Ordinary Saints

From Ruth 1:1-18

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. 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
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 had consideration for his people and given them food. 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.
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. 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.
They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
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? 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, 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.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
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. / 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!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
      Yesterday, I had the privilege of officiating a wedding at a church with a gorgeous stone labyrinth in a courtyard overlooking the Bay. And, well, you know I love labyrinths —and what the journeys in and the journeys out can reveal to us—in us. I took some precious time before the ceremony to walk the labyrinth, and I noticed a quotation placed on the path leading to the courtyard that says, “We are all just walking each other home.
       We are all just walking each other home. The people we find next to us on our life journeys—on our spiritual journeys—are our walking companions. For better or worse, they are our teachers and our guides. They may help us through challenging times—and/or they may create our greatest challenges. They may supply us with the support and comfort we need in times of distress—and/or they may source our distress and need for support and comfort. They may meet us on the road with food and medicine and kindness. . . .
       Or they may meet us with tanks and guns and fear. But regardless, we are all just walking each other home. We get to decide how we will engage with the journey.
       In graduate school, I took a class on the Lives of the Saints. I remember on the first day of class, someone asked, “Just what is a saint?” And someone else responded that a saint is someone who lived long, long ago and has never been adequately researched. . . . The implication was that if you researched a saint thoroughly enough, you would discover the inevitable foibles of that person—and then they would not be a worthy “saint” at all.
       But, I wonder, do the weaknesses and shortcomings of those we consider saints make them more, or less, important to us on our spiritual walk? It seems to me that the lives of saints are meant to be read like an open book—with all the good and bad and messy and indifferent. We often depict saints in stained glass windows to let light shine right through them—their translucence, an apt metaphor. Their imperfections make them relatable, personable.
      And when we celebrate All Saints Sunday, we are not simply celebrating the superhuman faith and power of a select few, but God’s willingness and ability to use flawed people to do divine things.     
      We celebrate the ways God creates faith in diverse and varied communities and uses ordinary people from those communities to bring the Commonwealth of God closer to us through ordinary acts of love. On this Sunday, we celebrate the “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us, and that are still with us, as we continue the work of walking each other home.
       It’s amazing to think about the vastness of the Body of Christ—all the people from all the communities, just like ours, and all those from different times, different places, and different cultures. All of them—past and present—can become our walking companions, encouraging us to take risks, inspiring us to keep going with the road is wearying, challenging us to change the world, and showing us how to pray—with our feet, our hands, our hearts, our pocketbooks, and our votes, as well as our voices. . . .
       It gives me a lot of hope and heart to feel the breadth of those connections—especially these days when it is so easy to feel disconnected and alienated. It is powerful to know we belong to such a great cloud of witnesses seeking to manifest God’s love in this world.
      Many people believe that connection and belonging is based on having the same theology or political beliefs—the same denominational affiliation or interests or neighborhood, or Facebook groups. . . . I certainly can fall into this trap. But what really connects us is the love of God. We are—each one who has walked on this earth—God’s beloved child. And God longs to scoop each one of us up into a web of belonging and love. God longs to see us walking each other home—with justice and peace and love.
      That is what the story of Ruth demonstrates. Such a beautiful story. A story of connection and belonging unexpectedly reaching across conventional dividing lines of blood and custom and religion. It is the story of ordinary, strong women—facing the harsh natural disaster of famine and the brutal human-made disaster of patriarchy that rendered single women completely vulnerable. Like refugees today, Ruth and Naomi did not have the privilege of choosing to stay in their homes. Forces beyond their control dictated their involuntary relocation. Yet, they were able to survive such tumultuous transitions because they were each willing to give their greatest gift to the other: their very selves.
       It is a story of solidarity and redemption—of faithfulness, commitment, loyalty, and love. The recently-widowed Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law, also recently-widowed, to “Go back each of you to your mother’s house.” During this time of famine, Naomi is migrating from Moab—where her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are from—back to her native Judah. Naomi relinquishes Orpah and Ruth from any obligation to care for her, urging them to return to their homeland with the prayer, 
      “May the Lord deal kindly with you,” believing that “the hand of the LORD has turned against [her].”
        After some weeping, Orpah agrees and departs. But Ruth refuses to go, expressing instead a wild love, selfless kindness, and astounding solidarity: “Where you go, I will go, / Where you lodge, I will lodge; / Your people shall be my people, / And your God, my God.”
Ruth clings to Naomi with this steadfast loving-kindness—chesed—and refuses to let go.  And so, together, they continue the journey—or the “caravan” we might say—to Judah. We are, after all, just walking each other home.
       Over and over, God uses ordinary, flawed people to bring the Commonwealth of God closer through ordinary acts of love. And over and over, we are invited to live out our faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. Ordinary saints, walking each other home.
       And God is made known to us as we accompany one another—as we stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable members in our society—as we welcome the refugee, advocate for the homeless, insist that Black Lives Matter, support the sexual abuse survivor, translate for the immigrant, embrace the LGBTQ community, listen to the pain of the heartbroken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and theologian, who was executed by the Nazis for his beliefs, wrote shortly before he died, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.” It is through our relationships that God is made known. It is through our solidarity with others in need that we encounter God. In the story of Ruth, the portrait of God is painted by two women who choose solidarity. And in a world that sinfully seeks to divide people into “them” and “us,” this means that there is no one but us! There is only us: “Your people shall be my people.”
       As people of faith, we are called into the spiritual practice of solidarity. To see the needs of others. And to respond. In whatever ways we can. Because there is no “them.” There is no one outside the realm of God’s love and care. There is no dispensable human being. And the best—and the least—we can do is to say to the one who is hurting, displaced, seeking asylum, exhausted, fearful, wounded, hopeless . . . that where they go, we will go—that we will be there and walk in solidarity beside them throughout their journey.
       This is what it means to be an ordinary saint. And today, as we remember and draw inspiration from all the deeply faithful and deeply flawed saints of God—through whom we have seen the light and glory of God—who have walked with us and guided our steps—may we give joyful thanks. And may we heed their example as we walk each other home.

