Encouragement for Chaplains - from the book of Ruth
Revd. Phil Jump, BCUIM Celebration Service, 7 November 2019
The book of Ruth is one of the most interesting books in the Bible because it is multifaceted. You have just about everything there. There’s economic downturn and economic upturn going on, and there’s romance. If Boaz had worked for McDonald’s he would not have been able to stay in his position once he decided that a young lady working in his fields was the one for him. You’ve got “those people coming over here and taking our jobs” as migrant workers. That’s how people in Moab would have seen Elimelech and his sons when they arrived, and if you were a resident of Bethlehem that’s how you might have described Ruth when she turned up there.
All this stuff is going on and it strikes me that this is actually what makes us tick as chaplains. That’s what chaplaincy is all about. It recognizes that there is a real world with all these things going on. Why is this ancient book only in our scriptures? Why isn’t it on the shelves of WH Smith’s with the Mills and in Boons? As we read it, we realize that God‘s purposes and faith values have something to say. They are intertwined in this real life story. When we hear a Bible reading and say, “This is the word of the Lord,” we are recognising that God has something to say to us in everyday life. We are saying that this is relevant today in our high-tech industrialized world. God is no less present today. That’s why we have Chaplains.
In the story that we find Boaz, a landowner, a civic figure, well-known in the town, walking into his fields to greet his workforce. As he greets them he shows his desire that they should know God‘s presence in the workplace. They respond to him by praying that as their employer he will know God. It may well be part of their worship ritual, but it is taking place where they worked.
The reading from Leviticus was all about ritual. Think for a moment about how many different people had to go to work order for the sacrifices to happen: olive oil makers and salt miners and growers. God is speaking, and saying, “I want your work, and the outcomes of your work to be at the very centre of your worship.” In sacrifices, people were bringing the first fruits of the harvest, essentially the investment capital for the next year.
The whole process of economic development was there. “Bring it in,” says God in the book of Leviticus. “Bring in the capital investment; bring the outcomes of work into worship.” There’s something of the harvest festival here. The Industrial Christian Fellowship has some creative ideas how those of us involved in the industrial environment can bring the symbols of our own work into harvest worship. The direction of travel in Leviticus is about bringing the stuff of work into the worship of the church.
Boaz travels in the opposite direction. He takes the blessing of God into the workplace. What we see therefore is a bi-directional understanding of how faith, life and work operate together in the workplace.
The church looks to its chaplaincy teams to keep this in focus, making sure there is a two directional work. We cannot simply be a “bring it to us” Church if we are to be effective in mission today. We have to follow the example of Jesus, saying, “We will come to you.” A chaplains is a modern day Boaz. In the workplace we seek and receive God’s blessing as we are with people in the midst of everyday lives. When Boaz arrives in the fields that day, the greeting is not tokenism. It may have been liturgical, but there was a reality behind it. We see this in the way Boaz ran his business. Later in Leviticus, God says that they should do not get right up to the edge of the field when harvesting crops. In other words don’t squeeze every last pound of profit out of the business. You have a responsibility to those who have no other means. He didn’t just run a farm: he ran it God’s way.
Boaz’s commitment to godly principles in the workplace meant Ruth would receive ready pickings when she went to the fields. There are three aspects of what happened there that suggest where chaplaincy needs to go in the next 10 years and beyond.
Firstly, we see that Boaz puts people at the very centre of what he is doing. He is careful to remind his employees that is not just about getting the job done.It is about treating Ruth with respect and dignity she deserves. It’s about dealing with the inevitable racial tensions that would have existed.
[Example of someone who inherited a felt mill business who became a Christian and asked a local minister to become the chaplain there. He now lectures to Institute of Directors about the organizational benefits of chaplaincy which include improving staff retention. He is an employer who puts his people at the centre, caring for their spiritual well-being.]
Secondly, work was God’s invention, it was his way of helping us express our humanity, and it is his is narratives we need to take into our workplaces. Chaplains are key players in making those conversations, speaking into the economics of the place and its values.
[Example of Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the Internet which has transformed the working lives of everyone. When asked what the next great challenge was, he didn’t speak about technology but said that we need to work out how to haul the Internet out of the moral decline into which it has plunged.]
The world of work needs trusted conversations with people, critical friends, who are trusted and who recognize reality and possibility.
A third factor is a significant part of the story. It’s not just about Ruth falling in love with Boaz. Ruth actually becomes the great grandmother of king David who is huge in the history of the Israelite nation. The Jesus in whose name we follow into the workplaces of the Black Country is described again and again as the son of David. All of our faith is at stake when Ruth walked into that field and as Boaz pronounced God‘s blessing. We’ve often have no idea what seeds we sow in our work as chaplains.
A Christian MP, in an area which had lost most of its industry, was asked what he would like to see the church doing in his constituency. He said that he would like to see industrial chaplaincy reinstated. Whilst it makes sense to put your chaplains in the centres of industry, we also need to place chaplains, when people haven’t got the jobs anymore helping them to readjust their lifestyles after three generations of a family have worked in a sector.
The story of Ruth reminds us that you can’t just separate work out from community and relationships, from emotions and family and all those other things that are going on. The world of work is changing rapidly. The social experience of work is changed and we have not yet worked out the impact of that on our communities. Chaplains are important because we are already used to moving between those different sectors as we bring community and relationships, emotions and family into the workplace.
So carry on, be inspired by that man Boaz and remember that, as you enter the workplaces, or as you receive a chaplain into the workplace, you might discover the presence of God and receive the blessing of God as Boaz did.