Monday, November 2, 2009

Saints before us, after us, and among us . . .

Our reading from Ruth this week, I think, turned out to be perfect both for us as a congregation and for a family about to baptize their first child into the faith. I won’t share with you again the sordid details of how we ended up with the regular RCL readings for this past weekend, as opposed to the readings assigned for All Saints’ Day. Suffice it to say that God’s grace was in our midst. The computer and the disc survived my and other volunteers’ efforts to curse them. The Old Testament reading certainly should have spoken to us on this day, this day when we baptize a new member and recall the saints that have come before us and been part of our lives.

I love the book of Ruth. For those who want to argue that God is wrathful in the OT and full of mercy primarily in the New Testament, this book will prove quite the surprise. For those who want to argue that the OT is misogynistic and paternalistic, this book screams “did you not hear what I said in Genesis?” It is a great book. There is terrible tragedy, there is amazing redemption. And it all happens in a few short pages.

Our reading begins with the reminder that “everyone is doing as he sees fit.” Judges has commented upon the fact that Israel has rejected God as king. Elimelech and Naomi are proof of this. There is a famine in the land, proof of God’s displeasure with Israel. The famine should remind Israel that they are not keeping the covenant, but this is a time that they are doing as they see fit. The warning is missed. And so, in direct rejection of God, the couple heads to Moab. If God will not provide for them, they will provide for themselves. They give up the land promised to their ancestors, and they leave.

And their decision seems to pay off. They get food. The boys grow up. Everything is moving along. In fact, the couple decides that the boys need wives, and so they get Moabite wives for their sons. It might make sense to us; after all, that is where they are living. Who else is there to marry? But God had instructed His people not to marry outside the covenant, else the people would be led by their new families to worship false gods. Nevertheless, Elimelech and Naomi get local wives for their sons.

Then tragedy strikes. Elimelech dies. Naomi is a widow. But she has her sons and their wives, until both her sons die. Now she, and her daughters, are widows. Without family, widows in the Ancient Near East had little for which to hope. Widows were seen as burdens. They cost money to feed and to clothe. And so their lives were harsh. Though God commanded His people to care for the widow and orphan, we know just how much they listened to Him.
Naomi decides to return to her people. She tells her daughters-in-law to return to theirs. She even tells us that the ladies were good wives. When the ladies protest her instruction, Naomi is the voice of reason and love. I have no husband. I cannot bear sons to marry you. Go, and I pray that you are blessed with husbands.

Orpah goes. Ruth stays. When Naomi tells her to follow her sister, Ruth refuses. In fact, Ruth clings to Naomi. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Truthfully, the story should have ended there. Two widows, no family. There was not much hope for them.
We will continue the story over the next few weeks. For those that do not know the story, there is a happy ending. In fact, the “wrathful” God of the OT does something amazing. The two ladies return. Boaz, a distant cousin of Naomi, is smitten with Ruth’s beauty and faithfulness to Naomi. He negotiates with her closest kinsman, and he acquires the right to become the kinsman redeemer. The story, if ended there, is amazing. But God is still not yet finished! Boaz and Ruth have a son named Obed. Obed has a son named Jesse. Jesse has a son named David. David has an ultimate descendant named Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. Ruth, an anonymous Moabite woman, a woman excluded from the covenant, is grafted in so fully by her faithfulness to God and to Naomi and by His grace, that she becomes a great, great, great (however many times) grandmother of Jesus Christ.

The story should speak to us this day on a couple different levels. Perhaps, as I have been telling this story and you realized then end, your response has been one of “yeah, Father, but that’s not me. I am not special like Ruth.” Nothing could be further from the truth in God’s eyes. Were you the only one in need of saving, such is His love of you that He still would have come and saved you. And think of Ruth before her declaration and His grafting of her into His vine. She was a Moabite. She was a woman who would mislead His faithful sons. Her story takes place centuries before the work and person of Christ. She should not yet know that God loves her as much as He loves His sons and daughters. And she is a widow whose in-laws cannot provide a future for her. Her future, by worldly expectations, is begging or prostitution. She seems condemned to a life of anonymity. And yet, for her simple clinging to Naomi and her God, she is lifted to unimaginable heights! Through her faithful actions, a Savior will be born! And all this occurs despite the fact that her in-laws rejected God. They left the Promised Land. They took Moabite wives for their sons. They rejected the covenant that God established with their ancestors. And still, His grace was at work in their lives.

Just as His grace has been at work in your lives, and just as His grace in your life has been at work in others. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. Were I to take the time and ask you who was a saint in your life, how many of you would tell me it was a famous saint? Heck, how many of you would tell me it was even a member of the clergy? Many of you would no doubt say it was your mother or father, your grandmother or grandfather, your boss, your co-worker, a friend at church, a neighbor. Few of us would say it was anybody famous by worldly standards. Yet, look at their impact in your life. Because of their faithful witness to His redeeming love, you were drawn into His kingdom. Because of their commitment to Him, you, and others like you in their lives, chose to cling to His mercy and His grace rather than go your or their own way. And brothers and sisters, I am here to tell each one of you this day that you are having the same impact on those around you each and every day of your life. How you live your life in faithful service to Him is usually the single best sermon another human being might ever hear. That is how He works. He makes the anonymous special; He makes sinners into saints.

But our story does not end there this day. In addition to remembering and honoring all those who have come before us, we are about to baptize Ezekiel into His family. Z will be part of what the diocese calls the Next Generation of Faith, those who come after us. Jason and Grace and their family and we are about to take an oath before God to help raise Him to be a Psalm 112 man. Each one of us is promising to be for him a saint who points the way to the One who saves, Jesus of Nazareth. Each one of us will promise to be a leader, a leader who leads by serving the needs of those around us as He gives us time and talents so to do. Jason and Grace, you are about to enter an amazingly difficult time in your life together. The balance of the life that you have forged with one another has now been altered. Nothing in your lives will ever be the same. Soon, as Z grows, you will find yourself on the slow, inexorable slide of becoming and sounding just like your parents. Every screw up you promised you would never make, you will make. Everything you promised to yourself you would never say to your kid, you will say. There will be times of great joy, times of great worry, times of great sadness, and even times where he may hate you for a season. But God’s promise to you is the same as it was to Naomi and Elimelech. You never have to face these things alone. Where you go, He will be in the midst of you. Where you do well, He will bless. Where you make mistakes, He will redeem. And salvation history will continue along the path He has set. And you, and Z, will be always in His care. That is His pledge to you this day, just as He promised to Sarah and Abraham and all the ancestors of Elimelech and Naomi.

And now, brothers and sisters, let us remind ourselves just how He has worked throughout salvation history and how He is making us saints in His eternal kingdom through His mercy and grace, and let us begin the process of welcoming another of His redeemed among us . . . .


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