Loving through loss

By December 7, 2021Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church 

Loving through loss, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH
October 31, 2021


Of the many challenging things that this time of pandemic has brought us, perhaps the most painful and difficult to accept is loss. We have all experienced it in one form or another: be it the loss of togetherness; of work, school, income, or safety; or the loss of life. [Of] course, all loss takes a toll on us. We might wonder if it matters whether we have experienced one form of loss [versus] another. After all, every loss impacts us. All loss leads to grief and pain. Yet some losses can leave us destitute, falling to the depths of despair. And yes, folks, this is true even of people in the Church just as it is in other faith traditions. We all feel pain when struck.

In our passage from the Book of Ruth,1 we pick up seemingly right where the previous book[a] left off. We often do not picture Ruth being placed so close to the Pentateuch—the five books attributed to the prophet Moishe—in the Hebrew Bible, but it does, in fact, immediately follow the Book of Judges.

[Of] course, all you Bible fans will recall that for many years Israel didn’t have a king. It wouldn’t be until Saul that a king reigned in Israel (1 Sam.). [Later, a] young David would go on not only to defeat the giant Goliath but to be [anointed] the second king of Israel [by the prophet Samuel]. (1 Sam. 16:12-13) At the end of the Book of Ruth (Ruth 4:13-17), we learn that David was Ruth’s great-grandson, thus connecting Ruth with arguably the greatest king of Israel.

Yet Judges depicts a time without kings. Ruth, too, is set in a time with no kings. But while Judges shows us so much violence and lawlessness in response to the same, the Book of Ruth shows us only virtuous and honorable responses to the problems [they] faced. And these problems were not small. When there was a famine in Judah, Elimelech went to Moab with his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion (Ruth 1:1). Interestingly, the name Elimelech (אֱלִימֶלֶךְ) means “God [or my God] is king,” while Mahlon (מַחְלוֹן) and Chilion (כִּלְיוֹן) mean “sickness” and “destruction” or “wasting,” respectively.  

We soon learn that Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died in Moab and that her sons married Orpah and Ruth who were both from Moab, where they now lived for a decade (Ruth 1:4). Tragically, [the author writes that both] Mahlon and Chilion have died, leaving Orpah and Ruth to be widows (Ruth 1:5). Having already lost her husband, Naomi now loses her two sons.

Hearing that conditions had changed in Judah, Naomi headed there with Orpah and Ruth (Ruth 1:6). At some point on the way, Naomi’s conscience kicked in and she told her daughters-in-law to just go back to Moab where they could find another husband (Ruth 1:8). It was useless to go on with her, she thought. What could she do? She couldn’t have any more sons who would then grow into future husbands (Ruth 1:11). It didn’t even seem likely that she could remarry again, anyway (Ruth 1:12). It would just be herself, a lonely, grieving widow, whose children had all passed, too. Perhaps Naomi felt that the only good thing left she could do was to release Orpah and Ruth so that maybe at least they’d be happy.

And haven’t we felt that way, too? So down that the only thing [to do is] attempt to push those around [us] toward something happier in hopes that [we] might not drag them down with [us].

This is what loss can feel like.

When we have suffered through tragedy, we are not the same on the other side. Sometimes we wish we could go back—wouldn’t it be great if things could be “normal” again?  Other times, we just go ahead anyway, steeling ourselves for the journey [back] to where we came from—perhaps with no small amount of denial rolling around in the back of our head.

No doubt—we’ve experienced loss in our lives, both as individuals and as a group. Along with previously mentioned losses, we might add ones that have had a broader impact like the present COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, mass shootings, [and] the tragic attacks of 9/11—all of which have a greater impact, contributing to the pain of loss felt by millions of people.

One of the other challenges of loss is that while we may feel a loss of the past, we can also internalize the sense of a lost future. We might think, how can I go on? And yet, before we too quickly dismiss ourselves here, I believe it is important to name what’s behind this question. If we were to fully ask this question, it may sound more like this: How can I go on without him? Or how can I go on, knowing that my job is gone? Or even, how can I go on when I feel this bad?

Perhaps more important is who we ask these questions to. Are we pondering this in our mind, asking a therapist or loved one, or are we asking this question of God? Healthy as the former ones may be, if we bring hard questions like this to God, well… it becomes more of a prayer, and prayer reminds us of God; and God has heard all of our cries, and He has loved us through all of them, through all pain, suffering, and loss.

“Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I were even to have a husband tonight and also give birth to sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is much more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has come out against me.”

When first [hearing her] words, we’d probably think that Orpah and Ruth will just agree with Naomi and go back to Moab. But they don’t—or at least one of them doesn’t.

