Indeed so: Ruth’ story is certainly at the heart of my and Jo’s faith, as it is of Alex. For example, about forty years ago when I first offered for ordained ministry in the Church of England. At a selection panel, I was asked what, at the time, seemed a rather crass question: ’what is your favourite book of the Bible?’. Somewhat flummoxed, I said the first thing that came into my head ’the book of Ruth.’ My questioner - I subsequently realised a gay man - leapt back as if I’d offered him a burning coal. Did he think I was sharing some kind of secret LGBTQ+ code I now wonder? In reality I chose Ruth because: firstly, I had actually read the book, and indeed dramatised it at school, unlike some parts of Scripture that remain somewhat opaque to me even now; secondly, as it is short and lively, so I had a sporting chance of answering questions about it; and, thirdly, because it was about relationships, and especially female relationships which resonated with me rather better than most things. Now, actually, those reasons still have merit as we come to ponder Ruth’s story today. For Ruth offers theology through story, and this is always persuasive. I’m also not sure that Alex should always be short in his teaching, but I can promise you that he will be lively. And, as some of you already know, we can also promise you that at the heart of what he brings to this community is his capacity to build strong faith-filled and faithful relationships.
Subversive story, spiritual enlivening, and divine faith-fulness: these are but three of the particular gifts of Ruth to us, now and at all times. Let us look at each in turn, beginning with subversive story. For what a subversive story Ruth is! It is not simply that this book is the only one in the full canonical Bible named after a woman. It is named after a woman who is an outsider on so many scores: including for her race, culture, and socio-economic position, as well as her gender, and, quite probably, her sexuality. Seriously, we can try to view Ruth’s commitment of love to Naomi as ‘only’ an extraordinary level of sisterhood and divinely human solidarity, but, as with some of the similar words used for the love between David and Jonathan, we are surely being called in this to a much wider range of possibilities of loving relationship for all kinds of people. What we have in Ruth is a story of what we call ‘chosen family’ today: something which transcends the tribal, biological, cultural, and other human characteristics into which we are born. Naomi offers Ruth a way back into where she came from. Ruth however chooses to leave behind that old, very patriarchal, world which offers order, but with confinement. Instead, she chooses the liminal path of the marginal and the migrant, the way of letting go and unknowing, the journey of intentional fresh identification, ‘queer’ conviviality and creative kinship. That is part of Alex’ gift: a gift which the Church, our community of faith today, so badly needs to receive. Not least for the Uniting Church – the secret is in that -ing ending (or is it an ‘always beginning’?) – Ruth’s story calls us into being an ever-renewing community of people on the move, a ‘chosen family’ receiving the God-given gifts of people from all kinds of race, culture, gender, sexuality, and position of life. That story is Alex’ story. May we see ourselves in that story too, and help unfold its next chapters.
For, secondly, Ruth offers us spiritual enlivening, and we sure need that too. What we should note however is that this involves seeing God, and God’s agency, afresh. For it is possible to try to read Ruth’s story in a way which leaves old ideas of God, power, and faith, intact. Jewish, Palestinian, and post-colonial, as well as queer, scholars have wrestled with this. For Ruth, unlike Orpah, could be presented as the ‘good’ daughter-in-law, who chooses the ‘true’ God, and the ‘true’ tribe of Israel over the ‘bad’ or ‘lesser’ ‘Other’. Was the book of Ruth, even though it is named after a woman, allowed in the biblical canon in that way to try to assimilate its subversive qualities? If so, we have distorted its meaning. For there is no judgement on Orpah. Loyalty, and returning to one’s own people, is not a lesser vocation. Nor is the call of God to mere ‘inclusion’ of the ‘Other’ as kind of mere permission to belong, as sometimes ‘inclusion’ can become. No – at the core of Ruth’s story is the spiritual power and agency of the marginalised: whether marginalised by race, culture, socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, or anything else. For God is always on the move, and on the margins, with the marginalised: re-centring faith, life and power, not simply ethnic, Queer or other forms of ‘colour’ to old and dying forms. Again, this is part of the challenge to faith communities today: fully to recognise our kaleidoscopic God and his/her/their dynamic forms of embodiment and agency, in us, and others ‘other than’ us, today.
For, thirdly, and vitally, with subversive story, and spiritual enlivening, Ruth’s gift is divine faithfulness, ever embodying anew. ‘Wherever you go, I will go’, so says Ruth to Naomi, but it is also God speaking to us, and our invitation to share similarly with God, and with those whom God entrusts, like Naomi, as our partners in faith and life. Not for nothing is this passage then used in marriage ceremonies, for it speaks of the nature of divine covenant, divine marriage, which is so much more than the limited bourgeois forms that some still argue over and from which they try to exclude some of us. For, says Ruth, ‘your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.’ This is not about transferring allegiance to a human made national boundary, or religious tradition. It is about responding to that infinite, utterly extraordinary, power of ecstatic love embodied in, between, and through us – if we would but receive it, follow it, and share it, wherever that love takes us.
Like Ruth, and Naomi, Alex is a wonderful sign for us of all of this infinite, extraordinary power of ecstatic love. May he therefore continue to embody, and help us embody, that divine faithfulness, spiritual enlivening, and subversive story – and may he, and all of us, keep moving in the Spirit. In the name of Jesus, genealogical but, more importantly, spiritual descendant of Ruth, our great border-crossing foremother and covenantal lover. Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin & Penny Jones - for Commissioning Service of Alex Pittaway at Neutral Bay Uniting Church, Sunday 8 October 2023