First Parish Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kelli Whitman

October 13, 2019

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18

I stared at the sign with a mixture of dread and skepticism.  “Warning:  This trail has been rated ‘difficult.’  Sections are very steep and become slippery in the event of rain.  Use extreme caution.”   

I was about ten years old and my father had decided that our family should spend this particular summer afternoon hiking the Turkey Path Trail to the bottom of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.  I looked down at the slip on canvas sneakers on my feet, then back at the sign.  I had a bad feeling about this excursion.  But my sister had already charged off down the trail like a mountain goat.  So, I put on a brave face and trudged after her. 

What seemed like several hours later, we had reached the bottom of the canyon.  My feet hurt.  I was thirsty and no one had brought any water for the hike.  And it was beginning to drizzle.  I stood at the bottom, looking back up the trail, remembering the sign’s warning about difficult, slippery conditions. 

“I’m not going back up,” I announced to my mother.  “I’m too tired.”  She tried to explain that I couldn’t stay at the bottom of the canyon and I had to go back up the trail where we had water and snacks waiting in the car.  “No, I can’t make it,” I said.  “Just leave me here to die!” 

I was, perhaps being a bit melodramatic.  But at that moment, my ten-year-old self was quite sure that this was rock bottom-that continuing back up that trail would bring nothing but trouble-that it was better to sit at the bottom of that canyon, alone, to wallow in the misery of my situation. 

I imagine this is how Naomi feels in this first chapter of Ruth—like she has hit rock-bottom and doesn’t have the energy to climb back up. 

And Naomi, (unlike my tired ten-year-old feet), can hardly be blamed for feeling alone and bitter.  From the opening verse of the story, her life has been marked by grief and hardship.  Famine forces Naomi and her family to leave their home in Bethlehem and settle in Moab—a foreign country with a negative reputation among the Jewish people.  Naomi’s husband dies.  Her sons both marry Moabite women before they, too, die. 

Naomi now faces the difficult prospect of surviving as a childless widow in a foreign country.  When she hears that the famine in Bethlehem has ended, she decides to risk returning to the land that had once been her home.  Her future in Bethlehem is far from certain—she’s been living among the enemy for at least ten years and some people might view her with suspicion.  And she will still be a widow in Bethlehem, existing on the margins of society without a husband to provide and protect her.  Life has not been easy in Moab and returning to Bethlehem holds no promise of improvement.

So Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law set off for Bethlehem.  But before they have gone too far, she stops and encourages the younger women to leave her—to go back to their own families, to stay in their own country with their own people, rather than continuing on with her to Bethlehem.  Both of the younger women protest, but Naomi insists. 

“There is nothing for you with me,” she says.  She can see no hope for her own future, and certainly no hope for these Moabite women who would be treated with suspicion if not outright disgust in Bethlehem.  “My life is bitter,” Naomi says, “And there’s no reason for you to be dragged down with me. Go home, and leave me to my despair.”    

And then something curious and wonderful happens—Ruth refuses to go.  She refuses to leave Naomi’s side, even swears an oath to Naomi’s God promising, “Where you go, I will go…your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” Despite Naomi’s bitterness, despite the difficulties she will face as a foreign widow in Bethlehem, Ruth clings to Naomi, refusing to abandon her to grief and uncertainty.  When Naomi is convinced that she is most alone—Ruth reaches out and refuses to let go.

God’s voice is strangely quiet throughout the book of Ruth, but God is certainly at work here, in subtle but powerful ways.  God is present in Ruth’s persistent loyalty to her mother-in-law.  God is present in Ruth’s commitment to stick with Naomi, despite the uncertain future both of them face.   God is present in the bond forged between these two women who have no one else to rely on but each other. 

Martin Copenhaver explains it this way, “God does not leave when the going gets tough, when we are as destitute as an ancient Near Eastern widow. God is not committed to us because it is in God’s interest, or for any other good reason. Rather, God is committed to us because . . . well, because that’s the way God is.”[1]

Like Ruth, God refuses to let go of us, even and especially when we’ve hit rock-bottom.  And, just as Naomi finds hope and companionship in the unlikely person of her foreign daughter-in-law, God’s hope sometimes comes to us in surprising ways, and often we’ve stopped looking for it. 

In an article for Christian Century, Kendra Weddel, reflected on the importance of deep friendships, like the friendship Ruth shares with Naomi.  After weathering a several significant losses in her life, Weddel realized she, “was desperate for connection and belonging, hallmarks of true friendship.” She writes:

My journey out of despair came through someone who knew how to share my burdens. She recognized that the load was too heavy for me to carry on my own, and she offered to shoulder the weight for me. This friend listened as I peeled back layer after layer of my life. She acted as my confessor, absolving me of burdens I had carried way too long and offering an occasional word of advice, insight, or affirmation…She enabled me to feel heard and understood, and in the process I began to remember my self.[2]

Weddel continues, reflecting on what it takes for forge such deep and grace-filled relationships, writing:

Time and commitment are necessary. Although [my friend and I] live in distant states, we talk and email regularly. We take time to ask about each other’s lives and to listen, seeking to hear what is in the pauses just as much as what is said. When one is burdened in some way, the other is praying and supporting. The time we invest in our relationship has affected our lives…Nur­tur­ing this kind of wholehearted friendship requires changes and sacrifices.

At the moment Naomi thought she was most alone, God’s hope showed up in the fierce loyalty of Ruth. Where has God’s hope surprised you? In a phone call from a friend you haven’t talked to in months, or a devotional e-mail that sounds like the writer was listening to your prayers? Did it come as a lunch invitation from a co-worker, or through a friend’s offer to watch the kids for the night?  Did it feel like a a hand to hold while you sit in the doctor’s waiting room?  Or perhaps it felt like holding your mother’s hand as she patiently walked you back up the trail from the bottom of the canyon. 

Ruth’s promise to Naomi echoes God’s promise to all of us, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay…when you’ve hit rock-bottom, when you feel most alone, when you’re sure there’s no reason to hope…look for me because I’ll be right next to you, clinging to you, refusing to let go.” Amen.


[1] From “The Only Thing to Do” in Christian Century October 19, 1994

[2] “Biblical Friendship in an Age of Loneliness” by Kendra Weddel published 1.22.2019 at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/biblical-friendship-age-loneliness

Sermon for October 13, 2019