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Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

For All the Saints

In life and in death, we belong to God. If asked to choose one statement that summarizes the Gospel, this is the one upon which I’d hitch my life and hang my hat. In life and in death, we belong to God. On this Memorial Sunday, there are no words that can offer comfort quite like these. For they declare that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in this life or the next that has the power to pull us away from God’s love. God’s love has its grip on us, and that is the first and the last word on the matter, the Alpha and the Omega. In life and in death, we belong to God.

Now, for a time, God showed us that we belonged working most directly through Jesus Christ, who came straight down from heaven wearing the skin of a little baby. And, during that time, scripture tells us crowds were fed, storms were calmed, and illnesses were healed. Truth was tangible, and holiness was visible. But then, Jesus was crucified. He was dead, but then he was raised, resurrected, back among us, but again, only for a time; he ascended into heaven, returning to God.

For a time, God worked most directly through Jesus, but once Jesus was no longer among us, God was left with, well…us. Today, when we are looking to see God at work in this world…more often than not, we find God when we look at one another, because, to quote the Apostle Paul, we are now the body of Christ.

So, if it is true that in life and in death we belong to God, and I believe that it is, then it is also true that through God, we also belong to one another.

The book of Ruth is a bit unusual for the Old Testament. God is present and invoked, yet never once speaks or acts directly. But more profoundly than any other in the Old Testament, Ruth offers us “a memory of the future”—a vision of future hope that comes to us as a story from the past.[1]

It begins “in the days when the judges ruled,” which means, “Once upon a time, when things were absolutely terrible,” because the last verse of Judges repeats the refrain of that book: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” You don’t have to be an expert sociologist or theologian to know that’s code for “everything went to pieces.” So, it was the worst of times that a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their two sons go to Moab, widely considered to be one of the worst places. Not long after, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Her sons marry, but then they die, as well. Naomi is left without her sons and without her husband. She is left with two daughters-in-law from the worst place, in the worst place, during the worst time.

She sets out on her way home, to Judah, but first tells both of the younger women to go back to their own households. “You have dealt kindly with me,” she says, “and so may the Lord deal kindly with you. Turn back,” she says.

One of the daughters-in-law does exactly that. But Ruth, scripture tells us, Ruth clings to Naomi, as she speaks these familiar words: “Do not press me to leave you,” Ruth says, “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.”

These are the words of an outsider recognizing the deep pain and need of an insider. The words of someone who has almost nothing to lose giving up what little she has to be with someone else.

This book takes place “when everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” but it tells a story in which every major figure acts in ways that are upright and just. It is a story in which survival for one means survival for both, for in the end, Ruth marries Boaz, who provides not only for her, but for her mother-in-law. It is then that Naomi, who not long ago was a woman without her husband and without her sons, is declared to be the grandmother of Ruth’s son.

“Blessed be the Lord,” the community tells her. “This day, you are not without next-of-kin; and he shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”

Katherine Sakenfield, professor emerita at Princeton Seminary, says, “In this reading, theology is hidden and subtle. God does not break into the world in miracles that overturn nature or bring dead loved ones back to life. Instead, God acts through Ruth and her unquestioning fidelity. Her love and devotion is the place from which God’s salvation comes.” Ruth reminds us that we belong to one another.

Just over a week ago, a man named Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people attending Shabbat services. I do not know what happens in someone’s mind when they perpetrate an act like this one. But I think it happens when we forget that we belong to one another.

Ruth clings to Naomi as she says, “Where you go, I will go.” The verb “to cling” is not uncommon in Hebrew. It shows up a number of times in the Old Testament. The most immediate connection, however, is with Genesis 2. In the second creation story, God creates a man and puts him in the Garden of Eden, but in the very next breath, God says, “It is not good for a human to be alone.” The rest of creation is brought forth, animals and birds and insects of every kind, but still the human has no real partner. It is then that God fashions another human, woman this time, and the man cries out with delight, “This at last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And this is why, the story tells us, that men and women leave their parents, and the text says, cling to one another.

When ancient listeners would hear the story of Naomi, and hear that Ruth clings to her, they would immediately hear God’s voice saying, “It is not good for a human to be alone.” At its deepest core, the creation story does not lift marriage up above all other forms of relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth. What it does is remind us that from the very beginning, God intended for us—God designed us!—to belong to one another. Creation is not complete until we are together.

When we forget that, then everything goes to pieces.

My friend Tom Currie, a remarkable theologian and a retired Dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary, says, “Our greatest heresy is thinking that we could, by separating ourselves from one another, be better off, or be more faithful, or more unified.”[2]

It is easy to forget that we belong to one another. And it is hard sometimes to act like we belong to one another. Thankfully, there is always someone to help us. It’d like to tell you a bit about Ari Mahler. Ari is the nurse who helped save Robert Bowers’ life. Robert Bowers, who yelled, “Death to all Jews,” as he was wheeled into the ER. Ari Mahler, the nurse, is Jewish.

He said, “When I was a kid, being labeled ‘The Jewish (anything)’ had derogatory connotations attached to it. As an adult, deflecting my religion by saying ‘I’m not that religious’ makes it easier for people to accept I’m Jewish. ‘I’m not that religious’ is like saying ‘Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you.’ The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the US population, yet 60 percent of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much. So, here I am, the Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers. To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into his eyes. All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion. I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I wanted him to feel compassion; I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Love is why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. Love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. Love is the only message I wish to instill. If my actions mean anything, it is because love means everything.”[3]

Ari Mahler knows that no matter what the world tells him, the truest truth is that we belong to one another.

So does Eric Manning, the senior pastor at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. Just over three years ago, the shooting was in his church, and nine members, all of them black, were killed. Pastor Manning flew to Pittsburgh on Thursday to spend time at the synagogue with its members and leaders. He came, he said, “To show solidarity.” Above all, he wanted to make sure they knew they were not alone.[4]

What does all this have to do with All Saints Day, or as we call it, Memorial Sunday? It is a day when we remember that we are never alone—because we belong to one another, but even more than that, because in life and in death, we belong to God. And God’s love holds on to us in a way no violence can rend, no storm can shake, no death can defeat.

Think, for just one moment, of someone you have loved and lost. Think of a favorite memory together, and how much you loved them then. Now, think about how much you love them now.  It’s not any less, is it? Of course it’s not. It could not be. Because love holds on. It clings to us, even in the face of death. And, if that is true of our love, how much more so is it true of God’s love?

Our loved ones who have taken their place in the communion of saints, they are just fine. They are held in the very hand of God, and there is nothing that can pull them away. Which means they are there, still loving us, too. The fact that we belong to one another is one more God-given theological truth that withstands anything and everything, including death. It holds firm even when everything else around us is falling apart, and we are the better for it.

Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw poet, writes it this way: “Walking, I am able to listen to a deeper way. Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.” She’s right. You are. We all are.

 

[1] Letty M. Russell, Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987, p.27

[2] I made a quick note of this years ago. It is a paraphrase of some wise words from Rev. Dr. Tom Currie. His original statement is certainly more eloquent than my scribbles and memory.

[3] Posted on Ari Mahler’s personal Facebook page on November 3, 2018, with permission set to public. Accessed November 3, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/ari.mahler/posts/10218102032530177

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/03/us/pittsburgh-synagogue-charleston-emanuel.html Accessed November 4, 2018.

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