Sunday, June 24, 2007

Welcome Home - Romans 12:1-13

I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Today, we find ourselves in an interesting position as a congregation. Today is sort of a Sunday between the Sundays, the time between the times. Last week, Ron Smith preached his last sermon as our senior pastor, and next week, John Fitzgerald will preach his first sermon as our senior pastor. Today is a special Sunday, but you won’t find it on any liturgical or civic calendar. I personally refer to today as “Bridge Sunday.” Today represents the bridge between a senior pastor named Ron and one named John. Since last Sunday, many of you have come in to talk about a number of issues, and have probably been disappointed to hear me say, “We’re not going to discuss that until July 1st.” In fact, in the last week, that’s probably the phrase I’ve used most commonly.

Our text this morning reminds us that we are all members of Christ’s body, and that each of us has a role to play in that. In this interim period, my role has been to celebrate one era, but also to prime the soil for the new thing God is about to do in our midst. May we pray.

Finish this sentence for me: “Don’t talk to . . . strangers.” It’s something drilled into our heads shortly after we voice our first words. We are conditioned to think of strangers as a likely source of danger. If you don’t know someone, we’ve been told that they probably seek to do you harm. As a result, we’ve gradually come to live in increasingly private settings; after all, “public” is that place you’re likely to run into those dangerous strangers. Our society knows this rule, too! Try breaking the rule sometime. Step into a crowded elevator, face the back of the elevator, and see how uncomfortable people get. Make eye contact with people in a fast food restaurant. Try these, and you’ll know what it feels like to be a stranger.

But our text this morning tells us to show hospitality to strangers. It goes a bit against our natural inclination, but let me tell you, it’s vitally important. In the context in which the book of Romans was written, Christian missionaries and evangelists were dependent on the hospitality of the church in the towns they passed through. But in our context, it’s vitally important as well.

Two years ago, I came to you as a stranger. Other than what you heard from staff-parish, most of you did not know me. But you showed and continue to show hospitality to me. Several of you sent notes before I even arrived. When I realized that my Saturn could not be towed behind the moving truck, two members of the church drove to Durham on moving day to drive my car to Boone while I drove the truck. You brought meals to my home that first week. Since then, so many of you have invited me to meals in your home and on the town, invited me to play golf, shared special moments in your families’ lives, and let me know that I am no longer a stranger. You have extended hospitality to members of my family who have come to visit to the point that my mom refers to Boone as her “mountain residence,” and you have included them in your prayers during difficult times in their lives. Ministers often talk about the way their congregation’s ministry to them far exceeded their ministry to the congregation. Not only did you minister to me, you threw your arms wide open, and said, “Welcome Home.”

Now, I know the bishop and the district superintendent said you had to make me feel welcome. But, I also know you did it, not because you were under orders, but because hospitality in this church’s DNA. You do it, because you recognize that part of your role in being part of the body of Christ is to make other people feel welcome.

Next Sunday, a man named John will stand in this pulpit and deliver his first sermon as the senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church. He comes to us, not as a stranger, but as another member of the body of Christ. You know how I sometimes tell you, “There are no strangers in the body of Christ – only brothers and sisters whose names we don’t know yet”? Well, we know their names, and we will greet them as extended members of the body of Christ. We don’t really know them yet, and they don’t really know us, but that doesn’t matter. We welcome one another as Christ welcomes us. As a congregation, I pray you will show the same hospitality to the Fitzgerald family – to John, his wife, Chris, and his sons Ben and Alex – that you showed to me. I hope you will throw your arms wide open, and say, “Welcome Home.”

This is what Christians do. When the body of Christ gathers, it is always aware of who its members are on any given occasion. It is aware which of its members are hurting, and which are celebrating. It is aware of who has been there for years, and it is aware of who is there, perhaps, for the first time. And, when the body of Christ gathers, it is also keenly aware of who is not present. This is what the church does. It makes itself a friend to the friendless, provides hope to the hopeless, a spiritual home to the homeless. Most churches, if you ask them, would tell you they’re a friendly church. Usually, what people mean is, “That’s where my friends go! People know me by name.” But friendliness is a factor that is usually viewed from the inside-out, and on the outside of those circles, the perception is quite different.

