Ruth and Parables Curriculum

Small Group Study / Produced by partner of TOW

How can a church integrate workplace issues into a normal structure of weekly preaching and small groups?  This integrated series can serve as a model.  The Ruth series, piloted by Reservoir Church in Cambridge Massachusetts from September through November 2015, is unique in that it goes beyond the entry-level message that “God cares about your work” to dive deep into complex workplace issues such as stress, immigration, hiring, unemployment, and job satisfaction.

The Ruth series was developed by Reservoir Church in partnership with the TOW Project and as a result of participation in a Vocation Infusion Learning Community.  Senior Pastor Steve Watson titled the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  

Each week during the Sunday church service the preacher explored a passage in the book of Ruth, and linked his or her work experiences to the passage. Each passage was further  illuminated through exploring one of Jesus’ parables, again with special attention to workplace applications.  Each of these talks was paired with discussion questions for small groups, so that various groups meeting in homes throughout the week could apply the teachings of the sermon to their own work lives.

For each week in this series we have provided sermon audio, sermon notes, small group discussion questions, and the fill-in sheet which congregants received in their service bulletin.  

Week 1: Finding Joy and Wonder, in All our Lives, All the Time

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Week 1 introduces the congregation to the series on Ruth, as well as to the concept of Whole Life Discipleship.  Senior Pastor Steve Watson explains the curriculum in this way: “All fall we’ll talk about the whole of our lives - our work, our housing, our networks of relationships, our strategies for securing a happy life and the fulfillment of our dreams.  And we’ll ask how it is there can be more in all of that with God in the picture.”

Finding Joy and Wonder, in All our Lives, All the Time (Audio)

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This is the first sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 13, 2015.  This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work. 

Finding Joy and Wonder, in All our Lives, All the Time (Sermon Notes)

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This is the first sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 13, 2015.  This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

As a dad, I find myself driving my kids around now and then. And this past year, trying to inject a little more fun into these times, I started playing a podcast out of Minnesota Public Radio called “Song of the Day.” 5 days a week, we get a new song to listen to that we’re likely to never hear on the radio. We’ve had country and hip-hop, and rock and poppy little things – serious, funny, all kinds of music. Each time we’re in the car, we’ll play the latest songs of the day and rate them from 1 to 10. Well, one of our higher rated songs over this time was a cool little tune by a band called the Cayucas. They’re named after the California home town of the band’s twin brothers Zach and Ben Yudin. And the song, that our band here is going to cover in a minute, is “Mooney Eyed Walrus.”

You’re going to hear a fun, summery song, with kind of inscrutable lyrics. They sing about a cosmonaut and a large, mysterious walrus with fanged teeth, giant eyes, and stegosaurus-evoking sword-like tusks. It’s kind of weird, kind of magical, kind of mysterious. But in the chorus, you get a sense that the song’s deep woods and magical sea are all about transcendence and dreams and wonder. The stuff that takes us deeper, that makes us believe, and want to see more.

Let’s given a listen to this fun and weird and magical song. I turn it over to our band, with the Cayucas’ “Mooney Eyed Walrus.”

Kind of weird, though isn’t it? When Dana and I were talking about this song, we were hoping there isn’t some cryptic symbolism going on in these verses that will embarrass us. And who knows? I really don’t know what that drippy eyed walrus has to do with the cosmonaut or the batwing cave…

But what I do know is that as we drove around listening to this song, I found myself singing along, with these words, “I believe. Deeper. I wanna see. Bigger and bigger.” And that would take me to this happy, expectant, wondrous state of mind. Until my kids would tell me to quiet down, stop singing along and ruining the song.

But I do think that’s what the song’s about, at least it is to me. The video the Cayucas released has the two twins walking through a lush, green forest carrying a surf board, which seems a little random until the end, when they emerge out of the trees onto a cliff overlooking the Pacific surf. And you realize that they’ve been walking in the direction of this incredible place of brighter brights and higher heights, as they sing. That maybe it’s a metaphor for all of life as a journey toward the deep and big stuff that evokes joy and wonder.

That’s at least where I want to take us today, to ask how it is we can find joy and wonder in all our lives, all the time, and maybe just why we’d want to do that at all. We’re starting a new Sunday series today, and we’ve called it, Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture. All fall we’ll talk about the whole of our lives – our work, our housing, our networks of relationships, our strategies for securing a happy life and the fulfillment of our dreams – and we’ll ask how it is there can be more in all of that with God in the picture.

One of our companions this fall is going to be this little gem of a book from the Hebrew Scriptures called Ruth. Ruth reads like a little fairy tale in some ways, except that its writer takes significant pains to ground it in Israel’s history, and to fill it with the kind of people and situations that raise questions about how it is we can find inspiration in all arenas of life.

This fall, Ruth will give us immigrants and refugees, family drama and local politics. It will raise issues about the law and economics and how to manage personal wealth or poverty. There’ll be efforts to move out of unemployment and rather creative sexual advances to move out of singlehood. It’s an earthy, whole life story, this book of Ruth.

But it starts amidst crushing tragedy. So where better place to ask if it’s possible to find wonder and joy, in all our lives, all the time, then to take a quick look at a woman who’s hit rock bottom.

Here’s the introduction to this story we’ll track with this fall. It’s on the inside flap of your program if you want to follow along there.

Ruth 1:1-7 (NLT)

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.

Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.

Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.

Talk about rock bottom tough times! Our author gives us a clue about just how bad this is going to be when the story starts with the line, “In the days when the Judges ruled....” Judges is the book in the Bible just before Ruth. It tells the story of how the early federation of 12 Hebrew tribes was more or less falling apart. Over and over again, it says, “the people did evil.” And right before Ruth, the book ends with this big scene of murder and human abduction, a chapter of mayhem that ends with this line:

In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”

And then Ruth begins right where that left off. There’s a famine in the home country of Judah, so Naomi and her husband Elimilech and their two sons flee essentially as migrants or refugees. We’re getting a wake up call in the West these days through this multi-year Syrian crisis just how painful life as a refugee can be, and here the book of Ruth throws us right into one of these stories. And the prospective marriage of these two sons to daughters from Moab – happy as it may sound – was not exactly a dream come true. I don’t know much about what I’m sure were the wonderful people of Moab, but from Israel’s perspective, well… let’s just say that Israel’s legend for how the whole people of Moab came into being is that they were born from an incestuous relationship. Yeah, nasty stuff…

So we’re in a lawless, brutal, violent age. Naomi and her family are refugees, fleeing famine. And their sons’ only marriage prospects are a from a people group Naomi would have been raised to look down upon. But then things get really bad.

First, Naomi’s husband dies, and then her two sons do marry these Moabite women, but ten years later, they both die as well. And what does Naomi have left? Just a rumor that things have gotten better in her homeland. But she’s a widow, in a time and culture that where that equaled destitute, and not only is she a widow, but she has two foreign widow daughters-in-law in tow, whose fate would have been no better than hers.

I developed an affinity for these Hebrew Scriptures first when I was young, through my dad. Like these stories, my dad has kind of a tragic, emotionally complicated streak in him. But maybe more significantly, my dad at the time of my birth was also a doctoral student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. My dad likes to brag that he was the first ever Gentile in his particular area of doctoral studies in that largely Jewish department in a largely Jewish university.

My dad never finished that program, but the basement area outside my bedroom as a kid was still littered with the remnants of those uncompleted studies. Stacks of books on Jewish history, Arabic and Hebrew flashcards for study, file cabinets full of dissertation notes, and Bibles and Jewish commentaries on them.

This dad of mine was pretty upbeat about my life and future – he clearly believe in me. But he was gloomier about his own life, unsatisfied with his accomplishments, and un-reconciled with the parts of his childhood that were barren and cold.

This year, my dad actually went to an extended family reunion for the first time ever. And we talked again about his own childhood, which I’ve heard about before, how his mom had a really bleak childhood and barren inner landscape, so that she just wasn’t kind or loving. About how his dad was so silent and didn’t know how to treasure or invest in his own sons.

But my dad said there was this one perspective he picked up at his family reunion that helped him appreciate his family, particularly his father, more. He said when his dad did talk about his childhood, it was clear that his depression-era youth in the suburbs of New York City was really poor. There was very little that he had in the way of decent food and clothing, let alone any luxuries. But he always talked about the time he got a new shirt for Christmas, or this one nice meal with another family from church, or whatever it was. His stories always centered around gratitude.

And at this family reunion, my father spoke for the first time with the children of one of his uncles about how their father would talk about his childhood, growing up in the same home at the same time as my grandfather. And what they said is that he always talked about all that he didn’t have – the opportunities and the possessions he was denied, and how hard and embittering that was.

And my dad thought that for all the gaps his own father had as a dad, he was never bitter. He was always grateful, and again, for all his lacks, he seems like he ended up a few steps better than his embittered brother.

And my dad thought aloud that isn’t it so interesting that two people in the same circumstances can leave that situation telling such different stories about it. That our attitudes and dispositions can go in such different directions, again, even given the exact same circumstances. Perhaps we always have a choice.

Life can certainly throws a lot of stuff our way. It can be a bumpy road, can’t it?

This past week, I’ve been kind of locked in on the launch of the next steps in the career of Stephen Colbert. Anyone else taken in any of the Late Show? I think someone decided that there were not quite enough white men, with late night variety shows. We needed one more, I guess.

But for all that, to my mind Colbert’s been pretty refreshing. I watched his interview with Joe Biden the other night, which was kind of stunning. Biden of course has known significant tragedy, losing his wife and daughter decades ago, and facing the death of another child, his son Beau, this past year. And politics aside, Joe Biden was impressive as a human being in this interview, as he expressed a deep sense of gratitude for his life, almost a sense of wonder of it all, despite the tragedies.

And I thought this is so interesting, because Colbert – as you may know – is also no stranger to tragedy and gratitude. When he was ten, Stephen Colbert’s father and his two brothers closest in age to him died in a plane crash. And he was raised alone by his mom. But Colbert, in this remarkable interview this summer in GQ said, “It’s by my mother’s example that I am not bitter. Because she wasn’t. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.”

And he goes on to say, that the world, “It’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive (he says), even though I know a lot of dead people.” And he says, This is just how I’ve always felt: grateful to be alive. And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God.”

The Joe Biden, the Stephen Colbert, you could say, of my growing up was my tenth grade English teacher, Ken Jones. Mr. Jones had us write these weekly journals, so we’d get used to simply writing more often, and he’d read them every week and actually write back to us a bit. I hadn’t been close a teacher for years, but there was something about this that really impressed me, that endeared him to me, so I started writing these journals and taking them kind of seriously, I guess.

But that year, Mr. Jones became not just a great teacher to me, but a hero as well. See, I had heard through the grapevine that a year or two earlier, his daughter had died of an illness she picked up overseas, serving with the Peace Corps. And we knew somehow that his wife his marriage had ended several years earlier as well. And there was clearly some sadness about Mr. Jones. But then during my year with him, we heard the shocking news that his son was on the Pan Am flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. So that suddenly, Mr. Jones was without wife, and now without both his children as well.

My high school chorus sang at the memorial service. That whole year Ken Jones was my English teacher, I watched a man grieve, I watched a man keep on with his life in the face of tragedy. And I was stunned at what I saw.

At my big brother’s senior graduation events that year, they asked Mr. Jones if he would speak, and he did. He called his talk, “The Marvelous Incomprehensibility of God.” Which probably wasn’t kosher, but they let Ken Jones do what he wanted that year, I guess. And I don’t remember most of his speech, but he talked about the mystery, the inscrutability of life, and how challenging it is to have courage and faith when there’s so much you don’t understand. But I still remember one single line from the speech, when near the end, near tears, he gripped the podium with both hands to stop from shaking, and he said, “Here I stand, bereft of children, but not of hope.”

Here I stand, bereft of children, but not of hope.

Ken Jones became my hero that day.

Life gives us a mix of things, doesn’t it, and we have to figure out what to do about that, if we can still be hopeful people, and if we can find, or maybe despite ourselves, get found by God in the middle of all that.

Jesus has this story he tells that gives me some imagery for this. This fall, we’ll be tracking not only with this ancient narrative in Ruth, but with parables from Jesus as well – these intriguing stories he tells with kind of arresting images of life with God in the picture.

And here’s this week’s parable, the second scripture on your program:

Matthew 13:24-30 (NLT)

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

“‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

“‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’”

So here we have it. Jesus says, here’s how things work with God in the picture – what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. Or put it more simply, here’s how heaven on earth works. Someone, later Jesus says it’s him, so Jesus is always planting and growing things, planting and growing, and yeah for wheat that grows. But sometimes, people spot these weeds in his fields, and he’s like, “Dang! What the… an enemy has done this!”

So even Jesus gets fed up and frustrated with the way life works sometimes. And these helpers of Jesus think they can somehow get rid of all the weeds and just let his good stuff keep growing, but he says that’s impossible. Wait until later. We’ll sort it out at harvest.

Now later on Matthew says, Jesus extracts a very particular meaning to this parable. That weeds and wheat are kind of like people who are increasingly full of goodness and people that are increasingly full of badness, and how it’s not always easy to tell the difference, so we shouldn’t try. God will work it out in the end. And this is an important note to first century churches who were really concerned about weeding out toxic people from their communities. Matthew quotes Jesus saying, “Don’t do that.” Leave judgment in God’s hands because you won’t be very good at it.

But I think there’s a broader meaning here as well. Jesus, after all, says these things as parables, as stories, because they’re meant to intrigue, to arrest people’s imaginations with the deepest truths about life.  

And I think at its most basic level, this story Jesus tells affirms that life is complicated. That no matter how good a season we’re in, there’s still going to be challenge or pain or just drudgery. No matter how wheaty the field is, someone’s going to plant some weeds. And that’s OK.

Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven working out doesn’t require perfect conditions.

Heaven on earth isn’t depending upon a weed-free field.

We can still have a life of profound joy and wonder, regardless of our circumstances.

Two years later, I had a quiet moment with Ken Jones in his living room.

(This, as an aside I’ve got to mention is at the end of the both warm and kind of creepy era when professional adults and kids had kind of fuzzy boundaries sometimes. I had another teacher who took my and another kid on a trip when I was seventeen. I dressed up in a tux at his college reunion and served him and his buddies cigar and cognac. I was seventeen years old. An absolutely great story for another day.)

But anyway, here I am, in Ken Jones’ living room. I’m a junior or senior in high school – 16 or 17 years old. And it’s only newly his living room, because he’d remarried that year with a counselor in our school. A woman who happened to also be our class advisor. And he’d joined her and her three children in their home, just a mile away from mine. And one night, the two of them had their kids out, and had me and my high school girlfriend over to dinner with them. And the now Mrs. Jones and my girlfriend were in the kitchen, and there’s Ken and teenage me, just chillin’ in the living room, and I remember asking him, “What’s it like to be here? And to be in this life you’re living, where so much has changed?”

And I remember he looked around the room, and I think his eyes teared up a little, and he said, “Sometimes I just can’t believe I’m in this life I have.” That here I am with Mrs. Jones, and here I am in this house, and it’s mine now too. And these three amazing kids, they’re really so great. And I’m just astounded by all that I have. Sometimes I can’t believe it.

I don’t know how it passed, but I remember that kind of holy moment of grace and wonder, listening to Ken Jones – whose life most people just saw as tragic – but looking at him, and listening to him absolutely full of wonder, just deeply grateful for the life he had, and for all the surprising goodness in it.

Let’s talk about those of us in the room.

Some of us have had summers, and we’re walking into falls just obviously full of beauty and wonder. You’ve been on some great vacation, or maybe just been to the ocean, and like the Cayucas, you can say, “Oh, from the edge of cliffs above the trees, I believe!” Or you want to see your dreams you dreamt get bigger and bigger. I know some of you that are in relationships you love, or you’re expecting your first child, or school’s awesome, or you’ve just launched a business that’s going great!

But some of us look back at our summer, or we look at the weeks ahead, and it seems more bleak or desolate, or maybe just mundane. You’d suffered loss, some of you in the room, I know. Or you’re facing messy problems. Some of you tell me about those, and I know those. are. hard. Or maybe you’re just bored. School or work or home is kind of disappointing. And there’s nothing new, nothing particularly satisfying going on. 

Well, I think today’s stories tell us that yes, there are always weeds in life, but… there is also always wheat, always blessing as the story in Ruth says.

Jesus and Ruth, the stories of my grandfather, and Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden and my old teacher Ken Jones all suggest to me that no matter what life throws our way, we can always find joy and wonder and gratitude. That we can always find God.

We’ll talk about finding God, or maybe God finding us, in all kind of circumstances this fall. Next week we’ll talk about finding God in unexpected people. And there’ll be all kind of interest stuff coming your way after that.

But I want to wrap up our first talk here, with a few next steps on finding joy and wonder, wherever you are. This will be where your program notes pick up, if you feel like grabbing a pen and following along. Obviously, your call on that. But here we go, four invitations for you:

Next Steps:

  1. You have both wheat and weeds in your life – notice them both.

Most of us are pretty good at noticing the weeds in our lives, aren’t we? We see what’s wrong or what’s missing, don’t need much help there. But some of us have a hard time finding the wheat, or just forget to give it attention, forget to see the wheat. But whatever our tendency is – giving more notice to the good or the bad – it seems important to notice both. I remember hearing once, maybe in this church from another pastor here, this great line I love, that “Reality is the friend of God.” Reality is God’s friends. Because it’s our real lives, this life, this day, that is the only material God has to work with. And as we saw with Jesus and some of the stories today, as we’ll see with Ruth, that’s always good enough for God.

What we don’t need, though, is to spin or deny our problems, so:

  1. Don’t fake being happy about the lousy stuff.

Some of us have been told that we have to engage in some kind of mental or spiritual gymnastics to be grateful for all the junk in our lives, as if we’re supposed to say, it’s so great to be lonely, or bored, or suffer disappointment or tragedy. I’m so grateful!

With the weeds that creep into anything good, we saw that Jesus himself says, “An enemy has done this!” This is not a good thing. And we can do the same. We don’t have to celebrate whatever junk or mess we’re dealing with. But we can do something else profound, I’ve experienced, which is:

  1. Turn towards the blessing, whatever it is today.

This is a more religious sounding phrase than I normally like to lay on you, and – to be honest – it makes me mildly uncomfortable. But I’m quoting from Ruth here, and I decided not to paraphrase.

You’ll remember that Naomi is alone, without her two sons or her husband, as the text tells us. And then she hears that God has blessed the people back in her home region of Judah with really abundant harvest again. The region she once had to leave because of famine has rebounded.

And so even though she’s gone from refugee to kind of settled in Moab by this point, and even though it might be humiliating for her to return home with nothing, we read that hears about this news, and then she gets ready to return, sets out, and takes the road.

There’s all kinds of irony here, but there often is for us as well. Finding our blessing can be as simple as practicing gratitude – like my grandfather did in looking back on his impoverished childhood, like Stephen Colbert was doing in the interview.

But often we can find that there’s a blessing right in the place of a previous or current weakness. It’s Ruth learning that the most abundant food is available where there once was only famine for her. It’s Ken Jones in the living room, with both of his children dead, suddenly embraced into the lives of three step-children. It’s me on Thursday morning, having realized I’d been an absolute jerk as a dad to one of my kids – I really had been. But then seeing that in my child’s disappointment in me, there was an opportunity for me to learn and grow as a human being, and I could be grateful for that. 

But it’s there – find the blessing, and lastly, when you do:

  1. Milk every bit of praise, awe, and wonder – this just might be the point of life.

I shared so many stories of loss and gratitude today – my grandpa, Joe Biden, Stephen Colbert, Ken Jones – because they move me so much. These are people who have found gratitude, they can look at life that’s had tragedy in it and still be grateful, still say, God, you are good. And a sense of awe and wonder flow out of that.

When you find yourself in that kind looking at your blessing and in one of these Cayucas moments – “I believe. Here’s that good thing, and it’s deep and wonderful.” Stay with that. Tell God how great it is. Give expression to that wonder you feel, tell someone about it.

Increasingly, I wonder if that’s the point of life.

A remarkable Jewish scholar I’ve read, Abraham Heschel, thinks it is. I’ve shared this quotation before, but here it is again:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

I won’t give it all away now, but this is where the whole book of Ruth is going. Happy woman loses it all, renames herself “Bitterness” but then ends with her friends telling her life is good, and she quietly agrees. She finds praise and awe and wonder again.

