How Can We Create A Space Where People Feel Welcome?

This is it for our summer sermon series on hospitality!  This week is Rally Day and the beginning of a 12-week sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which will bring us through Thanksgiving.

It was fun to look at hospitality this summer – I actually had a lot of great feedback from people who gave me tangible ideas and suggestions of ways that we, as a church, can improve.  I hope this is one of those sermon series that we keep talking about, long after it’s over.

The question we answered in this final week was, how can we create a space where people feel welcome?

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 1, 2019

1 Kings 6
Acts 2:37-47

How Can We Create A Space Where People Feel Welcome?

I have to be honest, I thought about cutting some down some of this scripture from 1 Kings and only reading part of it this morning (a decision many of you may have wish I made!), but every time I re-read the passage in its entirety, I got caught up in this beautifully vivid description  of King Solomon building the temple – of Solomon leaving no details unturned as he constructed this place where the Israelites would worship God – and I could not bear to cut any of it out.

You see, I was raised to believe that the details matter.  All of them.

I am the daughter of a director; a director who would spend hours creating lighting designs that not only looked cool on stage, but that also complemented the scenery, music and choreography and were timed perfectly to create a dramatic affect.

I understood from a young age that you do not have to do things like sell light-up wands to kids in the audience to wave around when the beast transforms or when Cinderella goes for a ride in her magical carriage, but that it sure looks amazing when you do.  Or that bubble machines and confetti canons might make a mess, but they are totally worth it anyway.  Or that bringing an actual pony on stage is risky, but it is always a risk worth taking because who doesn’t want to be remembered as the theater group who brought an actually pony on stage?

I came to realize quickly that the atmosphere we created in the lobby, the first thing people saw when they walked in – music, headshots, photo displays, a wide array of snacks and cold drinks, people welcoming patrons with smiles on their faces – created an excitement and energy that everyone carried into the theater.

Because the thing is – when it all came together and the lights went down and the curtain went up, magic was created as we told some of the greatest theatrical stories.

And it mattered.

So you can understand why I obsess over things like soap and coffee and nametags here at church.  Because I want to create an excitement and energy that people bring into the sanctuary with them for worship.  I want to create an experience that people will remember.

Here at this church, we have the privilege of telling one of the greatest stories that has ever been told – the story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining work in this world.  And so when people come to church and hear us tell this story, I want to create magic.

Our first scripture reading comes from the first Book of Kings, which can be found in the Old Testament.  There are two books of Kings; first and second Kings were originally a singular literary work.  They give a continuous account of Israel’s history from the death of King David and the ascension of King Solomon to the release of King Jehoiachi, who was being held in prison in Babylon.  This spans the time of approximately 400 years.

The content found in these books reflects the theological concerns of the laws found in the book of Deuteronomy – namely that the Lord is Israel’s only God and that all of God’s covenantal laws must be followed, including the requirement that God may only be legitimately worshiped in one place.

You can see why this temple that Solomon is building is so important.  It is not just a structure; it is a place of worship – the place of worship, the place the Israelites believe is the only place worthy of worshipping their one God, who will dwell there.

And so while this might not be about soap or coffee or nametags, there are 38 verses describing every single detail of this temple that Solomon is carefully building.  Solomon believes that this is important; that the building, the furnishings and the artwork are coming together to create an experience where the Israelites can hear the story of God’s creating work.

Our second scripture reading comes from Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the formation of the early Christian Church; it begins with Jesus’ ascension and goes from there.  The cool part about looking at the book of Acts alongside this passage from 1 Kings is that Acts tells the story of the church before it becomes the church that we know today.  It starts in people’s homes, with the apostles sharing the message of Christ’s resurrection from city to city.

Acts reminds us that we do not necessarily need a church building to worship God; but this particular scripture shows the, sort of, natural tendency for human beings to eventually find themselves in intentional spaces of worship.  The apostles are breaking bread together at home, but also spending “much time together in the temple.”[1]

The thing is, we do not need a physical church building to worship God.  But the building represents something, right?  It represents our faith, our hope, our desire to create love in this world. It represents our community, the cloud of witnesses that came before us whose lessons we are carrying with us and whose legacy we now uphold.  And I think history teaches us that space matters, that when we have a designated and carefully designed space to worship God we do so with intention and reverence and enthusiasm.  The details of our space not only matter, but they help us tell a beautiful story of the love we have for our God, of the pride we have for our community and of our desire to welcome others into our space.

