O radix Jesse: Long ago you taught your people

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Long ago you taught your people’ by Martin Leckebusch, to the Welsh hymn tune Hyfrydol. 

There’s no obvious direct connection, in fact, with the third of the ‘O Antiphons’ which is ‘O radix Jesse’ (radix – root, descendant).  We think today of Jesus in his human descent from Jesse the father of King David, whereas the theme of the hymn is that of generosity.  But read on…

Our Diocese of Leeds had a ‘generosity week’ not long ago, in which local churches were encouraged to consider how they could be more welcoming, more inclusive and more generous with their time and money. The words of the hymn take a similar line, contrasting the Old Testament practice of tithing crops and animals with the New Testament approach to generosity which is not defined numerically but encouraged as part of our stewardship of all the resources available to us.

Jesus is described in the second verse as ‘never snared by earthly treasure’ but as giving ‘riches of the deepest kind’. Generosity includes, but is more than, giving money. It can be giving time to listen or help people with practical tasks, volunteering, opening our homes to visitors, lending tools to neighbours, and so on.   As the last verse reminds us, all this is ‘not a barren legal due but an overflow of worship’.

But going back to the daily theme of Jesus’ ancestors, in our church this morning we finished our series of sermons on the book of Ruth, in which she becomes the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse. So taking this ‘root of Jesse’ three generations further back to Ruth’s second husband Boaz, he was generous in taking this dependent immigrant as his wife, not imagining the implications that would have for the world forty-five generations later with the birth of the Saviour (according to the genealogy in Luke’s gospel). We can never know what effect a bit of generosity will have.

Levelling up the household

Sermon for St Peter’s, Bramley, Leeds, 5 December 2021 (Advent 2)

Readings: Ruth chapter 2; Luke 3:1-6

Come with me to an event I attended in India several years ago.  The Christian charity EFICOR had built a whole new village, Singaravelan, to replace one that had been swept away in the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. On this day, the new houses were being officially handed over. There were garlands and decorations everywhere, a smartly dressed youth band to lead the procession, and a stage set up for speeches.  Dignitaries included the District Collector, senior clergy, Directors of the charity and village leaders.  Some spoke in Malayalam but the Director spoke in English. He told the community to cherish and maintain their new houses, to build families in joy and peace.  Then came the punchline.  “I want this to be a village where husbands no longer beat their wives …(dramatic pause) … and where wives no longer beat their husbands”. 

Everyone laughed, but it was a serious point to make.  Would he have spoken of people beating their partners if that had not been going on before?  He wanted this new village to be a place where families would make a new start, free from violence.  And that’s the theme of our service today, as part of the annual worldwide campaign against gender-based violence. 

In our reading from the book of Ruth, she is working in the fields, not as a paid farmworker, but as Jewish law allowed, a poor person picking up any bits of grain that the reapers had missed. Boaz, the farmer, was a relative of her mother-in-law, and knew he had to protect her from harm as part of the family.  So he says, “I have ordered the young men not to bother you.”  Again, at the end of the day, Naomi says, “It is better that you go out with Boaz’s young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field”.  ‘Bothered’ is translated in some Bible versions as ‘molested’.  Just as in India, would they have mentioned this unless it was common for the men in the fields to molest the women?

Israel around 1000 B.C.   India in 2006.  These things happened long ago, or in poor communities far away.  But they don’t happen here and now, do they.  Do they?  Here’s the story of one married woman from the charity Refuge.  They call her Isobel.

When I met my ex-husband, I had my own business, my own flat, supportive friends and family. I was confident and self-assured and independent. Domestic violence was not something I ever thought would happen to me.

He was controlling from the beginning. I was constantly walking on eggshells. I was undermined and humiliated in a million different ways. But whenever I tried to leave, he would reel me back in, telling me that he would change and that he wanted us to be a family. One day a normal conversation suddenly turned into a frenzied attack. He punched me to the ground, kicked me in the back, and then threw me across the room – all in front of our two children. I called the police, and eventually they put me in touch with Refuge.

One of Refuge’s outreach workers, Anna, began supporting me. We talked about everything I had been through and she helped me to understand that Ben’s behaviour was a deliberate pattern of control. It was not my fault.

Now things are so much better. It isn’t easy to break away from a violent partner; I don’t think I could have done it without Refuge’s support. Refuge saved my life.