Life isn’t a puzzle to be solved.  We cannot smooth it all over until there’s no challenge, no pain.  And yet, life also isn’t suffering to be endured.  Rather, it is ALL of life that can be inspired, because God is in all things.  We can honestly face our circumstances and still find joy and wonder.

Can I pray that this will be so for you this week?

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 1

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Note to small group leaders: for the 11-week series titled “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture” the small group leader’s guide will be based on the readings, sermon, and fill-in-the-blanks from each Sunday morning. We’ll discuss some of the background, make some connections, and raise some questions your group may find helpful. Feel free to use as much or as little as you choose.

Introduction to the 11-week series grounded in the Book of Ruth:

“This fall, Ruth will give us immigrants and refugees, family drama and local politics. It will raise issues about the law and economics and how to manage personal wealth or poverty. There’ll be efforts to move out of unemployment and rather creative sexual advances to move out of singlehood. It’s an earthy, whole life story, this book of Ruth.  But it starts amidst crushing tragedy. So where better place to ask if it’s possible to find wonder and joy, in all our lives, all the time, then to take a quick look at a woman who’s hit rock bottom.”–Steve Watson.

Read Ruth 1:1-2

Ruth takes place during the worst time in Israel’s history. “The days when the judges ruled in Israel” (Ruth 1:1) are described in the book of Judges, the book of the Bible just before Ruth. Over and over again, Judges says, “the people did evil.” The book ends with an horrific scene of kidnapping, rape murder and mayhem that ends with this line: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). This is not meant as a compliment.

As a result of the people’s evil, the land of Israel is filled with conflict and famine. Then as now, war and poverty often go together. Facing starvation, Naomi and her husband and two sons move to the nation of Moab looking for food. So we are reading the story of a refugee family.

The nation of Moab neighbored Israel. Moabites and Israelites recognized one another as relatives, yet also as antagonists. Not exactly enemies, but in occasional conflict for centuries, especially over territory and religion. The closest analogy today might be between Muslims in the Middle East and Christians in the West. If you imagine a Hungarian family seeking refuge in Syria in World War II, or vice versa today, you have an idea of the desperation and vulnerability involved, yet also the slender possibility of hope. You need only to read today’s paper to read Naomi’s story.

There is a bitter irony for Naomi’s family because they are part of God’s people. Having made it to God’s promised land (“flowing with milk and honey”) they are now forced to flee into foreign territory to find food. How could God have led Israel to the promised land, only to let them starve there? The Israelites had made the same complaint to Moses after crossing the Red Sea: “You have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death”(Exodus 16:3).

Naomi is facing more than just disappointment and shattered hopes. She is seeing God’s promises appear to come crashing down around her. The promise of good work and prosperity (milk and honey) turns to unemployment and famine. The promise of being one of God’s people turns to becoming a stranger in a strange land. The promise of a man and a woman becoming “one flesh” and becoming fruitful and multiplying (Genesis 2:24; 1:28) turns in to becoming a widow “bereft of children, but not of hope,” as Steve Watson’s teacher, Ken Jones, put it.

Question 1

Have you experienced tragedy or what can only be described as the failure of God’s promises? Have you, like Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden, and Ken Jones found wonder, hope and even joy in the midst of loss and tragedy?  What made that possible? How do the tragedies that other people face—whether Syrian refugees or neighbors across the street—affect you?

Read Ruth 1:3-6

Widows in the ancient Near East generally lost all economic status. That would equate to homeless or unemployability in American society. Along with aliens and the fatherless, widows received a great deal of attention in the Law of Israel. They were easy targets for economic and social abuse and exploitation. Many resorted to prostitution simply to survive, a situation all too common for vulnerable women in our day as well.

Suddenly, a potential solution for Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth arises. The Lord seems to be forgiving Israel for their evil ways, and blessing them with good crops again.  In the ancient Near East, deity played the most important role in cause and effect, both in history and in nature. In our worldview we would be inclined to identify human or natural cause and effect first and then mention that “of course, God was behind it all.” In the ancient Near East, it would be the other way around. God would be identified as the cause behind famine or war, with natural or human causes given secondary notice, if mentioned at all.

Naomi can now return to Israel and hope to find relatives who would take her into their families there. No longer would she have to try to survive as a widowed, alien woman in a hostile country. Yet, if she returns to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law, the younger women would be widows and aliens in Israel. Every choice she faces is a hard choice.

Question 2

Even though Naomi had known bitter disappointment, she found hope for God’s blessing in her life, and she is willing to risk everything to receive it.  Have you ever taken a big risk in order to receive what you hope will be blessings from God? What was that like? Are you facing a decision like this right now? What is it that gets you moving? Do you stay home and endure the discomfort you know in familiar surroundings. Or do you up stakes and move on into a possible promise but still uncertain future in unfamiliar circumstances. What will help you decide?

Matthew 13:24-30

The parable of the wheat and the weeds seems to say that we can find wonder, joy, and hope in the very mixed circumstances of our lives. “Biblical realism is not utopianism nor fatalistic despair,” according to Steve’s sermon. “Reality is the friend of God.” The art of life not to search for perfect conditions in order to begin living, but to begin living no matter what conditions you’re in. Steve’s fill-in-the blank suggests four steps for doing this (see separate attachment.)

Question 3

Which of the four steps have ever tried? How did it/they work for you? Which steps do you think might help you right now?

What do you find personally challenging for you in this?

The farmer in the parable says that the wheat and the weeds are so entangled that if you pull up the weeds, you’ll end up pulling up the wheat. What “wheat” in you or in your life is so precious that it’s worth preserving, even at the risk of weeds? What weeds are you chopping that maybe you should let grow a while longer? Are all the weeds and wheat in your life entangled like this, or only some?

Week 2: Finding God in the Least Expected People

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Week 2 covers the topic of investing in other people, especially those people who seem like unlikely candidates for investment.

Finding God in the Least Expected People (Audio)

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This is the second sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 20, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Finding God in the Least Expected People (Sermon Notes)

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This is the second sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 20, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

One of the many names we won’t be calling our church is “House for all Sinners and Saints.” Cool in its own way, but it’s taken, and kind of famously so, by this rising star of a pastor-writer named Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s the tattooed, cursing, cross-fitting, former addict, Lutheran pastor who was on Fresh Air the other day. I read Nadia’s new book last week. It’s called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. And I may have got the book because she’s this mini-celebrity now, but I finished it because I have a lot to learn from her as a pastor.

You see, each of her chapters is kind of an abridged set of sermon notes. Interesting insights about the Bible, some stories, thoughts about living well. But each chapter is also tied to a person who Nadia thought was too broken, too criminal, too put together, too annoying, too unlike her to be someone she could love, someone she could learn from. And yet it’s these people, the people she calls the accidental saints, that God keeps using to tell her the truth about herself and about life, that God keep using to save her, that God uses to show her how loved we all are despite how screwed up we are. It’s these people that God uses to show her how significant we are, despite how stupid and random life can seem. It’s these accidental saints that show her how joyful life can be, even when there seem to be funerals and failures and futility around every corner. She keeps finding God in all the wrong people.

We’re in the second week of this series we’ve called “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” We decided to spend this fall on something the church world might call whole-life discipleship. How can God matter in all of life – work, people, play, politics, you name it? And how can God in the picture of all things inspire us, bring us an increase in purpose and depth and joy? There are these intriguing little stories Jesus tells called parables, and there is this warm, earthy Jewish biography called Ruth that we’ll read, and together we’ll see where they take us. Because this is what we do in this space on Sundays – try to give voice to our most authentic stories and questions, and read these old texts that people have found valuable in for centuries, and make space to see what inspiration and what practical living comes of it.

And today we’re going to talk about the way God most often seems to find people when we don’t especially know how to find God, or maybe don’t even know if we want to. It’s the way God uses least expected people to tell us the truth we most need to hear.

When we started last week, we met a middle-aged woman named Naomi who had lost everything, and her two foreign daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth, who’d lost almost as much at a young age themselves, and we asked if we could really find joy and gratitude in all circumstances. Let’s pick up their story for a bit. This is the first of the two excerpts on the inside flap of your program. From the first chapter of Ruth:

RUTH 1:6-18 (NLT)

Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.

But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.

“No,” they said. “We want to go with you to your people.”

But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.”

And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi.“Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.

What an intense scene! Famine and death are everywhere. In ancient agrarian cultures, these are the two great losses – loss of food security, and death of the young. And in this patriarchal culture, early loss of husband or sons is the greatest loss of all. Because it is untimely death that also ensures impoverishment. This is why Naomi heads back home to Judah in search of food. And it’s why she tells her daughters-in-law to go home and remarry and start a new life while they still can.

Shockingly, they say no. They’re loyal to Naomi. Perhaps they admire or respect or love her deeply. Perhaps they too have heard that life in Judah might be better than in their homeland of Moab. Who knows?

But this provokes Naomi to tell them the bitter truth she understands about herself. She says, I am too old. I will never again have a happy future, but even if by some miracle I do, it will be too late to be of any use to you. My god has given me his fist, perhaps your gods will treat you better. Go home. Naomi’s story is that her life is bitter, but theirs doesn’t have to be.  Leave her alone.

And it’s a convincing story. Orpah leaves.

But Ruth says no. She says, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” I’ve been to a number of weddings where these words were read, one where they were in the couple’s vows.

And you can understand – there’s this intensity and partnership and loyalty in this promise. You could do worse for a wedding vow.

But this is not a wedding, of course. This is a young widowed woman telling her bitter mother-in-law, “You. Are. wrong.” My future is with you. Your god, your people, your land is where we’ll find goodness. I am not going anywhere.

I have never experienced famine or exile but I have needed people to step up and show me where I was wrong.

One of them was an early voice teacher and musical director, a guy named Steve Denson. As I came of age and got ready to move out of my parents’ house, I had a promise and things going for me, but there was a lot about my life that was not good.

I had a string of dating relationships, every one of which ended in some kind of awkward mess. I didn’t know how to be a boyfriend, and really didn’t know how to be a friend. My inner landscape was a mess as well, and I had the beginnings of what was looking like it could become a life-destroying addiction, if something didn’t start to change.

But the thing that was going best in my life was singing. And so the summer I graduated high school, in addition to waiting tables at Denny’s, I tried out for a summer community theater production of the Gilbert and Sullivan show Pirates of Penzance. And the director of this play took a risk on me and cast me as the pirate king.

I came to appreciate this director so much, that when I moved two hours north to go to college, I figured out a way to get my school to pay him to be my voice teacher and he agreed to do it. We spent a lot of time together that year – there were the regular voice lessons, and he was also trying to start a new classical vocal ensemble, and I was one of the singers that joined him to put together and perform in this small concert series around the holidays.

And things were a little awkward. He had a physical disability that was prominent, but that he didn’t talk about, and I didn’t really know at that age how to appropriately ask him what it was. He had a hard time walking and had some significant limits to how he could move his arms and hands and fingers. He’d insist, though, on playing the piano as I’d work on a piece, even though his disability made it hard for him to play more than a note or two at once. Though he said he had once been quite a piano player.

Not everyone took this man seriously. My parents didn’t. They wondered why I had chosen him as a voice teacher, and I have to admit that Steve didn’t always impress me either.

I remember there was this one time I was working on a Schubert art song, called “An Die Musik.” It’s an ode to music. And in it, the singer finishes his line while the pianist goes on and plays this six measure conclusion. And we were practicing the song, and I finished my bit, and then there was my teacher, fighting his way through the final piano part, the bits of it he could manage with his limited dexterity, and I was thinking something like, “Come on. The song’s over. Let’s get back to the top and keep working.” And I was looking away, I think, fidgeting, clearly impatient for him to finish up.

And he stopped, and he stared at me, and he said, “Don’t ever disrespect the music like that. The song is over when it’s fully over.” And then he showed me, one note at a time, why the piano part was so critical to this song, and I realized he really understood this music so much more than I did. And he loved it so much more than I did, and he was conveying that understanding and love to me, and insisting that I get it. That I not be a diva, full of myself, but that I love and give away the music. That was a big lesson for me as a performer. Don’t use the music to serve your ego, but use yourself to serve the music and the audience. That impacted my singing, probably my preaching too.

And all year, it was like this, this man telling me the truth about myself. The hard truth that I was kind of full of myself, that I was this little diva in the making, but that he wouldn’t put up with it. But the harder truth too that, like every person alive, there was something extraordinary and exceptional about who I was made to be. This man really believed in me. He’d travel an hour to meet me for lessons, I only realized later at some real cost to his physical comfort. He’d find me recordings to listen to, would insist I practice properly, and would stretch me to do things as a singer that I didn’t think I could do.

Like Ruth with Naomi, Steve said, “I see more in you than you see in yourself.”

And at time when I was pretty unmoored, when there wasn’t a lot in my life that was very happy, that meant the world to me.

God wants to tell us the truth about ourselves. When we’re full of ourselves, too self-occupied and self-important to pay attention to the rest of the game, God wants to call us out. And when we’re discouraged and start to disqualify ourselves from a life of joy and purpose, God wants to encourage us and tell us the truth about who we really are.

And God can tell us these things however he wants, but it usually happens through another human being. Another person who – whether they realize it or not – God is sending our way to say the thing we need to hear. To tell us the truth for a change.

My voice teacher Steve Denson telling me both to get over myself and to believe in myself.

Ruth telling Naomi she will not leave, Naomi’s god and her land and her life is where Ruth’s going to find her hope.

And sometimes this truth we need to hear about ourselves is so important that it’s part of our salvation. It can rescue us from the dark places we go to on our own.

Let me tell you a story about people telling me the truth just this week, that was a lifeline to me in a dark space.

We have an intercession team at this church, folks who pray for me and my family and our church leadership and this whole church every day. They take turns praying for us during these services as well. And now and then I meet up with the leaders of this team, my friends Connie and Dorothy, to catch up and talk about our lives and the church and to pray.

And this happened this past week. And I asked them, as I do, were they or the rest of our intercession team getting any sense of what God might be doing in our church or saying to our church. And at first they didn’t have a lot to say other than that there was an awful lot of hope.

And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting, because it’s easier to me to get worried or get discouraged than it is to stay hopeful.”

I talked to my spiritual director afterwards. A spiritual director is someone who is kind of counselor and mentor for the spiritual life. And he works with a lot of pastors, and he’s said to me, “Oh, Steve, this is a thing with pastors. Worry and discouragement.” Because senior pastors, we’re have this thing in common with all of you who have started an organization or business of any kind, or who have been a senior manager or CEO, in that we have to think about numbers and budgets and vision and direction, and it’s easy to worry about those things. But my spiritual director was reminding me that on top of that, pastors listen to a lot of pain and problems. So you can live in this kind of perpetual second-hand grief.

Now, let me clear, this is not to get you all worried about me. I’m kind of an emotional guy, so that’s just my reality, and I like to be authentic with you, because I think that’s healthy for all of us that you know I’m not faking anything. But this combination of angst and despair that most pastors wrestle with is a dark place, because it calls into question hope.

So when I was with Connie and Dorothy, I asked them, “Why the hope?” And they told me the truth they saw about our church – they talked about the new life and enthusiasm ahead once we pick our name. They talked about what we call the fruit of the spirit – the good signs in people’s lives that God is with them and is changing them for the better. And they’re like, “Steve, we see that everywhere.” And they kind of got me going despite myself. And I reminded them of a few of the programs and people I’ve been a part of this year where we saw in our church people discovering the love of God, and the sheer joy of being alive, and the profound gift of community.

And as I talked with my spiritual director later, we talked about this conversation, and we talked about a lot of other evidence I’ve had that Jesus is real and strong and cares about me and cares about you and about this church, and Duane said, this is what real hope is. It’s not an upbeat mood, it’s not wishful thinking in the face of reality.

Hope’s remembering and seeing the truth, and it’s the certainty about a better future that’s grounded in that evidence. I walked away from these two conversations in a profoundly different frame of mind.

I was tired and anxious and discouraged.      

And God needed to tell me the truth about myself, about my work, and about this church. So he used Connie and Dorothy and Duane to do it. Without their words, I die a little more last week. With them, I have hope. I live. And I get to share that with you.

Jesus says that what people say and don’t say to one another, what people do or don’t do for one another, is at the very center of God’s plans for life on earth. This is at the heart of one of Jesus’ most famous stories, what’s often called the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Let me read it and make a few connections.

LUKE 10:25-37 (NLT)

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

(Yeah, but how does this work? Define for me “neighbor.”)

Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Jesus didn’t have to tell a story, of course. He could have just said, “Neighbor is anyone.” And neighboring is kindness and generosity and mercy. That’s what love your neighbor means.

But he tells this lawyer, and Luke tells us, this story. And the hero of the story is famously the Samaritan. Choice words from Jesus. The priest and the temple assistant – respected religious figures from Jesus and the lawyer’s own culture – fail. But the Samaritan – a member of a despised regional culture – is the good guy. The one who sees this beaten, bloodied stranger he’s never met and thinks, That’s my neighbor. And then takes it personally to get this stranger-neighbor back on his feet.

We were doing some cleaning last week and I found this little notebook one of my kids had written in years ago, and there was this one page entitled, “How to Be a Friend.” And it had this enumerated list, that said stuff like 1) Be nice. 2) Be friendly. 3) Be a good friend. 4) Be kind.

And I got a big kick out of it. It was totally sweet and innocent. But man, does Jesus move past that kind of vision of friendship here. His story of how to be a neighbor says things like:

1) Go out of your way.

2) Spend your money on people that will never thank you for it.

3) Get dirty with someone else’s pain. And by the way,

4) You’re going to need to overcome your natural distaste and disgust for some people, because neighboring isn’t just loving those in your tribe – the people like you – it’s loving your enemy. It’s loving the person who scares you. It’s loving the person who’s disgusted by you, or maybe the person that you find disgusting.

That’s where you’re going to find life from God.

God wants us to tell the truth to our friends, like Ruth does for Naomi, because we’re the main way God is going to communicate hope and encouragement and truth to other people.

And God wants us to go to bat for our friends and our strangers and our enemies, because we’re often the way God’s going to save them.

But it’s interesting to me to, that in the early church reading of this parable, they often took it in another direction as well, and said, “My, isn’t it remarkable, how like Jesus this Samaritan is!” Jesus has the Samaritan, at great cost to himself, heal and rescue this half-dead stranger. And isn’t that the heart of the Jesus story – that great as we may seem, we’re all kind of half-dead in a way, but Jesus – at the cost of his own life – is healing and rescuing and enlivening us all.

And in this story, Jesus shows us too that he’s going to do that for us through other people sometimes. Through the Samaritan who loves the stranger. Through a Moabite widow – an image in the story of Ruth – of disgust and poverty – who has the inner strength to tell Naomi the truth. Through friends that remind us to hope. Through a old, disabled, sometimes teased and pitied musician, who shows us how to sing, and how to be humble, and how to believe.

God wants us to find him in the least expected people, and sometimes then to be those people who are the face of God to someone else as well.

Next Steps

  1. When someone is unexpectedly generous or spot-on truthful to you, receive it. It just might be God in disguise.
  2. If you need people like that in your life, ask God for them.
  3. You might need to curate your friends list less.
  4. Try out regular, diverse community; this church is particularly good at this.

        Sometimes this takes moving past convenience.  Sometimes even repenting from disgust

  1. Be that profoundly encouraging, truthful, generous person for someone else, as often as you can.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 2

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Introduction (from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary)

Along with aliens and the fatherless, widows received a great deal of attention in the Law of Israel. Because they had lost the protection and support of their husbands, they were easy targets for economic and social abuse and exploitation. Many resorted to prostitution simply to survive, a situation all too common for vulnerable women in our day as well. Naomi had not only become a widow, but was also an alien in Moab. Yet, if she returned to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law, the younger women would be widows and aliens in Israel. Perhaps in response to the vulnerability they faced no matter where they might live, Naomi urged them to return to their maternal homes, and prayed that the God of Israel would grant each of them security within the household of a (Moabite) husband. Yet one of the daughters-in-law, Ruth, could not bear to be separated from Naomi, no matter the hardship. Her words to Naomi sing the depth of her love and loyalty.

Life can be hard, and these women faced its worst

Note: There are more questions here than most groups will have time to discuss. No need to do them all. You may want to select in advance which ones would be most appropriate for your group.

Read Ruth 1:16-18

Question 1

Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what?  Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters!”

Naomi tells her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, that she has nothing left to offer them. She makes it sound like she’s a dead-end job, a failed marriage, a tiresome friendship, a hometown with no prospects. She advises them to quit her and find better opportunities somewhere else. Orpah takes her advice. Ruth does not.

