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When Small is Great

Living small lives of great significance.


Every once in a while in American culture there will be a court case that sort of captures our whole nation. That's not a recent phenomenon, it's actually been going on for a long time. There was a case like this in the 1840s. It was based in Chicago, which was then sort of the Western frontier. It was called "The Reaper Case." It was based off Cyrus McCormick, who had invented a certain kind of farm machinery, and it was patent law. This was a rather obscure case, but for cultural reasons it captured the American attention and imagination. It was so important it was one of those court cases where the legal rock stars lined up against each other for and against. They would usually gather along the East Coast, because they were primarily educated in Ivy League schools. But they had to come all the way west to Chicago to try the case, and they knew that the judge was a Chicago judge. So they said we need a sort of Western, what we would call Midwestern insider. So they worked their networks, and they found a rather obscure, small town lawyer who had worked with this Chicago judge before, and they invited him to come up to Chicago to be part of the court case.

They all came in with their trunks and with their Ivy League degrees and their erudite abilities, and when they met this small-town lawyer that would be part of their team they were absolutely mortified. He was ill-kept. He was poorly dressed. He had a really strong accent, and he consistently used vernacular of folksy phrases that for them was very off putting. They thought that he is involved with the case they will lose the case. One of the leader's lawyers, a man named Edwin Stanton, said—and he did this so that the small-town lawyer could hear him—"Let's do away with this ape." Then they did what any immature men would do. They ditched him. They would have meals without him. They would tell him different times for the court case to be tried, and then they would get there earlier and the court case would be going on. They viewed him as someone of very significant insignificance.

Stanton won the case. He went on to become one of the leading lights in the American legal profession and politics. As a matter of fact, he became the Secretary of War during the Civil War. But much to his shock he went to work for the one he called "ape." It was Abraham Lincoln, whose incredible significance was not known until the very last years of his life. He was viewed as one who was small in the greater legal profession, in the greater American spectrum, until the very, very end.

Small is something worth getting used to because the fact of the matter is every one of us is small when it comes to celebrity culture or athletic culture. Now while fame may seem to be everywhere—it's right there on our mobile phones, it's always on the screen, people's faces, names, personalities, bodies are plastered everywhere. The fact of the matter is, a very, very, very, very tiny, tiny minority ever achieve any kind of fame. And achievement of that fame is not in itself any guarantee of any real sense of significance.

Most of us are small. Look at athletics, for example. Five hundred thousand young men play basketball in high school every year in America. Of those five hundred thousand, three percent will go on to play NCAA basketball. When you ask those five hundred thousand "Who's going to go to the NBA and be signed?" a miniscule one percent, of which a fraction of that one percent will ever be the household name that when they're out there shooting free throws in their driveway they think they just might be.

Small is everywhere, and in some ways culturally we try to embrace that. We say, "We love small." Microbreweries. We like small breweries. We garden ourselves. So when we're there with our Two Brothers beer and arugula and our salad that came from our garden we're thinking, Small is great. But that's a different kind of small. Right? It's a small for small's sake. I think it's an interesting trend and an important one. But it isn't small like we see in the book we're going to study for the next three weeks together, an awesome short story which is simply called Ruth. And Ruth is the central figure of this story.

Small is the new significant

In Ruth we see another kind of smallness. We see a smallness that finds complete significance, but significance within the life of God. Through reading the story I'm hoping that your hunger for significance is actually strengthened. You should want to be significant. You have a human desire for significance. The Book of Ruth draws us into this question: Where will your significance derive?

Will it be a self-developed significance? I'm late forties. So here's how my self-developed significance has worked. In my early to mid-twenties within my field, ministry, I kind of thought, You know what? I have a pretty good chance for a nationally known ministry. And you know how things work out. Maybe international. I'm not going to shoot too high, but national, maybe international. Then you get older you think Oh, maybe regional. Then you get in your fifties and you think, Oh well, maybe just within my own little realm. And you think I'm getting humbler. I used to think international. Now I just think, I don't know north side Wheaton. And you kind of compliment yourself. And the fact of the matter is you're still enslaved to the exact same significance of self. You've just moderated it by yourself, for yourself, as opposed to completely being freed from that track to the real significance that is for all of us small people, which is the significance that comes from God.

I don't know all of you by name anymore. I used to. But I know a lot of you. When I worked on this sermon I thought of so many of you whose lives I know. I wonder how often you think, This life that I'm living is so insignificant; it's small, ineffective; no one knows what I'm doing; those who know don't like it? I hope you'll hear this, in the life of God we can live small lives of great significance. In God's new world small is the new significant.

The Book of Ruth is a celebration of smallness in God's greatness. It's a great short story, made up of four chapters. It involves all kinds of things that are necessary for a story: tension, conflict, tragedy, comedy, resolution, and wonder. It's a real story. Ruth really lived. There was a guy named Boaz, who was a small town, pretty well-to-do farmer. Naomi really lived. It was probably written about three thousand years ago. And what's stunning about that if we were to approach any other ancient document from three thousand years ago likely we may not find it nearly as accessible as I hope you'll find Ruth. There's some names and areas that you may not be familiar with. Don't let those stop you. Keep moving. The story itself is profoundly important for us today.

