Saturday, September 29, 2018

“As It Happened” - July 15, 2018

Text: Ruth 2

“As it happened.”  A great phrase, filled with possibility.  If you are reading a story, or someone is telling you about an experience, and you hear the words “as it happened,” you know that some important information is about to be announced.  “As it happened” is a flashing light telling you that the whole story may well hinge on what comes next.

I read a good example in the Washington Post just this week.  About 2 weeks ago, a young woman named Dulce Gonzalez was sure that her wedding was ruined.  She and her fiancé had planned a wedding on the beach in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Rows of white folding chairs had been set up on the sand.  There was a flower-covered altar inscribed with her initials and those of her fiancé and a white carpet of rose petals down which she was supposed to walk to the altar.  Everything was perfect.  It was a beautiful setting, a gorgeous stretch of beach on the Gulf of Mexico.

But as the time for the ceremony approached, thunder boomed and lightning flashed across the sky.  Wind and rain drenched her fairy-tale setup and whipped up powerful ocean waves.  All of the planning, all of the beautiful setup was for nothing.  There wasn’t going to be a wedding on the beach that day, and there was no Plan B.

Gonzalez sat and watched from inside her parents’ car, in tears.  She thought she was having a panic attack.  It was a disaster.

But as it happened – there are those words – as it happened, a couple had been watching the proceedings from their beachfront home.  Cynthia Strunk had observed several such weddings each year, and none had ever been canceled by rain.  She didn’t want this to be the first.  So in the driving rain, Strunk, 67, walked to the car that Gonzalez was in.  She had no umbrella, no rain coat.   She was absolutely soaking wet when she reached the car.  And she said, “Have your wedding in my home.”  The bride and her parents could not believe it.  They were flabbergasted.  Gonzalez recalled her sudden premonition, as Strunk approached the car, that the total stranger in the big house nearby was going to offer the use of her home.  “I was like, ‘Mom, I told you! I told you!’” she remembered. “I had this feeling she was going to save us.”

As it happened.  How many times do these kind of occurrences take place?  Coincidence or fate or good fortune, or maybe, some would say, something more was going on.  Some say that a coincidence is a miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous.  For the bride-to-be, this woman and her husband who opened their home were something like angels sent from God.

Think for a moment about how many stories in the Bible hinge on the words “as it happened.”  Moses has been placed in the bulrushes, in a basket, on the Nile River – in a desperate attempt by his mother to save his life.  And as it happened, Pharoah’s daughter walked by, heard the child crying, and took him back to the palace.

Years later, Moses is out tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when as it happened, a bush was on fire.  He stopped to investigate and wound up leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

The Philistine giant Goliath issues a challenge to the armies of Israel for a man to come out and do battle with him, one-on-one.  Everyone is terrified.  No one wants to fight this massive, strong, powerful warrior.  But as it happens, a young man named David has been sent to the front lines to check on his brothers and bring food.  And he is there when Goliath issues his challenge.

An Ethiopian eunuch, the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, is traveling the road from Jerusalem to Gaza in his chariot.  He is reading the prophet Isaiah and has questions, deep questions.  And as it happens, Philip, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, is walking along the road.

As it happened.  Those words are filled with possibility.  What follows, however, is not always a good thing, which can complicate the calculus on whether it is just dumb luck or something more.  When I was about 7 years old, a bunch of kids were playing at a neighbor’s house.  We were chasing each other around Bryan Phillips’ house, playing tag or something.  I came around the corner of the house and as it happened, an older kid in the back yard had found a piece of wood about yea big and had thrown it, just to see how far he could throw it, just slung it… about a half-second before I came around the corner.  It was on a perfect trajectory and hit me right on the side of the face and it wasn’t pretty.  For years, there was a little mark on my cheek and if I were to shave off my beard you might be able to see a faint souvenir of that as-it-happened incident.

I mention all of this because today’s scripture contains those words, as it happened.  And they are key words in the story.

For those who were not with us last week – or as a refresher for those who were – in the first chapter of Ruth we saw Naomi and her family move to the country of Moab to escape famine and starvation in Israel.  She winds up burying her husband Elimelech and then burying both of her sons.  She is discouraged, she is depressed, she is bitter, and she is just crushed by life – all normal and understandable responses.  

She hears that crops are growing back in Bethlehem and that there is food again.  So she decides to head back home.  She shares her grief with two daughters-in-law who have also lost their husbands.  Each has been married ten years and is childless, which in that day and age was an especially bitter pill.  One daughter-in-law, Orpah, goes back to her family but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and makes the trek back to Bethlehem with her.

When she arrives home in Bethlehem, Naomi is so downtrodden her friends don’t even recognize her.  As far as she is concerned, she is a cursed woman.  She says, “Don’t even call me Naomi (which means pleasant), just call me Mara (which means bitter).

That brings us to today’s text.  They have arrived in Bethlehem, but friendships have faded over the years she was away, and there are family ties but no especially close family ties.  They are back in Bethlehem, but the situation is still desperate.

