Once upon a time there was a woman named Sweet Pleasant. She lived in a town called House of Bread with her husband, whose name was My God Is King. They had two sons, some land, extended family, and standing within the community. Life was good.
This is how listeners might understand the opening of the book of Ruth if they were hearing it in Hebrew. All of the names have meaning. Naomi means “sweet” or “pleasant.” Bethlehem means “House of bread” or “house of food.” And so on. This story is presented in the history section of our Bible as if it may have actually happened, but the way it is told feels much more like an extended parable. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth does not appear in the history section at all but rather in the Writings section, along with Psalms and wisdom literature. So we are invited to hear this story as story and see how it resonates with our lives and situation today.
Now, a story isn’t a good story if everything is all fine and it just stays that way. Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the conflict and resolution? Where’s the opportunity for the main characters to learn and grow? So sure enough, Bethlehem, the House of Bread, has a famine. Finding themselves in severely reduced circumstances, the family must leave their beloved home and move to Moab.
You may recall that the Israelites’ origin story for the Moabites includes incest between Lot and his daughters. It’s a “your mother wears army boots” kind of insult to a whole people, a way of othering them and treating them as inferiors. This is the land to which Naomi and her family move. And even though the people there are supposedly inferior, they welcome this family. Once again, the family has food to eat.
So the family has lost their land of origin, their family networks, their standing. They are now the foreigners. And then Elimelech, the husband, dies. The two sons marry, but they die as well, without children. So Naomi has lost everything. We talked about Job a few weeks ago. He lost everything as well. Same idea, only now we have a woman at the center of the story.
Have you noticed what a rare thing that is in the Bible? The book of Ruth is one of only two books in the traditional canon of the Bible named after women, and it’s the only one named after a foreigner. Women are at the center all through this story. This is an extraordinary story.
It is also a story of enormous loss, of people holding onto each other and supporting each other, and ultimately it’s a story of coming out the other side in a new and loving and wonderful way. It’s only four chapters long; I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some of it is a little racy, and there’s lots of innuendo. What we’re missing in this story is a judgmental God figure smiting people for being of the wrong ethnicity or for sleeping together before marriage. What we see instead is this: a daughter-in-law who will not abandon her mother-in-law; two women who combine wits and connections and hard work to create a path forward; a community that helps make that happen; and ultimately a new landing place for a happy ending. In other words, it is the story of two women moving through a liminal, in-between time.
We are in a liminal time, too. Like the Jews returning from exile in Babylon to a ruined Jerusalem, we have to figure out how to rebuild our lives. Before COVID, we were living our normal lives. Many of us enjoyed good health. We could be out and about. The store shelves were full of food. We didn’t really know the words “supply chain disruption.” We could visit with our friends and family, go to the movies, restaurants, the opera, the theater, or the symphony. We could just live our lives. Sure, there were issues and injustices to work on. But we could live our lives.
Then came March 2020. Schools closed. Theaters closed. Restaurants closed. Churches closed. We all went home, closed the door behind us, and stayed there. Many, many people got sick. An alarming number of people started to die. Like Naomi in Moab, we were in new territory. Our health experts were working as fast as they could to figure out this coronavirus, find effective ways to keep people safe, and develop a vaccine. They kept saying, “We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.”
Also like Naomi, we have lost people. She lost her husband and both sons. Some of you have told me of relatives getting sick, friends and family dying. Perhaps you yourself have been sick. My housemate, Catherine, got COVID from her sister, who got it from her son. The sister’s whole extended family got sick. They were all vaccinated—it was all breakthrough infections. Because they were vaccinated, no one ended up in the hospital, no one died, and everyone got better. But still… new territory. They were the lucky ones. As a species, we have endured lots of loss.
We are grieving. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, only have each other. And when Naomi tells them to return to their mothers and marry again, that is the official death knell for this family unit, for this family line. All three women weep aloud at the death of their connections, their dreams, and their hopes for the future. That future is gone. The grief and loss are unbearable.
Today we honor and remember those who have died, those whom we miss, and the millions who have died in this pandemic. We name our grief for all of them. We also name our grief for the loss of how things used to be. The world has changed. We all wear masks now. We think carefully about how and where and whether we get together with family and friends. Are they vaccinated? Are they anti-vaxxers? School has changed. Work has changed. Church has changed. Many people have lost jobs or quit. Many struggle to pay their rent.
