Extending A Hand Of Radical Welcome

Holy toledo, I cannot believe that tomorrow is the last day of August!  We have one more “summer” Sunday at 9AM next week and then our big Rally Day is on September 13th.  The lectionary lent itself really well to me wrapping up the summer and prepping for the new year!  My sermon led to some good post-church discussion and I am hoping we continue to challenge ourselves when we think about what it means to welcome people into our midst.

Enjoy!

(I’m having an issue with the audio right now, but I’ll try to work on it this week!)

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
August 30, 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Extending A Hand Of Radical Welcome

I played in the church golf tournament yesterday.

Now, this is hilarious for a myriad of reasons.

1. Up until four months ago, I had never picked up an actual golf club.
2. Up until five weeks ago, I have never stepped foot on a golf course.
3. When I bought my golf clubs, I picked them out primarily based on color.
4. The first time I went golfing, half of my clubs were still wrapped in plastic.
5. At the age of 30, I almost had to learn the hard way why you are not supposed to hit real golf balls in the house.

So I am sure you can imagine how well this all went.

But here is the thing: The past few months of learning how to golf (and I use the word “golf” loosely) have taught me a very important lesson: It is really scary to try something new. It is really scary to try something new when you do not know what you are doing; it is really scary to try something new when you do not know how to act or how to dress; and it is really scary to try something new when everyone else around you knows exactly what to do.

And what a great reminder this has been for me, as a church leader. Because for those people for whom church is new – church can be really scary.

So here is the thing; going to church has never been particularly scary for me. I am a preacher’s kid; I know how to “do” church. I practically came out of the womb with a hymnal in my hand and I spent nearly every weekend and holiday of my childhood running around taking part in some sort of church service or activity. It was not scary when I went to college or moved to Atlanta to find a new church because I had essentially “been there, done that” throughout my entire life and could fit into any church, no problem.

But do you know what was scary for me? Walking onto a golf course for the first time.

It was scary for me because it was new. It was scary for me because I did not know the rules. It was scary for me because the other golfers on the course seemed to know what they were doing. It was scary for me because no one else still had the plastic on their clubs.

Think about something you have recently tried that was new or something that you want to try but are kind of scared to because you would not know what to do.

And then imagine how scary it must be for someone who has never been to church before to come and worship for the very first time. Imagine how scary it must be for someone who does not know when and how to drink the bread and juice during communion. Imagine how scary it must be for someone who accidentally sits in someone else’s seat. Imagine how scary it must be for someone who does not know the prayers or the hymns. Imagine how scary it must be for someone who does not know anyone when everyone else know one another.

Learning how to do something I have never done before has been such a wonderful reminder to me of just how hard and scary it might be for someone to come to church for the first time. I forget; we all forget. We come to church, week after week, knowing everyone and what to do and how to do it and we forget what it might be like not to know all of these things. We forget what it might be like to encounter someone who is not used to “doing” church the way that we are.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark, a group of Pharisees and scribes encountered a group of people – the disciples – who were not used to “doing” religion the way that they were. The Pharisees and the scribes came from Jerusalem to see Jesus and found him eating with his disciples. And when they got there, do you know what they said?

They did not said, “Welcome! What a beautiful night; we hope you enjoy your meal.”

They did not say, “My name is Joe or Frank or Bill, what is your name?”

They did not say, “Do you mind if we join you for dinner and get to know you better?”

No; they did not say any of those things. The Pharisees and the scribes essentially showed up and said, “Jesus, they are doing it wrong.”

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5, NRSV)

Now this sermon could easily turn into a long diatribe about old Jewish dietary customs and restrictions and we could all pat ourselves on the back for being good Protestant Christians with minimal rules and regulations and then have our lemonade after worship and leave happy. We could easily read this story and relate to Jesus, who prophetically proclaimed, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:8, NRSV)

Or … we could be a little bit more honest with ourselves and think about the ways that we can sometimes relate to the Pharisees and the scribes.

Humor me for a few minutes.

This passage is not a story about Jewish dietary customs and restrictions; this passage is a story about people. It is a story about the way that people build up structures in order to define their faith, but inevitably get to a point where they are more concerned with protecting the structure itself than the faith it was designed to define.

Our church – the Rehoboth Congregational Church – is one that is steeped in history and tradition. It is such a beautiful expression of faith in this community and it has been for nearly 300 years. But as we celebrate and take pride in who are, we also have to be careful that we do not let ourselves solely be defined by our past. We need to make room for God to come into our midst and we need to prayerfully discern who God is calling us to be today.