  1. Can you identify with Orpah and Ruth’s situation, as described by Naomi—as situation so bad that it’s hopeless to continue? In what area(s) of life?
  2. What do you imagine prompts Orpah to accept Naomi’s advice? What happens next for Orpah?
  3. What do you imagine prompts Ruth to reject Naomi’s advice? What does Ruth say about it? In what ways—if any—could Ruth be speaking for you?
  4. After all Ruth and Naomi have suffered together, and Just when Naomi is at her most vulnerable, Ruth decides to place her faith in Naomi’s God. What do you think led to Ruth doing this?

Question 2

The most shocking words in these verses come from the lips of Naomi the Israelite when she says “Things are far more bitter for me than for you. Because the LORD himself has raised his fist against me.”

  1. Have you ever had that bitter feeling?
  2. How do you respond to someone else who says this to you?
  3. Is Naomi right or is this just the way she feels at that moment?

Question 3

But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”

Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is wholehearted and inspiring.

  1. Are there people you are committed to support like this? What makes you this committed to them?
  2. Are there people who are committed to support you like this? What does this mean for you?
  3. Is this asking too much of ordinary people or is this the sort of commitment to support each other that God wants to grow among Christians like us?

Read Luke 10:25-37

Question 3

Luke 10:36 From the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?”

For Naomi the Israelite it is Ruth the despised Moabite foreigner who offers her the encouragement and help she needs.

For the Jewish man who was attacked and robbed it is the despised Samaritan foreigner who is his unlikely helper and generous benefactor.

In his sermon Steve said: “According to the Bible story people you least expect are often the face and voice of God to you”

  1. Is there any hope (hope=remembering and seeing truthfully) that someone you despise or fear would actually help you? Someone at your workplace or school, in your family, in your community, in our church? Who might that be?
  2. Is there any hope that you would help someone who despises or fears you? Describe it.

In his sermons Steve said: “Be that encouraging, truthful, generous person for someone else as often as you can”.

  1. Is there someone you are being challenged to become more of a neighbour to like this right now? Who? What’s leading you in this direction?                                                                            

Week 3: Invite Jesus into Your Every Crunch Time

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Week 3 demonstrates how to bring a guest speaker into an integrated sermon and small group series. Val Snekvik, a guest speaker in this series, gave a sermon on her own life experience, using the book of Ruth as a model.  The small group discussion questions were prepared afterwards.

Invite Jesus into Your Every Crunch Time (Audio)

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This is the third sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Val Snekvik at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 27, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 3

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Note to small group leaders: This week we offer two options for small groups. Option one is the familiar set of questions reflecting on the readings in light of the sermon and the group members’ own lives. Option two is to try something that Val mentioned in the sermon, called “Lectio Divina.” There probably won’t be time to do both options in one group meeting.

Option One – Discussion Questions

Read Ruth 1:19-22

Question 1

Look at verse 20 “Don’t call me Naomi….Instead call me Mara.” The name Naomi means “pleasant.” Mara means “bitter.” Half the book of Psalms is full of complaints and laments similar to Naomi’s, but many Christians feel uncomfortable acknowledging negative feelings about God or to God. They think we need to be always positive.

  1. Should we be worried that Naomi is putting herself in an ever worse spot by identifying so strongly with her bad circumstances. Or should we admire Naomi’s honesty and her willingness to get real with God?
  2. How easy or hard do you find it to be honest about your feelings for God (or to God)? Is the answer different depending on whether the feelings are positive or negative?
  3. What word or words would you use to describe the place or emotional space you find yourself in your walk with God at the moment?
Question 2

Although Naomi feels caught in the midst of a bitter experience, she does more than just sit down and dwell on it. She gets up and goes on a journey back to Bethlehem, her home town. She also takes Ruth with her.

Sometimes in the midst of very difficult circumstances we feel stuck and find it hard to get moving.

  1. If you have ever found yourself in circumstances like this, what helped to sustain you and get you moving?
  2. What have you learned from these circumstances that you would want to pass on to others?
Question 3

Val told the story from Jesus (Luke 11:24-28) about the person delivered of an evil spirit who subsequently found themselves besieged by 8 spirits and worse off than before. If you have experienced God’s power as the breaking of an addiction or a destructive pattern of life, there’s the possibility of spending all your energy simply trying not to fall back into it. You can end up putting everything you have into keeping yourself “swept and in order.” Ironically, this may end focusing your life even more on the addiction or pattern, like the eight evil spirits who re-occupy the person. This is not new life or freedom, but self-enforced emptiness.

The solution, verse 28 suggests, is to open yourself to God’s word for your life now, to find the new patterns of life that God wants to fill your emptiness with, and then take steps to put them into practice.

  1. What are some life-giving ways of filling the emptiness you have found important?
  2. Val said that “religion, especially Christian religion, can train us to keep our house neat,” and that this usually ends up with us judging ourselves and perhaps others as well. What is your experience in this regard?
  3. Respond by saying what you think about one or more of Val’s four suggestions:
    1. Go face to face with God and be honest about what you are thinking and feeling.
    2. Meditate on the happy endings that God seems to love writing.
    3. Lean towards agrarian time (see Leviticus 19:23-25) rather than internet time as you wait for results.
    4. Make markers everywhere that remind you of God showing up.

Option two – Lectio Divina

  1. Ask a group member to read Ruth 1:19-22 aloud for the group. Then take 3 minutes in silence for meditatio. Allow yourself to be drawn to a word or phrase. Don’t try to analyze the whole passage, but just be drawn to that one word or phrase. What does it mean to you as God is giving it to you right now?
  2. Someone else read the passage again for the group out loud. Then take 3 minutes in silence for oratio. Repeat the word or phrase over and over in your mind. Just repeat it, don’t analyze it. Share the response of your heart with God.
  3. A third person read the passage again for the group out loud. Then take 3 minutes in silence for contemplatio. Quietly rest in God’s presence. Let the silence flow over the words and feelings from the meditatio and oratio, and let your mind, heart, and spirit be quiet and empty. If you get distracted, go back repeat the word or phrase again until your mind is quiet. Then silently rest in God’s presence again.

Afterwards, share among one another what word or phrase you were drawn to and how your heart responded to God in it.

Week 4: When Hope Isn’t Foolish

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Week 4 demonstrates how a pastor can integrate work stories from members of the congregation into the order of the service.  (See this additional resource on how to conduct faith and work interviews in church.) As outlined in this week’s preaching notes, Senior Pastor Steve Watson brings a member of the congregation onto the stage and asks this person 5 questions:

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact about you)
  2. What have you chosen to tell us that you do outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or volunteer passion, or work at home, or process looking for work.)
  3. What is the best thing about this work?
  4. What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
  5. How can we pray for you?

The congregation, led by the pastor, then prays for the volunteer regarding his or her work.  Watson explains the exercise to the congregation this way: “This fall, I’m going to invite someone each week to tell us about their life outside this community. What’s your work or your passion? What do you do with most of your time? There are too many of us for all of us to come here, but each time we do this, we’ll pray for the one person here, and by extension pray for all of us, that we’ll be inspired. That we’ll experience God breathing joy and hope and purpose and life into our whole lives.”  This occurs before the normal sermon.  You can hear it alluded to in the audio version of the sermon.

When Hope Isn’t Foolish (Audio)

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This is the fourth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 4, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

When Hope Isn’t Foolish (Sermon Notes)

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This is the fourth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 4, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

I turned 42 last week. I spent most of my actual birthday on an airplane. Our church has been part of a project this year on the integration of faith and work and economics, and it has involved a bit of travel, including this three-day trip to Southern California this past week.

And it was fun to be in Long Beach for a while. I got to see my friend Dave who used to be the lead pastor of this church. It was sunny and 80s there. (I heard it rained a bit here, no?) And for two nights, we stayed on an old luxury cruise liner that’s been converted into a hotel.

Seriously, one of the ideas behind this program is that faith communities can easily collapse inward and just care about life within the walls of the church and churchy sounding things like prayer. But if God isn’t just God of churches but a big God we can find anywhere, than presumably God can be found in our work and our homes and our friendships and our finances. And presumably God can inspire us in these places too, can literally breathe in (what that word “inspire” means) life and direction and joy and hope into all arenas of our lives. That’s the idea behind our series this fall, “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”

And it’s the idea behind a little experiment we’re going to start today as well.

We like to bring one of you up here now and then to hear parts of your story, and this fall, I’m going to invite someone each week to tell us about their life outside this community. What’s your work or your passion? What do you do with most of your time? There are too many of us for all of us to come here, but each time we do this, we’ll pray for the one person here, and by extension pray for all of us, that we’ll be inspired. That we’ll experience God breathing joy and hope and purpose and life into our whole lives.

            And today, our lucky choice is Jason Donnelly. Come on down.

  1. So tell us just a little bit about yourself. (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact or two)
  2. And what have you chosen to tell us that you do outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or if your primary work these days is a volunteer passion, or at home, or looking for work, etc., then that)
  3. Follow-up question from Steve – what is the best thing about this work?
  4. What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
  5. How can we pray for you?

PRAY.

Today I want to talk about something that can be a big part of Jason’s journey. It can be an important part of our working lives, and really all of our lives, but is something that can easily be misunderstood as well. Taken one way, it can give us comfort and assurance and power, but seen differently, can make us passive and unrealistic and impractical. I want to talk about hope – what it is, why we need it, and whether or not we’re fools to have it. If things go well, we’ll expand or maybe just shift a little how we use that word and we’ll walk away today with an increase in not just hope, but courage, courage to live the way we long to in all arenas of our lives.

Sound like a plan?

One of the places I hear about hope the most is in my volunteer work with suicide prevention. I’m on the board of Samaritans, who run a 24-hour befriending hotline and suicide prevention workshops. They are all about finding hope in tough situations. One of their big fundraising events is called the Breakfast for Hope. And another of them is a fall 5K that several of us ran in last weekend.

I was talking with a friend afterwards about the experience, and on the one hand, it was full of sadness. There are hundreds of people walking and running in memory of friends and relatives they’ve lost to suicide. You see the pictures on T-shirts and the far too short life-spans beneath them. I reunited with a number of folks I hadn’t seen since a memorial service last December, and for some, their grief is still raw. A few days before the race, I myself had a good cry about my friend Esther who died by suicide last year. Heavy.

But in the midst of that collective sadness last weekend, there was so much hope. My friend reminded me of the story of someone on our team who’d been close to Esther, and had her own history of mental health problems and brushes with suicide. But with Esther’s encouragement, despite her atheist background, she’d been exploring faith, and had found a little church community who welcomed her and given her friends. And this is someone who’s found acceptance and friendship in pretty short supply for much of her life. Almost despite herself, she’s become fascinated by Jesus, going to this church and reading the Bible for the first time, and totally intrigued by what she’s finding.

And to my eyes, what she’s finding is hope. The possibility of better days to come. The confidence in a happier future. Despite her only having pretty modest tastes of any of this so far.

One of my old favorite movies is a pretty true adaptation of a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption. King has one the characters saying: Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.

And so inspired with hope on my mind, and thinking about this talk today, I decided to phone one of my more optimistic friends, a pretty upbeat guy who runs a business, and ask him about how hope functions in his world. As someone that takes a lot of risks professionally, and has a bright outlook on the future, I wanted to ask him about how he stays hopeful.

What I heard surprised me.

After being kind of polite about it for a while, I realized that my friend didn’t think much of the place of hope in business. In fact, he told me that hope is what you lean on when you don’t have a plan.

I said tell me more.

And he said, pretty much anyone in his shoes who’s good at what they do learns to plan and strategize for a successful future. You want a thriving business, so you study the market and take stock of your resources and use all that evidence to craft a really solid plan. And then you work and work and work the plan.

And I asked him, well, what about all the businesses that fail, as most do? And he said, well, a lot of them fail because they don’t have a sound plan. They ignored crucial evidence, or misdiagnosed the market, or didn’t execute their strategy well, or just didn’t plan at all. They relied on fantasy, on hope. And my friend didn’t have a lot of interest in that kind of approach to business.

This was fascinating for me, to hear that hope could be understood as a something other than a powerful thing, as a substitute for sound, realistic planning.

So which is it? Is hope one of the most powerful dispositions we can cultivate in a sometimes disappointing world? Or is hope a weakness, a constitutional failure to come to grips with reality? Or neither, or both? Or something else entirely?

Well let’s get there by way of a story we’re tracking with this fall.

We’re reading the short Old Testament book of Ruth, a warm, earthy, almost fairy-tale like biography placed smack in the midst of the Bible’s historical books about ancient Israel.

In the past three weeks, we’ve met Ruth as one of the two surviving relatives of her destitute mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi is hungry and homeless. She has lost her husband and her two sons, and she appears to have lost her faith in a good God as well. She says God has raised his fist against her and made her life bitter.

But Ruth disagrees. In a moment of faith, either in Naomi or Naomi’s god, she agrees to travel with Naomi back to Naomi’s childhood village of Bethlehem. Where they hope to find food. We pick up the story there.

Ruth 2:1-4 (NLT)

Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech.

One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.”

Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.” So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech.

While she was there, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. “The Lord be with you!” he said.

“The Lord bless you!” the harvesters replied.

I remember the first time I visited a Catholic church as a teenager. I heard the priest say something like this – the Lord bless you. And I had no idea what the right thing was to say, so I said, “Right back atcha.” And people around gave me some funny looks.

Anyway, just a short section today. We’ll pick up more next week.

But here we see this little window into Naomi’s despair that has made her passive perhaps. Ruth has a plan to find them some food and all Naomi can say is, “Fine. Go ahead. Good luck.”

But Ruth is taking advantage of the best option available to her. Naomi is past her prime working years, so she’s not going to find a job, and as a young, widowed, foreign single woman in this culture, Ruth doesn’t have a lot of employment options either, but she is aware that in this economy, there was a practice called gleaning. In this time and place, landowners were encouraged to harvest only 90 to 95% of their crops, not to pick the land bare. They were encouraged to leave some produce left along the edges of the field for unemployed or impoverished people to pick at will. Gleaning was a provision for community justice and shared economic flourishing that was built into Israel’s ancient law codes. It was part of how Israel’s poor and its immigrants avoided destitution. That culture had a vision that all people are better off when all people have access to work and economic opportunity.

And as a side note, I wonder if this is an important economic principle from God’s perspective. That the privileged in a society have a responsibility to ensure access to labor and access to the economy for all people.

But Ruth at least says, well, I can do that. I’ll go to the nearest field, and after its farmer’s employees harvest, I’ll glean. I’ll pick the extras in their wake. That’s our best option.

It’s a pretty plucky, hopeful plan and disposition she has. It may not be much, but she can glean. And then it turns out that field she gleans in so happens to be that of a relative of her father-in-law, a man named Boaz that she’s never met. But we’ll see that Boaz turns out to be quite a guy, and the rest of our story, we’ll track with both Boaz’ and Ruth’s hope and ingenuity. We’ll have a little love story on our hands soon as well.

But long before this is a love story, it’s an expression of hope?

So what does non-foolish hope look like? Well, I think we see our first sense of this here. It’s the first fill on your program as well, that:

First of Two Sections of Program Notes – “What does non-foolish hope look like?”

  • Hope is investing in the best options we have, whether or not they seem good enough.

I mentioned two weeks ago that I can struggle to maintain a hopeful attitude. I have the gift, or curse, of easily intuiting what is wrong in a given situation I’m in. And this past week on my first evening of this business trip to California, despite the magical environment I found myself in, staying in this gorgeous old cruise ship moored in the sunny Pacific coast of California, I went to bed troubled by some concerns.

I was bothered by a professional problem that was nagging me and by a personal concern in my family as well. And I took a walk, I prayed a bit, I chatted on the phone with my best friend Grace, but none of that brought me any peace of mind, so I figured I would just go to sleep.

But I woke up on Thursday no better.

But then I went for a morning run with my friend Tim, and exercise is a good thing when you’re worried or discouraged, and being with a friend is a good thing as well, and then we were watching the sunrise up over the water, and there were dolphins and a seal that we saw, which was pretty cool. But then what really changed things for me, was I was running along, and telling God about what one of these problems then, and I felt like God reminded me of this tip in the talk I was going to give.

“Hope is investing in the best options we have, whether or not they seem good enough.” 

And I felt like God was asking me, well, what are your options?

And I thought, well, I’ve strategized about this problem a lot, and there are pretty much three important things I can do. And thing A I’ve already largely done, and thing B I’m in the middle of doing, then thing C I can’t really do until I’ve done thing B already, but I’m aware of that. I’m on it. So I thought, well, I have a plan, but I’m not sure that it’s good enough God.

And I felt like God was saying, well, that’s all you can do. It’s going to have to be good enough. And you’ll have to see what I do to magnify that plan.

And as prayer works, at least for me, it’s not like God was having this conversation out loud with me, or projecting words in the clouds, or getting the dolphins to talk or anything (though that would have been something!). It’s just that I was engaging in prayer as I ran and these thoughts were coming back to me that seemed like the thoughts of God, so by faith, I took them to be that.

Regardless, this really changed my mood. I thought, well, I’m going to work my plan, and I’m going to trust that God will show up in this and do more than my plan can. And that felt like hope.

This is what Ruth did. Gleaning isn’t going get her or Naomi out of poverty. It isn’t going to provide a husband or child for either of them. And it’s not really a great ticket toward belonging in this new culture and country she’s in.

But it’s the best plan she’s got. And so she works that plan as an expression of hope, that it will be good enough.

Jesus said that small things, and small faith, are often good enough. They’re often all that we have, but they can be met by a big God who can do more than we can ask or imagine. Look at a couple of short stories Jesus told, the second excerpt on your program:

Mark 4:26-32 (NLT)

Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.”

Jesus is teaching about the thing he talked about more than anything else: the Kingdom of God. What the world is like when God is around. What happens when God is in charge. Which Jesus talked about like a kingdom, God’s realm, God’s country.

​And I love this first one. Jesus saying, you’re not really going to know how it works. We understand a lot more about seeds and water and minerals and growth than Jesus’ contemporaries did, but it’s still kind of mysterious, when you think about it.

This dead looking, dry thing we call a seed gets buried in the earth and if conditions are right, then pow, out grows life and food. And we say, wow, it worked!

Jesus says it’s like that when God is around. We do our little thing, we work our best plan, and if God’s in, God might just do something have it go big. Jesus tells another story to fill this out.

Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”

I’m holding in my hand a mustard seed. You can’t see it. Trust me, it is tiny. But look at your slide. Look at that bush or tree. A large, green thing, that yields spice to eat and branches for the birds to live in.

Hope – our second point here:

  • Hope is trusting that God can do what none of us can.

You plant that seed, trusting that the forces of nature – whether you can explain them or not – will transform that dead, buried thing into fruitful, nourishing life.

Ruth – this undocumented immigrant, this impoverished widow – gleaned that field in Bethlehem, trusting (we think) that Naomi’s God would do something bigger through that act, would make up the difference, would give them a hope and a future, that she couldn’t produce.

Jason, you heard today, was unemployed for a year and a half. He worked his plan. He used his time off to take care of some personal stuff he needed to deal with, and he applied for every job in his field that came up, and got ready for interviews, and did his thing. But after a year and a half of that, he still didn’t have work. And some of his friends, we were encouraging him to think about a different plan, because his plan didn’t seem good enough. And then might have been fine.

But in Jason’s case, God kicked in a way that was bigger and better than we saw coming. God did what Jason couldn’t do.

And trusting this is what put me at ease on Thursday, an ease I’m still living in. That God can take my relatively little plan and can – on top of that – do what I can not do.

But before we get real specific with what this looks like, I want to share one more thought about hope. It’s this, that

  • Hope is confident expectation, based on evidence that not everyone is seeing.

Hope can be hard. I quoted Shawshank Redemption earlier, and the whole idea around the theme of hope in that story and film, is that hope is as dangerous as it is uplifting. Because so often our hopes are dashed. We hope our most annoying co-worker will change their ways, but they never do. We hope our prayers for healing will be answered, and our loved one just gets sicker. Or we hope for gun control or law and order in our country, and we see last week another mass shooting.

Now to be clear, I have had my own seemingly unanswered prayers and dashed hopes. And as your pastor, I feel heavily the many, many stories you share with me of your own hopes dashed. And I feel with you.

But painful as these are, if we can keep God in the picture, we can find that these disappointments can turn us toward our deepest, truest hope.

