Read the Ruth text here: Ruth 1:1-18
Read the Gospel text here: John 11
The Silence of God
I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was working as a chaplain at Ohio State University Hospitals and I was on call one evening when the buzzer went off late and I had to report to the ICU. A young girl had been shot and the family had just been told that there was nothing more that could be done for her. That is when they called for me. So, I sat with the family through most of the night. Sometimes we sat in silence, sometimes we cried, sometimes we talked, sometimes we shared scripture. Near the end of our time as I got up to go, the older brother, who had sat off by himself quietly throughout most of the time, looked at me and said, “Pastor, where is God? Why is God so silent when we need him the most?”
The story of Ruth, which will be our Old Testament lessons both this week and next, begins with similar devastating loss and grief. A married couple with small children, Naomi and Elimelech are forced to leave their home, family and friends in Bethlehem and travel to a foreign land, Moab, because of famine and drought. After a time Elimelech dies leaving Naomi with her two young boys. The boys marry Moabite wives but then in a tragic twist both of the young men die as well leaving Naomi and her two young daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, as widows. This is the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen. At a time when there was no safety net or assistance at all for widows, and women only had status because of their husbands or fathers, these three women are set adrift in a harsh world. They are destitute. We can get a sense of the intense feelings of grief and loss in chapter 2 when Naomi greets some old friends and then tells them that her name is no longer Naomi anymore, but rather they should call her MARA, which means bitter. And all of this happens within the first 5 verses of the book of Ruth! As we read chapter one Naomi blames God – “… the hand of the LORD has turned against me…” “Where is God? Why is God so silent when you need him the most?”
Have you ever asked that question? Have you ever wondered about the silence of God? Here within the last week our country has experienced one of the worst hurricanes in history, the loss and devastation is great on the east coast. So, where is God? Is God silent in the face of this? Some have taken to the airwaves with claims that God’s silence and the loss and misery are all because we are such terrible sinners and this is judgment! Of course the problem with that kind of interpretation is inconsistent and thus unbiblical. What had that family I spoke of above done to warrant such judgment? What about Naomi and her daughters-in-law? What had they done to deserve this judgment? No, Jesus makes it quite clear that God doesn’t work that way. God is not arbitrary and cruel. So then what do we say about what seems like deafening silence in the face of horrible loss and grief?
In our Gospel text for today we hear the story of yet another family who has experienced heart-breaking loss. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, has died and even though the sisters had sent for Jesus before he died, by the time Jesus arrives Lazarus has already been buried. “If you had been here…” The sisters both vent their grief and sorrow at Jesus when he arrives. And Jesus response? Does he start berating the sisters for their lack of faith? Does he inform them that this is God’s judgment for their failures and sins? No! Jesus weeps! And in Jesus’ weeping, God weeps. And so, this is the first response to the question – where is God? God is not sitting on his throne far away watching us impassively during our times of greatest need, rather God stands here with us; God holds us and God weeps with us! God feels our loss and pain and grief and enters into it with us.
And then Jesus raises Lazarus, with a shout! Through Jesus then we see that God will not allow death and loss and pain and grief to be the last word, but rather God will transform them. This doesn’t mean we won’t experience loss and that nothing bad will ever happen. We still live in a fallen world where “life happens.” In our world there are hurricanes and accidents and we get sick and death comes to us – but because of Jesus we can affirm that this is not the last word. Because of the Jesus’ resurrection we know that the experience of sorrow, loss, pain, grief and death will be transformed into joy ad life.
But there is something else. There is a verse right at the end of the John text that is often missed. We get so focused on the miracle and Jesus dramatic command to Lazarus to “come out” that we simply read by this other command of Jesus (vs. 44): “unbind him and let him go.” In other words, Jesus calls on those who are present to get involved and participate in this miracle too. Lazarus is raised in John 11 but the miracle includes others who are called to get act, care and help Lazarus transition back into life. And if we turn back to Ruth we see something similar. While Naomi is wallowing in her intense pain and loss, while she is bitterly complaining about God’s absence and silence there is a daughter-in-law, Ruth who refuses to leave her side, who commits herself to care for her and to accompany her and to love her no matter what: 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. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
So, where is God? Right there in the love of Ruth! God’s silence is broken by the words of this foreign Moabite woman who commits herself to Naomi. At first Naomi cannot see it, she does not even want to acknowledge it. But slowly throughout the story it begins to dawn on her and by the end she sees that God has in fact been present with her throughout, God has reached out to her, loved her, cared for her and provided for her through Ruth.
During our All Saints liturgy we will be reading the names of those who have died during the last year. Each one of those names is a person who was dearly, dearly loved and cherished and whose death, regardless of the circumstances, brought pain and grief to family and friends. And where is God throughout? God is there with you, as you continue to grieve bringing about healing; God is there through all the Saints who have reached out to you in Christ’s love and God will continue to reach out to you through them. The silence of God has been broken by the kind and thoughtful words and deeds that have been shared with you by the Saints. The silence of God has also been broken with these words – The Body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you – that reminds us weekly that death does not have the last word and that our loved ones are now seated at the great banquet table of our Lord, held in God’s love and presence forever. And, finally, that we, as we continue our lives living in this fallen world, are not only joined by the Saints who live around and among us and who God reaches through to touch us with his love and grace; but that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – the Saints of all times and places!