Food Insecurity and God’s Community: A Sermon on The Book of Ruth
Preached on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October, All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Readings for Proper 31B: Ru 1:1-18; Ps 146; Heb 9:11-14; Mk 12:28-34
The Book of Ruth is one of those small corners of scripture that I suspect we all wish we knew better. For my part, I confess that I have never before given a sermon on Ruth, which is a terrible admission for a preacher who has a fondness for the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). It’s known, at least in part, for Ruth’s famous and moving speech to Naomi – “Where you go, I will go” (Ru 1,16-17) but I’m not sure we know what quite to make of it. In Christian bibles, Ruth is found tucked between Judges and 1 Samuel, leading us to think that it belongs to the historical books of the bible. However, whereas these historical books are about great kings and prophets, the characters of Ruth are unremarkable, ordinary people living ordinary lives, which encourages us to think that it has something to speak into our ordinary lives.
Today and next Sunday, I want to explore several of the themes of Ruth. The first is food, which I’ll mostly focus on today; what does the contrast between the opening scene of famine and the grain-filled threshing floor of Boaz have to tell us about food insecurity and our basic needs? The second theme is love and family; what does Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and Boaz’s kindness to Ruth say to us about how we might live our lives in ways that are gracious to one another and aligned with the purposes of God? The third we might call God’s providence or design; how does the story of Ruth fit into the saving purposes of God, and how might that give us hope and inspiration?
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land” (Ru 1.1).
In just five verses, the Book of Ruth presents a bleak and uncompromising view of life in ancient Israel. It begins in hunger and migration. The husband Elimelech takes his family to the neighbouring land of Moab to escape the famine. For a while Elimilech and Naomi seem to find better lives and also find wives for their two sons, but within ten years the father and his sons are dead, leaving three homeless widows. Naomi is left without any male family to provide for and to protect her. The best she can do is send her daughters-in-law back to their families in the hope that they will be taken in and cared for.
So the story of Ruth starts in hunger. It’s not just the hunger of empty stomachs, though that is all too real. It’s also a story about the hunger of empty lives, of Naomi, whose name in Hebrew means Pleasant, changing her name to Mara, meaning bitter, because she thanks she has nothing, no family, no kin, no love, no future. It’s also a story about the hunger of loneliness, of Boaz, an older unmarried man who has prosperity but no one to share it with, and who finds in Ruth a wife and in her children a future for his name and lineage.
The progression of the story, from hunger and mourning to the harvested grain and barley on the threshing floor to the marriage and child of Ruth and Boaz, is a gradual movement from emptiness to fullness, from sorrow to joy. It’s a wonderful little story. In some ways it is like Job, in its narrative movement from tragedy to joy, though unlike Job, Ruth and Naomi are not caught in a cosmic struggle between God and Satan as Job is, and their restoration to happiness seems quietly deserving compared to the cornucopia of abundance that Job is finally blessed with.
There’s metaphorical hunger here, but there’s real, earthly, deadly hunger in this story. Elimelech’s taking his family to Moab is one of several examples of hunger-related migration in the Hebrew Scriptures (see the stories of Abraham and Jacob in Genesis), and indeed today hunger and food insecurity lead many millions today to leave their homes in the hopes of finding UN administered relief food refugee camps. The problem is not unique to overseas.
Recently I was stunned to read an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail (Oct. 11, 2021) byLori Nikkel, who is CEO of the food rescue organization Second Harvest. Nikkel opened her essay with the shocking statistic that Canada’s charitable sector (churches, mosques, schools and social problems) gave out $33 billion dollars worth of food to 6.7 million Canadians, which is 18 per cent of our population.
In 2019, Statistics Canada reported that 1.9 million Canadian households are food insecure, meaning that their diets are inadequate and unhealthy. Many Canadians are one paycheque away from hunger, while half of the food produced in Canada ends up in landfills. It’s hard not to conclude from these numbers that there is something systemically and sinfully wrong with food supply in Canada.
What does an ancient bible story about hunger have to say to our context? Ruth is a story about loyalty, or in Hebrew, hesed. It’s about bonds of connection and affection, some of which are familial (Boaz is Naomi’s kinsman, Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law) but which are also deeply rooted in heart and soul. Ruth persists in staying with Naomi, even unto death, when the other daughter in law Orpah obeys Naomi and leaves her. Boaz shows kindness to a nobody, a foreign widow, who has no claim on him except that he has heard of her faithfulness to his kinswoman Naomi.
This kindness is rooted in the hearts of ordinary people in an ordinary story, but it is also rooted in the purposes of God that is firmly opposed to hunger and human indifference. Even when Naomi (quite understandably) says bitterly that “the Lord has turned against me” (Ru 1.13), Ruth declares that “your God [shall be] my God” (1.16). Her faith in this God that she does not yet know is rewarded when Boaz agrees to help Ruth. As he says to her, “may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ru 2.12). Boaz is certainly not immune to the charms of a younger woman, but this wealthy farmer seems to understand God’s purpose for him means to be an agent of refuge, and so his faith extends to concrete acts of assistance to others.
The Book of Ruth, then, speaks across the long centuries to a church in twenty-first century Canada and asks us how we will be God’s wings of refuge? Who are the Ruth’s, the refugees from foreign lands, those of no account and no status, who are hungry and friendless? I said in my homily last Sunday that the data shows that are immediate neighbourhood as a church is wealthy, but we know that there is hunger in our wider community. We have an existing relationship with a local food bank that manifests itself in sporadic efforts. We could certainly do more there. There are other churches and agencies running food programs in poorer neighbourhoods not far from us that we could reach out to. How will hunger and food security be part of our mission going forward?
One final thought about why we do this. At the end of the Book of Ruth we are back in Bethlehem, and we are told that the child born to Boaz and Ruth is Obed, who will be the father of Jesse, who will be the father of David. From this ancestry a descendent of David will also be born in Bethlehem, and it is that person who will call us to mission as he reveals God’s purposes. More on that next Sunday.