Bruce and I just got back from the dance recital of one of the youth in our church – it was so much fun! I love when we have the chance to do stuff like that.
Before we left …
… Bruce fired up the grill for the first time!
He and my dad went out for burgers and hot dogs. Bruce took one bite and said, “I’m never cooking inside again.”
Fresh salad from the garden! Mixed greens, onions and radishes. Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing drizzled on. Have I mentioned I love eating out of our garden?!
Today’s sermon – enjoy!
(The audio is now available here.)
Being A Church Of Extravagant Welcome
A few years ago, the United Church of Christ launched an ad campaign for their ‘God Is Still Speaking’ initiative. One of my favorites was the ‘Ejector Commercial’. The commercial starts off with an aerial view of an old church on a Sunday morning as parishioners settle into their pews for the service. The first shot that you see is the quintessential American family – a husband and wife dressed in their Sunday best, slipping into their pew with their daughter – her hair perfectly pinned back and dressed in the same shade of pink as her mother – following closely behind. As they sit down you start to hear the sound of a baby crying and the scene cuts over to a single mom trying to calm her baby daughter. She is looking around nervously and you can tell that she is worried people are going to be bothered by her child’s noise.
All of a sudden you see a panel on the wall with a series of large red buttons. Before you have a chance to wonder what the buttons are for, a hand pushes one of the buttons. You hear the sound of a slingshot as the camera pans back to the mother and her screaming baby just in time to see them ejected out of their pew.
It doesn’t end there. No sooner do you see a biracial couple move close together as they ready themselves for worship that you see the wall of buttons again, hear the slingshot and see them go flying through the air.
A Hispanic man sits down and looks around – buttons, slingshot, gone.
The scene speeds up and you hear slingshot after slingshot and see about half the church go shooting through the air. The last one to go is an elderly gentleman with a walker. Both him and the walker go flying through the air and you hear him yell, “Ahhhhhhh!”
The screen goes black. And you see and hear the words, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we. The United Church of Christ: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. The United Church of Christ.”
Now it sounds tongue and cheek, doesn’t it? Surely, there is no church out there that would possibly install slingshot ejector seats in their pews so that they could send someone flying through the air and out of their building if they didn’t fit the mold of who ‘should’ go to their church, right? Right?
Okay, so the truth is, perhaps the United Church of Christ exaggerated slightly when this commercial came out. I have never actually heard of any churches installing slingshot ejector seats into their pews.
(Especially not in this economy, they all have oil bills to pay!)
However – I have heard of churches, full of well-meaning and well-intentioned congregants, that haven’t exactly been welcoming to people who are visiting for the first time, people who are new to the church community and even people who have been members for years. I have heard of a lot of them, actually. I have been to them.
Bruce and I both grew up in churches from the time we were very small and never knew what it was like to have to have to find a new church until we moved to Atlanta in 2007 for my master’s program. I was shocked at how difficult it was to start over! Sunday mornings brought anxious nerves instead of excited readiness to spend time with my friends and connect with my spirituality. Instead of running for hugs and cheerful embraces during the passing of the peace, we would awkwardly extend our hands to the people around us. We would slip out without going to fellowship or coffee hour, get in the car and have a, “What did you think?” “I don’t know, what did you think?” “Well, I thought it was nice, did you like it?” carousel conversation.
It is not that any of the members of the churches that we were visiting were bad people. It is just that I believe it is against our basic human nature to reach out to strangers.
Now this is a bold statement for me to make. But hear me out! I think that it is within our basic human nature to seek safety, to seek shelter and to stay inside the comfort zones of our friends and our families. I think that we want to be protected and that it is very, very difficult to move outside of those comfort zones.
I think hospitality is a lot more difficult than it seems.
The reason that I say this is because eventually Bruce and I did find a church, a wonderful congregation in Marietta, Georgia. We quickly became involved with the youth and Christian Education programs. We helped out with lunches and dinners and fellowship hour. We led the children’s church and helped with the music in worship. Sunday mornings were not only a time met with excited readiness to spend with my friends and connect with my spirituality, but also a time to run in five different directions and try to get myself organized for the morning. And looking back I wonder if I ever stopped and looked around to see if there were any new anxious-nervous-looking faces in the congregation. I was focused, I was trying to catch up with my friends and I was trying to recharge myself spiritually.
