Monday, August 13, 2018

8-12-18 “New Life”




   Have you ever prayed for God to resolve a particular situation in your life in the very specific way, and when things didn’t seem to be moving in that direction, when it appeared that perhaps God hadn’t heard your prayer, was still thinking about, or whatever the case may be, you then tried to control the situation, or perhaps “help” God, get to that desired end?  I’m sure most of us have. I know I have - my first marriage came about that way. Let me just leave that hanging there for a moment… 
   However, prayers and taking action also got me my current marriage, which is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So, the idea of “let go and let God,” while a good way to think about the effects of worry in our lives, is not how prayer is modeled for us in scripture for the most part. There is prayer, and then there is action. Rarely do we find prayer answered when someone prays over a situation and then sits back and does nothing. Prayer prepares us, but then we are called to do what needs to be done. We pray, for example, for those who are hungry, then we go feed them.

   We see that same dynamic at work in the book of Ruth. Nowhere in this story do we see or hear any of the characters pray. Nowhere in this story do we hear God speak, or hear an angel speak for God. No, God’s presence is assumed in this story - God’s hesed, God’s enduring, faithful, and steadfast love is modeled, is made known, in the actions of the characters.

   So understanding that, let’s recap how we’ve gotten to this final chapter:

   In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as, one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. You’ll recall she told her daughters-in-law to no longer call her Naomi, but to call her Mara, which means “bitterness.” Naomi is bitter after losing her husband as well as both of her sons. After exhorting Ruth and Orpah, now widowed, to return to their Moabite villages and families, Ruth is determined to move forward, not to go backward, and to stay with Naomi. 
   In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself by gleaning grain in a nearby field which belongs to a man named Boaz. Boaz, as it turns out, is a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Coincidence? I think not. Boaz allows Ruth to glean more than her fair share from the fields and all are abundantly blessed in the process. 
   In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. Understanding what they needed in order to survive in this patriarchal world, and understanding what the levirate law required, Naomi and Ruth “help” bring about what we have to believer were their unrecorded prayers to God. And as April shared last week, Ruth, in effect, proposed marriage to Boaz on the threshing floor - challenging custom and culture to provide not only for herself, but for her mother-in-law whom she loved greatly. And in that moment, Boaz reveals that there is yet another possible go-el, kinsman-redeemer, who has even more right to redeem Naomi’s husband’s lands, and says that he will talk to that man that very day. Which brings us to our story today.

   The scene at the city gate (where legal proceedings 
are conducted) is a rather humorous one. The nearer relative, the potential goel with whom Boaz speaks, is never named. He is enthusiastic about acquiring more land but suddenly remembers a previous appointment and makes himself scarce when Boaz says that marrying Ruth is part of the bargain. That would mean the land he purchased would never really be his, it would pass to her children as Elimilech and Mahlon’s heirs, not to his. So he says in effect, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and publicly gives up his rights to the land and to Ruth. So, having done his due diligence and fulfilled the requirements of the law, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his land acquisition and subsequent marriage to Ruth.

Ruth, we’re then told, conceives and bears a son. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. Where there was barrenness (in her marriage to Mahlon), now there is new birth. 
   The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “He 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” (4:15). The perfect, complete number seven here suggesting that Ruth’s love (i.e. God’s love manifest through Ruth) is greater than the love of all the sons of the world, and that most of all, Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.

