11/11/18 – A House Built by God

Sermon; Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Ps. 127; Heb. 9:24-28; Mk. 12:38-44

Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

25th Sunday after Pentecost

Nov.11, 2018

 

A House Built by God

 

I know it will be disappointing to many, but biblical scholars have informed us that even people of antiquity did not see the book of Ruth as a historical account. It is historical fiction – part parable, part socio-political commentary.  It is believed that this was a literary work written after the Babylonian captivity, during the time of rebuilding Jerusalem after it was left in ruins after the assault by the Babylonians. Rebuilding necessitates vision.

The question facing the Jews returning from exile was: “Who do we want to be now that we are no longer under the thumb of a conquering nation and society. This has been the challenge of many nations in the 20thand 21stcenturies who won independence from their colonial rulers. There were two rulers, first Nehemiah, the Ezra who was given the commission by King Artaxerxes to manage the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  From the book of Nehemiah, we read

“In those days also, I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon,

and Moab; 24and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and

they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various

peoples. 25And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them

and pulled out their hair, and I made them take an oath in the name of God,

saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters

for your sons or for yourselves.”

Nehemiah was not an evil administrator and did some good things for his people during his term in office. But he made the mistake of looking for simple answers to complex issues. And, in his zeal to regain a sense of identity for his people he let his patriotism become nationalism.

Charles de Gaulle, who led the French Resistance against Nazi German during World War II and later became president of France during the Cold War era remarked: 

              “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” 

Nehemiah decreed his own version of history. He announced that King Solomon of Israel had been a good king, whose downfall was solely the fault of his foreign wives. It was the old, tried and true defense – as old as the story of creation – “The woman made me do it.”

The story of Ruth and Naomi serves, on one level, as a socio-political commentary on the injustice of demonizing foreigners and splitting up families. In the story, Ruth was a Moabite, one of the countries from which Jewish men had inter-married during the Babylonian exile. Reading the story from this perspective, Naomi was representative of Israel.

The book of Ruth is one of the 5 sacred scrolls of Judaism. It is read in synagogues during the feast of Pentecost, better known in the Jewish community as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot, which means “weeks” in biblical Hebrew. What began as a harvest festival took on religious significance. The weeks that set the date for the Feast of Weeks are counted seven weeks from the anniversary of the second day of Passover when the Jews began their freedom from Egypt and the trek to the Promised Land. The setting for the part of the story in Ruth we have just heard is harvest time.

You will, no doubt, recognize that the number seven is found, frequently, throughout the bible. Seven is one of the greatest power numbers in Judaism, representing Creation, good fortune, and blessing. A Hebrew word for luck, gad, equals seven in gematria, Jewish numerology. As an example, another Hebrew word for luck, mazal, as in mazal tov, equals 77.

The story of Ruth and Naomi begins with Naomi’s family in Bethlehem. The story is set during the period of Judges, long before the Babylonian captivity and the Jewish Diaspora. As is most often the case in mass immigration, Naomi’s family left Israel due to a famine. Unable to survive there, the family went to Moab. The family did survive and thrive in Moab. Naomi’s two sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. But then tragedy struck, in short succession, Naomi’s husband and two sons died. The three women were left in the most vulnerable position in society, childless widows.

Now the stage is set for a second immigration, this time it is Ruth who is the immigrant. Naomi sees her only hope for survival in returning to her homeland and seeking help from her family. Naomi knew this was also true for Ruth and Orpah. They should stay in Moab and go back to their families, so they might remarry and have security. But Ruth refused to leave Naomi and so traveled back to Bethlehem with her.

Throughout the story, it is God who is the one behind the scenes allowing each step toward Naomi’s redemption to unfold. Naomi could not imagine she would ever reclaim the happiness and security she had before she was widowed and childless; yet, she did not give up. Through her tears and anger, she devised a plan. If she could get one of her kinsmen to marry Ruth, she and Ruth might survive and have security for their future. This is what immigrants seek when they leave their homelands – survival, and security for their future.

