Sunday, November 1, 2009

Our Feast Day: All Saints

Sheepscott Community Church November 1, 2009

Ruth 1: 1-18

Mark 12: 28-34

Our Feast Day: All Saints

Does it shock you at all that I should entitle this message “Our Feast Day: All Saints”? Don’t let it because that is what we are: saints in the making. A path to the holiness that is sainthood lies within our individual life circumstances. That path brings to bear our strengths and weaknesses as we respond to the needs of our families and neighbors and to our particular moment in history. We can let this feast day encourage us to create our own path of holiness by walking it, as Bartimaeus who had been blind but who was able to see after an encounter with Jesus created his path of holiness as he walked it.

If you recall from last week’s gospel, Bartimaeus inadvertently gave us a model of discipleship, following his healing. He had a need––he wanted to see, and he told Jesus clearly that that was what he wanted. Then, he saw. His expressed desire was fulfilled, and he himself was filled with gratitude and followed Jesus on the road toward Jerusalem, where the Lord was headed to meet his own fate at the time of Passover. While Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the literal road to Jerusalem, we are called to do the same on a figurative road, and that walk, that creating of a path of holiness is made more possible, is made easier by the company of others, and in addition, by the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which we will share today.

This feast of all saints does not honor what are tantamount to demigods. No. As with Bartimaeus, a blind man from the neighborhood whom everyone knew from his probable begging on street corners, and, as the son of Timaeus, the company of saints is a company of ordinary people, like us, like Bartimeaus, who can take seriously the challenge to follow Christ up the road to Jerusalem, creating a path of holiness by walking it. It’s in the walking, the doing that we actually create the path.

I find the homely story of Ruth, today’s first reading, a good example of saintliness in the making. Let me explain. Just as Bartimaeus followed Jesus up the road to Jerusalem after his healing, so Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi up the road to Judah, Naomi’s homeland, from which she and her late husband had migrated to Moab when their country was under the lash of famine. Now, years later, after the death of her husband and her two sons, who had married the Moabite women Ruth and Orpah, Naomi sees no need to stay in Moab any longer and heads home.

Her daughters-in-law, both of whom obviously love her, follow after her. She exhorts them to turn back, to return to their people, as she is returning to her people. She has no more sons for them to marry, she tells them. Orpah concedes, but Ruth will not be swayed. Ruth was loyal to her mother-in-law Naomi both in season, when she was married to Naomi’s son, and out of season, after the death of that son. That loyalty is reminiscent of the third step in Bartimaeus’s discipleship: that loyalty whereby he follows Jesus up the road to Jerusalem. Ruth following Naomi up the road to Judah, back to Bethlehem, where Naomi had come from. Loyalty, which comes out of loving gratitude that apparently is a response to the kind and loving way Naomi treated her daughters-in-law. As Ruth so beautifully puts it in the scripture, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” She had made up her mind. Love will make us do that. Love will lead us to follow another and to create a path of holiness in the process, the path along which we choose to walk, saying no to ourselves and yes to something greater than ourselves..

How does this reading about Ruth square with today’s gospel? Why would the editors of the lectionary from whence these readings come, group these two as one of the choices for today? I think it is because Ruth loved her neighbor––one way of speaking of her mother-in-law Naomi––as herself, and a demonstration of that was her willingness to follow her back to her homeland, to leave her own tribe behind or, as she puts it, “your God will be my God.” She will take on the worship of the God of Naomi, whom Jesus declares in this morning’s gospel, is one. One.

In today’s gospel, a scribe asks Jesus, “What is the first commandment?” And Jesus answers, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” No Jew who was listening would have disagreed with what Jesus said was the first commandment, but Jesus did something that no other rabbinic teacher had ever done. He combined the first and the second commandments, calling for love of God and love of neighbor as oneself as one. This was new.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord,” is the creed of Judaism, the basis for monotheism. It is called the Shema, which is the imperative form of the Hebrew verb to hear, and it is so-called from the first word of the sentence. “Hear, O Israel...” It is that sentence that began the service at the synagogue then and still does.

