Rev. Adrianne Meier
September 12, 2021
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Click here for a printable version of this sermon.
What Hope Sees
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together,
the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of- kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
I have a soft spot for art that asks the public to participate. Wings you can take a selfie with; blackboards to write on; painted pianos to play. One of my favorite public art pieces is by Candy Chang. She places stickers on a boarded up building or the fence of an abandon lot and hands out sharpies. The stickers look a little like those ubiquitous “Hello my name is” name tags, but these says “I wish this was…” “I wish this was a grocery store.” “I wish this was a place for people to hang out and enjoy.” “I wish this was a community garden.” The stickers migrated. On a pole: “I wish this was a bike rack.” On a pothole: “I wish this was properly paved.” “I wish this was repaired.” “I wish this was heaven.” Of course, wishes are wishes. But I wonder what changes if the word is “hope”? “I hope this could become beautiful.” We believe that hope is about the kin-dom of God: it sees what isn’t already like God’s kin-dom—what is broken, and flawed, even harmful—and hope imagines how to make it beautiful, and whole, and life-giving. Hope sees how this world can—and will—be redeemed.
Ruth and Naomi show up in Bethlehem with nothing. Long ago, Naomi had left with her family to escape a famine, hopeful that in Moab, things would be different, but she had returned home in worse shape—widowed, child-lost, destitute with her widowed, childless, destitute daughter-in-law. They came without bread to the city called “House of Bread.” And what follows is what happens when hope comes to the hopeless. It begins with a simple, but transformation, innovative Biblical law which required farmers to not harvest the edges of their fields. All of Israel was required to save the edges of their fields for the refugee, orphan, and widow to glean. Hunger and poverty were community problems, not just problems for individuals. And gleaning was merely the first step.
In this story, the next step—what we hope will be the permanent solution—is that Ruth must find someone willing to marry her. Admittedly, here is where the trouble begins for the modern reader. Unfortunately, when a man died, what to do with the wife and mother were too often handled in the same breath as what to do with the flocks and fields. The solution in this case is a practice knowns as Levirate marriage. (This is the perfect place to remind us that there is no single definition of “Biblical marriage.” Sure, Biblical marriage included a man and a woman, but also other women, and slaves and concubines. And then there is this practice of Levirate marriage.) In Levirate marriage, when a man dies without an heir, his unmarried next-of-kin must marry his wife and produce a heir for the man. It is complicated, and far from perfect, but in a patriarchal society, it was a way of protecting women and girls, too. No one could swoop in for the flocks, while leaving the remaining family—the people—destitute.
Okay, so that’s the kind of solution we’re looking at this story. That one of Naomi’s relatives would swoop in and save them by marrying Ruth, so this is the other reason they head back to Bethlehem. This is where the next-of-kind would be. So, there is one more detail—a little loophole—which is that if the next-of-kin refuses to fulfill his obligation, it passes to the next, next-of-kin. If you refuse, you have to find someone to fill the role. That person was Boaz. And, this is the really interesting part, the name for the person who finally steps up to care for flocks and land and wife, even though none of it will be for him, the first child of this union will be an heir to the deceased husband’s property. The name for this person is Ga’al, which means redeemer. It is a powerful word picked up in hope by the prophets. Job, too, uses this word when, from his grief and trial, he says, in hope, “I know that my redeemer lives!”
Now, we’ve tastefully omitted most of Chapter 3, and maybe that was a mistake, because while Chapter 4 is about Naomi’s hope for the future when she looks into her grandson’s eyes, Chapter 3 is really about hope, because that is where Ruth refuses to settle for a future of gleaning and groaning. While the Bible doesn’t usually talk about feelings, let’s assume that she’s angry and tired of the way things are. So, Ruth and Naomi imagine a future where the kind farmer who has been excessively generous in caring for them could become a part of the redemption of their situation. This is what hope looks like. And when their redemption comes to pass, listen to what the women of Bethlehem sing to Naomi: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”
I don’t know, Beloved, I’ve fitzed and fussed with this sermon, trying to articulate what I see here. Let me just say it plainly. To have hope isn’t to merely wish that things could be different. It isn’t even to think that things could be better. To have hope is to trust that what is wrong will change, and to go out into the world imagininghow it will be redeemed and filled with life for all people and all creation. I think the reality is that Ruth is preserved in the Bible not because it was a situation where everything came to pass just as Biblical law said it should, but because Ruth and Naomi and Boaz saw what God’s kin-dom looks like and, in hope, sought to make it real.
We are called into that hope, a hope which gathers up all the woundedness, the brokenness in this world, a hope that names the evil of this world, everything that threatens life and the created world. And then it imagines how it could be different—how God will redeem it. As Christians, hope includes our individual futures and the collective future of humanity. The author Rebecca Solnit writes that hope isn’t a game of chance, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal…To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Beloved, hope holds in her hands what is broken in you, in your life, in the world in order that what is broken might be made beautiful in the light of God’s love. In order that it might be redeemed be God.
That is hope, trusting that even this—even your broken heart, even your fear and anxiety, even our changing climate, even our endless calls for conflict, even the never-ending need of this world—all of it can be redeemed. St. Augustine once wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Hope is creative imagination grounded deeply in the gritty realness of life. Hope speaks honestly about what is unjust and unfair and unequal. Yet, hope refuses to throw up her hands in despair, sure that nothing will ever change. Hope imagines how this place, this problem, this entire existence could be beautiful, whole, life-giving. How this could be like God’s kin-dom, come. Beloved, Hope imagines how the unredeemable can, in fact, be redeemed—and how the one who hopes can be a part of it.