Just a couple of stories for you today.
For some reason I get the Bethany College magazine. Bethany is one of our Disciples of Christ schools, located in Bethany, West Virginia. It has the distinction of having been founded by Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our denomination. Also of note is that the President is Tamara Nichols Rodenburg, the daughter of Carolyn Rodenburg, member of First Christian, Lynchburg, who has visited with us.
I don’t read the magazine cover to cover, but there was an interesting article about wolves, and a couple of even more interesting articles about two men, both alumni of Bethany, both Jewish, who survived World War II. Thomas Buergenthal grew up in Czechoslovakia, and was taken to Auschwitz. The other, Robert Levine, grew up in the Bronx and served in the 90th Infantry Division.
The 90th landed on Utah Beach a few days after D-Day and was soon on the front lines. In the battle for the strategic Hill 122, his unit successfully took the hill, “but you had to go down the other side,” Robert remembers, “and they were waiting for us. They surrounded us, and I was wounded.” He took a piece of shrapnel in his right leg. He goes on, “I was in a foxhole with a buddy of mine, a young guy next to me. Suddenly, this German stood up and had this gun on us. My buddy panicked and took off and ran, and the German shot him. At that point, I just put my hands up and surrendered. This is how I got captured.”
Today’s First Testament reading comes from chapters three and four of the book of Ruth. In case you’ve forgotten, let me quickly refresh your memory about the story. You can read the whole thing in a few minutes this afternoon. Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons live in Bethlehem. There’s a famine, so they go the neighboring country of Moab. Elimelech dies, and the two sons marry Moabite women. Then after some years Naomi’s sons also die, leaving her with her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.
Naomi hears that things are better in her homeland, so she begins the journey home. She tells Orpah and Ruth to stay in Moab. That makes sense, because their only connection to Naomi’s country is Naomi. Moab is home. After some discussion and some tears, Orpah decides to stay in Moab. But Ruth says to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” So Naomi and Ruth go to Bethlehem.
Meanwhile, many centuries later, Robert Levine is wounded and captured. While in captivity, he is wounded again when his own unit shells the Germans with artillery. He is taken to a farmhouse that is being used as a field hospital. He is put on a kitchen table and the German doctor comes to look at him. The doctor checks Robert’s dog tags. I didn’t know this, but included on the dog tags was a letter, P for Protestant, C for Catholic, or H for Hebrew, Jewish. The doctor sees the H on Robert’s tag and exclaims, “This is a Jew?!” Robert says, “You can imagine how I felt then.”
In ancient Israel, women were second class citizens. Side note – Jesus elevates the status of women. He talks to a Samaritan woman at a well, in a day when men normally would not talk to women with whom they were not related. Luke says it was women who financially supported Jesus and the twelve. He is friends with Mary and Martha. All four gospels agree that it was a woman or some women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection. And so on.
Anyway, the situation of Naomi and Ruth is precarious. Without a man in their life, they must get by as best they can. So Ruth says to Naomi, I’ll go into the fields and glean. Maybe something good will happen. Allowing gleaning of what was left behind after the harvesters went through a field was standard practice for the poor and the hungry. Ruth ends up in a field belonging to a well to do man named Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Boaz comes to the field and inquires about Ruth, asking his foreman who she is. The foreman reports that she is the Moabite woman who came with Ruth, and that she has worked all day without stopping.
Boaz speaks kindly to Ruth, telling her to stay with a group, and that he has ordered the young men to leave her alone. Ruth thanks him, and asks why he is being so kind to her. Boaz replies that he has been told of her dedication to her mother-in-law, and that he wants things to be easier for the two of them.
Robert Levine thought that was it for him. He said to himself, “Well, there goes my 20th birthday.” But when he woke up, his leg had been amputated, and his dog tag was gone. In his pocket was a handwritten note from the German doctor explaining whey the surgery had been necessary. He was a prisoner for another month, until U.S. forces liberated the city where he was being held. He was sent home, first spending a year at Walter Reed Medical Center.
Now we get to the first part of today’s reading from Ruth. Upon hearing about Ruth’s encounter with Boaz, Naomi tells Ruth that Boaz is a close relative of her husband, and because of that, there may be an opportunity for them to improve their situation.
Naomi gives Ruth detailed instructions about approaching Boaz, which she follows to the letter. Today’s reading skips the part where Boaz takes the necessary legal steps to acquire the land which belonged to Elimelech, Naomi’s husband. It’s pretty interesting reading, as it gives a good bit of detail about how such things were done in those days. You had to gather witnesses and one party gave a sandal to the other. Really. As part of the deal, Ruth is included. So Boaz and Ruth marry. Things are definitely looking up for Naomi and Ruth.
Robert Levine wanted to meet the doctor who probably saved him from a much worse fate than what he endured. So he went back to France several years after the war. He met a Frenchman who knew a German. Through him, Robert was able to find out where the doctor lived. He reports, “Unfortunately, the doctor had died, but the family on learning about this were so interested that a Jewish soldier had been helped that they invited us to visit them.” Which they did, and learned the doctor’s name. Robert says, “He was a doctor, just a local doctor that had been recruited like our doctors. He was a human being…a humanitarian…and I just lucked out. His family took us to the cemetery, and I was able to put a flower on his grave.”
Boaz and Ruth have a son, whom they name Obed. Poor kid. You know he got teased about that name. O – bed, how’d you sleep last night? Stuff like that. But Obed gets the last laugh, because he has a son named Jesse. That name ring a bell? How about the name of Jesse’s son, which would be Ruth’s great-grandson, David. Yes, the great king David is Ruth’s great-grandson. Why is that so notable, so notable that we have this whole story about her?
Remember that Ruth is a foreigner. She’s not Jewish. And traditionally you are Jewish if your mother is Jewish. That makes it remarkable, surprising even, that this story is in the Bible. Elsewhere in scripture God’s people are told to steer clear of foreigners, like Moabites. God-fearing people are not to have any dealings with such folks. But this story has a different message. It says, maybe Moabites aren’t so awful. After all, David’s great-grandmother was one of them. So, you know, maybe God can be at work through anybody, no matter who they are. No matter where they’re from. They might even be from Moab. Or from a little town in Germany.
The story of Ruth and Naomi is a twofer. On the one hand, it is a story of how two nearly helpless women cleverly figure out a way to secure their future. On the other hand, it is a message about the wideness of the ways in which God is at work. It says God doesn’t just work through and favor one group of people, even though one group of people, then and now, may think that. It says God isn’t limited in picking who is going to help God’s cause.
The story of Robert Levine is a twofer. On the one hand, it is a story of how one soldier survived battle and being a wounded prisoner. On the other hand, it is a story about reconciliation, about our common humanity taking precedence over potential tragedy.
Notice that God is not front and center in either story. God is somewhere in the background, doing this or that, but not in very obvious ways. But there is no doubt that God does play a role in both stories. Both stories tell us that sometimes God does twofers. Amen.