Running on empty is stressful. Whether it’s your stomach, your spirit or your literal gas tank, it’s a terrible thing to be on the move when you are empty.
Because our church is just off of several major highways and near a large medical complex, we get a lot of people stopping by in urgent need. They tell compelling stories about how they got here and where they need to get to, but the point of almost everyone is, “We are running on empty.”
In the book of Ruth, Naomi tells a story of running on empty. A famine forced Naomi’s family to leave their homeland. Like so many refugees through history, and those that flee desperate situations today, leave full. Full of hope. Full of dreams. Full of excitement. Full of energy. Full of possibilities. But for them, like so many refugees through history and even now, the migration is filled with disaster, loss and grief.
Naomi tells the story of terrible loss. In an alien land, she buried first her husband and then both of her sons. In desperation, she returns to her homeland, after a decade away, and announces a name change. Naomi means “sweet.” Now, she is Mara, which means “bitter.” She tells her old friends, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”
Ruth, standing there beside, Naomi, has a story that could make her bitter, also. She took a great risk in marrying a foreign-born man, very likely alienating her from her family and community and her previous religious tradition. The marriage was childless. Her husband died. Under Hebrew custom, her brother in law and father in law were required to provide for her. But, they are also dead. Her social and financial situation is entirely perilous. Ruth, too, is running on empty.
In the midst of emptiness, Ruth claims what she does have: loyalty. “Where you go, I will go,” Ruth says. “Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth commits herself to be present to whom God has given her. She chooses to cherish what she does have – a bitter mother in law, the unknown land of her dead husband and the faithful God they have shown her to worship.
Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Harvest time is a good season for people who don’t have work and people who don’t have food. Jewish law commands that during harvest the owner of the land must leave some grain in the field, so that those who are in need may go and glean it. Ruth lays claim to this provision of God. She goes out into he fields of a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband, to gather food for the two women and there a still more distant relative takes notice of Ruth.
So many things have gone for Naomi and for Ruth. So many things could have gone wrong here. So easily so many men could have taken terrible advantage of a young, impoverished widow. But, Boaz, who looks favorably on Ruth is a good man, a faithful man, a man of God. Boaz works it out to marry Ruth and the marriage rescues Naomi too. The story continues as Boaz and Ruth have a son, who will be the grandfather of Israel’s great King David.
Honestly, it’s a long and complicated story. But, then, most of our stories of emptiness are long and complicated. Sometimes we listen to the stories of the people who come off the highway and into the church and want to say, “Just get to the point. You’re running on empty and you need some help.” Sometimes I hear myself talking when I am down and the details exhaust me and I think, “Just admit it. You’re running on empty.”
Ruth’s story, Naomi’s, our stories of emptiness, though, deserve to be told and heard in all of their dismal, fretful, human detail. They are our stories. They help explain who we are, where we’ve been, why we feel and act the way we do.
The turning points in our tales of emptiness arrive when we answer the questions of loyalty. In the midst of your bitterness, do you notice those who continue to journey with you? During emptiness and loss, will you still be loyal? How will you be faithful to those companions and commitments you have? And most critically: When you look around, what has God provided for you? Where is the harvest of goodness – the provision – that God is offering you?
Our stories of getting to provision are often as long and complicated as the ones that got us to empty, but they are stories that should be told, known and retold. They are stories filled with our actions of faithfulness, the loyalty of others and the overarching desire of God to provide for us, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
When we are empty – in our bank accounts, in our ideas for our life, in our marriage, in our employment, in our spiritual life – we can choose loyalty. Maintaining relationships. Sticking it out for the long road ahead. Turning from bitterness. Noticing those who are around us. Caring for those who have been given to us. Gleaning the goodness that is left for us to gather. Accepting the help that is offered, even by strangers. Worshipping God – believing -no matter what’s going on right now – God is always loyal to us.
In Ruth’s story, her second husband, Boaz is often referred to by the Hebrew word “go’el.” It means provider, rescuer, sponsor. In ancient Mideastern cultures, the nearest male relative was a go’el for a woman whose husband died. Boaz chooses to steps forward to serve this role for Ruth and Naomi.
God has provided us with a go’el, a provider, a rescuer, a sponsor. God has provided one who is with us through our whole long, complicated stories. When we are running on empty, there is a strong shoulder to cry on, a partner to pray with, a support on the weary way. God has provided one who is loyal, who walks with us every step of the journey, a kinsman, a friend, with whom to make a new beginning.
You have a redeemer. Jesus Christ our Lord. Where you go, he goes. Where you stop, he will stop. You are his. He died, so you may live. His God – his faithful, loyal providing God – shall be your God. Turn to him. You will not come back empty.