Love is Kind

Love is Kind

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Ruth 2:1-20

Psalm 103

Listen to Love is Kind

The Gospel of Ruth

Once there was an old man walking on the beach.  The beach was littered with thousands of star fish that had been washed ashore during the high tide.  The old man came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked him what he was doing? “I’m saving these starfish sir!” , replied the boy as he threw another starfish back into the ocean. The old man chuckled and said, “Boy there are thousands of starfish and only one of you, what difference can you make?” The boy picked up a starfish and gently tossed it into the ocean. The boy replied, “I made a difference to that one.”

Perhaps you have heard this modern day parable. Perhaps you have not. Perhaps for many of you it warms your hearts.

But for a long time I hated the star fish story. It annoyed me every time I heard it.  I used to see it as a way of assuaging people’s guilt. We do small things instead of facing the larger problems of society.

Often when I hear this modern day parable I think “Yes boy you made a difference to that one. But what you need to do is start a revolution, organize a campaign to buy caterpillar tractor with a big loader to pick up all the starfish and get them back in the ocean. Make a plan to get people together to build a sea wall so the star fish don’t get stuck on the beach in the first place! Stop being so naïve little boy. Grow up! In the face of overwhelming odds what is your kindness going to do! We need more than your good intentions little boy? Facing thousands of starfish dying on a beach, facing the atrocities and horrors we see in this world, facing the tragedies we face in our own lives, perhaps we can aspire to an ideal of Love that we may experience in the next life, but who would think that God is kind in this life?  Who would love, who would show kindness, in the face of such impossible odds?

Ruth loved. Ruth showed kindness in the face of impossible odds. She was the embodiment of the loving kindness of our God. As I have prepared for this sermon my eyes have been opened to the deep and compelling power of kindness.  Carolyn Custis James’ book The Gospel of Ruth opened my eyes to the lack of kindness in my own heart and abundant loving kindness in the heart of God.  The book of Ruth is a Gospel in my opinion. There is good news that can be gleaned from Ruth. Before Jesus walked this Earth God foreshadowed the Good News of Jesus Christ in the life of a foreigner, an immigrant, a barren woman,  a widow, who’s name means faithful friend.

The book of Ruth tells us that famine has broken out in Bethlehem, in the land of Israel.  The famine was so bad that Elimelech had to flee his homeland with his wife Naomi.  They fled to the land of Moab. The fact that they were willing to flee to Moab shows how bad the famine was. The Moabites were said to have descended from incest between a man in the Bible named Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:36-38). This region was looked down upon by the Israelites. We all have some hesitation around people who are different from us. But for Israelites Moabites were not only foreigner they were sinful, dirty, and less than human by their ancestry. That Elimelech and Naomi would flee to this land shows how bad the famine was.

Elimelech and Naomi had two sons. Mahlon and Chilion. But even though their family fled their home to find refugee they faced more tragedy.  Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow. Her sons married two Moabite women Orpah and Ruth. The family lived in Moab for ten years without having children, suggesting that Orpah and Ruth had problems conceiving children. Then the unthinkable happens again. Naomi’s son’s Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving all three women as widows. The word for the Widow in the Hebrew means empty. And indeed, in their society, Naomi, Orphah, and Ruth, are running on fumes. They are without options. Starvation is at hand. Their very survival is at stake.

James, in The Gospel of Ruth, calls Ruth a female Job. Except she is in a worse situation than Job was. As you may recall Job was a righteous man who God allowed the Devil to torment. Job had his family, his health, and his wealth taken from him. His wife cursed him. His friends cursed him. But Job did not curse God. Thing is Job was a man. In his society he had control over his life. In his society he had the right to rebuild. But in the Old Testament women did not have many rights of their own. Their worth was determined by who they married and whether they could bare a son to continue on the family name. Naomi was too old to have children. Her daughters hadn’t had children in ten years of marriage. Plus they were Moabites. They would not be welcomed in Naomi’s home land. Naomi had nothing to offer her daughter in laws. Naomi told her daughter in laws to leave. To return to Moab and find a husband if they could. At first both protest. But then Orphah does the sensible thing and obeys her mother in law. But Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17).

So Ruth returns with her mother in law to Bethlehem. And we see the extremes to which Ruth’s kindness will go in chapter two. What lessons can we learn about kindness from the kindness shown between Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz? Today I see three lessons for us.

  1. There is a difference between being nice and being kind
  2. Kindness isn’t about leftovers

First, there is a difference between being nice and being kind. Perhaps, in the English language “nice” and “kind” are interchangeable terms. But as I have thought about God’s kindness working out in our lives I do think there is a practical difference between being nice and being kind. I think when we are nice to people we tolerate them for the sake of being polite. When we are kind to people we consider their needs because we love them. Their needs become our needs. Their concerns become our concerns.  We go beyond what is required of us to show warmth and compassion. When kindness comes into our lives there is healing in our hearts. There is healing in our spirits. There is healing in our bodies. Word of kindness tends to spread like wildfire though we may say nothing ourselves about our kindness. Because we experience people being nice to us all the time. It is a rare thing for many of us to experience true kindness.

The Hebrew word for kindness is the word Hesed. It is one of the most important concepts in the Old Testament, yet there is no exact word in English that captures its full meaning, so it is translated in various ways in the Bible. Sometimes it is translated as “love”, “steadfast love”  “loving kindness”, “kindness” or “mercy” Mike Hillebrecht in his book Chesed: Beyond the Veil of Mercy, argues that because we have mistranslated Hesed as Mercy we have an inaccurate view of God’s intentions toward us.