“And they raised their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. Then she said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” (Ruth 1:14-15)

There is no doubt that Orpah has grieved as much as the others. We can picture her as she kisses her mother-in-law for the last time, tears streaming down her face. Who knows where Orpah ends up; Scripture is silent. We doknow that she felt loss and that she departed from those who loved her, and traveled a long distance home to Moab, seemingly alone. It can be easy to dismiss Orpah in this story, but maybe she represents that part of us that wants to abandon our grief, to try [to] flee from it, hoping it will go away.

But the book is called the Book of Ruth for a reason, right?

Through all the suffering and loss that had been experienced, you would think that Ruth might have just tagged along with Orpah, heading back to Moab where she would have familiar surroundings and perhaps be able to reconnect with family and friends, or even find a new husband. Denial or not, this may have made sense for her, but Ruth didn’t choose that path. Where Orpah grievingly departed, Ruth held tight and stayed. She gave up any of the other options. She passed seeing familiar faces or finding new love back in Moab. Instead, she dug deep inside and found the strength of her heart to remain, to remain by Naomi’s side. Ruth’s love for Naomi carried through both their losses.

It is often said that love is stronger than death, and certainly we see this by God’s love for His people throughout the Bible. But what is especially interesting here, and how we witness that selfless love in human beings; how we love one another through all loss.

When we read to the end of the Book of Ruth, we see that God works through Ruth [by] establishing a family line that stretches [from] David [to] Jesus [of Nazareth]. And God does this even though Ruth was a Moabite and not an Israelite. God works through all kinds of experiences and backgrounds, often making connections and building upon situations or people that we might least expect.

Just as He does with love, brokenness, humility, hard-heartedness, and outright defiance, God also works through loss, binding the hearts of those who mourn together in relationship.

The prophets come to mind. Though they can all too easily be misquoted and mischaracterized, the prophets do not serve as messengers of doom. Rather, they painfully communicate the deep desire God has to be in relationship with His people; in essence, His love for them. Just as a parent becomes so deeply vexed by the misbehavior of their children, God longs for us to get our act together, for our return. Writing of the pathos of the prophets, Hebrew scholar, [rabbi,] and activist [Rabbi] Abraham Joshua Heschel, PhD, speaks to the suffering at the crux of a prophet’s empathy.2 A mouthpiece of God’s word, the prophet feels the pain of God, when His people go astray, spurning His love. Prophets, being people themselves, also feel the great distress experienced in the hearts of the people to whom they are called to serve. In short, the prophets love through loss.

But perhaps our greatest example of this comes in our relationship with Jesus [the] Christ. As fully human and fully divine, Jesus is placed in a wholly unique situation. While in his humanity, Jesus feels love and bears the burden of our grief and loss. In his divinity, Jesus experiences our loss for a time that is far beyond our reckoning—arguably up through the end of time. Yet, we must remember the cross. Jesus loves us so much, through all our joy, our problems, and the loss we’ve experienced, that he suffered the cross on our behalf. As followers of Jesus, we are unified by the Spirit he sends, united as one body.

And we are together in experiencing our losses, as well, aren’t we? We also witness the pain and suffering of one another, praying for, comforting, advocating for, fighting for, and being present to each other through our loss. Sometimes we do this willingly, other times with a bit of a lazy sense of obligation. We are relatively calm, doing what we find to be our duty; we might also boil over with indignant anger, with a burning commitment to love and to bless those who have been wronged in their loss.

It doesn’t always take much, friends: send a card to the spouse who has made that first entry back to the home where love laughed louder just a short time ago. Make a glass-of-wine-and-Zoom call to a friend after they’ve lost a job. Listen—just listen to someone who has lost a lot and who fears that only the worst lays ahead in a dim future.

Friends, these may seem like dark pictures, and perhaps they are. But loss is real, and we all experience it. Likely, more so now, during this exhausting, drawn-out time of the pandemic. And you see, though there is darkness and pain and all manner of distressing loss, we are not alone in it. We are never alone. The naming of our pain, important as it may be, pales in comparison to the love which joins us, and which remains with us through it.

Sisters and brothers, in the Scriptures we witness countless examples of how our great God loves us through loss. This is certainly the case that we see with the abiding, sacrificial love that Ruth gives to Naomi.

Taking our cue from Ruth, may we boldly accept the call to love one another through our losses. Let us never forget the One who loved us unto death, that all things be made new; for by his great love, a love which surpasses all things, even death, the greatest loss, will die.

We ask for these blessings and guidance in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.


  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Heschel A. The Prophets: 2 Volumes in 1. Tyndale House Publishers; 2007.


[a] Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) and Shofetim (Judges) in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, respectively.