Ruth Chapter 1: Naomi’s Emptiness

Ruth Chapter 1           August 10, 2014

1795-William-Blake-Naomi-entreating-Ruth-OrpahIt’s hard to see hope in today’s headlines: Palestine and Israel; Gaza; Iraq; unaccompanied children pouring over the border.  These are unfolding tragedies and I feel hopeless.  We come to worship in part to be given a glimpse of hope, and so we turn to a tragic story in the book of Ruth to look for hope today.

Today’s tragic story begins in famine. The people are starving. Elimilech and Naomi’s family is starving. Can you imagine being so hungry, so desperate for food that you pick up and move? My guess is that most of us cannot even fathom what this is like. And they don’t just pick up and move to somewhere they’ve always dreamed of going. They don’t move in with family. They move to enemy territory – Moab- to live among people they’ve always hated. Like Israelis moving into Palestinian territory.

So imagine the stress of moving to save your lives. Imagine Naomi and Elimilech lying awake at night in fear for their boys’ lives. Most of us have moved and under the best of circumstances, it’s stressful, isn’t it? So this is awful, this displacement. This crossing the border in search of food and life.

And then Elimilech dies. The man of the house, who truly was Naomi’s ticket for life, dies. We don’t get the details of this death. But the boys, Mahlon and Kilion, Naomi’s sons fall in love and marry Moabite women. The refugees marry the locals. So let’s keep track here: this family moves because there is no food for them; dad dies, the sons marry. And then, of course, like all tragedies, the sons die.

In the version of the Bible we’re reading (The Message), the transition from all this tragedy to the next move in the story reads like this: One day she got herself together. Can you imagine how long this took for Naomi? We’re not given any sense of time at all. We’ve not heard about the weeping and the wailing, the funerals that lasted for days, the period of mourning. But we know it must have been an awful time, no matter the length. But certainly longer than 6 weeks, which is when many who are grieving have said is when people expect you to be over it.

So far this story is about loss. Loss of security that comes from knowing you have something to eat. Loss of homeland, a place where you are known, a place where you are from. Loss of place. Loss of family. This story’s foundation is filled with nothing but loss.

So it’s time for Naomi to go home. And time for the severing of these final 2 family members. She tells Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law, to stay in Moab, their home land, for there is no life for them back in Bethlehem. They’ll be foreigners and made vulnerable because they’re single. Naomi can’t provide husbands for them. She has nothing to offer them. It makes better sense for them to stay. To go back to their father’s homes, to marry again.

They weep together. And while Orpah stays in her homeland, Ruth makes this pledge, saying she will not leave Naomi: Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die.

Where Naomi only expects continued emptying, continued losing, Ruth sees life and fullness. Ruth sees future.

In this first chapter of Ruth, though, Naomi has a place to return home to, where she will no longer be a refugee in a strange land. She is thoroughly empty, in despair, living out this new life of emptiness, scarcity.

Naomi declares to her townspeople upon her homecoming, Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; the Hebrew meaning of her name, Naomi, is pleasantness. And the Hebrew meaning of the word Mara is bitterness.

God has dealt bitterly with me. I was full. Now I am empty.

Welcome home, indeed.

When have you been empty? When have you looked around and thought, the Lord has dealt harshly with me. Was it the diagnosis and the following hellish treatments? Was it the end of a marriage you didn’t see coming, or was it in a marriage that always felt scarce to you? Was it when all of your friends changed in school and you have no idea why? Was it when you lost your job or the retirement that has not been what you thought it would be? Was it when you lost a beloved pet?

Naomi is angry at God. She has suffered a great deal. She is empty.

And yet where she sees emptiness, Ruth has said, I will go with you.

Have you noticed that God has not spoken in today’s story? In the book of Ruth, God does not appear as a pillar of fire or in a cloud. God’s voice does not boom into the land of famine. God is spoken of harshly.

1960Chagall_Bible_NaomiandherdaughtersinlawYet, the book of Ruth tells us again and again that all of life is God’s. And in this book, God is not an abstract concept but is visible and acting through people in all kinds of ways. Because, just like our every day lives, God does not always speak from a cloud but instead from a person’s love. Or God speaks to you out of a person’s suffering. I’ve seen and heard God’s faithfulness to Phyllis as she navigates her husband’s cancer. She is suffering, yet I am drawing strength from her faith. Just as I have from Saras Shorter and Pollmann, as they live and suffer and live with cancer. Their lives reflect God, even on the trying days. Or God shows up in the people who surround them, who say to them, “I go where you go.” So many of you know what it means to suffer.

And that’s Naomi’s experience in chapter 1 – she is suffering. And God acts through Ruth who stays with her mother-in-law and in doing so, loses her homeland and her status as a native, she loses the protection and life she would have back in her father’s house — to move to enemy territory, to become the stranger. And, an unmarried woman during this time was incredibly vulnerable.

God does not create suffering to teach us a lesson. God is with us in the suffering and gives us people to help bare the pain, to endure, and to, at some point, grasp onto hope and to get a glimpse of the future.

The future is hinted at at the end of chapter 1: And so Naomi was back, and Ruth the foreigner with her, back from the country of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

The famine is ending, the harvest is beginning. Hunger and scarcity begin to turn toward fullness and abundance. All around the empty will be filled up.

Thanks be to God.