Often we think of God as a judge who is just waiting to punish us till Jesus shows up at the last minute to take our place. But that is not what Kindness is. From the beginning of creation God planned for Jesus. He is not looking for a reason to punish us but a reason to show Kindness, a reason to show Hesed.

In The Gospel of Ruth, Carolyn James defines Hesed in this way, “ Someone cares and has freely made it their business to look out for you.” (James, 117). I think that sums up the Spirit of God’s Kindness. This is what Ruth does. She is not required to help Naomi. But because of her love for Naomi she makes it her business to look out for her. She goes out into the fields of a strange land she has never been to before to glean. She risks being assaulted by strange men so that Naomi may not starve to death.

This leads us to our second point. Kindness isn’t about leftovers. Perhaps those of you who are not as familiar with the Bible and those of you who don’t know a lot about ancient farming practices are not familiar with the term gleaning. It would be similar to our modern practice of buying a yogurt and having part of the proceeds go to charity.   The practice of gleaning was commanded in the Old Testament as God’s way of feeding the poor (Leviticus 23:25). In the Law God commanded that when farmers reaped their harvest that they not collect the corners of the field and what fell from the bushels but leave some for the poor to collect.  But the law left it open to interpretation how large a corner should be and how much should be left over after the harvesting is done. An astute business man could keep God’s Law and leave very little left over if he or she wished.

But Ruth is so committed to providing for Naomi that she doesn’t follow the rules.  She comes up with a bold proposal for Boaz, something that flies in the face of tradition. Let her gather with the reapers. Don’t give her just scraps.  Boaz has every right to kick her out. It is his field. But her reputation of kindness has preceded her. Once Boaz learns who she is he knows why she is there. He knows what she has done for Naomi.  Boaz was a good boss. We see he blesses his workers when he arrives and they return the blessing. But Boaz was abiding by the letter of the Law. Ruth showed him the Spirit of the Law.  As The Gospel of Ruth puts it, “The Letter of the law says, “let them glean.” The spirit of the law says, “Feed them” Two entirely different concepts. Ruth’s bold proposal exposes the difference. Nice people give their leftovers. Kind people give the cream of their crop. Ruth shows Boaz this with her actions. She shows him he is lacking in Kindness. Boaz is convicted. And Kindness overflows in his heart. He guarantees her protection.  He instructs his men to cut grain for her. He invites her to dinner. He gives her an ephap of grain. The Gospel of Ruth points out that this is about twenty nine pounds of grain. This is about fifteen times what Boaz’s harvesters were pocketing as a fair day’s wage (James, 112).

When Ruth returns from gleaning Naomi is amazed by Ruth’s haul. She blesses Boaz and declares, “  May he be blessed by the LORD who’s kindness, has not forsaken the living or the dead.” Naomi had felt forsaken by God. So much so she told people to call her Mara, which means bitter. But here is a feast instead of famine. Here is Beauty instead of ashes.  Though the world has called Ruth and Naomi widows, though the world has called them empty, that is not how the LORD sees them. Naomi realized that God’s kindness had not forsaken the living or the dead. And his kindness has not forsaken any of us.

Ruth and Boaz end up getting married. But reducing this to a Biblical love story doesn’t do it justice. Instead it a story about God’s Kindness making a way where there was no way. It the story of how God turned famine into feast and restored those who were bitter and broken.  Ruth and Boaz had a son. His name was Obed. And Obed was the father of Jesse. And Jesse was the father of David. A boy who would go from being a shepherd to King of Israel. And by King David’s house our Messiah Jesus Christ would be born in the little town of Bethlehem. All because a foreign, barren, widow, risked being assaulted to glean in a field because her mother in law was starving. Ruth never got to see the results of her kindness. She wasn’t kind because she wanted to see results. She was kind because she loved. She was kind because she made a covenant, she made a commitment, she tied her life to Naomi’s. And she was faithful. She showed Hesed as God shows Hesed, as God shows loving kindness to us.

So I don’t hate the starfish story anymore. And yet the starfish story is lacking in kindness, it is lacking in Hesed. That boy would show Hesed if after that cynical old man had talked to him he continued to return to that beach to throw starfish into the ocean day after day even if that cynical old man kept badgering him. That boy would show kindness if when he became a man he became a man of valor and married a woman who he loved as his own body. That man would show Hesed if he brought his son to that beach and taught him to throw starfish into the water. Maybe kindness would catch on and start a movement to save all the starfish. Maybe it would never catch on but the man would pass down kindness to his sons and daughters and so on. Maybe that boy would become a man and never get married but would continue to throw starfish into the sea till his dying breath.  And the Lord at the end of his life would say, “well done good and faithful servant.”

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul,  and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with Hesed and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.” (Psalm 103:5)

This world can be so cruel to us.  Carolyn Custis James pointed out a statistic in The Gospel Of Ruth that I knew to be true in my experience but it was still astounding for me to read.  90% of women will outlive their husbands ( James, pg 55).  Having worked in churches and nursing homes all my life I knew the statistic to be true. It is just no one had stated that truth to me out loud, succinctly, in the light of day. Since I read that statistic I have thought if I would love against such tremendous odds? I am not sure that I would. But many of you, my sisters in Christ have done so. Your kindness astounds me. Your courage encourages me not to give up. For we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.

It is so hard when cruelty touches our lives but we must press in to be kind. So I pray today that the Lord would extend His wings over you. That you would be touched by His mercy and his kindness. For he has not forsaken the living or the dead. For God is Love. And Love is Kind.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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