Monday, July 30, 2018

7-29-18 “Gleaning and Hope”

7-29-18   “Gleaning and Hope”

  As I’ve shared before, I went to college at Indiana State University. And during my sophomore year at Indiana State, like many college students in that day, three buddies and I went to Daytona Beach over Spring Break. Like most 19-20 year old young men in of that era, we didn’t have a plan - we had a hotel reservation on the beach, we had a car to get there, and we had what we thought would be enough money to eat, drink, be merry - and play some of the newest video games, like Space Invaders and Pac Man. And while we didn’t have a plan as such, we did have a hope - we hoped to meet up with some young women of about our same age with whom we could eat, drink, and be merry while we were nearly a thousand miles away from home. 
   And lo and behold, on our first day there we encountered four young ladies who were of the same “eat, drink, and be merry” mindset as we were. 
And as it turns out they were staying in the same hotel. Even better! So, the four of us guys cleaned up our acts after a nearly 20 hour drive from Terre Haute, IN to Daytona Beach, FL and arranged to meet these four young women at a beach side bar for drinks. 
Well, we all met and everything was going along swimmingly, everyone was getting along well, and we were all thinking the same thing - let’s have a good time this week, no guilt, no commitment, just have some fun and then we’ll all go our separate ways, never see each other again, and all will be good. And that ideal, that plan, that dream lasted all of about 15 minutes, until one of us asked one of them where they went to school, and they replied “Indiana State University.”
   Last week while we were on vacation in Tennessee, we arrived late on Saturday afternoon after a nearly eight hour drive from our home in Reynoldsburg. As we were unpacking our car, our sister-in-law noticed that the car parked next to ours was also from Ohio - not unusual at all. When the owners came out we introduced ourselves and asked where in Ohio they were from they said they were from Reynoldsburg. We laughed and shared that we were also from Reynoldsburg. Then we asked them where in Reynoldsburg they lived. Turns out they live on the same street we live on, four blocks south of us - we’re neighbors.
   There is an old adage that goes, “a coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.” In the second chapter of our story, Ruth goes out to glean barley to sustain herself and Naomi, and “as it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz.” And Boaz happens to be a pillar of the community and a relative of Naomi’s dead husband, Elimilech. Mere coincidence? I think not. You see, in the Book of Ruth, God doesn’t appear in burning bushes; God doesn’t make God’s self known through the parting of seas, miraculous healings, or multiplications of food. No, God makes God’s self known through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God uses the compassionate acts of faithful human beings to enact God’s hesed, God’s steadfast, loyal, compassionate love. And in this story, God’s love is shown by the man, Boaz, toward the foreign woman in his midst, Ruth.
   A little history. We remember the story of Abraham and Sarah, right? God came to them and told them that their descendants would be one tribe, a new tribe, and that they would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that they would be blessed to be a blessing to others. Well, they were blessed. In fact, Abraham and his family became very wealthy. And at one point in the story we find Abraham and his nephew Lot making the decision to go in different directions because their herds had become so large that the land couldn’t sustain both of them. So Abraham goes one way and Lot goes in another - God’s desire for one tribe goes awry - over money. The Moabite tribe then, of which Ruth is a member, are the descendants of Lot. And throughout the Hebrew Bible we read of the conflicts that arose over the centuries between Israel and Moab. Is it mere coincidence that this Moabite woman is treated with grace, love, and compassion by the Israelite family redeemer of her deceased father-in-law? I think not. Here, God’s hesed, God’s steadfast and enduring love, is displayed through Boaz, the Israelite, who welcomed this alien from another land, praised her for her faithfulness to Naomi, and provided for both of their needs. Ruth was willing to do whatever it took to provide for her family, and through Boaz, God rewards her for that. As both the psalms and the song go, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

   So, let me pose a rhetorical question…or eight.  
  • What would you do to protect your family? 
  • If your family, or a member of your family - your child, your parent, your grandchild - were in danger, how far would you go to protect them? 
  • What is the limit of your love for your family? 
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is there only so far that you would go to protect them, to rescue them? 
  • If you were poor and the only way to feed your child was to steal something from a store, would you do it?
  • If you and your child were confronted by a person with a gun who told you that one of you was going to die - you or your child - and you had to choose, would you be willing to die so that your child would live? What would you do for love?