More Than a Little Chaos

When I am among the trees, / especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally beech, the oaks and the pines, / they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and                    discernment,
and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves / and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, / “and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with light, and to shine.”

“When I am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver

There is more than a little chaos in the world right now. We experience this chaos in all the distractions that separate us from our best and most authentic selves. It is whatever divides us, diminishes us, demeans us. And there are all kinds of chaos pulling us this way and that with loud and ungracious voices, battering us with anger and fear and badgering us with pain and grief. There are all kinds of chaos that would hold us captive, keep us up at night, and refuse to let us sink into that powerful Love that longs to set each one of us free.

And so, at some point, we intentionally have to step away from the chaos. We have to trust – as hard as it may be – that there is a robust source of Hope that lies beneath the chaos and calls to us, reminding us that a deep sense of Peace and connectedness are possible. When I remember this – and when I manage to step out of the chaos, even for a moment – I am able to exhale. I am able to release my semblance of tight control and rest in the comforting and inspiring presence of God. I am able to remember – like the poet reminds us – that God does, indeed, call each one of us to go easy into the world, to be filled with light, and to shine.

Even as we wrestle with the chaos, we are not alone. As heavy as the world may feel, it is not ours alone to lift. And as we go to the polls in the coming days to vest some of our peers with the authority to make decisions for the common good and to reign in some of the chaos, we do so as part of a much larger community, as members of God’s beautiful, beloved, and diverse family. I truly believe that as we work together, speak up for Justice, and support one another on our spiritual journeys, powerful and amazingly good things will happen.

See you in church,

Take Heart. . . Get Up. . .

