Speaker: Joel Miller
I want everyone to think back to when you were 11 or 12 years old. If you attach memories more to school grades, this would be sixth grade. If you’re not yet in sixth grade you can imagine a bit what it might be like.
Are we there? If sixth grade was not a highlight of your life, I apologize for taking you back there, but try to stick with it just a bit.
I want you to think about what it was like to be you at that time? Who were the key people in your life who loved you – family, friends, and teachers? What did you already know deep down that had always been there and has never left? What were you learning about yourself, about how life works?
This is a time of life so pivotal that cultures around the world have surrounded it with ritual. Maybe not exactly the same age across the board, but there is a near universal recognition of this sacred passage out of childhood, into an age of greater independence and responsibility. This Coming of Age service is our small way of ritualizing this passage from childhood into what we call adolescence – this in between period when you’re no longer a child, and not yet an adult.
This morning there are four of us for whom this time of life is neither a distant memory nor a future possibility. Henry, Lily, Graciela, and Owen are right at the threshold. Paxton is a fifth, and he was unable to be here today.
You have helped create and lead this service, and before we offer you our blessing, I want to reflect a bit about what this all might mean. We’ll do this through the story of Ruth. And, shameless plug to the adults, if anyone wants to go deeper into Ruth you can join the Bible Study Sunday school class starting March 10.
The character of Ruth is older than you, but maybe not by much. We first meet her when she marries one of Naomi’s sons. Women married young in the ancient world. What’s more important is that the story tracks really well with what it means to come of age and mature into a healthy adult.
I’ll highlight three markers along that path.
You all just told this story, so you know the book of Ruth actually begins with another character, Elimelech. Elimelech is married to Naomi, and they have two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. They’re from Bethlehem. But they’re forced to leave their home because of a famine. When there’s not enough food, people migrate to places where there’s something to eat, where they can sustain a life. So this family heads East, across the Jordan River, to the land of Moab.
They are foreigners in Moab, they’re immigrants, but it’s a good land. They have all they need. Both sons marry women native to Moab. They stay there about 10 years. To put that in perspective, that’s just about your whole life. But over the course of those ten years Elimelech dies, then the sons die. And so the only person remaining from our original family is Naomi.
This a story that begins with grief and tremendous loss. The loss of a homeland, the loss of a family. Naomi buries her husband and sons in a foreign land. Only her son’s wives, daughters of other mothers, are with her.
One of these young women is named Orpah, the other is Ruth.
The famine in Israel comes to an end, and Naomi wants to go home, back to Bethlehem. She feels like her life is over, and she recognizes that these young women have their whole lives ahead of them. She urges them to go back to their homes. They can move back in with their parents, remarry, and have a full life. After many tears, Orpah agrees to return to her home. But Ruth refuses. The story goes that she clings to Naomi. The same word used in Genesis 2 when it says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they may become one flesh.” The words Ruth says to Naomi are so poetic they are commonly read at weddings, “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die.”
Ruth clings to Naomi, refuses to part from her. And so she leaves her own home, binding her life to her mother- in- law Naomi.
And here’s the first theme to highlight. Leaving home.
The four of you have not yet left home, but these years you are entering mark a period in which you’re beginning to leave home. Or at least, expand your sense of home. Your world expands beyond the family you’ve been born into. You make new connections that are yours alone – new relationships, new thoughts, new possibilities. You conduct social experiments with who might be a part of this new home you are beginning to create, this sense of selfhood you’re developing. Some don’t work out so well. And from those failures come new understandings. Who can you trust? Who and what brings you joy? What will you cling to? Who will cling back? To what and to whom will you bind your life? These are new and exciting questions that take a while to answer.
Ruth leaves home by binding herself to Naomi. Each adult in this room has also undergone and is still undergoing the process of leaving home. Your parents love you and have created a home for you, but they also know that parenting involves helping you leave a small experience of home, to embrace a broad sense of home that can include your original home but also much more. The questions you are asking are the same questions that Ruth asked. To what and to whom will I bind my life? Ultimately only you can answer this question for yourself.
We usually talk about this as a great exciting adventure, which it can be. It is. But reading Ruth made me also think about how leaving the home of childhood is connected with grief. We love seeing you grow, but there’s also a tinge of grief that this small child we held so easily in our arms is no longer a child. And I wonder if some of the struggle of the teen years is an unnamed grief, that you too know somewhere deep inside that something as precious as childhood is coming to an end and the world presents itself to you in all its difficulty and you feel, for the first time, the weight of it.
It is a great and challenging journey.
