How Do We Belong to the Outsider?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Take a look at this video which the congregation watched together before the sermon:

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

The scripture we all read out loud together today may be familiar to you. It’s often read at weddings and it is a beautiful statement of loyalty and love. It reflects the boundless love of God we know and love. It points to the endless faithfulness of God to not draw boundaries around home or who is in and who is out.

Yet I have to wonder how thrilled Naomi was with Ruth’s decision to accompany her. Orpah sees the writing on the wall and heads back to Moab. But Ruth decides to stay with her mother-in-law. I wonder if Naomi’s internal monologue was something like “Are you trying to get us both killed? What are you doing to me? You’re going to slow me down.” Ruth’s decision directly impacts Naomi. It slows her down, having to explain and vouch for this foreigner. They were both at risk now, Naomi with the added burden of being the one associated with the stranger. The foreigner. The immigrant. The refugee. The other.

Ruth is the ultimate stranger, having left her home country of Moab and migrated to Israel, having married a man who is now dead. Back in the time of this story, she was as good as dead herself being a widow with no sons to care for her.

We’ve seen the world react to the Syrian refugee crisis with slamming doors and threats of deportation, no work and red tape. World leaders, leaders of communities have said, “we won’t help you if you come here. Don’t come here.”

Each and every week, we pray the No Longer Strangers Prayer. How we treat the stranger, those not like us, is how we will encounter God or Jesus, scripture tells us again and again. And worship is the perfect place to practice what it means to welcome someone who is strange to you, who is new to you.

Right before the beginning of school, Sara Shorter led the children sermon time and talked about the start of school and what it might be like to be a new kid or what it might be like to meet someone at school you didn’t know. And at the end of her time with the kids she asked the kids to raise their hands if they would talk to a new kid or sit with them at lunch. It was crickets. Dead silence. Nobody home.

I remember saying to all who were gathered here that day, “see? do you see why we practice that prayer?” It’s as if we are wired to shut people out. It’s as if we ourselves might not reach out to someone new, having already weighed the risks of being slowed down and inconvenienced as too great.

But just look at what happened when Naomi risked the burden of another.

Just look at what happened when Naomi decided not to simply go it alone but to go with another. Together, look what happens! Instead of dying early and tragic deaths, Naomi and Ruth secure a future for themselves and, as it turns out, for us.

Which begs the question: how do you know when you belong? What are your rules for belonging? Or what are the rules of communities and families you belong to that say “you belong?” Are they written out? Are they spoken out loud? Or are they just known?

What the vision table and I have been grappling with in the last 6 months is how to welcome new people well and how to build a strong community of people who will risk the burden of knowing another, inviting another, sticking out your neck for another person. There are no silver bullets out there, but I can tell you this: one person at a time, risking going out into the isle or crossing the worship space to say hello to someone strange to you, new to you – well that’s a start isn’t it? Because if you’re willing to do that here, where it’s safe? Then you might be willing to become their friend. Or you might be willing to take the risk at becoming more involved in a faith community. Or you might be willing to risk a loss of momentum or time to make time for new friends, new relationships.

You see, for us to truly welcome someone is to listen to who they are and to see how who they are will change us. It’s not about indoctrinating someone — this is how it goes, this is who we are. We’ve got to be asking the question, “who are you” and “how will you change who we are?”

You see, the people of Israel were changed by Ruth. The end of the book of Ruth sees the women of the community offering a blessing upon Naomi and crediting Ruth for future life. Ruth is mentioned in one of the boring genealogies listed in the Bible. It’s the one at the beginning of Matthew that lists all those weird, unfamiliar names until you hit Ruth – and then, not so long after, King David and then, of course, Jesus. We were all changed, we all belong to Ruth

How will another person change us? How do we then suddenly belong to the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee instead of them simply becoming one of us? Because, as you can see, the stranger will change our lives because they lead us straight to Jesus.