Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Comedy of Pre-Advent

Ruth 3: 1-5; 4:13-17 (Proper 27B)
Baptism of Violet Rose Hickman
November 8, 2015

Good morning and grace and peace.  Moving into a rich season of the year in the wider church and here at St. Andrew’s.  The Sunday after All Saints Sunday —remembering just what a wonderful and truly beautiful and meaningful service that was last Sunday—choir and orchestra and our prayers remembering saints and heroes of the faith, and as well honoring and offering prayers in memory of our loved ones.  Next Sunday the Harvest Brunch and a celebration of some of the ways we here in this corner of the East End are able to share in some very exciting ministries in the wider world, and especially with our focus in Bolivia.  Then on the 22nd, St. Andrew’s Day, and bagpipes and our annual homecoming and patronal festival.  And then Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas and the New Year.  A reminder for me of what a real blessing it is to have the privilege to be a part of this great congregation.

In the patterning of the Church Calendar we recall the two great cycles of the year—reflecting the two great and inextricably intertwined theological themes of Incarnation and Atonement: Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, and Lent-Holy Week-Easter.  The calendar also charts out a transitional phase, an interlude of preparation, before each of these cycles.  We are more familiar with what is sometimes called “Pre-Lent,” and the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, as each of these in turn directs our attention ahead to the great drama of the Cross.  Similarly there is a somewhat less emphatic but still meaningful “Pre-Lent” that comes before Advent, the Three Sundays that begin today, and we would begin to listen carefully to the appointed Collects and Lessons and Psalms to hear the advancing footsteps of the Advent messenger.  The Collect this morning lifting up the Manifestation of the Blessed Son of the Father, to destroy the works of Satan and to redeem fallen humanity—and calling us to await eagerly the day when he shall come again, with power and great glory, lifting us forever in his presence.

So it’s not just the department stores and radio stations that are leaning forward into the calendar.  So too the Church and in the heart of every Christian.  Eagerly rushing forward to Christmas with the prayer of his First and Second Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

And a reminder in that this morning, with the baptism of Violet Rose, here at the same font where, wearing the same baptismal gown,  her mother Kristen was baptized by my predecessor Ralph Brooks at the end of July, 1985.  Just a tad over 30 years ago.  Violet’s parents and godparents standing at the crossing here presenting her for baptism and accepting the spiritual responsibilities of baptismal sponsors in the same place where on June 27, 1981,  her grandparents exchanged their marriage vows.  A lovely image of the life of the Christian family carrying on, one generation to another.

The Old Testament lesson appointed for this morning, from the Book of Ruth, seems very appropriate I think for this morning’s celebration of Violet’s baptism.  For her, and for all of us.  And especially in “Pre-Advent.”

We’ve been in this series for a couple of months now in the lectionary of what is sometimes called the “Wisdom Literature” of the Old Testament.  Some time back we had the reading from Proverbs 31, the portrait of the Capable Wife.  And then we had the readings from Esther, and from Job.  And now this morning we would remember the story of Ruth.

The story like so many of this part of the Bible begins in exile.  Easy for us to picture these days, with the images before us daily such great numbers streaming out of Syria and Afghanistan and Northern Africa.  Naomi and her husband and their two sons are forced by famine to become refugees, and they come to live in a foreign land, Moab.  Yet even so, far from home, they continue to hold on to the memory of their homeland Israel and their worship of Israel’s God. 

Time passes, and they begin to make a life where they are as best they can.  In time their sons marry local girls and begin to settle into their adult lives.  But then in a series of calamities perhaps reminiscent of Job’s, death takes first Naomi’s husband and then both her sons.  In sorrow and bitterness and regret Naomi gathers her two daughters-in-law together and gives them her blessing and tells them to return to their families, so that she herself can return in the ashes of mourning to die herself in the land of her ancestors. 

Which the first of the two daughters-in-law does.  But not Ruth.  Ruth refuses to leave the side of Naomi.  The famous line: “whither thou goest, I will go.  Where thou lodgest I will lodge.  Thy people will be my people.  Thy God, my God.”  And this deep and costly gesture of love and loyalty begins to plant a seed of transformation.  Naomi and Ruth return to Israel and to the Land of Judah, near the small country town of Bethlehem, where they find a farm owned by Boaz, a distant relative. 