I am not suggesting that we build a temple that is 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high with recessed windows and three stories.  But I am saying that our space matters.  Because I want people to walk through our doors and not only hear the story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining love, but I want them to experience magic while they do so.

Earlier this week, I went on our Facebook group and posed the question that is the topic of this week’s sermon:  How can we create a space where people feel welcome? The responses were wonderful and thought-provoking and gave me so much pride for our church in the village and the spirit of hospitality that we are trying to foster here.  They ranged from talking about what we are already doing (physical access, nametags, delicious food) to simple ways that we can improve (hearing devices connected to our sound system, making fans available in the summer).  They talked about what happens when we leave our physical space and then extend our reach out beyond our walls (the Hillside Takeover, the Memorial Day Parade). Multiple people talked about the ways we extend our ministry beyond our membership (the bazaar, the bike blessing, your grace in giving me the time to preside over funerals for nonmembers).

What I love about these responses is that they are not specific to one area of our church and community – they span the gamut – which means that every single person in our church can participate in our ministry of hospitality; that no matter who you are or how long you have been attending RCC or how much time you have available or what you are interested in, you can help create a space of bold and extravagant welcome.

So how do we do this?

I said in my Facebook post that I hoped this sermon would start the biggest brainstorm session we have ever had – and I am going to start!  I have five suggestions.

#1.  Nametags, nametags, nametags!  I preached a whole sermon on this so I am not going to bore you again, but Rally Day is NEXT week, which means we might have some new faces in our pews.  If you have not been wearing your nametag this summer, dust it off and put it on next Sunday (and if you lost it, I will make you a new one).

#2. I want everyone to try to put yourself in an “outsiders” position and think about what our worship experience looks life. Coming to church and being in worship makes sense to all of us, because we are used to it, but is it easy for someone coming for the first time?

Is our signage clear and thorough?  Is there always a place for a newcomer to park? Do we make people feel welcome when they first walk in?  Are our worship bulletins easy to follow?  Do we approach first-time guests after worship and invite them into fellowship? Do we use language that new guests will be able to understand or do we use insiders language?

The thing about all of these questions is that if we are falling short there are simple and immediate solutions.  We can buy new signs, create designated parking and reformat the bulletin.  We can change our language.

We need to make it easy:  Easy to find out what time church is, easy to get here, easy to participate in worship and easy to get involved.  If you have a tangible suggestion about how we can make something more welcoming, please share it with me!  I will ask that you please try to share it with me using a kind and constructive tone, but remember that I am the worst offender of getting caught up in what we are doing because I am so deeply embedded into it.

#3. Let’s all look at our space – our physical space.  Is bright, fresh, clean and functional?  Does it give you a sense of calm and comfort?  If the answer to any one of those questions is, “not really,” then take the initiative, come up with a solution, talk to the Executive Board, maybe put together a group of people and make it happen.

Some of the church school classrooms got a fresh coat of paint this summer because two or three people took the initiative, came up with a solution and made it happen.  And they look fabulous!  There are so many little projects around our building – inside and outside – that might seem daunting for one person, but we are not one person, we are a village – the body of Christ.

#4. If you see someone that looks like they might be new, say, “Hello!”  Introduce yourself.  People always tell me that they are worried they might go up to someone they think is new and accidentally introduce themselves to someone who has been attending for months or even years.  But honestly – who cares?  If you do not know someone’s name, they are new to you.  If someone has a confused look on their face, ask them if they need help. When we have New Member Sunday, make it a point to talk to the new members in the weeks that follow; get to know them and find ways to integrate them into our community.

#5. Remember that it is the little things that make a difference.  If you know it is going to be hot, maybe offer to bring bottles of cold water and have them available for people in worship (who else was totally psyched when Bonnie Meagher was making root beer floats the Sunday the heat index was over 100°?). If it is going to rain, show up to church early with an umbrella and walk people in.  If it is going to be cold, offer to start people’s cars during Fellowship.  If you have not seen someone in awhile, contact the office for their phone number or address and give them a call or send them a note to let them know you are thinking about them.

Friends, this is it for our mini sermon series on hospitality.  I have to say that I am thrilled with the response that I have gotten to this already. From donations of nice-smelling soap to offers to help fix our front steps, people are carefully discerning ways that they can give back to this community that they love so much and to help to create a more hospitable space for others to be welcomed into.

