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

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Why Are Names So Important?

I have been thinking about this sermon since last October when my family went to Disney and I became obsessed with name tags and then again since April and I was preaching on the resurrection narrative out of John and noticed that Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus until he called her by name.  It was a long time coming and the coolest part was that we had a fundraising event at Hillside Country Club the next day and everyone who showed up to help wore their name tag – without me sending out a reminder!

I wrote some liturgy to go along with this – I will get it posted this week!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 28, 2019

Genesis 17:1-8
Isaiah 45:1-8
John 20:11-18

Why Are Names So Important?

When we were in Disney last fall, one of the details I noticed (remember from last week – no detail left unturned!) was the fact that not only did all of the “cast members” wear nametags, but that the nametags also include where the person is from, as well – what they consider their home town to be.

And for some reason, this really stuck with me; I think, because, this simple nametag – this seemingly insignificant 1”x 2” oval name tag – not only gave someone an identity with a name, but also a story with where they were from.

In other words, the person driving the magical express was not just a bus driver, they were Matthew from Jacksonville, Florida; or the person walking around with Mickey was not just a character handler, they were Melanie from Sweden; or the person at the gift shop was not just a cashier, they were Jeffrey from Boston, Massachusetts.

And because I knew this information, I could, first of all, greet them by name and then I could strike up a conversation with them based on one simple fact.

Hi Matthew, have you lived in Florida your whole life?
Melanie, how long have you lived in the United States?
You’re from Boston, Jeffrey?  We are from Massachusetts, too!

I was not only able to affirm them as a person, but I was able to engage them in a conversation and there but by the grace of God and a really small nametag, two strangers were able to see the humanity in one another and find a sense of unity and commonality.

So I came home on a little bit of a nametag mission.  I am honestly not sure if this was before or after the soap mission that I talked about last week (and if you have no idea what I am talking about, I would encourage you to go listen to my sermon, “Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?” and you can hear all about the soap-acolypse).  But I will say that there was not a unanimous reaction to this particular mission of mine.  While there were some people that were extremely supportive – even excited at the prospect of becoming a “name tag church” – there were others that resisted the movement.

I already know everybody’s name.
Everyone knows my name.
But I already hate wearing my nametag at work.
I will never remember to bring it with me.

Or, my favorite:

Why?

Well, let’s tackle that question today.  Why?

I wanted to talk about the importance of names at some point during this sermon series on hospitality because, like the soap, I believe this is a hospitality issue.  Because I believe that every single person in this world deserves to be called by their name; their name that identifies and affirms them as a child of God worthy of being seen and heard and acknowledged in this world. And so I wanted to look at the ways in which scripture addresses this very subject.

I chose three stories to read this week so we could look at the ways different literature within the bible address this particular topic.  We have a reading from Genesis, the first book of the story of the Hebrew people, a reading from the Prophet Isaiah and then, into the New Testament, a reading from the Gospel of John.

Full disclosure – these three readings, in no way, fully encapsulate what the entire bible says about this subject; they are just a small snippet.  But their diversity from one another is what I love the most, because it means that there is this reoccurring theme throughout God’s entire creating narrative that boldly proclaims that what we, as human beings, are called matters.

I have always loved the story of Abraham and Sarah – partially because, as a child, I thought it was so cool that my name appears, in a somewhat prominent form, in the bible.  But what I love about this story, especially this partof the story, is the fact that God marks this transition in Abraham’s life – this covenant that he will become the ancestor of a multitude of nations – by calling him by a new name.

Abraham’s new name is part of a new covenantal identity. It takes his given name, Abram, and combines it with the Hebrew word for “father” – abba – and “multitude” – hamon.

Abraham.

No long shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.[1]

There is so much in a name.  Often it not only identifies a person, but it also tells their story and when you call someone by their name you are not only affirming who they are, but you are affirming their story and very often the legacy of those who came before them.

And that is why I love this passage from the Prophet Isaiah.

For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name[2]

The Book of Isaiah is the first of the major prophets.  It is a composite work, meaning it is not actually the writings of one prophet, but of several different prophets who were active at different points throughout Israel’s history.  It was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile and this particular scripture likely comes from during the time of the exile, itself – around 545-539 BC.

