The Book of Ruth
November 1, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Introduction to scripture
On All Saints’ Day, we remember loved ones who have died, honoring them by speaking their names aloud and lighting candles as a way of expressing how much they continue to live in our hearts even though they are physically gone from us. Though the ceremony occurs only once a year, the memory of loved ones gone is a constant in our lives; we wish they could be here to share our experiences still, we wonder what children would look like had they had the chance to grow older, we see our parents in ourselves and appreciate them in new ways even after they have gone. Being a Christian doesn’t erase the reality of mortal death and while we might take comfort in the belief that our loved ones continue to live in a place of eternal peace, that doesn’t take away the pain of missing them now. For some, the grief of losing a loved one to death never fully heals but instead we only learn to bear it like an amputee learns to bear a loss limb.
The Bible promises that God is present in our suffering, but that at first seems like cold comfort. We want a God who can fix things — who can make the pain go away and magically take our hearts back to a time before they were broken — and we may scoff at the idea that God’s promise to sit with us in our suffering is going to do us any good. The Book of Ruth, however, shows us that there is healing power in steadfast presence and grace, and so for today’s scripture, I would like to read to you that famous passage from Ruth 1:16-17.
Ruth says to her grieving mother-in-law Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you 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. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Although the title of this book is the book of Ruth, it could just as easily have been called the book of Naomi because it begins with the story of Naomi’s heartbreak and it ends with Naomi’s redemption, a redemption that occurs because of the power of Ruth’s presence.
Naomi’s life begins as a series of tragedies and like Job, she is an innocent victim. When famine strikes her hometown of Bethlehem, the Bible says that it is Naomi’s husband, Elimilech who chooses to uproot his wife and sons to find a place with better prospects. It is Elimelech who decides to cross the border into the land of Moab. It is Elimilech who decides to settle his family in a strange neighborhood, far from the friends and family of Naomi’s childhood. But being the protagonist for two whole verses, exhausts Elimelech and he dies, leaving Naomi a widow in a foreign land with two sons who very names forewarn us of their doom: Mahlon, which means ‘weak and ill,’ and Chilion which means, ‘finished and spent.’ And sure enough, they too soon die leaving their mother, Naomi, bereft and isolated. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi expresses the depth of her pain by saying that she has changed her name from Naomi which meant ‘pleasant,’ to Mara which means bitter, and when her daughter-in-laws say, “You still have us,” Naomi pushes away the suggestion that there is any joy still possible for her.
“Turn back, my daughters,” she says to her sons’ widows. “Why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way …. because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”
Ruth, however, refuses to leave Naomi’s side. She says that she will accompany Naomi wherever the woman goes even it it means she has to leave her own home and her own people to do so. “Where you go, I go; where you lodge, I lodge; your people my people, and your God my God.” While we focus on the poignant words of promise that Ruth makes to Naomi in these famous verses, it is just as important to notice what Ruth does not say to Naomi. She doesn’t say, “Don’t call yourself Bitter; try to keep your thoughts positive.” She doesn’t say, “Everything will be OK. Time will heal all wounds.” She doesn’t say, “The first year is the hardest but I’m sure it will get better after that.” Ruth doesn’t try to make Naomi feel better. That’s probably the most amazing thing about Ruth’s commitment: she promises to stay with Naomi in her suffering even if Naomi’s suffering never changes.
How many of us are able to do that for another? We are usually pretty good when someone’s sorrow is new but after awhile, we become impatient with other people’s grief.
“It’s been three years; it’s time to move on,” we think as if a person is deliberately refusing to heal. And if it is hard for us to cope with someone’s lingering sorrow, it’s even harder for us to accept the bitterness, anger, depression, or resentment that often engulfs a person in the wake of a tragedy. Such deep emotions disturb us and so we try to deflect them; we say to the grieving person, “At least their death was peaceful. At least he had a good long life. At least you have your other children to keep you busy.” We don’t actually say those kinds of things to make the other person feel better; we say them to make ourselves feel better as if by looking on the bright side of tragedy, we won’t have to cope with the painful emotions it leaves in its wake. For the person who is grieving, however, there is no bright side. Death hurts. Loss undoes us. And what a person in grief needs most is for others to accept that for that moment, and for who knows how long, their lives will be defined by our sorrow. Mara — bitterness — will be their name, because grief is hard and there is no way around it.
As an aside, when you are talking with a person who is grieving, any sentence that begins with “At least,” is one that you should probably not say.
Ruth doesn’t try to comfort Naomi with platitudes; she doesn’t try to make her feel better; and she doesn’t put a timeline on Naomi’s grief. Instead, she gives Naomi the gift of accepting presence and promises to remain with Naomi even if Naomi has now become Mara, the bitter one.
The Bible says that Naomi’s reaction to Ruth’s incredible pledge was silence: “She said no more.” This is not a fairy-tale where Naomi’s pain is suddenly healed by Ruth’s love. Naomi’s bitterness is too deeply settled upon her and the weariness of her despair so great that she doesn’t even have the energy to argue with Ruth’s grace but unbeknownst to her, this is where her healing begins. Ruth follows the silent figure of Naomi wrapped tightly in her dejection all the way to Moab. She cares for Naomi, finds food for her so that she will not starve, and provides her company in her sorrow. She speaks love into Naomi’s silence and speaks acceptance in the face of her despair. And slowly, Ruth’s persistent grace gives Naomi a reason to live again. The Bible doesn’t say that Naomi’s grief disappears — I’m guessing it didn’t because how can someone endure so much sorrow without being changed permanently — but at the end of the story, when Ruth has a baby, the Bible gives the story back to Naomi.
The Bible says, “The women [of Bethlehem] said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin… God shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne a child.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’”
In Ruth’s pledge to Naomi, and in Naomi’s redemption, we see the power of God’s steadfast grace. God’s grace — God’s gift of love for us — doesn’t depend on our ability to turn ourselves around or to put on a happy face. God promises to stay with us, wherever we are, even if where we are is sitting in the mud of our despair and pain. God pledges to sit quietly next to us, uttering not one single well-intentioned platitude, but showing us through the power of that presence that that we are still loved and lovable even in our brokenness. And one day, because of God’s enduring grace, we will discover that we can still live even with our pain; that we can still find purpose even in our grief, that we who are lovable even in our despair can find a way to love again.