Sunday, December 7, 2014

Peace, Plain and Simple

The Gleaners, Jules Breton

Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet

Ruth 2, Matthew 1:18-25
December 7, 2014, Second Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry
Ruth Meets Boaz

2 Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”3 So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4 Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 5 Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” 6 The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”[a]

8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 May the Lordreward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” 13 Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied.19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.”[b] 21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” 23 So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.

As I was working on the sermon early Thursday morning, I opened a new tab on my internet browser to look for a quote about peace at a site called “Inward/Outward. Not finding exactly what I wanted, I went on to another part of my work. Sometime in that process, I looked back up at my browser tabs. That tab for Inward Outward said, “You searched for peace.” You searched for peace. Yes, yes I did.

Peace is the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, and we’ve heard two stories that may seem a fair distance from that theme. After all, Ruth gleaning in the fields and Joseph being visited by an angel – the two stories don’t even go together well, much less illustrate what we typically imagine when we think of peace. We should have doves and peace marchers, anti-war demonstrations, peace treaties and peacemakers and peacekeepers.

A peasant woman from Moab in an obscure Palestinian village, in a story that dates to 500 BC, and an equally common fellow in that same village 500 years later – what have these stories to do with peace? These are not peaceful stories. Disaster lurks at the edges of both narratives. In the first tale, the potential for disaster, for violence, for misery, comes from sources external to Ruth. In the second, the story of Joseph, the potential for disaster, violence and even death, rests within Joseph’s heart. In both, the power and wisdom of God and of God’s faithful people are the instruments of peace, plain and simple.

If you remember the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, Ruth has allied herself with Naomi. Where you go, I will you. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God. Ruth, the foreigner, the immigrant, the vulnerable widow, returned with her mother in law to Bethlehem. At the end of last week’s story, there was this simple sentence: They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Because they are penniless and in need of food, Ruth asks if she can glean in the fields. Given permission by Naomi, she goes into the barley fields to glean – to pick up the stalks of grain that are left behind by the reapers. In our dining room at home, we have an antique print of Ruth, gleaning in the fields. Ruth is lovely, serene, a peaceful countenance in a pastoral setting. It is reminiscent of the work of Jules Breton, or Jean Francois Millet, two famous painters of French peasants, whose names you may not know but whose works would be familiar to you. Their renderings of gleaners from the mid-1800s are romantic and beautiful. The subjects take on a luminous and heroic appearance, strong, muscular men and women, bending over to pick up the golden stalks of grain in the slanting sun at close of day.

In this case, art does not imitate life. The reality of Ruth’s work of gleaning was anything but romantic. “Gleaners came from the ranks of the poorest, landless peasants, and often were made up of the weakest members of society – women, children, the elderly and the handicapped. The gleaners followed the harvesters to salvage for their families the last kernels of grain missed by the reapers. This was backbreaking, tedious labor – scrounging for tiny morsels of grain amidst the dirt of the earth. Gleaning was often what stood between the peasant and starvation.”[1] While the poor did this work for a bit of bread, they were watched over by the owner’s employees, in Bible times, and guarded carefully by soldiers in later centuries. They were free to glean – but they could not take anything that had not fallen to the ground.

The law of Moses, God’s commandments, instructed faithful Hebrews to be sure to leave something for gleaners. It was their livelihood, all they had. There was no social safety net, no food pantry, no place for the needy to turn. So this is the work Ruth is doing, at the close of day. Not only is the work physically demanding, the location makes the worker vulnerable, especially if that worker is female. Like many young women in our own time, Ruth was not safe, out in the world on her own. She had to rely on someone other than herself for safety and for peace.

In our chancel drama, Naomi refers to the possibility that Ruth would be “bothered” if she went to a field other than Boaz’s. In more modern translations that conversation is more explicit. “The Message,” puts it this way - Namoi says to Ruth: “You'll be safe in the company of his young women; no danger now of being raped in some stranger's field”

For Ruth, a vulnerable immigrant in a strange new world, doing what she could to find sustenance for herself and Naomi, peace came because her kinsman Boaz offered protection and support. No matter what Ruth’s inner state was, no matter how much peace she had in her heart, for true peace, she had to rely on the encircling care of community and kin. For her daily bread, Naomi relied on Ruth’s willingness to provide. Ruth, in turn, counted on the generosity and kindness of her kinsman, Boaz.

Joseph, on the other hand, had inner turmoil to deal with. He was engaged to Mary, part of a legal contractual agreement that bound them together with the same ties as marriage. This was a covenanted relationship, the betrothal. And Mary was pregnant. Not by him.

Couples couldn’t just break up and give the ring back, like today. They would have to divorce to end the engagement. Like Boaz, Joseph was a righteous man, who followed the law of God. His range of options regarding Mary were fairly limited - if Mary had been unfaithful to him, and all the evidence pointed to that, the law gave him two options – divorce her, or stone her to death. His plan was to quietly divorce Mary.

Joseph went to sleep, stomach churning, mind racing. That is, until the angel came. Matthew’s telling of the tale is spare and terse. This is his only reference to the birth of Jesus. There are no shepherds, no innkeeper, no angel choirs, no oxen. This story we told the children is all Matthew has to say about baby Jesus. He starts with “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place.” He tells of the angel’s visit, then closes with this: “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn't have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.”

