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Congregational Values
Value #1: Radical Welcome
March 12, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana

Text: Ruth

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the story of Ruth.  Often we view this story through the lens of family loyalty – Ruth as the loyal daughter-in-law to Naomi; Boaz as the faithful kinsman.  This morning, however, I urge you to see this story as a tale of refugees, strangers, poverty and welcome.

Ruth’s story starts when famine forces her mother-in-law Naomi, her husband Elimech and their two sons move from their hometown of Bethlehem to the neighboring country of Moab.  As refugees, Elimech and Naomi make a new life for themselves.  Their sons marry Moabite women.  Then all the men die, leaving Naomi, Ruth and Ruth’s sister-in-law alone and impoverished.  Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and throw herself at the mercy of her family.  Ruth’s sister-in-law returns to her father’s house. Ruth decides to accompany Naomi to Bethlehem.  With Naomi now home, Ruth becomes the foreigner in the story.

When Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem they have nothing.  No money, no food, no social standing.  Naomi gets the “poor widow” sympathy treatment.  Ruth is ignored.  Needing food, Ruth goes into some neighboring fields to gather grain left behind by the harvesters.  Its risky to be a single woman from a foreign country with no local family connections in a field full of men.  But Ruth is desperate.   And its here she meets Boaz.

As we read from Ruth 2:8-12 think about a time when you were a stranger – lost, alone, possibly vulnerable – and you received generous welcome.

READ RUTH 2:8-12

For the last year, the Session has been studying an amazing book by social anthropologist Diana Butler Bass.  Called Christianity for the Rest of Us, the book highlights spiritual practices transforming mainline congregations like ours.  Toward the beginning of the book, she talks about visiting Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, FL.  We read this section almost a year ago, but her description of walking into this congregation has stuck with me ever since.  I want to read it to you now.

On this surprisingly hot Sunday morning, we arrived a little early.  A number of people smiled at us and said hello. 

We were not the only ones to arrive early.  An early morning praise service, offered as a kind of spiritual warm up before the more traditional liturgy, has attracted several dozen people.  Although most people here this morning are white, they clearly come from various social backgrounds.  Everywhere people welcome each other.  Warm greetings and hugs abound.  A preppy-looking retired man is talking to a man covered with tattoos.  Senior citizens, young families and single people mingle in the entryway.  There are several people from other ethnic backgrounds, too.  A man who appears to be Haitian chats with some teens.  An African-American musician is warming up with a Latino friend in the band.  The minister, Roy Terry, is standing with them.  A long ponytail falls down his back.  Three black-clad teenage girls with pierced noses and Goth makeup approach an elderly woman in a wheelchair.  One by one, they lean down, kiss the woman on the cheek and ask her how she is doing.

The sign out front says Methodist, but I was raised Methodist and it does not look like any Methodist church I remember.  I appears to be a congregation in which wayfarers and strangers have become friends.

As I read this description of Cornerstone United Methodist Church my gut response was one of longing.  How I wish I could worship each week in a congregation like that.  As we discussed this description with the Session, several of our elders commented on how they wished our church could feel like that.   Months later as we gathered together to discuss our congregational values, it was as if everyone remembered reading about Cornerstone United Methodist Church.  One value topped the list – that of radical welcome and broad hospitality.

We welcome all people, regardless of ethnicity, financial standing, age, gender, perspective and personality. 

If you seek to be in community with us around the table of Jesus Christ, you are welcome here.  Period. 

Writing to the Colossians, Paul reminds them how, in the new life given to us by Jesus Christ, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.  Elsewhere Paul expands his list to include men and women.  His lists include every division facing the early church and every division in first century Greco-roman society.  When we are in Christ it doesn’t matter where we are from or how we got here.  It doesn’t matter who our parents are, what high school we went to, what sports team we cheer for, how we voted in the last election, what car we drive, how we dress, how nice a house we’re going to go home to, what town, county, state or country we grew up in, whether we’re in the country legally or illegally, whether we’re married, who we are married to, how well we speak English, how much money we can put in the offering plate, how much money our parents put into the offering plate, our age, how our children behave or whether we’re able to “help grow the church.”  Each of us equally yearns for God’s grace – and that grace makes us equal, sisters and brothers in Christ, joint heirs to the Kingdom of God, joint heirs with Christ himself.

How different that is from the way our society works with its cliques and parties, its class divisions and stereotypes, with its fear of the other, of the stranger, of the foreigner, with its spoken and unspoken exclusions.  To declare radical welcome is to reject our natural tendency to associate only with our own kind, with those whom we might socialize with, with those around whom we are comfortable.  To declare radical welcome is to intentionally cross those boundaries, even when we’re uncomfortable, even at the risk of social derision or worse.  To declare radical welcome is to listen to our neighbor even if we don’t agree, walk alongside our neighbor even it it means going out of our way, to pray with our neighbor even if our prayers don’t align, to break bread with our neighbor even if it means eating different foods, to love our neighbor even if we’d rather not.  To declare radical welcome is to not worry about changing our neighbor.  To declare radical welcome is to risk being changed by them.

Boaz had every right to kick Ruth out of his field.  He even could have gotten away with making Ruth “pay” for her grain – or allowing his men to extract their own price.  She’s a stranger in a strange land.  Alone, vulnerable, disposable.  Instead he welcomes her, protects her and ensures she is able to harvest enough so that she and her mother-in-law won’t go hungry.  When learning she is the foreign daughter-in-law of his impoverished kinsman, he treats her like the wife of his own brother, bringing her into his household, ensuring her security and prosperity.  He declares radical welcome.  In his field, in his household, he makes visible the kingdom of God.

Cornerstone United Methodist Church reappears later in Dr. Bass’ book, and there we learn that the radical welcome and inclusion displayed on Sunday morning is neither easy nor accidental.  Over the years the congregation has deliberately gone out of its way to cross the boundaries of race and culture and class.  For them welcome goes far beyond simply being nice to whoever walks through the door.  Welcome means inviting strangers, foreigners, the other, to journey together towards the kingdom of God.