   Those are difficult questions, excruciatingly difficult situations that hopefully none of us ever have to face - or that perhaps some of you have already faced -  
but I think that most of us would say, if faced with a similar situation, that we would do anything to protect our children, our grandchildren, our family, even if meant the loss of our life or our freedom. Anything. And while it’s unlikely that we will ever face those kinds of situations, there are people in the world for whom that is an everyday occurrence.
   Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit El Salvador. Completing what is called a Cross-Cultural Immersion Experience is a requirement for the Master of Divinity Degree at the Methodist Theological School, and I only chose to go to El Salvador because the trip I intended to take to Africa was rescheduled and I needed to complete the trip during this particular academic year. I didn’t want to go. I complained - I moaned. Firmly ensconced in my white male north-American privilege I tried to make the case that I could have a cross-cultural immersion in any number of places right here in Columbus. My selfishly naive complaints fell on deaf ears, and in January 2008 I boarded a plane at Port Columbus for the flight to San Salvador. 
   We were a motley crew, the 15 of us; 8 men, 7 women, one black, one Korean - we thought we were pretty diverse. But we stood out like sore thumbs among the small statured, brown-skinned Salvadoran people. For most of us, it was the first time we’d ever been in the minority. 
   We joked like 13 year old boys when we saw “BIMBO” painted on the side of the road, not knowing it was the Salvadoran equivalent of Wonder Bread.

   In the U.S. we think we have an understanding of what “normal” is - it’s only when we travel outside our comfort zones that we realize that “normal” is a relative term. In El Salvador, it’s normal to have concertina or barbed wire strung across the top of your yard, your house, or your fence, for your protection - from gangs, or criminals, or the police. 

It’s normal to see lean-to’s set up against buildings on busy streets that may be used by farmers selling their produce or by homeless people to live in. 

It’s normal there to see a truck drive through the center of town with a load of coconuts that they will try to sell for 15 cents each.

   We saw familiar things like Burger King and McDonalds restaurants, we saw beautiful things like flowers that were native to Central America, and we saw things that were meaningful and historic, such as this church altar where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while presiding over mass.

   And here, the blood-soaked robe and vestments he was wearing when he was shot - on full display, and his burial place in the abbey of a church.

   We’re used to seeing murals and public art in public places, but we probably aren’t used to seeing the violence of a nation depicted in such a way.

A closer look at the segments of this mural reveal:
   Romero seated at the base of a cross that looks like a tree, with roots going down into the ground signifying that their faith is at the root of who they are. And on his lap, a child whose hand is over Romero’s heart - the bullet hole in the child’s hand marking the place where the assassin’s bullet pierced Romero’s heart.

  Or at one side of the mural, where figures represent the army who inflicted much of the violence on the people of the country, and the government officials and rich oligarchs who turned a blind eye to the killing that was being done at their behest.

   Or at the other side of the mural, where common everyday people, the campesinos as they are called, are depicted with bullet holes in their hearts. 
On their hands and feet are the signs of the stigmata - the marks of the crucifixion - depicting the way they have been sacrificed and slaughtered.

   We visited several churches while there, and they were all beautiful in their own unique way. But here is something that we found in every church we visited - that is, it was normal - but not something we would ever want to have in our church. 

It’s a list on the wall of all the members of their church who had been murdered or disappeared at the hands of the government over about a 10-12 year period. These are their martyrs. In Central America in general, and in El Salvador in particular, martyrdom is normal. Having a family member who was killed in war is nearly universal, but killed by your own government?
   The violence of this place doesn’t just show itself in public murals. It also makes its way into the arts and crafts that people make. Do any of you do needlepoint or that kind of crafting? 

Here’s a series of needlepoints that one woman made - I’ll zoom in on just a couple to show you the detail.This needlepoint depicts a person being shot in the head on a street corner.

