You Have Something the World Needs, from Ruth and Parables
This is the sixth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Will Messenger, Executive Editor of the Theology of Work Project, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 18, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.
My first job after college was a complete shock. IBM hired me as a systems engineer, and it turned out that my college education did not qualify me to be a systems engineer. Looking back, I don’t know why IBM hired me.
A systems engineer’s job was to install and maintain the constellation of hardware and software that make up a corporate information system. To do that you had to know how to interface IBM’s computers, tape drives, hard disk, telecommunications devices, printers, and so on. You had to install and maintain mainframe operating systems, application software, and user interfaces. I didn’t know any of those things. Plus there was a lingo I couldn’t make head nor tails of. “The customer needs new DASD backwards compatible with their 3330s, running VSE, but they’re out of channels on the backplane.” I felt about as useful as a ham and cheese sandwich at a bar mitzvah.
Now in one sense this was totally normal. The company knew that a new hire wouldn’t know much about IBM systems, so they had a one-year training program for all new systems engineers. And as the weeks went by, I was slowly learning what DASD and 3330s were, how to configure systems, how to install software.
Still it was humiliating. We’d have team meetings, and I’d be the only one who didn’t have anything to report on. Right after I was hired, IBM started a hiring freeze that lasted almost two years. So for two years, I was always the youngest, least experienced person in the office. As part of my training, the older systems engineers were supposed to take me with them to customers.
I remember the first time I came to one, Jerry (the lead systems engineer) said, “Where’s the coffee and donuts?” “What do you mean?” I said. The other SE, Adrian, said “You’re the lowest guy on the totem pole, you’re supposed to bring the coffee and donuts.” They made me do the menial labor, like filling in the checklist as they worked each step, or mounting the program tapes on the tape drives. Then they’d make sit at the systems console and type in the system commands while they dictated.
It really bothered me that I couldn’t do anything useful. It felt like a little league ball player on a major league bench. I didn’t have anything to contribute to the team effort.
The reason this bothered me is because people are built to work, and my work felt useless. Human nature longs to work, to make a real contribution to the world around us. As long as you can’t work, or your work doesn’t contribute anything, you feel diminished, edgy, out of sorts. This is no accident. The urge to work is built into us because we are created in the image of God, and God is a worker. God worked in the creation of the world, and God continues to work every day. Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working. (John 5:17).” Jesus is the one human being who fully embodies what God made humanity to be. Jesus is the true man. The person Adam could have been, the person we all could be, but aren’t yet. And Jesus also the true God. So no matter which facet of Jesus you look at—human, divine, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made—you find a worker. “I also am working.” To be human is to work, or at least to desire to work.
Of course, I don’t mean that life boils down to nothing but work. There’s play, rest, art, and recreation, and all the other activities of life. Don’t neglect them!
Yet all the other activities don’t taste as sweet without fulfilling work as part of the picture. Ever notice that if you’re unhappy in work, you’re unhappiness spills over into everything else, whereas if you’re unhappy some anything else, work can become a kind of a refuge where you can still find fulfillment?
This brings us to the first half of the first fill-in in your program. “You have an inner need to work because you are made in the image of God.”
Now it would be a terrible cruelty if God created us with an inner need to work, but nothing meaningful to do. Like being a chauffeur in a world of self-driving cars or a chef on the starship Enterprise, where all the meals come out of a food replicator.
If you’ve ever imagined heaven as a place where there’d nothing to do every day but rest and relax, you’re probably actually imagining hell.
Thank God, the world needs your work. The world that God created is incomplete, unfinished, potential, you have something that the world needs. The universe cannot be what God means it to be—not even nature can be what God means it to be—without human work.
So, to return to the second half of the first fill-in, it’s a good thing that you also have something the world needs through your work. So it all works out. You have an inner need to work; the world needs your work. God is good.
So what does the world need from you? This brings us to the second fill-in. First of all, the world needs you to provide your share of your household’s needs, to the degree you are able in each season of your life. The world, as God has designed it, depends on each us to work to provide for our own needs. One of the facts of life is that you have to earn a living. As Paul puts it in 2 Thessalonians 3:10. “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” So the first thing God’s world needs from you is that you work to support yourself.
