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Whitworth University Spring Convocation Address 2009

Feb. 5, 2009
Bill Robinson

At our fall convocation, I told the Old Testament story of Esther. Eventually Esther became a hero, but getting there wasn't exactly a straight shot. She was a refugee, a beauty queen, a queen queen, a risk-taker and a brilliant strategist. At one point she was timid and scared, but she overcame her fear and became a hero to her people.

Today I'm going to tell the Old Testament story of Ruth. It's another great story about another great woman. She was faithful, strong, smart and hard-working. She was a star, but she's not the only star of today's story. The co-star represents an aspect of Whitworth's identity that Dr. Soden has just described. He also personifies a quality that distinguishes each of today's three retiring professors.

Last month, The Spokesman Review ran a story on Bo Jackson, maybe the greatest athlete who ever lived. Everyone who remembers Bo Jackson remembers Nike's Bo Knows campaign. Bo knows football. Bo knows baseball. Bo knows shoes. The Bo in today's story is not Bo Jackson, it's Boaz. I don't think Az was his last name, but his friends did call him Bo. Trust me on this. This Bo also knew. But he didn't know football or sandals. He knew something better. He knew redemption. In fact, his real nickname was not Bo, it was "Kinsman-Redeemer." Boaz knew redemption. Here's what happened:

The story of Ruth takes place in the 10th century B.C., not long before David became king, and not long after Whitworth hired Leonard Oakland. The story begins in Israel, suffering at the time from a hard famine. We read of a hungry family leaving its home in Bethlehem. Desperate times call for desperate measures, because Elimilek took his wife, Naomi, and their two sons to Moab. Only with great shame would an Israelite enter the land of Israel's despised neighbor, Moab, but Moab had food, so that's where they went.

Things did not go well for the Elimileks in Moab. After the family arrived, the boys married Moabite women – Ruth and Orpha. But then Elimilek died. Soon after, the two sons died.

So here's Naomi, a Jewish widow in Moab, stranded with her two daughters-in-law. But she hears things have improved in Bethlehem, so she decides to go back.

Of course, she knows that leaving Ruth and Orpha in Moab would be best for them and best for her. But let me read to you what happened. You are about to hear one of the most exquisite expressions of love and commitment ever recorded. With her two daughters-in-law, Naomi leaves the place where she has been living and sets out on the road that will take them back to the land of Judah (where Bethlehem is located).

8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband."

Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, "We will go back with you to your people."

11 But Naomi said, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons, 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord's hand has gone out against me!"

14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her."

Now, if I might, I'll read Ruth's response in the King James Version, because these are the exact words that Bonnie and I vowed when we got married 35 years ago:

16 And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: 17Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

So, Naomi allows Ruth to join her, and they return to Bethlehem. By the time they arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi's bitterness has deepened. In fact, when her old neighbors greet her, she says, "Don't call me Naomi; call me 'Bitter,' for the Lord has gone out against me.'" Naomi's husband and sons are dead, and all she has is this Moabite daughter-in-law who, in Bethlehem, is way more of a liability than an asset. At least that's what Naomi thinks.

Okay, now I'm going to speed up the story. Ruth and Naomi need food, so Ruth goes to a field that happens to be owned by Boaz, who, she finds out later, is a close relative of Elimilek. She gets permission to pick up the leftover grain after all the harvesters have worked the fields. When Boaz finds out that this poor woman is the widowed daughter-in-law of his relative Elimilek, he encourages her to continue working his fields, and he instructs the reapers to leave a little grain behind for her to gather. So Ruth returns to Naomi with food and good news. Naomi is thrilled, and she gives Ruth a plan.

Of course, the plan involves a bedroom scene where things could get out of hand, but Boaz is an honorable man. He is so honorable, in fact, that eventually he fulfills his obligation to redeem the property that has been left to Naomi by his relative, Elimilek. Along with that property comes the duty to marry Ruth, so that Elimilek's name will not be lost. I might point out that Boaz seems somewhat eager to fulfill the "marriage" part of the obligation. Ruth and Boaz get married, have a son named Obed, who has a son named Jesse, who has a son named David, who becomes King David. And that is the story of how Boaz becomes known as the kinsman-redeemer and how a non-Jewish, Moabite widow becomes a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ. You have to read the book of Ruth. It's only four chapters, and I left out some fairly engaging parts.

My message this morning is simple: We can do the work of Boaz. We can bring redemption to excluded people. I had read through this short book several times before I realized that we hear Ruth speak to Boaz only three times. But in those three expressions, she reveals how Boaz gave her worth and ultimately redemption.

She utters her first words when Boaz finds out that Ruth has asked to gather the leftover grain in his field:

Then Boaz said to Ruth, "Listen carefully, my daughter. Do not go to glean in another field; . . .but stay here with my maids. When you are thirsty, go to the water jars and drink from what the servants draw."

Then Ruth fell on her face, . . .and said to him, "Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?"

Boaz NOTICES Ruth. Deep within all of us lies a primal need to be noticed, to be acknowleged.

William James wrote this:

No more fiendish punishment could be devised…than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did…a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruelest of bodily tortures would be a relief....

