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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Heartfelt Hospitality (Hebrews 13, Romans 12, Matthew 25)

Sermon by: Royallen Wiley; September 20, 2015
Text: Hebrews 13:1-2; Romans 12:10-13; Matthew 25:37-40

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Some Music Used ::
Hymn of Praise: We are One in the Spirit (ST. BRENDAN'S)
Song of Praise: Holy Spirit (Getty/Townend)
Offering of Music: As We Believe (choir) (Grenz/Butler)
Song of Sending: Lord, You Give the Great Commission (ABBOT'S LEIGH)
Postlude: Rick Bean, piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Heartfelt Hospitality.  You may be asking, “aren’t there more pressing issues?”  Yet, when we read the Bible more events are hospitality related than any other.   There are many examples:  Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana, Abraham showed hospitality to three strangers who turned out to be God and two angels, and Jesus often made a point of relaxing with friends like Mary and Martha. The area around Jerusalem has rough terrain and can be very unforgiving.  There were no Marriott Courtyards or Ramada Inns on every corner.  Paul and other itinerant missionaries who were spreading the gospel through the Middle East and Asia Minor were dependent on the kindness of fellow Christians and total strangers.

In this day and age, we may exhibit hospitality differently, but it is no less important.   When I was a young boy, I remember my Grandma Wiley being the model of Christian hospitality preparing family picnics, fixing a light supper for her Pinochle club and baking pies for a church bazaar.  In today’s helter-skelter world, home-made meals may no longer be the cornerstone of hospitality, but it is shown in other ways.  It may involve inviting friends out to dine at a favorite ethnic restaurant, linking up with buddies for a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks or even in today’s busy world a casserole or homemade soup from a caring neighbor is still very much appreciated.

In today’s scripture from the last chapter of the book of Hebrews, the writer includes many encouragements and specifically emphasizes that believers must show love and hospitality to others, especially strangers.  This sentiment is echoed in the writings of Paul in the book of Romans as he talks about being devoted to others in brotherly love and gives several examples of that.  In the Greek, there are many different meanings for the English word love. In this particular verse in Romans, Paul uses the Greek word that means familial love.  Christians are to love members of the family of God like they would their own physical families.   At Good Shepherd church, we are committed to our church family and showing that love to one another.

In the scripture from the gospel of Matthew that John read this morning, we hear Christ telling his disciples how to treat those in distress and in need of aid.  When we show compassion and kindness to those in difficult circumstances, we are practicing the merciful attitude that God expects us to exhibit.  It can be difficult to not be so tender-hearted that we become an easy mark for those who would take advantage of others.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to see into the other person’s heart to gauge their true motives.  We need to develop a keen sense of discernment that realizes when mercy is a better option than the strict application of rules.  It has also been my experience that in many cases these opportunities to show compassion come at unguarded and unexpected moments.

Concerning hospitality at Good Shepherd Church you may wonder, “Don’t we have a committee for that?”  We do.  A couple of years ago, Pastor Robert felt we needed to put together a more systematic plan to make sure we were providing a warm welcome to visitors.   We have a lot more visitors than you think and have always been curious how we come across to first time visitors.   And that’s hard to figure out if we only see them one time.    We are well aware of those with whom we connect.  But, wonder why we don’t connect with others.  In some cases, it may simply not be a good fit with theology or style.   We encourage visitors to visit Good Shepherd at least 2 or 3 times to get the full effect and determine if this is the place where God is calling them.

There are formal approaches to church growth and less formal ones.  I have learned that larger churches in our area put such an emphasis on hospitality and greeting visitors that they have paid staff whose job it is to greet first time visitors and shepherd them all the way to joining the church and at that point are handed off to another paid staff member.  My cousin Scott Wiley, attends a large Presbyterian church in suburban Maryland that I have visited from time to time.  Between visits, I noticed that the size of the congregation had grown significantly and that they had built a new sanctuary.  I asked him what sort of program that they used to recruit new members and grow the church.  His reply: “There was no plan.  People just kept coming and we finally had to do something.” 

