“Is the Gospel against Surrey?”
That was my colleague Bob Sneddon’s question at my first staff meeting in this circuit.
Is the Gospel against Surrey? We are the wealthiest county in the country, filled with butchers and bakers and movers and shakers. It is natural that when we pledge allegiance to a Jesus who upturns the moneychangers’ tables and the values of wealth and power that we ask hard questions about discipleship in this particular culture.
This may make you think, “Oh no, I’ve heard it before. Someone has just assumed that everyone in Surrey is rich and the streets are paved with stocks and shares. Doesn’t he know that several in this congregation are on limited incomes? Not another preacher here to condemn us, surely?”
No, I’m not here to condemn – although we must acknowledge that the message of Jesus poses uncomfortable challenges for his followers.
Rather, if we are to face the facts that Jesus challenges his disciples radically in the area of lifestyle, we need not simply to be hectored but to be offered a positive rôle model.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Boaz.
What would the Gospel life look like if, like some of our neighbours, you could spend Christmas on a cruise ship, or going to Australia, or merely going skiing? I think Boaz gives us some clues.
The narrator introduces Boaz to us as ‘a man of standing’ (verse 1). Because of his wealth – we shall soon hear that he owns land and servants – he has a position of influence in his society. This man could fit into Surrey.
But what kind of man? Plenty of people with standing in their communities prove to be uigly characters. This expression, though, can also mean that he is noble in character. As we shall find out, that is true of Boaz. If we want to know how influential and powerful people might live the life of faith, Boaz is worth our attention.
For certainly he is a man of faith. Note how he greets his workers: ‘The LORD be with you!’ he says, and they reply, ‘The LORD bless you!’ (verse 4).
Is this just some liturgical exchange? If so, a harvest field is a curious location for it. Is it simply the routine pleasantries of the day? It could be, but what we pick up from the rest of this episode is a man who has a good relationship with his workers and with others. So I believe his greeting, ‘The LORD be with you’ is genuine.
This, then, is a man who carries his faith into everyday life. One executive once said that at home his order of priorities was God, family and then work. However, when he got to the office, he reversed those priorities: work, family, God. Not Boaz. Putting his faith as his top priority influences everything about him. It shapes the way he conducts his business. This is more than someone whose faith means that he doesn’t swear and he doesn’t steal the paperclips.
A favourite story of mine about this concerns a man who was an elderly Local Preacher in my home circuit. No-one – but no-one – preached like John Evill. He had been born in Swansea and was a toddler at the time of the Welsh Revival. He preached like the Revival was still happening.
In his working life he had been the Secretary of the Enfield Highway Co-Operative Society. He used to tell a story about his interview for that job. “Mister Evill, if we give you this job, will you put the Co-Operative Society first?” he was asked.
“No!” he replied. “The Church of Jesus Christ comes first in my life!”
And he didn’t mean that he would huddle away in the church and not give due time to his work. Jesus was number one. That affected how he did everything. He took the Lordship of Christ into work every day.
Boaz does the Old Testament equivalent. But how does it manifest itself? There are several ways we see in this passage. One of them comes in that simple warm exchange of greetings with his labourers. This is a man who works on having positive relationships with his workers. They are not cogs in the machine, they are not merely the recipients of his orders, they are made in the image of God, and so they are treated with dignity.
When we were considering whether to move our children from Bisley School to Knaphill School, one of the things that impressed us about Kevin Davies, the Head at Knaphill, was the rapport he had with his staff. Yes, he was in charge, but there was a warm relationship evidenced by an easy humour between them. If someone who to my knowledge has no explicit faith can do that, how much more can the Christian manager?
A Christian friend of mine called Dan Collins is an entrepreneur and the founder of a company in Hertfordshire called Fresh Tracks. One of the things his outfit does is lay on innovative team-building events for organisations. Starting in their early days with quad biking, they now run a chocolate challenge that has featured on the TV show The Apprentice, and other events where teams have to make sculptures, wooden toys and films. The company has five core values:
Ideas are our life blood
Waste is wrong
Wealth creation for distribution.
These may not be overtly religious values, but then Fresh Tracks is not a specifically Christian company. However, it is clear to me that Dan has taken his faith to work as an influencer. Certainly others recognise what he is doing: he also tutors for the Cranfield School of Management.
So if I am a Christian in a senior position, am I thinking: how can I so take the Lordship of Christ into my daily work that I am known as a boss or a manager who blesses their staff?
But Boaz goes further. He crosses boundaries and seeks justice for the poor. What does he do when he learns that the unfamiliar young woman is a Moabitess, that is, a foreigner from an enemy country, and that her story is known as one of tragedy and suffering (verses 5-6)? Not only does he underscore his foreman’s decision to let her work in the field (verse 7), he especially protects her. He puts her with his own female servants (verse 8) and issues orders that the men are not to touch her (verse 9).
