(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on November 11, 2018, Proper 27)
“Do You Believe in God?”
Twenty-five years ago, almost to this day, the first “got Milk?” commercial hit the airwaves. I still remember it. A historian sitting in his study begins to eat a peanut butter sandwich, when he gets a call from the local radio station with its $10,000 question: “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?” The historian’s eyes open wide with delight. He knows the answer is Aaron Burr. So with a mouth full of peanut butter, he proudly responds: “Aan Buhh.” “Excuse me?” comes the radio host’s reply. The historian reaches for a milk carton, hoping to clear his throat. But horror of horrors, the milk carton is empty. “Aan Buhh, Aan Buhh,” the man cries hopelessly, as the radio host says, “I’m sorry, maybe next time.” Then the scene fades to black, and the message “got Milk?” flashes across the screen.
As the “got Milk?” slogan gathered steam, a host of spinoff slogans appeared on t-shirts and bumper stickers. One such spinoff has inspired what is likely the hokiest sermon title I will ever use, “Got God?”
What fascinates me about the “got God?” slogan is the way we normally interpret it. In most Christian circles, asking this question would be tantamount to asking the other person, “Do you believe in God?” In other words, the implied correct answer to the question, is, “Yes, I’ve got God. I believe in God.”
The Songs of Naomi and Ruth
Today’s scripture presents us with the conclusion to the story of Ruth. Because we missed the opening to the story last week, here’s a brief recap to bring us up to speed.
Once upon a time, there was a famine in Bethlehem. Lacking food, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons sought refuge in the land of Moab. But tragedy struck again. First Elimelech died. Then Naomi’s two sons, who had since married Moabite women, died. So Naomi was left alone in a strange land with no security outside her two daughters-in-law. When Naomi heard that the famine had ended in Bethlehem, her hometown, she decided the best thing would be for her to leave her daughters-in-law and return home.
Everything in the story turns on what happens next. You know how in a play the most defining moments are often expressed through music? Well, in the Bible, it’s no different, except that poetry takes the place of music. Poetry is the Bible’s way of telling us, “This is a really important moment in the story!” In the story of Ruth, there are two expressions of poetry. They both appear right after Naomi decides to leave her daughters-in-law and return home.
The first bit of poetry comes from Ruth’s lips. As I’ve already suggested the analogy, let’s imagine for a moment that Ruth is a musical, and that the lines I am about to read are being sung with enthusiasm by the young Moabite woman Ruth. Naomi has just decided to return home to Bethlehem, when suddenly the lights dim and the spotlight focuses on Ruth as she clings fiercely to Naomi, singing: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (1:16-17). Strangely, there is no response from Naomi. The scene simply fades to black.
The next scene opens with Naomi and Ruth trudging into the town of Bethlehem. Several of the women there spot Naomi and begin whispering among themselves, “Is this Naomi?” Again the lights dim and the spotlight settles on Naomi, and she begins to sing a mournful song: “Call me no longer Naomi [which means pleasant], call me Mara [which means bitter], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:20-21).”
If I had to summarize the story of Ruth, I think I’d probably start with these two expressions of poetry. They tell me what I need to know. On the one hand, there’s Naomi. Naomi has no trouble talking about God. Four times she says God’s name. If they’d been printing the “got God?” slogan on t-shirts millenia ago, I don’t think Naomi would have had any trouble wearing one. She’s got God. She believes in God. At one of the most defining moments in her life, she namechecks the divine multiple times. (Incidentally, I might point out that Naomi’s belief does not inspire or encourage her. In fact, her belief has made her very bitter.)
On the other hand, there’s Ruth, the foreign woman who presumably doesn’t know a thing about the God of Israel. All she knows is that she and her mother-in-law have been dealt a tough hand, and they’re better off together than alone. All she knows is that she’ll stay with her mother-in-law through thick and thin.
Where Is God?
