The Adventurous Lectionary – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 4, 2018
Ruth 1:1-18 (3:1-5; 4:13-17)
I believe that context is important in preaching and scripture study. We must study and preach in light of our political, social and economic context. In that regard, reading Ruth requires us to ponder the immigrant caravan, traveling from Honduras, the inflammatory and false rhetoric of politicians, and the reality of nearly seventy million refugees and displaced persons. The reading from Ruth begs a readers’ theatre or play to make the story come alive.
The Book of Ruth is more than a quaint love story. Naomi and Ruth are widows, without any means of support, in a patriarchal society. Their survival depends on the kindness of strangers, first, their friends and relatives in Bethlehem and then the securing of a husband for Ruth, who will provide for both widows. The situation is complicated by the fact that Ruth is a foreigner, a Moabite, and is by definition outside the Naomi’s tribe. When the two widows returned to Bethlehem, no doubt many of the locals fostered negative feelings toward Ruth and implicitly toward Naomi who, years before, fled the country in a time of draught. A stranger in a strange land when she first arrived in Moab, Naomi and her husband made a life for themselves and no doubt planned to stay in Moab at least until the end of the famine. Then the deaths of all three males changed everything. They must return to Naomi and Elimelech’s hometown. Naomi’s hope is that Ruth will find a home in the new land. Now, Ruth is a stranger in a strange land.
Their survival depends on finding a husband for Ruth, and there is a spark between Ruth and Boaz that Naomi wants to capitalize on. For all intents and purposes, Ruth seduces Boaz. A bond between them emerges after their night together, they marry, Ruth becomes pregnant and they have a child, whose son will be the great kind David. Romance and obstetrics are present in this story, but also issues of economics, gender, and ancestry. Imagine, the greatest of Israel’s kings is the product of a mixed race marriage. Imagine, a foreigner giving birth to the Israel’s greatest military and political hero. Nationalists beware. Outsiders can change the world for the best and may be the vehicles of divine revelation.
Like Job, the book of Ruth is countercultural. It challenges the received orthodoxy of xenophobia, grounded in writings in Deuteronomy, Ezra, and Nehemiah. In the wake of returning from the Babylonian exile, Ezra and Nehemiah prohibit Jewish men from marrying foreign women and charge currently married Jewish men to divorce from their foreign wives. Ruth is a foreigner and God uses a foreign woman to establish God’s realm in Israel.
Immigrants, documented or undocumented, invite us to become hospitable, whether they come from Honduras, Mexico, Syria, or the Sudan. Our hospitality affirms the divine image within the immigrant and God’s own vision for each person. In actuality, we are all pilgrims; the boundaries of our nations are important but relative. The earth belongs to God. (For more on Ruth, see Bruce Epperly, “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure.”
Psalm 146 reminds us that God alone is sovereign and that rulers are finite and relative. “Don’t trust mortals and princes,” and don’t trust presidents and political leaders for your salvation. God alone is our salvation and God’s path aims at justice for the vulnerable, forgotten, and oppressed. On the eve of the midterm elections, Psalm 146 counsels that a nation is judged by its care for the least of these and that, despite our pluralistic society, we must judge candidates by their commitment to the poor and to fairness to the forgotten.
The passage from Hebrews proclaims the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for humankind. In Christ, we are purified and enabled to begin again. We can trust God despite our imperfections, knowing that God’s grace covers our sin and brokenness. Healing is God’s goal for us and all creation.
Jesus’ response to the scribe counsels us to love God holistically. We can love God with our emotions, our actions, and our intellect. God’s love permeates every aspect of our lives and challenges us to love others with head, heart, and hands. Today, we need to love God with our minds – to be wise and intelligent Christians, placing the quest for truth above all else whether in theology or in politics. The time has come for Christians to challenge, on the eve of the midterms and moving to the future, the proliferation of lies and falsehoods in the political realm, whether from the President or any other candidate. Honesty is not only the best policy; it is the only policy for those who follow Jesus in the political realm. In loving God with heart and hands, we are counseled to follow Therese of Lisieux in doing ordinary things with love. Every action can transform the world, one person or at a time.
The adventurous preacher recognizes our ultimate dependence on God’s grace. God brings people into our lives, inspires our imaginations, and lures us toward unexpected but life-changing encounters. Grace liberates us from the politics of fear and falsehood and opens us to courageous and wise hospitality. Our dependence on God inspires us generosity, knowing that when we open to divine energy and creativity, God will supply all our needs.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 45 books, including “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure,” and “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World.”