Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Accidental Success? Hardly. God's grace . . .

     Good morning, Saints!  I know, it is an uncomfortable address for many of you.  Who really wants to think of themselves as a saint, let alone be addressed as one?  I sure don’t.  But I did have a specific message for you from the Bishop of KS / VP of the House of Bishops in our church -- he was the keynote speaker at convention last week.  Like Paul, he has heard of your faithful ministry and service and gives thanks for your ministry among and with the victims of modern slavery.  Personally, he asked me to convey to each of you in the parish that the thoughts and prayers of his diocese are always with you.  Too many congregations get caught up in the minutiae of daily living.  To you it has been entrusted by God the meaningful ministry of wakening the slumberer and rousing all of God’s people to once again proclaim the message of freedom to the world!  Cherish your calling and know that all of God’s people give thanks for your courage and determination and the joy with which you try to accomplish those things given into your charge by God.  I know, it is hard to believe let alone accept that there are those out there who view us as a part of that great cloud of witnesses about which we prayed this morning in celebration of All Saints’ Sunday.  And yes, I know they don’t know us well.  Sometimes, distance is a great cleanser.  Because they are far away, they see the big picture.  They don’t get to see the “accidental” successes or glorious failures the way that we do, day in and day out.  It is in that spirit that I went ahead and used the the proper readings rather than Thursday’s readings for this feast.  You might be wondering what glorious failures and accidental successes have to do with these readings, but I can assure you that they do.  

     Our Old Testament reading today focuses on the beginning of the story of Ruth.  For generations in the church, the story of Ruth has served as an inspiration.  While men have done a fair job in history of convincing women that men are the superior sex, stories like Ruth (and Sarah, and Hannah, and Mary, and Mary, and pick your favorite heroine) remind us all that women, too, play an important, recorded role in salvation history.  And though women may feel a unique burden, in that they are blazing trails that men often take for granted, the story of Ruth (and Naomi and Elimelech) reminds us that God is able to overcome our poor choices and still work His will in our lives.

     Why do I start like this on a celebratory day, a day in which we celebrate the life and witness of those who helped to blaze a trail for us to the God whom we adore and worship this morning?  Because over the course of the last two weeks, I have had a number of uncomfortable conversations with many of you and several who are in orbit of our parish.  There seems to by a whispered myth that you and I are called to be perfect in our faith.  And when we faith in our efforts, as we all invariably do, we are somehow diminished in God’s eyes and maybe even no longer worthy of salvation.  Those more active in the church will point to heroes and heroines that stand larger than life in the eyes of their faith.  We come to believe somehow that Paul or Sarah or Isaac or Jacob or Elizabeth or those more personal in our lives like grandparents never struggled in their faith, never failed to follow God in all things.  I have news for you, all the saints have glorious failures in their history.  All of them.  Even those whom you knew personally and for whom you give a special thanks to God for this day.  No exceptions.  So, from a pastoral perspective, our readings today come at a great time.  Here are a couple heroines in salvation history.  Let’s see if they meet your standard of excellence . . . 

     Right off the bat, we are told that we have a couple not unlike Sarah and Abraham.  What do I mean by that?  Both Naomi and Elimelech have made a bad decision.  We are told that when the judges ruled and there was a famine in the land, this Jewish couple heads to Moab.  Although the sentences are pretty short, they convey a great deal of meaning.  Israel has fallen away from the the instructions of Yahweh.  Remember the promises: He promised cause the rain to fall and crops to grow if Israel obeyed; He also promised to given droughts when Israel fell away.  And, lest you think there is no theological implication in this starvation, peek ahead to what motivates Naomi to head back to Israel and how she views what has happened in her life to cause her such bitterness.  It is hard to convey what this move means.  Imagine high Anglo-Catholics among us suddenly choosing to move to Russia during the Cold War knowing their would be no church and no sacraments.  Moab was a bitter enemy of Israel.  It had plotted at various times to overthrow Israel and had earned Israel’s enmity.  They were on par with the Amorites and the Samaritans, though truthfully the Samaritans were like the black sheep of the family.  And the outward sign of that inward and spiritual grace of a relationship with Yahweh was possession of the Land promised to Abraham.  Now they both walk away to hated enemies to provide for themselves?  Bad decision.

     To make matters worse, when the time comes Naomi chooses Moabite women for their sons.  We all remember the prohibition against Israel marrying outside the Jewish nation because the pagans will mislead God’s people.  So, very quickly, we learn that Naomi and Elimelech have made some terrible decisions.  They abandoned the Land (signifying a severing of their relationship to God’s promises), they fled to an enemy of their people, and she chose wives for their sons from among that enemy nation.  We might understand the reasons behind the decisions, but we also have to acknowledge that these are not the decisions of saints.  After all, they ignore God for a time, right?