As the story plays out in today’s scripture, Ruth returns to Bethlehem with Naomi and ends up meeting Naomi’s distant relative, Boaz. The two of them marry and have a child who will secure the land and lineage of Naomi’s deceased husband. In other words, we are led to imagine that Naomi and Ruth, who had been dealt such a tough hand, live happily ever after.
The most curious thing to me, however, is that the character of God does not once show up in the midst of the drama. When Naomi and Ruth are husbandless and without any guarantee of food or a home, God never appears on stage.
So where is God?
The only character who professes to have an answer to this question is Naomi, the character who’s “got God,” who is no stranger to God-talk. According to her, God is the cause of the problem. “The Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (1:21).
Ruth, on the other hand, hardly says a word about God. She hasn’t “got God” in the confessional sense, in the sense of, “Yes, I believe in God; yes I know all the stories about God.” And yet the story hints that she is the answer to this question: “Where is God?” One of the key words in the book of Ruth is hesed, which means something like “steadfast love.” Elsewhere in the Bible, hesed is a defining feature of God. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his hesed [steadfast love] endures forever,” we hear again and again in the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Ruth, where do we see God’s hesed? In Ruth herself, who commits to stay with her mother-in-law through thick and thin: “Where you go, I will go…” (1:16-17).
In other words, Ruth hasn’t “got God” in the confessional sense. She hasn’t “got God” in the sense of, “Yes, I believe in God; I know all the stories about God.” She’s got God in a deeper way. She’s got God inside her. She lives out the steadfast love of God. Where is God in the story of Ruth? In Ruth. God’s steadfast love takes flesh in Ruth’s steadfast love.
How Ruth and Etty “Got God”
You may have noticed the quote at the top of today’s bulletin from Etty Hillesum. “If God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God.” Etty died in Auschwitz. She wrote these words about a year before her death. Lately I’ve been reading her journals, and I’m utterly fascinated with her. Etty, you see, was not a particularly religious person. She was not an observant practitioner of her tradition, Judaism. But as the world around her got darker, she seemed to become brighter and brighter. As hate gathered around her and grew in intensity, she became more and more convinced of God’s love.
Her experience reminds me of Ruth, because while people around Etty talked about God—about whether God would come and save them—Etty gave flesh to God. Others “got God” in the traditional, religious sense of having grown up familiar with God’s name and the many stories about God and the many customs of how to approach God. But like Ruth, Etty got God in a deeper way. God dwelt within her. “There are those,” she writes, “who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings.” “There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God.” For Etty, the question was not, “Where is God?” or “Will God help us?” The question was, will we help God? Will we give existence to God’s insistence? “We must help You,” she writes, “and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”
In the last remaining letter that she wrote, she remarks: “Opening the Bible at random, I find this: ‘The Lord is my tower.’” I can’t help but think that God would say the same thing about Etty and Ruth, that they were towers for God, beacons of God’s steadfast love, strongholds of healing in a hurting world.
“To Help God”
The good news of Etty and Ruth is also an invitation. The good news is that we don’t need to get God, in the sense of getting everything right about God, in order to have God with us. God is already among us, even in the most bitter of situations. The invitation, then, is that we welcome God into our lives and allow God to become a part of our world through our expression. The invitation is, as Etty rather provocatively puts it, “to help God.”
For Ruth, that meant showing the empty and lifeless Naomi God’s steadfast love, which brought new life. For Etty, it meant showing God’s attention and care to the hopeless prisoners around her. What might it mean in my life, I wonder—or yours?
Whose faithfulness we know
In the flesh—
In Jesus and in the saints,
Who have given existence
To your insistent love:
Inspire us anew
Through which all things are made new.
In Christ, whose body we share. Amen.
 It aired in October, 1993.
 Only at the end, once Ruth and Boaz are already married, does God appear on stage, and then only to ensure that Ruth conceives (4:13).
 This and the previous citations are from Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings (ed. Annemarie S. Kidder; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), 59.
 Etty Hillesum, 157.