The book of Ruth in so many ways shows us exactly the opposite of the book of Job. In Job when everything goes wrong, he first piously pouts and prays, and then as things get worse and worse, he eventually yells at God. I’ve shared with you before that I love the book of Job because it shows a God who responds to our pain, responds to our cries, responds even to our anger when it is expressed directly to God. Our God shows up, is present and loving. And in the end of Job, all that he had comes back to him in greater abundance than before.
But, while I deeply love the message of Job that God is there when we are honest, real and completely open with God, I think I love the book of Ruth even more. In the book of Ruth, we see a very different response to a similar situation. Naomi, who is, in many ways, the real star of the book of Ruth, has, like Job, lost everything. As you know, women had no agency at this point in time. They could not own property, they could not hold jobs. Everything they had and everything they were was dependent on the men to whom they were attached. So when Naomi loses not only her husband, but both of her sons, when her spouse and her children are dead and along with them, her livelihood, her property, and all that she has, she, too, has truly lost everything. This can’t be understated. Everything she knew was gone. And as she says here herself, she is too old to remarry and produce more sons. Unlike Job who can go on to remarry and have more children, Naomi is past that. So, like Job, she too is angry and grieving. As she says, “Don’t call me Naomi, (which means pleasant) but call me Mara (which means bitter) for El Shadai has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty.”
Like Job, Naomi is angry. Like Job, Naomi is in deep grief. Like Job, Naomi seems beyond hope. But unlike Job she does not act like she is beyond hope. Job sits and complains. Job sits covered in sackcloth. But Naomi moves herself into action, instead. She picks up to move back to her home land, having hope that there will be food there for her. She doesn’t start with a complicated plan. She just starts by putting one foot in front of the other. We are told, “She arose… because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them.” So while she may have been expressing pain, expressing despair, she chose to act out of her hope.
And what she finds, in this first step, this unclear, unplanned, but decisive first step to go home is that she is not alone. Ruth, who has also lost her husband and therefore her livelihood as well, commits to going with her. And Ruth is adamant in that decision. Naomi takes a step into life, and in doing so finds she is not alone.
This is my message for each and every one of you today, and what I hope you will take from today. When we choose to step forward in hope, to take action despite our feelings of grief, of loss, or of despair; when we follow the call to act, we will find that we are not alone. We will not be sent on the journey by ourselves. The helpers are there, and they will come. And along with them, there is often a plan, often a vision, often the insight to see the call into the next step, and the next, and the next.
My family has been watching the series, “Call the Midwife”. This week we watched an episode from the second season in which the main character, Jenny, is trying to help a woman who had been forced, out of complete destitution, to go into the workhouses in London. She had been there for 35 years, until they closed. And now her life is one of agony, one of deep poverty. But at the base of her pain and her grief is the fact that when she had first gone into the workhouses, she had entered with five little children. The way these workhouses functioned was that all children would be taken from you when you entered into the workhouse. All five of these very young children were taken from her. This woman, now an old woman, has no knowledge of what happened to her kids past the day that they were taken from her. But she yearns for them, calls for them, cries out for them. When one of the nurses goes to help her, all this woman can talk to her about is seeing her hope of seeing her daughter, Rosie, who at the time was the eldest of the five, and was 8 years of age, in particular, again. The nurse, Jenny, is so upset by all of this that she decides to find out what happened to the children. And she discovers that all of these five very young children died very quickly after being taken from their mother. “Failure to thrive” it was said. The system destroyed the children by taking them away from their mother. Jenny doesn’t know what to do with this information. She brings it back to Nanatus house, devastated by this history that she has discovered. And the response? “And what do you propose to do, Nurse Lee, now that you have garnered these unedifying facts?” When Nurse Jenny Lee says she doesn’t know, the nun continues, then, to quote the apocrypha, “you have been curious in unnecessary matters. The past remains the past. The present, unamended.’” Another of the sisters joins in, “Sister Monica Joan is right. It’s what happens in the here and now that counts.” Nurse Jenny Lee responds with, “Forgive me but her life in the here and now is not safe or filled with love. She waits every day for a child. For children that are never coming home.” The nuns respond, “Then you should turn your mind to that.” And so she does. Nurse Jenny goes and does more research, and she finds where the children have been buried, which is in a mass burial ground. But within that mass grave, there are specific locations for each of the children. She memorizes where each child is and then takes the old woman to the grave site. She says “We are standing by a public grave. There are many put in here. This is where they buried the workhouse inmates.”