As Abraham Lincoln once said “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”   A common issue in many churches, is that a guest shows up for a worship service and never returns.  Recently, there was an unscientific Twitter poll conducted by a church growth consultant, Thom Rainer that asked why first time visitors don’t return to a church.   The results were fascinating and generated a lot of internet chatter and even controversy.  This information was shared at a Session meeting last year and generated some good discussion. Below are the top ten reasons in order of response why first time visitors don’t return to a church

1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. This response was my greatest surprise for two reasons. First, I was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, I was really surprised that it was the most frequent response.
2. Unfriendly church members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it.
3. Unsafe and unclean children’s area. This response generated the greatest emotional reactions. If your church does not give a high priority to children, don’t expect young families to attend.
4. No place to get information. If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.
5. Bad church website. Most of the church guests went to the church website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a website are address and times of service. It’s just that basic.
6. Poor signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there.
7. Insider church language. Most of the respondents were not referring to theological language as much as language that only the members know. My favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.”
8. Boring or bad service. My surprise was not the presence of this item. The surprise was that it was not ranked higher.
9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches.
10. Dirty facilities. Some of the comments: “Didn’t look like it had been cleaned in a week.” “No trash cans anywhere.” Restrooms were worse than a bad truck stop.” “Pews had more stains than a Tide commercial.”

At Good Shepherd we do most of these really well so I just want to touch on a couple of the reasons that are listed.   Number one was a surprise in that you would think this would be seen as a way to welcome folks especially the first time.   It also surprises me that “boring or bad service” was listed all the way down as #8.   Personally, I would have also listed name tags.

This unscientific poll generated so much controversy that it spawned a follow up poll to understand the first choice of most who responded. So what is it about this stand and greet time that many guests don’t like? Here are the seven most common responses, again listed in order of frequency.

1. Many guests are introverts. “I would rather have a root canal than be subjected to a stand and greet time.”
2. Some guests perceive that the members are not sincere during the time of greeting. “In most of the churches it should be called a stand and fake it time. The members weren’t friendly at all except for ninety seconds.”
3. Many guests don’t like the lack of hygiene that takes place during this time. “Look, I’m not a germaphobe, but that guy wiped his nose right before he shook my hand.”
4. Many times the members only greet other members. “I went to one church where no one spoke to me the entire time of greeting. I could tell they were speaking to people they already knew.”
5. Both members and guests at some churches perceive the entire exercise is awkward. “Nowhere except churches do we have times that are so awkward and artificial. If members are going to be friendly, they would be friendly at other times as well. They’re not.”
6. In some churches, the people in the congregation are told to say something silly to one another. “So the pastor told us to tell someone near us that they are good looking. I couldn’t find anyone who fit that description, so I left and didn’t go back.”
7. Not only do some guests dread the stand and greet time, so do some members. “I visited the church and went through the ritual of standing and greeting, but many of the members looked just as uncomfortable as I was. We were all doing a required activity that none of us liked.”

If there’s a takeaway from this information, it is this:  no matter how well- meaning folks are, people seem to have a way of detecting fake friendliness.   If I were to use one word to describe the fellowship at Good Shepherd, it would be genuine.  Call to Community is a signature Sunday morning event at Good Shepherd.  Rest assured, no emergency elder meeting is going to be called at Good Shepherd to do away with greeting time.  

My Mother is quite skilled at reaching out to others.   Across the road at a neighboring farm was a small tenant house that was rented and there was a good bit of turnover. Whenever a new family would move in, my Mom, without fail, would invite them to go to church with us.  Usually Mom was rebuffed but one time she hit pay dirt.   Guy and Ruth Coffey had four young children ages 6, 5, 4 and 3.  One right after the other.   Guy wasn’t keen on church so Mom and I would pick us the Coffey Family in our Ford Galaxy and cars and seat belt laws being what they were in the early seventies we were able to fit all 7 of us in the car.   Ruth and the Coffey kids liked church and since a big Sunday was 40 or 50 at most, the congregation just increased by 10%.  The pastor serving the church at that time on a part time basis was a retired pastor, Charles Pratt.  Rev. Pratt had a rather aristocratic air as he had previously served large churches.   He was a humorous and gentle soul.

