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The Least and the Lowly

A sermon delivered Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on November 4, 2012.

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Ruth 1:1-18

Psalm 146; Mark 12:38-44; Hebrews 9:24-28

This is the day the church celebrates as All Saints Day. So who are the saints we celebrate? Frederick Buechner writes a sweet line about the saints with this line:  “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”[1]

I doubt we could name more than a handful of saints by name (I mean the official ones, the ones with “St.” before their names) but make no mistake, we’ve got our saints. There are those in our ranks whom we regard with great respect, persons who’ve made us who we are, persons we remember fondly.

We can look over our shoulders and proudly say we are where are today because someone in the faith said just the right thing or who taught us the faith. They showed us the way and we’re where we are today because of them. Others were our ancestors and were willing to go to jail for the faith. Still others suffered in some other tangible way … all payments made in debt to their belief as faithful followers of Jesus. In the language of stewardship, we would say they were faithful stewards of their faith and their lives.

I

Nevertheless, this is a great day to turn our attention to the story in Scripture of two obscure women in Hebrew history that easily fit into the Bible’s All Saints’ litany in Hebrews 11. That great recitation of saints may not mention Naomi and Ruth by name, but they’re there as surely as the others. “… they went about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:37b-38, NRSV).

This is no typical story because the Bible narrative pauses to tell this despairing story. This is the delicate dropping of the holy handkerchiefs and the grand events of Holy Scripture come to a stop so this seemingly insignificant story can be told.

Ruth was a Moabite woman (the tribes that lived in the Transjordanian highlands along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea) making her an outlier, someone who was not even a family member in the family of faith. She was an outsider, one the Bible would call “a stranger,” meaning she would never be known for her identity as an insider, never fully accepted, no matter who she married.

This is a very modern story in that the Bible talks about this category of person in its day in ways similar to our own time when we refer to someone who’s an outsider.

We might call them an immigrant, or worse, an “alien” as though they were from other world. We mindlessly talk about having “immigrant problems” as though we have a plague in our midst and our government has all kinds of notions about what to do with them. Surprise of all surprises, the Bible has a more elevated way to talk about the hospitality that should be shown to such outsiders, instructions filled with more kindness and human dignity than we practice in our own day.[2]

II

This story is filled with refugees and women who are on the verge of starvation and annihilation. They’re like the refugees in Victor Hugo’s masterful epic story of destitution, Les Misérables. Naomi and Ruth are “the little miserable ones” who have little hope of surviving.

When you visualize these women, don’t let your mind’s eye put any additional flesh on their scraggly bodies for they are starving. The hair on their heads is falling out and their ribs protrude out from their formless chests. They are gaunt and on the verge of starvation as a result of their malnutrition. They more resemble the victims of the Holocaust than the well-fed images of the Sunday School pictures we were shown as children.

Naomi bravely leads them on the first steps of a long and possibly impossible trip back to Bethlehem where, when they finally succumb to death, they can at least be buried among their family and not dumped in some meaningless grave in a foreign land.

On the first day of the journey, Naomi recognizes they will probably die before they ever get back and so she tries to run her daughters-in-law off, hoping to send them back to their families. Perhaps if they went home they would have a chance of marrying again and therefore surviving. Orpah, perhaps the more practical of the two, accepts her offer and leaves; Ruth cannot abandon Naomi and she refuses to leave.

What is it in Ruth that prevents her from leaving this hopeless cause to do something to save her? All we know about her thoughts come from what she says to Naomi:

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 I will be buried,

May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!

(Ruth 1:16-17, NRSV)

They are surely some of the most beautiful words written in the Bible. They are achingly beautiful words of fidelity and the truest feelings of one suffering soul for another. What more can we say this morning? What can we add to the deep emotions that are expressed by this foreign daughter-in-law to her destitute and hopeless mother-in-law?

III

Is there a message for us today? Out of the despair of their story, can we find the words of hope for our own salvation?

Ruth, a stranger, a woman, a foreigner, becomes our model for faith in her willingness to take what strength of character she has and to join it with Naomi’s need. Ruth the outsider. Ruth, the Moabite woman, Ruth, the foreign wife of one of Naomi’s sons … imagine that, Ruth becoming the salvation-bearer for one of God’s chosen ones!

On one of those All Saints’ Day in the future, our names will be read and our memory will be shared in the congregation that remains. We are the potential saints for future generations. We are the shoulders upon which others in the future will stand. Will we be saints who sat on their hands or raised their hands? We’re not just busy people living overly wrought lives; rather, we’re laying a foundation of faith for the days ahead, molding the future and establishing a legacy. How’s it going? Will we leave a legacy of justice or will we leave a legacy of selfishness and greed?

[1] Frederick Buechner, “Saint,” Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: HarperCollins, 1973, 83

[2] The Bible uses the term “sojourner” that is translated as alien, stranger or foreigner referring to anyone of a non-Israeli descent who lived permanently in Israelite territory. The children of Abraham referred to themselves in Egypt as sojourners as did Moses while living in refuge in Midian. Leviticus has strong and specific instructions about hospitality for such persons. Cf. Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, “sojourner/resident alien,” Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990, 840