Sermon - 14th January 2018
A parable of inclusion
Scripture - Ruth 1:1-18
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
This simple and beautiful story about a woman and her daughter-in-law has become one of the most popular pieces of scripture to quote when our LGBT community is looking for examples of our own lives reflected in the Bible.
We are right to allow ourselves - even encourage ourselves - to use our imaginations and our interpretive skills to look at the Bible texts and to seek the truth which lies beneath the words - words which the all-too-human writers of our Bible originally used. And when we look at how the writer of Ruth’s story describes the love between Ruth and Naomi, we can imagine a relationship which is profound, life-changing, spiritual, and loving on as many levels as we care to consider.
I can see that kind of love existing between couples that I know, and I see the depth and commitment of their relationships reflected in the bonds of love described in Ruth’s story. In whatever ways that love may have been understood, or may have expressed itself within the context of its time and place, I see a love story here.
And I see the many different expressions of love between people in our LGBT communities of today - sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual, often profound, potentially life-changing, sometimes recognised, sometimes unnoticed - love which is reflected in that story from our Bible.
But the intention of that story for its early Hebrew audience - probably told for many generations as part of the spoken storytelling tradition of the nomadic tribes - was to serve a bigger purpose: because this story is primarily a parable - or teaching text - about inclusion. It is about race and ethnicity, but it goes wider than that, and it considers how the love we share with one another can lift us above the boundaries which our race and ethnicity might consciously or unconsciously impose on us.
At the time in which Ruth’s story is set, there was a huge racial and cultural divide between the Hebrew people of Judah and the Moabite people, across the River Jordan, in the region of Moab. To the Hebrews, Moabites were child-sacrificing pagans, beyond redemption, and not to be mixed with.
Tribalism and ethnic separation were the practical realities of the time, and the preservation of racial identities was an important political and social priority, especially if you were part of a minority within the territory of another tribe.
It was against this backdrop that Naomi thought she was doing the right thing when she told her two daughters-in-law that they should return to their own tribe rather than face an uncertain future by remaining with her in what, to them, would be a foreign and alien land.
We can never know how much it cost Naomi emotionally to say those words but, facing a very uncertain future, she must have felt duty-bound to offer that solution to the women she had grown to love.
One daughter-in-law, Orpah, reached the decision to return to her family and her Moabite roots. But Ruth gave priority to the love she had found among the people who had accepted her for who she was. And her focus of this love was Naomi. And Naomi’s gift to Ruth was to allow herself to be loved and to accept the responsibility she now carried for the love she received from the person who loved her.
In the remainder of Ruth’s story, as in every cultural legend which gets handed down through the generations, Ruth and Naomi face difficulties and hardships, but eventually their love and commitment to each other wins the day and the story ends on a positive note.
Love has conquered tribalism and has left a thread of hope behind, because Ruth’s son Obed, has a son called Jesse, and Jesse has a son called David - the great King David of the Jews. So the twist in the parable is that inclusion, driven by love and the priority we give to our common humanity, can lead to greater outcomes than tribalism driven by fear, ethnic separation and cultural boundaries.
The beauty of a parable is that we can set aside the time-limited facts of the story and still value the truth behind the words. And there are truths in Ruth’s story which we still encounter today when we think deeply about inclusion and how modern-day tribalism can affect our judgment.
Tribalism today can take many forms. It can be based on race, culture, colour, gender, sexuality, age, income, social standing, sporting allegiances, political views - anything, in fact, which we may use to define ourselves as a group from which the wider world around us is excluded.
Some phrases that I have already used still resonate today - they resonate in this faith community, in our wider networks, in the streets where we live, in the places we work, in the organisations that we support, in any of the places where we might invest our time, energy and emotions.
If we look hard enough we can still encounter issues of:
- race and ethnicity and the boundaries which they might consciously or unconsciously impose on us;
- ethnic separation and cultural divides;
- the urge to preserve our group identities;
- the uncertainties of being a minority within a foreign territory;
All of these issues create a powerful instinctive response in us to come together in separate groups based on some aspect of our identity. Driven by the survival instincts that are programmed into us, we will quickly establish connections with people who share our language, with people who look like us, with people who come from our own town, country, or even continent, with people in our age range whose life experiences are likely to be similar to our own, with people who share our social and political values - and for many other reasons.
What we sometimes fail to recognise is how these tight-knit circles based on our common features will almost always exclude other people who are also part of our lives but who do not belong, or are not made welcome, within the circles we create. And these may be people who love us deeply and whom we love in return, but whom we lose sight of in our urge to gather with our own tribe or in our instinctive need to reinforce our minority identity.
If Ruth’s priorities had been for her own language, for people who looked like her, or for people from her tribal culture, she would have gone back to Moab. It was Ruth’s love for Naomi, and a growing engagement with her new culture, and a growing understanding of her new surroundings, which became her priorities.
One of the huge blessings of this church family is that we love each other on all kinds of different levels. We believe that such love takes priority over every other boundary that we might encounter.
As a church family, we try to be inclusive but there are probably times when we fail or could do better. I hope we never plan events at which anyone would feel they don’t belong because of who they are, where they come from, how they look, or how they speak.
We try never to form social circles which would separate us from any of the friends who love us. No-one who comes to that door will ever be told that their tribe, town, country, continent, language, culture, skin colour, heritage or past history means that they do not belong here. As we see in Ruth’s story, the command to love one another, and the powerful effect of that love between us, always takes priority.
But the world outside those doors is not always like that. The challenge for us in our lives outside those doors is easy to define but difficult to achieve.
If we are a church which values love above everything else, we will challenge everything that separates us from each other.
And just as Naomi did, we will accept the responsibility we carry for the people who love us - the same responsibility that we show for those whom we love.
And if our social circles would exclude anyone who loves us, perhaps we should be asking whether that kind of tribalism reflects our own values of inclusion and mutual love. And perhaps we should even consider whether we really belong in any circle where people who love us would be excluded because they don’t match the tribal profile.
The story of Ruth is not the only place in our bibles where we are challenged to put love for one another in place of our temptation to withdraw into the comfort of our group identities - whether those identities are based on race, culture, colour, gender, sexuality, age, or however else we may choose to define our tribe.
Much of Jesus’s teaching challenged the segregation of people into categories which were used to make judgments about them on anything and everything - usually at the expense of the common humanity that we all share. Jesus broke down barriers between ethnic, cultural, religious and social divisions in the society of his time as he taught that we have more in common with each other than we have that separates us from each other.
So, Ruth’s story is one which has rightly become part of our LGBT culture when we look for our own reflections in the Bible. It belongs within our culture because, as well as speaking boldly about the love between two women, it tells a story of inclusion, migration, a journey of faith, and the commitment to a loving relationship from which neither woman would allow themselves to be separated.
But it also highlights the fact that allowing tribal identities to separate us is usually the result of either our own choice or someone else’s choices that we are prepared to go along with.
So when we take our faith values into the world beyond those doors, shall we lift ourselves beyond the boundaries which we allow to be imposed upon us and which separate us from each other? Or shall we stay in the comfort of our group and tribal identities and risk excluding those who genionely love us for who we are, but who are excluded from our circles by the boundaries that we create for ourselves or allow others to cearte for us?
Ruth was driven by the love she gave and the love she received when she made her choice to resist being separated from the source of that love. If we are a church which values love above everything else, we will challenge everything that separates us from each other. And we will do this because we recognise that we have more in common with each other than we have that separates us from each other.
But as always, the decision about what we do next within this family, is ultimately a choice for each one of us.