Sermon | Speaking and Listening
Text: Ruth 1
Speaker: Sarah Martin
Originally this sermon was supposed to be about Ruth. But then I read what Naomi says at the end of chapter 1, the thing we just heard about her bitter life, and I was intrigued, and all the ideas I had for this sermon were about that, because my brain is kind of ornery like that. Then I thought about it, and realized, whenever this story comes up Ruth gets all the attention anyway. And Joel said it was all good, if I wanted to talk about Naomi, so that's what's gonna happen, folks. Although Ruth will make an appearance at the end.
The reason Naomi's speech intrigued me is that it's really a weird addition to the story. When Naomi and Ruth arrive back in Naomi's homeland, instead of jumping straight into the main narrative, the author gifts us this strange little interlude that's just Naomi throwing shade at God for letting all these bad things happen to her. And then she pretty much fades into the background of the story. What?
I don't really know why this speech is in there. Like most of the Bible—or anything—it could be interpreted in lots of ways. But, when I was thinking about why this speech might be included I did notice that Naomi sounds a lot like the character of Job.
In case you aren't familiar with the story of Job, I took a class on his book of the Bible in college, so I can tell you all about it. Joel said I could talk about Job too, so feel free to come with me on this brief detour. Basically, Job suffers a series of catastrophes orchestrated by God and Satan in order to test Job’s faith. (And if you're thinking, "Wait a minute, why are God and Satan working together?" well, evidently they've entered into some kind of cursed partnership for the duration of this story.) Anyways after the catastrophes, some of Job's friends show up and the next 85% of the book is just them all aggressively arguing about whether Job did something to deserve all this—which by the way we, the readers, know he did not, since we know this all happened because of God and Satan’s weird agreement to test Job's faith. Then at the end there’s a big speech God makes to Job, largely consisting of sarcastic remarks to the effect that humans are too small and insignificant to know anything about why things happen the way they do. Although, God does also devote a weirdly protracted amount of that speech to, as noted by a comment I once saw on the website Reddit, "rambling about his pet aquatic monster, the Leviathan." Which is true. And, also, the Behemoth, whatever that is, and horses, for some reason. You do get kind of get the sense that maybe God just needed an excuse to info dump on someone about all of God's favorite animals. But that's a topic for another day.
Anyways to return to the point, Naomi’s speech about how God has afflicted her and made her life bitter sounds very similar to a lot of what Job says. So, she struck me as having a similar internal response to her experience of suffering as Job had. Both of them seem sort of emotionally devastated by their experiences, and maybe because of that they are bold enough call God out for what seems to be unjust treatment.
This was fascinating, to me, because it’s like, atypical, for a bible character. Maybe even odd, or deviant. I mean, it seems like walking around with a metal rod in the middle of a lightning storm, proclaiming, “Strike me dead if you want, God, there are things worse than death and they’ve literally already happened to me, so it doesn’t even matter.” Is this just antagonizing God? Why is Naomi so focused on the fact that it’s “the Lord” that has caused her suffering? Is she correct, in saying that?
Well, maybe. But, people have been trying to figure out how God is involved with suffering for thousands of years, and I don’t have anything mind-bendingly new to say about that question today. I did think, though, that I wonder if for Naomi this is more about asserting her own innocence in this situation, than being a statement about Divine intervention in human affairs. Because I guess saying "God did it" is one way of definitively taking the blame off yourself. Maybe this was important for Naomi, because sometimes we—humans—can get caught up in an excruciating spiral of wondering if and how we could have prevented painful events, even if they were caused by forces beyond our control. Others can make this even worse if they perceive us to have more control over an outcome than we actually do. Like Job's friends, who think maybe God brought catastrophe upon him because he committed some kind of secret sin.
It all reminded me of something felt by the character Sam in Gabrielle Zevin's novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. This character has various chronic health problems leftover from a childhood car accident, and in regards to these Zevin writes, “Throughout his life, Sam had hated being told to ‘fight,’ as if sickness were a character failing. Illness could not be defeated no matter how hard you fought, and pain, once it had you in its grasp, was transformational.” Maybe Naomi's saying something similar with her speech.
I also wondered if she’s trying to get those around her to understand or accept how devastating her experience was. Which it was, because she was a woman who had just lost all her immediate male relatives, which in her society put her not only in a situation of having lost people close to her, but also the people providing for her basic needs, and her honor and purpose as the mother of two sons in a culture that valued having sons to carry on one’s family line above all else. So, her life had really been kind of destroyed. And she’d already lived through the famine that drove her family to Moab in the first place. And, like anyone, maybe she lived through other things we don’t know about—private tragedies too personal to be known or recorded by whoever wrote down this story.
