Saturday, February 6, 2010

When the saints go marching in, Nov 1, 2009

Text: Ruth 1: 1-18

Have you ever wondered how many human beings have ever lived and walked on the face of the earth? I did a search this week, and found an informed guess in an article from the journal Population Today. The article speculated that there may have been as many as 100 billion humans born over the last 50,000 years . . . though perhaps only 50 billion of those people survived beyond infancy.

I looked into this question since today we are celebrating All Saints Day and tomorrow All Souls Day . . . in which case, just how many saints and souls are we talking about? 

The Population Today article was written to counter an urban legend from the 1970s. This legend suggested that 70% of all the people who had ever lived were alive at that time. Not so, says this article. If the figure of 100 billion is close to being accurate -- and given that there are about 6.8 billion people alive today -- the percentage is more like seven than seventy. Still the legend had at least a slight ring of plausibility to it because of the huge growth in human population in the modern era.

When I was born, the number of people of alive was just 1/2 of what it is today. And when my mother was born, there were fewer than 1/3 as many people alive as there are now. The population increases of the past few generations -- despite the horror and death of wars, starvation, and epidemics -- have been startling.

Here are some milestones. There were maybe only a few million people widely scattered across the earth 8,000 years ago when agriculture first began to replace hunting and gathering. By the time of Augustus Caesar and Jesus of Nazareth, that number might have risen to 200 million. The half billion mark was reached by 1650; the one billion mark by 1800; two billion by 1930, three by 1960, four by 1975, five by 1985, and six billion by 2000. If current trends continue, the earth might see 10 billion humans by 2050.

So when the saints finally do go marching in, it could be a very long line!

The text we focus on today for All Saints/All Souls Day is Ruth. It is a book written anywhere from 2300 to 3000 years ago, at a time when there were just 10s of millions of people on the planet, not billions; and when people from one village might have no contact with anyone outside it for their entire life. The book tells the story of one of our unlikely saints -- Ruth, a loyal and loving daughter-in-law, a member of the hated Moabite tribe, the grandmother of King David, and one of only five women mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew in his genealogy of Jesus . . .

Matthew begins his Gospel by detailing 40 generations of men that link Jesus with both Abraham and King David. 35 of those generations are marked solely by the name of the father, as one would expect in the first century when Matthew wrote. But there are also those five cases where the mother's name also appears -- these five are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and finally Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only do these five stand out for being women in a long list of men; they also stand out because all except Mary were not Jewish; and because all of them could be questioned for their morality. Tamar, a Canaanite, seduced her father-in-law Judah to finally conceive a son. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua destroy her hometown of Jericho. Ruth, as we shall see, was a Moabite who seduced her mother-in-law's rich relative Boaz to get a second husband and finally conceive a son. Bathsheba was married to the Hittite Uriah when she conceived Solomon with King David. And Mary, of course, became pregnant before she was married.

In passing, I will also note some other odd facts about Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. At the end of it, Mathew says that he has just listed 42 generations grouped into three groups of 14; but if you actually count them, he only lists 40! Nor does his genealogy match the only other one found in the Gospels, the one in Luke. Luke's genealogy lists 56 generations between Abraham and Jesus, not 40; Luke mentions no mothers, not even Mary; and Luke's genealogy goes back further than Matthew's: 19 more generations beyond Abraham all the way back to Adam. These differences illustrate several things perhaps: that reading the Bible as literal history often gets us nowhere; and that Matthew and Luke use their genealogies in different ways -- Matthew to emphasize the Jewish roots of Jesus in Abraham and David; and Luke to emphasize the universality of Jesus, taking him right back to the first man, Adam.

But to return to Matthew's women: why does Matthew single out four non-Jewish women of questionable morals in the first chapter of his Gospel? Whatever the reason, I'm glad he does because it allows me to highlight two things to think about this All Saints Day. The first is the idea that the distinction drawn between saints and sinners is not as clear as we are sometimes taught. A second is to show how the Hebrew Scriptures can have deep meaning for all people and not just for the Jews who first called them Sacred.

Take Ruth: she is not Jewish, but from a tribe that is hated and opposed by the Jews, the Moabites. The Jewish man she marries had come to Moab from Judah with his parents and brother because of a famine. Despite the fact that Ruth's husband dies before they have any children, she has fallen in love with her mother-in-law Naomi and promises to follow Naomi back to Judah and to worship Naomi's Hebrew God as her God. Once back in Judah, Naomi helps Ruth meet and seduce Naomi's rich relative Boaz, and God blesses this somewhat-questionable action by giving Ruth a son, Obed, and Boaz as a second husband. This marriage provides Ruth and her mother-in-law with security in a time when to be a woman without a man was very dangerous. Further, the marriage leads to a grandson, David, who becomes the most beloved King in the history of Judah. And further down the generations, the son Obed also leads to the birth of the King of Kings, Jesus. So who are we to judge Ruth, Naomi or Boaz? If the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel of Matthew hold them up as saints and not sinners, I can hardly disagree.

The Old Testament books often seem strange and wonderful to me, but many things in them disturb me. Take for instance an account from 2nd Samuel of how King David repays his grandmother's people, the Moabites: Quote, "David defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute." Hardly edifying stuff.

Also the Old Testament is filled with injunctions against inter-marriage between Hebrews and others -- except that it keeps happening! -- with Moses and Judah and Boaz and David and Solomon and many, many more. This contradiction in the Old Testament gets resolved in favor of the universal salvation foretold in Genesis 12: "All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you," God tells Abraham. And we are living proof of it.

Today we live in a unified world where people from every continent, religion, and culture live side by side; and in a world with so many links of trade and communication, that humanity is becoming one. This reality gives us another vantage point from which to view the story of Naomi and Ruth. Like many of us, Naomi and Ruth are nomads going where the economic winds blow. And like us, they overcome ethnic divisions and conventional rules of morality in order to love and support one another and to keep their families going. In these ways, I see them as saints that we can relate to.

So will Ruth and Naomi be in that number when the saints go marching in -- and perhaps more importantly, will you and me and the 100 billion or so other humans that have come before us be counted there too?

Well who knows, but I don't actually imagine salvation as looking like a long line of individuals trooping into heaven. On days like today when we stop to remember, thank and honour our ancestors, I imagine that their souls flicker to life and live briefly again within us. We also trust that their spirits have gone where we all originated; to the One Spirit that animates and sustains the universe.  But as I said, who really knows?

A lot can be made from various passages in the Bible about what awaits us when we die -- passages like the wonderful one Phyllis read from Isaiah this morning, and similar ones from Revelation or from Matthew. Some people find in these passages very detailed ideas -- for instance, that God has elected to save 144,000 of the 100 billion or so souls; OR precise descriptions of what heaven will be like.

While I too find assurance in our Scriptures and tradition, it does not take detailed form. Instead, I see our baptismal life in Christ as a movement away from individuality and towards union with all the spirits who are striving or who have striven for love.

I trust that Ruth, Naomi and Boaz have found ultimate safety and fulfillment in the arms of God, as will we all. Further, when we want to taste now the eternity and the healing that is promised to us, we need only open ourselves again to the grace of our baptismal vows, which are vows of death to an old way of selfish life and promises of resurrection to a timeless and selfless life within the Spirit of Christ.

With Grace, we can taste this communion with Christ now and see our salvation as through a glass darkly. Soon enough, we will see God face to face in the communion of all the saints and then know completely the glory that is to be found by dying to an old way of life and rising to new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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