by David Baer, October 18, 2015
Text: Ruth 1:1-17
Some people just know how to hold on. A few years ago here at church we had a joint anniversary celebration for six couples who had each been married for over sixty years. Everyone was in good spirits, and eventually one of us younger folks asked one of these older husbands what the secret was. How do you stay married to the same person for more than half a century? He got a twinkle in his eye and said, “The secret is just two words: ‘yes dear’!” It was a lighthearted moment, and everybody laughed, but you know it wasn’t the whole truth. You can’t stay really, deeply committed to one person for that long simply by knuckling under all the time. Could someone really continue to love you, or even respect you, through the years if your part in the relationship was all give and no take? I’ll tell you what I saw, looking out at those couples. I saw husbands and wives who had each, in their turn, made way for each other. I saw a couple where a man whose wife had taken care of him when he was a busy career man now took of her as she struggled with her many ailments. And I saw wives nurturing husbands through the trauma of a long-ago war that was still all too present for some men. I saw all of them making way for each other as though they were dancing to a tune only they could hear, moving graciously together and never letting go. Some people just know how to hold on.
The book of Ruth is a strange book to include in the Bible. It’s a short novella, a story about family, tragedy, and new beginnings. But although the characters mention God here and there, God is always off stage, never visibly part of the action. How does this book become scripture? What does it have to contribute to the story of the God of Israel, who promises, blesses, and saves? What makes this a sacred story? We’ll get to that in a bit, but for right now I’ll just say that this is a story that’s very much about holding on. Ruth knows how to hold on, to love without letting go, to love without hope of an immediate reward. And it’s this passionate, selfless, dogged commitment to someone she loves that ultimately blesses her beyond anything she dared to hope or expect.
The story begins with a number of reminders about the fragility of life. Naomi leaves the land of Judah with her family to escape a famine, and so they become economic refugees, settling in a foreign land. There her husband dies, and although her two sons manage to marry women in that country, they also die, apparently childless. As a widow without any male family members to provide for her, Naomi has to return to her homeland. We experience this kind of fragility as well. Maybe you or someone you know has had to leave a beloved home for financial reasons. And in time we all go through loss. We aren’t in control of so many of the events that shape and move our life story.
And Naomi feels the pain of what has happened especially acutely. “Bitter” is the word she uses to describe how she feels, and she feels this bitterness so intently that when she arrives home in Bethlehem, she tells her family to stop using her given name, Naomi, which means “sweet,” and to call her Mara, “bitter,” instead. She feels this bitterness as an abandonment by God. God promised her ancestors blessing and abundance, but instead she has experienced loss and dislocation. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me,” she says. And she also feels this bitterness in a sense of isolation and separation. Ruth and Orpah are the only immediate family she’s got left, but she asks them to leave her, to let her go. “It has been far more bitter for me than for you,” she says, forgetting that her daughters-in-law have suffered their own loss as well. Naomi feels bitter, God-forsaken, and all alone.
But it is just this sad, bitter, and not terribly winsome woman that Ruth loves. As they embrace, Ruth holds her fast and won’t let go. The Hebrew word that the scripture uses here is the same as the word we read last month in Genesis, where it describes what happens when a man and a woman form a new family as husband and wife. Ruth clings to Naomi, and she solidifies their relationship by making vows of her own: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!” she says. “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.” This is a solemn promise that changes the course of Ruth’s life. She is all in. She has committed herself to a future with Naomi.
What’s especially remarkable is that she’s not getting or asking anything in return. As Naomi points out, there is no reason to hope that Naomi can whip up a new husband for Ruth. They are traveling to a land that is foreign to Ruth, where Ruth will have no other family or network of support, where the customs and language and religion are different, and where the people may not fully accept her as a member of their community. There’s not a whole lot of practical upside to making this choice. Nor is Naomi a particularly engaging companion at this stage of her life. If you read on a few verses beyond where we stopped this morning, you’ll find the scene where Ruth and Naomi make their way into the town of Bethlehem. Naomi tells the people who greet them, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” In other words: “I’ve lost everything that matters to me! Everything!” That must have been hard for Ruth to hear, but she doesn’t protest or turn on Naomi. She simply accepts Naomi for who she is, and she holds on.
This week I came across an article I had “clipped” a few years ago, a piece by a creative writing professor named Emily Rapp about caring for her little boy, who had Tay-Sachs disease. (Fair warning: this is an absolutely heartbreaking story, but true and beautiful in its own way.) At the time, there had been a lot of buzz over another mother’s memoir, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, whose author wrote about pressing her kids toward a successful future. For Emily Rapp’s son Ronan, no such future existed. She knew he would not live beyond his third birthday. She writes:
Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss.1
Rapp couldn’t prepare her son for a successful life. All she could do was love him fiercely, without conditions, without an agenda. “The only task here is to love, and we tell him we love him, not caring that he doesn’t understand the words. We encourage him to do what he can, though unlike us he is without ego or ambition…”
I would walk through a tunnel of fire if it would save my son. I would take my chances on a stripped battlefield with a sling and a rock à la David and Goliath if it would make a difference. But it won’t. I can roar all I want about the unfairness of this ridiculous disease, but the facts remain. What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go. …
Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.2
There is so much we simply can’t control. We don’t choose our children’s illnesses or our own. The ground we walk on shakes when we hear a diagnosis, lose a job, or go to war. But what Emily Rapp, Ruth, and those older couples did choose was to to hold on, to love someone without letting go, through disease, grief, and trauma. And they did this not in a transactional way, not because they expected to get something out of it, but because the one they love matters. There’s so much you just can’t control, so much you don’t get to choose. But you can choose to love and not let go.
The Hebrew language has a word for this kind of love. When you love steadfastly, faithfully, loyally, without letting go, that kind of love is called chesed. And again and again, throughout the scriptures, chesed is the word used to describe the kind of love that God has for God’s people. Other belief systems, other religions might have theories about God’s power or omniscience or omnipotence. That’s not what we have in our Bible. What we have is the story of a God who loves and won’t let go. And if a book like Ruth makes it into the Bible, it’s in part because in telling a story about faithfulness in human relationships, it’s giving us a glimpse of the fierce, uncalculating, unresting love God has for us.
There’s so much we can’t control. Even human faithfulness is fragile. Sometimes it’s because we find we’re not strong enough to keep the commitments that were supposed to last forever. But sometimes it’s because we’re vulnerable, finite human beings, and this other person we’ve been committed to has hurt us once too often. Between human beings, faithfulness takes two, and there’s no fault or blame when someone leaves a relationship that is abusive, that leaves them always diminished and damaged in body or in spirit. If there’s a difference in the way God loves, it’s not only that God surpasses us in faithfulness, but also that God is not damaged by disappointment and betrayal in the way that we are. God is strong enough to stay with us. God loves us even with arms stretched out wide on a cross. God’s love is stronger than our hatred, stronger than our wrongdoing, stronger than death itself. You are loved, loved with a fierce and passionate love that takes you as you are, that won’t let go through life’s disruptions and times of grief. God’s love will not be sent away home, but accompanies us into a future we can’t yet see. I love you, you yourself, says God, with all your grief and anger and anxiety. Where you go, I will go. Where you live—in loss, in fear, in pain, under oppression—I will live there with you. Not even death will part me from you. I love you steadfastly, faithfully, always, says the Lord. Amen.
Emily Susan Rapp, “Notes from a Dragon Mom.” NY Times, Oct 16, 2011, SR12. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/notes-from-a-dragon-mom.html?_r=0. Accessed 10/16/2015.