So that’s one theme from this story – leaving home, expanding home in widening circles.
Naomi and Ruth make the trek to Bethlehem – a homecoming for Naomi, and home-leaving for Ruth. Very soon Ruth takes on the responsibility of providing for the two of them. It’s harvest season, and, with Naomi’s blessing, Ruth heads out to the barley fields to do some gleaning.
To understand what’s going on here, it’s important to know a bit of Israelite law. Specifically, Leviticus 19 verses 9-10. Excluding the ten commandments, this law definitely makes my top ten list of favorite biblical laws. Here’s what it says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am Yahweh your God.”
In an agricultural society, land is wealth, and those without land have no way of building wealth. The Israelites believed the land belonged to Yahweh, or at least that’s what is declared in Leviticus 25. The purpose of the land was to provide for the needs of the community, including sojourners, those who were newly arrived, like Ruth, or just passing through – the landless. So land owners were explicitly instructed to not maximize harvest yield. They were just tenants in the fields of Yahweh anyway, so they weren’t supposed to harvest all the way to the edges. And if they dropped some barley in the field or some grapes in the vineyard, they were to just leave them there. The gleaners would come behind and gather them up, and use them to feed themselves and their family. When it worked well, everybody got what they needed. Social security in a basket.
Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz and collects enough grain for her and Naomi to eat their fill.
Needless to say, our society doesn’t quite work like this. A recent reminder of our fierce loyalty to private property came when I visited a neighbor and saw a sign on their front porch with images of guns on each side of the text which read, “We don’t call 911.” In other words, this place is mine and if you try to take anything, watch out. I think it’s fair to say that’s a “No gleaning allowed” sign.
But we still find ways to glean. In the Cincinnati neighborhood where we lived before moving to Columbus – the Oakley neighborhood – there was a significant homeless population. Many of them lived on the railroad tracks just a few blocks north of our house. Every week our street would put out our recycling for the city to pick up, and every time, at about 7 in the morning, before the recycling truck rumbled through, some of our friends would make their way down the street, rummaging through the recycling, looking for aluminum cans to gather and recycle and make some money for the day. I affectionately called them the Gleaners of Oakley.
Food banks, thrift stores, and even libraries are some of the ways gleaning shows up in some form even within our consumer driven culture.
Even in our privatized, colonized, mapped and coded world, there is much to be gleaned.
If the question of leaving home is “To what or whom will I cling,” then a question after you leave home is “What will I glean?” What is available to me in this world? What will I find if I start looking? What will I pick up that others have dropped? Where will I go to the edges where others have stopped? What knowledge, what relationships, what joy can I glean from this day I’ve been given?
Gleaning is a certain way of looking at the world. It dares to believe this is still God’s world, and there is a great wealth available to all of us to enjoy. We are still hunters and gatherers, gleaners, foraging for meaning, for something that will feed our soul and our body.
So, as you come of age, I encourage you to take on the spirit of Ruth and set out to glean. Glean in the wide open fields of God, and see what you will find to fill your basket.
A final theme I want to highlight comes at the very end of the story.
Ruth has gleaned herself a husband among the pickings of Bethlehem – the owner of the field where she gleaned the barley, Boaz, who ends up being related to Elimelech who had married Naomi.
Boaz and Ruth have children, and one of their sons is Obed. Obed becomes the father of Jesse, and Jesse becomes the father of David, one of the most important rulers of Israel who the tradition also remembers as a poet of Psalms. Both Matthew and Luke, in their gospels, trace the lineage of Jesus back through David. Meaning you can’t get to Jesus without Ruth, the woman from Moab, who left her home and bound her life together with Naomi, a family of her own choosing. Who gleaned in the field of Boaz and approached him on the threshing floor offering herself in marriage. Ruth, whose gifts to the world include a lineage that led to Jesus and leads to us, followers of Jesus, pondering Ruth’s story in a very different time and place.
If the question of leaving home is “To what or whom will I cling,” and a question after you leave home is “What will I glean?” then the question once we find a new and expanded sense of home is “What will I give to this world?” In what ways will my life bear fruit?
This does not have to be a grand contribution. Many successful people, at the end of their lives, point not to their accomplishments, but to the quality of their relationships for what they feel is their best gift.
One of the wonders of your age, is that what you have to give this world is such a wide open possibility. One of the things I especially like about the way your theatrical presentation is that it ended with Ruth surrounded by community, past and present. Our prayer for you and for ourselves is that we can be part of that community for you, as your sense of home expands, as you glean the good things this world has to offer, as you give of yourself for the good of others.