As a church, we are not called to change the people who walk through our front doors; we are not called to force them to conform to the standards that we set. We are, instead, called to welcome the people who walk through our front doors and then – with prayerful patience and anticipation – wait for God to transform us together.

That’s grace – alive and at work.

This is a great reminder for all of us as we wrap up the summer and prepare ourselves for Rally Day and the upcoming program year.

Our church has slowly grown over the past several years and it is my hope that it will continue to grow. But as it does, I think it is important that we remember what it might be like for someone to come to church for the very first time and act intentionally. Instead of being like the Pharisees and the scribes, who came in and said, “You are doing it wrong!” we want to be like Jesus, who simply invited his disciples to share a meal with him.

This means that sometimes we need to check our religious expectations at the door. There are so many people outside of our walls, searching for some sort of meaning in their lives. We want our church to be a safe place for them to do that, not a place filled with rigid rules and expectations. When the Pharisees and the scribes said to Jesus, “Why do you your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” Jesus replied, “[You] honor me with [your] lips, but [your] hearts are far from me.” (Mark 7:6, NRSV) We do not want to build up a structure that move us further from God.

We need to draw God into our hearts. We need to let God help us – ALL of us – become the people that we have the capacity to be – and the church that we are being called to be. Jesus said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7:21, NRSV) If we draw God into our hearts, our intentions will be Godly and pure. We will be able to release our grip on the traditions that have defined us for so long and instead cling tightly to our faith. We will easily be able to swing open the doors to the church and proclaim:

Welcome to the Rehoboth Congregational Church! We are a group of imperfect people, touched by God’s grace, trying to find balance in our lives and make a difference in this world. No one has answers, but we sure do ask a lot of questions. Welcome to this hot mess! Come on in, just as you are. There are no rules here, just support as you travel your journey.

We need to extend a radical hand of hospitality.

For someone who has never been to church (or who grew up in a different tradition and fell away from it), it can be very scary to come here for the first time. We forget, because this is something that we just “do” and it is part of our routine and we are all one big family that knows one another and what to expect, but from the outside looking in, this is scary.

So we need to invite people to join us at church. We need to welcome them when they come for the first time. We need to ask them questions and care to get to know them. We need to answer their questions about our community and our worship and put them at ease if they are anxious about being here. We need to embrace their questions and – perhaps more importantly – embrace their new ideas. If they are doing something a little bit differently, we need to encourage them on their journey, not call them out for not living according to our traditions.

I probably should not admit this, but the night before I went golfing for the first time I was a disaster. I drove to three different stores trying to find something to wear, I googled “golf etiquette” for about an hour and literally could not fall asleep because I was nervous about golfing for the first time. But thankfully, I had two people who invited me out on the golf course that first time, picked me up so I did not have to drive, helped me understand what was happening and showed me immeasurable grace along the way.

We have to do the same for others in our church as our community grows.

We need to worship God and not our traditions. Jesus said to the Pharisees and the scribes, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:8, NRSV) We do this sometimes; we do not mean to, but we do. We care about our church and we love our traditions and we get excited about things, week after week and year after year. But we cannot let our love of our traditions overshadow our love of God.

I know that this is a little bit uncomfortable to talk about. We like the way things are; we do not want to change. But – by totally calling out the Pharisees and the scribes – this scripture reminds us that Jesus was in the business of making people a little bit uncomfortable.

I mean – you don’t really bring up licentiousness in the church without making people a little bit uncomfortable.

But Jesus was also in the business of saving people; Jesus was in the business of welcoming people into his midst, of sharing a meal with them when they were hungry, of healing them when they were sick and of reaching out to them when they were otherwise marginalized. Jesus was in the business of sharing God’s love and making this world a better place and we are being called to do the same within this incredible community of faith.

I am proud to be a member of this church. I am proud of who we are called to be and I am proud of what we are doing to heed this call. I am proud of our past, but I am also proud of our present. I am proud of the new ministries that we are fostering, the new ideas we have been trying and the ways that we all show love and patience to one another when the journey gets a little bit bumpy. I am proud of the ways that we are challenging ourselves to live in accordance to the Gospel, even when that make us uncomfortable. I am proud of the ways that we are growing – not just in physical size, but in faith and spirit.

So let us fling open the doors to our church and extend a hand of extravagant welcome in our community. Let us extend that hand of welcome to our neighbors; to those who are searching; and to those who are scared.

And then let us see what God has in store for all of us – together.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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