     Those hearing or reading the story in that context probably were not too surprised to learn that Elimelech dies and then the two sons.  They probably were not too surprised to learn that even after a decade or so of marriage, God has not blessed the sons and Moabite wives with children.  Seemingly, the boys’ deaths are a judgment of God.  And Naomi interprets it as such.  Realistically, she sees no good way out of her mess.  She is too old to have sons.  Even if she somehow could have a son, it would be unfair to ask Orpah and Ruth to wait for the son to grow up, marry them, and father children on them.  As widows with no family, their fates are seemingly sealed.  They can beg, or they can prostitute themselves.  There is very little hope.  And Naomi realizes that God’s hand is against her.  She doesn’t have to drag her daughters-in-law down with her, though.  She tells them to return for their families because their families will be able to care better for them than she will be able to.  It is clear from the text that these three women genuinely care for one another.  Think to your relationship with your own mother-in-law.  Is yours this good?  Is your husband or wife’s relationship with your mother this good?

     The real tragedy of our reading today is that Orpah chooses to return to her family.  If it is the reasonable choice why do I call it the tragedy of the narrative?  Remember our laugh at accidental successes a few minutes ago?  Look at how Naomi has witnessed her faith to her daughters-in-law.  Their genuine love for one another is one example, but look specifically at Ruth’s response.  When Naomi urges Ruth to be like Orpah and return to her people and to her gods, Ruth determinedly refuses.  Do not press me to leave you . . . Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Naomi, and Elimelech with her, made some poor choices.  Yet, she has lived her life well enough to cause her daughter-in-law to step out in faith.  Presumably, she has tried to live according to the torah to the best of her abilities.  If she possessed scrolls and knows how to read, presumably she has read from the scrolls.  Certainly, the stories that she remembers have inspired Ruth -- your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Ruth rejects her people and their pagan gods and chooses to follow this Naomi of faith.  She is so determined that she even invokes a curse of God if she does not do what she pledges.  This is no flight of fancy.  This is an altar call of eschatological proportions.  And she chooses rightly.

     Hopefully, if I have done my job well today, I have disabused you of the notion that the saints whom you admire are any different than you.  Make no mistake, they, like you, were human.  That means they sinned.  They might not have sinned in the same areas that you or I do; nevertheless, we know that they sinned because they, too, needed a Savior.  But my job is not yet finished this All Saints’ Sunday.  Like us when we are baptized and when we repent, Naomi returns to the Lord and Ruth turns to Him.  Whatever their sins, they focus on God and trust Him, even though they know the world is and the odds are stacked against them.  They will follow Him wherever they will lead.

     Those of us who know the story of Ruth knows what happens.  Both Naomi and Ruth are rewarded for their faithfulness.  Naomi finds a hunk of a husband for Ruth.  With a little nudging and a little manipulation, Naomi coaxes Boaz to fall for her daughter-in-law.  Their future, by human perspective, is secured.  Boaz redeems Naomi’s family and sires sons to continue possession of the Land promised to their ancestors.  Truly, it is a good ending.  But there is more. . . 

     Though Naomi and Ruth receive far more than they can ever hope to receive, God is not done blessing them.  Remember, Naomi chose poorly leaving the land and marrying her sons off to Moabite wives?  Remember that Moab was cut off from the covenant?  Remember Naomi rightly judging that the hand of the Lord had turned against her?  How does this story truly end?  In the end, through what can only be an incredible act of grace and mercy, Naomi’s people truly becomes Ruth’s people and Naomi’s God becomes Ruth’s God.  While we would have accepted the ending as it is and counted these widows truly fortunate, God had even bigger plans in store for them.  As an anticipatory reminder of the Gospel of Christ, this Moabite woman is given an amazing honor in God’s plan of salvation.  Ever spend any time in the Gospels reading the genealogy of Jesus?  If you have, you might remember the names of Boaz and Ruth.  That’s right.  A woman of a nation cut off by God is grafted into the holy family in recognition and blessing of her faithfulness.  Ruth becomes a great, great, great (and a bunch more greats in there) grandmother of Jesus of Nazareth!  A Moabite widow now sits at the feast with our Lord and gets to hear those wonderful words “Grandma, would you pass Me the . . . “ for all eternity.  For her faithfulness, she is honored by God and among us in ways that I am certain she never could have imagined when mourning the death of her husband and then fighting her mother-in-law’s attempts to send her back.

     Brothers and sisters, that same kind of reward awaits you!  Yes, I know many of your weaknesses and temptations.  By now, you all probably know all mine.  In our view we could not be further away from sainthood because we know our failures intimately.  Thankfully, though, God knows our hearts.  Mercifully, He sees us in His Son, Christ our Lord.  Those failures, those sins, those poor decisions that we have made have already been redeemed by Christ’s work on the Cross!  And because He has paid that debt for us, our Father in heaven sees us as we long to be and has granted us each a place to sit at that same banquet.  And one day, for all who believe in Him, it is given to hear those words as well “Brother / Sister, would you pass the . . . “ for all eternity.  You and I have been called to remember that this, all this around us is not our home, and that we are called into that magnificent community of witnesses we call saints, ever mindful of what He has done for us and of what He would have us do for others.  Like it or not, brothers and sisters, if you have turned to Him, He is about the business of making you a saint.  And one day, regardless of your sins and shortcomings, somebody somewhere will give thanks for you this day just as you give thanks for others in your life.  If He can redeem a Moabite widow and a Jewish widow who made bad choices, He can redeem your life as well and cause you to be one of those signposts on someone else’s faith journey.


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