So let us, like the first apostles that laid the foundation for the Christian church we love so much today, praise God and have the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day, may God use us to welcome others so that God can add to the number of those being saved.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Acts 2:46, NRSV

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork

Touched By God

Sorry this is delayed!  It’s been a crazy couple of days and I’ve been in meetings and buried under a pile of email.  Here is Sunday’s sermon!  It was such a fun one to preach.  I found this beautiful note on prayer separated into four paragraphs – I had people in the congregation stand up and read it from their seats.

1 Kings 19:4-8

Touched By God

When Bruce and I lived in Atlanta, we experienced two difference versions of those hot southern summers. I experienced the version where I drove my car to Emory University or Grady Memorial Hospital, walked from the parking garage to an air conditioned building, said, “Phew! It’s hot out there!” to the first person I saw and got on with my day. Bruce experienced the version where he worked outside for most of the day on hot macadam and came home exhausted, dehydrated and sunburned.

If you ever hear me say, “Oh, summers weren’t that bad in Atlanta,” you might want to go to Bruce for a second opinion.

Our physical appearance reflected the different versions of summer that we experienced. We would often head north for an extended weekend to visit our families, they would look at my pasty white skin and we would have some version of the following conversation:

Them: Why are you so white? Don’t you live in the south?
Me: I work in an air conditioned building. You cannot get tan if you are not actually out in the sun.
Them: Bruce is tan. He looks like he lives in the south.
Me: Bruce works outside.
Them: Oh.

It’s true, right? Artificial methods aside, if you do not spend time outside in the sun, you will not look like you have spent time in the sun.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a member of my mom’s church in Connecticut. In the email she told me about a book that she was reading that made her think of me. The book is called The Dieter’s Prayer Book, by Heather Harplan Kapp. In it, Kapp references Brennan Manning’s book, Lion and Lamb. Manning – who is an American contemplative priest, author and speaker – writes in this book:

The most important thing that ever happens in prayer is letting ourselves be loved by God. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ (Psalm 46:10) It’s like slipping into a tub of hot water and letting God’s love wash over us, enfold us. Prayer is like sun bathing. When you spend a lot of tie in the sun, people notice it. They say, “You’ve been at the beach.” You look like you’ve been out in the sun because you’ve got a tan. Prayer – or bathing in the Son of God’s love (Son bathing?) – makes you look different. The awareness of being loved brings a touch of lightness and a tint of brightness, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, a smile plays at the corner of your mouth. Through prayer you not only know God’s love, you realize it; you are in conscious communion with it.

“Through prayer you not only know God’s love, you realize it; you are in conscious communion with it.”

What does it mean to bath in the Son of God’s love? What would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God; to feel the warmth of God’s love move deep within us and give our bodies and a gentle glow? What would we feel like if we opened ourselves up to God’s touch every single day of our lives?

This morning’s scripture comes from the book of 1 Kings, which is the first of two books that provide a continuous account of Israel’s history from approximately 970 BCE to 560 BCE. We enter into the story this morning when the prophet Elijah is in the middle of a meltdown of epic proportions. Leading up to this passage, there had been extreme hostility between Elijah, a prophet of the Lord, and Ahab, the King of Israel and his queen, Jezebel. There were several reasons Elijah was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. King Ahab thought that Elijah – who had predicted the three-year drought – was a troublemaker for Israel. There were disputes between Elijah, a prophet of the Lord, of YAHWEH, and the prophets Ba’al, a Canaanite god thought to be associated with weather and fertility. A battle eventually erupted between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al and the prophets of Ba’al were eventually all slaughtered. Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah with retaliation. And Elijah, now fearing for his life, fled Israel and took a journey out into the wilderness.

The interesting thing to note about Elijah’s journey is the fact he inadvertently took the same journey that the Israelites took when they were fleeing Pharaoh in Exodus in reverse. He went first to Beersheba, out into the wilderness and eventually arrived at Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai, we all know, is where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Elijah stood at sacred ground; a place where his ancestors had already once been touched by God.

By the time time Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, he is experiencing prophetic burnout. God called him to be a prophet, but his ministry was not an easy one. He now feels alone and isolated. He thinks that he is a failure as a prophet. He feels inadequate and unworthy. He fears for his life; he is exhausted. What modern society would now diagnose as depression or anxiety have completely taken over Elijah. The demands of ministry – and of life! – are great and he does not feel like he has the strength keep living his life.

“It is enough; now O LORD take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors,” Elijah pleads with God. I cannot do this anymore; please just make it end right now.

I think we have all been there. Even if we have never pleaded with God the way that Elijah did, we have certainly all experienced burnout and subsequent meltdowns. We have all felt feelings of failure, depression, despair, fear, inadequacy, unworthiness, exhaustion and isolation. We can relate to Elijah. Yes, Elijah experienced these feelings because he was a prophet, a minister of God, but we all experience these feelings in our everyday lives.