When I say “support yourself,” I don’t necessarily mean individually. You may very well belong to what Bible calls a “household.” A household is a group of people who share the responsibility of providing for their needs, like a family, for instance. In my house there are four people. Other households have only one member, as I did before I got married. Either way, every member of the household has to do their share of the work. In our household, Kim and I earn the money. Kim shops and cooks most of the food. I fix most of the stuff that breaks. Our daughters do a lot of the cleaning and they do the schoolwork that as a family we have decided we want to invest in for their education.
This doesn’t mean that everyone does an equal amount of work. But we all work according to our abilities at any point in life to provide for the household’s needs. Everyone has an appropriate share, whether you’re young, old, retired, disabled, working age, or whatever.
Is that it then? The only thing you have that the world needs is that it needs you to support yourself to the degree you’re able?
Isn’t there supposed to be more to it than that? What about some unique thing that only you can do? What about making something great of yourself? Start a company. Cure cancer. Be a missionary to the Shan people of Myanmar. Write the great American novel. Didn’t God create you with something only you can give the world?
Well, let’s look at Ruth and Naomi. The book of Ruth is the anchor story for our series this autumn on the whole of life with God in the picture. We’re at chapter 2, verses 17-23 this week. Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are a household of two people. Naomi stays home and does the housework. Ruth works outside the home as a farm laborer.
“Ruth gathered barley in Boaz’s field all day, and when she beat out the grain that evening, it filled an entire basket. She carried it back into town and showed it to her mother-in-law. Ruth also gave her the roasted grain that was left over from her meal” (Ruth 2:17-18 )
Both Ruth and Naomi show an inner drive to support their household, which is good because there’s nobody else to support them. But until now they’ve had a big problem. Ruth has had nowhere to work. Like most people in the ancient world, her skill is agricultural work. To grow crops you need land. But Ruth and Naomi don’t have any land. Ruth is willing t o work, longing to work, but has no opportunity to work. And this puts their household in financial distress, with the very real possibility of starvation.
I know a little bit of what that feels like. Like Naomi, I uprooted myself to follow God’s leading. In Naomi’s case, God led her to a new geographical location, the country of Moab. In my case, God led to leave my job in the technology sector to become a pastor or theologian. Naomi prospered in the place God led her. Me too. God led me to a great job in a theological institution that was a fit for my skills and experience. I was making an impact in my field, educating pastors and churches, training the next generation of church leaders.
Then disaster struck. Both of Naomi’s sons died. I got laid off. How could God lead Naomi to Moab and then take away her sons? How could God lead me to become a theologian, then take away my job? It was devastating.
At first, what tore me up inside was the loss of accomplishments. I started the only program in the world that offered a doctor of ministry degree in Christian business ethics. I was proud of that. Boom, gone. My students, gone. My research, over. Everything I thought God led me to, swept away. I wanted to get back to all that as fast as I could. So I started looking for another job in Christian business ethics. Turns out there aren’t very many.
Soon things got a lot worse than losing my academic standing. After about six months, we were having trouble paying the mortgage. So I decided I’d start looking for any kind of work. Forget calling, I just needed a paycheck. I started looking for a job as a financial analyst or maybe a case writer I would have loved to go back to IBM, but my skills in systems programming were way too far out of date.
That’s when it hit me, personally, what a blessing it is just to bring home a paycheck to support your family. By that point, I didn’t need a fulfilling job, or a perfect match with my capabilities and interests. I just needed a job. Or even a job for Kim, where she could earn the income and I could do the work at home our family needed.
As it happened, I did find a job in my field of faith-and-work integration—the job I have now, as a matter of fact as leader of the Theology of Work Project. But I will never again disdain the value of doing my share to provide for my family. If I got fired from this job and ended up crunching spreadsheets or whatever all day for a company I didn’t really feel enthusiastic about, that would be OK, if it meant I could earn a living.