Who are the Moabites that we know? Who labors in exclusion, living on leftovers, desperately needing to be noticed? Do you remember how great it made you feel when you were noticed, even though you were an outsider? Do you have any idea how many people have attended a church only once because they were not noticed? Do you have any idea of the joy or the devastation you can bring through simply giving or withholding your notice? Our self-worth, even our self-existence, begins with being noticed. David Rankin tells of a conversation he overheard in a restaurant.

A family of three was sitting at a table, getting ready to order. Their waitress first turned to the parents, who made their choices from the menu. Then she turned to their five-year-old.

"And what will you have?" she asked cheerily.

"I want a hot dog…" the boy began.

"No hot dog," his mother interrupted. "Just give him what we ordered."

But the waitress ignored her.

"Do you want ketchup on your hot dog?" she asked.

"Ketchup!" the boy replied, with a happy smile.

"Coming up," the waitress promised, quickly turning toward the kitchen to deliver the order.

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence at the table.

Then the youngster turned to his mother and said, "Mom,she thinks I'm real."

Two weeks after I came to work at Whitworth, I visited a pastor in Tacoma. Unfortunately, it was with very little fondness that he recalled his time at Whitworth. He did, however, issue one credit to his college years. "Leonard Oakland noticed me...." And that began a life-giving relationship between a student and his professor.

Ruth's second statement to Boaz comes after he has responded to her amazement that he has noticed her. Boaz says, "You are the one to be admired, Ruth. I heard about your faithfulness to Naomi. You became a foreigner in order to care for your mother-in-law." Don't you love the grace of his response? Boaz reroutes Ruth's admiration for him back to her.

Ruth replies, "You have comforted me and treated me with kindness, even though I am different from your maidservants." The second stage of Ruth's redemption came when she realized that even though she was different, Boaz included her in his community of servants.

We are made to be in community. Before sin entered the Garden of Eden, there was only one recorded problem, only one thing that wasn't good: Adam was alone. That had to be bad. After the triune God said, "Let us make man in our image," it's no surprise that alone doesn't work. We are made to be in relationship.

Sometimes we find ourselves alone, not a human in sight, and it's hard. But sometimes we find ourselves alone, surrounded by people, people who won't let us in, and that's even harder. And sometimes we are the ones who keep the door locked. Here are a few reasons we give for not including outsiders:

  • They probably wouldn't like being in our group. 
  • They need their space. 
  • They sin and we don't. 
  • We sin and they don't. 
  • We wouldn't have anything to talk about. 
  • I might have hepatitis; you never know.

Ruth views the kindness she has received from Boaz through the magnifying glass of an alien Moabite. She expects little and longs for much. By simply including Ruth, Boaz gives her worth.

Ruth's third statement to Boaz takes place in the steamy part of the story. Confident in Naomi's strategy, Ruth waits until the evening party. She waits until Boaz has a couple of drinks and retires. She then sneaks over to the far end of the threshing floor where, Naomi has assured her, Boaz will be asleep. Still following the plan, Ruth nestles down and turns back the covers from his feet in order to wake him. It works.

Boaz awakes, and discovers a woman lying at his feet. He asks who it is. So Ruth – a Moabite, a widow, a guest, not even a true maidservant – replies to Boaz, "I am Ruth, your servant. Cover me, since you are my kinsman-redeemer."

This is the moment of truth for Boaz. He is in total control of this situation. When Ruth says "Cover me," she is asking for a cultural symbol to indicate that Boaz intends to cover his very loose obligation to Elimilek. But "cover me" is also atonement language, redemption language, grace language. When Adam and Eve stood shamefully naked in the Garden, and when the prodigal stood shamefully naked before his father, they longed for covering. What will Boaz do? Will he redeem her, banish her, or use this moment for his own gratification? I've already told you the end of the story. He chooses redemption.

Yesterday I returned from Washington, D.C. Today we celebrate Whitworth's history and today we recognize three retiring professors. The story of Boaz and Ruth draws together all three occasions. Boaz noticed, included and redeemed Ruth. Right now in Washington, D.C., you can feel the pulse of the heroes who noticed, included and paid the blood-soaked price of redemption. Without them, Barack Obama would live in a different house. Today we also remember our Whitworth forebears. Without them noticing, including and redeeming outsiders, our school would have a different identity. And finally, without Leonard Oakland, Tammy Reid, Jim Hunt and all these faculty members they represent, there would be far fewer stories of students who were noticed, included and redeemed when they walked the halls of Whitworth University. I'm not sure Whitworth has ever retired three professors in one year with a greater Boaz quotient.

I would like to close this convocation with two thank-yous:

  • First, thanks to all of you students, faculty and staff who have noticed, included and given worth to any student lost in the anguish of being excluded.
  • And second, I give thanks to Christ, our great Redeemer, who noticed Zaccheus, included Zaccheus and redeemed Zaccheus. To Christ, who noticed and redeemed the woman who merely touched his garment. To Christ, who notices you and me, who includes us through the power of his death and resurrection. To Christ, who covers us and redeems us with his own righteousness. Thanks be to Christ, our Great Redeemer. Amen.