So even though the Gospel said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,’ and even though I know in my heart that I want to be a person that always extends the highest level of hospitality, sometimes I think I fall short. Sometimes I think that a lot of us fall short.
I think hospitality is a lot more difficult than it seems.
Now you don’t have to raise your hand and confess, but I invite you to think about times when you may have fallen short. I love this church – but I would be willing to bet that there have been times when radical hospitality and extravagant welcome, have not been extended to visitors, to new members and even to existing members.
I think that hospitality is a lot more difficult than it seems.
So maybe we are not ejecting people out of their seats per say, but I do think that members of churches – all churches, including this one and churches on all sides of the theological spectrum – have a difficult time extending hospitality.
We are nice people. We are good people. We are wonderful, charming and loving people. This community is lucky to have one another – I see that every single day! I feel blessed to be a part of it.
But I also think that now is the time to push ourselves just a little bit further.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that we read this morning used a language that we don’t often use in our church today. He talked about sin exercising dominion over our mortal bodies and the fact that we obey passion rather than rely on God’s grace. Paul said that we ‘are slaves of the one whom you obey.’
Language of slavery, dominion of sin and mortal passion make it hard to read this passage and find relevance in the world today. But I think that if you remember that Paul was speaking to a specific audience when he wrote this and try to read between those contextual and cultural lines, you can hear and see something that speaks so strongly to what I am talking about today.
Paul knew that humans were not perfect. When Paul said ‘sin’ and ‘slaves to impurity’, I say ‘humanity’ and ‘human nature’. When Paul said, “Therefore do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions,” I say, “Sometimes – even though it is hard – you need to push back against your human nature, you need to put yourself outside of your comfort zone and extend a different kind of hand of hospitality.”
Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’ But Jesus did not say that this was going to be easy.
Paul said, ‘Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies.’ But Paul did not say that it was going to be easy.
I say that ‘I think that now is the time to push ourselves just a little bit further.’ But I am not going to say that it is going to be easy.
The sign above the front door says, “A New Beginning”. I wonder how many people – people who have been to this church in the past, people who have stopped in on Christmas and Easter and people who have always wondered what the big white church in The Village was all about – wonder what “A New Beginning” means. I wonder how many of those people will slow down to see what time church starts on Sunday mornings. I wonder how many parents will see ads for Vacation Bible School or Fall Church School and sign their children up, because they are intrigued by the new beginning. I wonder how many people will see that sign and stop in for a visit some Sunday morning.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I know that one of the things that everyone would like to see at this church is growth. People would like to see members who have left come back and people would like to see new people in the community visit and join us.
Now in a way, it is hard to really focus on this during the summer because attendance drops so significantly. But I do think that the summer is a perfect time to think about hospitality, to think about what it means to be a church of extravagant welcome and to think about what it means to truly live out the Gospel message, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’ I think that the summer is a perfect time to acknowledge Paul’s words that we are human and find new ways to move outside of our comfort zones. I think that the summer is a perfect time to think, to really think, about the type of Christians that we want to be and the church that we want to be. I think we all have a lot of learning and a lot of growing to do this summer – and I am really excited to see what comes out of it.
If you came to church this morning looking to hear a definitive sermon with a lot of concrete answers, then I apologize, because that’s just not what you are going to get today. But if you came to church this morning looking to hear a sermon that pushes you and causes you to think and has the capability to transform you and the church that you love so dearly, then I think you came to the right place.
I do believe that we can be a church of extravagant welcome. I believe that we can grow, that we can be transformed to something we never thought possible. It may not be easy; it may push us to do things that may make us uncomfortable and scared; but I think the result is going to be spectacular.
I think that hospitality is a lot more difficult than it seems. But I also think that with a little bit of hard work, a lot of love and commitment and a showering of grace, we are going to journey on a path towards radical hospitality.
We WILL be a church of extravagant welcome.