Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
November 4, 2018
Last Spring, my grandson, Liam—who was then a 2nd Grader—was assigned to write a book as part of their Earth Science curriculum, albeit a small book. The children learned information about our planet, and each child then chose what information to include in a book—things that seemed important to each individual. Then they illustrated their work, and composed a page that was “About the Author,” and a dedication page. Then the teacher sent these small, personal books out to be bound, and arranged for a book reading night at Shuler’s Book Store.
These 2nd-Grade authors dedicated their books to family members—parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and such. But when Liam read his dedication, he dedicated his book to the St. Jude’s Hospital. When his mother asked him about this dedication, Liam answered that he knew this hospital was involved in doing research to find a cure for cancer. He wrote this while I was still undergoing chemotherapy treatments and I recognized that this was a subtle act of grace on his part.
I tell this story only to illustrate what I mean by the phrase “ordinary grace.” Liam would not even understand what I mean using the word “grace.” But you see, ordinary grace is seldom an intentional act. It is not a spectacle, a miracle, or some supernatural bolt from the blue. When the people of Israel receive manna in the desert—bread of heaven; when they receive water from the rock or deliverance from an overwhelming enemy army—these are acts of supernatural grace, miraculous gifts from God. When Jesus heals the blind, calms the storm, or feeds the multitudes, these too are miraculous gifts.
Ordinary grace is a gift we receive that we barely notice. I did not know what I was hearing until Liam’s mother talked to me later. But now, after the fact, I can recognize the grace that was in these words of Dedication. Often, the giver of ordinary grace does not even know that he or she is giving a gift; and the same is true of the receiver. These are often anonymous acts of love. No one would use the word love—except maybe a preacher—but nonetheless—ordinary grace is an expression of love and care that largely goes unnoticed. Then later—sometimes much later—the significance of such grace is revealed to us.
The Book of Ruth is a story of ordinary grace. We are immediately introduced to ordinary people, living ordinary lives, in days gone by: Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons. All is present in a matter-of-fact style. There is a famine in Judah, an all-too-common occurrence in a desert climate. These are people who identify themselves by reciting, “My father was a wandering Aramaean.” So they pick up and follow the rain, moving to a place where they can grow crops. They cross the Jordan and move to the land southeast of Israel and the Dead Sea—a land called Moab.
There, this family is able to thrive and to build a life in a strange land. The boys grow up and take wives of their own. But we live life in good times and bad, in joy and in sorrow, and soon sorrow overcomes them. Again, the tone is matter-of-fact. First, Elimelech dies; then the two sons. We aren’t told how or why they die, just that they die; and now the family is three unrelated women. It is not easy in this ancient culture for three women to make a life together. Naomi has heard that the Lord has remembered Judah and there is food back home. She packs her things and thanks her daughters-in-law for being good and kind, and bids them to go home to their own mothers. Naomi has no hope for herself. She is going home as one defeated by life. But there is yet hope for the two young women. They may be able to start over again, build a new life.
Now our narrator invites us to get involved in this story. Now we begin to hear more than just the facts. Naomi is overcome by bitterness. Her daughter-in-law, Orpah, kisses Naomi and heads home. But Ruth clings to Naomi. Ruth makes a speech to her mother-in-law that has come to define what we mean by fidelity and faithfulness for centuries: “Where you go, I will go, and where you dwell, there, I will dwell. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” This pledge reaches beyond the boundaries of this life, for Ruth even says, “Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”
Ruth does not give up her own identity. She follows Naomi back to Judah, but she is always known as a Moabite woman. But as an immigrant, as a resident alien, Ruth becomes known by the content of her character. She is faithful, fearless, courageous and kind. It is her character, her steadfastness in everyday activities that comes to the attention of Boaz, a distant cousin to Naomi. Our narrator calls Boaz a gibbor hayil—a mighty man of valor. Before the story is over, Boaz will call Ruth by that same title, comparing her to a warrior whose ordinary courage and honor turns this story of death into a story of life. Naomi is the prodigal daughter, the one who was lost, but thanks to Ruth, she is found; the one who was dead, but with Ruth’s help and by God’s grace, she is raised to new life. By the time this short story is over, Naomi, who considered herself defeated by the bitterness of life—that same Naomi is nursing Ruth’s baby, a little boy named Obed, who is to become the grandfather of King David.
