Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Women Power!” Sermon, Year B, Proper 27, November 11, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Book of Ruth

Our Old Testament is coming from the book of Ruth. Before I get into the reading I want to talk about it a little bit to set it in some context. Then I will read it, and have some closing comments at the end.

Ruth is from the Old Testament. It takes place during the time of the Judges. After the Hebrew people have left slavery in Egypt, they have had their time in the wilderness and come into the Promised Land for a couple hundred years trying to set up a system of governance and be a people there. They have not created the country of Israel, they are more a confederation of the twelve tribes at this point.

So Ruth, the book, is a story of some people, but the overarching theme of the book of Ruth and reason it is in the Bible is this overarching theme of the power of hospitality. The power of hospitality. And a parable against that abusive power of ideologies of division, separation, or the abusive power of ideologies of purity that say “We are this special people and we don’t associate with those people”, or “We have these rules and regulations and those rules and regulations are more important than the needs of any one individual.” Ruth is a parable against thinking that way of demanding purity at the expense of the community, or doctrine or law at the expense of the needs of an individual.

And there is in the book of Ruth this constant violation of God’s laws that had been given to Moses just 150 or 200 years before. This is violating God’s law because of people putting other people above the law, putting other people’s needs first before the law or the social norms or the need for purity. And through those violations, the book of Ruth ends with the creation of a servant of God. It is a bit of a surprise ending to the book of Ruth. And so it is a bit of paradox: God gives the law, and then here is story of people who keep going against and this incredible good comes out of it. It is a parable that the law should serve the people but not oppress them. I imagine God giving the law to Moses, this new people, and God saying, “Here, you are going to need something to help arrange your society, your culture, to give you some idea of how to be in relationship with one another. But don’t be too literal about this. Don’t let this lead to the destruction of some people. Don’t get so tied into the law that you re not willing to break it when you need to.”

And so the book of Ruth tells a story. And like the Christmas story, the book begins in Bethlehem, and like the Christmas story it quickly leads to foreign lands. So we begin in Bethlehem at the beginning of Ruth. We have Naomi, one of the main characters, and her husband Elimelech, and her sons Chilion and Mahlon. But their area of Bethlehem is suffering from famine, which is ironic because Bethlehem means “House of Bread”. So they need to escape the famine, and they escape by moving to Moab. If you picture the Dead Sea as a big ellipse, Bethlehem is to the NW corner of it, and Moab borders the eastern side of the Dead Sea, so a move into Moab is pretty easy. But Moab was home of the enemy. It was one of the enemy countries, people that the Hebrew people were not supposed to associate with. But they go there anywhere. They violate the law.

They go there, and when they are in Moab the people welcome Naomi’s family, which they also really should not have done to an enemy, to these people who were considered in one way or another unclean or foreign. But there is this constant hospitality in here, and loving-kindness. And in Hebrew, there is a word hesed that means “loving-kindness”, compassion, mercy. It is the highest level of showing love and wanting only the best, and only good for other people. Usually in the Old Testament this is attributed to God, but sometimes it is attributed to people. In the book of Ruth, it is attributed only to people. God is sort of invisible in the text, but working behind the scenes here. So people are referenced as showing hesed, this loving-kindness, to one another. And of all the good things that a person can be called, to be called a person of hesed is really at the top. That means you are just so loving, kind, open, that it’s practically divine the way you relate to people.

So the people of Moab accept Naomi’s family contrary to their law. Her sons marry Moabite women, which is a violation of God’s law. You can’t marry a foreign woman, and they probably weren’t supposed to marry Hebrews. But they do, they marry Orpah and Ruth. And so now Ruth shows up in the story. This is a very untraditional marriage, I guess we could call it. And there is very little of traditional marriage in this story, there is a lot of untraditional marriage. And they live there in Moab and everything goes fine for a few years until Naomi’s husband dies, and her sons die, and so they are three widows left alone. No grandchildren for Naomi. Now just Naomi, this Hebrew woman, and her Moabite daughters-in-law. All widows.

And Naomi hears that the famine in her land is done, and she has nothing holding her in Moab any more, so she decides to go back to be with her people. And she tells Orpah and Ruth, “You don’t have to go with me. You are in your land, with your people. Don’t follow me. Stay here, be happy, do whatever you need to do.” And Orpah decides to stay, but Ruth says to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.” And so they go to Naomi’s kinsman Boaz who was rich, in the hopes that he might offer them some kind of help. Widows had a rough time back in the day, and they don’t necessarily have it better now, but certainly was rough for widows back then. And Boaz treats them way better than he needs to. He shows them hesed, loving-kindness. And Ruth treats Naomi with hesed. And so Naomi decides it is time to play matchmaker and find a husband for Ruth. And so we get into our text.

[Read Ruth chapters 3 and 4. Comments:
3:2 There is something of seduction going on here
3:4 “Uncovering the feet” is likely a euphemism here
4:1 At the gate of the city is where legal matters were often conducted, or gatherings to discuss the matters of the day
4:6 Marriage was often property exchange in ancient Israel, and most places]

Obed means “Servant of God”, so when I said before that this hospitlity leads to the creation of a servant of God, that’s Obed. Showing hospitality in defiance of God’s law on numerous occasions, in defiance of social norms on many occasions, results in the creation of a servant of God. They allow the line of Elimelech to continue after the death of his sons. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi also gives Naomi a place in the society. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, and Ruth’s act, gives Naomi dignity and favor among the women. And remember, Ruth is the outsider here. She is the Moabite. And so Ruth, who is this unclean, hated, Moabite woman, an immigrant, an outsider, a foreigner, although she had been married to a Hebrew, is still a Moabite: she becomes grandmother to David. The greatest of all of Israel’s kings. And as grandmother of David, she also becomes the great-great-many-times-grandmother of Jesus. So Jesus has the blood of foreigners in his veins.

History’s course is change by two women, two widows, and they change it by sticking together through loyalty, through love, through hesed. Through loving-kindness toward one another. And by going against expectations. And by tking risks. They show Women Power! The pwoer of women. To a patriarchal society they say “No!” to everything that would divide, or separate, or keep them down. And I wonder if in that story out of Mark about the widow putting the two coins in the treasury, if maybe her act wasn’t just an act of generosity but a womanist defiance of the patriarchy of the priests that were oppressing the poor as though to say, “You want everything I have? Is that enough for you? Then here, have everything I have.”

It is radical hospitality that is shown in this book. One of the five signs of a thriving church that we talked about in the past year, that the group of us did earlier, one of those signs is Radical Hospitality. How do you welcome people? How do you show love? How do you integrate people into the community? How do you make the community open to others? And not just in church, but outside the walls. How in your daily life are you showing hospitality to people? We can ask, “Who are the Moabites of today?” The homeless? The mentally ill? Immigrants? Foreigners? Muslims? Who are the people that are treated like the Moabites had been treated?

The love that these women showed for one another, and for the people around them, for that environment of hospitality that they mde around them, their willingness to care about people more than about the rules or regulations or the law or what they’re “supposed” to do; their willingness to do all of that resulted in creating a servant of God: Obed. But we can also take it to say that to make a servant of God, that is just the environment that is still required. Servants are created in the incubator of community, and community is created through hesed. Through loving-kindness.

So one never knows. The people that we show hospitality to, that we show hesed to, not only might they be angels in disguise, but they might be the grandmothers of kings, or the grandmothers of messiahs.

And in that community of hesed, of loving-kindness, we will conceive servants of God. That is the power that we hold in our hands. We have that power. Amen.

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