Book of freedom

The series that we're working on is called "The Power of Small." Those of us who are called to small lives, can live lives of great significance. I want to look at the significance of love and the significance of being loved. Both of those really come out of verse 16, which is the center verse of this story. It says, "Where you go, I will go," Ruth says to Naomi. And even more important, "Your God will be my God." The significance of love; the significance of being loved.

The very first sentence in the story says, "In the days when the judges ruled." Ruth is in the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, and this book is placed right after a book called Judges. So this is the era of what's called the judges. It's very important to understand this era even briefly. This was an era where there was not one key ruler over the nation or the country of Israel. The Book of Judges uses a phrase to describe this era: "Everyone did what was right in their own eyes." It was a culture lacking coherence. It was a culture lacking unified leadership. It was a culture lacking, in a sense, a common value and common morality. It was a culture that had atomized into different regional areas where lots of whacky, crazy, disturbing things were going to happen. We have all kinds of bizarre stories in the Book of Judges. For example, a very fat, plump king who's murdered and the knife gets stuck within the rolls of fat and you can't get the hand out. It's bizarre. If people exploring Christianity say to me, "I want to know what to read," I have never yet said to them, "You know where I would start? The Book of Judges." It's a chilling picture of a culture that is coming apart.

Now that's the sweeping picture of the Book of Judges. As these books were compiled in the Hebrew Scriptures they took the Book of Judges and right after they put the Book of Ruth. Why? Because you get the sweeping, sort of chilling view of culture and society and you go, "Oh my word, everything's horrible. This is never going to work. What's going to happen?" Then you come to the Book of Ruth. In the Book of Ruth you find the book of freedom, that being small and being insignificant actually gives you incredible freedom. That in Ruth we see a life lived beautifully. We see a life that is not constrained by the particularities of culture or where the culture is going, but a life lived for freedom, a life lived for love, a life lived deeply loved. There are many in our continuing dividing country who are looking at America much like many would look at the time of Judges and say, "It's all coming apart. There's no coherence. Where is the common value and common morality? Where's the common leadership? What's going on? What are we going not do?" Into our culture comes the Book of Ruth. Into our culture comes you, small. But if you'll give your life to God, greatly significant. You are not constrained by the particular decisions of our culture. You are not determined by the particular decisions of the direction our culture goes. You have incredible freedom, as Ruth shows. There's a freedom that she shows, the significance of love.

Freedom to love

In the midst of the culture not only is that going on, but then there's tragedy right in her own home. She's widowed, and her mother-in-law, who provides the overall financial covering for the household is also widowed, and her sister-in-law is widowed. Besides being a tragedy we could immediately relate to, it's a tragedy of epic economic proportions because this was how you made your economic engine work in the ancient Near East. They are utterly exposed, utterly enmeshed in poverty and without any potential future. What you do at this point is what Ruth's sister-in-law does, which is you go back to your home. You get ensconced back there, and you wait for another husband to come. You would never, ever, ever move or attach yourself to a mother-in-law who herself has no economic power whatsoever.

In the midst of this we see Ruth acting with a kind of freedom that is actually disconcerting. How does she even think to act this way? How does she even have her head about her to make this decision? She actually creates a loyalty and puts her widowhood second to her mother-in-law's widowhood. She puts her culture—she's Moabite, different than Israelite—second to her mother-in-law's culture. She puts her religion—the Moabite religion, several gods in the household, statues, idols—second to her mother-in-law's religion.

This is what the church has called heroic virtue. It's a description of those who live their lives by love. Heroic virtue is not to be doing the right thing. It's doing the right thing with the power and presence of God. It's doing the right thing as God would do that thing. In heroic virtue we actually can live lives that are full of love. It's a life where God's presence is revealed. This is what the greater world, whether they know it or not, is hoping from us. They're hoping we'll live lives of heroic virtue—sacrificial lives, lives that are profoundly other-centered, lives that are filled with love.

There's a writer named David Brooks. He writes for The New York Times. Regarded as one of the greatest newspapers of the country as well as one of the more liberal newspapers in the country. He is someone that has shown a great interest in Christianity. Some say he's almost there to a conversion. Others say he's a committed conservative Jew. No one seems quite to know, and David Brooks hasn't made it public. But he wrote an article recently to Christians. He said, "I am to the left of many of your positions but I want to say something to you amidst the cultural changes that are going on." He went on to say, and I paraphrase:

Be the people you once were. Be the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to nurture stable families. Be the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Be the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness is connected to spiritual poverty. Be the people who converse with us about the transcendent and everyday life.

This is an outsider speaking to us asking us be people who will embrace small lives made greatly significant by God through loving others.

Freedom of being loved

How do we do that? How did Ruth do it? In Ruth we see that it was a specific choice in regard to a specific person with a specific sacrifice. It wasn't that Ruth sang a stirring song about love. Those are beautiful. She didn't go see a movie about love and say, "That's my number one movie." She actually specified. She came in and she loved a specific person—Naomi—in a specific situation—poverty and tragedy—with a very specific sacrifice—"Where you go I will go." Blind loyalty. Blind faith. Learning to love as God has loved. Learning to love as Jesus has loved is a series of specific choices toward specific people with specific sacrifices. We always have that choice. No one can take from you the choice to love another. You always have that freedom.