Charities like Refuge tell us that one in three women in Britain today will experience violence or controlling behaviour at some time in their lives. The chances are, several of you here today will have suffered in this way. The offender might be a boy at school, a stranger in a dark street or a work colleague.  But more often it happens at home: a father, brother, boyfriend or husband.  And of course as the Indian charity director’s speech reminds us, it can be the other way round – sometimes it is a woman who is violent to her partner.  Ruth was lucky, she was the boss’s young relative and he made sure she was left alone.  But most of us aren’t so lucky. 

In this Advent season, the theme of our readings and prayers is around asking Jesus to come and put problems right, to take back control of this broken world.   That’s what John the Baptist meant when he prophesied that Jesus was about to appear, quoting an older prophesy of valleys and mountains being levelled up.  We might understand that applied to personal relationships as saying that those who have a natural advantage, those who are physically stronger or have the power in a relationship, will be brought down, and those who are weaker or feel themselves trapped in the bottom of a valley will be lifted up and set on their feet. The crooked – the crooks of this world – will be brought to justice and helped to ‘go straight’ as we say.

Also in the reading from Ruth, Boaz says this to Ruth: “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge”. That image of God as a bird, perhaps a mother hen, protecting her chicks under her wing, is one that Jesus used as well.  God is on the side of the victim.  He hears their cries, offers protection from harm, lifts up the downfallen and deals with the offender. 

But as we are often reminded, Christ has no hands but ours.  Boaz in the Bible story is called Ruth’s ‘Redeemer’, the same title we give to Christ, and it carries the sense of offering protection. As Christ’s body on earth, it is we who are given the task of carrying out that ministry of redemption in practice. And as Jesus also said, much is expected of those to whom much has been given.  The powerful person, the head of the household, has a particular responsibility to protect those in their care from harm.   The challenge for us, particularly us men, is to be the protector of the women in our lives, not to dominate them.

But those who have been harmed do need support as well. In our next hymn we will ask God to provide “Refuge from cruel wars, havens from fear, cities for sanctuary, freedoms to share”. It is often Christians who volunteer to offer counselling, work for the police or probation service, run refuges for women fleeing violence, or just keep an eye out for neighbours. In our prayers today you may wish to name someone silently to God and ask him to show you how you can help in setting them free.

A last word: we do of course have safeguarding policies in the church, and if you see or hear anything that concerns you, please have a word with the Vicar or safeguarding officer.  And if you yourself are that person in the bottom of the valley, feeling that there is no way out, or if anything else you have heard today disturbs you, again, have a word in confidence with one of them.  God’s protecting wing is here, our Redeemer is among us.

The Bible in a Year – 19 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

19 August. Ruth 1 to 4 (entire book)

The short book of Ruth contrasts with yesterday’s reading (the Song of Songs).  They are both stories written down (and maybe even composed) centuries after the time in which they were set.  Both tell of relationships between men and women: the Song of Songs was about passionate but unrequited love, whereas this is a tale of family relationships, bereavements and an arranged marriage.  Ruth may or may not have been a real person (we have no way of telling) but like any Biblical story, indeed any good story, it is intended to make a point.

The story starts with Ebimelech emigrating from Bethlehem to Moab (at that time very much enemy country) due to a famine.  No doubt many others did the same.  In those days there would have been no refugee camps or international aid, and immigrants from Judah would not have been welcomed.  So it is perhaps surprising for a start that Ebimelech’s sons married local girls – that would have made them unclean under Jewish law, although the story does not make that point.  But in fact the marriages are successful, so much so that when father and sons have all died, Naomi and Ruth return together to Bethlehem.

Now the boot (or sandal – see chapter 4 verse 7) is on the other foot.  Although Naomi has been welcomed back by her relatives in Bethlehem, Ruth as an immigrant from an enemy country has to establish herself as one of the community.  Gleaning left-over ears of barley after the harvest is the only way for her to gather food to eat or sell.  By a series of coincidences (or God-incidences as many people prefer to say) she meets her late father-in-law’s relative who owns the field, and with careful negotiation by Naomi, what starts as a master-servant relationship quickly becomes a marriage.  Boaz has no hesitation in taking this non-Jewish widow as his wife, and it seems that unlike some arranged marriages, this one was a love match a well.

The lesson here seems to be that welcoming, and even marrying, people from another country, whether they come as refugees from famine or as part of an existing multi-ethnic family, is quite compatible with God’s plans (despite earlier religious laws against such intermarriages). Indeed, little did the characters in this story know that, as we are told in an epilogue, Ruth is said to have become the ancestor of the great king David. Today’s asylum-seeker may herself, or through her descendants, become a great leader of our people. This book therefore makes a welcome change from the black-and-white laws of other parts of the Old Testament, reminding us that there is no place for racism in the Kingdom of God.