Ruth is one of those near-anonymous saints of scripture. She is not included when the writer of Hebrews recounts heroes and heroines of the faith. Matthew includes her in the genealogy of Jesus, but that is less than a sentence. It is worth noting that Ruth’s story was not written down until after the people of Judah returned to Jerusalem after the exile. There were religious leaders at the time that thought God’s laws should be observed to the absolute letter. To these leaders, that meant sending away the foreign women and children who had come back to Jerusalem with their new families. These were Moabites, Hittites, Egyptians, and others. This was a sad and sorry chapter in Judah’s history. The people who had been exiled to a strange land are soon sending away a new generation of exiles—women and children who have nowhere to go. The Bible records that there was one priest, a man named Jonathan, who opposed this action. Perhaps he was the one who was motivated to write down Ruth’s story when the people were overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. This story of Ruth, the faithful Moabite woman who was King David’s grandmother, is a story that reminds us that God’s grace transcends racial and ethnic barriers. I wonder if we have learned anything in the 3000 years since?
In the Reformed tradition, All Saints’ Day is an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown. While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of ages past, the emphasis is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God. For Protestants, everyone who seeks to live by faith is a saint. No one can earn the title; no one receives the title by merit. Saint is a designation that we claim by grace alone. Rather than putting saints on pedestals as holy people set apart in glory, we give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of the believers in this and every age. We use this as a moment to remember and give thanks for family, friends and members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. We also pray that we may be counted among the company of the faithful in God’s eternal realm.
This fall, one of the luminaries who was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church was Archbishop Oscar Romero. Fr. Romero served in El Salvador from 1944 until his death in 1980. Archbishop Romero was shot and killed while serving communion in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador. It has taken the Roman Catholic Church 40 years to canonize him because he was an ordinary saint. He was not responsible for a number of miracles.
What made Fr. Romero a martyr and a saint was also what made him an enemy of the state government and the military junta that was fighting for power in that small Central American nation. During the late 1970s, many ordinary people were dying while caught in the cross-fire; others were being taken out of their homes in the dead of night. These were called the ‘Desaparecidos’—the disappeared. It is now estimated that some 8000 people disappeared and were secretly executed during the civil war between 1978 and 1992. It was a policy of government-sponsored terror intended to discourage people from joining with guerilla forces to overthrow the government.
The official policy of the Roman Catholic Church was to remain silent about these matters, obeying the desires of the Salvadoran government. But Fr. Romero named the dead and disappeared. Sometimes, the only news that families could get about their missing loved ones was when Romero named them aloud during the Sunday prayers. For forty years, the people of El Salvador, especially the poor, have kept a picture of Archbishop Romero in their homes. When his canonization was completed on October 14, tens of thousands filled the plaza in San Salvador while fireworks were set off in celebration. If you wonder why any government would sanction the murder of a priest, you can pick up one of Romero’s sermons. He once preached to his congregation:
“There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands…. But it is important to note why the Church has been persecuted. The part of the church has been attacked and persecuted is the part that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the defense of the poor.”[i]
Naming and remembering the dead is a political act. It is a political act even when we do it here, because by naming and remembering the dead, we proclaim that there is power beyond the state: the power of God. By remembering, we claim a higher allegiance, a broader community that the rest of the world can imagine or understand. Caring for and about the poor, welcoming the stranger, standing beside the oppressed and the grieving—these are acts of love that humanize the “other” and civilize our world. I’ve quoted Frederick Buechner before, but I will do it again:
“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. But if you forget me, part of who I was will be lost forever.”[ii]
This is what Oscar Romero was doing decades ago—not allowing the souls of the poor and ordinary people to be lost and forgotten. It was what we did at Congregation Shaarey Zedek on Thursday night—not allowing the people of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh to fall into oblivion—the forgotten place. It is what we do this morning, remembering and honoring the dead, confident that God’s ordinary grace is life-giving. It is our way of insisting that God’s ordinary grace means that our life together is not limited by time or place but reflects the limitless freedom and power of God. That is why we approach this—the Lord’s Table—on All Saints. After all, what do we have that we have not received by the grace of God? Amen.
[i] This excerpt is found in William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK, 1998.
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1988.