Passage: Ruth 1:1-18
Date: November 1, 2015
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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The writer Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto (among other novels) had a best friend, a woman named Lucy, who, at the age of nine, was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. She survived the cancer, but one of the outcomes was a life of some disfigurement and thirty-eight reconstructive surgeries.And, as Patchett writes, “despite all of this, or because of it, she turns out to be the smartest person you’d ever want to meet, the most widely read, the most intellectually curious, the funniest, the best dancer.”
In reflecting on her relationship with Lucy, who died after seventeen years of their deep friendship, Patchett says this.“The ability to have a friend, and be a friend, is not unlike the ability to learn. Both are rooted in being accepting and open-minded with a talent for hard work.If you are willing to stretch yourself, to risk yourself, if you are willing to love and honor and cherish the people who are important to you until one of you dies, then there will be great heartaches and even greater rewards.”(from This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013, p. 187 and p. 193)
This morning, this All Saints Day, I would like to suggest that we think of saints not as the super-holy or the uber-perfect, but as those deep friends who have made us risk and learn, those whose presence changed our lives if not for the better, than at least for the more interesting and meaningful.Perhaps the most descriptive example we have of saintly friendship in the Bible is from the story of Ruth, which is a story about many things.
You could say that the book of Ruth is the story of how King David came to be; Ruth was his great-grandmother.You could say the book of Ruth is a critique of the levirate marriage law, in which a woman who is widowed is obligated to marry her husband’s brother.You could say that the book of Ruth is a story about the inclusion of the foreigner.You could say the book of Ruth is a story about a vulnerable woman’s demand that God take care of her and her kinswomen.And you could say that the book of Ruth is the story of friendship.
The words in today’s reading catch me every time.“Where you go, I will go, and where you live, I will live.”I have said those words only to one person in my life, and our going with each other and living with each other has been the result of countless conversations, negotiations, and compromises.Gregg once interviewed for a job in Willmar, Minnesota, and with all due respect to the good people of Willmar, had Gregg gone there, he would have gone by himself. Like I said – negotiations and compromises.
To pledge a friendship with someone is an extraordinary thing.If anyone has ever made that kind of pledge to you, you know the blessing that it is.You also know that such a commitment requires so much of us.It is as Ann Patchett said, a life of great heartaches and even greater rewards.
I think about those people we name as saints today, and especially those members of our congregation who died in these last twelve months.I think about the gifts of friendship that they offered to the world and to their own beloveds.
The gift of service to a nation, here and overseas.
The gift of butterflies and visits.
The gift of perseverance.
The gift of a hiking partner, a singing partner, the gift of never knowing a stranger.
I think about the two pastors who died, and the gifts they offered to their congregations, and the sacraments, and holy words.
What these members, and the others whom we will name later in the service, gave us was the gift of friendship, and friendship always, always calls us to a higher living, to a selfless living, to living with joy and sorrow hand-in-hand, almost every day.
Poet David Whyte put it this way.“Friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness.Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them.An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy.All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual friendship.Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.”
Who has been a saint to you?Who has been your deep friend?Over the years, how have you pledged presence to each other?What has forgiveness looked like?And if your friend,your saint, has died, can you begin to describe how you miss them?
“How they do live on,” Frederick Buechner writes, “those giants of our childhood, and how well they manage to take even death in their stride because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us…. The people we loved. The people who loved us.The people who, for good or ill, taught us things…. Who knows what 'the communion of saints' means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak,
but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us.”
Today, this All Saints Sunday, we affirm that idea, that the saints are not really gone, not in any eternal sense.We affirm that their lives touched ours;
we affirm that in their living they somehow changed the world, the way the flicker of a butterfly’s wings changes the world.We affirm, too, the promise of our faith, that death is not an end, but a comma.We affirm that their goodness lives on,
and we affirm that God promises us more of the goodness beyond this life, however that may happen, whatever that may look like. There will be light again beyond the grave, and we will see each other because of that light.That is the promise of our faith.
But perhaps that promise is too big to grasp most of the time, in the midst of living, in the midst of sorrow and grief and disappointment and rainy days.Let me suggest a different promise to hold onto, when the big promise is too much.It is the promise that Ruth made to Naomi, and, I think, the promise that God made to us in the person of Jesus.
Where we went, he went: on dusty back roads, to dinner parties, to synagogues, and lake shores, to a garbage dump, and a cemetery.
Where we lived, he lived: in backwater nothing of a town, the pawn of an empire, with no roof over his head but with the generosity of strangers.
Our people – our imperfect, vain, flawed, selfish people – we became his people.
And he became our God.
But perhaps this promise of Jesus is even too much to grasp on the rainy days, on the secular days, on the days when theology seems so insignificant next to poverty and war and disease.So let me suggest one more promise to hold onto, the promise that the saints in our lives made to us, the promise of friendship and forgiveness, of laughter and Kleenex, of presence and simple, glorious companionship.
That is what we celebrate today: the people we have loved and the God who gave them to us.They are all saints.
I’ll let David Whyte have the last word today, his concluding thoughts on friendship, and ours.
“The ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
To God be the glory. Amen.