Naomi and Ruth survived by charity at first. Jewish law required landowners to leave 10% of their harvest for the poor to glean. Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, demonstrated his faithfulness by adhering to that law, but he also showed compassion for Ruth’s plight. Boaz noticed this new young woman who has joined the gleaners at the beginning of the barley harvest. He learns that she is a Moabite, one of the people thought of as enemies to his people. But he also learns that she is the daughter-in-law of one of his own kinswomen. In acknowledging a kinship with this woman, who is different from him in ethnicity and socio-economic status, Boaz recognizes her humanity and has compassion. This is foundational to the Word of God, we are all family.

Ruth asks Boaz for permission to glean from his fields. He has seen that she is willing to work hard for long hours and takes pity on her. He also knows that as a young woman, she is in danger from men. He grants her permission to glean and warns her not to go to any other field but his and to stay close to the other women. He instructs the young men working for him not to bother her, indicating that a woman in her situation could expect abuse.

Sadly, women around the world still face the same problems Ruth confronts, none more so than the poor. Even in developed nations like ours, when a woman’s children are dependent on her wages, reporting abuse or harassment, which will threaten her employment, is not a viable option. The Me-Too movement started with women who could afford to hire lawyers and had enough personal power, particularly celebrity, for authorities and the public to pay attention to their stories.

After Naomi’s clever match-making schemes, Boaz and Ruth marry. Naomi’s fortunes are reversed. We know that Naomi is the central figure in this story because the text tells us that Naomi nurses, the baby Obed, and the women in the village praise God that Naomi now has a child. The critical point being, it was God that redeemed Naomi’s life and is the only One with the power to redeem Israel.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word “house” not only means the building in which a family lives, but it also means the extended family which spans generations, a dynasty, to put a more elite title on it. The psalm for today, Palm 147 1declares: “the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” The story of Ruth and Naomi is also the story of Israel and its covenant with God. As Ruth made a covenant to stay with Naomi and Boaz made a covenant of marriage to Ruth, God has pledged to be with Israel – to be their God and they to be God’s people.

This psalm is attributed to Solomon with its subscript. The Bible tells us Solomon was a master builder of houses and cities. He was exemplary in having impressive buildings constructed in Israel. The psalmist sends a message to ove-rachieving, workaholic, anxiety-ridden people. It is vanity to believe that nothing will get done without us or if we don’t do something right now –like respond to that email at 2 in the morning –we will get left behind the competition. The Psalmist extols the wisdom of organizing a house, or a nation, according to God’s ethic, not societies.

This “house” that God created with the marriage of Ruth and Boaz was built to last. The Scriptures tell us that Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David, the greatest king of Israel. For us, Christians, this is a prelude to Advent, which is just a few weeks away. The gospels tell us Jesus was a descendent of the house of David. David was the House of Israel. Jesus was sent to make a “House of all peoples.”

In our gospel reading, we return to the plight of the most vulnerable of society. In the Bible, “widow” is a code word for such a person. Here Jesus compares the prideful grasping for power and prestige demonstrated by the scribes with the faithfulness and obedience of the widow who society would have deemed without hope. But she demonstrates her hope in God that there will be a better future for someone by giving her last two copper pennies to the temple treasury. In contrast, the scribes had betrayed the trust of the people in using religion for their own gains.

Looking back to the story of Ruth and Naomi we see the common thread of generosity and compassion. We have created all sorts of great technological wonders to get ahead, but we have not figured out how to share our resources. So, in our society, we have a few with unimaginable wealth and many who struggle to obtain the necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, and health care. We have not built a house with God.

Today, we will consecrate our 2019 pledges to the church because “1Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” We endeavor to use the money wisely and according to God’s purposes. Our offerings are the best evangelical tool we have, and we want to use this money to witness to God’s love in our community and across the globe. Westminster is not just a house of worship for this congregation, it is a house for the whole people of God that has been built in this small corner of the world on Moss Avenue. But, with God’s blessing and our generosity, we can provide food for a world hungry for the food that will sustain them and lift them up —  whether it is bread for the body or bread for the soul.

 

Thanks be to God!

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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