End of story.
(This is why on Christmas Eve we use the reading from Luke!)

Joseph really was between a rock and a hard place. Neither of the options before him was good. But then came this angel, a vision in a dream, to give him counsel, and to give him the unexpected news that the baby Mary would bear would be the long-awaited Messiah – the anointed one. This baby would be Immanuel – God with us. This baby would be Jesus – the Lord saves!

So Joseph did what God commanded. Imagine the sense of peace he must have had, once he had made the decision – the decision to obey God, and to protect Mary in her vulnerable situation.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, 500 BC, Boaz has become aware of Ruth. The lovely part of this story is when Boaz discovers who Ruth is; he makes sure that she is protected and provided for. He insures that she will be safe, and that she will take home plenty of grain. She takes home about a bushel, an unexpectedly large amount for a gleaner. That must have been when Naomi came up with a plan.

We’re going to take a quick peek ahead to the next chapter, while the children are busy upstairs, because it is one of the PG (or R) rated sections of the Bible. The third chapter of Ruth is full of double entendre, euphemisms, and puns. You won’t hear about this in next week’s sermon, with the children’s program and all, but I do recommend that you find Ruth, chapter three this week and read it.

Depending on how you read it, it may be one of the racier parts of the Bible. It is suggestive, to say the least; it’s adult material. After hearing of Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, dress up, put on some nice perfume, and go down to the threshing floor at night. Ruth was to lie down next to Boaz, who presumably had spent the evening celebrating and toasting to the harvest. Ruth does what Naomi says, finds Boaz, and, the scripture says, “Uncovers his feet.” The playful innuendo of the language suggests that Ruth uncovered… uncovered more than just Boaz’s feet. And then, Ruth asks Boaz to spread his cloak over the both of them. And she spends the night there. With him. Under the cloak.

With his…feet… uncovered.

Suffice it to say that in the morning, before dawn, Boaz woke Ruth up and told her to hurry up and get home before anyone saw her and realized she’d spent the night with him. And the actions of the story will eventually lead to Boaz’s offer to claim his place as the kinsman redeemer. We’ll take up that thread of the story week after next.

For now, let’s go back to that barley field. In spite of the vast distance of time between now and then, some things are the same. In many places in the world, it still is unsafe for a single young woman to go out alone. Just this past week a friend of mine lamented, “Why is it that an adult single woman cannot stop into a gas station convenience store without being propositioned by some random man inviting himself to follow her home?”

Then, as now, if this adult single woman is assaulted, the first question many people would ask is “Why was she alone? What was she wearing? What was she doing there?” as if somehow her presence or her dress or her behavior justifies an assault.

It isn’t just young women who are vulnerable. Across our country, people are marching in the streets, and arguing in kitchens, and meeting in churches, trying to sort out what is going on in a country where young black men are vulnerable to such an extent that their parents routinely give them “the talk” about what to do in an encounter with the police. And many, when an unarmed black youngster is shot down in the street, struggle to take in the reality that young African Americans are more vulnerable than their white counterparts.

It’s tempting to descend into the world of political debate, of policy and crime. But we follow the Prince of Peace, not the gods of this world. We follow Immanuel, “God with us” who offers not only personal peace, like Joseph knew, but the larger reality of genuine peace, beyond ourselves. God with us means that we are also called to be channels of peace: for the immigrant, the outcast, the vulnerable, the other.

Ruth, seemingly alone, out there in the barley field at dusk, was kept safe. Of course, the God of peace was with her. But it was because of the protection of her kinsman Boaz, because of the generous wisdom of Naomi, that Ruth could gather grain for bread in peace, could stop and draw a dipper of water in peace, could rest in the shade in peace. She found her security not in pepper spray or self-defense classes, not in staying home with all the doors locked, but in the support and care of a kinsman redeemer, a caring mother-in-law, an adopted faith community.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that we will never be victimized or vulnerable. There is far too much violence and evil in the world for that claim to hold. But we can be assured that we are called to be among the people in this world who help to make safe places for the vulnerable.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that we will never be hungry. There are many faithful people in this world who do without. But we can be assured that we who follow Jesus are called to share our bread with the hungry, to not take every last kernel of grain, to leave some of our ample resources for the poor.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that there will never be war, that there will always be unicorns and rainbows. There is too much lust for power, too much hatred in the world, to be so clappy-happy and blind to the presence of evil and greed.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is the assurance that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, that the bread of life is always available to anyone who hungers for it, that anyone who thirsts may come and drink living water, that anyone who is weary can come to Jesus, and that we can point the way to this table, to this peace.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is that even in dark, sleepless nights of confusion we can trust that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that in Bethlehem, God is working God’s purpose out, and the one who is to be born, who lives within us and among us, is the Anointed One, God with us, through whom the Lord saves us, the wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, the Prince of Peace.

I told you at the beginning of the sermon about my web browser, the tab that said, “You searched for peace.” I did search for peace, as has everyone who ever yearned for peace that passes understanding, the peace of Christ we pray for, the peace we work for. Through Christ, through the promise in Bethlehem, we can find peace. It is in following Christ that we find that peace, plain and simple, and it is through each one of us that Christ’s peace will spread through the earth. The poet Lao Tzu said it this way:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

Let the Prince of Peace come, in all his unexpected glory, and let all who search for peace, find it in him.



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