Then [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

In his moment of desperation and despair, Elijah was touched by God.

Again, I ask – what would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God; to feel the warmth of God’s love move deep within us and give our bodies and a gentle glow? What would we feel like if we opened ourselves up to God’s touch every single day of our lives?

This passage has me thinking a lot about prayer. Last week we looked at the passage in Exodus where the Israelites cried out for food in the wilderness and God answered their prayers and provided manna from heaven. We talked about the ways that we can be active participants in prayer; that we can make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. But the Elijah’s prayers seem more desperate, more intimate and more relational with God. He threw himself down on the ground and pleaded with God. Elijah was at a point where he needed help beyond his human capacity. His prayers seem to be serving as a way not only to allow himself to be transformed by God, but also as a way to be touched by God.

What would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God?

I came across a description of prayer this week written by the late Father Frank J. Houdek, Jesuit priest and author. I would like to read it together this morning.

Prayer is a gift from God. It does not create God’s presence or make God any more loving or available. It simply helps one to become aware of the various creative ways that God is already present and active in one’s life. It consists not so much on what we do, but how much we allow God to do, to act in and through us, to “gift” us. In short, prayer is an awareness of God’s constant and loving presence and action. Using this definition, prayer can appear to be very risky and powerful, a mysterious challenge that always asks us to transcend ourselves. It is a profound call and personal invitation to growth and fidelity, to transformation and freedom, to becoming a new creation – that, a new person in God. It involves giving God the power to possess us while allowing ourselves the freedom to enter more generously into His divine presence.

Prayer has been called a radical response to life. It is a growing interaction with one’s own life, an interaction that is a response, because the God of life takes the initiative and sustains the reality of the prayer relationship. During this time one is invited only to be receptive, to respond to the movements that occur in and through life. It is not merely a matter of saying prayers but rather an openness to God in every way. Prayer is God’s revelation in the joys, pains, moods, and day-to-day ordinary events of life. All this and mores forms the “stuff” and substance of prayer. No part of our faith life, our experience, or our vision excludes or escapes the loving presence of God.

Prayer, therefore, is not just a part of life, but all of life. It is not a part of our thoughts, emotions, images, feelings, memories, actions, and reactions; it is all of them. To pray is to think and to feel and to live constantly in response to God. One must let God be in life and experience. This does not imply that one cannot take the time to pray and be alone with God. It only means that prayer should in no way be divorced from life. Everything in one’s life is part of God’s concern for us. God is not indifferent to any part of our lives.

Prayer heightens and deepens the importance of letting God love us as we are. We need not prove anything to God; we could not do so, even if was it needed. We cannot coerce, negotiate, or purchase the love of God. It already exists, for God is love. All we need to do is to be open and available to the undeserved and unreserved love that God has for us. It makes no sense to compare one’s personal prayer with the prayer of someone else. Perhaps some value may come in hearing others speak of their prayer, but we each pray as no one else does. Rather, what is needed is nurturing and relishing the wonderful uniqueness of one’s own gift of prayer.

We have been given a gift. Prayer is our gift from God. Every single day we have the ability to be touched by God, to be loved by God, to feel God’s holy and awesome presence in our lives. To soak up God’s presence and feel our skin glow. To bathe and bask in God’s love and feel it warm our whole bodies and fuel us on our journeys through life. We will look different, we will feel different and we will act different. If we open ourselves up in prayer others will know that we have been changed by God’s touch.

What would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God?

I think it’s time to find out.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Hiding In Caves

Today has been crazy!  We had a church dinner (unfortunately it was raining so I left my camera inside!) which was an absolute blast.  After dinner Bruce and I ran some errands and then ran over to the church.  This week is Vacation Bible School and Bruce volunteered to teach the bible story portion!

Our Church School Director has been in all week with volunteers decorating and the space looks great!  They are doing underwater stories this year.

I think the kids are going to have a great time!

Here is today’s sermon … As usual, audio is here!

***

1 Kings 19:9-18

Hiding In Caves

A couple of weeks ago we were in the first book of Kings – like we are this morning – and we talked about how unstable the nation of Israel was at that point in their journey. As a nation, they were moving into a united monarchy, to be governed by a more defined leadership of Kings, as opposed to a more fluid influence of prophets and other religious figures. My sermon was called “Strong Servants, Weak Servanthood” – and I talked about how King Solomon allowed himself to be weak in front of God so that God could help Solomon be strong in his leadership.

