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God Provides
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
by Rev. Thomas Hall

What’s God got to do with it? Where is God in my 24/7 life? That’s what a lot of folks would like to know; people inside-and outside-the church. That’s what Naomi wanted to know in the book of Ruth. Her story is similar to ours. Naomi needs some satisfaction and security; someone to step in and help her move ahead with her new life in Judah. She also needs some practical help like housing, groceries, a family, and a future to leave as a legacy. It must have seemed to her-as it may occasionally seem to us-that she was doing the mining, manufacturing, and marketing of life. We know what that’s like. If God is around at all, God is somewhere on the edge of life loitering while we push the overloaded wheelbarrow up the hill. I think we all want satisfaction and security don’t we? We want the comfort of knowing that we are cared for and cared about; that we are loved and provided for.

If you read the banal with the substantive, you may have come across a recent article in USA Today entitled, "Who’s Together, Who’s Not." If you did read the piece you would have caught some celebrity gossip that we’re all just dying to hear. Like Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. After five years of marriage they’re parting company. Ethan is now infatuated with Jenny, a Canadian model, that he met while filming in Canada. And Halle Berry and Eric Benet are calling it quits after three years of bliss. Another celeb couple managed sixteen months of love before their respective careers took them to different continents and different partners. And finally, our own Britney has found a new boyfriend, though he is married and in the family way.

However, let’s not be too cynical toward America’s beloved icons. After all, in a sense, they’re very much us. People often look for love hoping that this relationship will supply the satisfaction, meaning, and security that they seek. And so they go like caroms careening from one infatuation and encounter to the next in the misguided hope of getting something substantive and satisfying out of life. We all need to know that we are loved and cared about by another. Such a relationship provides us security and well-being.

Others pursue the impossible dream in different ways than through relationships. Could be the career track that we’ve chosen. Actually, the one we’ve thrown ourselves into it. Or it could be retirement. That’s when we’ll really have it made. Just imagine. Our own Winnebago motorhome; off to exotic places in America and visiting the grandkids. Or maybe we’ve sought to gain some sense of balance by volunteering for every project and activity that we hear about. And so we’re been baptized into committees, conferences, councils, and consultations.

I’ve even sought security and satisfaction in the church. I remember my first church plant in Kentucky. It was in a small coal mining town couched along the West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee state lines. We met in a storefront church and had to pay our rent and salary out of whatever came in the offering plates. Some Sundays brought in less than fifty dollars. But our low point came when one Sunday only $14.00 came in. Rent due. No salary. Car payment. I remember the pain of seeing my wife desperately trying to hold the tears in as she counted penny by penny the meager amount. We were just trying to survive from one week to the next. Not much satisfaction and security there. We learned in that storefront church that security was not to be found in the offering plate.

I think the deep need behind the story of Ruth is that yearning for security and satisfaction in life. But it sure doesn’t start out that way. The opening scene in fact is like Maslow’s hierarchy of need in reverse from the top rung of self-actualization: no king, no food, no husband, no son, no name. Emptiness. So angry is she will God’s absence and her vulnerability, that she changes her name from Naomi, which means "pleasant," to the name, Marah, which means "bitterness." Thus, chapter one ends with the bitter announcement: "I went away full but the LORD has brought me back empty." The end.

But it isn’t the end. For God-this unseen Partner, this Loiterer at the edge of our life-has been working behind the scenes to turn Naomi’s barrenness into fruitfulness. It begins with Naomi’s concern to provide security for Ruth the Faithful. "I must find a husband for you," she tells Ruth, "so that you will have a home of your own" (3:1). Naomi isn’t trying to get Ruth married off because she is sick and tired of Ruth sleeping in till noon and then sitting around all day watching re-runs. In fact, Ruth has been the bread winner by doing the most menial of all jobs in the ancient world-gleaning. Gleaning is to pick up the pieces of grain that the farmhands have missed in the harvesting of crops. Naomi, who is childless and has no husband, wants something better for Ruth. She knows that Ruth needs security. And she knows what she has to do to get security: get a husband for Ruth. In this ancient culture, a single woman was extremely vulnerable and exposed to danger and deprivation. A woman alone in the world was unthinkable.