This got really specific for me in parenting. One of our children, it wasn't discovered yet, was going through a series of horrible allergic reactions. We didn't understand it at the time. We didn't know that it was allergy. We thought it was probably a discipline issue. But this child was about three years old, and was utterly, completely, and entirely impossible. He would scream at the top of his lungs for ninety minutes. I didn't say seconds. He had a kind of bizarre strength, but he literally had an adrenaline rush where he could pull himself out of their car seat while the van was driving and he could run around the van and try to open the doors of the van. He would sometimes have to be held by me all night long. If we didn't hold him, he would wriggle out and scream at the top of his lungs in the middle of the night. He was absolutely, completely out of control. He was obsessive and compulsive. He was an impossible child. He was turning our family upside down. Day after day Katherine would call me at the office and say, "Please, you got to come home. I can't do this." We were beside ourselves.

One of those nights, I had to hold him because he was so out of control, and I fell asleep with him. I was utterly drained, and I woke up and I was in a room with this clock with these bright red numbers 3:23 a.m. I remember looking at that clock and thinking, I can't. I just cannot do this. I can't. I can't love this kid anymore. I can't do it. Katherine can't do it. God, we can't do it. Can't. I knew then that I had a very specific choice: Was I going to be this kid's dad? Yes, of course. I wasn't going to pull out of that. But was I going to half love him, detach, half commit, or was I going to fully go in, to giving up my life for this kid?

Now you may say, "Well, Stewart, of course. It was your son. You weren't going to stop being his dad. You were bonded to him." Yes. I had a bond with him. I had a son-ship bond with him, but in that moment God gave me the ability to say, "Yes, I will love in this moment." And that's exactly what we all need. To love as small people with great significance, we need a bond. We need a connection. You can't just practice the role of virtue, either hearing it and going "That's what I want to be," kind of hands on your hip with the wind whipping your hair and your cape flying behind you. You can't say, "Heroic virtue, here I come. I heard a sermon today about heroic virtue. So I'm just going to be heroically virtuous." It will not work without a profound bond. You need a parent bond. You need a son-ship, daughter-ship bond with God.

Something happened to Ruth that didn't happen to Orpah, her sister-in-law. She had bonded with the living God. She had left the false god of Moabite behind, and she had bonded with the God of Israel, the God who would come to be fully revealed in Jesus. That changed her. That converted her. You have that freedom to love. But to have the freedom to love you must have the freedom of being loved, of knowing that the God of the universe utterly, completely has given his life for you, loves you, and is filling you with his power and love. That's called conversion. Either the converting for the very first time to the love of God, or if you've been converted to the love of God in Jesus Christ and you believe in him, then living that conversion, embracing that conversion, owning it, as we say in our American vernacular.


Ruth has converted out of one religion to the following of the living God. Her smallness in that conversion became significant in the story of God. This is not smallness for smallness sake. This is smallness for the sake of living in God, where great significance is given. Without God you will never be satisfied. It will never come to fruition, even if you're one of the miniscule people who receive worldly significance. Your guarantee of significance comes in conversion to Jesus Christ. If you're not converted, it's a matter of giving your life to Jesus, receiving the love he has so that you are empowered to love others.

Jesus makes our small lives that appear insignificant deeply significant. We know of Ruth, and her story is written because we find out at the very end of the book that she actually was the great-grandmother to a figure named David, who is the great-great-great-plus grandfather of Jesus himself. Ruth is essentially Jesus' grandmother several steps removed, directly in his lineage. Her life literally pointed and led to Jesus, and that's where her significance was utterly and completely derived. In her own lifetime she was insignificant, but now and in heaven she is known as one who loved and received the deep love of God.

I finish with a great story that is told by a Christian thinker of the twentieth century named C.S. Lewis. He was an Englishman. He wrote a story about a man that goes to heaven. He has a host. They're swinging around heaven, and he sees this beautiful parade, and at the foot of the parade is this glorious, beautiful, regal woman. And he thinks, Oh, is that a queen? Is that a monarch? And his host says, "No, not at all. It's someone you never heard of. Her name was Sarah Smith, and she lived in the suburbs." "Well, she seems to be a person of particular importance." The host says, "Oh yes, she's one of the great ones. You've heard that theme in your country. Earth and fame in heaven are two quite different things. Right?" The man hadn't heard that. He says, "Well, who are all these young men and young women at her side?" And the host responded, "They're her sons and daughters." "Oh, she must have had a very large family." "No," the host says, "every young man or boy that came to her back door with a package of delivery became her son. Every girl that she met was her daughter."

Don't be deceived that your life is small. Don't be deceived into thinking you should spend it for a self-sustained significance. At the end, those whose lives are given and lived in Jesus will lead a procession of such beauty and glory you'd think they were monarchs.

Stewart Ruch III is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois and the bishop of the Midwest Diocese for the Anglican Church in North America.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Small is the new significant

II. Freedom from culture

III. Freedom to love

IV. Freedom of being loved