That command is quite significant for Ruth, if it is true as I argued when I preached on chapter 1 last week that when Naomi’s son ‘took’ her in marriage, that most likely indicated a forced abduction, and that she is therefore a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a man. In the words of one commentator,
Boaz is hereby instituting the first anti-sexual-harassment policy in the workplace recorded in the Bible.
Also, she can drink the water the men have drawn – in a culture where foreigners would draw for Israelites and women for men, this is extraordinary.
What has Boaz done? For him, it’s not all about the bottom line. It’s about compassionate justice.
How can all this play out today for Christians who have power and influence? It surely makes the case for being counter-cultural. It cannot only be about maximising the return for shareholders. Yes, profits may be needed to sustain a business and for people to flourish in employment, but the kingdom of God is about a righteousness that incorporates justice and faithfulness. It may well involve going against social convention. It may mean leading a team in which we say that we will neither practise nor tolerate bullying or oppression.
And remember, Boaz follows through on this. It isn’t a one-off gesture. He invites Ruth to join his workers at mealtime, something that she wouldn’t have expected. The text suggests that as a stranger, a foreigner, she had kept her distance until the invitation.
But not only that, Boaz, the big boss, serves her the roasted grain himself (verse 14). He leads by example in humbly serving the stranger. No wonder, then, that his words soon after that to his men to ensure that she has plenty to glean (verses 15-16) carry extra power. For Boaz, even in a culture where the word of the boss was law, his attitude is, ‘Do as I do, not simply as I say.’ Christians in leadership cannot require of their subordinates what they are unwilling to do themselves. Everywhere in Scripture healthy leadership is by example. That is why the Apostle Paul tells people to copy him. It isn’t arrogance: it’s a principle. That is why Jesus said he had set an example for us to follow. Same thing.
And in giving that order to his men, Boaz demonstrates one more thing I want to highlight about how he uses his power and authority. It’s a justice matter again. Not for him the idea that he can look good by letting Ruth glean a little, his instructions are designed to ensure that she has plenty for her needs and for Naomi’s. In fact, Ruth takes home so much (verse 17) it’s hard to imagine how she transported it all! So he doesn’t opt for the minimum effect he can have on the payroll, the least damage to the balance sheet. If he is going to do something right, it will have the potential to have a cost for his business, so that people may receive what they need in order to participate in society.
All this is all very well, but much of it could have been said in one form or another by someone giving a talk on how to run a business ethically without necessarily referring all of it to the life of faith. Which is why I want to draw this to a close by highlighting how God is the seam running through the story.
Some parts are obvious, whether it is Boaz saying, ‘The LORD be with you!’ (verse 4) or his recognition that Ruth has ‘come to take refuge’ under the wings of ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’ (verse 12). In the light of his godly behaviour, Naomi says, ‘The LORD bless him!’ (verse 20). In all these ways, God is explicitly acknowledged in the story.
But there is another hint, too. There is a comment I take to be ironic when Ruth first goes off to work in the field:
So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. (Verse 3, italics mine)
‘As it turned out.’ Is this luck? Are you kidding? Jews didn’t believe in luck, and nor should Christians. Later, someone would write in the Book of Proverbs,
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)
For the Jew, nothing happened by sheer chance. There were no coincidences, only what some Christians call God-incidences. Ruth’s arrival in the field of Boaz is of a piece with the cause of the famine and the bringing of Naomi back to Bethlehem with Ruth. This is the hand of God. This is providence.
Now I don’t know how you see providence. I certainly don’t see it as the Christian version of ‘fate’ but as God using his free will, which is greater in power than ours. But on any account, God has silently brought Ruth and Boaz into the same orbit.
And this is something to remember. However much power or authority we might seem to exercise in this life (at least in comparison to others), we are not in charge of our destinies, or the destinies of others. He is bringing people across our paths all the time for us to bless in his name. Indeed, that is also true for those who do not have the wealth and influence that others have.
Is it a coincidence that we are in certain networks, neighbourhoods and friendships? Of course not. God has either placed us there or allowed us to be there.
Now we are in those places, it is our responsibility in his name to say, how can I exercise my faith by engaging in positive relationships? How can I put my faith into practice by a concern for the kingdom of God that manifests itself in faithfulness and in justice for the poor and the unpopular? How can I cross boundaries in Jesus’ name? How can my example match my beliefs?
In this week’s episode, we see only the beginnings of Boaz’ influence for good. Much more will come, as those who know the whole story will testify. How much of a difference can we make for Christ in the world by being attentive to how we use the power we have been given for good and for justice?
Not being American, it’s pointless to a degree my expressing a preference between John McCain and Barack Obama. Except that the winner will be so influential on the UK and the world that it matters.
So I was pleased to read this open letter from James Emery White to whoever the victor is. It is the measure of a Christian attitude. It is so different from what I have read elsewhere from some Christians. Take Focus On The Family Action’s hysteria-inducing hypothetical letter imagining what the USA would look like in 2012 after the first term of an Obama presidency. (One reaction has been a bipartisan Facebook group opposing it.) Or whole blogs like Ohnobama. Or the incredible nonsense that Sarah Palin prophetically is Esther.
