A Sermon on Ruth 2:1-7, 17-18
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
July 7, 2019 – 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.’ She said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ 3So Ruth went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ 5Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’6The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’ 17 So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah [or bushel] of barley. 18She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied.
I wonder what you had to eat this holiday weekend. Personally, since Thursday afternoon, I’ve had the good fortune to be served BBQ chicken, a hamburger, chicken tikka masala, fajitas, more watermelon than I can account for, a farm fresh tomato sandwich, and Ridgewood donuts. It’s been a good week to eat. What did you eat this weekend? I suspect that many of you ate enough to get just a little uncomfortable – maybe a lot uncomfortable! I suspect that you had to be intentional in balancing out your more indulgent meals with healthy ones – or maybe you just indulged! Eating is just a part of life, and even more fun when it gets wrapped up in a celebration.
And so, it is horrifying to think that while we were all celebrating, we have neighbors who don’t have enough food to even meet their basic needs. I don’t say that to make you feel guilty – celebration of abundance is a good thing. But the reality is we have brothers and sisters in Independence and Missouri and around the world who are uncomfortable not because they ate too much, but because they don’t have enough to eat. And it’s not because we don’t have enough food in the world – we do. We can feed everyone. The good news is that with God’s help and a lot of elbow grease and a change in outlook, we could feed every human being on earth. The bad news is that it’s not a simple project, and the task before us is great: As many as 1 in 6 Americans struggle with hunger, including 17 million children.[i] Worldwide, about 1 in 7 people are hungry.[ii] Hunger is a significant problem in our country and our world.
This probably isn’t news to you. Hunger has always been a problem in our world. It was a problem for Ruth and Naomi, the heroes of our Scripture passage today. If you don’t remember Ruth and Naomi, their story goes briefly like this: Naomi is an Israelite from Bethlehem. Her son marries a Moabite, a foreigner, named Ruth. Ruth and Naomi’s husbands both die, and instead of parting ways, Ruth moves back to Bethlehem with Naomi. But, of course, with no male relatives to provide for them, they are desperately poor. Women were not allowed to own property – they couldn’t own their own field to grow food, couldn’t own a business, couldn’t even do serious buying or trading on their own. You hear that reflected in Boaz’s question “To whom does this young woman belong?” For the record, there are societies that exist today that give no rights to women; injustice has always been a problem in our world and it absolutely contributes to hunger. Because Ruth and Naomi are not allowed to support themselves, they had to depend on distant family or beg. They had very few options.
The one option they had was charitable gleaning. When farmers would go out to harvest, there would always be a little something left behind in the fields. That’s true today, too – there are crops that don’t look quite right, that fall out of the baskets, or that are just too stubborn to uproot. And so in ancient Israel, the law from Leviticus was that instead of the farmers going back and picking up the leftovers, they’d be left for the poor. The poor would come in and gather up what was leftover – a process known as “gleaning.” Therefore, the leftover crops wouldn’t go to waste, and those who could not earn food could glean their food – assuming, of course, that they were able bodied enough to work in the fields.
Naomi is too old to glean, and so she sends Ruth. Of course, Naomi’s ulterior motive is getting Ruth a new husband. Spoiler alert: Ruth and Boaz end up married, having a son, and are the great-grandparents of King David. They are ancestors of Jesus. They had a destiny to fulfil. But they wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if Ruth had gone hungry.
Human beings need to eat. You know this – your stomach might even be rumbling right now because breakfast was a while ago and your body wants to you stay fueled. And we don’t just need any food, we need healthy food. Often the cheapest food in our world is the most unhealthy – think dollar hamburgers and processed snacks – which leads to all kinds of health problems in poor communities. Hunger is a real problem in our world, not simply because people don’t have access to good food, but because we can’t attend to anything else until our basic needs have been met. Ruth couldn’t have pursued a marriage or had a child or raised a child without first feeding herself – she had to have the basics before anything else. In our own world, we can’t expect people to learn in school or get a decent job and certainly not do things like study the Bible if they’re being gnawed by hunger every day. Our lives are built from the ground up, so alleviating hunger is a top priority for God and for people of faith.
I realize I’m kind of preaching to the choir. This is the church, of course, that has food donation barrels in the narthex, that never charges for a meal here, that has an intentionally free lunch once a month. I’ve seen you take food to the homebound and share the last cookie with small children and donate generously to hunger programs. You know that hunger is a problem and that food matters. And that, my friends, brings us to VBS.
Our Vacation Bible School theme this year is “Abundance Orchard: Where Faith Grows and Hungry People Are Fed.” The program comes from the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian non-profit that feeds the hungry through the old process of gleaning. They go into commercial fields, pick food that tractors have deemed too difficult to pick or too ugly to sell, they sort and clean their gleanings, and then they make sure it ends up at food pantries and soup kitchens.
So in VBS this year, kids will learn about that ministry and many others. They will learn about eating healthy and feeding people who need food – maybe even their own friends at school. Friends, this is fundamental to being raised in the faith. Feeding the hungry goes hand in hand with reading the Bible – doing one will necessarily lead to the other. And, fun fact, every kid and volunteer – and the parents who want it – will be fed a free and healthy meal every night. If you pledge to the church or spent money at the VBS fundraiser, you paid for that free meal. You’re helping these kids learn from experience and example.
Naomi and Ruth and Boaz were meant to be ancestors of King David and, ultimately, Jesus. But they could not have fulfilled that plan if they had gone hungry. God has plans for you, and our neighbors, and each child who attends VBS. But without proper food and nutrition, we can’t live into the best things that God has planned for us. That’s why it is a part of our faith to feed the hungry. That’s why we teach our children to do the same. And that’s why we consider it an act of worship, because it ultimately places value on every life that our Creator has put on this earth. Hunger is a real problem in our world. But with God’s help, we can overcome any problem in front of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.