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Preaching a Divine Short Story

An interview with Stewart Ruch III.
Preaching a Divine Short Story

You covered the entire book of Ruth in three weeks. So tell us about how you approached it, the overall title for the series, and how you broke it down into those three sermons.

I was really excited to have a chance to preach a divine short story. Ruth is an unbelievable literary masterpiece nestled right after Judges. It provides such a contrast to the bizarre, heartbreaking, and tragic element of the Judges. So to have what was truly a comedy—and I was very engaged the way in which Ruth is a comedy insofar as it ends with a wedding, it has all the elements of Shakespearean comedy or Greek comedy—I was excited about the contrast of hope it provided to some of the dire elements of the book of Judges.

I was also excited about the way in which the author of Ruth chooses an unknown person. My title for the series is "The Power of Small." This writer goes into a seemingly small life and shows the unbelievable influence and power that a small life can have—in this case, ultimately leading to the birth of Jesus with the ancestry of Ruth. So there were so many elements of excitement and interest packed into just four chapters that engaged me on so many levels.

I felt like Ruth would connect with my hearers in terms of highlighting and giving a personal picture, a personal story of what a refugee can look like in Scripture.

I broke Ruth down into three major literary movements that to a certain degree follow the three major characters. There are three protagonist short stories, which again captures some of the brilliance of the literary elements. In four short chapters you get to know Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. I found that to be an intriguing homiletic opportunity.

I wanted to convey to our church the power of small people and the power of love even in the midst of ordinary lives and ordinary living. I also focused on the fact that no matter where we are and whatever condition we are in, we always have the power to love. We are never, ever kept from the power to love, and Ruth's story depicts that.

Why do you think Ruth is important and relevant to your church? And, why do you think Ruth is relevant to our culture today in the United States?

I think the two questions actually share a similar answer, but I'll start with my church. In the last three years, Church of the Resurrection has moved into a new building and experienced some significant growth. I wanted to reassure the church that, even though we've grown a great deal, what matters most is a seemingly small life lived with great love. Growth is wonderful, but walking in love is even better. That also coincides with our American obsession with personality greatness and financial greatness and also with the American obsession with large. We are an extremely large country with extremely large land mass, and it was, I felt, exciting and perhaps prophetic to be able to preach about the power of small people living ordinary lives.

I was also utterly drawn to Ruth as refugee, Ruth as foreigner going into a new land. In light of the summer news stream and all that we were seeing with the Syrian refugee crisis, I felt like Ruth would connect with my hearers in terms of highlighting and giving a personal picture, a personal story of what a refugee can look like in Scripture. So I was also intrigued by that and the way that coincided with the global events happening for Resurrection.

Ruth fits well with my church culture because we're a very literary church. Many people at Rez (our nickname) still read novels or short stories. They are intrigued by narrative. The films that they watch are often narrative driven film. So I was intrigued by the opportunity to bring a comedic comedy short story to them and to unpack that with them over the course of three weeks.

So you've used the word comedy a couple times. Can you define what you mean by "comedy"?

I wanted to work with comedy in the classical or Shakespearean sense that it's basically captured in Shakespeare's title, "All's Well that Ends Well." Ultimately, comedies usually end with marriages or weddings, as a sign of consummation, a sign of fulfillment, a sign that everything is ultimately moving toward fulfillment. While tragedy is obviously critical to telling the story of humanity, the great and final resurrection word is comedy, and Ruth captures that great and final resurrection word so beautifully with the wedding of Ruth and Boaz and Naomi caring for the children.

So when we're talking about genres of Scripture—like lament or apocalyptic—comedy is a type of genre. So the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a comedy?

It's the ultimate comedy.

The Bible is a comedy?

That's right, exactly. I figured maybe 20 percent of my folks were probably aware of that particular definition of comedy, so that was actually fun because it's not hard to explain, it's not hard to lay it out there. Once you hear it, you get it. I felt like in Ruth we had this ancient comedy which fits so many of the attributes. It looks like things aren't going to work out, looks like things are going to fall apart, and then they actually all come together.

What kind of comments did you get from people? What do you think was helpful to them as you walked through Ruth?

Probably one of the most helpful comments came from a family that adopted two children. One of them is an extremely high needs child. Every day for them is an extraordinary challenge. Every day they climb a mountain and they start over the next day with these high needs adopted children. The father reached out and said, "I'm wondering if there is any way I could get a poster of your Ruth series—(we have posters put around the church to clarify what series is coming)—because I want to put it in my child's room. We named her Ruth and I want to put it in her room to remind us of the power of small and the power that her life has if she can learn to love as Ruth learned to love." That was probably one of the most meaningful sermon feedback comments I've had in a decade. This series meant that much to that dad who is living the power of small and living the life of learning how to love.

Another one that really helped me was one of our leaders said, "When you taught on the power of small, that was one of those sermons that actually spoke to the everyday life of all of us in the church. You entered into our life. It seems like a lot of sermons are all about a pastor asking us to step into their life or into the life of the church. But this time you translated it into my life." That was also a really helpful piece of feedback.

I also heard from a woman at Church of the Resurrection who was deeply touched by the series. She's a single mom who lost her husband in a tragic car accident. I asked her about your series and she said, "I loved it so much because I feel like my life is so small sometimes." She's a bright, literary person who really connected with the theme of smallness.

As I studied the book and read it over and over and over again, I realized I was stumbling into this strong universal felt need theme. Almost all of us feel small.

So how did you prepare for this sermon series on Ruth?

First, it was probably one of the most fun prep times I've ever had on a sermon series. Not every prep time is fun, in my mind, but this one was really fun. I love this story, so I read it a good dozen times. I actually did it on a three-night prayer retreat, so I had sort of sacred time and space set aside. Then I began to write what touched me in every chapter, and I wrote verses and then I began to see the themes that began to stick out. So after reading it multiple times, I then went through each chapter and recorded what really struck me, touched me, ministered to me, got my creative juices flowing.

Then I broke the book expositionally into three major areas, because I knew I wanted three sermons with the four chapters that work pretty well. Then I clarified what focused preaching text that I wanted to zero in on. I forced myself to pick a handful of verses. I did not want to preach a whole chapter. I wanted to find the handful of verses that captured chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, and chapter four. That was challenging, but it was also exciting to try and boil that down. After doing all that work, I worked with the commentaries to make sure that the work that I was heading toward was lining up with other scholars. It was. The themes that I was seeing were in other's research. Then I went from the exegetical work to get my expositional outlines retyped.

What were one or two of you favorite commentaries or helps?

I love the IVP one, it was Leon Morris' work. Leon Morris is great. And then I used a Roman Catholic one called "The Navarre Bible," and that was helpful as well. But Leon Morris was a gem, he worked with it really well. He was the one I focused on the most.

Any other thoughts you had that you wanted to add?

Yeah, just one thing. After I got my exegesis and my expositional outlines put together and before I preached them on Sunday, every Thursday afternoon I would go to my preaching coach—of course, that was you, Matt—and walk through each outline with you. The feedback and constructive criticism was invaluable. That was the first time I'd done a whole series like that, and it was helpful to get coaching on the outline at each step of the series. That's the first three-part series I've ever had coached all the way through and would highly recommend that as part of a preachers' preaching process.

It was one sermon at a time. The first sermon laid out the major themes. Then I would come to you (my coach) every Thursday afternoon and run number two and number three by you as well. You helped me develop the themes all the way through and then helped me keep my lines and my continuity from one sermon to another.

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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