   “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in [Naomi’s] bosom, and she became his nurse” (4:16). The rabbis, in the rabbinic tradition associated with this story, noting that the Hebrew word translated here often means “wet nurse,” said that a miracle happened, that Naomi’s old and withered breasts were suddenly able to produce milk, and that she nursed the child herself.
   Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness, joy where there had been only bitterness -- all of it is made possible through the hesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.
   The genius of the book of Ruth,” suggests theologian Alphonetta Wines, “is that it is much more than a simple story since there’s so much complexity in the layers, hints, and innuendo that lies within its pages. First, since its characters are exemplary, the book can be thought of as a morality narrative that demonstrates the blessing of godly living.
   “Second, knowing that in the world of the bible women’s voices are largely unheard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, their voices move the story forward. They live in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are vulnerable. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.
   “Third, it is impossible to overlook the sexual overtones in the book. Just as with the Song of Songs (another biblical book in which a woman speaks and God does not), the church has long been embarrassed by the sexual innuendo concerning Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. While the details are left to one’s imagination,” as April shared last week - sometimes “feet are just feet,” - “it is clear that Ruth intends to entice Boaz with her charms, especially since she goes at night hoping to avoid being seen.
   “Fourth, although ‘God is silent … [and] acts indirectly through the people,’ God’s care is attested. As a poor woman from another country, Ruth’s situation is dire. But even though her situation is dire, she is not forgotten. While God is silent, the message is indisputable, ‘God is on the side of the marginalized.’ 
Not that God is unconcerned about people who live on the center, but God’s care for Naomi and Ruth are indications that God cares even when the world is indifferent. The implication is that “God … [is] God of the whole world.”
   “Fifth, the book of Ruth is a story about “the birth of the monarchy” in Israel and a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that would eventually be a blessing to all humanity.” Remember, I shared in week two the history going back to Abraham and Sarah, and how God had promised that their descendants would be one tribe that would be blessed to be a blessing. However, at one point Abraham and his nephew Lot went in two different directions because their wealth had grown so vast the land could no longer support their combined herds." 

The descendants of Lot became the Moab tribe, of whom Ruth was a descendant. As Rob Bell points out, “when Ruth returns to Israel, this story about this obscure family becomes a story about Lot’s tribe and Abrahams’ tribe being reunited. Ruth coming home and marrying Boaz is about Lot coming home. It’s about healing the family. It’s about bringing together what was separated years earlier. (In the Hebrew language here, the same word is used for Lot separating and Ruth not separating. The storyteller clearly wants us to know that this is about a much larger story.) That’s why the story ends with a bit of genealogy: the tribe is united and healed just in time for their great King David to be born. So from Genesis 13, [where Abraham and Lot go their own ways,] all the way to the book of Ruth, things aren’t right. But in the book of Ruth, they’re made right.”
   And as Wines concludes, “The subtle message is not so subtle, for ‘even Israel’s greatest king is descended from a poor, vulnerable woman from a despised foreign nation.’ Ruth’s inclusion in Jesus’ lineage enlarges the message even further. If God is the God of all humanity, why would not all humanity have a role in the lineage of the Incarnate Jesus?
   "The last bit of genius in the book of Ruth “is a reminder that it is important to honor the humanity of every person. There is no need for anyone to think too highly or too lowly of others or themselves. In a world where connections to one’s own family group could determine matters of life or death, Ruth and Naomi’s willingness to cross boundaries to create friendship is remarkable. These two women are about as different as two people can be. There are differences in ‘age, nationality, and religion.’ Theirs is a story about what happens when two people from different social locations, [different backgrounds, ethnicities, even religions,] decide that relationship is more important than cultural definitions of what relationships should be or any experiences that might have kept them apart.” Being in relationship is more important than being right.
   “Through her friendship with Naomi, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Through her friendship with Ruth, Naomi again experiences a joy untold. In a world, ancient or contemporary, where people are unwilling to extend themselves on behalf of others and be changed for the better by the encounter, this story stands as an indictment of closed hearts, minds, and spirits of any age.”
    The story of Ruth is a story of new life: new life for Naomi, and for Ruth and Boaz; new life in the child they have together, Obed; and new life for God’s vision for Israel as one tribe - a mixed tribe, a reunited tribe of peoples once driven apart who are brought back together.  What began with tragedy ends with blessing. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy. The child of Ruth and Boaz, Obed, will be the grandfather of David, Israel’s most beloved king. 
   So here is where the story of Ruth leaves us: with the promise of God’s faithful love, God’s hesed, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and through David’s greater Son, into even our own lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up, and overflowing. That is the new life promised through God’s faithful love.  Thanks be to God! Amen.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

8-5-18 "Daring to Act" by Rev. April Casperson




Week 3: Aug. 5, 2018
Preaching text: Ruth 3:1-18; accompanying text: Matthew 7:7-8