The transition to the united monarchy was a very, very shaky one and by the time we get to this morning’s passage, the stable leadership that we were sort of seeing with King Solomon was falling to the wayside and the Kingdom of Israel had been divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

So we once again have a mess on our hands in Israel. And Elijah – the main character in this morning’s passage – was not necessarily helping the situation.

Here was part of the problem. Elijah worshipped one God, like it was stated in the 10 Commandments. That God was referred to in this part of the Old Testament as Yahweh. There were people, however, that worshipped Baal. Baal was another God; a different God.

And as I am sure you can imagine, Yahweh worshippers were not happy. After all, Yahweh had given Moses the 10 Commandments and they clearly stated, “I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other Gods before me.”

And yet there were people worshipping Baal.

Elijah had a great solution for dealing with the people with whom he disagreed with: he killed them. But it did not end there. After Elijah killed several prophets and worshippers of Baal, another worshipper of Baal – Queen Jezebel – sent Elijah a message saying that she was going to kill Elijah and Elijah, distraught over the divisions between the Yahweh worshippers and the Baal worshippers and fearing for his life, ran away and hid in a cave.

And that brings us to this morning’s scripture lesson.

Cheerful, right?

Let’s recap: Essentially we have two different groups worshipping two different religious Gods. Both groups were mad at the other group for each other’s opposing religious beliefs, both groups were upset with one another about their opposing religious beliefs and their solution was just to kill one another.

And this is why preachers hate preaching from the Old Testament! This is why Sunday School teachers hate teaching from the Old Testament! It is violent, it is graphic and it is raw. But it is real. It is very, very real.

For me, the interesting thing about this passage is not the peculiarities of the worshippers of Yahweh versus the worshippers of Baal. Rather, it is the fact that after it had all fallen apart, after Elijah had acted violently out of religious passion and frustration, after Elijah had been threatened by Queen Jezebel and after Elijah felt that there was nothing left to do but to run away and to hide in a cave – God was still with Elijah; God still spoke calmly and softly to Elijah; and God revealed himself to Elijah.

Every now and then, things fall apart in our lives. We get sick, our lives get busy, we feel anxious, we are consumed by grief or we stumble into an unsettling conflict. And when that happens sometimes I think that our natural intuition as human beings is – like Elijah – to run away and to hide in a cave. We do not want to face the hard times because they are just that – hard. We do not like conflict, we do not like messy emotional messes and we do not like to admit our own weaknesses.

When you are going through a difficult season in your life, it is so much easier to run away and to hide in a cave than to admit that you need help. It is so much easier to run away and hide in a cave than it is to ever ask for that help. It is so much easier to run away and hide in a cave and hope and pray that the difficult season that you are experiencing is just going to blow over than to brave the storm from the outside.

But here is the thing – God is present no matter how far we may run to hide. It does not matter how scared we may be at any point in our lives, God is with us. It does not matter how far we want to hide from life, from our family, from our friends, from the people who love and support us and want to help us so badly. God is with us. God is with us always.

Elijah was scared and frustrated and ran away from a life that was so overwhelming to him and sought shelter in a faraway cave, but God still found him.

And when we try to run away from our problems, from our insecurities, from our overwhelming schedules, from our illnesses, from our fears, from our frustrations and from the differences that we think divide us from one another, God will find us. God is with us. God is with us always.

I have talked before about how I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, a resource that brings preachers and their congregations through the bible by highlighting a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, a Gospel reading and an Epistle every week. This week’s Epistle is a favorite of mine. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:
For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

I love that last part, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

It is easy for us to use our feet as tools in which to hide; to run from the things that we are afraid of, from the insecurities that hold us back, from the pain and the grief that we face every day and from the illnesses that are making us weak. But what if, instead, we used our feet as tools in which to bring the good news to those we meet along our journey that God is with us, that God is with us always?

But what if, instead, we used our feet as tools in which to bring the good news to those we meet along our journey that God is with us, that God is with us always?

There is a lot that we can take away from this passage from 1 Kings. It is very busy and multifaceted, it is full of a volatile history of fear and division and can be extremely difficult to understand. But I think that on a very basic level this passage shows us a scared, upset and distraught man who tried to hide – and found God along the way.

When you are scared, when you are frustrated, when you are sick, when you are grieving, when you are divided from your neighbors and when you are confused, I pray that you find God in your journey. And I pray that along your journey you find the strength within yourself to use your feet to bring the good news to those around you.

Amen.