I mentioned the other week a pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’d like to quote at length from an Easter sermon she gave the other year. She says:

Whenever I am in a real mess of pain, when a relationship has ended or I am in some kind of emotional suffering, and some well meaning Christian says “Well, when God closes a door, he opens a Window” I start immediately looking around for that open window so I can push them out of it. Which is to say, I don’t find ignoring the difficult reality of our lives in favor of some kind of blindly cheerful optimism to be hopeful I find it to be delusional.

So, yes, it feels like hope can be risky and connecting hope to suffering can be sketchy.

But maybe the way suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope is that suffering, endurance and character actually free us from the burden of having to be naively optimistic. Maybe if hope isn’t a very reliable starting point, then hope is not something we strive to muster up for ourselves. Maybe real hope is always something we are surprised by. This week I started to think of Hope as that which is left after all else has failed us. And that is an Easter hope.

My friend Cheryl Lawrie works in the prisons in Australia so when she speaks of hope I tend to listen.  She says that “Hope, is an encounter that captivates our imagination so we can’t help but become more than who we thought we were, and find ourselves living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible”

And when it comes down to it,  I want hope – I just want a hope that doesn’t disappoint. Don’t we want beauty and reconciliation and possibility that comes from something other than our own limitations or the limitations of others. I want a hope that isn’t really just naïve optimism.  I want a hope that finds us living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible and yet the most real and honest thing we know.

That is to say, I want God

Because a hope that does not disappoint looks less like being idealistic about ourselves and more like being idealistic about God’s redeeming work in the world.  It’s a hope that comes not from naïve optimism, but from being wrong and falling short, and experiencing betrayal and being a betrayer and it comes from suffering and the grave and what feels like a night from which dawn could never emerge and then how God reaches into the graves we dig ourselves and each other and again loves us back to life.

The Easter hope we have, brothers and sisters, the hope that never disappoints has nothing to do with optimism or the avoidance of suffering. It is a hope that can only come from a God who has experienced birth, and love and friendship and lepers and prostitutes and betrayal and suffering and death and burial and a decent into hell itself. Only a God who has born suffering himself can bring us any real hope of resurrection. And if ever given the choice of optimism or resurrection I’d go with resurrection any day of the week.  This is the God of whom Paul speaks.  And the Christian faith is one that does not pretend things aren’t bad. This is a faith that does not offer platitudes to those who lost children this week to suicide or a tornado. This is not a faith that produces optimism, it is a faith that produces a defiant hope that God is still writing the story and that despite darkness a light shines and that God can redeem our crap and the beauty matters and that despite every disappointing thing we have ever done or that we have ever endured, that there is no hell from which resurrection is impossible. The Christian faith is one that kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.

Wow. That was my longest quotation ever. I practically didn’t write a sermon this week. But, wow, is that true.

This is why in the Bible, the word “hope” suddenly bursts on the scene after the first Easter. “Hope” is not a common word in the biographies of Jesus, but then after Jesus dies and rises and leaves the scene, the use of the word just explodes in the letters that follow.  And this Greek word for hope, elipzo, doesn’t mean a wish. It’s not optimism. It’s confident expectation that God is alive, writing a longer story, bringing life and renewal into every disappointment. It’s this confidence based on evidence that not everyone is seeing, evidence in this case that God is alive and isn’t done.

This is Jesus saying, you put that dead-looking seed in the ground and wait and just see what God can do.

This is Ruth telling Naomi, you go ahead and have your bitterness, but I’m heading out to the fields to see what we can find there.

On a small scale, it’s even me this past week, waking up from my worries on that Pacific Coast sunrise run, trusting God that I can work my plan and God’s going to meet me in that and so something surprising.

This is a funny sermon to end with our usual tips, given I’ve just said that hope comes from God surprising us, but let’s end with four quick thoughts about setting ourselves up for God to do that.

FOR THE PROGRAM NOTES - “Choosing Hope Today”

  1. Ask God for an increase in hope and courage in your primary work.

Our work – paid or not – takes up the better part of our waking hours most days and without hope and courage, it easily becomes drudgery and toil. But it can also be this tremendous laboratory for hope and courage.

This is Ruth, destitute, courageously working her best option and trusting God that this would be the beginning of a turn around in her family destiny, as it was.

It’s even my businessman friend, who said that hope is what you have when you don’t have a plan. Because he’s off a bit of recent success, and I asked him, “You plan for positive contingencies, don’t you? For the possibility that your business might grow better and faster than you would normally expect?” And he said, absolutely he plans that way. To which I said, that kind of planning for a better possible future, and for a better mark on the world, that’s an exercise in hope.

Secondly:

  1. Particularly look for hope anywhere you’re persistently angry.

The fourth century North African theologian Augustine of Hippo had a great line about hope, one we’ll talk more about next week. He said:

Hope has two beautiful daughters;

Their names are Anger and Courage.

Anger at the way things are, and

Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.

So anger can grip us and control our emotions and define us if we let it, but it also can reveal something to us. It can show us what we most fear but also what we most long to see be different. And if there’s any area where you find yourself persistently angry, well anger by itself isn’t likely to do you much good. But ask God if there’s any courage and any hope he can give you in that area.

Thirdly:

  1. Study all available evidence of God’s dependability and goodness.

Ruth knew there was a good harvest in Bethlehem and that she could glean there. This was evidence, ordinary evidence, but still, evidence that she saw – that Naomi didn’t yet – that gave her hope.

Jason studied the evidence of job hunters in his field, and he listened to the stories of other people praying for him, and he was convinced he would get a job eventually, so he kept at it.

Jesus says, know the Kingdom of God – listen to me, read your Bibles, look at the seeds, God is dependable and good.

Nadia says the good news of Jesus is resurrection, is life out of death, so that if we kick at the darkness long enough, it’s going to bleed daylight.

But to keep hope, we have to study this evidence. We have to know the story of Jesus, and how Jesus works in the world. This is why we read the Bible in this church – we have a daily Bible plan on our website you can jump into any time. It’s why we gather in small groups, so we can hear each other’s stories of disappointment, but also of hope.

  1. Where you have cause for hope, invest as much as you can

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 4

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

READ RUTH 2:1-4

TOPIC 1 – BLESSING

EXCERPT FROM THE THEOLOGY OF WORK BIBLE COMMENTARY:

‘The main characters acknowledge God as the foundation for their work by the way they bless each other and through their repeated declarations of faith. All of these blessings express the assurance that God is at work to provide for his people. Ruth desired to receive God’s blessing of productivity, whether from God himself (Ruth 2:12) or through a human being “in whose sight I might find favor” (Ruth 2:2). Despite being a Moabite, she was wiser than many in Israel when it came to recognizing the Lord’s hand in her work. For the action of the story, one of the most important blessings from God is that he had blessed Boaz with a productive farm (Ruth 2:3). Boaz was fully aware of God’s role in his labor, as shown in his repeated invoking of the Lord’s blessing (Ruth 2:4; 3:10).’

QUESTIONS

  1. What, specifically, does Boaz mean when he says to his workers, ““The Lord be with you!”? What, specifically do them mean when they reply, “The Lord bless you!”? Is this just a formality, like when you say “God bless you,” after someone sneezes, or do they have a particular blessing or hope in mind?

  2. Think of the first three people you will see the next time you go to your place of work (any kind of work, not necessarily paid work). Imagine saying “God bless you” each of them (or at least thinking it to yourself). What particular blessing would you want for each one? How do you think God could provide that blessing?

TOPIC 2 – NON-FOOLISH HOPE

EXCERPT FROM THE THEOLOGY OF WORK BIBLE COMMENTARY:

‘One of the ways God fulfills his promise of fruitfulness is his mastery of the world’s circumstances. The odd construction of “her chance chanced upon” (rendered, “as it happened” by the NLT) in Ruth 2:3 is deliberate. In colloquial English, we would say, “As her luck would have it.” But the statement is ironic. The narrator intentionally uses an expression that forces the reader to sit up and ask how it could be that Ruth “happened” to land in the field of a man who was not only gracious (Ruth 2:2) but also a kinsman (Ruth 2:1). As the story unfolds, we see that Ruth’s arrival at Boaz’ field was evidence of God’s providential hand. The same can be said for the appearance of the next-of-kin just as Boaz sat down at the gate in Ruth 4:1–2.

‘What a dreary world it would be if we had to go to work every day expecting nothing except what we ourselves have the power to accomplish. We must depend on the work of others, the unexpected opportunity, the burst of creativity, the unforeseen blessing. Surely one of the most comforting blessings of following Christ is his promise that when we go to work, he goes to work alongside us and shoulders the load with us. “Take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).’

QUESTIONS

  1. Is the productiveness of Boaz’s farm a blessing from God or the result of good strategizing and planning?

  2. Think of a unit of work that you’ve been successful in. What were the key factors for success? Which ones were you in control of, and which ones depended on circumstances? Would you say, like Steve’s businessman friend, that your success is mostly the result of good strategy and planning?

READ MARK 4:26-32

TOPIC 3 – CHOOSING HOPE

According to the fill-in sheet from Steve’s sermon

  1. Hope is investing in the best options we have, whether or not they seem good enough.

  2. Hope is trusting that God can do what none of us can.

  3. Hope is confident expectation, based on evidence that not everyone is seeing.

QUESTIONS

  1. What would actions would you need to take during the next year to invest in the best options you have? To make this investment pay off, what would God have to do that you are not able to do on your own?

  2. What evidence, if any, do you have that it is reasonable to hope for God to master the circumstances needed for the investment to be worthwhile?

  3. Steve said that anger is a clue to where your hope is flagging. What have you been the most angry about over the past month in your work? What would you have to hope for to overcome or resolve this anger? Would it be foolish to hope for that?

Week 5: Becoming an Inspiration: What You Do with What You Know

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Week 5 offers some real life examples of people doing work that they feel is for God in the course of their everyday responsibilities. Senior Pastor Steve Watson puts it this way in his message, “There are everyday inspirations all around us. Today I want to ask how it is that every one of us can be an inspiration, or keep being an inspiration. And rather than pointing us toward big causes we don’t know about, I’m going to explore what we do with what we already know.”

Becoming an Inspiration: What You Do with What You Know (Audio)

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This is the fifth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 11, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Becoming an Inspiration: What You Do with What You Know (Sermon Notes)

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This is the fifth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 11, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

We’re inviting several of you off and on this fall to tell us a bit about what you do outside of the church, so we can pray that we’ll be able to find God and the inspiration God brings in all of life, and participate in our own way in what Jesus calls his kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

If you were here last week, you saw Jason Donnelly take a turn up here with me.

And today I’ve invited _______ to join us to answer a few questions…

  1. So tell us just a little bit about yourself. (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact or two)
  2. And what have you chosen to tell us that you do you outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or if your primary work these days is a volunteer passion, or at home, or looking for work, etc., then that)
  3. Follow-up question from Steve – what is the best thing about this work?
  4. What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
  5. How can we pray for you?

PRAY

I don’t know about you, but when I think of inspiring people, my mind drifts toward famous inspirations – makers of historical change, people like Nelson Mandela.

But this year, I had the chance to be a part of a cohort of 15 churches looking at work, faith, and economics, and that gave me the opportunity to meet quite a few more under the radar inspirations. People around the country who are finding purpose and passion in their daily work, and so are becoming an inspiration.

One of them was a public school educator named Nader Twal. Nader grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving to the States as a teen. And though he looked at a quite a few career options, he ended up becoming a teacher in the city of Long Beach, California. And as a high school English teacher, he learned some interesting things…

-US and functional illiteracy

-particularly high amongst students in large urban school systems

-particularly high amongst those who are incarcerated

-And so Nader thought, I’m not just teaching English, but changing the direction of people’s futures. I’m impacting whole family systems.

And so Nader taught in Long Beach, and he taught so well, he won a national teaching award. And he was so respected within his own school, that when a major accreditation project came along, he was asked to lead it. And that put him on a trajectory that led him out of the classroom and into broader responsibilities.

Now in this large urban public school district, Nader’s job is to make sure that all of the teachers of Long Beach have the tools and inclination to do excellent work in the classroom. Nader could continue to be a great classroom teacher – in some ways that is his greatest pleasure. Nader could also do a lot of other things too. He’s been to theological school, and he could be a pastor. He speaks Arabic, so probably the state department would take him. But what Nader knows most is excellent classroom teaching, and his passion is to equip and to inspire educators to do transformative work with young people. He thinks what Jesus wants him to do in the world, and he cares about doing that well.

I heard about another gentleman named Chef Mike who is a chef, as you may guess. He knows food – he can make an amazing deep dish pizza pie. But Mike also knows a lot of guys who’ve done some time in prison. And if you have a criminal record or have family or friends who do, you know that it can be really hard to gain access to certain types of employment when your CORI check doesn’t come out clear.

So Chef Mike was able to partner with a local church who had a passion for community well-being in a particular neighborhood. And together they launched a small business called 5000 Pies. They make great deep dish pizza pies and great dessert pies, and they train and employ folks from their neighborhood who have criminal records but want to get their employment and their lives going in a positive direction.

And again, Mike could be a chef somewhere else, and this church could spend its energy elsewhere, but they know this neighborhood, and this problem of CORIs and employability and they know pies. So their knowledge became care which became love and passion, and they’re doing this inspiring thing in their community.

There are everyday inspirations all around us, and I know they are all around this room as well. Today I want to ask how it is that every one of us can be an inspiration, or keep being an inspiration. And rather than pointing us toward big causes we don’t know about (which there’s a place for)… but rather than doing that today, I’m going to explore what we do with what we already know.

This is our fifth week in a series we’re sticking with all fall called “Inspired” The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” We’re looking around at various corners of real, everyday life and asking what difference it makes if we find God there. We’re reading these short little stories Jesus tells called parables that provoke us to imagine what life looks like with on the scene, and we’re reading an ancient but quite vivid biography of a refugee named Ruth, who finds herself trying to start over in life.

And it’s to Ruth and a new character in the story, Boaz, that we’ll turn next as we see what it means to live with purpose and passion and to be an everyday inspiration.

This excerpt is on the inside flap of your program, and we’ll meet Boaz here. Just to get you up to speed. Boaz is distant relative of Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi, and Boaz owns the farm that Ruth stumbles upon, when as a young widow, recently arrived in Bethlehem, she’s trying to find some work and some food.

Here’s what happens when Boaz sees her working in the field.

RUTH 2:5-16 (NLT)

Then Boaz asked his foreman, “Who is that young woman over there? Who does she belong to?”

And the foreman replied, “She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes’ rest in the shelter.”

Boaz went over and said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields. Stay right behind the young women working in my field. See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.”

Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?” she asked. “I am only a foreigner.”

“Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”

“I hope I continue to please you, sir,” she replied. “You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not one of your workers.”

At mealtime Boaz called to her, “Come over here, and help yourself to some food. You can dip your bread in the sour wine.” So she sat with his harvesters, and Boaz gave her some roasted grain to eat. She ate all she wanted and still had some left over.

When Ruth went back to work again, Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!”

This is an interesting scene. It sounds like Boaz has a bit of an eye for Ruth… but I don’t think that’s the main thing going on in this story. Not yet. I actually think we meet Boaz first as an excellent employer.

See, Boaz notices who’s out harvesting his fields. His foreman is in charge of this part of the operation, but Boaz still takes an interest in the work and still takes an interest in the workers. And he finds out about this new person on his land.

Turns out she’s not a worker, technically. She’s a gleaner. We talked last week about how this society had a provision for access to work and to food for all people, so Ruth is legally out there picking up the scraps left behind by the paid harvesters.

But rather than resent this or even just ignore her, Boaz takes what he knows really seriously. He institutes a sexual harassment policy. He doesn’t want any of his employees bothering this foreign, single, young woman. And he makes sure they know that. This is a remarkable move in his time and place in history.

And then he finds out about Ruth and goes way beyond letting her glean. He’s extraordinarily generous. He tells her not just to pick scraps but to get right in amongst his harvesters and pick good grain. And he makes sure that she’s going to get enough. He treats her like one of his longtime employees, making sure she has access to clean water and to lunch on the job.

I think in the end, though, this isn’t out of pity, it’s out of honor. He’s impressed by Ruth’s loyalty and character and work ethic, and he gives honor where honor is due. Ultimately, this isn’t charity either. It’s empowerment. Ruth has work and safety and dignity. She’s starting to find her place in this new town.

Boaz is no superhero. He’s a farmer and a business owner. He knows agriculture, he knows management, and he knows a good person when he sees one. And in this, he takes what he knows, and he cares, and then he acts.

And to me at least, it’s inspiring.

Who else is doing this kind of thing today?

Well, one person I read about this summer is Hamdi Ulukaya. Hamdi is the founder of Chobani, the yogurt company. And he’s got quite a story. He’s not much older than me, and in his early twenties, he was living in Eastern Turkey, working with his dad on a dairy farm. He came to the states to take some business classes, stuck around, and found a niche as a small-time feta cheese producer.

But one day he saw a flier that an abandoned yogurt production facility was for sale. And he thought, this thing Americans are eating and calling yogurt – this watery, sugary stuff is awful. I can do better, I can give America the real thing. So against the advice of a lawyer and a business consultant, he launched his yogurt company.

And it popped. He made some really interesting, turns out brilliant strategic decisions, found a market no one knew existed, and in less than a decade, his team grew this business from nothing to a company whose products are in every major grocery store.

Ulukaya has done well for himself. He’s worth over a billion dollars.

What does Hamdi Ulukaya know? Well, he knows business, and he knows money now, and he knows dairy, and he knows generosity. Since Chobani’s inception, they’ve tithed off their profits – given 10% of their income to good people doing good work in the world. It’s an awesome financial model – one my family practices as well – to give 10% or more of your income to good people doing good work you care about. We do this by giving substantially to this church and by finding other people and places we know about to give to on top of that.

And that’s been Chobani’s practice.

But their founder doesn’t just know dairy and business and generosity. Hamdi Ulukaya is a Kurd born in Eastern Turkey and an immigrant to America. So he knows about Central Asia, and he knows about Kurds, many of whom live in Iraq, and he knows about being far from your home. And so in the midst of our current world refugee crisis, Ulukaya decided to be another one of those extraordinarily wealthy individuals to make the Giving pledge, sometimes also called the Buffett pledge. To give the majority of his wealth away, during his lifetime, to transform people and communities for good.

And Ulukaya pledged to give at least $700 million dollars to help Kurdish refugees, and other individuals impacted by the crisis in Syria.

This is our Long Beach educator Nader Twal, and our pie-man Chef Mike and his local church partners, just at another scale. It’s an ordinary person taking what he knows, and seeing that to know is to care is to love.

This is a definition of knowledge that a public intellectual I know named Steve Garber says is actually what that word knowledge in the Hebrew Bible means.

We hear knowledge and we think of our remarkable brains. That can absorb and make sense out of so much information, and use that information in so many interesting ways. But Garber says this Hebrew word for knowledge – yada – is a word that in the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, has such a wide range of uses, everything from knowing factual information to relational and other very intimate forms of knowing.

And Garber says the sense of this word, in the Hebrew scriptures, is that to know, is to care, is to love. To know is to be implicated. To know is to have responsibility for what we know. To know is for that knowledge to form the highway of relationship, of caring and loving in our areas of knowledge.

And this produces an inspiration. None of the people I’ve talked about so far – Chef Mike, Nader Twal, Hamdi Ulukaya, Boaz of the book of Ruth – none of them had to go find out about human needs they weren’t aware of. None of them had to try to be superheroes outside of their areas of interest and skill and knowledge. They all knew stuff, and knew people.

And they all decided, or maybe it came intuitively to some of them, but they all wedded knowledge and curiosity with care and love. They felt with what they knew. And the acted on what they knew.

And they inspire me. And if you talked with any of them – well, Boaz not being available for conversation any more – but if you talked with any of the others, than you’d find that they are inspired by what they’re doing. The passion and purpose they get from caring and loving with what they know feels great. It makes them alive.

And I expect that’s been true at some level for anyone that any of us has deeply admired for their work in the world. The knew and cared and loved in some way. And they made them both inspired and inspiring. They get to breathe in joy and purpose even as they’re producing that for others.

Why don’t we all live this way, all the time? Know and care and love, with boldness and purpose.

Well, a big reason that this same author I mentioned, Steve Garber suggests, is that we’re all infected to one degree or another by two other old ways of interacting with our knowledge, which are stoicism, and cynicism. Stoicism and cynicism are ancient Greek schools of philosophy, and I have neither the time nor the skill to do them justice. But a contemporary stoic is someone who doesn’t care. And a cynic is someone who doesn’t bother.

