Adapted from a homily at the Living Church Foundation’s annual requiem Mass, Oct. 26
We come to this annual requiem where we pray for the departed supporters of this venerable institution. And the question occurs to me: Why do we bother with this — and I use this adjective merely descriptively — with this archaic practice?
Perhaps it is just our joyful way of bothering the evangelicals in our midst. After all, praying for the dead — especially the, um, long since departed or, as one might refer to them, the well dead — praying for the dead is a practice unappreciated by many of our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Perhaps the inaugurators of this custom just wanted to indulge in one of the particularities of a certain kind of piety.
But of course that’s not it at all. Wisdom tells us this morning: But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.
Most of the world thinks we are nuts this morning for this service, not because they disagree with the presumed Christian theology and piety such worship represents but because they think these men and women we name before God this morning are dead and gone. They think them well dead — that is to say, barely remembered on earth and certainly lost to any greater significance.
But that is not true. Our worship here this morning — our prayers commending our brothers and sisters to the Lord — is fundamentally a proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We do this every year for the sake of those for whom we pray, to be sure — there are names we don’t recognize but also names many of us remember fondly — we pray for them out of our Christian love for them. But we also take time out from the business of this foundation so that we might proclaim that those who seem to die — whatever unrighteousness they may take with them to the grave — those faithful servants of the Risen Lord are made righteous by his blood and grace, and as righteous, they are in the hand of God.
We do this until the Lord comes back because doing so proclaims the most basic of truths about the created world: Namely, God loves his creation so very much that he is making all things new — including these our predecessors in his service.
So it is meet and right for us to be gathered here this morning to proclaim how the gospel worked in the lives of these God’s servants.
But there is still another reason for us to remember the dead this day — in fact, there are more reasons than we have time for this morning. But there’s one more we would do particularly well to remember together.
By the work of the Holy Spirit, I have of late been fascinated again by the story of Ruth, her husband, Boaz, and their son.
You know the story. Ruth is a woman with a particular kind of problem following the death of her first husband. This problem relates in part to the legal structures of her day, which require a man of a particular degree of familial relation to marry her so that she and her property would be redeemed.
Ruth, at the instruction of her mother-in-law Naomi, makes a late-night visit to her would-be redeemer, Boaz, to entice him to marriage. We pick up the story there:
So [Ruth] went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
Boaz, waking up more fully to the situation, declines her most immediate generous offer to “spread his wings,” but then makes this startling commitment, and I want us to hear this clearly:
“And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the Lord lives, I will redeem you.”
Boaz says to Ruth the words that will eventually be said over and over and over by his generations-later descendent, Jesus Christ, to that redeemer’s heirs by baptism: “I will redeem you.”
Jesus says to us, as we pray he has said to the generations who have served the Living Church Foundation before us, what he said to them, “I will redeem you.”
We gather this morning to pray for our predecessors in this work because in doing so we hear Jesus say those four critical words to us anew.
And there’s still one more thing: The last words of the book of Ruth bear particular relevance to our work. It’s a genealogy — it’s one of those verses that we all skim through when reading the Scriptures.
The last line of the book of Ruth: “Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”
The relatively small-scale faithful actions of one man — one man’s small work of redemption — got us within two generations of David, and set the genealogical stage for the world’s redeemer.
Our work is often small. The Living Church has arguably never been healthier or making a bigger impact upon our church, but human work is always small. Boaz merely did the right thing in one instance — a relatively small act.
And yet he is a critical part of the world’s redemption.
So it was true for those for whom we pray today, and so we pray it will be true for us. We gather this morning to pray for their souls that they are seeing the Lord and that he says to them: I will be your redeemer. And, in the midst of a broken and bleeding church, we gather this way each year to beg that he might say the same to us and that he might bless our redeemed heirs as he blessed those of the redeemer Boaz.
“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left us this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel.”