The second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18. In that original context, the command had to do with a person’s fellow Jew. That was the neighbor. It would not have included the Gentile, whom it was permissible to hate. What Jesus did in quoting it was to remove the boundaries, the limitations of the love to include all. He took an old law and filled it with new meaning. No rabbi had ever combined those commandments before. Religion to Jesus was loving God and loving human beings as well, and not just some of the human beings, but all human beings. As it is written in Matthew 5:43 ff....

A good illustration that answers the question, Who is my neighbor, this one I am commanded to love, is found in the gospel of Luke in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. He is the man who stops to wash the the wounds of a man who has been beaten and left for dead by robbers. A priest and Levite, perhaps in a hurry to get to the Temple to fulfill ritual obligations and not feeling any obligation to this man, passed him by. Remember, always remember, that Jesus came to teach us a new way of holiness that is illustrated in this story. It isn’t the hairsplitting of the law about how to fulfill the hundreds, even thousands of obligations of the law that he favors, but the generous interpretation that makes clear we are all sons and daughters of the same God, and consequently are all brothers and sisters in the same family, like it or not. The adapted Creed of the Masai Tribe in East Africa contains the line, “God loves the world and every nation and tribe on earth.” God does not distinguish. Neither should we, when we are considering whether or not to perform an act of kindness, whether to pray for this one or that one. Will we be limited by judgments about geography, blood relation, religion, politics, social status? Note well that in this morning’s reading, Ruth paid no attention to any of these. She left her people to go to another country where she knew no one but her mother-in-law because she loved her and so, was loyal to her.

Bartimaeus left behind his family, his fellow Jericho townsmen and maybe even the cloak he had tossed aside in order to get to Jesus more quickly. While Jesus was a fellow Jew, he was neither from the neighborhood nor a blood relation. But Bartimaeus was filled with loving gratitude that inspired loyalty, as with Ruth and Naomi, and he followed the life-giver up the road.

I like to think he might have had the thrill of a lifetime on that very night, when we can imagine he shared supper with Jesus and the disciples. Maybe he studied the Lord’s face, he who until that day had not been able to see. What must he have thought of this crew among whom he found himself? We can only imagine. While he had been anything but tongue-tied earlier in the day, shouting out to Jesus with no shyness but impelled by the power of his desire to see, I expect he would be all ears––and eyes, listening to the stories. Bartimaeus had found a cause, a person, greater than himself, who was deserving of everything Bartimaeus could give or offer. He gave his life, as we can reasonably interpret, from that point on. How did he do that, this fellow we never hear about again? Maybe he just told the story over and over to anyone who would listen. Maybe that was his path to saintliness, to holiness, as simple as that. A path we would do well to ponder and perhaps imitate, as in, You know what Jesus did for me?

As far as Ruth is concerned, her story is only opening up this week. Next week, we will hear more.

And now, just a few words about communion, eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. I was thinking about this table set for our small meal, thanks to Chrissy and her helpers. It made me think of two stories: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Hansel and Gretel.” If you recall, Goldilocks came upon the three bears’ house, smoke curling out of the chimney, and the table set with steaming porridge for three. How irresistible was that? There really is something to say for a well-set table, full of the promise of satisfaction of our senses.

And who can forget the appeal of the gingerbread house in the forest to the hungry Hansel and Gretel––and that house being edible! A child’s dream come true.

Think of this well-set table with bread and grape juice, communion service and linens, and a much better outcome than those two stories. After partaking of the meal done in remembrance, we partake of an enhanced reality, where, as we share bread, we become increasingly one body in and of Christ. We are fed and have the strength to continue up the road of holiness, of saintliness, as we indeed find it through our own life circumstances––if we so will, if we so desire, and if we so act. Amen.

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