A sermon preached today – the second in a short series on Ruth.
Have you heard of Dumpster Diving? It describes the practice of salvaging food or other material that has been thrown away. As Wikipedia informs us, “the term dumpster diving originates from the fanciful image of someone leaping head first into a dumpster as if it were a swimming pool.” But the humerous tone of “dumpster diving” is probably lost on those who must practice it – those who live in poverty. Since bakeries sometimes through out perfectly good bread, and grocery stores perfectly good groceries, and furniture stores materials that can easily be salvaged – dumpster diving can be a source of despeartely needed food or income for someone in poverty.
Perhaps this seems an unusual place to begin today, but we do so because the practice of Dumpster Diving is as close as we get today to a common Old Testament practice. In fact, the Wikipedia entry for Dumpster Diving makes the connection: “In rural areas in some ancient agricultural societies, a similar process to dumpster diving was known as gleaning…”
Some in our world today must live off what others have thrown in the trash.
And some in the ancient world had to live off pieces of grain left behind in the field.
We read this morning concerning God’s law, from Deuteronomy 24: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” The alien, the orphan, the widow, are free to gather the remnants left behind- to sustain themselves.
Last week we suggested that the book of Ruth takes us on a path from famine to feasting.
On a path from emptiness to fulness
On a path from bitterness to sweetness.
Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth have suffered profound loss – the loss of husband and children. And in that ancient patriarchal culture, they have also lost their source of security and protection – without a male family they lack stabilty and financial security. So difficult is her situation, Naomi goes so far as to invite a name change for herself – “Don’t call me sweetness, call me bitterness.”
But again, we have hinted that the book of Ruth takes us on the way from bitterness and emptiness toward sweetness and fulness. And when Ruth and Naomi arrive back in Judah from Moab the possibility of fulness is hinted at when the narrator declares: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” From famine to feasting?
But there’s still a problem. You see, while the famine may be over, and the workers may be gathering the harvest, Naomi and Ruth are widowed and poor and have no way of accessing the harvest. The best that Ruth can do is go out and glean in the fields – to work behind the harvesters, gathering bits of grain. Dumpster Diving.
And we should know that even if Ruth is relatively successful at gleaning, whatever she is able to gather will never be enough to sustain her and Naomi. Even though on her first day of gleaning she gathers enough to feed them for up to seven days, we have to remember that the harvest only lasts for a total of seven weeks. Ruth will never will never be able to glean enough in that seven weeks to sustain herself and Naomi over the long haul. You can’t live from Dumpster Diving.
Turning away from the story of Ruth for a moment, I’d like to introduce a concept that is central to the Old Testament and to Christian faith more generally. Last week we explored the idea of hesed, of loving kindness expressed in ongoing relationships. But this week we want to pick up another idea that is so important to our life and faith – and to the story of Ruth – it is the idea of providence
Through the doctrine of providence we affirm that each of our lives and indeed our whole world are under the care and direction of God. The creator of the universe, who stands outside of the rhythms of time and outside of the dimensions of space, rules and overules all things. As Jesus puts it in Matthew’s gospel – “not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are counted.” The doctrine of providence points to the mysterious truth that our lives, and the events of our world, are under the gracious gaze of God. God guides and directs us as individuals, he guides and cares for his church, and the whole creation is under his care and direction.
We could add that the doctrine of God`s providence corresponds with an attitude of trust on our part. We cannot always see the hand of God at work, and we sometimes experience God as removed from us, yet the narratives of the Old and New Testament insist time and again that neither our lives nor our world are removed from the care and direction of God in Christ Jesus.
We read in Living Faith, the latest confession of the Presbyterian Church in Canada:
The living God is Lord,
Creator of all, Sustainer and Ruler of the universe.
In the seasons and the harvests,
in the rise and fall of nations,
God`s goodness and judgment are present.
All events in this world
are under the sovereign care of the eternal God.
The Confession adds:
Ever at work in the world and in our lives
God directs all things towards fulfillment in Christ.
Ruth is out gleaning in the field, and as she works, from early in the morning, barely stopping to take a break, she happens into a part of the field own by the wealthy and respected Boaz – a man who happens also to be a relative of Naomi’s. And as she works there behind the men taking in the harvest of grain, Boaz himself comes on the scene to supervise the work that is going on. Seeing Ruth in the field, he asks concerning this unknown woman. His servants reply that she has been there since the early hours, labouring non stop, and that she is ‘that Moabite’ who came back with Naomi.
In a remarkable turn of events, it seems that Boaz has heard of Ruth, and has heard of her act of loving kindness toward his relative Naomi.
Now we recall that Ruth is a foreigner, a Moabite.
She is in many respects unknown to Boaz.
And he has no legal obligation to assist her.
Yet Boaz determines to act on her behalf – to demonstrate loving kindness, hesed, toward his relative Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. In the light of the kindness that Ruth has shown to Naomi, Boaz responds by giving her permission to glean in his field. Even more, he speaks to his workers and tells them leave extra grain in the field for her to pick up. He gives her a place among his own women and offers her advice to protect her from the young men who might harass this foreigner. It is on account of all of his generosity that Ruth is able to glean as much as she does.
