Keith Ritchie


The late twentieth century writer, Carl Sandburg, was once asked in an interview, “Mr. Sandburg, what do you consider the ugliest word in the English language to be?”

Sandburg did not hurry to answer this question. Instead, he looked into the distance. He pensively put his finger to his lips. He briefly rocked back and forth. Finally, after great thought; great consideration, Carl Sandburg told the one interviewing him, “The ugliest word in the English language, is the word, ‘exclusive.’”

I think of this response as I think back to a presentation I was honored to share at the Martinsville Library this past Tuesday.

The presentation was part of the library’s “Faith around the Globe” series. For my presentation, I spoke of the Christian faith.

Following my presentation, during a time for questions and answers, Liondo Gravely, the wonderful librarian there, asked a timely and thoughtful question related to what I believe to be the public’s perception of the Christian church.

As I gave some thought as to how to answer this question (though not as much thought as Carl Sandburg,) I finally responded by lamenting that I believe many perceive the church to be some exclusive club. I grieve the fact that many see the church as a place where a person has to meet certain requirements in order to belong; a place where various membership requirements must be met so as to be accepted. In other words, I said to Liondo and others gathered in the library this past Tuesday, I fear this “ugly” word, “exclusive,” is a word many associate with the church.

I lament this perception because such a perception could not be more contrary to the gospel of Jesus.

In fact, it is startling to notice that as we read through the four gospels, those appearing most “unworthy” to be among the people of God are those most welcomed by Jesus. Read through the gospels and notice how Jesus offends proper society as he “eats with sinners.”

This same Jesus heals the unclean, forgives those caught in adultery, welcomes the outsiders who belong to no one or nothing. To those feeling shut out from the notice of God, Jesus throws wide open the doors of the church and welcomed them in: “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” It was not the outsiders with whom Jesus had conflict, it was the self — appointed gatekeepers of the faith, whose control Jesus threatened, who sought to be rid of Jesus.

They did not succeed; they never succeed. For the gospel which has at its heart a message of welcome, hospitality, healing and {span}—{/span} inclusivity {span}—{/span} is a message never defeated. At the heart of this gospel is good news offered by the one who came, not to condemn, but to save.

Comedian Groucho Marx once said, “I would never join any club that would have me as a member.”

I have long been a fan of Groucho and all the Marx Brothers, and remain grateful for their timeless comedy.

Still, I hope Groucho would hear as good news the news that doors of the church are open even to him, as they are open to all.

I trust as well that Groucho would hear as good news these words written Rachel Held Evans. I still grieve the tragic death of Evans, a thirty – 7-year-old mother of two just a month ago. Evans, who died after a brief illness, was a faithful writer and blogger who touched many by writing of her struggles with the church. She was a woman who dared write honestly of her frustrations with a church that too often perpetuates an image of exclusivity.

Wrote Evans, to us all: “But the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

She is right. The doors are thrown wide open. All are welcome. The most gracious of hosts invites you.

Keith Ritchie is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Martinsville.

Keith Ritchie is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Martinsville.

Keith Ritchie is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Martinsville.

Keith Ritchie is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Martinsville.