But it is harvest time.  They need something to eat, so Ruth heads out to the fields with the hope of gathering some grain.  It is called gleaning – picking up what the reapers missed in the fields.  Leviticus 19:9 says, “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.”  You weren't supposed to harvest the corners of the field and you weren’t supposed to go back and get what might have been missed or dropped.  This was not charity so much as it was justice.  Widows and orphans and foreigners could not own land, but this was a way for them to work and share in the harvest.

So Ruth was gleaning in the field behind the reapers when we come to that great phrase.  And as it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz.  Boaz, we are told, was related to Naomi through her husband.  He is described as “a prominent man,” or in some translations as a “wealthy man.”  One scholar said that this might be translated to say that he was a “pillar of the community,” and one of the pillars of the temple was actually called the Boaz pillar.  In any event, he is related to Naomi and he is a key person in the community.

Ruth doesn’t know this yet, of course, but we do.  Boaz eventually shows up at the field and sees Ruth.  He asks who she is, literally “who does she belong to?” and the answer is, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi.”  It was a small community and people knew the story.  But it is interesting that Ruth is referred to again and again as “the Moabite.” 

What is striking is all of the small gestures, gestures of kindness in this story.  God does not speak and is not explicitly a character here, but we again and again find the word and the idea of hesed – loving kindness, or faithful love, or love in action.  It is shown by Boaz.  He tells Ruth to stay in his field, and to stay close to the young women in his clan.  He orders the young men not to bother her.  It’s not hard to imagine rude comments for a foreign woman and it is not hard to imagine men taking advantage of a young widow.  Boaz makes sure she has access to drinking water and invites her to eat lunch with all the workers.  And he tells the reapers to let her glean even among grain that has not yet been harvested, and that they should every now and then accidently drop some grain for her from the bundles they have gathered.  He goes out of his way to make things more comfortable and to make the work more productive for her.  This is an example of hesed.  It is loving kindness, love in action.

Ruth asks why she, a foreigner, has found such favor in his sight.  And Boaz replies that he had heard of all the Ruth had done for her mother-in-law Naomi.  He says, “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel under whose wings you have taken refuge.”

Now it needs to be noted how vulnerable Ruth was, and how much courage it took to go into the fields to glean.  She is a young woman, she is a widow, and she is a foreigner.  She doesn’t know anyone in the community.  She is in the field alone.

It could be a dangerous situation for her.  And beyond the danger, it is not difficult to imagine a foreign woman, an outsider, being treated with contempt.  Boaz demonstrates God’s hesed, loving kindness in action.

And so does Ruth.  She has all along as she has pledged to remain with Naomi and traveled with her back to Bethlehem. She is working hard to care not just for herself but for Naomi.  At the end of the day, she had an ephah of grain – something like 30 pounds.  One commentator said that she might have hoped for enough grain to make a small meal for herself and Naomi, and she comes home with 30 pounds.  Of course, she had some help to run up the total, but she was working hard.

At lunch she eats until she is satisfied, but no more than that.  She saves the rest to take to Naomi.  

Naomi is amazed by the amount of grain Ruth has gleaned.  And then she learns in whose field Ruth has been working.  When she hears that it was Boaz, Naomi says, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness (hesed) has not forsaken the living or the dead.”  Before now, Naomi pretty well had thought of herself as forsaken.  But from this point on, she is back on the road to being Naomi again – she is more Naomi and less Mara.  She tells Ruth that Boaz is actually one of their nearest kin.  And Ruth continues working in the fields gleaning, through both the barley harvest and the wheat harvest.

Well, what about this whole matter of “as it happened”?  Was it God’s doing or was it just good fortune?  I think that a lot of times, it may be both.  And a lot of times, it is seen in hindsight.

The thing is, when we enact God’s hesed, God’s loving kindness, as we act faithfully and kindly and loyally and compassionately, we help create the conditions for somebody else to be able to say, “As it happened.”  Cynthia Strunk – the woman who saw the wedding getting washed away on the beach – she chose to act with love and kindness.  So when “as it happened” a neighbor woman approached the car, this was God’s hesed, God’s loving kindness, enacted by and through this woman. 

Is it a coincidence or is it God?  We have the ability to create situations where God’s loving kindness is made visible.  When we live God’s way, pursuing God’s justice and living out God’s love and mercy, those coincidences, those “As It Happened” moments, keep happening.

Our Music Camp this past week was just a wonderful time.  And I was so impressed with the way our counsleors  - some in middle school and high school – and our campers interacted with each other.  Kindergartners who were new to all of this and suddenly thrown in with a bunch of big kids were made to feel welcome and cared for.  Some of the kids were a little quirky, a little different, but that was OK.  Everyone was included and accepted.  And at our Talent Show, everybody who participated got a standing ovation. 

One of our acts was a kindergartner who wrote his own song and sang it while he played the drums.  It went something like “I don’t want this camp to end it’s so much fun… somebody should thank whoever came up with this idea cause it is really great...”  He had received hesed, loving kindness, and as it happened, he was giving it back.

God’s loving kindness is seen in the loving actions of Boaz and Ruth and Naomi.  And it is seen in and experienced by you and me.  Amen.

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