In this prophecy, God is speaking to Cyrus, who was a Persian King, the only non-Israelite designated as “anointed” in the Old Testament.  God names Cyrus as the one who is going to carry out God’s commission.  And here’s the thing:  Cyrus does not actually know who God is, but God knows who Cyrus is; God chooses Cyrus and calls him by name to be his servant in this world.

By calling Cyrus by name, God is validating who he is and who God is calling him to be in this world.

Back in April, I was writing my Easter sermon and I was looking at this text from the Gospel of John and, knowing that I wanted to spend the summer focusing on hospitality, I could not help but notice the fact that when Jesus appears before Mary Magdalene after she finds that the tomb is empty, she does not recognize him until he calls her by name.

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).[3]

Don’t you find it striking that Mary finally recognized the resurrected Christ in her midst when he called her by name?  When he acknowledged who she was and who God was calling her to be?  That was the moment when she realized that resurrection was possible; that was the moment when she saw grace in a real and bold and life-changing way.

I think names are important.  I think they are important because they allow us to affirm the identity and the humanity of other people.  I think they are important because we know from scripture that God thinks we are all worthy of that affirmation.  I think they are important because it is in that affirmation that others, like Mary Magdalene, are able to see the presence of Christ and find grace in unexpected ways and places.

So we have, for better or worse, become a nametag church.

Well – we are trying, anyway.

Last December, we very excitedly passed clipboards around to collect names and towns and Kathy and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s printing, cutting, laminating, punching and attaching name tags to clips in our enthusiastic DIY attempt at making nametags.

And I think three people consistently wore them.

However, refusing to admit defeat, I consulted some of my clergy colleagues and looked to see how other churches are doing the nametag thing.  We put a little bit more money towards the project this second time around, purchasing RCC lanyards and perforated nametag sheets that use templates to make printing easier.  Sometimes we remind people to wear their nametags, sometimes we encourage them, sometimes we beg them and sometimes we flat-out lecture them.

And we have had a little bit more success.

Deacons wear their nametags when they staff funeral services, I have noticed people wearing them at community events and meals and people really do seem to be tryingto remember them on Sunday mornings. We even added this fancy little “I Give Electronically” sticker for electronic givers so they can flash their nametag at the ushers when the offering plates come around they do not have a physical offering to put in.

It is not perfect – but we are trying.  We are trying because we believe that every single person that walks through the doors of this church deserves to be called by their name; to be acknowledged and affirmed as a child of God.  We are trying believe we believe that we will bear witness to the resurrected Christ as we acknowledge one another by name; that we will discover grace in the most unexpected ways and places.

So here is my plea:

First of all, wear your nametag.  Even if you think everyone knows you or you know everyone – please, wear your nametag.  We are trying to create a culture.  You never know when someone is going to walk through our doors for the first time or even if someone is newer to the community and has not quite gotten everyone’s names yet.  Knowing someone’s name breaks down an invisible barrier that oftentimes prevents someone else from starting a conversation with them.  So let us make it easy for people – allpeople – to approach one another and have a conversation.

A second of all, try to learn other people’s names.  And then call them bytheir names.  Affirm who they are a child of God, who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do in this world and how they can be part of this church, this village, this Body of Christ.

So go therefore out into the world and call one another by name.  May we affirm the identity of one another and may we discover grace – unexpected – along the way.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Genesis 17:5, NRSV
[2]Isaiah 45:4, NRSV
[3]John 20:15-16, NRSV

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A Simple Promise

I preached this sermon during the second Sunday of Advent.  I started off by talking about a rough week, but was vague about details, because they weren’t really my details to share at the time.  Looking back, I can see where God was at work and how the light truly did shine in the midst of the darkness.  My family is almost on the other side of the particularly journey we started back in December and as the days get longer and the sun shines longer, I am reminded once again just how true this promise it.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 9, 2018

Isaiah 9:1-7

A Simple Promise

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

I have to be honest; my family and I had kind of a tough week.  And I don’t mean to be vague, but they are also not my stories to tell, so I am not really going to get into it; however, I offer that as sort of a disclaimer that we kind of walked through that darkness this week.  We needed to be reassured of that promise that light would shine.

