All Saints Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert
November 4, 2012
In stormy times like this week with Sandy, there are always amazing stories of courage and loyalty. The preemie 2-pound baby rescued by NYU hospital staff as the ventilators failed and elevators stopped. The Coast Guards risking their lives to rescue 14 from HMS Bounty. The state police saving countless people from floating cars and barely standing rooftops. The National Guard evacuating 20,000 people in Hoboken, who were trapped in their homes. A President and Governer of opposing parties, set aside differences to take care of what really matters. Three companies of volunteer firefighters in Breezy Point, overwhelmed by flooding and an inferno that destroyed more than 100 houses. Yet they fought the elements all night, saving many people and protecting houses on the perimeter of the burn zone, including the home of a 9/11 widow. The Point Breeze fire chief led the group in prayer, Our Father who art in heaven, said in the candlelight. Then he reassured the crowd huddled together, "I told everyone, ‘We're beach people. Just imagine it's a summer day and you're standing in three feet of water at the beach, and relax.’"
Sometimes suffering a common tragedy brings out the best in us. It brought out the best in the main characters of our story today. Naomi, having lost her husband and both her sons, encourages her daughters-in-law to find new husbands in their homeland. Remember that being a widow was an extremely dangerous and powerless position in Biblical times. Ruth and Naomi were the poorest of the poor. There was a famine, so Naomi prepares to return to her hometown, having had nothing but trouble in Moab. Ruth, a Moabite, decides to follow her mother-in-law to this unknown country, out of loyalty. As a young woman, she could have easily stayed in her homeland, like Orpah and found a husband. When the two women arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi’s wealthy cousin Boaz, hears of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, and he provides protection for her, and food for both women. Boaz, out of loyalty to the family, makes sure that his younger cousin is not interested in marrying Ruth before he does.
In this story all three characters demonstrate the kind of generous loyalty that we know God has for all people. God gives us freedom to make our own choices, as Naomi gave her daughters-in-law. God never abandons us, as Ruth never abandoned Naomi. God provides for our needs as Boaz did for both women when they arrived in Bethlehem. God welcomes all people, no matter their background, as Ruth is valued for her character, not hated for being a Moabite, typically seen as an enemy by the Israelites. I recommend the whole story to you, but for now we will read the opening eighteen verses, hearing about the plight of the widowed women, and of Ruth’s generous loyalty.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.
10 They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me." 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16 But Ruth said, "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. 17 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!" 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
(New Revised Standard Version)
Ruth was a saint to make such commitment to her mother-in-law. To be willing to follow her into a land where her kind were hated was a courageous and generous act of loyalty. Ruth sacrificed her best interests for Naomi’s best interests, and in the end, she is rewarded for her selfless love.
Who has stood by you in hard times? Stood by you when it would have been easier to leave. Have you cared for someone in such a time? Have you been Ruth -- a protector, a steady presence, a reliable friend in the storms of life? Have you made sacrifices of time and money to rescue friends or family or church family? Is that not what we do, when we have a shared budget as a church, bringing our common wealth together to do more than we can alone? When we have congregational care team members and Stephen ministers, trained to care.
Have you like Boaz offered help to foreign immigrants like Ruth? Is that not what we do when some of us support Mission Beth-El by bagging food or delivering school supplies, when some of us collect food for the Manatee Food Bank, and when some of us stand for justice with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers? Not all of us are called to the same tasks, our perspectives on them vary, but all of us are doing our own part in being generous toward those in greatest need. And at a church named Peace, we can respect those differences of call and perspective and be united still. No matter what happens on Tuesday, we are one family in Christ. No matter where we worship and how we serve God, we are one body in Christ. Remember that Naomi gives her blessing to both daughters-in-law – the one who felt compelled to stay and the one who felt called to go find a new husband in Moab. And Ruth did not complain to Orpah “You are disloyal.” nor did Orpah say to Ruth, “You are unwise.”
In times of common tragedy, like the multiple deaths in Naomi’s family, like the horrific scenes of Superstorm Sandy, we might find ourselves inspired to a deeper integrity. Our compassion stirred by a call to loyalty, by a recognition that we are a united humanity.
These losses remind us of the gift of each day, the gift of friends who for us pray, the gift of a warm shower, the gift of electric power, the gift of family loving us true, the gift of strangers coming to rescue. So many gifts from God when we count. With grace overflowing, our troubles we surmount.
Love of God, of neighbor always in our sight. Sacrifice, mercy, our shared delight. Seeing Jesus Christ, our one true light. Inspired by saints, who follow his way, we have strength to face each challenging day. Surrounded by loved ones, in heaven and here, ones who pray and tell us “no fear.” Hold onto to the Spirit, present and near. Remember, the cloud of witnesses, dear.
People young and faithful like saintly Ruth, ever loyal to the truth. People courageous, poor, but free, very much like Naomi, giving others true liberty. And people like Boaz, always there, successful, wealthy, ready to share. This is our family, this our tree, this is whom we are called to be, people of generous loyalty.