November 1, 2015 – saints on the road to Zion

All Saints Day (Pentecost 23) November 1, 2015 Psalm 146, Ruth 1:1-18, Mark 12:28-34, Revelation 21:1-6a        saints on the road to Zion

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Friday morning I drove up to Boston for a grave-side committal service for Jean Gleason, one of the saints of our church. One of the candles we’ve lit today in both of our churches is in memory of Jean. Her memorial service was (here) back in June; her ashes were placed in the family plot in Boston Friday. After the service, several of Jean’s family were talking about their mother’s passing… Her daughter Sally mentioned she had recently broken her wrist, which kept her away from work for six weeks. During this time she said, she felt like she was hearing her mother silently advising her to “take time and re-examine my life… focus on what’s most important.”

And after every memorial service I’ve ever done I too find myself pondering… Who are we? What are we here for? Where are we going? These questions keep coming back… Especially on days like today, as we remember saints of our church who have passed over to another shore…

Today is All Saints Day, and for clarification, we’re talking about small s saints – saints, meaning ‘holy ones set apart for God’ – saints, meaning also ‘all the people of God.’ Some of St Paul’s letters are addressed “to all the saints” in a particular church or cluster of churches. Other letters are addressed to those “called to be saints.”

Today some parts of the church emphasize we’re already saints if we believe in Jesus. Other parts of the church emphasize we’re called to be saints – implying we’re still on the journey to sainthood. Some parts of the church capitalize the apostles and call them capitol S saints – St Paul, St James, St John. Some capitalize others saints also – St Mary, St Margaret, St Jude. We Methodists don’t do that, but our Anglican ancestors still do, as do many sisters and brothers in the church universal. I don’t think any of these differences are huge big deals. I do think it’s a very big deal to remember – all of us, at the very least, are called to be saints.

And today we’re marching to Zion with all the saints in all times and places… Zion originally being the name of the East ridge of Jerusalem. Then the name Zion was applied to all Jerusalem. Now Zion’s also a name for the New Jerusalem that descends to this earth made new… And on our way to Zion on high…we’re walking first to the humble village of Bethlehem on the outskirts of Jerusalem… Walking the dusty road with saints Naomi and Ruth…

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In the time of the book of Judges, before there were kings in Israel – an Israelite woman named Naomi and her husband Elimelech (his name means God is my king) left their home in Bethlehem in Judah, and went to the neighboring country of Moab to escape a famine in the land. Bethlehem means “house of bread” – yet, like Old Mother Hubbard, Bethlehem’s cupboards are quite bare…

Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons have both married Moabite women. Now first Elimelech passes away; then after about ten years, both sons die also. Not surprising, if we know the name Mahlon in Hebrew means “sickness;” the name Chilion means “perishing” or “wasting away.” (There’s more than a little symbolism in this story.) And famine, exile, death of a husband, and death of one’s only two sons is not exactly a happy start to the story.

No wonder Naomi, who’s name means “pleasant” or “sweetness” will call herself Mara, meaning “bitterness,” as she arrives in Bethlehem. Naomi complains bitterly that God has forgotten her… But she doesn’t give up on God or on herself… Having heard the famine back home has ended, here’s Naomi, on the road back to Bethlehem, with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, both intending to go with her.

But Naomi says “go back to your mothers’ houses. May God be good to you, as you’ve been good to me and my family. May God give you both new husbands.” (Husbands and sons were usually a woman’s main economic security.) Both daughters-in-law say ‘no; we’ll go with you to Bethlehem.’ But Naomi says, “Turn back, now, my daughters. There’s no future for you with me.” (We can tell there’s mutual affection, as we see each thinking of the other…But…)

Now, after Naomi says a second and a third time, “head home”– Orpah does turn back. Again, we’re not very surprised, if we know her name, Orpah, means “back of the neck” in Hebrew.

But Ruth, who’s name means “friend” or “companion” does not turn back, but says instead, “Where you go I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, your God will be my God….”

Giving us a short-version the job description of all the saints. For, when we commit to following Jesus, aren’t we also promising – his people will now be our people – And the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ will be our God forever?

We are marching up to Zion… that beautiful city of God… But the story of saints Ruth and Naomi starts off on dusty back roads… And next week, as we walk on… Long before we reach the heavenly fields, we’ll be gleaning in humble earthly fields, gathering what’s left behind by harvesters… The road to Zion on high goes through the humble lowly villages of our ancestors in the faith. (At the time when the story of Ruth takes place, more than a thousand years before Christ’s birth, Bethlehem is an obscure small village…)

And on one level, Ruth is simply a beautiful love story – a story first of the love of Naomi and Ruth, mother-and-daughter-in-law, then also of Ruth and Boaz, whom we meet next week. The love we encounter in Ruth includes family love and romantic love, to be sure; community love, absolutely; but especially the much wider, deeper love Jesus talks about in Mark’s gospel today. The love of God, which requires all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And the love of neighbor, the whole community of God’s people, stretching across all national and cultural boundaries. This kind of love is also part of our job description as saints, called to be saintly…

And lest we might miss the importance of cultural boundaries in the story, our narrator uses the words Moab and Moabite seven times in chapter one, and Israelite place-names Bethlehem and Judah five and three times, respectively, underscoring the different cultures involved. To abbreviate a much longer back- story – there has been a lot of bad history between Israel and Moab. Moabites have led Israel into idol worship; later, Israel and Moab will fight bitter battles in the days of kings Saul and David. Israelites are instructed in Deuteronomy (23) never to allow a Moabite into the temple; told also (quote): “You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”

Which makes the book of Ruth’s blended Israelite-Moabite family story not just a beautiful love story, but also a remarkably subversive story. (Please read the story this week; it’s quite short and a very good read… But – ) Ruth, above all, is a story of Godly-faithfulness and steadfast love – chesed is the Hebrew word that means both faithfulness and steadfast love – and steadfast love and faithfulness is an excellent summary description of God’s chief attributes. And the book of Ruth is all about human beings made in the image of God – modeling God’s steadfast love and faithfulness for each other. This too, is part of our job description, saints of the Lord…

So… we’re walking on with saints Ruth and Naomi on the road to Bethlehem,

not knowing yet how our story will continue…. But because we have said “yes” again to God – Because we have affirmed again God alone is our God… And all God’s people are our people…And where God leads, we will go…

Now we are walking on the road to Zion with all the saints…Still not knowing what comes next… But knowing more now about who we are as people of God, called to be saints…Knowing now where we’re going… And who we’re going with…

Thanks be to God. Amen.