If I’ve ever had anything in common with the heroes of our faith, it was my initial reaction to my call to ministry. Like Moses and a bunch of the prophets, I thought God had dialed a wrong number when he called me. I couldn’t imagine how I had anything to bring to the ministry. I hadn’t achieved anything remarkable. I wasn’t friends with anyone famous or powerful. I hadn’t saved anyone from a burning building. For five and a half decades, I had just lived an ordinary life, with life’s usual ups and downs.
The flute lessons I gave as a high school student were just a way to earn some money. Tutoring at a school for pregnant and parenting girls was just a way to work with young people when Peyton was about to leave for college. Sunday School teaching over the years was just a way I could do my part at church. Being a member of the high school ecology club, working for women’s rights, and helping out with campaigns for issues and candidates I supported were just ways to be a good citizen. High school drama club and my hometown’s community theater, on stage and behind the scenes—that was just lots of fun with other kids and caring adults. Jobs as a waitress, in broadcasting, and as a salesperson for AT&T—they were all good jobs for me at the time but nothing world-changing.
I grew up in a strong and loving family, but we had our share of problems. Alcoholism, the sudden death of my father, a few miscarriages, my husband’s cancer, my mother’s long years with dementia—nothing different than the challenges everyone faces. The people around me weren’t unusual either: grandmothers who made sure we were in church on Sunday. A boss who advised me to take business classes in college, no matter what I majored in. A friend of my mother’s who took an interest in me. A Sunday School classmate with no theological credentials but who always made me think more deeply about my faith A neighbor who begged me to go on an Emmaus Walk with her so she would know someone when she went. All just regular people who were part of a regular life. But I came to see that God was taking all the ordinary, unremarkable events and people in my life and bringing them together in a new way—a way I had never imagined.
I imagine that Ruth, our third Wonder Woman from Jesus’ family tree, might have felt the same way about her own life. Her entire story is one of ordinary events and encounters and decisions that all led to her place in Jesus’ lineage, a place she surely could not have imagined as she was just going about her daily life. Her story opens our eyes to how God can use all the seemingly insignificant things in our lives in new and wonderful ways.
Ruth was a Moabite, living in the land of Moab. Some refugees moved into her neighborhood—a man and his wife from Bethlehem. Their own country was suffering from famine. They probably weren’t welcomed with open arms; Moabites and Israelites were bitter enemies. And, I would guess, they probably weren’t the only people crossing the border to find a place where they would have enough to eat; maybe there was a steady stream of immigrants into Moab, seeking a new and more secure life. Maybe there was some resentment towards the immigrants, using up Moabite resources, no matter how plentiful they were.
An ordinary girl like Ruth would have expected an arranged marriage. She might not have imagined being married off to a foreigner. But there she was, married to Mahlon, the son of an Israelite immigrant—one of life’s unexpected punches that she would just have to roll with. But she finds herself with a mother-in-law whom she comes to love and admire—a mother-in-law whose faith she came to adopt—one of life’s unexpected gifts.
Tragedy struck when Mahlon’s dad died. But, as we all know, things like that happen. You just have to deal with it. At least Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi had her sons and their wives to care for her. They would get through this. But then, as if a black cloud were following the family around, both of the sons died, too, leaving their mother and widows behind.
No matter how bad you feel, no matter how devastated you are, when tragedy strikes you still need to get on with life. Being a son-less widow in those times was a very precarious situation to be in, so Naomi, an unwelcome foreigner in the land of Moab, decided to go back to her hometown, where conditions had improved. She and her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah started out together, but as they walked along, Naomi realized that this was not the best plan for her daughters-in-law.
So, she told them to go back to their own families where they would have a chance to marry again and have children—the things ordinary people want. Eventually Orpah tearfully complied. But Ruth, who had come to love and respect Naomi, wasn’t having it. She made a decision that probably wouldn’t have seemed very sensible—that she would stay with Naomi.
There’s no mention of how the townspeople of Bethlehem reacted to having Naomi’s foreign daughter-in-law among them, but the Scripture continually mentions her origins—twice in the story of their return alone—so her foreignness must have been an issue. We can imagine it, though—the suspicion, the raised eyebrows, the cold shoulder, the demeaning names, the outright hatred and calls to go back to where she came from.
But Ruth just continued to live her life, making the best of a tough situation. They needed to eat, so she asked Naomi for permission to go into the fields and glean the grain left behind for the poor. It was probably work she had hoped she would never have to do, but when you need a job, you take what you can get. In one of those lucky accidents life sometimes hands us, the field where she began working belonged to a kinsman of her dead father-in-law. Boaz came out to inspect the work and noticed Ruth. We don’t know what made her stand out—her foreignness, perhaps, or the fact that she was a stranger to Boaz. Or maybe, as many of us have experienced, there was simply an unexplainable attraction.
Whatever the reason, Boaz asked about her. His manager explained who she was, again pointing out twice that Ruth was a Moabite. But, he also offered an observation—that Ruth had been on her feet since early morning without taking a single break.