It feels great to find work that supports yourself and others. Before my layoff—I felt I had to have the right job to fulfill my potential and God’s calling. Comparing that to how felt after my layoff, when I was happy just to have a job that pays the bills—the difference is vanity and pride. I thought God made to do something bigger, better, more significant than the average guy. Now, I realize my work isn’t my gift to God, my work is God’s gift to me. And I’m thankful simply because it pays the mortgage.
I could end right here. Thank God every time your inner need to work is matched with work that provides for your household. Amen.
But, there are still some empty fill-in-the blanks on your program sheet, so I’d better continue.
What’s left to say is that sometimes, some people, in some seasons of their lives, are in a position where their share of the work can help meet others needs too. Sometimes, in some seasons, each of us needs help from others, and sometimes, in some seasons, you’re in a position to help others. In this week’s passage Ruth, Boaz is in that kind of position. His land has the capacity to produce more grain than his household needs. And the Bible gives him guidance on what to do with that excess capacity. The Jewish Law, specifically Leviticus chapter 19, Deuteronomy chapter 24, and Exodus chapter 23, says that he should let poor people “glean” his fields. Here’s what gleaning means:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien (Lev. 19:9). When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut 24: 19-21).
Foreigners, orphans and widows didn’t own land in ancient Israel, so they didn’t have any fields to work. No opportunity to provide for their households’ needs. So everyone who did own land was supposed to let foreigners, orphans and widows glean their excess grain, olives, grapes. In this case, it works perfectly. Ruth is a foreigner with no land to work. Boaz is has plenty of land, and he who knows the gleaning law and puts it into practice. He invites Ruth to glean in his fields, she does, and her family is fed.
This brings us to fill-in number 3. See where it says, “The world needs you to [blank], likewise.” Fill in “provide for others.” The world needs you to provide for others, likewise. Got that?
Ok, now cross it out. Put a big X across it. Because what the world needs is not for you to provide for others, but for you to invest in others.
That’s the first sentence of fill-in number 4. “The world needs you to invest in others’ work.” Boaz doesn’t provide for Ruth and Naomi’s needs in the sense of taking his excess and giving it to them. That’s why I’m crossing out number 3. Boaz doesn’t deliver a basket of grain to Naomi and Ruth’s house. He doesn’t send a loaf of bread every day. Instead, invests in Ruth’s work by offering her a workplace (his field.) She does the work to fulfill her family’s needs.
Why does the Bible set up a system for gleaning, providing people and opportunity to work, instead a system for giving people what they need? But when we studied this passage in the Theology of Work Project, we found four ways that providing the opportunity to work is better than giving people stuff:
- Maintains work skills, conditioning, habits. It’s like playing a sport. In the off-season you have to keep working at it or something similar, otherwise you’ll be in no shape to pick it up again when the season changes.
- Promotes self-respect; maintains dignity. We have an inner drive to work, not an inner drive to be given stuff. When there was a three-year-old in my household, she used to say, “I do myself!” Darn right.
- Prevents dependency. If you support someone by giving them stuff, they become dependent on you. If you invest in someone’s ability to work, more options begin to open up for them.
- Obviates forced labor and exploitation. Other economies in the ancient near east concentrated land under the ownership of the king and nobles. Nobody could support themselves because they had no access to land. So the common people were forced to become slaves or forced laborers on massive estates. But Israel’s law distributed land among all the families, the gleaning laws gave households who became landless, like Naomi and Ruth, the opportunity to work for themselves rather than selling themselves as slaves to the king.
Boaz understood that God’s purpose in the gleaning laws was not just to get food to hungry people, but to invest in people’s work. He went beyond the minimum requirements of the law, in order to invest in Ruth as a worker, not an object of charity. He included her in his work groups, where she could be most productive. In the work group, she could come up to speed on the best practices for each crop according to the local conditions. She learned how to do both the barley harvest and the wheat—developing skills in multiple areas. In the group she could benefit from teamwork. Some things take forever if you’re working alone, but they’re a snap if two people work together. Most tellingly, Boaz knew that putting her in his work team would protect her from exploitation. “You might be harassed on other fields,” Naomi observes, “but you’ll be safe with him.” Boaz was investing in Ruth, not just doing a good deed. God’s purpose in gleaning is to invest in the work of all of God’s people. And Boaz was right with the program.
