by the Rev. Shelby Ochs Owen. This sermon is based on Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17.
A few months ago on a Sunday afternoon the Owens and the Bowens were biking out in Augusta County. Having parked our cars at Taylor and Boody Organ Builders, we set out on our bikes to feel the wind in our faces and to see the scenic wonders that Swoope has to offer. Some of us were in better shape than others so some were ahead and some were behind. Well, maybe they weren’t actually in better shape but had faster bikes! Anyway, after about the 17th hill, Kennon and I decided to walk our bikes up the next hill.
We were starting to feel a little parched. Noticing a little country church up ahead, Kennon said to me, “I think it would be nice if that little church were having a back yard picnic and offered us a glass of lemonade.” We chuckled, I promptly agreed and we kept trudging uphill. In about thirty seconds we noticed Roger and Steve had stopped in the church parking lot and were talking to someone, who turned out to be the church’s minister. As we approached, Roger said to us, “This is Stephanie, the pastor and she said that the church is having a picnic, wondering if we would like a glass of lemonade!” We were speechlessly smiling. Actually they really wanted us to stay and have an entire meal with the parish. (Roger ate a hot dog, just to be a good guest, of course, and some of us ate “ants on a log.” You know what those are, right? Pieces of celery with p.b. and raisins) Hospitality when we least expected it! All that we wanted and more, lemonade and food, conversation and good cheer. Hospitality had enlarged our world and connected us to new people; the generosity of strangers had restored our bodies and souls in a surprising manner, had given us new life!
Today’s first lesson about Ruth and Naomi speaks of the centrality of hospitality in God’s advancing story. A little background: Ruth is Naomi’s daughter–in–law. Years before there had been a famine in Judah, so Naomi’s family, her husband and two sons, had set out seeking refuge in a foreign land, Moab. They had left Bethlehem, which actually means House of Bread, because there had been… no bread there. They had desperately sought refuge in what was considered “enemy territory” as Judah their homeland and Moab had been at enmity with one another for generations.
While in Moab, the sons had married Moabite daughters. And then all three of the men had died, Naomi’s husband and two sons; so Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law were left to face yet another famine without their husbands. Loss, scarcity and grief surrounded them and Ruth chose to go with Naomi back to her original homeland. They did not know what they would find. They were trudging uphill in every respect. But Ruth had said to her mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” In this covenantal language Ruth was showing extraordinary hospitality. While she couldn’t offer Naomi economic freedom, food or lodging, she could and did offer her an abiding, constant, loving presence.
Today’s passage finds them back in Bethlehem trying to find a way forward. Two impoverished single women who are economically and socially deprived in a patriarchal society. In seeking security for her daughter-in-law, Naomi tells Ruth, “(Boaz) is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 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. 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.” And Ruth replies, “Okay, whatever you say!” (Or something like that)
The passage is suggestive enough on a first read but then knowing that the word translated “feet” is a euphemism for one’s “private parts”, we start to realize this is more than just suggestive, it is downright provocative. Something is expected to happen! In our American culture where the term “family values” is often slung around as a political weapon, do we see “biblical family values” a little outside the expected norm here? Naomi and Ruth’s methods of finding their way forward bring up a lot of questions for the reader, the reader with the raised eyebrows! Is God behind this plan, this scheme, this plot, to get Boaz to marry Ruth? Is God this earthy to be concerned about the circumstances of two poor but cunning women? Does God work through the everyday human experiences of life?
Ruth is a so called “outsider,” a Moabite widowed woman, a Gentile, someone seen as outside the Israelite fold and yet she expresses a profound and important voice for the people of God. She enlarges the conversation, expands the possibilities of those who can and should be included in the realm of God’s people. The hospitality that is shown through Ruth and through Naomi and eventually through Boaz through presence, kindness and generosity eventually has profound implications for the salvation story of God. As we see in the later part of the passage, Ruth and Boaz’s son becomes the grandfather of King David, which means he is in the family tree of Jesus himself! God’s advancing story.
The Episcopal Church has been willing to take the risk of showing hospitality to strangers in whom we have elected as Presiding Bishops in recent years. Nine years ago Katharine Jefferts-Schori was the first woman elected as PB. And just last Sunday Michael Curry, the first African American was installed as Presiding Bishop. We as a church have made room in our hearts for those who formerly had not been known to us in those leadership roles. God’s advancing story.
While hospitality can take many forms, in lodging, in conversation, in lemonade, the hospitality shown in Ruth, Naomi and Boaz is the kind that makes room in one’s heart for the stranger. I wonder what this means for us, what unseen implications exist when we express hospitality to others? The book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
God’s hospitality is generously offered to us every day, in every corner of our lives, including the earthy ones. God’s presence is there for the receiving. Contrary to what a recent newspaper flier implied, that God only moves in the realm of one political party, the truth about God is that there is always room for everyone in God’s heart, always possibilities for God to work through each of us. What would it look like for us to reflect God’s hospitality? How is God’s story advancing in your own life?
Hospitality has an amazing way of enlarging our world. It enlarged Naomi and Ruth’s world, and it enlarged the Owen/Bowen world on our bike trip that day.
In what ways might we allow the hospitality of others to enlarge our lives here at Trinity? How might it connect us to new people and restore our bodies and souls to new life? And conversely, how might we be that presence of hospitality to others, enlarging their world, restoring those without hope to new life in Christ?