Grace Presbyterian Church
November 4, 2018, Pentecost 24B, All Saints
It has been long a tradition in the church to mark, at the beginning of November or the Sunday immediately after, the occasion of All Saints’ Day, in which the church marks the lives of those, in the words of the Book of Common Worship, “whose baptism is now complete in death.” As the tradition overcame Protestant phobia of the word “saint” (I’m quite sure Bill Cutler would have something to say about this were he still with us) and began to enter the practice of at least mainline churches, it has taken particular care to note the passing of those who at least partly lived out their lives in the particular church at hand. For us, as well as Bill Cutler, we also mark the lives and witnesses of Doug Bartz and Grace Gillespie, who have left us since last All Saints’ Day. It is also appropriate for us to mark in particular the passing of Louise Beatty, who had been the last surviving charter member of this congregation until her death just a few weeks ago in South Florida, and in so doing to mark the lives of all those saints who founded and sustained this church since its beginnings seventy years and a few weeks ago.
Part of the problem that kept All Saints from becoming a thing sooner, at least among Protestants I suspect, is the way we tend to lapse into a particular image when we hear the word “saint.” You know what I mean: all in old fashioned robes of some sort, hands possibly folded in a gesture of prayer, possibly a halo around the head which is permanently tilted at a particular angle so that the saint’s glance is alwaysheavenward. And as much as we seek to honor the memory and remember the service of Grace or Doug or Bill in this church and among this people, it’s kind of difficult to reconcile our memories of them with this subconscious but pervasive characterization of “saint.” In our rational moments we know better, of course, but that doesn’t rob the caricature of its power in our minds.
In the sense of the word we use today, the “saints” are those who have lived and served among us who now enjoy their eternal rest. Presbyterians aren’t in the business of canonizing saints (with the possible exception of Mister Rogers), so we’re not speaking of any kind of superheroic figures; they are ordinary people who shone in extraordinary moments that stay with us.
And no, they weren’t always so saintly. Sometimes their stories have some definitely weird, downright strange, or even just a little bit scandalous parts to them. Take, for example, this story of Ruth, to which we just heard the beginning a few moments ago.
I hope you got to read the book as recommended – it’s certainly not too long to sit down and read in the manner of a short story, which is roughly what it is. It definitely has a few plot twists along the way, and in the manner of many popular such short stories, it has a happy ending, for the most part. But in case you didn’t, the really fast recap:
Naomi, her husband, and their two sons migrate from Bethlehem to Moab due to a famine, where the two boys marry local women, Orpah and Ruth (in case you’re wondering, “Orpah” actually is the name on media star Oprah Winfrey’s birth certificate; it somehow got changed along the way). After some years, all the men die, leaving three widows behind. The famine then switches places, striking Moab while relenting in Bethlehem, and the embittered Naomi resolves to return. She presses upon the younger women to return to homes; she finally wears Orpah down, but Ruth will not desert her at any costs, a resolve captured in 1:16, easily the most well-known verse of this entire book.
In Bethlehem, Ruth sets out (at some personal risk) to provide for the two of them, and ends up gleaning grain from the field of an upright local citizen named Boaz, who takes a particular interest in her, due to the loyalty she has shown Naomi. As it happens, Boaz is a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband, and the widow hatches a plan to get Ruth the security of a marriage. She instructs Ruth to, er, present herself to Boaz in a particular situation, which the younger woman does despite the strong potential for ending up in a compromising situation. Fortunately Boaz is a better man for that, and resolves to do his familial duty to Naomi by marrying Ruth; after clearing some legal obligations the two are married, Naomi’s security is made sure, and the couple is given a child named Obed.
One of the seeming quirks of this story is that God doesn’t really “show up” in the way God has been accustomed to doing – no dramatic interventions or overturnings or miracles. No: the action of God in the book of Ruth is found in the actions of God’s people, the faithfulness and kindness and generosity shown by Ruth to Naomi, by the women of Bethlehem to Naomi, and by Boaz to Ruth and ultimately to Naomi as well. The people of Bethlehem ultimately live up to the instruction in the levitical code to “receive the stranger in their midst,” and in such is the action of God in this book.
Not that this hospitality always goes smoothly, mind you. Ruth’s identity as a foreigner – specifically a Moabite – doesn’t go unchallenged. The Moabites were a people so disdained by the Hebrew people that that same law code forbade Moabites to be admitted to the assembly of the people at all. And at least on occasion Ruth’s foreignness didn’t go unremarked; take 2:6, when Boaz’s overseer refers to her as “the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.” He sounds like a modern politician who won’t stop calling people “foreigners” until his followers start shooting them.
Nonetheless, even those employees of Boaz do manage to practice at least basic hospitality to Ruth, in that they follow Boaz’s orders: don’t assault her, and leave behind extra grain for her to glean. By this hospitality Ruth is able to provide for Naomi and herself through harvest season and some weeks beyond.
It’s a really strange story in some ways, with turns bitter and edgy and salacious, decidedly patriarchal in its insistence that Ruth’s only option for security was a good marriage, and seemingly void of dramatic intervention by God. And yet here it is, and with one past plot twist to offer.
Remember that baby Obed? Well, he would grow up and have a son who turned out to be kinda famous, named Jesse. Jesse, in turn, had a whole passel of sons, the youngest of which turned out to be kind of a big deal. Maybe you’ve heard of David? In the end this twisty little story produced the grandfather of the greatest king of Israel recorded in Hebrew scripture.
The gospel of Matthew adds one more twist to that twist: in that seemingly interminable genealogy at the front of the book, that bit of royal lineage (in which Ruth is one of only four women to be acknowledged) is extended, finally leading to one Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. So Ruth’s gamble in leaving her homeland, her dogged faithfulness and service to her mother-in-law, and yes, her marriage to Boaz enshrine her as one of Jesus’s earthly ancestors, important enough for Matthew the evangelist to mention by name. Not a bad means to informal sainthood.
Most of the time this is what saints look like, even when things look a little wacky; they are showing hospitality and kindness, even to the stranger, the foreigner.
So, go be saints. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnalunless otherwise noted): #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah; #—, Receive the Stranger in Your Midst; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #326, For All the Saints