Sunday, 25 March 2012

The story of Ruth ... a fresh perspective from Malawi

Since preparing this evening’s sermon on Friday evening much has happened.

So much, that the sermon I preached was quite different from the sermon I prepared.

Last Sunday I found I could not cover the wonderful story of Ruth in one evening … and so I left the story on a cliff-hanger of an ending at the end of chapter 1 wondering what kind of a reception Ruth, the Moabite widow would have when she arrived with the widowed Naomi back in Bethlehem.

I intended to tell the remainder of the story, focusing a number of things as you will see by looking below at the script I prepared on Friday evening.

  • The provision made for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the family at harvest in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24 is carried out in the story and models for us a care for the pooer, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner today.
  • The image of Boaz as a ‘kinsman-redeemer’, a ‘go-el’ who is the family member who will ensure that a widow or indeed others who are facing oppression and are very vulnerable will be given a new lease of life, is a wonderful image to have in mind as Easter approaches and we think of Christ as ‘redeemer’.
  • Ruth’s association in the Jewish liturgical calendar with the festival of Pentecost, the spring harvest festival, prompted reflections on the way the Spirit’s coming is to people of all nationalities in Acts 2 and that chapter culminates in the believers sharing everything together.   As we are given a new lease of life by Christ the redeemer, whoever we may be, so that new life is sealed by the Spirit’s presence deep within.

I finished my preparation and watched theBBC 2 progamme, Reverse Missionaries.  A century and a half ago David Livingstone had gone from Blantyre in Scotland to central Africa.  By now we think very little of Livingstone, but in those central countries of Africa he is greatly honoured, not least in Malawi, where 80% of the population are Christian.  The programme makers arranged for Pastor John to come from Blantyre in Malawi to Blantyre in Scotland and spend a fortnight with our Congregational Federation church there. IT was a church Felicity had visited in her year as President of the Congregational Federation.

What he saw of our secular society saddened him and moved him to tears.  It was moving then to see how he took a leaf our of David Livingstone’s book and went along with the culture in order to seek to share the good news of the Christian faith over here.

It was a powerful, challenging, humbling programme.

Not least because this is a weekend when we have been marking our partnership through the Congregational Federation with churches in Malawi.

On Saturday a group of us from church went to our Area Assembly at Stapleton Road Church in Bristol where we were joined by people from our area who had joined others from CF churches to visit some of our partner churches in Malawi.

This morning we had a parade service and welcomed Candi, her husband Andrew and their family to Highbury.  Candi had been to Malawi and shared her experience.

Only recently becoming a Christian and joining church Candi had been immensely moved by what she experienced in Malawi.  With everyone else in the group she went expecting to give and came back realising she had received so much more.

After the service I asked Candi to share some of her thoughts for our evening congregation.

At our Parade Service we looked forward to developing more links with Malawi by the time of  our next Parade when we hope to be joined by members of the Malawi Olympic Team.  Thanks to links the University of Gloucestershire have built up in the last three or four years Gloucestershire is hosting the Malawi team for the Olympics.

This afternoon I turned to my final preparations for this evening’s service.  I turned to two special commentaries I have.

About ten years ago Goodwin Zainga from the Churches of Christ in Malawi had studied with us on our course.  As he left with Gloria and his family to return to Malawi we exchanged copies of theAfrican Bible.  My copy bears a lovely inscription from Goodwin.

It was one of those special moments in preparing worship when everything comes together in a way that simply hadn’t been planned, and yet has something of God in it.

The commentary on  Ruth had been written by Isabel Apawo Phiri.  A Malawian, she had a B.Ed. from Chancellor College, University of Malawi, MA in Religious Education from Lancaster University, England, a PhD from the University of Capet town South Africa.  A former lecturer at the universities of Malawi and Namibia, she is currently Head of the School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal,  South Africa and Co-ordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.  She had not only written the commentary on Ruth but also helped to edit the Africa Bible Commentary.

It was wonderful reading her commentary.

She splices her commentary with wonderful Malawian proverbs in Chewa, her language.

“In order to see a story in its context, it is important to consider whey it was written.  This truth is enshrined in the saying umanena chatsitasa dzaye kuti njobvu ithyoke nyanga (Chewa Malawi – ‘You have to mention what caused the fruit to fall and break the elephant’s tusk’”

There are wonderful, insightful proverbs.

But what caught my eye were the emphases Isabel, a woman, a Malawian, an African, had in her commentary.  They challenge us in this country too.

In the commentary there are two panels focusing on key themes in Ruth.

The first is on Refugees.  It addresses the refugee crisis in Africa and challenges churches not only to give a cup of cold water but also to enable refugees to fend for themselves.  It also challenges churches to address the causes of the refugee problems.  Above all it appeals for that ‘love and acceptance of foreigner’ in the story of Ruth to be taken seriously by churches today.