Investing in others’ work is much harder than doing the work yourself and giving away your excess production. Boaz could harvest the field much faster himself than by investing in Ruth’s farming capability. She’s going to be slow at first, make mistakes, have friction with the other workers. Boaz is going to have to adapt the systems, the culture, the patterns of work on his farm in order to invest in Ruth’s work. What does Boaz do the first time someone makes a Moabite joke? What if someone on the team doesn’t like Ruth and threatens to quit? It would be a lot easier just to send Naomi and Ruth a loaf of bread every day.
Is this happening to you? Are you spending more hours at work even as you become more productive? Are you making more of the decisions in the organization? Are you spending more time defending your position or extending your power base, even as you become more powerful? Do you remember when you used to try to develop relationships with people you could use to advance your career, but not now you’re trying to avoid relationships with people who want to use you to advance their career?
At some point, if you believe Boaz’s example, you have to transition from building up your own capabilities to investing in others’ work. And it happens a lot sooner than you expect. Boaz is appears to be a fairly young man, as we’ll see in the upcoming chapters of this series.
While I was in the midst of the one-year training program at IBM, I got call from, Ellen, a systems engineer a year or two ahead of me. “Have you been trained on VSE release 34?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “Good. Will you please meet me at 8 am on Saturday for a systems update at Ohio Manufacturing (not their real name).” “Sure,” I said. Great another training visit where I can stand around feeling useless.
When I arrive I can tell that the customer—Ohio Manufacturing’s data processing manager—is not Mr. Nice Guy. He’s complaining about IBM, we can’t do anything right, inferior technology, monopoly power over the industry, blah, blah, blah. He looks at me. I didn’t have a beard then, so I looked even more boyish than I look now. He says, “Now they’re sending kindergartners to do system updates.”
“Want some coffee and donuts,” I say. “Hmm. Thanks, kid” he says. I take my place at the system console. Ellen says, “OK, let’s get started.” I’m poised for her first command. She just looks at me. Sheesh, I think, this must be some kind of test. So I get out the release 34 update checklist. I mount the program update tape. I read the commands of the checklist and start typing them into the system console. Ellen comes and looks over my shoulder. And it dawns on me that this is not a training exercise. Ellen doesn’t know how to do a VSE release 34 update because she hasn’t been trained on this particular operating system. On this job, I’m the expert! Once I realize this, I’m terrified. But I remember the steps that Jerry and Adrian put me through on those earlier customer calls. The menial labor they put me through, that was actually training. They could have run the checklist, mounted the tapes, typed in the system command faster themselves, By making me do the scut-work, they had been investing my capabilities. And it worked. I got through the systems update successfully, and the customer was happy. Ellen learned how to do the next VSE release 34 update on her own.
The magic is when you invest in someone else’s work, everybody wins. On Monday I went gushing to my boss about how good Jerry and Adrian had prepared me for what turned out to be my first system update. On Tuesday, my boss received a note from Ellen thanking my boss her for lending her an expert on VSE 34. On the next customer satisfaction survey, Ohio Manufacturing finally gave IBM a “satisfactory” rating on systems engineering. The investment Jerry and Adrian made in my education didn’t hurt their careers by making their expertise less special. Transferring their knowledge to me, enhanced their careers, and made us all more productive.
Boaz saw all that with Ruth. This makes Boaz one of the great farmer-theologians. He recognized the purpose behind God’s laws, God’s ethics, the agricultural procedures in the Bible. The purpose is to invest in others’ work. The specifics of how to do that are different in every field. What we need today is teacher-theologians, retail-theologians, civil service-theologians, bus-driver theologians, architect-theologians, administrative assistant-theologians, who can see God’s purpose in their field and discern how to put the Bible into practice in their work.
