When I learned we would be gathering for worship as ecumenical brothers and sisters to celebrate a service of Thanksgiving, I could not have been happier. But when I realized we would be reading from the book of Ruth, I was thrilled! Ruth has always held a special place in my heart. This woman, a complete stranger to our faith, teaches us more about faithful living than most of our ancestors. She marries a foreigner, quickly becoming a widow with no support, following her widowed mother-in-law to a foreign land. In her abandonment, she pledges allegiance to a God who in many ways has felt absent. And when they return the foreign land of Bread, and she sees Naomi may not be able to support her, she takes it upon herself to go sweat in the fields, and secure them a livelihood. She even eventually permanently ensures their security by somewhat scandalously approaching Boaz for not only food, but marriage, and progeny. Ruth puts all others before herself, and she is faithful to God and her family. If anyone is a beacon of living into the Great Commandment to love neighbor as self, Ruth is that beacon of light.
But the more I thought about our text today, the more I realized that despite the fact that I love Ruth, we gathered here today are more like Boaz. You see, we are people of privilege and power. Though we can certainly name countless people who may have more wealth and influence than we do, most of us know where our next meal is coming from, have a roof over our heads, and have our basic needs met. Some of us are even comfortable enough to enjoy much more than our basic needs. In that way, we are much more like Boaz, a man with power and influence, who can use that power for good or for evil.
Boaz has little obligation to Ruth, the foreigner. He knows she is connected to Naomi, making her adopted family, but allowing her to glean with the other gleaners would have been enough. He didn’t have to give her tips about how to be safe from the men, give her access to drinking water, feed her his bread at mealtime, and tell his men to make sure she got extra grain to glean. He did not have to say yes when she asked for his help in taking her in. He did not have to negotiate with the next-of-kin to have her hand. Boaz takes God’s command to love neighbor beyond what anyone would expect.
I have been thinking about Boaz as I have been thinking about our ministry together. Though you may not know about each case, each of the clergy here work with families in need through the use of discretionary or alms funds. Each church here has ministries that we support – whether food pantries, homeless shelters, elder care, medical clinics, or assistance with basic needs like back-to-school supplies, clothing drives, or holiday support. And all of us collectively have taken that a step further and agreed to help provide more food assistance by starting up a local food distribution outlet through our partners at House of Mercy. But just because we do that work does not mean that we do that work like Boaz.
My husband is a social worker in Richmond and he was recently telling me about a client’s experience with a church. The client reached out to a church for assistance, and instead of pastorally working with the client, the church representative gave them a hard time, wanting to know what poor decisions the client had made that brought them to the church doors. Now, I know we all screen the clients we help. We have to be smart about how we help those in need. But that client experienced a loss of dignity at that church that Boaz never exerts. In fact, Boaz knows how degrading poverty can be. He sees Ruth, and knows simply by her gender and foreignness that she is at risk for assault and manipulation. And so, not only does he help her, but he looks at all those around him and hold them accountable for caring for the disadvantaged too. He does not act alone in his mercy – he makes his whole community merciful.
As we head into a holiday marked for Thanksgiving, the church invites us to look at our ancestors for the best ways to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commandment. Want to know how to love God and our neighbors? Look at our sister Ruth. Want to know how to show love, dignity, and compassion? Look at our brother Boaz. Though many of us spend this time of year reflecting on what we have to be grateful for, the church invites us also to use this time as a time of action. Our gratitude is not passive. Our gratitude is active – a call to action to love God and love neighbor. I know many families who have a tradition of going around the Thanksgiving table, enumerating those things for which they are grateful. Perhaps this year, our families can also enumerate what we are going to do in response to those things for which we are grateful. Our ancestors, our Savior, and our faith communities are here to embolden us in that response. Thanks be to God!