You might know, there was a time when I lived and worked in a transitional house for women in recovery from addiction and homelessness. If you have ever lived in any kind of dwelling with any other human person, then you understand. Disputes were not uncommon in our house. There was one time when two women were bitterly at odds with each other, so we wound up taking the situation to our program manager Faye.
What you need to know about Faye is that she has a gift for moving through the world with both a visceral compassion and the certain disposition that goes: don’t waste my time with nonsense. So we told Faye about the fight between these women, and what she said next, I’ll never forget.
Faye said: “This is ridiculous. You know, the sister you hate the most is going to save your life one day.”
Now Faye could have looked at these women and said, “Come on. You two shouldn’t hate each other.” She could have said, “You two should see how much you have in common.” But Faye was so careful not to go around “shoulding” on people. It’s just a matter of fact. The sister you hate the most is going to save your life, just wait and see. And time and again, Faye was right.
Over the years, I have come to believe that we human people are always saving each other’s lives. I know we’re not always pulling somebody out of the river or out of a car on fire. But every time we deliver a meal after surgery or interrupt somebody’s depression with a note of encouragement, every time we change a diaper or drive somebody home, we are saving each other. If you’re alive right now, it’s because thousands of people have made that possible. So sure, I can believe that a brother, or a sister, or somebody will save my life one day, it’s just, does it have to be the person I hate the most? Yes. Yes it does.
Now please understand. Faye didn’t mean —and I don’t mean— hate hate. “Hate” is too strong a word, but you get it. Why is it that the beloved child of God who most gets on your nerves is the very person who’s going to save your life? I don’t know. All I can tell you is this really does happen. It has happened to me more times than it hasn’t.
Oh that girl, please don’t let me be assigned to work on the project with her. Then of course, we get put in the same group together. Then of course, she ends up giving me a ride to our group meeting. Then of course, we end up getting dinner. Weeks later, when everything falls apart in my life, it’s this girl —of all the people in all the world— who comes to find me in my apartment and makes us tea. Years later, she’s in my wedding; to this day she’s still saving my life. That’s how it goes.
Time and again, I keep hearing Faye say in my head: Oh, you think you don’t like that person? Just wait and see what happens. He’s probably going to save your life. You’re probably going to have to change your mind. Oh Hallelujah.
In the scripture Gail read, we hear the beginning of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Right off the bat, we’re greeted by a devastating introduction. To begin with, there was a famine in the land. Then Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died. Then Naomi’s son Mahlon died; then her son Chilion died. If you’re keeping track, Naomi has no food, no husband, no sons, and without her husband and sons she has no source of livelihood. What she does have are two Moabite daughters-in-law. She also has the clear-eyed fortitude of a midwesterner who sighs and says, “It is what it is” then gets up the next day with a plan.
Naomi is from Bethlehem. Now that she has lost everything and everyone, she decides to go back home. Rumor has it, the LORD has remembered the people in Bethlehem and provided them with food. So Naomi sends her daughters-in-law back to their families, and she prepares to return to her people empty-handed and empty-hearted. It is a moment when things couldn’t get worse for Naomi. And then they do.
Her daughter-in-law Ruth refuses to go along with her plan. Ruth’s protest is an exquisite expression of chesed, a word that means ferocious loving-faithfulness. For those of us hearing this story, we recognize Ruth’s chesed as the kind of fierce love we mean to have for God. Ruth is a hero for her chesed! May we have all the faith of Ruth! For us, Ruth’s protest is breathtakingly powerful. For Naomi, though, not so much.
When Ruth refused to leave her, Naomi did the only thing she could. She gave up. The LORD has turned against her, now Ruth has attached herself to her, so fine. Forget it. The Bible says, Naomi stopped speaking to Ruth. They journeyed on to Bethlehem together. Not speaking.
This is the part where I would love to tell you about Naomi’s prayer, how she laid out her accusation against the Author of Creation: “How could you do this! How could you take everything and everyone I loved away from me!”
You and I know, Naomi is not okay, not at all. She is outraged. She is heartbroken. Worse than outrage or heartbreak, Naomi is finished. It could be, Naomi has a fiery prayer burning in her bones, and we could certainly use her words. But if there is any prayer rising up in her being, Naomi doesn’t say it.
If you look in your Bibles, you will see. In the place where Naomi’s prayer should go, there’s just a blank space between verses eighteen and nineteen, and I can’t tell you who started it.
Maybe Naomi is right and God turned against her and stopped speaking to her. Maybe Naomi gave up on God; now she is not speaking to the LORD as vividly as she is not speaking to Ruth. I can’t tell you who started it. All I can tell you is where somebody should have had the mercy to utter a prayer, there was no fragment of a prayer to be found. There was silence.
I don’t know whether you have ever been confronted by this same silence at some point in your life, but if you haven’t yet, I’m pretty sure, you will be one day. None of us will miss it. It is horrifying. Not all silence is horrifying, but this is.
This is the silence of a baby who should be crying and who’s not.
This is the silence that invades your house after the funeral. After all the services and the meal, after all the people go home and leave you alone with the laundry and thank you notes, and the house is terribly too quiet. This silence is not your imagination. It’s real, and it is not a lie.
Naomi lost her husband, then she lost both of her sons. She lost her fight with Ruth, and she lost her prayer, and this could happen to us. When it does, what if we could go out and stand inside the silence for a minute… What if we could wait and see what happens. What if the silence is holding open the space for the story to turn.
Elijah was called by God to be a prophet. In his zeal for the LORD, Elijah went and killed the priests and prophets of the god Baal which enraged Queen Jezebel. She signed the execution order for Elijah so as you can imagine, he was afraid. He ran for his life. After a breather under a broom tree, Elijah fled to Mount Horeb. He found a cave and tried to go to sleep, that’s when the word of the LORD spoke and told Elijah that God was about to pass by.
First, there was a straight-line wind; it broke the rocks into pieces. But the LORD was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Next there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. Next there was a sheer silence. When Elijah heard this, he went out on the mountain and stood inside of the silence. Then God said, “What are you doing here, Elijah…” (I Kings 19:1-13).
When Elijah heard the silence, he went out and stood inside of it, and the story turned, and what if we could do this too. When God stops speaking to you, or you stop speaking to God, or who knows who started it, what if we could go out and stand in that space of not speaking. Just wait and see what happens. We might be about to get our lives saved. We might change our minds.
Naomi loses everything. She loses her dream and her fight with Ruth. She loses her prayer. Naomi and Ruth walk to Bethlehem in silence. Then the whole story takes a turn. The famine turns into a harvest of food. Bitter weeping turns into joy. Naomi’s all too empty arms get filled with snuggling a surprise grandbaby. Her prayer came back —God’s blessing comes out of Naomi’s own mouth. And of course, as it turns out, the sister she hated the most went and saved her life.
Her story did not end at the point where Gail stopped reading. The silence that wrapped around Naomi was real, and it was awful, but it was not her destiny, and I promise —it is not ours. When the silence wraps around you and knocks you down and all you can do is surrender and say “It is what it is,” okay.
But the whole story might be just about to turn.
The person you can’t even deal with might be on their way to save your life.
Just wait and see, the Holy Spirit is coming to get you. She will find us in the silence and God will pray for us when we cannot with sighs too deep for words.
Just wait and see. Amen.