From Mark 10:46-52

     Do you remember the picture? The famous picture of Nazis burning books?
     You may not have ever thought about the specific significance of that picture . . . about the specific books being burned. Like me, you may find the whole idea of burning books—any books—horrific. But the specific content of this particular image came back to me this week. The image shows Nazi-aligned vigilantes (not just government agents) destroying the library of Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science. Hirschfeld was the founder of modern transgender theory, and his displaced students are the ones who founded transgender advocacy in the United States. When the Nazis destroyed this library, they destroyed the first central hub of transgender advocacy in the world. This loss is not a mere inconvenience. Parts of that library can never be replaced.
In the 1910s, Earl Lind read one of the books from that library and wrote for a feminist magazine that mothers ought to raise their trans children according to their endorsed gender. Over one hundred years ago there was a movement to normalize trans people! It was based on scientific study and the assertion that the policies of a just society should be based on sound evidence . . . and sound evidence showed that gender variance was perfectly natural and perfectly healthy. . . . That movement is what was displaced when Nazis stormed the library and burned all the books they found.
So, early this week, as the current administration ramps up its efforts to suppress queer presence and to legislate trans people out of existence, I thought about this picture. And I thought about all that we lose when bigotry and fear assume any amount of power. . . .
But that was not the only piece of devastating news this week. . . . Then we had the MAGA Bomber—the current administration’s home-cooked domestic terrorist. And the white supremacist who shot and killed 2 black grandparents in a Kentucky Kroger. And the ongoing migrant caravan of people searching desperately for safety and hope for their families. And then the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre yesterday. . . .
HOW?! I wondered are we supposed to “take heart and get up” with all this chaos going on?! . . . But I had already titled my sermon. And so, I was left to wrestle with what it means to “take heart and get up” when we are faced with spiritual rot and senseless violence.
     “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” This is what the disciples say to the blind Bartimaeus after Jesus has called him. And Bartimaeus doesn’t waste any time. He wants some of that goodness. That grace. He’s had enough of the difficulty and trials—the spiritual rot and the senseless violence. He wants out of the prison that he had created for himself AND the prison imposed on him by others. He knows there has to be another way. So, he comes. With faith. And his faith makes him well.
     You remember, don’t you, that “we—without God—can not. And God—without us—will not.” In other words, we have to be significantly invested in the changes we want and need to see. God will not heal our social ills without our help. And we cannot create that needed change without the spiritual and moral grounding God provides. “We—without God—can not. And God—without us—will not.” Bartimeaus knew that. And so must we.
     My favorite writer, Annie Dillard, says, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” That is what Bartimaus does. He puts himself in the path of light, and lets it wash over him and fill him and sustain him. . . . He trusts that light. He has faith that the light can nurture him and heal him. And it does. He doesn’t have to DO anything to merit it. He just has to BE. It is grace. Even in the midst of hardship. This is what I think it means to “take heart.”
     And even as we take heart, we also have to get up. There is a teaching from the Jewish Talmud that advises, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. This, I believe, speaks directly to us today.
  • How do we place ourselves in the path of God’s light?
  • And how do we pick up the work that is ours to do?
  • How can we refocus our attention away from the depressing, paralyzing news we hear and toward ways we can become part of God’s life-giving activity in the world?
      My hope and inspiration came in an article I read this week in the Washington Post. The headline read “Mexicans Shower the Caravan with Kindness—and Tarps, Tortillas, and Medicine.” While bigoted rumors fly about the threat of these desperate people and who is “financing” their migration from Central America through Mexico, the article talks about how residents of many small, impoverished Mexican towns along the route have eagerly embraced the responsibility of feeding, clothing and sheltering these several thousand migrants with care, compassion, and solidarity. These towns are full of crates filled with free bottled water, tables packed with ham and cheese tortas, and relief stations filled with medical supplies donated by the community to help the people on this grueling journey.
Outside her family’s hardware store, one woman set up a table to feed migrants lemon tea and stew, using meat from her son’s butcher shop. Down the street, her daughter was handing out fruit. “My family has been very blessed,” she said. “And we know that we are all [family]. What God gives us, we should share. And we do it with a lot of love.”
Many Mexicans understand the poverty and violence the migrants are fleeing and are willing to help ease their journey, even though they are poor themselves. One woman said, “Today it’s them. Tomorrow it could be us.” These are human beings with rights that need to be defended.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
The light, the grace, and the opportunities are all around us. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Even when the spiritual rot and senseless violence feel overwhelming.
We have opportunities to feel God’s light and to dive into care, compassion, and solidarity. This is what Jesus challenges us to do. We are not alone. Even though we may have been blinded or simply refused to see. May we open our eyes. And may we see one another. May we truly see.