   This one a person being clubbed to death while another person holds their arms behind them. Any of you needle-pointers ever do work like that? 

   But the constant presence and threat of violence also makes its way into the art of the church.

   This artwork - part of a collection of pencil and charcoal drawings - shows the violence inflicted on people whose bodies were found bound, gagged, mutilated, and left in dumps or in the gutters. In this particular church, they took the place of the stations of the cross usually found in Catholic churches.

   The violence is also present in the stories they tell. 

This man told of how, as a child, he somehow managed to survive the slaughter that took place in his hometown of El Mozote, when during the civil war government soldiers came to their town, herded the men into a field, the women down a side road, and the children into the church. First they gunned down the men. Then they raped and machete’d the women. And finally they locked the children in the church and burned it to the ground.
   This image is of the church that was rebuilt on the spot where the original had stood. The images of children dancing and playing adorn the side of the church facing what is now called the Children’s Garden. 

The plaques along the bottom list the names and ages of all the children who died there, several of whom were only days old infants. There are dozens of plaques here, representing hundreds of children.

   And this monument, resembling our own Vietnam War Memorial, lists the names of the 50,000+ civilians in the country - men, women, and children - who were killed and/or disappeared during the country’s civil war. 

This is one of, if not THE most violent country on earth. This is what normal looks like here. 
   Violence and crushing poverty are everywhere - yes, that is a pig walking into someone’s house. This is a common house found in rural areas of the country. 

   Even things of beauty are framed by symbols of violence. 

If this kind of poverty, this kind of fear and violence was the normal situation that you, your family, your children, your grandchildren faced EVERY DAY, wouldn’t you as a parent do whatever you had to do to save them from it? 
I know I would, no matter how many laws I had to break - no matter how many borders I had to cross.  We’ve already normalized violence - we cannot criminalize love. Jesus commands us in Luke’s gospel:
Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.
“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you… The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

   So in our story this desperate Moabite immigrant Ruth happens upon this Jewish man, Boaz, who coincidentally, or by God’s design, happens to be from the family of her late father-in-law. But rather than treating her as less-than, rather than considering her a mere criminal or an illegal alien, he models for us the compassionate love of God by welcoming her, providing for her needs, and praising her for doing whatever was necessary to care for her family. Something I hope all of us would do if we were in her shoes.
   A couple of weeks after I returned, as things for me were getting back to what we considered normal, Lynn, her brother and his wife, and I went to a favorite Chinese restaurant in Reynoldsburg for dinner. I ran into a couple of friends there and in talking told them that I had just come back from two weeks in El Salvador and that the experience had been life-changing for me. At that, a young man sitting in a booth by the window, hearing our conversation, jumped up and came over to me and said, “I’m Oscar, I’m from El Salvador.”
   Coincidence? I don’t think so. Rather, I think God used Oscar to remind me that my normal would be a new normal, not the old normal. Having seen what I had seen, and experienced what I had experienced, I could never go back to the old normal again. Oscar, and the many Salvadoran and other Central Americans I’ve met in the years since, serve as a reminder to me that as Christians we are to embody God’s hesed, God’s enduring, steadfast, forever love in how we treat the least of these who are only doing whatever they have to do to survive and to protect and provide for their families. What any of us would do.
   In our story today we see God’s hesed embodied in human action. Boaz praises Ruth for her loyalty to her mother-in-law (2:11) and then enacts through his generosity the blessings of God that he calls down upon her: “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2:11-12).
   Naomi sees the astonishing amount of barley that Ruth has gleaned, and finds out that it is Boaz who helped her. And it is only then that Naomi begins to move from the despair that had become her normal to a new hope. 
She recognizes in this turn of events the hand of God and she is quick to name God as the source of blessing: "Blessed be he [Boaz] by the LORD, whose kindness (hesed) has not forsaken the living or the dead!" (Ruth 2:20).
   The tide is turning. Emptiness is being filled. Hope is born. And it is an old widow (one who has seen more than her share of sorrow) who recognizes the hand of God in these seemingly happenstance circumstances. Coincidences? I think not. Amen.

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