One scripture passage in the lectionary for this week is the first part of the Book of Ruth. At first, that thrilled me because the story of Ruth is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. But this time, when I read it again, the story felt so different. It wasn’t that this old story that I love suddenly seemed distant or out-of-place. No, to the contrary, in the light of all that has been happening to us in the last year and a half, in the light of all the upheaval and stress and tragedy we have been experiencing, Ruth’s story now feels so timely, so recognizable. More than ever before, Ruth’s story is our story, and it perhaps can help us more than ever figure out what it means to live fully and faithfully now.
The story begins with tremendous tragedy, and it affects all the women in one family - Ruth, her mother-in-law Naomi, her sister-in-law Orpah. It was a “collective trauma,” we might say today. Not only is there a famine across the land, but to make matters worse - much worse - all three women lose their husbands. We’re not told why they die, but we do know that their deaths create a deep crisis. And in ancient patriarchal societies, to lose one’s husband left a woman without security. This is particularly true for Naomi. She is an older widow, and a foreigner living without legal status in a strange, famine-struck land. She is left bereft. The Bible story doesn’t explain why these awful things happened. As is so often true in life, they just do.
Surely, all of us who’ve lived through 2020 and 2021 probably recognize some aspect of this. Loss. Death. Mass trauma. Grief… so much grief, everywhere we turn. We don’t know why these things have happened. They just have.
As the story goes on, Naomi and Ruth ultimately are able to move out of their tragic circumstances into a place of strength. And, for centuries, their story has been told as a positive story of resourceful women who take the initiative to provide for themselves. Hurray, we say, hurray for strong, resilient, resourceful women, saving the day again, even when they are vulnerable foreigners without any security! Hurray also for women showing what it means to be faithful.
But am I the only one who just feels very, very, very tired just reading Ruth’s story? That’s part of what felt different to me when I read it this time. It’s yet another story of women struggling - women struggling with tragedy, struggling with loss and grief - and it’s all so familiar, all so recognizable, and it wearies my soul.
In our time, women continue the wearying struggles. Across the globe, women have borne more than their share of the burden of the pandemic and the many other crises we face. In fact, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated one of the chronic struggles of women, the experience of domestic violence. I work for a media nonprofit, Odyssey Impact, which produces and engages documentary films. Over the last 18 months, we have been developing a film series called “Healing the Healers.” These films focus on spiritual care and justice issues facing faith leaders today. One emphasis has been equipping pastors to respond to domestic violence, and along with my colleagues I have spent hours and hours talking with pastors, chaplains, and faith leaders of all kinds who have been touched in some way by domestic violence in their congregations, and sometimes in their own lives. These clergy know firsthand that the isolation of 2020 and 2021 has compounded the trauma in people’s lives. These clergy are hearing - in pastoral conversations, in small group discussions, and in prayer requests - the increasing fear of domestic violence and psychological aggression. And it mostly impacts women and children.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Naomi surely felt overwhelmed. You can hear it in her voice when she turns to Ruth and Orpah, to her daughters-in-law, and said, “I have nothing left for you. You might as well turn elsewhere, leave me behind.”
But I want to share something surprising that my colleagues and I have learned over these last terrible 18 months, listening to pastors and to survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence. I have learned about the importance in the midst of trauma of people who stick with you, people who remind you, over and over again, you’re not alone. People who reassure you that it’s not your fault, that you are loved and you are not alone.
Naomi had just such a person in her life - she had Ruth. The truth is, in the face of grief and loss, in the face of trauma, even in the face of patriarchy that says, “Give up, there’s no way out,” Ruth does something different. In the face of despair - she tells Naomi, “I’m sticking with you. Wherever you’re going, I’m going, too.” She says YES to Naomi, she says YES to hope and faith, she says NO to the cultural rules of patriarchy that would have these women abandon each other.
Here’s another surprise - in biblical genealogy, Ruth is actually Jesus’ "great-grandmother" [several dozen "greats," that is, but an ancestor]. It’s so fitting, since she is indeed a reflection of what Jesus means to us, God’s presence with us, and God’s promise to us. Even when we feel like Naomi, that God’s hand is against us somehow, we have Ruth’s fervent faith that we are better together, and that we are beloved.
What Ruth meant to Naomi was passed down, generation to generation, all the way to Jesus, and through Jesus, passed down to us. And that is more than merely a family tree; this is each successive generation bearing in their bodies and lives both the trauma they have experienced and the hope that takes them forward.
In Resmaa Menaken’s book My Grandmother’s Hands, he remembers the scarred calluses on his grandmother’s hands, calluses she got from picking cotton. He realizes that in her hands, actually inscribed into her body, was not only her weary work in the field, but centuries of cruel slavery and the horror and anguish of white supremacy. For us, too, in our bodies, all the traumas and inequities of our history are written and living still.
I wonder what it felt like to be Naomi and Ruth and Orpah, making wrenching decisions about what to do and about which way they would go. They must have felt this not only in their minds but in their bodies. What did their bodies feel like? I wonder if they felt the same despair and exhaustion and trauma that we feel in our bodies, deeply embodied in the bodies of all of us - Americans of color and White Americans too. Maybe we need, in times like ours, to listen to the Ruths in our lives, to our grandmothers in the faith. Listen to those who love us no matter what, who stick with us to the end, who say YES to hope and NO to oppression.
The wisdom of Jesus’ "great-grandmother" Ruth is absolutely for everybody. Every. Body. The other faces in my head as I sit with the story of Ruth are actually of a white American father and his son. Years ago, I saw the movie The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, and I don’t think more than a few months pass by without me thinking about scenes from that film. In this movie, an apocalypse of some kind has happened and several years have passed. The sun barely shines anymore, hardly anyone is alive, the whole world is winter grey. Nothing grows, so there is absolutely no food, and most people have starved to death or taken their own lives. We follow a man and his son as they try to make their way South, to where they’ve heard the sun might shine more.
It seems the very few people who are still alive have descended into terrible behavior, doing horrific things to one another in order to stay alive. The man is constantly instructing his son on how they must protect themselves from the bad people, without becoming bad people.
A major question throughout the movie is this: “Are there any good people left?” The father doesn’t care to take any risks to find out, but the son is dying to have bonds with other human beings, to find some other good people.
We watch the father and son walk day after day, trying to find something edible, fighting starvation, barely escaping butchers and thieves, fighting sickness and injury. At one point the father tries to answer his son’s late-night questions about good people and bad people. “What makes us good people?” the son asks. The father answers, “We are carrying the fire.”
In light of the story of Ruth and Naomi, I see “carrying the fire” to mean carrying a faith, an assurance, an identity - an understanding that we will be steadfastly loving to one another - no matter how bleak our existence, how deep our wounds, we are safest, we are truest, we are most free when we remember to stick with each other, to hold onto each other with love and to be with one another as God is with us.