But her we want to come back to the question of providence. And we ask these questions:
What are we to make of the fact that Ruth just happened to end up in the field of Boaz?
What are we to make of the fact that Boaz just happened to show up that day?
What are we to make of the fact that Boaz just happened to have heard of Ruth’s kindness?
Ah, it just happened.
It was a happy coincidence.
She was lucky – you know, sometimes things just go your way.
That way of thinking is pretty common today, isn’t it? She caught a break – there’s not much more to say.
But that is not how Naomi reads the situation. In verse 20 of chapter 2 Naomi declares: “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi sees in this whole situation the loving kindness – the hesed – of God displayed toward them. For Naomi, God cannot be removed from the situation. For Naomi, a right understanding of events requires acknowledgment that God is at work in the world. God’s loving kindness, God’s hesed, has made it all possible.
It was by the providence of God that Ruth came into the field of Boaz.
It was by the providence of God that Boaz appeared on the scene that particular day.
It was by the providence of God that Boaz had heard of what Ruth had done.
The providence of God set the scene. But let’s also be clear about something else. In some sense the providence of God wasn’t enough to provide for the immediate needs of Ruth and Naomi. Yes, as Naomi, suggests, God is active in this situation, bringing events into line. But there remains something else that must be done. Within that circumstance, there is an occasion for someone to act.
As one biblical commentator puts it, “a crack in the seemingly impenetrable wall has appeared, the beginning of a possible path from death to life, from bitterness to joy… But, it remains to be seen whether the characters will act in ways that enable God’s intention for wholeness to be realized.”
God has brought Ruth and Boaz together in the field. The question is whether Boaz will act in a way that enables God’s intention for wholeness to be realized. Will Boaz act with loving kindness – will he show hesed – toward Ruth and his relative Naomi. The wonderful news, as we’ve seen, is that Boaz displays loving kindness toward them. As God displays Hesed to the community of his people, so within the community of faith Boaz displays loving kindness toward his relative Naomi and her daughter-in-law. He seems to have been under no legal obligation to assist this foreigner, this Moabite, this outsider – yet he looks out for her, protects her, helps meet her immediate need of protection and food.
Perhaps we should think a moment about providence in terms of our own lives. Often we are blind to the possibility that God is at work around us. We live in a culture in which life itself is thought to be accidental – a cosmic happenstance for which there is no explanation. Many around us pass from moment to moment thinking that what happens to them and around is a merely random collision of atoms and events. There is no meaning behind things that transpire. The possibility, as Living Faith puts it, that God is ever at work in the world and in our lives, directing all things toward fulfillment in Christ, isn’t given moment’s thought. And sometimes we are the ones not giving it a moment’s thought.
You met someone who became a life-long friend – well, that was a lucky day.
Someone showed up just when you most needed them – guess the stars were aligned.
But we need to be reminded that our God is a living God – alive in the world – at work in our lives. Like Ruth and Naomi we live under his constant care and direction and grace. Which invites a response of gratitude and trust in each moment we live…
But it invites something more. We have said that in some sense providence wasn’t enough in the story of Ruth. God brought Ruth and Boaz together in the field – but Boaz still had to act with loving kindness. God provided an opportunity for Boaz to reflect the mercy and kindness of God – but Boaz still had to seize the opportunity.
In the same way, we need not only to be reminded of God’s active engagement within our world. But we need to be reminded that in his providence God provides us opportunities to show loving kindness – hesed – toward those God has brought into our lives. And in providing these opportunities, God invites us to action.
Remaining attentive to the circumstances of our lives, we must learn to ask questions:
Is the change of circumstance in your friend’s life an opportunity from God to reach out to her with support or encouragement?
Does some obvious need of a colleague or acquaintance represent an opportunity, given to you by God, to offer service.
Has God given a window of to speak with your neighbour about what it is to be God’s child, and what it means to be Jesus’ disciple?
To live the life of faith, to serve the God who has served us in Jesus Christ, is to know that God is at work in the world. Life is not a meaningless movement from one experience to the next. We are called to be attentive to what God is doing, to be active in prayer, seeking to know what God would have us do in this time, in this place, in this relationship. At all times, to be open to the ways we might express hesed – loving kindness – to those God has brought into our lives.
We have said that the story of Ruth is the narrative of a return – a return to sweetness and a return to fullness of life. Boaz steps into the space created by providence, and so points to the possibility of such fullness and joy.
But we should not get ahead of ourselves. The short term needs of Ruth and Naomi have been met – the kindness of Boaz toward them, the grace of God in providing for them, means that they will have food for the weeks that lie ahead. But this is no long term answer to their poverty and their lack of security. You can’t live from dumpster diving.
It remains to be seen whether the characters in this story will act in ways that enable God’s intention for wholeness to be realized.