The Book of Ruth is one of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the bible. It is held in esteem by Jews and read during the Jewish holiday of Shavouth or Weeks. In the Christian calendar it is traditionally read on All Saint’s Day. As you listen to the beginning of this story, think about the character of Ruth and why her story has a special meaning for this day.
Ruth 1: 1-19a
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. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.
And this is where our story ends today, but I will add that Ruth marries Boaz, and has a son named Obed, who becomes the grandfather to King David, who was an ancestor to Jesus. So this story speaks to both of our traditions.
In his book “Wishful Thinking” Frederick Buechner, in his own whimsical way, has something to say about saints:
“In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints. Many people think of saints as plaster saints or moral exemplars, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. … the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. … Maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace including even ourselves. … The Holy Spirit has been called “the Lord, the giver of life,” and drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”
When you all came in today, I asked you to write the name of someone, living or dead, that you think of as a saint. They are now gracing our communion table. Would you all say together whose name you placed up there, and if you came in late, you can just call out a name. All together now ….
When you think of that person, what are the traits or attributes that you associate with them? (solicit answers)
I looked up quotes from some of those who have been officially canonized as saints in the Catholic Church. We Protestants don’t do that. We would probably have a different list, but we can learn from those who have been thought of as “holy” over the years. What advice can they give us?
St. Teresa of Avila: “There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act than in all the knowledge of the world.”
St. Vincent de Paul: “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the suffering and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”
St. Anthony of Padua: ‘Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.”
St. Thomas Aquinas: “No one heals himself by wounding another.”
St. Augustine: “God has no need of your money, but the poor have. You give it to the poor, and God receives it.”
St. Therese of Lisieux: “You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”
Mother Theresa: “Each time anyone comes in contact with us, they must become different and better people because of having met us. We must radiate God’s love.”
Ruth radiated God’s love, and I think that’s why her story is included in the lectionary for All Saints Day. Our Gospel reading this day is from Mark, where the scribes ask Jesus which commandment is the first of all? Remember his answer? Say it with me: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Ruth embodies the highest form of agape love in this story; completely selfless, generous, freely given love, expecting nothing in return. This is the story of a middle class family hit on hard times, in this case a famine which meant economic ruin. Elimelech moves his family to Moab, a neighboring country where they live for ten years. I kept thinking of all the migrants and refugees fleeing their homelands today in search of safety and a better life for their families.
But unlike Germany and northern Europe, Moab was a country despised by the Israelites, not a promised land. They worshiped a god named Chemost, and on occasion human sacrifices were made, which included entire villages. An Israelite would have to be desperate to move there, like those today risking all to cross the Mediterranean.
More tragedy befalls this family. Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her with two sons, who marry Moabite women, and then die, leaving the three women marginalized and impoverished in a culture where women were dependent on men to take care of them. With news that the famine was over, Naomi, probably wisely, decides it’s better to return to her people in Judah. She has nothing to offer her daughter-in-laws, so pleads with them to return to their mothers, and hopefully remarry.
But Ruth will have none of that. She knew that it would not be easy being a Moabite woman living in a land where they were despised, adjusting to a different culture, religion, and all the social hurdles she would have to jump. But she loved her mother-in-law, and promised to be faithful to her to the end. Stories of this kind of love are rare in our world today.
I went looking for one, and there in my worship folder was an article by Kevin Cullen from the Globe, that I had cut out and saved to share in a sermon someday. All Saints Day was the day. He titled it “A forgiving heart.”
Isaura Mendes goes for long walks every day. She leaves her home in Dorchester and heads up to Dudley Street, past St. Patricks, onto Blue Hill Avenue, turning out the urban din all around her.
Not long ago, while she was walking, a man honked his horn, pulled his car over, jumped out, and went toward her. “Mother Mendes,” he said. “Do you remember me?” It was a man she had visited in prison years before. He was doing well. Has a job. Has a car. Goes to church. He thanked her. He hugged her. “It made my heart feel warm”, Isaura said.
Hers’ is a heart that has felt every possible emotion. She lost two of her three sons long before their time. Her Bobby was 23 in 1995 when he was stabbed to death just around the corner from her house. Eleven years later, her son Matthew was shot and killed. He was 24 and died not far from where his big brother fell.
A year after Matthew was killed, police tracked down the man who stabbed Bobby. After 12 years on the run, Nardo Lopes, whose family lives right around the corner from the Mendes family, was convicted of killing Bobby. At Lopes’s sentencing for manslaughter, Isaura surprised everyone, maybe even herself, when she turned to the man who killed her son and said she forgave him.
“I wish you luck, Nardo.” she said. ‘I have asked God to protect you in jail. I forgive you for everything you’ve done.” Some people said she was crazy. But it wasn’t just some grief-stricken grasp at nobility. She really meant it.
“What pushed me to forgiveness? I started reading the Bible a lot,” Isaura says. … I took a class on the seven principles of peace: courage, hope, faith, love, unity, justice, forgiveness. For some people, those are just words. But for me it became a way to live.”
After Nardo went off to prison, so did Isaura. She stood before 200 inmates at the state prison in Norfolk and told her story. It was liberating, cathartic. She started doing it regularly. Over the last seven years, she has visited prisons in Concord, Norfolk and Bridgewater. …
Isaura is 64, and looks 10 years younger. She visits prisoners every other week. Typically, the groups are 15 to 25 at a time. “They call me Mother Mendes,” she says. “I ask for their stories.“ In the years since her sons were killed, she has remembered them with annual Christmas parties and peace walks and candlelight vigils.
In a few weeks, Isaura will host her annual back-to-school barbecue on her block. She hands out pencils and notebooks to the neighborhood kids. “It’s not much, she said. “I don’t have any money. But I want the children to know we care about them. We love them.”
She says the same to the inmates she visits. “I’m not here to judge them,” she said. “I’m there to tell them they are loved, that they can live a good, decent life. I think we forget how important it is to tell people in prison that there is redemption. They can change. We all can change.”
Nardo Lopes finished his sentence for killing her Bobby, and Isuara saw him not long ago when he came to visit his family up the street. It didn’t bother her. She wishes Nardo well. She hopes he leads a good, productive life from now on. “If you can forgive someone,” she say, “you will be forgiven.”
Isaura Mendes is a life giver, so I add her to our saints on the Communion table today. (place leaf with her name)