Sunday 32 • 8 Nov 2015

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Rev. Chris Udy

at Willoughby Uniting Church

A few years ago
Ginie and I spent our annual holiday
in the USA, driving south
from Chicago to New Orleans
through the Mississippi river valley to the delta.
The half-way point on our trip was Memphis -
home to Beale Street and the blues,
Elvis and Graceland, ribs and pulled pork,
catfish, frogs legs, po’ boys, hush puppies
and the whole wonderful culinary disaster
that is the USA.

*Memphis is also home to the Civil Rights Museum,
housed in the Lorraine Motel,
where, on the 4th of April 1968,
almost 50 years ago,
Dr Martin Luther King was shot.
The museum has taken over the motel,
and it tells the story of slavery
and the unfinished struggle
for civil rights in America -
from the first arrival
of African men and women in 1619
through to Dr King’s assassination and beyond.
As the display progresses
and the story unfolds
you move from room to room and level to level
until you emerge into the motel room
frozen exactly as it was -
coffee cups on the table,
combs and clothes on the bed -
when Dr King stepped out onto the balcony
to talk to some of his friends -
musicians who were planning what they’d play
at the rally Dr King was speaking to that night -
and was shot.
The room and the exterior of the motel
look just as they did on that day -
the only additions are a red-and-white wreath,
and a memorial stone,
on which these words are written:
“And they said to one another
‘Behold, here cometh the dreamer.
Let us slay him,
and we shall see
what will become of his dreams.”

Those who wanted to find some hope and meaning
as they told the story of Dr King’s death
and the agonizing struggle for civil rights
gleaned that tiny seed - just two sentences
from the story of Joseph in Genesis -
and they used it to reframe and illuminate
what happened that day in the Lorraine Motel.
The story of Joseph is a kind of “meme” -
and a meme is an idea, a concept, an image
often part of a story -
a little nugget of meaning
that’s passed from person to person
and generation to generation
just as seeds are planted, and harvested,
and planted, and harvested -
over and over and over again.
Those two sentences from Genesis
tied the death of Martin Luther King
into the story of Joseph.
Those two little sentences
bring with them a flood of memory -
the whole story of Joseph’s betrayal,
and slavery - this time in Egypt,
and then exodus -
the long, long journey to liberation.
Those two little sentences
and the meme - the memories they evoke -
relocated the life and death of Martin Luther King
out of a landscape devoid of meaning
into the story of God and God’s redemption.

What the museum did with that meme
was doubly appropriate,
first because it added such resonance and depth
to Dr King’s life and death,
and second, because it was exactly
what Dr King had done
throughout his public life and ministry.
He - and those whose work he built on -
gleaned those memes - those seeds of meaning -
from the cultural tradition and texts they shared
with those who lived around them,
and they woke them up -
they reapplied them -
in ways that led to healing and redemption.
What Martin Luther King did brilliantly
was bring and hold together
the black and white church,
black Americans with white Americans
by appealing to the stories
and the texts they treasured in common,
and drawing out of them those memes
that could lead to a just and hopeful future.
Dr King used Bible stories
and Biblical language like that all the time -
but it wasn’t only the Bible that he appealed to.
When the writers of the American Constitution wrote
“we hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal”
they meant, of course, only men,
and only free, white, men,
and at that early stage,
only free, white men of property.
But the meme was there -
and it woke - it came to life -
first through Abraham Lincoln,
and then through Martin Luther King.

*Ruth was also a gleaner.
She had come with Naomi
from the place where she belonged - from Moab -
and now she was an alien
and a stranger in Bethlehem.
As a refugee she was restricted
to the borders and edges of life.
She inhabited an undefined
and potentially dangerous space.
She had no possessions;
she had no position.
In fact she was as likely as not
to be taken into possession
by one of the men in the barley field
where she had been gleaning.
In the part of Ruth’s story
that we don’t read in our lectionary,
the part after Ruth and Naomi
arrive in Bethlehem from Moab - with nothing -
Ruth goes out to the barley fields
hoping to pick up enough for them to live on.
She finds herself in the field of Boaz,
an older man who is a distant kinsman
to Elimelech - Naomi’s dead husband.
Boaz notices and welcomes her,
and he warns her to stay in his field
and with his workers -
and he also warns the young men he employs
to leave her alone.

Ruth is very grateful,
and, with Naomi’s guidance and advice
she contemplates a different kind of gleaning.
Once again, it’s a little bit close to the borders -
it really isn’t what a nice young woman would do -
but one night,
when Boaz has had a bit to drink,
Ruth lies down beside him -
the words in the text say
she ‘uncovered his feet’ -
but what that means
is that she offers herself to Boaz,
first as a sexual partner,
then as a partner for life.
“You”, she tells him,
“are one with the right to redeem”.