Boaz invited Ruth to eat lunch with him. He made sure she had enough water while she worked. He made sure the young male workers wouldn’t bother her and that there would be enough grain for her to harvest. She thanked him, amazed that a prominent, respected man like Boaz would take an interest in an ordinary woman like her. He explained that her care for Naomi and all that it had cost her hadn’t gone unnoticed by her neighbors. She probably would have been surprised to hear this. After all, she was just doing what family does.
When she got home that night and was having one of those ordinary end-of-the-day conversations with Naomi, Naomi realized who Boaz was. She was probably relieved that Ruth had ended up working in a safe place, and she advised Ruth to continue working in Boaz’s field. Ruth took Naomi’s advice; she stayed there through the barley harvest and then through the end of the wheat harvest.
Naomi had been thinking of Ruth’s future, and she had an idea. It’s another one of those plans that involve some trickery but, as we’ve learned from the stories of Tamar and Rahab, sometimes that’s the only tool the poor and powerless have at their disposal. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. Naomi sent Ruth, bathed and dressed in her best, to the threshing floor where Boaz was working. She told Ruth to wait until after the men had had their dinner, and to watch where Boaz lay down for the night. Then she was to uncover his feet and lie down, and wait to see what happened.
What happened was that at midnight, poor Boaz was startled to find a woman at his feet—a woman he couldn’t identify in the dark. Since the threshing floor was a place where prostitutes often plied their trade, he must have wondered what her intentions were. But after Ruth told him who she was, son her own initiative, she went beyond what Naomi had advised. She didn’t just wait to see what Boaz would do; she asked Boaz to perform the duties of a relative—to marry her and father an heir for her dead husband. Far from being shocked and appalled, Boaz praised Ruth for her loyalty and integrity, realizing what a great risk she had taken. He promised her that, even though he actually wasn’t the nearest relative, he would make sure she was taken care of.
Back at home, Naomi was optimistic that their futures would soon be secure. And sure enough, Boaz came through. In an artful conversation, Boaz interested the actual next of kin with the offer of a field once belonging to Elimelech, but then he added that this was a package deal that included a Moabite wife and the responsibility to father heirs for her dead husband. The field sounded like a good deal, but the foreign wife not so much. The other relative declined, and Boaz secured the field and Ruth for himself.
Ruth’s was just an ordinary life. It was a life like most of us lead. Marriage—not an ideal match perhaps but one that brought its own joys. Tragedy and loss—hard but no different than what other people endure. Decisions that are either brave or foolhardy—hard to tell which at the time they’re made. Sometimes doing what you have to do to get by, even if it doesn’t feel right at the time—a part of life for so many. Dealing with all kinds of people—people who love you, people who are suspicious of you, people who seem to drop into your life just when you need them, people who help you without your ever knowing about it. Plugging along day-to-day, putting food on the table, taking care of family—because that’s what we do. It’s nothing we expect anyone to notice and certainly don’t expect anyone to comment on. It’s all just part of ordinary, every-day, unremarkable life.
But God sees differently than we do. God sees all those ordinary events and encounters in our lives as valuable pieces to be assembled into something extraordinary. The ugly becomes part of something beautiful. The broken becomes part of something whole. It’s kind of like that TV cooking show called “Chopped,” where the contestants get baskets of ingredients that don’t seem like they go together, but they are able to use them to create something delicious. God does the same thing with our lives. We have all these events and relationships and circumstances that don’t seem to add up to anything special. But God sees more in them and in us. God sees what is, and God sees what can be.
Sometimes we get to see what God will make of our ordinary lives. More often, we don’t. Most often, I think, we could see if we looked carefully, even if what we see is just a small portion of what God is doing—a corner of a great work of art that hasn’t been fully revealed yet. In those times when we don’t or can’t see what God is doing with all the pieces of our lives, we just have to trust that what the angel told Mary is true: that nothing is impossible with God.
Do you remember S&H Green Stamps? They were like the rewards points you get today; in fact, there’s an online “Greenpoints” program now. But when I was a kid, you could get actual stamps when you bought something. How many you got depended on how much you spent, so you might get a sheet of them or just one or two. You’d lick the backs of them and paste them in your stamp book, fifty stamps per page, 24 pages per book. When you had a book full of stamps, you could redeem them for something wonderful. For my family, all those little insignificant snippets of green, gummy paper became our first hi-fi record player and a copy of “The Sound of Music” original cast album.
God took all the seemingly ordinary, unremarkable snippets of Ruth’s life and turned them into something wonderful. We can read how the Book of Ruth ends. Boaz and Ruth were married, and Ruth had a son. That son became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David, from whose house the Messiah would be born. Ruth’s ordinary life became something she couldn’t have imagined, and which led to something too far into the future for her to see.
God does the same thing for us, and this is the wonder that Ruth’s story reveals—that our God is in the business of redeeming ordinary lives. Our redeeming God came to us at Christmas in a baby named Jesus, who redeems us now and will redeem all of creation when he comes again. Until then we wait and we prepare, knowing that our Redeemer came to take our lives—our unremarkable, broken, ugly, ordinary lives—and turns them into something beautiful and whole. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young