Boaz welcomes them with kindness and generosity, begins to care for them.  And then, in the way now as the story unfolds of a wonderful romantic comedy, as time passes, we come to the scene in the reading this morning.  In the movie I would cast Tom Hanks as Boaz, Meg Ryan as Ruth!  In the secret mysteries of Jewish mothers, perhaps we would say, Naomi now knows and sees by all the intuitive signs what is in the heart and of Cousin Boaz—perhaps understanding him better than he understands himself.  How he looks up when she is standing across the field.  How his eyes follow her when she walks with the others to the daily chores of the farm.  Naomi has Ruth prepare herself, and go to his home, and once she arrives—well, the rest of the story.   We’ve read it here.  As at the end of every romantic comedy.  Love and marriage.  Laughter and wedding bells.   Joy, healing, and new life. 

And even to conclude with this wonderful note, Ruth’s first son Obed is embraced by Naomi, taken up into his grandmother’s loving arms—her own husband and sons gone, but now new life and a new generation.  Hope and promise.   A happy ending!

And even the parting word to us readers, as the first hearers and readers of the story of Ruth would have known already-- that this child Obed, the first-born son of Boaz and Ruth, would be himself the father of Jesse, who then in turn would be the father of King David.  And for us today, of course, as we look ahead through the weeks of fall and then to Advent, to know that he is the ancestor of Mary and so of our Lord Jesus Christ.  O Little Town of Bethlehem!  Not Thanksgiving yet, but already we can hear the angels singing to the shepherds in the fields.  Perhaps these very fields, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—I mean, Boaz and Ruth, first caught sight of one another.

God’s  great plan of salvation, the Holy Story of God, resting on this comedy of love!  When Ruth makes the decision to give up everything.  Not to return to her family, but to care for Naomi, who was lost in her bitterness, without hope for any future.  That one generous, humble, sacrifice of love--and how God took that and used it for purposes that have been in his heart from the beginning of time.  Anticipating the word of Ruth’s daughter Mary, who would say to the Angel centuries later, “Let it be as you have said.”    Again.  Pre-Advent.

Good to say this, for Violet on her baptismal day.  As she has been now washed in Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit, forgiven, cleansed, lifted to new life.   To have this sense of what God will use from her, from us.    We don’t know the specifics, but we know the author of the story, and that the story continues, drawing in each of our lives.  New lives one by one, generation after generation, here at the font of baptism and new life.

We have this rich liturgy.   Simple but deep.  The service would have been the same for Kristen in 1985 as for Violet this morning.  Parents and Godparents begin by making their particular commitments of prayer and support to see that the child they present is “brought up in the Christian faith and life” to the “full stature of Christ.”  And then on behalf of the child being baptized and on behalf of the whole congregation they begin what is sometimes called the “Baptismal Covenant” with those great statements renouncing the devil , the world, and our sinful nature.  And then so meaningfully:  “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”   Heart and soul and mind and strength. 

Like Ruth: “whither thou goest I will go.”  Like Mary: “Let it be to me as you have said.”  This free gift, without condition, no “Plan B.”  Like the old hymn, “O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end.”   Faithfulness, no matter what the cost.  This is what true Wisdom is all about, again and again through these words of the Bible as we have been hearing them over the past few months.  Proverbs and Esther and Job and Ruth.  The fear of the Lord.  To love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  

It is an image, a foreshadowing also for us and most importantly for us in “Pre Advent” of the love and sacrifice of Ruth’s great-great-great-great-great grandson Jesus, who was the Wisdom from on high. And an image and a foreshadowing of the life we share with Jesus in and through these baptismal waters.  

So welcome this morning to Violet Rose, and to say for her, and for us all, “Dare to be a Ruth!”  Because that’s how Christmas happens.  And with thanks for the opportunity that we all have to be renewed and refreshed in Christ.  

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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