By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Ruth 1: 15-22
Here at Trinity, we’re currently in the midst of a sermon series on leadership. And why, you might wonder? Well, I’ll be completely honest with you. Right now, the church in America is struggling. Pre-COVID, the Church was, statistically, in decline. But, COVID rapidly accelerated that rate of decline. Some who study church trends speculate that where the church is right now is where we would have found ourselves ten years from now had COVID never happened. And, when an organization is in crisis – when any organization is in crisis – there is a need for strong leaders. So, this current sermon series is considering 6 C’s of leadership. [Let me add that all of the sermons can be found on the church website.] The first two were collaboration and courage.
This morning, we’re looking at another leadership C – compassion and the biblical character of Ruth.
But, it might be helpful to first provide a definition for leadership because, if we don’t have a clear understanding of what leadership is, we may not even care about listening this morning. After all, if I’m not a boss, if I’m retired or the “low man on the employee totem pole” why should I care about a message on leadership, right? Well, here’s why: because leadership is not about your job title and leadership is not confined to the workplace. Leadership is about how we choose to engage with others in a variety of arenas – not just work, but within our families, our community and our church. Here is one definition of leadership: Leadership is a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.
Friends: the church has a common task. We call it our vision. If you have it memorized – and I hope a lot of you do – say Trinity’s vision with me: “Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” That is our common task and I happen to think it’s a pretty good one and an important one. And none of us is able to accomplish that task on our own. It’s a big task and it will take a lot of people – under the inspiration and guidance of God’s Spirit – to carry it out. So, leaders, here at Trinity, enlist the aid and support of others in achieving our vision because – and this is another critical piece – because we have earned the right to socially influence others. And genuine compassion is essential to earning the right to influence and lead others.
Now the biblical character, Ruth, is a very unlikely leader. She was not a person one would have expected to be in a position of social influence. Ruth was a woman in a culture where women were not respected. They had no real identity of their own. They were viewed more as property than as full persons. Ruth was also a foreigner; not an Israelite, not one of God’s “chosen ones.” She is from Moab, a neighboring country with a bad reputation. They were pagans, heathens. Finally, although we don’t know the exact age of Ruth, the other primary characters within this story are older than she in a culture where age was revered and youth was disdained. There is absolutely nothing about Ruth that should make her a social influencer or a leader. And yet, she is. Now Ruth’s arena of leadership is within her family which is not surprising for a woman of antiquity. But here’s what is amazing: In chapter one of the gospel of Matthew, Ruth is named as an ancestor of Jesus. So Ruth reveals that we don’t have to exercise influence on the world stage in order to change the world. Let me repeat that because that’s a sentence from this sermon that I hope sticks with you. I hope you’ll kind of mentally chew on it throughout this upcoming week: the story of Ruth reveals that we don’t have to exercise influence on the world stage in order to change the world.
Ruth is a humble, young, immigrant woman who reveals that compassion is an essential attribute for leaders. Friends: No one is going to follow a “leader” who is lacking in compassion. There’s real truth in that cliché “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Everything Ruth says and does is inspired by her compassion for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Her compassion, her mercy and faithfulness allow her to exercise influence that accomplishes the task of providing safety and security for her vulnerable mother-in-law in her old age. That was her task. But, she also accomplishes the task of preserving the lineage of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Not too shabby of an accomplishment for a young, foreign woman in the ancient world, proving once again that we don’t have to exercise influence on the world stage in order to change the world.
So let me quickly summarize the book of Ruth. It’s a brief story; only four chapters. I’d encourage you to read it through sometime this week. It’s easy to read in one sitting. But here’s a summary…
It is the story of Elimelech and his family. They are from the city of Bethlehem in Judah. He is married to Naomi who has given him two sons. But a famine comes upon their land and, as still happens today they become refugees, immigrants in nearby Moab where there is food. They don’t want to leave home; but they also don’t want to starve. While in Moab, the two sons marry women from that country. But, more than a decade later, all the men have died. This is a terrible fate for women of antiquity. Women relied entirely upon the men in their family – fathers, husbands, brothers, sons – to survive. A woman without a man had only two options for survival: prostitution and begging. Naomi is acutely aware of her vulnerability and, having heard that the famine in Judah has come to an end, she decides to return to her home country. But she recognizes that her daughters-in-law will be even more vulnerable in a foreign country where their alien status will be yet another strike against them. So she begs the women to remain in their homeland. One daughter-in-law agrees. But the other, Ruth, refuses to leave her mother-in-law’s side. After all, there was no reliable communication (like email or phones) and they have no idea at this point if any of the members of Naomi’s family have survived the famine. This is a gamble. She may be returning to nothing. Still, Ruth is determined to stay by Naomi’s side.
