.

Seventy years later, after another clash of empires, the remnant of people stagger back home to rebuild their world out of the rubble.

Throughout Scripture, again and again, we find the stories of displaced people – people on the move – in search of a home.

And then, in the first pages of the New Testament – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have to flee Herod’s death-dealing decree into Egypt – Jesus and his family displaced, seeking refuge. Jesus, the refugee.

So much of the Bible is the story of people on the move – displaced peoples in search of a home – finding and making a home together.

But we can’t stop there, with just the stories we find in the Bible.

History is the story of people on the move – displaced peoples in search of a home. I won’t even begin to try that list all that.

But we know those stories from our day. Perhaps most recently, this congregation (with Asma’s leadership) has been preparing for the arrival in the Bay Area of displaced folks from Afghanistan. Our hearts were broken by scenes from the Kabul Airport in August. Since then, over 50,000 Afghans have made their way to the US – as many as 15,000 more still in the care of the US on bases in other countries.[3] For every person that left – there are even more family members who remain – trying to get out. Those who fled had to leave fast – with nothing more than what they could carry.

Until now, they’ve mostly been waiting in relocation centers. And now, day by day, individuals and families are making their way to more than 200 cities and communities across the country.[4] One official coordinating this describes this as “the biggest resettlement of war evacuees we’ve seen since Vietnam” – he calls it work for our whole nation – not just for blue, not just for red.[5]

One of the organizations working on this is the International Rescue Committee. Their director – points out that resettlement isn’t just about finding housing – it’s about finding a whole new life – housing – a job to fit and honor their skills – and also it’s about helping people deal with the trauma of displacement – of being ripped from your homeland.[6]

As these folks arrive from Afghanistan, we’re ever mindful also of the continuing waves of folks who arrive on our southern border – and who have arrived there, for years and years and years. In our response as a nation, we haven’t been at our best. We remember the last Administration’s family separation policy; we remember this Administration’s recent mass deportation of refugees from Haiti. Conditions in neighboring nations are so dire – conditions that in some instances the US policy helped to create. Those conditions make life there so untenable that folks – like Ruth & Naomi – set out on a perilous trek north. Because of bipartisan failure to enact immigration reform, our nation is ill-equipped to welcome and support and treat humanely the displaced people who arrive at our border.

I’ve even been thinking about this with regard to our work alongside the residents of Golden Gate Village. In conversations over the past few weeks, we’ve heard the history of the migration of people to Marin City in the 1940s to support the war effort. Golden Gate Village was built some years later to house those who remained. The residents now are fighting not to be displaced – they are resisting the forces of gentrification and profit – trying to keep and restore their homes.

I say all that to say this: All this may feel extraordinary in the sense that it is overwhelming. Indeed, it is. But it’s not accurate to think of the mass movement of peoples – the dislocation of peoples – as something that is out of the ordinary. To think that way is to close our eyes to reality. The movement of peoples across the face of the earth – displaced by famine, flood, war, and all manner of trauma – the movement of displaced peoples in search of a home is the story of history. It is the story of Scripture. It is the story of the world we are called to love and serve. It is why Scripture admonishes us again and again to extend hospitality to the stranger in our midst. In a world full of displaced peoples seeking shelter and home, welcoming each other is the work we are called to do.

Naming this as our reality – a big reality – let’s take a deep breath – and come back to the Story of Ruth – this story of displaced people arriving in a new country – strangers in a strange land – and see what sustaining grace we find there.

And maybe we should start back in Chapter One – and re-ground ourselves in hesed– in God’s unshakeoffable love. “Wherever you go, I will go. Where ever you live, I will live.”That is always the steady ground to which we can return when the world is spinning: God’s unshakeoffable love for us and for the whole world. And then, let’s move back into Chapter Two, and notice a few things:

First thing to notice: This is always Ruth’s story. It’s not called the Book of Ruth for nothing. Ruth is the protagonist in her own story. Ruth is the one who sets out with Naomi seeking a better life. Ruth is the one who braves the wilderness. Ruth is the one whose work and courage and steadfast love call forth a response in Boaz.

In Chapter Two, it’s too easy to start to center Boaz – the privileged man who responds with generosity. Isn’t he a great guy? But at the start of this story, Boaz is a guy participating in and benefitting from a world of power and privilege. In this story of Ruth, his is a supporting role. What Boaz does here is learn and respond to Ruth’s initiative. This story is about Ruth’s journey through all manner of adversity. Inspired by this stranger in a strange land, Boaz’s role – and ours – is to respond with hospitality to the need and the call she voices.

Second thing to notice: In this story, gleaning is not about leaving behind scraps. The hospitality called forth here isn’t simply to leave behind scraps for the poor. Boaz listens to Ruth’s story – and tells his men: “Pull out handfuls of what you are harvesting and leave it where she can find it. Protect her dignity; make sure her body is safe.” And then at the meal, he heaps roasted grain on her plate. In a world full of systems that have mal-distributed wealth, and power, and the essentials of life – what is called forth here is a gracious gleaninga redistribution of what is needed for life – so that everyone in the story can survive and thrive.

Third thing: Notice that what is happening here is community. What Ruth is doing here is calling forth community – Ruth, Naomi, the workers in the field, Boaz. God’s unshakeoffable love – knitting a people together – strangers made known and welcomed in – the hospitality of God’s sustaining love – embodied in community.

Now, whenever we gather together and experience the Word, we want to ask – What is our something to do? Moved by the trouble in the world around us,

embraced and filled with God’s grace –

what is the work that is ours to do?

Sermon concluded with a report from Peter Anderson on emerging opportunities through the Marin Interfaith Council to accompany displaced persons arriving in the Bay Area.

© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] For background on this Scripture, see Renita J. Weems, Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women of Today and Women in the Bible (New York: Warner Books, 1988, 2005), chapter 2; Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, “The Book of Ruth,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998). [2] In weddings not between two women, this borrowing may be appropriation, see Weems, Just a Sister Away (“They are the words of one woman to another woman, the younger woman pledging herself to the older in a testimony of sisterhood, committing herself to serve, care for, and stand by the older woman, in spite of what lies ahead.”) [3] [4] [5] Id. [6]


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