We all hailed Joanna Lumley’s campaign to give Ghurka soldiers and their family their due reward for serving in the British armed servies.  It is a remarkable quirk of British empire history that Ghurkas have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and still are a key part of our British army and to our shame that until that campaign they had little reward.

But this week we read that Aldershot have had an influx of 10,000 Ghurka peoples and family members.  I recalled the way because of another quirk of British empire history the Asians who had been taken from India and Asia to Uganda to become key business people had been expelled by Idi Amin and found a home in Leicester.  I recalled my home city of Leicester’s tradition of welcoming refugee populations over more than a century from Europe and now from one time Empire.  And the way they had succeeded in creating a society that keeps people together.

What is our attitude to the foreigner?  May it be our prayer that Aldershot can learn from that kind of experience and have the support they need.

How much we have to receive from those insights from Malawi.

The other box focuses on widow inheritance.  I had been going to reflect on the wonderful way Boaz was the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ who looked after  Ruth.  But Isabel Phiri’s commentary and that additional panel, made me see the text differently.

Ruth is exposed to potential abuse by the young men of the village.  In Africa the custom of a male member of the family marrying a widow is widespread but open to all sorts of abuse leading to massive hurt to women.

Reading the commentary notes there is a heartfelt plea for a different approach to the care of widows and a rejection of the abuse of women.

And because of what happened this weekend that, for me, was not something simply for Malawi with its problems with the abuse of women and the often related epidemic of HIV.

On Saturday evening I had found myself at a commissioning service for Street Pastors.  What a shame our Sue Cole was unable to go having gone down with shingles!  Very much for our prayers!

The Chief Constable, Tony Melville, spoke and commended Street Pastors.  He was open about his Christian commitment, but clear that his support for Street Pastors was a support that was there from the Police in their own right.  It was great to see how open he was about his Christian faith, quoting a wonderful passage in Galatians where we are enjoined not to give up on doing good but to keep on doing good.  Great to hear him pray.

But then he spoke of some of the needs of Cheltenham that many are not aware of and of one particular problem that has happened here over the years.  That has to do with prostitution, sex trafficking and the sex trade.  Maybe it was no coincidence that we were hard on the heels of Race Week.

It came home to me that Isabel’s reflections on Ruth speak as much to us as they do to people in Africa and Malawi.

How wonderful to have received so much and so many insights into the story of Ruth from the people of Malawi.

That was something I had not expected when I originally prepared my sermon notes!

How wonderful that through all the words of Candi and those who visited Malawi, through all the words of that Afican Bible Commentary and through all the words of the Book of Ruth there is a challenging Word of God for us to heed and act on.

And how great that there is a wonderful word of Grace in the love Ruth found with Naomi and with Boaz.

And here are my original notes that were in the event put to one side.  I share them as my eye had fallen on some lovely phrases in the Book of Ruth that I don’t want to lose sight of!

Ruth and Naomi came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Maybe that’s why in Jewish tradition for 1600 years Ruth has been read at the first of the Jewish harvest festivals, the festival of weeks, the festival of Pentecost.

It’s fascinating to see what happens if you read the Book of Ruth against the backdrop of that festival for us as Christian readers.

It tells us something about harvest and what harvest is all about.  But it tells us more about the Spirit and the place of the Spirit in our lives too.

The wonderful story teller responsible for this book now introduces to someone very important …

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

But the action of the story turns back to Ruth and to Naomi.  We are left in no doubt for the significance of this story Ruth’s identity and family background is significant.

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain,

We saw last week how Ruth was a woman of courage and determination.  That courage and determination is evident straight away.  It is Ruth who takes the initiative.  She doesn’t wait for the older woman to sort her out.  She acts.  And she acts in a particular way.

She wants to go to the field and glean among the ears of corn.

My Bible refers to two passages that are the kind of passages we often read at harvest time from Leviticus 19:9,10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-22.  On each occasion at the harvest provision is made for widows and for foreigners.  Express instruction is given that gleanings should be left for the widow and for the foreigner.

Ruth is both a widow and a foreigner.

She is not al passive waiting for someone to do something for her.  She is active in doing something – but the system gives her something she can do to feed herself and look after herself.

This is one of those things that is right to the fore in our celebration of harvest.  It is an occasion when we remember those in need.  Those left on their own and vulnerable.  And the foreigner in the midst.  A society can be measured by the concern it shows to its most vulnerable members and to those who are foreigners.

