Sermon Seeds: Seeking Security
Sunday, November 7, 2021
24th Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Ruth 3:1–5, 4:13–17 and Psalm 127
1 Kings 17:8–16 and Psalm 146
Ruth 3:1–5, 4:13–17
Confronting the Future (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
How many of our life decisions stem from a quest for security? Some of us may forgo the vocation that stirs passion and energy within us in favor of careers that seem to offer more certainty and stability. We may decide to remain close to home rather than explore the world (or even another part of the country) because we perceive that to be a safer option. We may not pursue the entries on our bucket list that are risky or take a chance on learning a new thing for fear of failure.
Security can become especially appealing in response to constant upheaval. Life during a global pandemic has taught that lesson around the world. But, many communities already maintained familiarity with an insecure life. People in war torn lands may take extraordinary measures to escape that life and seek asylum in more stable nations. While some may consider that action akin to trading one form of uncertainty for another, the testimony of sanctuary seekers reflects that the uncertainty of a new life promises more hope than the certainty of a life filled with horrors.
Naomi encouraged Ruth to return to her community of origin because she believed that offered her daughter-in-law security. Ruth had a different idea.
In this week’s passage, Ruth and Naomi seemed to have settled into a new normal, yet their position remains precarious. The threshing season can only last for so long. Once that time is over, the pair will need a new survival strategy. Ruth’s story is an immigrant’s story of finding what work she could obtain as a foreigner in a land that does not embrace her as a human being created in the image of God but will use her labor for their benefit. She helps illuminate the plight of migrant farm workers and undocumented persons who struggle to survive with only a dim hope to experience security. Again, we don’t know the details about her homeland and what she anticipated her life to become had she returned. Neither do we hear Ruth complain about her current condition. But, we do know that she chose to go to an uncertain place rather than return to her prior and familiar home. It is Naomi who now steps in with a plan to “seek some security” for her daughter-in-law.
Naomi provides pretty explicit instructions as she urges Ruth to pursue Boaz. Even our somewhat sanitized translations convey sexual overtones in this passage. This is definitely not a text suggesting that women patiently wait for their prince to show up and save the day:
[block quote] The scenario is reminiscent of Hebrew Bible narratives in which women use trickery and sexuality to force a man’s hand to manipulate those in power to do right by them (see Gen. 19:30-38; 29:21-30; 38:6-26). Rather than condemning such tactics, these narratives memorialize the desperate struggles of women who have few or no other options who risk everything just to survive. They have a mimetic function, forcing us to see where unjust socio-economic structures place women in a similar plight today. (Eunny P. Lee)
While the women demonstrate agency over their own circumstances, their vulnerability also weaves throughout the narrative.
How often do the conditions of our lives propel us to hold the tension of agency and vulnerability together in seeking security? The immigrant who has walked hundreds or thousands of miles over perilous territory knows that they may be rejected at the border of the “safer” country. The person who organizes their co-workers to advocate for fairer wages and working conditions faces retaliation from company management who commit to the status quo. Health care professionals from the ICU nurse to the janitor who continue to show up during a global pandemic treat patients who ignore public health guidelines and protocols in the same way they care for those who studiously followed every directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Having and deploying agency does not indicate exemption from vulnerability. It exhibits the courage necessary to overcome. Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi wasn’t made in naivete. She knew, better than anyone else, what life awaited her given the two options before her. She chose this path…and, mostly, she chose a companion for the journey. The legal and societal linkage between the two women no longer bound them together. This was a choice made of love and commitment. Their relationship reflects mutual care and concern:
[block quote] Prior to this, Naomi herself receives companionship and support from Ruth, her daughter-in-law and fellow widow, after the deaths of their husbands. Naomi’s advocacy on Ruth’s behalf with their relative Boaz reflects the Abrahamic vocation to be a blessing to every family on the earth (Gen. 12:3)–in spite of Joshua, Nehemiah, and other prohibitors of alliances with people of other faiths. (Bob Ekblad)
Ruth’s action suggests that the security of compassionate relationship superseded all the other known and unknown insecurities she would face. She, along with Naomi and Boaz, also demolishes societal and cultural norms in the process. Naomi and Ruth live within a culture that marginalizes them due to their status as widows (and as foreign for Ruth), yet they demonstrate fortitude and resilience in response to oppression. Further, they lend their measure of strength to the care of one another and do not hoard it for their own personal gain. That’s security found in community.