I wondered if Naomi’s just trying to express her devastation because her speech reminded me of this music video by Billie Eilish from 2018 where Eilish drinks a glass of black liquid, and then it starts seeping out of her eyes later in the video. It came to mind because the way she sort of metaphorically drinks darkness reminded me of Naomi renaming herself “bitter” in this story, like she’s saying the devastation she’s experienced has become part of the core of who she is. (The footnotes in the text say the name she renames herself, “Mara,” means bitter.) But then I started thinking about the second line of that song, which is, “I’ve learned to lose, you can’t afford to.” This is one of Eilish’s most popular music videos, and I wondered if so many people liked that song and the video because it does say something true about the human experience of suffering and loss. Maybe sometimes it’s better to quote “learn to lose” than to constantly push ourselves or others to focus on hope in situations where something’s already been irrevocably lost. Like in Naomi’s situation. Maybe I just thought this because if there’s one thing that aggravates me in this world above all else, it’s toxic positivity, or people creating an environment where feeling sadness or grief about real experiences of suffering seems unwelcome. But I do wonder if there’s something freeing about acknowledging and having others acknowledge how devastating a situation is that we miss if we just try to focus on hope or the quote-quote “silver linings” of that situation.
So that’s the main thing I thought about when I looked at Naomi’s speech. That she deserves, as do all of us, to be listened to even if her expression of distress seems extreme. In an effort to not end this sermon on a what could be a bleak note, though, I do want to say that I think Naomi’s speech might not be *just* about expressing the devastation. Recently I read a book that made me think this. It was the book Love and Rage, by Rod Owens, and one of the ideas he shared was that, quote, "part of our liberation is first, articulating the things we have been taught never to articulate" (207). He makes it clear throughout the rest of the book that by liberation he means liberation from suffering, for ourselves and for others. That sounds pretty nice. Like a goal I can get behind, at least, even if clearly it will never be fully achieved in this world. So, "part of our liberation," from suffering, "is first, articulating the things we have been taught never to articulate."
Maybe that’s another thing Naomi’s doing in this speech—making everyone in earshot pay attention to her suffering by articulating her distress. Maybe she had a vague hope that it would provoke others to think about how they all might be liberated from the ideas and structures that put widows like Naomi and Ruth in the precarious economic and social situation they were in.
This also reminded me of that weird little story from the book of Numbers about the bronze serpent. I'm sure you all know exactly which one I mean, but in case you have no idea what I'm talking about, basically the Israelites are rapidly dying from poisonous snake bites, from snakes which God had apparently sent to them. So, Moses asks God what they should do, and God tells him, quote, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." (Numbers 21:9). So they do, and it works. Uh, okay. What's that about? I don't know, but it's interesting that the Israelites have to look directly at the thing that's hurting them before they are freed from its control.
When I think about Naomi, I think about the prophets from the Old Testament, because for many of them it seems like their whole job description was telling the people about suffering they didn't want to see or pay attention to. Like the plight of the widows and orphans and refugees among them. It feels like Naomi is carrying on that tradition in this story, even if she has a much smaller audience. I also thought about how Jesus carries on this tradition, like when he tells all the money changers at the temple that they've turned it into a "den of thieves" (John 2), or calls out the Pharisees for refusing to heal someone on the Sabbath (Matthew 12). Naomi isn't technically an ancestor of Jesus, but she does become intertwined with his ancestors when she becomes a sort of family unit with Ruth. So maybe Ruth picked up this quality from Naomi and maybe it got passed down through the generations like various behavior and attitudes and perceptions get transmitted through any family line.
I did promise to mention Ruth, though, before I wrap this up, and that time has arrived. The most famous words in this story are Ruth’s words to Naomi when she promises to stay with her forever, and as a result it’s easy to appreciate Ruth simply for her loyalty to Naomi. Which is fine. But we can miss that in order to remain with Naomi Ruth had to be willing to be a witness to Naomi's suffering. It is her ability to not shy away from Naomi's distress, no matter how extreme it may seem, that leads to Ruth marrying Boaz and having a son with him who will become an ancestor of Jesus. And maybe Ruth also passed on to Jesus something of her ability to be present in others’ distress, since he also turned out to be someone who hung around those who were suffering.
So, when I looked at this story, I saw that despite the spotlight usually shined on Ruth, both women are equally important, and their decisions play off each other in ways that lead both to greater flourishing in their lives. Like in the next hymn we're going to sing, which is actually two songs with compatible melodies intertwined. So, you can think about the two sides of this story while we sing. And you can think about whether you could find yourself in either side of the story. Or both. The one who needs to speak, or the one who chooses to listen.