The virtue in fact, that a stoic would cultivate is the Greek word from which we draw our word apathy. Because we all know that life is hard and that we can barely manage our own problems, if at all, let alone the rest of world’s challenges we know about. And a stoic learns to tame one’s passions, to cultivate acceptance, to get less worked up, to cease to care.

What is Hamdi Ulukaya thinking with this whole Syrian refugee crisis? Does he not realize that throwing money at this problem isn’t enough? And Chef Mike and his little 5000 pies? He, what, maybe employs 5 or 6 folks with CORIs. Scale that business up, make it 500, and it’s still just a drop in the bucket.

This is the stoic in all of us, grown up who learns to stop caring in what we know.

But we’re not just stoics, Garber says, we’re cynics. We see people’s flaws when we know them, we don’t trust institutions. We’re too smart to be idealists. Thin of Nader Twal’s mission to equip and to inspire. Does he not realize that most teachers think their professional development is a joke? That old dogs can’t learn new tricks. And speaking of dogs, think about Boaz and his cute little harassment policy. Does he not realize men are dogs, and will do what they’re going to do what they like when he’s not around?

It sounds kind of awful when I put it to words, but that’s what I think a lot of the time about people with big dreams. That’s what I think a lot of the time about my own hopes and dreams. Are you with me on this?

They cynic in us grows up and learns to stop trying to act on what we know. Because it’s not good enough, and because we don’t trust anyone involved, ourselves included?

[Now for the younger people in the room, you might hear me talking about grown ups and think, Come on. Of course if you know about a problem, you’re going to care, and you’re going to do something about it! But kids, sometimes grown ups forget this. We get less hopeful when we’re older. And we don’t always have enough courage. So we need you to help us believe, and to help us remember how we care and we want to try to help. Can you remind us of that, kids?]

But you know who misses out most when we let our inner stoic and our inner cynic rule us? Well, the world around us misses out, but we do as well.

Last week I mentioned a famous quotation from the 4th century North African writer and theologian Augustine of Hippo. Augustine wrote:

Hope has two beautiful daughters;

Their names are Anger and Courage.

Anger at the way things are, and

Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.

Our inner stoic keeps us from anger, the good kind. Stoicism keeps us from caring. And our inner cynic keeps us from courage. He keeps us from acting, it keeps us from any risk. Cynicism stops us from doing something with our knowledge.

And whether we’re stoics or cynics because we’re managing our image – naivite, passion, care and love don’t always look very cool. Or whether we’re stoics and cynics because we’ve failed, or because the odds seem to steep, or because we’re just so very afraid, we still miss out. 

And so we live without passion, and without courage, and without hope. And when that happens, the world never sees our inspiration, and neither do we. And that’s a crying shame.

Jesus too thought that what we do with our lives is more important than what we say. What we do with our knowledge is way more valuable than how we look at first, in our knowing.

Jesus once told a little story that’s been interpreted in all kinds of interesting and complicated ways, as it should be. That Jesus. Is. Deep. But if nothing else, it’s a story about this.

It’s another little workplace tale, but this time it’s a family business, and we have a father and his two sons, out in his vineyard.

It’s the second excerpt on your program:

Matthew 21:28-32 (NLT)

“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.

“Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.

My dad was a contractor when I was growing up. Instead of tending a vineyard, he laid roof, and painted houses, and built small additions for homeowners north of the city. It never turned into a father and son business, though, because my brothers and I were never much help. We were all the second son, telling my dad begrudgingly that we would help when he asked us, but then finding any excuse to stay away from the job. Baseball and video games always looked better to me than cleaning up old roofing materials or digging post holes.

One son in this story is like us. He says he’ll act on his fathers’ request, but then disappears when it’s time to do something. The other one is a pill. He says, No, Dad. I’m busy. I don’t want to. You’re annoying. Stop being so mean.

(Can you tell I’ve heard this once or twice? Kids, have you ever talked this way to your parents?)

Well, in the end, though, the obnoxious kid with the lip goes out to the vineyard and puts in the work, and Jesus’ point is that is the good kid.

Jesus says that it’s not the words we say, or the image we project, that gets us access to God’s country. We find God in the picture, we find God’s love and power and joy, we start to access heaven on earth, as we act on what we know. As, in our actions, we say yes to Jesus, regardless of who we are or what our first response is.

Jesus goes on to apply this to a controversy in his setting, that he spent so much time around people who’s lives had looked like they were saying no to God. Violent, extorting collaborators with the Roman occupying force. People of embarrassing morality and reputations. Jesus made them his friends, and many said yes to Jesus’ invitations in their lives.

Other people who spoke better and looked better did nothing with what they knew, and they’re not finding God in the picture. They’re not getting God’s kingdom heaven on earth.

God says ultimately it’s not about how we use what we know to work our image, and it’s not about what we first say or do when Jesus invites us to act. It’s what we do in the end with what we know. Jesus uses the word “repent” which means make a change in direction, change your way of thinking.

And we might hear today Jesus inviting us to change our stoic and cynic ways of thinking, how we get bogged down in apathy and fail to care. How we can stuck in distrust or fear and fail to act in courage. How we can say yes to God and to what’s most important, but then fail to act.

And Jesus, I believe would say to us, today, change your way of thinking. Get to work in the Vineyard. And step into my land, the spaces where I’m in the picture in all things. And enjoy the life for you there.

Let’s get practical with this.

Our first next step is:

Next Steps:

  1. Listen for and respond to invitations from Jesus.

This is actually a line straight out of our membership agreement. We’re a very open church and so membership isn’t very formal and doesn’t involve votes and meetings. But we like to be able to give people an opportunity to say, “This is my church.” So we offer a members’ class called 101 a few times a year, and there are actually very few things we ask of our members. But this is one. We say, listen for and respond to invitations from Jesus.

Because our sense of things is that like the father in today’s story, Jesus is often inviting people to do something important, to try something new, to open up in some way to be more fully alive and more fully connected to ourselves and others and God and the world. So we say be on the lookout, and be ready to respond.

Here’s the thing, though:

  1. These invitations will most often relate to the people and things you know most.

Boaz in the field is invited to see, to act, to honor, and so to be a difference maker in Ruth’s life.  Just as I saw last week, the thing that isn’t good enough, this is how God starts to make more of it, through Boaz responding to God’s invitation to see and act.

We can think that if God shows up in our lives, it’ll mean quitting our job, becoming some kind of other-worldly heroic person. But as we’ve seen today, God’s invitations to us most often come in the context of the people and things we already know.

How will we do our jobs? How will we use our skills and talents? What will we do with our money? How will we respond to that unexpected need we see in our colleague or relative or that person who lives two floors up from us?

  1. To know is to care is to lovepour into this knowledge flow.

This is what knowledge really means. It’s to care and to love. By pouring into this kind of knowledge, we know not just with our minds, but our hearts and our actions.

But this is hard, so we need to:

  1. Confess and disrupt your inner stoic and cynic – wherever you lack care or courage.

The natural flow of life is that we’ll return to stoicism and cynicism. We’ll go back to not caring, not trying.  Disrupt that cycle – through confession, prayer, and action.

  1. Take one risk each day to live with greater purpose and passion.

Just once, each day, do something that makes you an inspiration, or that fill you with inspiration.  This is how we were meant to live.  This is what God is inviting us to.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 5

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Read Ruth 2:5-15

Topic 1 – Respect at work

Boaz put his respect for his workers into practice by providing them with water as they worked (Ruth 2:9), by eating with them, and most of all by sharing his food with the person regarded as the lowest among them (Ruth 2:14). Later we learn that at harvest time, Boaz the landowner winnowed with his harvesters and slept with them out in the field (Ruth 3:2–414).

Boaz demonstrated a high view of every human being as an image of God (Genesis 1:27Proverbs 14:3117:5) by the sensitive way he treated the alien woman in his workplace. When he heard that she was a Moabite woman who had returned from Moab with Naomi (Ruth 2:6), and heard of her plea for permission to glean behind his harvesters (Ruth 2:7), shockingly, the first words he said were, “Listen carefully my daughter.” Sharing his food with a foreign woman (Ruth 2:14) was a more significant act than it might appear. Respectable landowning men were not accustomed to conversing with foreign women, as Ruth herself points out (Ruth 2:10). A man with more concern for social appearances and business opportunities, and less compassion for someone in need, might have sent a female Moabite intruder off his land at once. But Boaz was more than willing to stand up for the vulnerable worker in their midst, whatever the reaction of others might be. Indeed with this account we may have encountered the world’s earliest recorded anti-sexual harassment policy in the workplace. Boaz’ workers seemed to catch his generous spirit. When their boss greeted them with a blessing, they blessed him in return (Ruth 2:4).

Questions

  1. What kinds of respect are given in your workplace? What kinds of disrespect are customary? What determines who is respected and who isn’t?
  2. What is your role in the respect/disrespect customer where you work? What do you do to respect the most vulnerable or least respected people there? Take a moment to appreciate anything you do. If you challenge the patterns of disrespect in a workplace, it can be very costly emotionally, and it can impair your career advancement. This not necessarily/only because of prejudice, but also because the organization sees little value in the people it doesn’t respect, so paying attention to their needs is not regarded as contributing to the main goals of the organization. Would it be worth it to you to risk or sacrifice your career path to respect the people whom others don’t?

Topic 2 – To know is to love is to care

Questions

  1. Steve mentioned three people whose personal knowledge of the needs of a group of people led them to love and to do something through their work:
    1. Nader Twal, the teacher-training director in Long Beach, CA
    2.  Chef Mike, the chef who hires people who’ve done time in prison
    3. Hamdi Ulukaya, the Chobani billionaire who pledged $700 million to help Kurdish refugees

Is there one of the three that speaks most directly to you and your situation? Is that because of their knowledge, their love, or their practical actions of caring?
 

  1. What human needs are you aware of through your work? Does your knowledge you love in some way? Does your love lead you to take care of those needs? Is there a way in which you experience this chain of knowing-loving-caring in this situation as a gift from God, or does it seem like a burden?

Read Matthew 21:28-32

‘The parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-32) continues earlier stories in Matthew about the people who actually are part of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells the religious leaders in his audience that “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31).The folks who look the least religious will enter God’s kingdom ahead of religious leaders, because in the end they do God’s will.

In work, this reminds us that actions speak louder than words. Many organizations have mission statements declaring that their top aims are customer service, product quality, civic integrity, putting their people first, and the like. Yet many such organizations have poor service, quality, integrity, and employee relations. Individuals may do the same thing, extolling their plans, yet failing to implement them. Organizations and individuals falling into this trap may have good intentions, and they may not recognize they are failing to live up to their rhetoric. Workplaces need both effective systems for implementing their mission and goals, and impartial monitoring systems to give unvarnished feedback.’[*]

Topic 3 – Saying no/doing yes

Steve’s fill-in sheet offered 5 ideas for moving from saying no to doing yes when it comes to knowing-loving-caring:    

  1. Listen for and respond to invitations from Jesus.
  2. These invitations will most often relate to the people and things you know most.
  3. To know is to care is to lovepour into this knowledge flow.
  4. Confess and disrupt your inner stoic and cynic – wherever you lack care or courage.
  5. Take one risk each day to live with greater purpose and passion

Questions

  1. Which of the suggestions from Steve’s fill-in sheet do you most want to say “no” to?
  2. What specifically do you not want to agree with or do in your work life? Why?
  3. How could you possibly take the first step to doing it nonetheless?
  4. Which of the suggestions do you immediately want to say “yes” to? Why? What do you forecast the result will be?

Week 6: You Have Something the World Needs

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Will Messenger of the TOW Project delivers the sermon for week 6. This sermon covers the biblical basis for the goodness of work, and the implications for how we should invest in others’ work. Messenger explains it this way: “The urge to work is built into us because we are created in the image of God, and God is a worker. It would be a terrible cruelty of God created us with an inner need to work, but nothing meaningful to do.” He develops this message to inform our outward facing relationships, detailing ways that “providing the opportunity to work is better than giving people stuff.”

You Have Something the World Needs (Audio)

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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.

You Have Something the World Needs (Sermon Notes)

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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 me 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 off 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 herself 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 commands 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.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 6

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Read Ruth 2:17-23

Topic 1 – You have an inner need to work/your household needs you to do your share

According to the sermon, “The urge to work is built into us because we are created in the image of God, and God is a worker. It would be a terrible cruelty if God created us with an inner need to work, but nothing meaningful to do.

“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.”

Questions

  1. Is it really true that you have an inner need to work? A lot of our systems assume that people don’t want to work and have to be monitored, incentivized, or forced to work. Isn’t work something you try to get finished with as little time and effort as possible, so you can get on to something more fun or meaningful? What’s your experience?
  2. Does the world really need your work? Didn’t the universe get along fine for 13.5 billion years without human work? God is all-powerful. How can we say that God needs human work to complete the world’s unfinished potential? What does your particular work contribute that is meaningful in the grand scheme of things?
  3. Does this mean that people who have disabilities, health problems, unemployment, or other situations that prevent them from doing work are created less in the image of God? “Children of a Lesser God,” as the famous book title about deafness put it?

Topic 2 – Investing in others’ work  is the best way to use your own capabilities

From the sermon: “We found four ways that providing the opportunity to work is better than giving people stuff:

  • Maintains work skills, conditioning, habits.
  • Promotes self-respect; maintains dignity.
  • Prevents dependency.
  • Obviates forced labor and exploitation.”

Questions

  1. Is investing in others’ work really better than providing for others’ needs directly? Or is this just a justification for rich people who don’t want to give their wealth or pay higher taxes?
  2. Who has invested in your work over the years? Did it really make a difference? Did it benefit you in the four ways from the sermon, or in other ways?
  3. What are some ways you could invest in others’ work in your workplace?

Read Mark 4:3-9

Topic 3 – Your work is God’s gift to you, not your gift to God

From the sermon: “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. Jesus said, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ 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.

Questions

  1.  The sermon said that investing is others’ work is much harder than doing the work yourself. So how can you actually do anything to invest in others’ work without trying harder? Whatever you do is going to take effort.
  2. If my work is God’s gift to me, not my gift to God, doesn’t that mean I’m off the hook for excellence, productivity, getting my work done, accountability? What if everyone thought this way? Would there be no Beethoven, no Steve Jobs, no Abraham Lincoln?  
  3. Right now God isn’t giving me any work. (Or, the work I have right now is crappy). Does this mean God is punishing me? Ignoring me? Doesn’t care about me? Am I bad dirt?
  4. Is thanking God for whatever work you have today really the key to having something meaningful to offer the world? Do you have any experience in this are? How did it turn out?

Week 7: How Abundance Works

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The talk for week 7 was given by Dave Schmelzer, former Lead Pastor who is visiting and reporting on his new ministry endeavor in Los Angeles. He discusses what it’s like to go from being a “big fish” career-wise to being “a very small fish in a big pond.” His greater message is to cultivate a feeling of abundance by starting with the tiny resources you have. This is the only sermon in the series that does not mention either Ruth or Parables. This speaks to the challenges of integrating visiting voices into a multi-month curriculum, as well as to the breadth of biblical resources that can be called upon to talk about workplace issues.

How Abundance Works (Audio)

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This is the seventh sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Dave Schmelzer, former Lead Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 25, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 7

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Topic 1 – Everyone in this city is desperately looking for traction

Dave’s sermon used the image of gears not meshing. The outer gear is the great thing you think you need to have abundant life: a steady job, money in the bank, a book deal, getting married, finding the right church, meeting a celebrity who will read your script. The inner gear is yourself. No matter how hard you try—how hard you spin your inner gear—it doesn’t seem to engage the outer gear. Your inner gear is too tiny, and the outer gear is too big. You can’t get traction.

Questions

  1. What is your outer gear at the moment? What is the big thing that if you get it, you’ll be set?
  2. What is your inner gear? What do you keep doing to engage the big thing you’re looking for?
  3. Are you getting traction? Do you feel that you’re living an abundant life, or does life seem to be slipping by you?

Read 2 Kings 4:1-7 (TNIV)

 1 The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves."

    2 Elisha replied to her, "How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?" 
       "Your servant has nothing there at all," she said, "except a little olive oil."

    3 Elisha said, "Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don't ask for just a few. 4 Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side."

    5 She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. 6When all the jars were full, she said to her son, "Bring me another one." But he replied, "There is not a jar left." Then the oil stopped flowing. 7 She went and told the man of God, and he said, "Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left."

Read Matthew 14:14–20 (NRSV)

When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

Topic 2 – Not quite nothing

Dave told the story of couple who were so poor they said they could not afford to spend $1.25 on a cup of coffee to share on a date. Could they actually be so poor that they could not spend $1.25 on their date night? Or could there be a spirit of poverty that was making them feel poorer than they really were?

Dave’s friend Richard said, “One hundred percent of the people who think they have no traction actually have traction.” It could be a roof over your head today (even if you’re not sure about tomorrow), friends, something to eat for lunch, education, a church where somebody knows you. If you have a really tiny inner gear, it’s still a real gear, isn’t it?

The widow of the prophet told Elisha that she had nothing. But the spirit of poverty somehow lost its grip on her. She went on, “except a little olive oil.” Not quite nothing, after all. Jesus disciples also began in the claws of the spirit of poverty. “We have nothing here…,” they said. But they went on “… except five loaves and two fish.” Both stories start with so little it almost seems like nothing. Both end with abundance. The widow’s oil fills every jar she can find in her neighborhood—enough to sell and get out of debt. The disciples’ five loaves and two fish feed 5000 people and more. Almost nothing is not nothing.

Questions

  1. What feels too small about your inner gear; what about your situation or yourself feels incapable of engaging abundant life?
  2. What do you have that is more than nothing? Are you using it to the full? Are you conserving it in case things get worse? Are you afraid to put it to use at all? How close or far do you think you might be from the spirit of poverty?
  3. Are these two passages the prophet’s widow and the feeding of the 5000 about believing in miracles? Are they about bringing God whatever is tiny and expecting it to be filled? Where are you in each story?

Topic 3 – Tips

 Dave gave two tips:

  • When you get up in the morning, be still for a moment to appreciate whatever you have. Maybe you are warm and dry and there is a good prospect of having breakfast. Possibly other people who love you are nearby. Perhaps, if nothing else, waking up in the morning is its own kind of awesomeness.
  • Ask God to open your heart to the traction in your life, however tiny or large. Then ask God to help you celebrate that traction.

Questions

  1. Remember the actual moment of getting up today. What was it like, physically, mentally, emotionally? Did you have any traction at that moment?
  2. What could you ask God to help you celebrate when you wake up tomorrow? Is there any way doing so would make a difference in what happens the rest of the day?

Week 8: What’s Your Next Move? Ingenuity, Faith, and Your Current Lot in Life

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In week 8 Senior Pastor Steve Watson talks about risk taking and planning for a legacy using illustrations from the third chapter of Ruth.

What’s Your Next Move? Ingenuity, Faith and Your Current Lot in Life (Audio) - Ruth and Parables

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This is the eighth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 1, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

 

What’s Your Next Move? Ingenuity, Faith, and Your Current Lot in Life (Sermon Notes)

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This is the eighth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 1, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

We’re inviting several of you off and on this fall to tell us a bit about what you do outside of the church, so we can pray that we’ll be able to find God and the inspiration God brings in all of life, and participate in our own way in what Jesus calls his kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

And today I’ve invited _______ to join us to answer a few questions…

  1. So tell us just a little bit about yourself. (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact or two)
  2. And what have you chosen to tell us that you do you outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or if your primary work these days is a volunteer passion, or at home, or looking for work, etc., then that)
  3. Follow-up question from Steve – what is the best thing about this work?
  4. What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
  5. How can we pray for you?

PRAY

Like many of you, I now and then attend little conferences and professional meetings to keep myself fresh and learning in my work. But unlike most of you, I’ve found myself surprisingly in this job as a pastor, so when I go to job alike meetings, it’s to spend a day or two with other pastors. And as you may imagine, this is occasionally a drag, as religious people can have some difficult hang-ups, some of which show up when pastors spend time together. But other times it’s just gold. I have so much to learn, and I find someone interesting to talk with, or I make a new friend, and that’s great.

Well, the other week I had one of these days when Dana, our worship pastor, and I, went to one of these meetings and were surprised to find we’d be spending a day with an older gentleman named Gordon MacDonald. Now this is a niche industry, this world of pastors, but Gordon’s kind of a big deal in that world. In the late twentieth century, he was the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in New England and pretty regularly a best-selling author as well. There was a time when Bill Clinton had one of his very publicly exposed affairs and he was trying to rebuild his marriage and his reputation, and Gordon MacDonald was one of the people that met regularly with the president to offer him counsel and prayer.