How we cope with ‘the foreigner’ – the welcome, the need for proper provision.  It’s become an issue this week.  It’s a quirk of our history that among the service people who serve this country most faithfully even now in Afghanistan are the Ghurkas.  It is a shame in this country the lack of provision and respect we have given to those particular ex servicement.  That was rectified a couple of years ago thanks to the campaigning of Joanna Lumley.  And now we are faced with 10,000 Ghurka families in Aldershot.  This is a big issue.  How do we respond – a lot has been spoken of the covenant there is with service men and women who give their lives for this country – and now too for the Ghurkas.  Difficult – a proper response.

I recall when Idi Amin’s Uganda demanded that the Indian business men who had been brought across from India in the days of empire to play key roles in the commerce of Uganda and given British citizenship came to Leicester – an influx in the order of many thousands.  Special school – a welcome in a city that has welcomed refugee populations down through the years.  Difficult issues.

But for a woman alone, and especially a foreign woman alone there is grave danger that she be ‘taken advantage of’ by the young men of the village.  Caution is called for.

Boaz arrives with a lovely greeting

He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ 

 Boaz notices Ruth, she is introduced as the Moabite woman who came with Naomi and as the one who had been gleaning among the sheaves

and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’

Boaz is concerned for her well being and arranges for her to keep close to the young women in his field.

Ruth is overcome – and what so moves her is the very attitude that we have been noticing a moment or two ago …

‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ 

Boaz tells her how he has noticed the care Ruth has taken of Naomi – and he prays for a rich blessing from the God of Israel under whose wings you have come for refuge.

Wonderful image of God as the one under whose wings we come for refuge.  This is one of those wonderful images for God that is claimed by Jesus as he laments over Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

There is something very special about Boaz.  Ruth acknowledges it … in wonderful words of commendation.

you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.

You have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant …

How vital it is to comfort and speak kindly.

Then comes a special moment when Boaz invites Ruth to share with him in the closest of ways …

At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 

All sorts of resonances there in the story of Jesus – a relationship is growing between Boaz and Ruth that is going to be very special.  It is moving – it is a very powerful.  And as that relationship is growing so it is sealed in a meal, the sharing of grain and the sharing of sour wine.

The relationship sealed between Christ and his people is sealed in bread and wine – there is some left over.  Echoes in the feeding of the 5000.

Is there a picture here of the close relationship between Christ and his people.  Church has been seen as the bride of Christ.  As Ruth is to become the bride of Boaz.

But that is to jump ahead in the story.

At 3:17 is the start of a long story that plays with ancient customs we catch a glimpse of.

When Naomi gets to hear of Boaz’s interest in Ruth and this growing relationship she says to her daughter in law,

‘The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.’ 

The word ‘nearest kin’ is an interesting one.  The footnote says that could be translated ‘one with the right to redeem’.

A woman, in this case Ruth, is left a widow – how is she to be looked after.  In the family one maybe senior member of the family – in this instance the Naomi – Elimelech family plays the part of the kinsman redeemer.  He can come close to the widow, take her as his bride – and so as it were redeem the situation, free her from the poverty she would otherwise be in and give her a new lease of life.

Remember that’s what harvest is about.  New lease of life.

There may be another person in that role – and the story builds up with a moment when it seems as if Ruth will not get her man.  Then at the last Boaz becomes her ‘kinsman redeemer’ and she is given a new lease of life.

Boaz and Ruth marry

Boaz acquires land as well and Ruth and Boaz enter into a new life and Ruth, the Moabite woman, is given a new lease of life.

May you have children in Ephratha and bestow a name in Betlehem.

Then at the marriage it is the women who sing praises and in excitement give praise to God … as they address Naomi …

And then it is in the arrival of a son for Ruth and a Grandson for Naomi that wonderful blessing comes.  This has to be the Grandparents’ wonderful verse.

14Then 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! 15He 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.’ 1

There is one final kick in the tale …

17The women of the neighbourhood 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.
Just in case you didn’t get the point the story teller recaps it.  This is amazing.  Truly amazing.  That Obed is son to Ruth and Boaz and he  becamse the father of Jesse and he became the father of Israel’s greatest King, King David.
18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
As Easter approaches Messiah will once again be sung.

And that remarkable Aria.

I know that my redeemer liveth.

And our minds will go to Jesus as Redeemer.

But what is redeemer?

The verse is from Job 19.

Somewhere behind the thinking in that phrase is the story of Ruth and of Boaz.  A redeemer, a go-el is one who gives a new lease of life.

As we become part of Christ’s people, bound together with him in the closest of relationships and he is our redeemer.  He is the one who gives us a new lease of life.

Welcome to the foreigner

The one who comforts and speaks kindly.

The kinsman redeemer – who gives us a new lease of life.

Great as it is associated with the festival of Pentecost, the outpouring the Spirit and the new lease of life that comes with the Spirit’s presence.

No comments:

Post a Comment