I can do it myself! Have you ever had someone emphatically express this to you? There’s a good chance that person was about 2 years old. And if you made any indication that you were about to help them – they might have thrown a humungous tantrum.
Of course, toddlers don’t corner the market on “I can do it myself”. It seems like once we start on the path of independence, specifically or especially in the United States, we continue to believe that independence is a virtue. One that we should uphold even if it means we suffer and struggle.
As your pastor, I see this all the time. Instead of people reaching out for help – they struggle through. Often, I learn of the struggles long after they have passed. Sometimes, I am sure that if the person had reached out, we could have helped. But it seems like people think reaching out is a sin. Forbidden in some way if people are mature and complete. Well guess what, that is a story we tell ourselves. That is a cultural construction that plays in our head. And it’s a construction that goes against the very heart of our faith. People in the Bible do not journey alone. They journey in community – we should take note.
In his analysis of this morning’s scripture passage, Brent Strawn an Old Testament Professor at Candler School of Theology notes that, “Naomi is determined to be alone in her grief.” In fact, just a few verses after our reading this morning – Naomi goes a step further and says that clearly the Lord has afflicted misfortune on her. She believes God is somehow willing what is happening to her – she believes she is being punished for something – and that she endures the affliction alone.
Ruth, however, has different ideas. Despite Naomi’s pleading for her daughters-in-law to leave her and return to their mother’s home so they have a chance at finding new husbands, Ruth refuses to go. Ruth 1:16-17 from the New International Translation:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me”.
These stories in the Bible are not just here for our amusement. They are here to guide and instruct us. To help us decode the world, to experience God, and to live in the way.
Scholar Cameron B.R. Howard expresses what I love about the this story. Here’s what she says,
Ruth mentions God several times, but God does not appear as a character in the book of Ruth in the same way God appears in some other biblical stories. That is, God does not speak directly with any of the characters, nor are God’s actions foregrounded with any detail. References to God and God’s actions are presented from the point-of-view of the characters, rather than the narrator.
This story depends on people to explain and understand God and to act in accordance with God’s values and intentions. Ruth and Naomi must figure out the narrative that will guide their actions. They must decide how God fits into what they are experiencing. They must figure out what God might intend for them to do.
And just like it happens in real life today – they come up with different explanations and ideas. Naomi is determined that she should suffer alone. Ruth is determined that they should journey together whatever that journey might be.
What’s included in the Bible is not willy nilly. Committees of men argued over what should remain and what should not. For something to be included means it was deemed to be inspired by God.
It’s no accident that this story is included and it’s no accident that Ruth’s refusal to leave Naomi is a critical detail in the story. Ruth is teaching us about community. Ruth is teaching us that while we may think independence and silent suffering is a virtue, traveling together, accepting companionship, helping one another – those things fulfill God’s values.
We all wish that COVID-19 was far behind us. And every day it becomes clearer that a quick end is highly unlikely, and that social distancing is one of the most effective ways for us to stave off the virus. And so, we are apart. And yet, our faith implores us to travel together. To challenge the notion of fierce independence as a virtue and to remember that strength that comes from community. We are no longer toddlers. We don’t need to prove our independence. So I urge you to be brave. Reach out. Don’t struggle alone. While church may look a lot different these days, the strength of our community remains. Thanks be to God. Amen.