November 9, 2003

Girdwood United Methodist Chapel

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell


Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

Ruth: The Immigrant Worker

Good Morning.

You heard read this morning a section of the Old Testament Book of Ruth which could be subtitled: The Seduction of Boaz, followed by The Conception of Obed, the son of Ruth and Boaz - who eventually becomes the grandfather of King David, who becomes the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. A good many preachers have taken this genealogy and preached many a good sermon on the multicultural roots of the Coming Messiah with forays into ancient Biblical law concerning marriage and property. And others, of course, shy away from the Old Testament passage altogether and focus their insights on the message from the New Testament comparing Boaz's redemption of Ruth to Christ's redemption of all humanity.

These are all good sermons. With solid spiritual messages. But I've already heard them and chances are that you have, too. Leafing through my hotel Gideon Bible this week, I was hoping that my thoughts might take us down a different path this morning. And, with a little help from "current events", they have.

Stuck in a rather bland hotel room outside Washington D.C. one evening, I took the opportunity to re-read the entire Book of Ruth. It's only four chapters, so you could read it yourself this afternoon, if the fancy struck you.

Ruth, if you remember, was a Moabite, not an Israeli, if you will. But we are ahead of ourselves. We must go back. There was famine in the Land of Israel. A certain Jew named Elimelech took his wife and two sons and left Bethlehem in Judah and came into the country of Moab. There he died, leaving his wife Naomi a widow. Elimelech and Naomi's two sons each married into the community. Both married Moabite women. The extended families continued to live in Moab for about ten years when the two young men also died. Now, instead of one, there were three widows. Looming economic disaster.

What to do? Naomi, in particular, faced an extremely uncertain future with no man to provide for her. The two daughters-in-law were of an age where they could re-marry, but Naomi was not. Naomi learned that life had grown better back in Judah, the crops were growing and the famine had lifted. She wanted to go home.

But Naomi feared that her two foreign daughters-in-law might not be accepted. She told them they should stay in Moab. One agreed to do so - but the second, Ruth, said, "No. Whither thou goest, I go!" So, they went.

The two women arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. This was a good thing. If you should check out Leviticus - a sometimes much maligned book of the Hebrew Scriptures - you will find a very positive note, which explains Naomi's choice of timing for returning home.

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete the harvest in the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest or of your vineyard You shall leave (these) for the poor and the foreigner; I am YHWH your God!"

And indeed in the story of Ruth we find this command carried out. Two penniless widows, one a foreigner from a despised community, arrive in Israelite society. The foreigner, Ruth, was welcomed onto the field of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz knew that even this despised foreigner was entitled to a decent job with a decent living. And the work Ruth performed was not undignified or demeaned; it was exactly the kind of work that most people did in the world of ancient Israel.

Boaz acted with great generosity, it is true, but he was not free to act otherwise. It was the law of his society that guaranteed Ruth a place in gleaning his crops. Everyone, not just one extraordinary woman, had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work for their livelihood. And Boaz, even if he wanted to, could not order his regular workers to be economically "efficient." They could not harvest everything, not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first time around. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.

Some of these thoughts I have borrowed from Rabbi Arthur Waskow who wrote an article entitled "Holy Economics" for Sojourners Magazine back in 1997. He asks,

"If Ruth came to America today, what would happen? Would she be admitted at the border? Would she have to show a "green card" before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?" Through the Book of Ruth, the rabbi tells us, the Bible affirms that in a decent society everyone is entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone - even, or especially, a despised immigrant."

Ruth was entitled not just to a job, but also to respect. Boaz reminded his workers: "No name-calling; no sexual harassment!"

AND, both Ruth and Boaz were entitled to Sabbath: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, and love.

The rabbi continues to ask how this approach to economics, Holy Economics, is played out in America today. Do we blame the poor for their poverty, or do we recognize the economic and/or other conditions which rock our ability to make a decent life for ourselves and our families? Does our society consistently place profit over the well-being of those whose work provides the profit? Do we promote and protect a rhythm of worthy work balanced with reflective rest - the combination of the two being essential for human beings to grow into moral and ethical people?

Rabbi Waskow suggests that we need both Ruth and Boaz in our society - because Ruth and Boaz, the outcast and the solid citizen, got together, and generations later brought the Messiah into the world - bringing a transformation that brings both peace and justice to the world.