As a reminder, the book of Ruth is really useful to us in a lot of ways. It really lifts up complex layers, hints, and innuendo found within the people – it’s very relatable – it’s like reality television! Some reality television may be really trashy, or it may feel very forced, like when it is obvious that a person (or “character”) is reading from a script in order to move the drama forward. But you can watch reality television and learn a lot about how people act in times of stress and in times of celebration. In the book of Ruth, the entire story can be thought of as a morality narrative that demonstrates the blessing of godly living.
Second, knowing that in the world of the bible women’s voices are largely unheard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, their voices move the story forward. Yes, there are men in the story – dead husbands and sons, farmers, business owners and men with power. But Naomi and Ruth are living in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are vulnerable. And the book of Ruth is all about how Naomi and Ruth choose to take control of their lives. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.
As a reminder, we left Ruth doing something very risky. She is a foreign widow, unknown to anyone in her new community. She simply heads out of her hut for a difficult labor of gleaning in a field of a person she does not know, hoping against hope that the man will be at least partially sympathetic to a woman in such a straightened position. Gleaning is a technical term in Israel; it is in short the Israelite welfare system. When hired workers pass through the field for harvest, they are allowed to bundle the grain they have cut, but of course they are bound to miss some of the grain in their work. That grain, fallen on the rows of the field, are to be left alone, not bundled in a second pass through the field, but left for the poor: the widows, strangers, foreigners, orphans, all those who have no direct access to the society in which they live. It is a most difficult and meager way to try to survive, but as a foreign widow, Ruth has little choice.
Ruth ends up gleaming in Boaz’s field, and he makes sure that she is safe from assault, she is able to gather more than enough food for her and Naomi, and even invites her to a family lunch and sends her home with leftovers for Naomi. 
His  treatment of Ruth in particular is extremely kind. He goes out of his way to make sure that Ruth and Naomi are provided for.
When Ruth presents this harvest (and the leftovers from lunch!) to Naomi, of whom she has been thinking during her entire interchange with Boaz, Naomi exclaims that she has never seen a glean quite like that one (2:19)! And upon hearing that Ruth has in fact worked in a field that belongs to Boaz, a light bulb (finally!) goes off above Naomi's head. Well, what do you know? Boaz is a very near kin of mine! Stay close by him, Ruth, she counsels; who knows what the man may do?
But Ruth continued to glean in Boaz' field right up to "the end of the barley and the wheat harvests," as long as six or seven weeks, and nothing happens. Boaz may have appeared very anxious to have some sort of relationship with Ruth in chapter 2, but he retreats into silence at the beginning of chapter 3. There are no chocolates, no phone calls, no e-mails, no texts, no Facebook posts. 
As a more distant relative, Boaz is not under obligation to marry Ruth.  Though he and Ruth appear to respect and perhaps even feel attraction to each other, and though he is evidently available for marriage, two months of daily contact have not fanned the spark between them.  
Until now, both Boaz and Naomi have taken care to protect Ruth from male harassment (2:8-9, 21-22), but now Naomi's plan gambles on Boaz's honor, exposing her daughter-in-law to the danger of humiliation, if not rape.  So Naomi, who began chapter 2 in passive despair and ended it with hope, initiates a plan.  She tells Ruth to bathe, perfume herself, and gussy up in her best attire to go find Boaz at his threshing floor, where he is winnowing the barley.  She is to wait till he has eaten, drunk, and gone to sleep, slip under the blanket with him, and do whatever he says. 
Naomi says, “uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” 
Yes, “feet” sometimes are a euphemism in the Bible. But “feet” are also sometimes just feet and there’s no way to know for sure what’s meant in this passage. In any case, there are obviously some sexual overtones to this chapter. Ruth comes to Boaz by night at the threshing floor. She lies down beside him, uncovering some part of his body. On the other hand, it must be noted, there’s no explicit mention of sexual relations here (as there is, for instance in 4:13). Some things are best left to mystery.
So Ruth lies down beside him. He is too soundly asleep to notice her approach, and then when he wakes up he is entirely too startled to play the part Naomi had assigned him.  "Who are you?" he demands in surprise when he wakes at midnight.  
Ruth does not do exactly what Naomi says. She does not simply sit by his feet and wait for his response. Instead, she takes initiative and calls upon Boaz to act.