“I had too many,” Mrs. Jenkins says.
“Yes, and they are all here.” Jenny replies.
“Together?” she asks.
“I was able to get plans of the cemetery and the graves in the public records. It’s all written down. Percy and May are lying next to each other. Just over there. Alice is to the right, over there. I think in the summer that tree must cast some shade there. And George is by the cross. Rosie is right here, Mrs. Jenkins, almost underneath your feet.” The old woman bent down, putting her hands on the snow over the grave of Rosie “I’d have liked her in with me to warm her feet. But I can see she’s tucked up safe.” She sobbed and cried, but was then was able to grieve properly and to finally find some peace, knowing where they were, knowing what had happened to them. Jenny then invited her into a new life: invited her to help her community to sew and make costumes for the Christmas pageant.
Nurse Jenny had seen a problem: the suffering of this older woman who had no closure, no way to grieve, no way to move on past those horrible 35 years. And while Jenny did not know what to do, she took her own suffering, her own pain, her own despair to her friends. While they didn’t give her the exact answer, they pointed her in the right direction. And in the end, after Jenny had taken the steps to learn, to share, to help move Mrs. Jenkins forward, it was the entire Convent that helped Mrs. Jenkins to find work, to find meaning in making the costumes. They, together, invited her into their community, and they, together, helped her to grieve, to mourn, and to find peace.
I think about Moses who knew what he had to do but was afraid to do it. In choosing to step forward, God provided that Aaron and Miriam would go with him and would help him. He was not alone.
I think about the women who started MADD: when Candace Lightner’s child was killed by a drunk driver, she knew something had to change. She put it out there and Cindi Lamb joined her (who had also lost a child due to a drunk driver). Together they were able to make a huge change. MADD has lowered the number of those who have died from drunk driving by half! That is huge.
The work that people are doing to help refugees from the Ukraine they are doing together. The work that Hope Solutions is doing to help the homeless in Contra Costa County started with people from a church dreaming and envisioning and planning together. There are so many needs in our world. But when we get stuck in the “I don’t know what to do” there is no movement. Pray, ask God what is the thing that is concerning you the MOST right now. And then speak about that! Share with us your fears, your concerns. Do you try to solve these problems alone. Together we can do so very much!
When we are in pain, when we are grieving, when we are struggling against loss and fear, we are called to listen to that pain as a calling from God to act. And when we do not know what we can do to act, the first thing we must do is to say “yes”. That’s it. Say “yes, I will act.” The second thing then that we are called to do is to remember that we are not lone rangers. None of us is here alone. Not one of us has been put here on this planet to solve the problems of the world on our own. We are made for connection, we are made for community. That pain in your heart, that tugging on your sleeve, that call to action: it is not given to any one of you alone. Our lone ranger complexes keep us stuck in inaction. And while God showed up for Job, and God will always show up for us, too, Job was not able to do what Ruth and Naomi did. Job stands as a lone book. Ruth, in contrast, is an ancestor of Jesus. Our ideas that we should be able to figure it all out on our own keep us from acting at all. We end up being Jobs rather than Naomis when we forget that God has not put us here alone.
It was together that Ruth and Naomi were able to rise above their situation and survive. It was together that Ruth and Naomi were able to make enough difference in the world that Ruth is listed as one of the ancestors of Jesus. It was together that they were able to thrive. And it is together that we, too, will change our world. All we have to do is say “yes”. And then look for the helpers. They are there. God makes sure of it!