And then there’s behavior. Restaurants that are trying to reopen find they have trouble hiring staff because the pay is so low and the abuse from noncompliant customers is so terrible that staff quit and look for something better. Airline attendants report way more incidents of assault and outrageous behavior from passengers, usually around the issue of wearing a mask. How did we come to live in a world where such tantrums are routine?
Like Naomi, we talk about going back. We want to return to the “before-times.” But there is no going back, only forward. Even when Naomi returns to Bethlehem, her hometown, she comes back a changed person. She is too old to have more children. Her immediate family is all dead. She describes herself as empty and bitter. She is in a liminal time: not where she started, but not yet where she’s going. Everything is open for reinventing.
We are in a liminal time, too. We have come this far through the pandemic. Things are trying to reopen, but we’re not yet at a settled new normal. We will be opening up the church building next Sunday to hold in-person worship—and also finding ways for people to still connect via Zoom. We are going back into the building. But we’re not going back to the before-times. We are changed. We are different people.
In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, Susan Beaumont says there are three main stages to liminal time:
First, something ends.
Second, there is an in-between time marked by disorientation, loss of identity, confusion—also creativity and reinvention.
Finally, third, something new emerges.
Starting today, we will explore the liminal season in which we find ourselves. We will continue this intentional liminal discussion at least through Christmas, because Advent is also a liminal time. Every pregnancy is a liminal time, and in Advent we wait, with Mary, for the coming of the Christ child.
So we begin this worship series by considering what has been lost. Earlier in this service we named people who have died and whom we miss. As I said in the prayer, we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us and pave the way. Life is not the same when they are gone. And we pave the way for others. They are not supposed to die before we do. So we are missing specific people. What else are you missing? I invite you to unmute and share some way of life that has gone away or changed during this pandemic time. [Input: Miss seeing colleagues, spontaneity, hugs and handshakes, making music together with lots of people, ease of getting together, seeing smiles, family in Sweden, rehearsals, plays, theater, making music spontaneously, brother Ed, being able to go out without a mask, don’t like singing through a mask.]
We hold all of these griefs. We are intentional about naming them. You may want to create a little altar somewhere in your home where you can write these griefs down, light a candle, be intentional about spending some time dealing with your grief. Or talk with someone about them. We need to process these losses so that we can move through that grief. Only by naming it and working through it do we come out the other side. Perhaps you have been doing this work all along. We may all be in different stages with this. But it is essential work.
Naomi says that she returns home to Bethlehem empty and bitter. But she also returns with her daughter-in-law Ruth, who refuses to leave her. Ruth says those words that we so often hear at weddings, where it is never revealed that this is one woman committing to another, and that they are not lovers but in-laws. Listen to these words again:
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Naomi knows, in no uncertain terms, that she is not facing her future alone. That feels like a God moment. God does not leave us, no matter what kind of loss and grief we endure.
Before the scripture reading I asked Consi to have you notice how many times you heard the words turn, return, go back, or turn back. These are all translations of the same Hebrew word, shub. Naomi’s life has many turns. Her daughter-in-law Orpah does turn back. Naomi returns to Bethlehem. But Ruth does not turn back. I suggest that Ruth is like God in this story. God does not turn away or turn back from us. Like Ruth, God sticks with us when we feel empty and bitter, exhausted with grief, uncertain of the future, and devoid of resources. Lean on God. Grieve with God. Know that God hears and holds you.
If you’ve read the rest of this short book of Ruth, you may recall that Naomi and Ruth come through this liminal time by sticking together, by bringing every resource they have to the situation, and by relying on the broader community for help. We can do that, too. We stick together and support each other. We bring all that we have to getting through these COVID times. We wash our hands often, wear our masks whenever needed, get tested, get vaccinated, stay six feet apart. In our church building our trustees have been working hard to improve the building’s ventilation system. We have been worshiping remotely all these months until we felt we had created a new way for us to be together in the building. So we do all the things we know to do, we do them as a community in support of each other. And we give the rest to God.
Bless us in this liminal time.
Hold us in our grief for all the people and all the old ways we have lost.
Help us to bring all that we are and all that we have to navigate this pandemic with love and a sense of community.
May we never forget that we are your people, and we are called to love and to hope. Amen.