They choose Boaz for Ruth. Again, this disrupts cultural norms. They declare his worthiness and character. Yet, Boaz isn’t tricked into anything. His agency isn’t stolen from him or impinged in any way. Ruth, under Naomi’s guidance, declares her intentions towards him, and he has the option to accept or reject her proposal. This also reflects a mutual relationship not a submissive one on either part.
Unfortunately, the lectionary skips over much of their story. As Thomas W. Mann notes:
[block quote] Those who included Ruth in the canons of both Judaism and Christianity were not as puritanical as the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary who omitted the “sex scene” in ch. 3. Naomi instructs Ruth how to seduce Boaz (3:1-5), but the lection skips to their marriage and parenthood (4:13-17), omitting also the legalities involving marriage and property. There is neither a court scene nor a bedroom scene, yet both are crucial to the plot.
The full story merits reading or at least summary. This story does not intend to be sanitized. That’s a false security that feigns innocence that actually leads to insecurity driven by ignorance and denial. Sermons and bible studies that never touch on human sexuality leave faith communities without language and framework for such conversations and reflection at best and foster a repressed, shameful, and secretive view of sex at worst.
Mann also identifies that the omission “leaves the false impression that men are the chief protagonists, for Ruth never appears or speaks, and Naomi’s role is reduced to that of silent grandma.” The full story, however, is truly her story–Naomi and Ruth as the primary characters. Even God seems to have a secondary role…in the background.
We know from the beginning of their story that part of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi involved following Naomi’s God. Faith runs through the narrative, but as an undercurrent, largely unseen, yet still making an impact. When we think toward our own future and the uncertainty we consider, the overall decline in church attendance in many communities remains a source of concern in the local and wider church. I have heard some decry those individuals who identify as “spiritual but non-religious.” Ruth’s story tells us that God in the background still reigns with power and affect.
God in the background brings new life to the union between Ruth and Boaz. God in the background vindicates Naomi among her community as this child, who is not of her blood, is a descendant of her relationship of mutual love, loyalty, and faithfulness. And, Ruth’s child Obed is the ancestor of Mary’s child Jesus, born of David, son of Jesse. An foreign woman who tragically lost her husband travels with her mother-in-law, defies conventions as necessary throughout the journey, and reaches her destiny as a progenitor of the Light of the World. That’s God in the background.
Where might God be in the background as we confront our future?
This narrative reminds us that puppet-master is not a proper name for God, who still speaks but doesn’t pull strings. God works in and through people. We are created as participants in creation with a role of care, responsibility, and accountability for all of our siblings, including creation itself. In this passage, we witness the Holy One bless what the people who have committed to God have already done.
Boaz is an important character but his role is supportive, not primary, in this narrative. God certainly is always important but does not dominate the action. In our own lives, individual and collective, as we confront a future seemingly fraught with peril, we might be tempted to seek security in different forms. We might look for material reinforcement, or we might latch onto leaders who promise the impossible. We may cling to past solutions to current conditions, or we may even attempt to ignore and deny the realities facing us. Our fear of the unknown or attachment to perfectionism may paralyze us and keep us standing still when it’s time to move. Or, our desire to just do something–anything–may press us forward when it’s time for discerning and wisdom seeking. We may think we’re the lead when we’re there to support or vice versa. We may also believe that we are alone when, in truth, God is in the background.
Remember, when Ruth promised her allegiance to Naomi, all she offered was what she could guarantee–her presence. When Naomi, in turn, seeks security for Ruth, she identifies a person whose presence in her daughter-in-law’s life will make the difference. When Ruth’s descendant, Jesus, comes to us, it’s fulfillment and renewal of the covenant commitment of abiding presence. The future is unknown and uncertain, but this is secure: God is with us…even in the background.
For further reflection:
“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”— C. JoyBell C.
“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”— James Baldwin
“Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of competence.”— Eleanor Roosevelt
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite the congregation to consider ways to be present with the community that surrounds your faith community or with marginalized communities around the world.
Ekblad, Bob. “Proper 27 ].” Allen, Ronald J. et al. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Lee, Eunny P. “Ruth.” Newsome, Carol A. et al. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Mann, Thomas W (Thomas Wingate). “Ruth 4.” Interpretation 64, no. 2 (April 2010): 178–80.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Ruth 3:1–5, 4:13–17 and Psalm 127
1 Kings 17:8–16 and Psalm 146
Ruth 3:1–5, 4:13–17
3 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. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 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! 15 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.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 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.
1 Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.
3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
1 Kings 17:8–16
8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
1 Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!
24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”