Rabbi Waskow is well-spoken and his article, thought-provoking. But let's keep thinking. With the notable exception of' the Native American people, America is the Land of the Immigrant. Most of our ancestors came here looking for maybe not so much economic opportunity, as economic survival. When life is bad in one place, the tradition of the human race is to pack up whatever meager belongings we might have - and to move. To emigrate. Go somewhere else and start again. Sometimes - when there is a need for labor -- we are welcomed by the Welcome Wagon. Other times - when resources are already stretched -- we are welcoming with rocks, arrows, guns and/or bombs. But the immigrant - in order to survive - must still travel - hundreds of thousands of years ago we started the trek, up out of Africa, across the Steppes, into Europe, across the Atlantic, across the continent - meeting immigrants coming the other way, across the Land Bridge, down from the north, across from the Pacific - people on the move -- all looking for a way to make a living so that he or she and their offspring could survive into the next generation. We are all immigrants, even the Native Americans - all of our ancestors came from somewhere else before they got here.

I say this from the perspective of one whose ancestors arrived in what became the United States of America two to three hundred years ago. Each new wave of people thinks the land is theirs, and maybe theirs alone. But I'm not so sure that is God's perspective, at all.

Two other gleanings from recent "current events," if you will. I'll review the event. You draw your own conclusions.

Did anyone here catch news of the "Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride" on September 20, 2003? That's about six weeks ago. On September 20, buses left on staggered schedules from Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Houston, Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis and headed for the nation's capitol. Bus riders were from among 14 different nationalities, with different races, cultures and languages. Once they arrived in Washington D.C., there were days of Congressional meetings and rallies. The group moved on to New Jersey. On October 4, the group rallied in New York City, drawing 100,000 people who supported the ride's goals of retooling U.S. immigration policy to make it fairer, reuniting families, and protecting workers' civil and job rights.

We were told that some 8.5 million workers are in immigration limbo and one in four low-wage-earners is an immigrant.

Many stories were shared of families struggling to survive. Many focused on one-parent families - made that way in some cases when one parent is jailed on a possible immigration violation. But still the immigrants come.

"When you find people coming across the border from Mexico suffocating in the back of a truck, that says something to us," stated the Rev. James Orange. "The system is terribly broken and must be fixed now. We are all God's children and we all are somebody."

I'm not here this morning to tell you how our system must be fixed. I don't know. I am here to suggest that we might look at the problem from a more global, even spiritual, perspective.

Moving from America, I'd like to draw Rabbi Waskow's attention to Palestine. Current Event No. 2. Palestine and Israel are still in the news. Would that it be different. As you know, the stories from the Middle East today bear no resemblance to the Story of Ruth or the Leviticus-based rules concerning foreign labor. No comparison at all.

Last Sunday, November 2, the Associated Press reported that "reflecting a relative downturn in violence in recent weeks, the Israelis announced that they would permit about 15,000 Palestinians to enter the country for work."

Seems that before fighting erupted three years ago - has it only been three years? - more than 50,000 Palestinians from Gaza and 100,000 from the West Bank worked in Israel, providing a main source of income for the Palestinian economy. That number has been greatly reduced since then - an Associated Press understatement.

"The restrictions imposed by the Israelis have damaged the already crippled Palestinian economy, according to the Associated Press, pushing thousands of Palestinians into poverty - defined as $400 a month in the West Bank and $300 a month in the Gaza Strip. Add that to the Palestinian farm land being plowed under or settled by the Israelis - and all the other disasters brought by war - and you have a people with nothing much more to lose - and no where to go.

There is some glimmer of hope in the fact that, before sunup last Sunday, about 6,200 workers of the previous 150,000 lined up at the Erez crossing point from Gaza. All men over the age of 35 - according to Israeli regulations - they submitted themselves to strict security checks and went to jobs in Israel.

Not exactly the welcome given to Naomi and Ruth - but we all know the circumstances are quite different. I haven't read anything more this week about how things are going - and if more Palestinians will be working this week, and maybe more next month. We'll see. Perhaps Rabbi Waskow can assist the Israeli government in reforming its immigration laws and civil rights for foreign workers.

Don't take that to be as snide as it might sound. I am aware of the incredible difficulties, incredible horrors, undeniable and indescribable agonies that these two peoples have suffered at the hands of each other. The fact that anyone on either side is still willing to negotiate on anything is a miracle in itself. But negotiate and compromise and live together they must. Boaz, a man of substance and influence willing to redeem and provide for Ruth, and Ruth, a widow willing to work, to love, to merge her life with Boaz - only together can these two bring into this region, indeed this world, the Messiah of Peace, Justice and Prosperity.

I believe that the Marriage of Ruth and Boaz, and all they represent, is required for the Messiah to come, for the redemption of Humanity to really take place - for the Kingdom of God to flourish on this Earth. What do you believe?

May the Lord Our God bless us to our understanding His will for our lives in this tumultuous and confusing world. Amen.

Click to Return to Sermon Index