"Ruth, you go soak in a hot tub of water and get all that grime off that you’ve picked up in the fields," Naomi instructs Ruth. "Then get your blue pant suit pressed-you look great in that. Oh yes, and be generous with that "Evening in Calais" perfume and spray it all over your wrists and neck." So Ruth the Faithful does all that Naomi instructs. But things get steamier and steamier. In fact, at this point in Naomi’s instructions the story takes on the shape of a harlequin novel. "Okay, now you go to the threshing room. Stay over in the dark corner of the room while every one is drinking. Then when everyone’s left the place and the wine has put Boaz to sleep, go and get close to him. Get real close to him."

Commentators blush at these last instructions! "Sleep"-used eight times in these verses can mean slumber, but frequently it is the word for sexual intimacy. And "uncover" carries more meaning than just the covers of the bed, and "feet" (literally, "lower body"), is a common euphemism for unmentionable male parts, and the threshing floor most often referred to a brothel kind of place. Even if nothing happened between Ruth and Boaz than just the conversation, Ruth’s behavior would have been scandalous even in her society.

But that’s where God enters the story. For God’s very name includes provision and security. What no amount of perfume and strategy can accomplish, God does accomplish. Without God in the edges of the story we would only be left with a sleazy B movie, but God enters the story and works through Naomi’s instructions, works through Boaz, works through Ruth’s faithfulness, works through the precise timing of harvest time, and brings these two women security and satisfaction.

All things-bad things, good things, tragedies, successes, bitterness, our most cunning strategies, our worst failures, our highest achievements, our most embarrassing mistakes-all things work together for good in God’s plan, Paul tells us. God takes the things of our lives and accomplishes extraordinary good through them. And so by the end of the story, God’s leads a man and a woman from opposite ends of the economic ladder, from different lands and cultures into marriage; God provides a childless woman a longed-for son; God leads two women to a new place of hope shaped by a future; God transforms an embittered, empty woman into a fully-satisfied grandmother and restores her name and gives her a home and sense of humor. God does all of that-and God does it from behind the curtains! But even that is not all that God does, for in the final act, God leads these two formerly single, childless women into a family that will provide them Israel’s greatest leadership and usher them into the greatest time of peace and security: King David.

What about us? How do we know that God is at work in our lives when we have so little evidence? I offer my own confession. I have been Naomi-I’ve complained about God’s absence. I’ve voiced my own needs for security and satisfaction. Naomi was in that little storefront church in Kentucky. But I now see that God was working even in that moment. God became my Teacher and I learned as I never could have except in a place of lack to trust God with all of my heart and soul and strength and to know God as the Source. I remember taking that paltry $14.00 in the offering and giving ten percent right back to God only to discover that God could stretch the remaining ninety percent like a rubber band to accomplish what 100% normally provided.

I thought about God and us and this story of Ruth and Naomi this week as I attended a ground-breaking ceremony for a new elementary school that will soon be built. A US Senator and a State Representative sat smiling in the front row, the school board made final preparations across the aisle, builders and architects filled a couple of rows, and teachers and citizens sat behind them. So we’re all sitting in a cornfield facing a podium and a blueprint of what the new school would look like.

During the ceremony, a group of kindergarten children formed a half-circle with one from their group standing center and out front of them. The student began to rhyme a poem she had memorized; at the end of each stanza the semi-circle would chime in with a single metrical line. Several would tap their foot to make sure they got their line in right rhythm. Most of the little group of kindergarteners hadn’t a clue as to why they were out in the middle of cornfield during school with big people staring at them. They probably couldn’t appreciate the sophistication of the blueprints. Nor had they any idea of the bonds needed to pay for the project. They didn’t even know the poem, they just knew their one line and they delivered that line well. Delivering their single line made them the most joyful and secure of all who were present.

So we don’t know the whole thing. This one thing we can know. That God is acting on our behalf because God loves us and cares for us and about us. What we do every day of our life is to get up and at the right time, deliver our line. With pizzazz. The rest is up to God. Amen.