Once they get back to Bethlehem, Ruth takes the initiative. She asks her mother-in-law’s consent to go out into a field and glean. Now, “gleaning” was the answer to food insecurity in the ancient world. According to the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, land owners were not permitted to collect the entirety of their harvest. They were commanded to leave a little behind for the poor and the immigrants. A passage from Leviticus gives this instruction to land owners:
Leviticus 19:9 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. 10 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: I am the LORD your God.
Now, as it turns out, Ruth winds up gleaning in a field belonging to a relative of Naomi by the name of Boaz. Boaz learns the identity of this woman in his field and, as readers, we learn that the story of Ruth’s compassion and faithfulness toward Naomi has been moving along the village grapevine. Boaz immediately acts to insure Ruth’s well-being. The vulnerable position of Ruth is abundantly clear by the words Boaz speaks to her. He tells her not to go to any other fields, but to stay here and remain close to the women working his field. He assures her that the men in the fields have been instructed not to bother her and that she can feel safe going to them to get a drink of water. What’s not said comes through loud and clear. Without the intervention of Boaz, there would have been nothing to prevent Ruth from being exploited or even sexually assaulted. At break time, Boaz provides lunch for Ruth and tells his workers to leave some extra behind for her in the fields.
When Ruth returns home, Naomi is shocked at the amount of grain she’s gleaned. Ruth provides the name of the man whose field she worked and Naomi is delighted to discover it is her late husband’s relative, Boaz.
The third act or chapter of Ruth is, frankly, pretty racy. In a nutshell, Naomi instructs Ruth to carry out a “ritual” that will communicate to Boaz her desire to be his wife. In light of today’s progressive attitudes toward women, we might interpret what occurs as Naomi “pimping out” her daughter-in-law. But again, remember, there were few options for widowed women in the ancient world. Now, we discover in this portion of the story something known as “the kinsman-redeemer.” It’s an important factor in the story but there’s not enough time in my sermon this morning to unpack it. So, if you do read Ruth this week and want to talk about this part of the story, just let me know.
But, in a nutshell, Boaz informs Ruth that there is one other closer relative who is entitled to “first dibs” on Ruth. Boaz will be happy to marry her, but the other relative must first decline.
In the final chapter of Ruth, there is another curious ritual that takes places at the city gate that we might liken to a “reading of the will.” Boaz observes this closer relative passing by and invites him to come and sit with him and ten elders of the village. Boaz informs him that he is entitled to the parcel of land that belonged to their relative, Elimelech. But, in taking possession of the land, he must also take possession of the widow, Ruth, as well as providing security for Naomi. When the man declines, Boaz is free to marry Ruth and he does.
Again, while the role of women in the ancient world was very limited, Ruth consistently finds ways to insure the security of her mother-in-law whom she loves. It is her compassion for Naomi that turns Ruth into a leader as she works to fulfill this critical task of security and safety for her aging mother-in-law. The narrative tells us that it is Ruth’s compassion and loyalty toward Naomi that influences the response of Boaz. Ruth, a young, widowed, immigrant woman finds the way to lead by demonstrating compassion. She changes everything, not only for her mother-in-law, but for the world when, centuries later, her descendent, Joseph, becomes the earthly father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.
I think the person who taught me the most about compassion as an essential attribute for leaders was an old, poor black woman at my first church assignment after seminary. Her name was Mabel Jones. Henderson Church was a bi-racial church in a tough community. But Miss Mabel knew everyone in that hood. She knew them and their families and their stories. Miss Mabel was tough as nails; a leader who inspired her community to do better. But one day at the after-school program at the church, one young girl, Keisha, was driving me crazy. She often acted out, but that day was the worst I’d ever seen her. I walked over to the other half of the building to see how Miss Mabel was coming along with dinner. If I recall correctly, she sat at a table preparing vegetables to go into a pot. I shared with her what was going on with Keisha, concluding that I had half a mind to ask her to leave today due to poor behavior. She could come back next week after re-examining her attitude. Tough as she was, I expected Miss Mabel to support my decision and, of course, she didn’t tell me what to do. She was too wise for that. Instead, in her strong, steady voice she said, “Pastor…” and that honorable title was followed by a story; a story of how the police had arrested Keisha’s mother at the projects the day before and taken her to jail. The compassion in her voice was loud and clear. I had the story I needed to make the right decision. Today wasn’t the day to teach about good behavior. Today was a day to have compassion.
Friends: the church has such an important task. But the task can only be accomplished with leaders who strain to hear the voice of God and of those in need around them; leaders whose compassion has earned them the right to enlist others in the accomplishment of our task of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” Our common task is so important and our need for leaders is greater than ever before. This morning, as I close this sermon, I’m going to return to the piano and just play through our opening praise song. As I play, I’d invite you to pray and to ask God how you might be a leader here at Trinity, in your family, at work and in your community.
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