My sister said to me at one point, “Oh, it’s Christmas, it’s supposed to be a joyful season,” and I thought, yes, but isn’t this why we needed Christmas in the first place?  It is because of our brokenness that we needed God to come into our midst and make us whole again.  It is because our world was and is imperfect and flawed and heartbreaking at times that we needed and still need a Gospel that is full of light and love and grace.  It is because we are human that we needed God to come into our midst, to experience our world in the most vulnerable and precious way.

That is the amazing part about the Christmas story, thought.  Over the years we have sort trained ourselves to think it is all about lights and cheer and fun traditions and Starbucks holiday cups, but it started with a promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light would still shine.

If you did not know that this morning’s scripture reading was from the Book of Isaiah, you would probably think that it was part of Jesus’ birth narrative, right?

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

But these words were written long before Jesus entered this world; before Mary and Joseph made the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, before an innkeeper welcomed these weary travelers into his home, before the angels heralded Christ’s arrival, before the shepherds ran to see for themselves what had happened and before the wise men followed a star to bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Book of Isaiah is dated as far back as the late 8thcentury BCE.  It is thought to have been composed primarily during the Babylonian Exile, which lasted about 70 years, beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem.  The darkness that the prophet refers to in this book is not a metaphorical darkness, but a real and hard and desperate and human darkness. Jerusalem had been destroyed; people were displaced and being held captive in a foreign land.  They were separated from their families and familiar surroundings; their safety and security was gone.

And yet, there was this promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of their lives, light would still shine.

A promise that they would rejoice in the same way that they would if they were experiencing the joy of a great harvest.

A promise that their burdens would be lifted from them; that they would be freed from the heavy weight of their oppressors.

A promise that the warriors fighting against them would be destroyed.

A promise that a child of Messianic Hope would be born; that he would bring with him the hope of eternal life.

As people living on this side of the resurrection, we know that this promise has been fulfilled.  We know, not only how the Christmas story ends, but also how the Easter story ends.  We know that the exile did come to an end; that light did shine as the Jews were released from captivity and Jerusalem started to rebuild.  We know that, 600 years later, against all odds, a child was born to a virgin named Mary and delivered safely into this broken and imperfect world under the light of a star that led wise men there so they could pay him homage.  We know that this child grew up and lived in this world and, despite its brokenness and its imperfection, held fast to a law of love and a Gospel of peace.  We know that while he was put to death, on the third day after he died, as the morning light began to shine over the tomb where they had laid his body, they realized that the tomb was empty; that death, in fact, did not – and does not – have the final word, that resurrection is real and that grace is more powerful than we can ever comprehend.

And this all came from a simple promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light will still shine.

I know it has not been an easy year for a lot of you.  I know that right now, a lot of you are feeling as though you are living in this land of deep darkness.  I know that people are grieving, frustrated, scared, stressed and feeling uncertain.  And I want you to know that somehow – someway – this promise will be fulfilled.  Light will shine.

I was with my sister this week and we were in the car and O Holy Night came on and those words, “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,” echoed through me as I thought about this passage from Isaiah and what it means to be a weary world waiting desperately for that thrill of hope.

I think in different ways we are all kind of waiting right now.

And it is coming; I promise.  That promise has been fulfilled before – and it will be again.

Christmas is hard for a lot of people because the world is kind of mandating this joy that you cannot really escape from.  We even kind of mandate it at church – I figured out how to light the wreaths on the walls, for goodness’ sake!

But remember the magic of the Christmas season doesn’t come from twinkly lights or peppermint mochas or matching pajamas (even though I love all of those things).  The magic of the Christmas season comes from that promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light will always shine.

And that is the kind of magic I think we all need.

So wherever you are on your journey through life right now – wherever you find yourself this Christmas season – believe in this promise.  Believe that light will shine, that you will feel joy and that the weight of your burdens will be lifted.  Believe that God will break forth into this world – into this broken and imperfect, but also beautiful and grace-filled world – and meet us where we are.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

Let that light shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.