So here we are, with this legendary figure in our field, now 76 years old and out of the spotlight, and what he does is spend the day offering us some perspective on how to live a long life well and how to think about being an effective pastor. I wanted to be the cool kid who didn’t take any notes, but I found myself filling the little paper pad the conference hotel had given us.

And one of these nuggets that Gordon had to share I thought would set us up pretty well for a place I want to take you today. So I’m going to pass it on.  

Gordon’s done a lot of mentoring over the past few decades, and he’s developed his own language around the various life stages people tend to go through. And I want to share these with you and see how they resonate. We’ve printed these on your program notes, so you can have them. Each stage has a name and a central question or two we tend to ask in that stage. These could be loosely correlated with a given decade in a lifespan, so that Gordon presents them with ages – the first being the teenage years and the last the 80-something years and beyond. But I’ve removed the ages because we can be in more than one of these stages at once, we hit them at different times, and sometimes we don’t move through them in any kind of linear manner.

But here they are.

One Person’s Take on Life Stages:

  • Identity – Who am I? Who am I becoming?
  • Goals, Place, Community – What will I do with my life, and with whom will I do it?
  • Order and Responsibility – How do I manage my responsibilities and commitments and keep myself renewed?
  • Uncertainty – How do I feel about the person I have become? How do I face my limitations?
  • Change and Intentionality – What is my vision for the second half of my life? Will I continue to grow in depth and effectiveness, or have I reached a ceiling in life?
  • Diminishing – Is there still a place for me? What does a person of my age and experience bring to the table?
  • Grieving and Rearranging – How do I handle the inevitable sense of loss in my life?
  • Legacy, Death, Remembrance – How do I face obscurity? What can I offer a world that seems to see me as obsolete? End of life issues.

I don’t know how these sound to you. If you felt like one of them described some of your current lot in life, maybe make a note of that. We’ll return to these. I know, though, that for Dana and me, we’re each in our very early 40s, and heard Gordon describing what for many becomes a decade of uncertainty, where in our 40s, we confront all that we haven’t achieved and who we have and haven’t become by this stage of life. And we were struck to the bone by this insight that people in their 40s often look at their strengths and weaknesses in their work and in their personal life management, in their parenting if they have kids, as I do, and they think really? This is all that I am? Maybe this is the best I can do. This is why Gordon – consistent with happiness research in the Western world – has said that it’s amazing just how many people, specifically men, hit a tremendous low at age 47. He says again and again, he’s talking to people who are pretty unhappy and trying to come to terms with their limitations, and he’ll ask them how old they are, and nine times out of ten they say, 48, or 46, 47. I can’t speak for Dana, but I thought, wow, here we are, the decade of facing our limitations, the decade of uncertainty.

Anyway, I thought of these stages and wanted to share with you in the context of this fall series we’re entering our final month in before we start gearing up for the Christmas season.

We called the series Inspired: the whole of life with God in the picture. And last month, Will Messenger and I both talked about the work we do in life, how we can find purpose and pleasure in that work, how we can even become an inspiration to others in what we do. And then last week, our founding pastor Dave was in town and he spoke about abundance, about how we can discover gratitude and traction, or movement, in our lives, regardless of whatever limitations our current circumstances present.

And this week, I want to take that idea of traction that Dave left us with and go a step further with it, asking what it is that we can do when we notice the fundamental questions and dilemmas of the moment of life we sit in. Do we need to resist these stages and questions, distracting ourselves from their challenges? Do we grit our teeth and make the best of things, pushing off the inevitable emotional funk? Or can faith unlock a particular form of ingenuity, so we become bold and creative with our next steps, making the most of our current lot in life? 

Let’s get to these questions by way of a story we’ve been exploring this fall, the old Hebrew domestic story called the book of Ruth. Ruth again, is a young widow, whose husband died before they had any children. And her mother-in-law Naomi is also an impoverished widow. Ruth is a Moabite, but Naomi is a Jew, and together they’re settling in as refugees in Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, where Ruth has joined her as an immigrant. They’ve discovered that Naomi has a cousin by marriage, this guy named Boaz, who owns a farm, and he’s been generous to them, giving Ruth employment, safe working conditions, and the opportunity to provide for herself and her mother in law. And we’ll pick up the story with what happens next, in the third chapter of the book.

The passage is printed on your program, but I’ll be commenting a fair bit as we go along. 

Ruth 3 (NLT)

One day Naomi said to Ruth, “My daughter, it’s time that I found a permanent home for you, so that you will be provided for. Boaz is a close relative of ours, and he’s been very kind by letting you gather grain with his young women. Tonight he will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. Now do as I tell you—take a bath and put on perfume and dress in your nicest clothes. Then go to the threshing floor, but don’t let Boaz see you until he has finished eating and drinking. Be sure to notice where he lies down; then go and uncover his feet and lie down there. He will tell you what to do.”

“I will do everything you say,” Ruth replied. So she went down to the threshing floor that night and followed the instructions of her mother-in-law.

So I should have warned you, this is one strange scene. Naomi’s like, you, Ruth need a home. And that wouldn’t hurt Naomi either, since that would get her a home as well. And in this culture, where single women couldn’t buy property, that means a husband. Naomi points out that Boaz is a close relative which in their context is a good thing; he’s marriageable, and he’s generous with his grain, so maybe there’s more where that came from.

So Naomi says, how about getting all clean and dressed up and sneaking into his bed in the middle of the night. There’s a plan. What could go wrong?

Now the commentaries on this passage are confused. They point out that other than this book, there are very few written records of domestic Jewish life from 3000 years ago, and so they don’t really know very much about marriage and family relationships and courting and sex in this culture. They do know that the foot is likely a euphemism for male genitals in this culture, so there’s a pretty good shot that Naomi is telling Ruth to take sneak up on the semi-drunken Boaz, take the man’s sheet off of him, lie down against his lap and see what happens. Which is a pretty interesting plan for a mother-in-law to give to her daughter in law, but Ruth says, OK, and off she goes.

After Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he lay down at the far end of the pile of grain and went to sleep. Then Ruth came quietly, uncovered his feet, and lay down. Around midnight Boaz suddenly woke up and turned over. He was surprised to find a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked.

So we might forget that 3000 years ago, there were no lights in Boaz’ barn where he lay down or actually anywhere else in the world, so nights indoors were really, really dark, but Boaz turns over, and there’s a woman lying at his “feet”, and he says, “Woah! Who is this?”

“I am your servant Ruth,” she replied. “Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer.”

Lots of code language here. “Spread the corner of your covering over me” isn’t just wrap the sheet around us, Boaz. It’s a metaphor. Ruth is proposing to Boaz, saying bring me into your household, marry me. Why? Well, because he’s her family redeemer.

We’ll talk next week much more about this concept of redemption, but the basic idea was that if you were a man, and one of your married male relatives died, you were in a position to take his widow into your household, to marry her, and provide for her. This was called buying her back from the brink, or redeeming her. And Boaz, as a relative of Naomi, is – Ruth thinks at least – the guy in the position to take her in. But Boaz gives her kind of a yes and no response…

 “The Lord bless you, my daughter!” Boaz exclaimed. “You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor. Now don’t worry about a thing, my daughter. I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you are a virtuous woman. But while it’s true that I am one of your family redeemers, there is another man who is more closely related to you than I am. Stay here tonight, and in the morning I will talk to him. If he is willing to redeem you, very well. Let him marry you. But if he is not willing, then as surely as the Lord lives, I will redeem you myself! Now lie down here until morning.”

So Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet until the morning, but she got up before it was light enough for people to recognize each other. For Boaz had said, “No one must know that a woman was here at the threshing floor.” Then Boaz said to her, “Bring your cloak and spread it out.” He measured six scoops of barley into the cloak and placed it on her back. Then he returned to the town.

When Ruth went back to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “What happened, my daughter?”

Ruth told Naomi everything Boaz had done for her, and she added, “He gave me these six scoops of barley and said, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”

Then Naomi said to her, “Just be patient, my daughter, until we hear what happens. The man won’t rest until he has settled things today.”

So Boaz tells Ruth, there’s this one other guy who technically has the right to marry you first, so he’s got to go talk to that guy before he has an answer to her proposal. But meanwhile, she spends the night in Boaz’ bed, probably without any further intimacy, since Boaz thinks it’s really important to do things properly.

But still, there’s a whiff of scandal here, as Boaz hustles her out before daylight so no one will see, and sends her off with a gift.

And home Ruth goes to tell her mother-in-law about her adventures in Boaz’ bedroom.

Wow!

Now if nothing else, you have got to say these are some bold women! There’s none of this, “I would really love it if that guy would notice me and get his stuff together and ask me out.” Forget that, she hops into his bed in the middle of the night and asks him to marry her!

Now there’s a caveat to be said, I suppose. She lived in a culture that had this family redeemer system, where Boaz had potentially an obligation to take her into his household. And while they lived in a patriarchal culture, where men could often have their way, they also lived in a communal culture, where if Boaz took advantage of Ruth, everyone would find out and there’d be consequences for him as well. And Ruth and Naomi had plenty of evidence that Boaz was a good man, and a trustworthy man. But still, the boldness!

I think one way of seeing what’s going on is that Ruth and Naomi are really owning their life stages and deciding to do something about their questions.

Ruth is in the goals, place, community phase. She’s asking what she’s going to do with her life, and particularly with whom is she going to do it? She doesn’t want to be alone. She wants a partner.

And Naomi is in the change and intentionality phase, trying to figure out what the second half of her life is going to look like, when so much from the first half is lost. But she’s also dealing with legacy and remembrance, just ahead of schedule. Because Jews in her era didn’t really believe in a concrete afterlife. Their main concept of life after death was through their descendants. But Naomi doesn’t have any. So she’s asking how will my memory live on? What will our legacy be?

And what they’re doing is owning their lot in life and their questions, and they’re letting their questions spur them to action!

The former CEO Jack Welch had this famous bit of advice, which is to face reality as it is, not as it was or you wish it to be. And I see Naomi and Ruth doing just that – facing their lot in life, finding trustworthy people to involve, and jumping into action.

I’ve been around some other people lately who were doing this. One was that pastor Gordon MacDonald, who identified as being in the stages of diminishment, and of grieving and remembering. He said he has less influence than he used to have, and every week he gets the news that someone he knows has died, and when he meets up with his longtime friends, they talk about their latest doctors’ visits and diagnoses. And this has its own sadnesses, of course.

So what he does is he takes every opportunity he can to mentor younger people, to find his contribution in encouraging the next generation. To not just give in to diminishment, to ensure his legacy really. And he takes long walks where he argues with God about the things that bother him and asks God to do the things he can’t do anymore. 

He’s taking that question, What does a person of my age and experience bring to the table? And he’s finding people who want his perspective and wisdom, even if they no longer want his leadership. And with the question, “How do I handle the inevitable sense of loss in my life?”, well, he talks with God about that every day.

I’m also spending time around a number of friends who are single and past the point when they really want to be single anymore. And so they can find these stages and questions stacking up on them a little. They’re not kids, so they have the “order and responsibility” phase, figuring out all the grown up questions about jobs and bills and all that. But they’re single, and live in an area like Cambridge that has some transience of people and in an economy where jobs change, so they’re still facing these goals, place, and community questions about life direction and partnership. Meanwhile, sometimes they’re getting along in life, and are facing these questions about uncertainty and limitations as well.

And frankly, it can be kind of overwhelming to have these life stages and questions stack up like that. It’s stressful. And they’re wondering, “What can I do about this?” But in a couple of cases, they’ve been saying, Steve, you know what, I’m giving online dating a try again. It feels risky, it feels like it might not net me anyone, but I want to try. So I’m going for it.” And I so admire their courage and their action.

 Now I’ve been married for what feels like forever, so please forgive me if say anything tone deaf about being single here. I really do care. And I find that at one point or another, pretty much every single person I know thinks to themselves, It just isn’t good for me to be alone.

And I see people make moves to resolve this question in different ways. They give online dating a shot. Or they ask people out on dates, or say yes to a first date with people who ask them. They let go of the fantasy of the soulmate and realize that almost every person who is partnered has discovered that there’s no perfect person for me, there’s just the possibility of a person that I would love enough to choose to partner with together.

And then there are other friends who aren’t really pursuing a romantic or a marriage solution to this “It’s not good to be alone” situation, but they’re making friends and they’re looking at the friends in their life and saying, “Hey, can we talk about this being friends in life together – and thinking about their moves and their housing and their weekends in the context of letting these friendships have a partnership quality to them.

Regardless of what to do about being alone, I so respect all my friends who with this question or with any other are disposed toward action, risk, and faith. Because we don’t choose the setting of our lives, and we don’t choose the previous chapters in our story. All that is our lot in life at the moment.  It is what it is. But we do get to write the next chapter. We do get the awesome freedom of improvising the next act in our story!

This ingenuity and this bent toward making the most of circumstances, though, isn’t actually all that common in my experience. Because it’s hard!

I find myself at least, that it’s much more common to simply be afraid. And to end up stressed and paralyzed in our fear.

I find myself these days, as I mentioned, in the “uncertainty” phase of life. How do I feel about the person I have become? And how do I face my limitations? And for lots of folks I know in their 40s, they’re hitting this phase hard in their careers. As they stop getting promoted, or they’re unemployed or otherwise feel misplaced or have lost passion and impact at work.

For me, though, I have this joy and privilege of pastoring the most remarkable church in a really exciting time, and you all are just so good and affirming of me. So work is pretty darn great in my world.

But I do have the rest of my life. To be fair to my family and friends, I’m not going to get in a lot of detail, but suffice it to say that there have been five or six times in the past two weeks where one way or another, I have said to a friend, I am so limited as a friend or a brother or a son or a father. They’ve all come up. Just facing some real distance between the kind of person I wish I was, and the kind of person life is teaching me that I am right now.

And that’s been emotional for me, and it’s been kind of overwhelming to not really have an answer to this question of how I face my limitations.

And I find in that being overwhelmed, I do the same thing that almost everyone I know does when they are overwhelmed. I do nothing. I cave to fear and paralysis.

Because who wants to take on the seemingly unsolvable questions of our life! Doing nothing doesn’t get us anywhere, but it’s easy to be stuck in that space.

So easy, so common, in fact, that Jesus tells us a story about this, that will round out our insights from Ruth, I think.

This will be the second scripture on your program. Jesus says this:

Matthew 25:14-30 (NLT)

“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. He gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last—dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip.

“The servant who received the five bags of silver began to invest the money and earned five more. The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more. But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money.

 “After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money. The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, ‘Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more.’

 “The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’

“The servant who had received the two bags of silver came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two bags of silver to invest, and I have earned two more.’

“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’

“Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate. I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.’

“But the master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! If you knew I harvested crops I didn’t plant and gathered crops I didn’t cultivate, why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.’

“Then he ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

So if we can assume that in Jesus’ story, told shortly before his death, he’s kind of like this guy about to go on a long trip, then we have this:

We all have different lots in life. It can look like some of us have one bag of silver, some two, some five, and so on. Life’s not fair, but there it is.

Jesus seems to be hoping we’ll do something with whatever we have. That we’ll invest and trade it, and make a return. That we’ll be part of the good things Jesus cares about seeing done on earth, stuff we’ve been talking about now and then this fall.

And it looks like some of these investments in this story are going great. People are doubling what they got! Jesus tells a version of this story another time, and some people are earning 1000% return on their investments. And we think, wow, to get that kind of return requires some serious ingenuity, it requires risk. Not unlike the bold move Ruth and Naomi made to find Ruth a partner and find Naomi a legacy. It was risky, it was ingenious.

And the master in this story – let’s call him God – says, “Way to go! I trust you. Let’s celebrate.”

But there’s this one person who’s nervous. He’s overwhelmed by the responsibility of silver. And he’s paralyzed by the big question of what to do when other people have a head start on him. They have more, so he thinks at least, I’ll try not to lose what I’ve got, and he buries it in the ground. After all, he thinks this master is capricious and harsh, and doesn’t want to screw up. So he digs up the silver and says, here’s your money back.

But the master doesn’t want it. He’s furious.

And I’ve found myself thinking, why is the reaction so over the top? And here’s my thought this week:

Jesus doesn’t want us to be paralyzed by fear.

We think that with the most precious things in life – our careers, our kids, our dreams, our hopes to be partnered, our legacy, whatever – that the most important thing is that we hold on to what we have and that we don’t screw it up.

But Jesus tells this story and flips that assumption on its head. He says, that’s the worst. And maybe he gives the master such an over the top reaction to shock us out of our assumptions here. The most important thing isn’t not screwing up, the most important thing is faith, is movement, is courage.

Every person who tries in these stories wins. Every person. It’s like you can’t lose when you try in faith, or if you lose, it just doesn’t matter. The Gerald May quotation on the slide says, “I would prefer a thousand mistakes in extravagance of love to any paralysis in wariness of fear.” And I think that’s truly what God thinks, whatever life stage we’re in, whatever questions we’re facing.

Looking for people we can trust, hatching our most ingenious plan, and giving it a shot makes God happy. It makes God say, “I’m proud of you for trusting me. In fact, that makes me kind of trust you back. And it makes me want to celebrate.”

I see this in Ruth and Naomi with their ingenious action when facing loneliness and a lack of heirs. What Ruth does, however strange it looks to us, is done in faith and love and good will, so it’s not sketchy, or shameful. It gets the Bible’s tacit approval.

I see this in my friends who are single in a really funky 21st century urban landscape for single folks, and they’re giving it a shot to not be alone, best as they know how. And I think, God is proud of them for trusting God and acting.

I see a mentor in his 70s, taking his morning walks to argue with God and then going out to find young people to mentor, and I think, wow, God is proud of that man. And I’m fortunate to have spent a day with him.

And that gives me the courage to approach my children or my brothers or my parents  and friends and to say, I’d like to figure out a way to do better in our relationship, even though I don’t know how. And to take that small step forward I know how to take, knowing God’s like, “You go, Steve. Good on you for not giving up!”

And it sounds silly to say, but it feels so good to know that God sees my little efforts to not be stuck, to not be paralyzed, and to act in faith, and that God is proud of me. Man, that feels light, and it feels good.

I want to wrap up with a few quick thoughts on trying this stuff out.

Next Steps:

  1. Own your lot in life – with all the questions and needs it has.

We may or may not be where we wish we’d be in our lives. But reality is our friend, because reality is God’s friend. It’s the only place where he does anything. Today is the only day we’re alive in. So if one of those life stages on your program resonates, well, think about it. Ask the questions that you need to ask in that season. Don’t run away from your life’s most pressing questions, because they aren’t going anywhere. Acknowledge them, own them. Hold them in your hands, and give them a look. And then try this…

  1. Tell Jesus your fears, since he is not a “harsh man.”

The “harsh man” is what that bury-the-silver in the ground person thought of God. And don’t so many of us have this picture of God that makes us think we need to really be afraid of screwing up. And with that one guy, Jesus sort of says, if you expect me to be so harsh, then fine, I guess.

But Jesus is not like this. Jesus is gentle. Jesus makes sure that alongside the wars and all the other things ancient people felt the need to see in their religious texts, that there’s this story honoring two widows and their bold, ingenious faith. Jesus was not up worrying last night about whether or not you’ll screw things up today. Jesus just wants you to trust that God is good, and to have courage and to move forward today, to give life a try.

And so, I ask…

  1. What action would you take if a generous God would help and you weren’t afraid you’d fail?

This line of thinking is a way of unlocking ingenuity.

  1. Ask God for guidance and confirmation.

Ruth and Naomi did this when trying risky things.

  1. Involve trustworthy people in your action.
  2. Each risk you take in faith, know that God is enormously proud of you, regardless of results.

I think this is the subtext of the story of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz. It’s why it makes the cut into the Bible. Look at these three people, and their attempt to have courage and faith that a good God is there. This book is in the Bible, I think, because it makes God smile.

And that’s the upshot of this story Jesus tells as well. Take a risk in faith, take your lot in life, however good or bad or mixed it seems to be, and take the next step to make the most of your days. Put aside the fear, and make the next move to trust that God is good.

And when it goes great, hear Jesus saying, Way to go. I’m so proud of you.

And when it just turns into a big hot mess, or a pool of disappointment, then hear Jesus saying there too, Way to go. I love your courage. This makes me trust you now. I am so proud of you.

Next week, we talk more about broken and lost things, about needy people, which is all of us, and about redemption.

