“Old Testament Saints for All Saints’ Day” (Oct. 29 sermon)

Ruth 1

This Sunday we celebrate All Saint’s Day which is a much more important day than Halloween but in some ways even scarier. Why scary? Because All Saints Day reminds us of the cosmic nature of our faith. We are connected with all those who went before us and kept the faith and protected the vulnerable Christian community from the powers and principalities. All Saints is scary because it reminds us that the world is populated with beast-kings like those we find in the book of Daniel and dragons like those in Revelation and the saints are our resource for standing up to those evil beings. We act like we don’t believe that our faith has this cosmic dimension, but then we flock to every Star Wars movie whether it’s a sequel or a prequel. And don’t forget Harry Potter. There’s a resurrection in that plot for God’s sake. The world really is in a cosmic conflict and the Darth Vaders and Voldemorts are everywhere snipping at our heels. They are the satans walking up and down the earth seeking whom they may devour. We depend on saints to protect us as surely as Luke Skywalker and the Jedi had to protect the universe from the Dark Side.

Crowds flock to Star Wars because we are starved for stories like this. We want to believe that there is a goodness that prevails against all the odds. We need to have the hope that no matter how great an evil may befall us, there is goodness that will overcome. Putting aside the crazy speculations that fuel the interpretations of apocalyptic literature, I want to only remind you that we are in for the fight of our lives against beast-kings who fight for keeps because they know this is life or death. And our shoulder-shrugging denials that life isn’t scary, makes us easy pickings for the powers and principalities. A people without the communion of saints will follow any politician who promises them the moon. Remembering the saints only makes sense against a cosmic background like that portrayed in Star Wars.

And isn’t it just like God to choose to go up against the beasts and dragons with some people we have learned to call saints? I am not trying to shock you, but saints don’t always look saintly. Saints don’t always act saintly. Saints may not look like much. They are often the kind of people that the high and mighty will pass on the street without a glance, the people that the rich and famous label nobody. But don’t be fooled by appearance. What the world calls nobody, God calls somebody.

Allan Gurganus has the best depiction of a saint that I have ever read in his short story, “It Had Wings.” An older woman, retired from selling formal clothes at a department store, living in a little yellow house, has helped an angel who has fallen from the sky get back on his feet with a glass of warm milk and some compassion. Now, as she stares into the sky she says to no one in particular, “I’m right here, ready. Ready for more.”

“Can you guess why this old woman’s chin is lifted? Why should both her shoulders, usually, quite bent, brace so square just now?”

“She’s guarding the world. Only, nobody knows.” That is a saint.

And in the Old Testament reading for today, we have a pair of saints, two women saints. We actually usually think of women as saints because of the number of times I have heard people say to a woman, “You have to be a saint to be married to him.” Ruth and Naomi are trying to survive in a man’s world and some of their actions would not be blessed by the American Baptist Women’s organization, but they are saints. Look, this has never been a safe world for women. Naomi warns Ruth to stay with the women in the field of Boaz so she will not be sexually assaulted. The world hasn’t really changed that much. We remember them as saints because they survived the cosmic conflict attempting to wipe them from the face of the earth and the memory of the human race. And they look so vulnerable, so powerless. They are reduced to working in the fields just to have food to put on the table. What they do isn’t exactly pious, but as comedian Trevor Noah, in his book Born a Crime, puts it, you have a different idea about what is and is not wrong or illegal when you are just trying to stay alive.

Naomi and Ruth stand in that glorious line of those who stood their ground against the beast-kings. They aren’t armed with light sabers and Jedi-powers. They are vulnerable, weak, but never discount the powers of saints. They are easily overlooked. Our own Sunday school education should have taught us never to underestimate those who are on the Lord’s side. So see Naomi and Ruth bravely take on the cosmic forces aligned against them. And yes they use all the craftiness, ingenuity, and sexiness they can muster to survive. Ruth, following instructions, catches the eye of Boaz while she’s working in the field. Who saw that coming? Naomi must have caught the gleam in the eyes of Boaz so she uses all her worldly skills and gangs up with Ruth to show her how to catch a husband.

Chapter one weeps with tragedy. Three funerals. Elimelech dies. Then ten years later, Mahlon drops dead in the field. And Chilion dies on the threshing floor. See Naomi “left without her two sons or her husband.” Nothing prepares a woman for this. I once lived in a community where there was a woman who always called everyone to announce that a member of the church had dies. I don’t know how she got that job or why she seemed to enjoy it so much, but she spoke of death and tragedy as easily as the rest of us talked the weather and football. She had a saying, “Death always comes in threes.” Maybe she had read Ruth and it stuck. Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong in the broken places.” 

And then there’s Orpah and Ruth of Moab. They too lost their husbands and now face the loss of home. Death and moving – talk about stress. Orpah goes home to her parents and we never hear of her again. This is not judgment; it is what happens when we make choices.

And nothing to look backward to with pride,

And nothing to look forward to with hope,

 Ruth, like most women, is a patient and powerful listener. She sticks to Ruth like Velcro. Ruth puts her future in the hands of this unlikely saint. Ruth sews her heart to the heart of Naomi – the ties that bind. It was almost nothing to go on, but Ruth decided to go on. “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.”

Never doubt a woman’s intuition. It flows from the throne of grace. With the world dishing up famine and tragedy, Ruth goes with Lord and hope. You may rush to the ending of Ruth and say that the real hero of the story is a man named Boaz, but Boaz is a secondary actor, almost an accidental husband. The lead actors in this story are Naomi and Ruth. Maybe we should have Old Testament characters in our calendar of saints. This is All Saints Day, and I would vote for Saint Naomi and St. Ruth. Even Scripture overlooks the amazing contributions of women. Hebrews 11, with that list of all the heroes of the faith, lists only Rahab of Jericho and some vague reference to women who received their dead by resurrection. All the rest are men, but not in this story. In this story the drama centers on Naomi and Ruth. How odd to leave women out of the story of salvation when Jesus didn’t do it. The gospels are filled with women named Mary, from the one that matters the most, Mary mother of Jesus, to Mary of Magdala, the first preacher of the resurrection and thus she should have been the first pope. How odd that women have been so ignored, so mistreated, so abused, so delegated to a secondary, submissive role all these centuries and often with the blessings of the men who controlled the hierarchy of the church. 

Naomi and Ruth – saints. It doesn’t seem like much what they do. They hatch a plan to find Ruth a new husband. Poor Boaz never had a chance. He didn’t know what hit him. And the story is not exactly pious. There is too much drinking and Ruth does something called uncovering his feet and Boaz proposes to her. It sounds a little strange but it leads to marriage and a baby and from that baby would come a king named David and later a Savior named Jesus. Sometimes saints turn out to be the people who do what has to be done with some creativity and ingenuity and a little bit of sexiness. Remember that Boaz first noticed Ruth in the field harvesting the crop. You know that means that Ruth looked great in work clothes and didn’t need high fashion to turn a man’s head.

Now do we get it? We may not look like much. May not have much. May not seem much. May not seem to be doing much. We may appear weak and not so smart. We may be poor and we may be afflicted with hardships. We may not be remembered in the history books, but chances are we are one of God’s saints, guarding the world even when no one knows. We are standing at our posts against the beast kings, the dark side, the evil ones who would rule us with fear and violence. It is the church’s vocation to produce more saints. Remember the saints? You bet your life we remember the saints and God willing, some of us are going to be known as saints in the ages to come. I will be looking forward to those of you so honored, so named, and so remembered.