Ruth identifies herself, but doesn't wait for his initiative.  "Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin," she says, in probably one of the least romantic marriage proposals in human history, or at least in Scripture: take me to redeem my dead husband's inheritance.
To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman is to marry her. Ruth, in other words, proposes to Boaz! And she calls him to fulfill his duty as the goel. A goel is a close male relative who is obligated in Israelite law to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times (Leviticus 25:25, 35-38, 47-49).2
..and she proposes to him in secret, giving them the space for an honest conversation. No one else is around – and Women would not have been allowed on threshing floor. Ruth’s actions are quite bold.
Public engagement events/prom-posals/etc. aren’t quite the same situation today, but it’s common in movies and television to show a public declaration of love and one of the partners in the relationship says no, creating an uncomfortable, sometimes profoundly painful public experience. 
So in the silence of the threshing room, with no one around, Ruth asks Boaz to marry her and take care of her. 
Boaz considers her request neither crass nor unseemly, but generous.  Like Naomi (2:2,22; 3:1), he has called Ruth "my daughter" before, hinting at his own age, but now we hear what he has been thinking: had she not been so loyal to Naomi, she would have sought out a younger man.  Now we understand why he has refrained from courting her: he did not wish to force the dutiful foreigner into a marriage she might not have wanted for herself.
Boaz promises that he will do all that Ruth asks. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is matched by Boaz’s own faithfulness. And, it is worth noting, this foreign widow mirrors God’s own faithful love, God’s hesed. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty (hesed) is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich” (Ruth 3:10)
Boaz offers another surprising detail -- there is another relative, a nearer one.  Since this one has not stepped forward to help before, readers aren't excited about him now.  His existence introduces another plot complication, another obstacle to the happy ending for which we are rooting.  Balancing honor and desire, Boaz promises to take steps to conclude the matter, and suggests she remain safe with him for the night. 
Before dawn he sends her home, giving her yet more food to take with her and the assurance that everyone knows she is, like him, a person of worth (eshet hayil; cf. 2:1, ish gibbor hayil). 
Depending on context, much can be done with the sexuality of Ruth. Did she use sex for her gain? Maybe? Maybe not? Does it matter? Why do we always assume that she was a seductive harlot? Depending on how we unpack this story, we could see a seduction – or we could see a woman giving a man space to make a decision, as she tells him what she needs in order to be safe and happy and to take care of her mother in law! Is there room in the church to explore the sexuality of women in a positive light? 
Be sure to remember Boaz’s response. He refers to Ruth as eset chayil, the same term as found in Proverbs 31. Rachel Held Evans has translated this famously as “Woman of Valor.” He remarks on her courage, and her place even though she is a poor, foreign, widow.
Ruth is not the evil seductress - she is the Proverbs 31 Woman.
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld makes the argument that Ruth’s use of word go-el, which can be described as next-of-kin, or redeemer is not a legal term, and cannot be traced directly back to Levitical interpretation. Instead, it appeals to the “central motif of the story as a whole, namely, human protection and support as a manifestation of God’s redemptive care.” (Interpretation: Ruth, p. 61) 
In other words, caring for one another is the way that we love God. God’s salvation happens through the kindness, generosity, and love of humans toward one another.
What is redeemed for our time is the role that women who take initiative can find security, even sometimes in a patriarchal society and having to be dependent on a man. One hopes that the structures have changed that women do not have to behave in this way to gain life and security. The actions of Boaz are righteous in that he goes beyond the Torah Law. He did not have to marry Ruth, he could easily have had her as a concubine. Righteousness is different to Law in that the actions are not necessarily decreed, but acting in light of God's love is what may be right for the situation.
Love and faithfulness abound, as much as the piles of grain at the threshing floor, and blessings overflow into the lives of those who once were empty. People are messy. Relationships are messy. Finding security and happiness? Messy. And yet, God is able to work within our messes to bring forth insights – wisdom – Spirit-breathed direction – about what it means to care for our neighbors. 
In the coming week, may you listen for the voice of the Spirit in the messiness of your own life, and if you find yourself falling into legalism, consider how God may be asking you to act as God does when you are called to care for your neighbor. Amen. 

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.