Ruth is suggesting
that as Elimelech’s next-of-kin,
Boaz might - even possibly should -
have children with her to preserve Elimelech’s line.
This was an ancient practice,
mentioned in Deuteronomy -
so sanctioned by the Law - by Torah -
where a man whose brother had died
would marry his brother’s widow
and their first-born male child
would be seen as the dead man’s son.
So Ruth and Naomi are gleaning again -
this time gleaning in Torah,
suggesting that Boaz might be obliged
to marry Ruth and redeem Elimelech’s land
under an application of this levirate law (Deuteronomy 25).
This time it’s not grain, but a meme -
a concept, an idea, an image with potential -
that Ruth and Naomi are gleaning -
and they’re on the borders here as well.
Boaz really isn’t Elimelech’s brother,
and Ruth really isn’t Elimelech’s wife -
so it’s all a bit unclear and ill-defined.
The Bible story even highlights
just how tenuous the connection is.
Boaz knows and says
he’s not Elimelech’s closest kinsman -
so first he has to offer Elimelech’s land -
and Ruth, who’s part of the package,
to another man who has a stronger claim.
The other man’s keen to take the land -
but he’s not so sure
he wants to marry the ageing Naomi
or the Moabite Ruth -
so, as we read today, the other man declined,
and Boaz was then free to be her husband.

Ruth and Naomi’s gleaning
was successful in every field:
they had barley enough to live on;
Boaz and Ruth were married,
and with Boaz, Ruth conceived a son - Obed -
to delight Naomi in her sunset days
and to provide a royal line for Israel.

Gleaning is a task reserved
to those denied a share in the general harvest.
It takes place at the borders,
on the edges,
where the organised teams of harvesters
and oversized machines
leave a little now and then
to those who have no other place in the system.
Torah - Biblical law - even requires
that the corners of planted fields
be left unharvested,
and that fallen fruit and grain
be left where it is -
so that the poor and the stranger can survive.
God approves of gleaning.
God even appears to prefer a bit of a mess -
a slightly hazy border,
and flexible definitions -
so that refugees and strangers and the poor -
those who have no choice but to glean -
can find themselves a little nourishment,
and the possibility of a place
where life can be expanded and sustained.

As Christians we are also a movement of gleaners.
Day by day and week by week we read these texts
originally written for other people
and for other times,
and in them we find sources of nourishment.
There are memes here in the Bible,
left in the corners and dropped by those
who took in the general harvest.
Some of those memes
are regularly and reliably renewed -
gleaned and replanted in every generation.
Others lie unnoticed, maybe for hundreds of years,
until the conditions are right
and they wake up - they come to life,
to sustain and expand our lives
for our healing and for our redemption.

Ruth has herself become a meme -
and not only for those who first wrote down her story.
That happened at a time - maybe 500 years later –
when under Ezra’s instigation
Moabite wives and their children
were being divorced and dismissed and driven away.
Not only does Ruth represent
a deeper and more inclusive idea of kinship,
to that generation - impoverished and divided
by the fear and prejudice of leaders like Ezra -
but then, another 500 years later,
Ruth appears again.
Where Luke, for example -
is penning his genealogy for Jesus
he has only male names - like Boaz - in his list.
But when Matthew comes to think about
the list of people who contribute to Jesus’ heritage
he includes 4 women -
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth,
and ‘the wife of Uriah’ - Bathsheba.
All four women are probably gentiles - not Jews;
all four women were ‘irregular’ partners -
there was something unusual and awkward
about their relationships -
all of them live close to the edge -
on the borders of what’s right and pure and clear -
but it’s through those women -
those gentile, irregular women,
and finally through Mary - Matthew suggests -
that the Messiah, David’s heir,
hope for God’s people,
God in Christ, is born.

Matthew’s gone gleaning in Scripture
and he comes back with Ruth,
whose name and whose story
adds - for Matthew - another facet
of resonance and depth to the story of Jesus.
Jesus is the bonus surprise for gleaners.
He doesn’t come from and doesn’t belong
in the centre of the field -
he was found on the edges and the borders:
a refugee - Matthew will go on to say -
made alien by politics and religion.

We find Jesus keeping company
with women like Ruth,
women of spirit and courage -
and we find him with men like Boaz -
men of creative compassion -
people who go gleaning on the Sabbath
at the boundaries of grace and law
for the meanings we need
to sustain and expand our lives
and the lives of those
who subsist on the borders.

We’re a community of gleaners,
and we’re gathered in
to share the bread that’s made
from these gleaned and ground-up,
kneaded and remoulded memes -
and out of them
comes God-in-Christ -
Messiah - David’s inheritance -
his redemption and fulfilment -
Jesus - the one who nourishes dreamers
like Martin Luther King;
the one who feeds our dreams
of justice and freedom and grace,
and holds us all together at the table -
despite our differences -
until we learn
to love our difference as God’s gift
and to live together in hope and peace and grace.