Now I’m aware that all the stuff I’ve denounced above is from one particular camp – the religious right. I know that filth exists on the left, too. Certainly Palin (while she cannot be a modern-day Esther – who was the king and who were the other concubines? :)) has been the victim of misrepresentation of her faith. One article on Huffington Post comes to mind. It is a mixture of genuine research and tangential ‘guilt by association’ insinuation.
And I know too that none of this should be surprising. It exposes the gulf between claims that people want high office in order to serve others and the reality that it is a grab for power. If you want power for yourself or whoever you support, you’ll adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach.
Nor is this about a Brit wanting to have a go at Americans. Whatever our more reserved characters, we know enough about aggressive politics. PMQ, anyone? And neither Biden nor Palin have ‘done a Prescott’:
And my complaint isn’t about wanting to treat politics as if it doesn’t matter. It does. Christians can’t disregard it. Just concentrating on evangelism and dismissing a so-called ‘social gospel’ is sub-biblical.
Surely as Christians we can model something different for the world, where we are passionate about what we believe, even when we differ among ourselves, yet do so with humility and love. It seems to me that James Emery White’s tone models such a spirit.
I can sympathise with some of the reservations about Obama. I find his stance on abortion awful. (Although if I am to be pro-life – and I am – then that extends after the womb and takes in issues such as war and poverty, too.) I also have concerns about McCain. His tax proposals appear to favour the wealthy. (Yet on the other hand I think his stance as a Republican on green issues is noteworthy.) So it’s easy to see why Christians with particular areas of concern gravitate strongly for or against a particular candidate.
What, then, has made many Christian voices so indistinct in tone from secular ones? We have a regular problem in the church of being squeezed into the world’s mould, as J B Phillips put it. But are there particular factors either causing or exacerbating the situation?
I suspect that at least as far as the religious right is concerned, we ought to take a look at the ‘prophetic movement’. It’s been in play for several years, and led to the view that George W Bush was God’s anointed, and woe betide any Christian who disagreed. A British Christian friend of mine who works in the States with a charity that is developing drug treatments for people with AIDS couldn’t believe just how true the picture was of evangelical alignment with the Republican Party.
Yet that wasn’t going on so much a few months ago in this campaign, if I understand correctly. Disgruntlement with how McCain viewed certain issues dear to the Christian right’s agenda meant was surely a major reason why evangelical and fundamentalist churches weren’t holding voter registration drives with such enthusiasm this time. My hunch, watching from a few thousand miles away, is that it all changed when McCain announced Sarah Palin has his running mate. Not seeing that McCain surely thought of her for pragmatic reasons: he needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat so as to bring a major Republican constituency into the voting booth, suddenly Palin was the person God had kept everyone waiting for. No wonder ‘prophetic words’ began to flow. (And, please note, I believe in prophetic words. But I also believe in testing them.)
Is it part of a lust to believe we are living in times that are comparable to biblical ones, and therefore they have to be graded as such by prophecies? Are these things some kind of sign taken to mean that we are in some sense more faithful to biblical spirituality? Are we just not content to get on with days of small things (Zecharaiah 4:10) and be faithful in a few things (Matthew 25:21, 23)?
Put this approach together with the ‘grab for power’ I mentioned earlier and we have a flammable combination that leads Christians to spend more time ‘praying against’ rather than the ‘praying for’ which White exemplifies.
I don’t wish to make it sound like White’s is the only sane voice around. That would be arrogant and ignorant. It didn’t take too long to find this sane post from Rob Harrison, a Christian Republican, arguing moderately in favour of the Grand Old Party, expressing deep reservations about Obama and explaining why he thinks Hillary Clinton would have been a better Democratic candidate. From a different stable comes Jim Wallis’ post, ‘My Personal ‘Faith Priorities’ for this Election‘. (Wallis has also called on James Dobson to apologise for the ‘2012 letter’.) I know Wallis is technically independent, but most of his faith priorities lean in Obama’s direction.
So it’s galling to keep hearing the nonsense when there are thoughtful voices in the debate. Somewhere a big section of us in the church has lost a grip on servant leadership and that we see through a glass darkly, not clearly.
even if I don’t share what sounds like a cynicism in the lyrics towards all politicians. Nevertheless, it is a timely warning for all those who offer Barack Obama semi-messianic adulation or who see John McCain (but really Sarah Palin?) as God’s anointed.
Is it too late to hope for more Christlike tone as well as content to Christian contributions regarding the election, both in terms of an increase in quantity and a greater prominence to the careful voices that are in danger of being drowned out? It’s so close to the end of the campaign that for anyone to say this now is humanly a forlorn hope. I’d like to think it might be different in four years’ time. For that to happen, the church will have to have been chastened. That might mean a whole run of failed ‘prophecies’, but it would take a lot for even that to lead to repentance in some circles. My fear is that even something that goes against the grain will just lead to a reframing of them.
But you never know. We might learn humility one day.
Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!
But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.
For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?
(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)
How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.
Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.
So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.
Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.