I can’t know the details of how to invest in others in your work. But if you look at what Boaz did to invest in Ruth’s work, you see some general categories. This is the rest of item 4 in the Note-o-matic.
One category is providing means. What can you do to provide a means or opportunity for someone else to work? It might be creating a job or work opportunity like Boaz did. It might be delegating a task but staying engaged with the other person, as Jerry and Adrian with me at the systems console. What can you do to create opportunities to invest in others’ work, to help grow others’ capabilities and skills in your workplace?
Then there’s is welcoming and encouraging. It’s easy to forget how intimidating it is to be the newbie. Boaz kept welcoming Ruth, treating her with respect, letting her know she belonged. There’s always someone ready to make a new person feel unwelcome, like the data processing manager at Ohio Manufacturing. Maybe what you have that the world needs is the willingness to welcome newcomers at work.
Cooperating is hugely important. In last week’s reading, Boaz explicitly instructed his workers how to cooperate with Ruth because he knew they needed some training in how to cooperate with a new worker.
Another is appreciating someone’s work. Boaz complimented Ruth for her work taking care of Naomi. That was in last week’s reading too. Ellen complimented me for my work at Ohio Manufacturing, and for the first time, I felt like a real systems engineer.
Boaz went to a lot of effort protecting Ruth from harassment on the job. In fact, he instituted the world’s first recorded anti-sexual-harassment policy. Who is vulnerable where you work?
Perhaps the ultimate in investing in someone else’s work is partnering with them, tying your success with theirs. That’s not appropriate in every situation. But imagine if your investment in other people’s work were sometimes so successful that you were willing to stake your future on their work. Eventually that’s what Ruth and Boaz did with each other, becoming partners of the most intimate kind. That’s a future session in this series, but let me just say that the ultimate return on their investment was literally infinite.
Finally, I don’t want to forget buying and paying for the products of someone’s work. If giving is a little bit manipulative, buying is empowering. The things you choose to spend money on and the people who produce them are a way you invest in the work of others, for better or worse.
If you want to invest in others’ work, these categories from Boaz’s example could be a great start.
I hope all this is helpful in some way, but I’m beginning to feel bad about my own talk. Because I’m afraid what I’m saying is like a big pile of shoulds, and more stuff for you to-do list. Create jobs, welcome new workers, cooperate with people who need your help, send thank you notes, overcome your perfectionism, delegate tasks but stay engaged. Just try harder! Ugh, I hate the “gospel” of trying harder. Trying harder is the very opposite of the gospel of Jesus, who said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So if any of the ideas in this talk are useful, great. Give them a try. But underneath everything is to remember that God is the source of our ability to give the world what it needs. This is number 5 on the fill-ins. 5. God is the source of your ability to give the world what it needs. You can plug into this source by thanking God, asking God’s help, studying the Bible, conversing with others, investing time and money, and taking baby steps. Whether it’s doing your share to provide your own needs or whether it’s investing in the work of others, whatever you have to offer comes from God, not from trying harder. Christ’s work on the cross for our sake means that you don’t have to earn your salvation, or fulfill your destiny, or live up to your potential. If you want to do good work yourself or invest in others’ work, the most effective step is probably to keep thanking God every day for the work the work that you have, and the people you work with. There are some other suggestions in item #5, but thanking God is the main point. Thanking God for what he is giving you in every moment seems like the entry point for everything that you have to offer the world.
The passage in your program from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 4:3-9) puts this idea in the metaphor of sowing grain. I thought a parable about sowing was a good matchup with Ruth harvesting grain in Boaz’s field. Near the end it says, “Other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
If God is the sower, then all you have to be is the soil. You don’t have to make the seed grow, you don’t have to try harder, you just have to be dirt. If you can just receive whatever God throws your way in today’s work, it’s up to God whether it yields 30 times or 60 or 100. Or if the hot sun wilts your work today, or thorns choke out your good intentions, don’t panic. God will be out sowing again tomorrow and every day until he takes you home. You get a new chance every day to yield what God is planting in your work. I think you can trust God to plant in you whatever harvest he wants you to contribute to the world’s needs.