But this week, let me pray that we become convinced we’re living our life stage with a good God with us, and that we can find our grit, find our courage, and make our next bold move.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 8

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Topic 1 – Seeing your life as it really is

“One Person’s Take on Life Stages”

  • Identity – Who am I? Who am I becoming?
  • Goals, Place, Community – What will I do with my life, and with whom will I do it?
  • Order and Responsibility – How do I manage my responsibilities and

commitments and keep myself renewed?

  • Uncertainty – How do I feel about the person I have become? How do I

face my limitations?

  • Change and Intentionality – What is my vision for the second half of my

life? Will I continue to grow in depth and effectiveness, or have I reached a ceiling in life?

  • Diminishing – Is there still a place for me? What does a person of my age

and experience bring to the table?

  • Grieving and Rearranging – How do I handle the inevitable sense of loss in my life?
  • Legacy, Death, Remembrance – How do I face obscurity? What can I offer

a world that seems to see me as obsolete? End of life issues.

From Steve’s sermon: “The former CEO Jack Welch had this famous bit of advice, which is to face reality as it is, not as it was or you wish it to be….Do we need to resist these stages and questions, distracting ourselves from their challenges? Do we grit our teeth and make the best of things, pushing off the inevitable emotional funk? Or can faith unlock a particular form of ingenuity, so we become bold and creative with our next steps, making the most of our current lot in life? 

Questions
  1. Do you agree that the stages of life idea is a helpful way to make sense of what’s happening in your life this week/month/year?
  2. Which stage are you in?
  3. What do you need to see about yourself or about the world as it is, not as you wish it was? Are there any outdated or false perceptions that you may be clinging to but are keeping you stuck?

Topic 2 – Boldness in this stage of your life

Read Ruth 3:1-18

From Steve’s sermon: “I think one way of seeing what’s going on is that Ruth and Naomi are really owning their life stages and deciding to do something about their questions, and they’re letting their questions spur them to action!... If nothing else, you have got to say these are some bold women! There’s none of this, ‘I would really love it if that guy would notice me and get his stuff together and ask me out.’ Forget that, she hops into his bed in the middle of the night and asks him to marry her!”

Questions
  1. What do you think of Naomi urging her daughter-in-law to go sleep with (or perhaps even “sleep” with) Boaz, the man who was essentially her boss? Is “bold” the word you’d use?
  2. Ruth’s boldness seems a combination of seeing things as they really are, determination (or desperation), and divine inspiration. Do you agree?
  3. What kind boldness might be appropriate for this particular stage of  your life? Something that wasn’t appropriate before, and might not be later. Is there a combination(s) of perception, determination and inspiration bubbling up in you in this stage of your life?

Topic 3 – Investing courageously in this stage of life

Read Matthew 25:14-30

From the Theology of Work Bible Commentary: “God has given each person a wide variety of gifts, and he expects us to employ those gifts in his service. It is not acceptable merely to put those gifts on a closet shelf and ignore them. Like the three servants, we do not have gifts of the same degree. The return God expects of us is commensurate with the gifts we have been given. The servant who received one talent was not condemned for failing to reach the five-talent goal; he was condemned because he did nothing with what he was given.  The gifts we receive from God include skills, abilities, family connections, social positions, education, experiences, and more. The point of the parable is that we are to use whatever we have been given for God’s purposes. The severe consequences to the unproductive servant, far beyond anything triggered by mere business mediocrity, tell us that we are to invest our lives, not waste them.”

From Steve’s sermon: “We think that with the most precious things in life – our careers, our kids, our dreams, our hopes to be partnered, our legacy, whatever – that the most important thing is that we hold on to what we have and that we don’t screw it up.  But Jesus tells this story and flips that assumption on its head. He says,  being afraid of screwing up is the worst thing to do. And maybe he gives the master such an over the top reaction (to the third servant) to shock us out of our assumptions here. The most important thing isn’t not screwing up, the most important thing is faith, is movement, is courage…. Every person who tries in these stories wins. Every person. It’s like you can’t lose when you try in faith, or if you lose, it just doesn’t matter.”

Questions
  1. What gifts are you finding you have in this stage of your life? Do they seem greater than in earlier stages, or less? Is the pattern of  your gifts shifting, e.g,  personal abilities vs. relationships vs. social positions vs. physical or financial resources?
  2. Are the investments you’re making with these gifts appropriate for this stage of your life? Have you changed your investments as your gifts, needs, and desires change in moving from one stage of life to another?
  3. What courage do you need in this stage of your life? What courage have you exercised that God might be proud of you for?

Week 9: Alive in an Age of Redemption

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Week 9 discusses the work of redemption.  Senior Pastor Steve Watson uses Boaz’s actions in the book of Ruth to discuss how each individual worker can act as a “redeemer” for those around him or her.  

Alive in an Age of Redemption (Audio)

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This is the ninth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 8, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 9

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Topic 1 – Broken

Read Ruth 4:1-6

Ruth could be what today might be called “damaged goods.” She is a refugee. She is poor. She was previously married, which means that any man who re-marries her will be obligated to raise children to “carry on her husband’s name and keep the land in the family.” In other words, she carries baggage—legal, social, and maybe psychological—that her new husband will have to live with. Why bother? Perhaps she feels she is “too lost to bother finding,” as Steve put it in his sermon.

This week’s questions focus on the experience of feeling like Ruth—being lost or broken or in need of redemption. Perhaps this will be an opportunity to begin a movement toward freedom, joy, or love, whether in big ways or small. On the other hand, this might not match how you feel about yourself at the moment. Or you might not want to go to those places in your life right now. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to sort of sit out this week, stay on the sideline, or participate as much or as little as you like. You and your group have the responsibility to make sure that no one feels pushed to talk about anything they don’t really want to.

Question set 1
Note: Some groups or individuals may prefer to use these questions for individual contemplation rather than group discussion.;

  1. Steve said that when he was a teenager dealing with dating he found himself “pushing boundaries in an obnoxious way, yet at the same time afraid and ashamed” This seems like a good operational definition of being lost or broken. Is there an area of your live or work where you notice—or others point out to you--something similar about the way you act?
  2. Can you trace the source or cause of being broken or lost in this way?
  3. Can you speak the truth about your broken or lost spaces to yourself? Is there anyone else you have talked with? Is that something you’d like to be able to do?

Topic 2 – Redeemable

Read Luke 15:1-10

Question set 2

  1. “Maybe we are living in an age of redemption,” Steve suggested. Spectacle Island, the city of Pittsburgh. Maybe redeemed things are even better than the original sometimes. Do you agree? Do you see evidence of this as you go about your life and work?
  2. For something to be redeemable, there must have been something of value there originally. As Steve put it, “There is no penny not worth shining up?” What would you say is the value in you that might be obscured by the broken or lost bits? Or to put it another way, what got lost or broken in you or your life and work? Is it still there somewhere?
  3. “God is OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) in the habit of finding lost things,” according to Steve’s sermon. Do you believe Jesus’ statement “There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” Really? God prefers redemption over perfection? Does God’s love for broken people and obsession for finding lost things explain anything about what’s going on in your life?

Topic 3 – Strong at the broken places

“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (p.226, Scribner Classics edition)

Steve said that his process of redemption from a broken beginning in the area of sexuality has taken a long time, decades in fact. The process is slow. But it seems the capacity his healing has given him for healthy emotional intimacy has been a big asset to others.

Question set 3

  1. From Steve’s sermon: “Jesus looks at the people that others think are beyond repair, and he says , ’Those are the people I’m looking for’” If this is true, what does it say about you? Is it possible that Jesus is not only tolerating people like you, but specifically looking for you? What about all the ways that you’re in good shape, the things about you that were never broken?
  2. Is there a strong place being formed in you from what has been broken? How do you know? How could you make use of it, and for whom? Do you need to revise your view of yourself? Is it time to make a change in the way you go about things in life or work?
  3. What time, space and resources is it worth giving to the redemption effort you are making? How specific can you be about the time, space and resources it makes sense to invest this week?

Week 10: Redemption - the Peculiar Calling of Jesus’ Followers

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Will Messenger of the TOW Project delivers the sermon for week 10.  He offers his own perspective from the business world on what it means to be a redeemer at work.

Redemption - the Peculiar Calling of Jesus’ Followers (Audio)

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This is the tenth 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 November 15, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Redemption - the Peculiar Calling of Jesus’ Followers (Sermon Notes)

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This is the tenth 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 November 15, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Last week our pastor Steve Watson talked about what it means to be redeemed from a bad situation at work or in life generally, like what happens to Ruth in the book of Ruth. This week I’m going to talk about the other side of the same coin—what it means to be a redeemer for someone else who’s in a bad situation, like what Boaz does in the book of Ruth. But to begin with, I actually have to start by taking Ruth’s perspective myself. Because I know what it means to need to be redeemed at work, to really mess up on the job and need someone to cut me a break and help me recover from my mistake.

The summer between my years of business school, I got a job with an investment bank called Goldman Sachs, in New York. This is a plum summer job for a business school student. It’s very prestigious. People who get permanent jobs investment banks after graduating make a ton of money. And a summer job is almost guaranteed to get you a permanent offer after you graduate, unless you totally screw up. I didn’t come from a family or an undergraduate college where you even imagined you could get this kind of job. So for me this summer job was a big deal.

I got assigned a team defending a Midwestern department store chain against a takeover attempt by a hedge fund. It’s kind of a complicated transaction, but my assignment was simple. The same hedge fund had tried to take over another company about two years previously. My manager told me to go through the Wall Street Journal archives and write up a “concise” history of that previous attempt. If we could see what happened the last time around, maybe it could help us figure out what would work this time.

I went to the archives and pulled up every article in the Wall Street Journal from the previous attempt. I spent all day reading them, following the events of the action, putting together the pieces. Focusing on the word “concise” I tried to give the big picture of the story without bogging down in the details. I made a compelling narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

However, maybe I was too concise. I turned the report over to my manager at the end of the day, and when I came in the next day he was furious. “Your report was totally useless,” he said. “You missed almost everything important that happened. You got it all jumbled up. I had to stay here till midnight re-writing it. Did you even do the research I told you to do? You’re hopeless.”

 “Oh,” I said. “I misunderstood what you wanted. I’m really sorry. I’ll go back and write a step-by-step account.”

“No,” he said. “I’ve already done that. Just go back to the team room and stay out of the way.”

I got shuffled off the team a few days later. This is when I knew I needed a redeemer. Someone who wouldn’t see me only as damaged goods. Someone who could see that I actually was a competent, diligent worker who needed a second chance. Fortunately I got assigned to a new team right away. I did a great job on this assignment, which was negotiating the sale of $50 million of stock to investors in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. (This was back when $50 million was a lot of money J.) After we finished the negotiations in Chicago, Jerry, the senior partner said, you’re ready to do this on your own. I’ve another deal back in New York. You take the CEO of the company on to Los Angeles and run the negotiations there. Everything worked out great in Los Angeles, we got the deal done for a big profit, and the CEO of the client company called Jerry and raved about what a good job I’d done.

When I got the call from Goldman Sachs in October, I figured it would be my full-time job offer, my ticket to living large. But it wasn’t. It was a courtesy call telling me that I would not be receiving an offer, but thanks for my service, and best wishes in my job search. I was stunned.

So I immediately called Jerry and said, “I can’t believe I didn’t get a job offer. I thought I did a great job for you. Can you get this reversed?” You did do a great job for me, Will. I voted in favor of hiring you. But Ben said you did a terrible job for him, and he vetoed you.” “Jerry,” I said, “I know I screwed up on Ben’s project, but I learned from my mistake, and I saved your bacon that day you committed to be both in New York and LA at the same time. I thought you’d really fight for me.” “That’s not the way it works,” Jerry said. One veto, and you don’t get an offer. There’s nothing more I can do. Sorry.”

I needed a redeemer. I didn’t get one. Let me be clear. I got exactly what I deserved. But a redeemer doesn’t help you get what you ought to be able to get on your own. A redeemer helps you get what is beyond your limited reach. There was no redeemer for me at the end of my summer job at Goldman Sachs. And that my friends, is why I’m with you here today in Cambridge instead of waiting for my chauffeur to bring the car around and pick me up at the front door of my mansion in the Hamptons.

Based on my sad story, I’d say that every workplace needs a redeemer, but not many have them. What if followers of Jesus could be redeemers in their workplaces? What if Ben had been a redeemer? Maybe he would have said to me, “That was a huge screw-up, and you’ve got to prove to me that you’re not just coasting through this job like a summer vacation, but I’ll give you another chance?” Or what if someone else in my team had said, “You are in big trouble, but I’ll ask Ben if he’ll let me coach you and see if we can get you back on board.” Or what if Jerry had said, “OK, I’ll go see if I can persuade Ben to reconsider, but you’re going to have to come down here and meet with apologize to him personally first.” What would it be like if every workplace had a redeemer or two to help people get back on track after really messing up?

Let’s get into the book Ruth as a way to explore these questions. We’ve been reading this book together over the past 10 weeks. At this stage in the book a landowner named Boaz has been helping a young woman named Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi be redeemed from destitution and exclusion in the land of Israel. They’re destitute because as widows, neither of them can own land, and their only skill seems to be agriculture. They’re excluded because Ruth is from the land of Moab, and Moabites are considered national enemies of Israel.

But Boaz keeps going out of his way to help Ruth and Naomi turn things around. He even welcomes Ruth’s bold advances towards marriage. That is to say, Boaz is whole-heatedly into serving as a redeemer for Ruth in a bad situation. Why does Boaz have a heart for Ruth?

It started long before he had any romantic interest in her. Way back in chapter 2, when Ruth first met Boaz, she said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” —Ruth 2:10. She’s aware that people see her primarily as someone to be avoided.

But Boaz sees the good in Ruth going all the way back in her life. He replies, “All that you have done for your mother in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me.” —Ruth 2:11. All along, he’s been noticing the good in her, even when no one else seems to.

This brings us to fill-in #1 in your handout. The world, and all the people in it, start off good.

Boaz notices the good in Ruth. That, in a nutshell, is the beginning of the whole Bible. When the Bible begins, everything, and everybody, is good. The garden of Eden. If you want to be a redeemer for people, you have see the good in them, no matter how deeply buried. Ultimately everyone’s roots are planted in the good soil of the garden of Eden, and you have to train your eyes to see that far back. This is not a matter of putting on Pollyanna glasses and ignoring the bad things in people. It’s a matter of seeing deeper, with God’s sight, to the good roots. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him.” —Psalm 24:1. God created everyone in the world, and he created every one of us good.

Let’s apply this to your workplace, the place where you do your daily work, paid or unpaid, at home or school or somewhere else. What do you see good about your workplace or the people in it, especially the goodness that might be hidden? Jot it down in the box beside #1. To go back to Goldman Sachs, I can see that despite all the temptations for money and status, the culture there was dedicated to doing what’s best for the client. Time and again, I saw them put their clients’ interests ahead of their own, and they did everything to be trustworthy to their clients. So I could write down “serves clients’ interest” in this box. OK jot down a word or two even if you don’t have time to write it down in full.

Item number 2 is “The world breaks every one.” This is quote from Ernest Hemingway’s book A Farewell to Arms. Steve used it last week when he was talking about what it’s like to be someone in need of redemption, like Ruth. It fits perfectly here. I hardly have to tell you that things in the world are broken. We don’t live in the garden of Eden. Go ahead and jot down in item two, some ways your workplace or the people in it are messed up.

In my Goldman Sachs story, I’m the one who is broken. I’m the one who messed up. Of course, I’ve also had jobs were other people are the ones who are messed up. Either way, if you want to be a redeemer, you have to see that the world breaks every one. Every one is broken.

This is important because I think that what we want to believe is that some people are broken, and some people are not. Then, the key is avoiding the broken people, and spending your life with the un-broken people. If necessary, get yourself fixed, or at least get good at pretending to be un-broken, so that you’ll fit in At work, get rid of the people who make mistakes, and bring in people who do everything right.

That’s what happened to me. I messed up. They got rid of me.

But if you want to be a redeemer, you’ve got to understand that everyone is messed up. Not necessarily equally messed up, but messed up. Starting with yourself. That’s why Steve’s sermon was so moving last week, so powerful. Because he talked about what it’s like to be messed up, yet to be redeemed.

That takes us to item 3, “God is always working to redeem what’s broken.” God’s answer is not to get rid of the messed-up people and focus on the un-messed-up ones. Because there aren’t any un-messed-up ones. And even if there were, God loves the messed-up people too much to throw them away.

And this brings us to the passage from Ruth. It’s the first passage in your program, Ruth 4:2-11. Naomi and Ruth have inherited Naomi’s husband’s land. But because they’re women, they can’t actually own land. So the land is in limbo. Nobody can farm it, which is why Ruth had to work on Boaz’s land in the first place.

But God—who is always working to redeem what’s broken—gave Israel a law to redeem land in this situation. The closest male relative of the deceased man could marry the widow, and then they would own the land free and clear, and the deceased man’s widow and children would be cared for. The only catch was that the new husband had to treat his wife and the children of the former husband as if they were his own. He couldn’t marry the woman, take possession of the land, then divorce the woman and disown her children, if any. To redeem the land, he also had to redeem the people.

So Boaz goes to the ancient equivalent of the registry of deeds, namely the town gate, and gathers enough witnesses for a legal transaction. He finds Naomi’s next-of-kin, whose name is Mahlon and says, if you want that land, go ahead and claim it right now. But if not, say so, because I’m next of kin after you. Now Mahlon has no trouble seeing the good in this opportunity. What’s good about this situation is the land. Yeah, he says,  I’ll definitely pay the legal costs or whatever to clean up the title and take possession of the land.

“Of course,” Boaz reminds him, “your purchase of the land from Naomi also requires that you marry Ruth, the Moabite widow. That way she can have children who will carry on her husband’s name and keep the land in the family.” In other words, Boaz brings up the broken aspects of the situation. To get this land, you have to marry Naomi, or her heir Ruth, and she’s a foreigner from Moab. That could complicate things—this isn’t just a simple land purchase any more. So Mahlon says, “Then I can’t redeem it because this might endanger my own estate.”

Ruth and Naomi are broken. Mahlon wants to play the game where you try to succeed by only hanging out with the un-damaged people. Avoid Ruth. Look instead for a wife with no baggage. OK, fair enough, nothing against Mahlon. If you believe in the slogan, lead, follow, or get out of the way, at least he gets out of the way.

But being a redeemer, making the world a better place, he leaves that to Boaz. “You redeem the land; I cannot do it.”

And Boaz sees things differently. He knows that Ruth is a Moabite, that she’s tangled up in legal troubles. But for Boaz, the messed up stuff doesn’t make him want to run away, it makes him want invest in her. Literally. So he pays whatever the fee is, seals the deal with the equivalent of signing in triplicate and getting it notarized and he says, “You are witnesses that today I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion, and Mahlon. 10 And with the land I have acquired Ruth, the Moabite widow of Mahlon, to be my wife. This way she can have a son to carry on the family name of her dead husband and to inherit the family property here in his hometown. You are all witnesses today.” And the people agreed, “We are witnesses!”

Boaz sees the good and bad in the world—or at least the mix of good and bad in Naomi and Ruth’s situation—and it makes him want to redeem them, invest in the good. It makes Boaz a redeemer, an agent of God, really.

So fill in the blank space for #3 about the possibilities for redemption in your workplace. What do you see in your work that could be a sign of God redeeming bad situations? How is God redeeming you at work? How might God want to use you to redeem others who are broken?

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 10

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Read Ruth 4:2-11

Topic 1 – The world and all the people in it start off good.

Question set 1

  1. Is it really true that everyone starts off good? Aren’t there some people who are just evil from the start? Or at least they’ve become so destructive at work that they’re toxic? (Bonus question for the theologically inclined: What about original sin and/or utter depravity?)
  2. Is it true that there’s something good about every workplace? Aren’t some workplaces so bad that the only moral thing to do is get out or, better yet maybe, get them shut down?
  3. What good do you see underneath the brokenness in your workplace?

Topic 2 – The world breaks everyone

“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (p.226, Scribner Classics edition)

Question set 2

  1. From a workplace point of view, is it really true that everyone is broken? Some people are excellent performers, great team players, responsible and trustworthy, and a joy to be around. Other people are a royal
  2. If redemption means getting a second chance after screwing up, is a good idea to try to redeem everyone in every workplace? Maybe some people should lose their jobs because of messing up. What about accountability, performance, working with excellence? If everyone is spending all their time coaching under-performers and allowing shoddy work or poor customer service to continue while those who do a poor job get redeemed, how will people get any work done?
  3. What brokenness in your workplace causes the most problems?