The analogy I draw is that most churches who claim to be friendly are, in reality, a lot like the family dog. The family dog is affectionate toward members of the family, but has a tendency to bark at strangers. When members of the family show up, the dog greets them with a happy smile, but when strangers approach, they receive a hostile welcome.

Some of this is so interesting to me because I was a Communication major as an undergraduate. I love to study the ways people interact, and the signals that are being sent through nonverbal means. It’s not only what people say that matters, it’s how they say it, in what posture that makes such huge impact. Let’s bring this back to the friendliness factor of a church.

Imagine, the conversations that typically happen in the hallways before and after church events. From the inside – there you are with two or three friends, talking about some common interest. Imagine yourself on the outside, though – you’re likely to see a circle of backs – closed off, inaccessible. On occasion, someone may glance back over their shoulder and say, “Hey, who’s the new person over there?” which, of course, refers to you. It’s not a very friendly feeling. Or, suppose worship is about to begin, and you come into the sanctuary, sit in your usual spot and strike up a conversation with your usual friends who also sit right near you. Two rows away, sitting quietly and patiently – and alone, is a new family – hoping someone might talk to them and say hello. The mother cradles an infant in her arm, and might want to know where she could find the nursery, or at least a restroom where the child could be changed, but because no one has talked to them, we miss an opportunity to make someone feel at home. Now, during this time, things are happening that reinforce our understanding of our church as a friendly place. We’re having friendly experiences with our friends, probably not even aware that we’re neglecting our guests. We think we’ve put out the welcome mat, but in reality, we’ve hung the “Do-Not-Disturb” sign.

Now, hear me carefully – I’m not saying we’ve done an overall poor job. On the contrary, this church does reasonably well in welcoming guests compared to most others. But, we could always do a little better.

The next time you’re having a conversation in the hallway, ask yourself if, from the outside, your posture appears to be “closed” or “open.” If it’s closed because of the nature of the conversation, let me suggest that you take the discussion to a more appropriate location – it’s called not airing your (or other people’s) dirty laundry in public. When you arrive in the sanctuary, take a look around for people who look like they need to be welcomed, rather than immediately gravitating toward your friends. Same thing after service – practice what I call the “three-minute rule” – for the first three minutes after worship ends, only talk to people you don’t know rather than the people you already know and are probably going to end up going out to lunch with anyway. It seems like such a little thing, but you have no idea how far it goes toward making someone feel noticed and appreciated. It is a little thing you can do to say, “Welcome Home.”

The simple fact of the matter is that, “people remain part of a Christian congregation because of the quality of love they experience in human relationships. People may join a church because of a fine youth or music program, preaching, or leadership – but people remain in a church because they have found loving friendships and loving relationships. People have found not just ideas of love and ideals of love, but genuine love in human form” (Edward Markquart).

And that’s the extreme center of the Gospel message: Jesus was God’s genuine love in human form. Jesus was the very embodiment of God’s love, we in the church are members of his body – that makes each of us bearers of God’s love to the world. We are ministers of reconciliation to each other, and to the world.

“The mystery of God, captured in a message about what God has done, is now entrusted to us. And what God has done is reconciliation. In the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God has been revealed as one who is perpetually turning toward us to welcome us home” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words).

Friends, this morning I invite you to not only hear the Good News; I invite you to be the Good News. God has turned toward us, offering us reconciliation and a relationship with him through his Son. “Reconciliation is not a theological option, a specialized ministry, or the subject of an occasional sermon. Every congregation is a reconciling congregation” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words). God has turned toward us, offered us a wonderful gift of reconciliation to himself, but even more – he has empowered us to be reconciled to each other. So right now, everyone stand, and hold hands with someone on your left and on your right. That person on your left is a gift from God to you, the person on your right is a gift from God to you, and you are a gift to each of them. Tell each other that!!!

Look around – THIS is what the body of Christ looks like!!!! What a wonderful gift we are to each other!!!

But together, we are a gift from God to our community and our world. So together, let’s go out there, let’s spread our arms wide open, and say “Welcome home.”

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