Topic 3 – God is always working to redeem what’s broken

Read Matthew 13:44-46

Question set 3

  1. What redemption do you need at work? Is it like a buried treasure you’d give up everything to receive, or just something that would be nice to have? How important is it to you to be a redeemer for others where you work? Is it like finding a pearl of great value, or something interesting you’d be open to once everything is humming along at work and you have some available time?
  2. Will’s sermon talked about fixing transmissions late, re-upholstering furniture, cost-cutting analysis, getting hired for a high-paying job, etc. Is this what “redemption” means? Really—fixing furniture is equivalent to saving souls? Is there a danger here of elevating middle-class job security into the ultimate spiritual reality?
  3. Whom or what, exactly, might you be able to help redeem at your workplace? What investments would it take in terms of time, space and resources? What risks would you have to take? Would it be worth it?

Week 11: How to Live After “Happily Ever After”

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For the last week of this series, blogger Leah Archibald speaks about finding fulfillment in work from the point of view of a mother and homemaker. She wraps up the series by restating that God cares deeply about each individual’s work, even if the daily reality of work does not feel inspired.

How to Live After ‘Happily Ever After’ (Audio)

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This is the eleventh sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Leah Archibald, blogger, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 22, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

How to Live After “Happily Ever After” (Sermon Notes)

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This is the eleventh sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Leah Archibald, blogger, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 22, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Steve asked me to speak today because he was interested in a blog post I wrote a few months ago. In my full-time life I'm a mom of three boys, but sometimes in the fifteen minutes before the baby wakes up I blog about things I'm thinking about, and I recently wrote a blog post titled: "What happens AFTER you get everything you want?"

Here's an extract from that blog post:

"We have been running a free summer camp at our home this summer. It is lovely. The children are doing great. They are learning new skills, testing their physical limits, and improving their hand-eye-coordination. They are growing in bravery, growing their friendships, and problem solving all sorts of mechanical and social situations. The adults who stay and sit on our lawn drinking coffee get an informal support group where they feel immediately understood when they share about just how all-encompassing difficult this time of life is.

This is the closest to "living out a calling" that I've ever experienced. People come to my house, and I find a way to fulfill a deep need that's been eating them up inside. Also I get to serve them food, which fulfills the Jewish mother part of me.  We are living the panacea — giving ourselves to others and seeing positive results.

Also, quite often I'm really miserable.

The moment a child smiles at me with eyes all lit up because because something clicked in her brain and she finally "got" basket weaving? That's moment is immediately followed by someone crying because they poked their finger with the basket tool, and then I have to run and get the Band-Aids, and right on the heals of that get snack because everything feels better with a muffin in front of them. And just when everyone is happy again I'm in the kitchen face to face with a stack of dishes two feet high and, let's be honest, the breakfast dishes I didn't clean while I was prepping baskets and the muffin tins to boot, or if the kids cooked snack themselves there's the ENTIRE KITCHEN that needs scrubbing.

So I ask myself: What happens when you find yourself living the life you wanted and it kind of stinks?"

I'll back up and give you some context for this story.  I have for a while now felt that my specific calling, or what I'm most suited to and interested in doing in this stage in my life, is running home-based learning activities that involve other kids and families.   So when my husband came to me to years ago and said, "This is what we're doing this summer, we're going to run a summer camp! At our house! And it's gonna be free!" I wasn't like, "Are you a crazy person? We just had a baby."  I was like "YES!"  Because why? I don't know.  Every fiber of my being just kind of welled up into a YES.  A completely naive but completely authentic yes.

So then we made it happen! Kids came to our summer camp!  This crazy idea of ours really worked!  And it was awesome!

Also, some aspects of it really sucked!  This summer I was frequently frustrated by dishes, by irritated neighbors, and by unhappy campers.

Okay, so, what do we do after we get to live our dream?

I think there are some unlikely answers in this book of the bible called Ruth.  Ruth was a non-Jewish woman who lived at a rather chaotic and frightening time in ancient Jewish history.  This was during the time when Judges ruled, there was no king and not really any rule of law.  Jews lived in clan groups that were fighting each other and also fighting their non-Jewish neighbors.   There was very little security anywhere, and there was famine to boot!  So, this is the time that Ruth lives in.

Ruth is a Moabite, she lives in the land of Moab, and she marries a Jewish man who came to live in Moab because of famine in Judah, his hometown.  Ruth and her husband are married about ten years, and then her husband dies.  Around the same time her husband's brother also dies, and her father-in-law was already dead so there were suddenly no men in her family.  Which was a big problem for Ruth, because there was no man to support her.  She's had her sister-in-law who is Moabite, and her mother-in-law named Naomi who is Jewish, and what looks like a life of poverty in front of her.

So, stinks to be Ruth at this point in the story, but don't worry Ruth's mother-in-law Naomi has a plan.  Naomi hears that the famine in the land of Judah has ended, and she figures it's her best bet to return there to her relatives.  So the bible says, "Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland.  With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah."

But then on the road, Ruth gets a change up of plans forced onto her! The story continues, "But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me.  May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept."

I don't... Okay, so don't raise your hand, but does anyone here have trouble communicating with their mother-in-law?  Like this offends me deeply.  Why didn't Naomi say that BEFORE they all started walking? Like while they were packing up their stuff, maybe she could have said something like, "Hey these dishes are going to Judah, these linens are for you when you go back to your mothers' houses."   No, Naomi waited until they were on the road together. To be extra crushingly dramatic.  If I were one of Naomi's daughters in law I would have been deeply hurt by this turn-around.  And indeed, Orpah leaves to go home to parents home in Moab.  But Ruth refuses.  I'm picking back up at verse 16 here: "But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”"

Why does Ruth say this?  To me it seems that Ruth makes a wild promise that defies all logic.   Her husband dies, her mother-in-law tries to kick her to the curb, and she's like, "Nah, I'm still sticking with this lady who's trying to shake me off and this God who oversaw the death of all the men in my family."  And she's not even doing it guardedly, like, "Maybe this trip to Judah is the best option going, even though my mother-in-law is a jerk, maybe i'll have more options in Judah." No, Ruth makes her declaration so completely enthusiastically: "Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”

Now, running a free summer camp is nothing like walking across the desert carrying all your possessions, but I think Ruth and I have something in common.  I think each of us experienced a really profound moment of completely nonsensical "yes."

"Yes! I will do that! I don't know how on earth I'm going to be able to do that, but I'll do that!"

What happens in these moments of extreme yes?  These declarations that defy all logic?  I would like to argue that these moments of naive yes are in fact God speaking to us, guiding our choices about the future from a deep place within our being, indeed a inner knowledge that defies all logic.

I think we shouldn't ignore these moments, in fact Jesus tells us in particular to look out for them.  As we look at this book of Ruth we're also simultaneously taking a look at some of the parables of Jesus, and I see a correlation between this part of Ruth's story and a parable that Jesus tells in a book of the bible called John, it's in your program.  Jesus is talking about a sheepfold which is a pen where sheep are kept, and a shepherd.

 "“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”  Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them." (John 10 1-6)

So if you don't understand this parable, that's cool, neither did anyone listening to Jesus at the time.  Like, what is he talking about?   The shepherd of the sheep calls the sheep and they recognize his voice and they come out of the pen.  Awesome, now we can all be farmers?  No, I think what Jesus is saying in this parable is that insomuch WE are followers of Jesus, dumb sheep-like followers but whatever, WE can recognize his voice when he calls us.  And Jesus's voice makes us feel safe and secure, because the shepherd takes care of the sheep, so we'll follow him if he calls us.  Like, okay, time to go out of the pen now, here we go.

I think that Jesus's calling actually is this naive yes that Ruth acted on and that I acted on.  Like, "I don't know how this exactly will play out, but YES!"  It can't come from a place of reason, it has to come from a prompting from God.

Okay, so what next.  Here's Ruth, she's been insulted by her mother-in-law, but she's still "YES," because God's voice from deep within her is calling her to be part of his story.  You know, Ruth wasn't a Jew to start out, she had other Gods in her culture, but from some calling deep inside of her she wants to ally herself with the God of Israel. "Your God will be my God." she says.  I don't think this was a mistake.  Or like deity envy, your God is bigger than my God.  I think God himself had a plan for Ruth, a plan to make her important within the history of the Jewish people.  Even at this moment when she was a marginal figure, kicked to the curb by life circumstances, insulted by her mother-in-law, God had a plan to make Ruth really important.  That's why He called her and made her say Yes.

Okay, so then Ruth and Naomi have to walk to Bethlehem in Judah.  That takes some time.  We don't know if Ruth had any doubts on the journey, the book doesn't say.  Then they get to Bethlehem and everyone recognized Naomi!  And Naomi says, "I return to you my friends, with Ruth, the only kind loyal woman in Moab! Look at how wonderful she has been to me!  Reward her for her steadfast love for me and my family!'  Haha, no just kidding, she doesn't do that, she verbally abuses Ruth again!  Naomi says, " I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty."

Now, if I were Ruth in this situation, I'd be thinking, "What happens when you get your dream and everything stinks?"  So, the bible was written in a pre-Freudian era so we don't get a lot of explanation about the characters inner worlds, but in my imagining Ruth's great dream is to be a Jew.  In my own version of the story, Ruth really wants God to be her God.  She wants to be knit into the fabric of the Jewish story, into the story of God's beloved people.  So Ruth making this bold declaration, saying, "Your God will be my God" and then going to Bethlehem, the home of the Jewish people, which she says, "this will be my home," she's like living her dream.  And what happens? She gets to Bethlehem and Naomi insults her.  Calls her a nothing.  And then they're living in bitter poverty.

What do you do, Ruth, when you get the life you wanted and it stinks?

Here's what Ruth does.  She keeps going.  I'll continue with the story, this is on your program:

"One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.”"

Ruth was a go-getter!  She wasn't like me staring into a pile of dirty dishes wondering, "What did I get myself into?" She was all, "Okay, what next? How can I make this work?"  You know, not to bring a contested political figure into this conversation, but years ago when I was getting my MBA I read this book called, "Getting to Yes" and it had in it this anecdote about Donald Trump. Who, you might have opinions about him either way politically speaking, but we can maybe agree that he was good at the central work of his life which is making business deals.  So anyway, in this book it said that before Donald Trump signs a deal he weighs all the pros and cons, looks into it really carefully, evaluates all the angles.  And then after Donald Trump signs a deal, he's all in 100% trying to make that venture a success.  Everything he does after the point of signing is only in service of making that venture successful.  He doesn't second guess himself once he's said Yes.  So, okay, for what it's worth Ruth is a bit like Donald Trump.  She's been dragged across the desert, verbally rejected, cast into poverty, and she's like, "Okay, what next? How can we make this thing work?"  She's a go-getter.

Now, I'm not going to read through the whole story because there are other sermons in this series that'll do that, and also because I have too many snide comments I'd have to make. So what happens to Ruth in the end?  I'll spoil the ending by saying that Ruth's dream actually works out for her.  She ends up working in the fields of this man named Boaz, he's kind of an upstanding guy, he ends up marrying Ruth.  And Ruth in the end becomes the great grandmother of the most respected Jew in all of Jewish history, King David.

So, I'm gonna skip over the courtship part of the story because I'm old and married, but I want to read the last three sentences from the book of Ruth.  So from being destitute and having no husband, Ruth marries Boaz, and the end of her book says, "Boaz was the father of Obed.  Obed was the father of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of David."

For the old testament, this is like saying, "Ruth, you win."  You went from being an outsider to the Jewish people, to being the most important woman of your time, because you were in the direct lineage of the most important Jew in the ancient Jewish story, king David.  You did it Ruth, you get your dream.

So here are some take-aways from the story of Ruth.

1) Pay attention to your naive or inspired Yes.

God might have a plan for that!  I imagine Ruth had this longing to be a part of the Jewish people, really and truly, not a blight on her mother-in-law's reputation but the pride of her extended Jewish family.  And God was keen on that plan too, I believe he gave Ruth this inclination to follow Naomi because that decision would in the end satisfy the longings of both women. 

This Ruth who was so cast aside in the beginning of the story, the end of the story has all the townspeople praising her.  They sing to Naomi about Ruth's child, "he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!"  And Naomi in the end is happy too.  The story says, "Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own.  The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!”"

So it worked out pretty well, even though Ruth's decision to follow Naomi seemed kind of naive at the time. 

I'm not saying always be impulsive, but I'm saying: Pay attention to your naive or inspired Yes. It might be God calling you, in the same way that Jesus says that he calls to the sheep.  If you recognize the voice, if it inspires in you peace and hope and security and profound YES, then there's a good chance it's a message from God.

Okay, so what happens when you've said Yes to something and it kind of stinks?  You're walking across the desert with your dramatic mother in law who's all, "Call me Bitter, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me!"  What does Ruth do when things don't look like her Yes is getting her anywhere good?

2) Be a go-getter! Do one simple thing in front of you.

Ruth doesn't sit in despair as much as she actively looks for her next steps.  She goes and gleans in a field to get some food. 

I don't think here she was planning her whole life trajectory, like, "First I'll get food here, then I'll get this guy to notice me, then we'll get married and then I'll be rich and like really really Jewish."  I think she was just literally looking for  the NEXT step, the next single step she should take, in this case to feed herself.  And God takes that and makes it work out.  So be a go-getter!  Even if it's a very small positive step. 

For me when I was in despair about our camp situation, like "How can I make all these people happy and repair this house and get this mess under control?"  Like, not to get too graphic, but these kids peed all over everything! And I have three boys 6 and under, and THEY pee all over everything.  We were doing a homeschool experiment the other day and we had all these different materials in the kiddie pool like, "What makes things float?" And my middle son just takes off his clothes and hops into the kiddie pool and pees all over our experiment.  Like, "Here's what makes things float, mom! My pee!"  So, sometimes it can feel like life is just peeing on you.  Even if you've said yes and that yes was inspired by God, life can just, metaphorically or literally, be really pee-pee.  So what do you do?  Like Ruth you can be a go-getter and look to your single next move.

In the camp situation, it helped me to focus on just one thing in front of me.  Like focus on the one kid who was talking to me at the moment.  And really pay attention to what was being asked of me in that one interaction.  Not what was needed from me in my whole life, but just what was needed in that one interaction in front of me.  What does this kid want? he wants a Band-Aid? Okay, I'll get him a Band-Aid, and really pay attention to him while I'm applying that Band-Aid.  The pee-soaked bathroom can wait another minute.  Often that was all that I was being asked to give, my attention.  Kids are pretty simple like that, they often just want you to look in their eyes and demonstrate that you see them.

And not to get too metaphorical here, but I think we adults need that too.  Ruth really wanted God to see her.  She wanted to be part of the people He loved.  And that's true of me, too, that's why I blog, because I want to be seen by other people.  I want to not be invisible.  I think the story of Ruth and Jesus' parable have good news for us in this regard.  Both stories scream to me, "God sees you! God hears your dreams, even the ones in your inmost heart, He is paying attention to them.  It's going to be okay."

3) Let God play a long game

So for me, the problem with reaching my dream of running a free summer camp is that I'm still the same person when I get to that dream.  Like, I'm generally kind of aggrieved at the burden of housework, so getting my dream life does not make me less aggrieved about doing housework.

When Ruth said Yes to being a Jew, she said, "Your God will be my God." So, she like was a Jew from that moment in a way, she made a vow.  But in the eyes of those around her, she didn't actually get to be a Jew for a while.  When she got to Bethlehem people still called her "Ruth the Moabitess."  Eventually she did get to be knit into the story of the Jewish people, she got to be the great-grandmother of King David.  But it took a long time.  So Let God play a long game.

God really answering our inmost desires takes a little time.  

Here's more of what I wrote in that original blog post:

"It's not that God didn't come through for me. He sure came through- he gave us what we wanted. He just didn't change the entire world underneath me while he was at it. He gave me my dreams and made them a reality. It's just that now I have to live out my dreams in the context of reality. And reality tends to be chaotic and frustrating. There are dishes.  Kids need to eat 5 times a day, and so do I actually, and if I don't I get really cranky.  Sometimes other people, the people who I am so sure God is asking me to help or to share my life with? Sometimes these people are annoying.  And then there's the weather."

This is what my friend Abigail called, "The pervasiveness of reality."

Brian and Abigail McMurray came and helped out at our summer camp one day. Abigail helped a camper weave a basket after learning how to do it herself like 30 seconds before. And Brian helped a group of rambunctious boys dig potatoes out of our garden.  Or maybe he just kind of watched them dig potatoes out of the garden, he didn't come back nearly as filthy as the kids did.  Anyway, Abigail and Brian are both living out some pretty cool dreams career wise.  Abigail recently left a job that didn't feel right and ventured into the unknown of starting her own business, and she said something very incisive.  She said, "I'm coming to terms with the pervasiveness of reality."

Sometimes, when we imagine our dreams we imagine either a different person living them or a different world they're lived out in.  But God wants to give your dreams to YOU, and in THIS world that we're living in.  That's why Jesus said, "The sheep know my voice." He's actually present in our reality leading us into the next step in front of us.  He's not only present in some fictitious future time like, "When I get my act together I'm gonna be able to know Jesus."

Okay, so, if I want God to transform me into someone who is calmer about mess or more patient with children, I have to let him play a long game. 

Ruth and Parables: Small Group Leaders Guide Week 11

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This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

Topic 1 – Pay attention when you feel inspired to say YES!

Read Ruth 1:6-18

Question set 1

Leah explored the possibility that what Ruth wanted most in life was to be Jewish—to be a person sought and chosen by God. That could be why she, a Moabite, married into a Jewish family. For a while her dream was fulfilled, but then her husband and all the other men in the family died and she was left Jewish, but destitute. What happens when you get what you most want in life, but you’re not happy?

  1. Leah said she felt insulted by Naomi’s words to Ruth and Orpah: “Go back to your mothers’ homes,” (Ruth 1:8) and to her friends in Bethlehem:  “The Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 2:21). What is Ruth, chopped liver?
    1. Have you achieved a long-desired success, then felt like the people surrounding it do not accept you or value you? Or some other major disappointment following a success? What did it feel like?
    2. Do the deepest dissatisfactions you feel today come primarily from not (yet) getting what you desire in life, or instead from getting what you desire, yet not feeling satisfied?
  2. Logically, Naomi was correct, and Ruth would have been better off going back home and starting over. But it seems that some divine YES welled up in Ruth that led her to stay with Naomi.  Is there a divine YES welling up in you? What is it?
  3. How do you know that a Yes Tour is not just wishful thinking?

Topic 2 – Be a go-getter

Read Ruth 2:2

Question set 2

  1. Ruth’s plan doesn’t seem very confidence-inspiring. “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.” But ultimately that simple step leads to her marriage to Boaz. When have you decided to try something that you were not sure you could complete? How did it work out?
  2. Leah said that sometimes a good day consists of getting all the bums wiped. Just do whatever task is next. How does that fit in with the motto “impossibly great lives?”
  3. Leah said she observed a woman having a wonderful time with her kid at the beach. (Leah almost always has an awful time at the beach with her kids at the beach because of the hassles of food, diaper bags, sand, sunscreen, near-drownings, etc.) The woman had dreadlocks, so Leah thought “If I dread my hair, I’ll be like that woman.” Now Leah has dreadlocks, but she still has an awful time when she takes her kids to the beach. Taking action did not make her into a different person. How can you be a go-getter when your dream is for God to change you?

Topic 3 – Let God play a long game

Read John 10:1-6 and Matthew 1:5

Question set 3

  1.  “God gave your dream to you because he wants to be present in your reality.” What are the sharp edges of your reality? What could it possibly mean that God wants to be present in exactly those places, when what you want is for God to take those places away?
  2. “Getting your dream will not make everything perfect.” By marrying Boaz, Ruth fulfilled her dream—or at least the dream Leah projected on her—of becoming a Jew. But did her life become perfect? Perhaps God’s long game wasn’t even about her life—maybe it was about her great grandson, David, Israel’s greatest king, or her 30-times-great grandson, Jesus. What if your life (or work) really is just about wiping the kids’ bums, and God’s long game only scores its goal through those who come after you?
  3. “Let God play a long game.” What do playing and games have to do with your dream? Is your dream just a game to God? Is it OK if God is playful with the things that are most important to you? And why did Leah get so many laughs in a talk about getting everything  you want, yet not feeling happy?