After a time Rev. Pratt paid the Coffeys a visit and convinced Guy to come too.  After visiting a couple of times, they agreed to join the church and have their four children baptized.   This was quite a coup for Rev. Pratt.   The big day came and just like we do here at GSPC, we ask the parents to come forward to the front and participate in the sacrament of baptism and publicly answer a couple of questions.   This isn’t always easy for people to do.   In this particular case it was very true.   I had a birds-eye view sitting up front seated on the organ bench.  As Guy approached the front of the church, I could see he was visibly nervous.  And by the time Rev. Pratt launched into the baptism questions. I was seriously concerned that he was going to make it thru as he was trembling so badly.  I also thought to myself that although we love public proclamations of faith this is not what we should be about, to scare people to death during a sacrament of the church.  Mercifully, Guy and his family survived the ceremony.  But, that’s not the end of the story.  After a time, Guy decided that the Presbyterian Church was a bit too tame and decided to check out the Southern Baptist Church down the road where things were a bit more lively.   He decided that was the place for this family and to Rev. Pratt’s credit he went with them to the service at the Baptist church where they have the honest to goodness dunking and baptism.   The Coffey family became regulars at Beaverlick Baptist Church sitting on the front row whenever the church was open.   All the result of a simple invitation and as it turned out our little Presbyterian church was a stepping stone for that family to find out where God wanted them to be.

A few weeks ago we held a church retreat with officers and staff that was led by In Christ Supporting Ministries.   Sarah, the retreat leader, asked us to visualize our service to Christ (whatever it is) with Jesus being present.   Sometimes we forget that and see our Christian service as a burden and a chore.   At the retreat, we were reminded that Christ carries the burden; we don't save, we don't heal, we don't fix... Jesus does all the heavy lifting and just invites us to be present. I think that is very freeing, especially for those hearing and understanding it for the first time. For example, rather than think that as a result of today’s message that I need add “invite 5 people to church” to my to do list.  Instead, think of it as Jesus doing the inviting.  As Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.”

Scripture tells us, that we are not alone.   We read in the Old Testament that God was with the people of Israel. As part of the Great Commission Jesus says “I am with you always.”  He’s with us at soccer practice, he’s with us at Wal-Mart when the check-out clerk is having a bad day, he is with us when we see a homeless person asking for a hand out.

Related to that, this past summer I have been spending a few Saturday mornings trying to tame the wilderness on the outer edge of our property around the curve on Swans Run Road.  Mostly I was spraying round up to kill weeds.  I was very hot and sweaty and not in the greatest of moods.  Invariably, someone would stop by whether on a bike, walking a dog or driving a car and inquire if I was with the church.   I would smile and suppress the urge to answer sarcastically.   A conversation would ensue and I politely answer questions.  I would explain our goal to be a good neighbor and that was well received.  You’d be surprised about how much people observe about what goes on here.   There are many comments on the nice condition of the grounds.   A comment about how great it is to have a ball field for kids to use.   There’s a garden.  What’s that about?   Some light griping about the weeds and landscaping along Swans Run….working on it.   The conversation usually wrapped up with an invitation to come join us Sunday AM at 11 and check things out.   As I reflected on these conversations after the officers retreat I could see how Jesus was present, not in a formal moment, but in a moment when I wasn’t at my best.  I evangelized, even if by accident, more this summer than I have in the past twenty years. 

God calls us to serve by offering hospitality to others.  We need to be alert and observant for opportunities.  We need to be genuine.  And, we need to invite folks to join in fellowship on Sunday morning.   Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?  No, but that seems to me like someone saying they are a Panthers fan and the only way they root for the Panthers is sitting at home and listening to the radio.  What if you had the opportunity to be invited by a friend to sit in a prime location at the 50 yard line and experience being a fan?   Isn’t church much the same way?  How great it is to be with other believers and to feed off the enthusiasm and energy of Sunday worship.

When you enter the building through the glass doors you may have noticed that we have something plastered on the wall that says we are ordinary people with an extraordinary God.  We’re just ordinary people tuned in to God.  Think for a moment about the people who have come through those doors over the years.   Through those doors have come people feeling hopeless and they have found hope.   Through those doors have come people feeling hungry, literally and figuratively and they have been fed.  Through those doors have come people needing encouragement and a kind word and they have received a hug.  Through these doors people have entered people seeking something even if they don’t know how to articulate it.   A classic example is Paul Hamilton, who randomly showed up one day.  I didn’t know Paul when he was a young man but my understanding from his friends is that Paul was not only an atheist but a very vocal one.  Then something happened where God started working and stirring in his heart and he came to Good Shepherd.  Today, Paul pastors New Life Community Church in Abingdon, MD.  Does this mean that everyone who walks through the church doors transforms from atheist to pastor? Probably not.  But there is a reason that God calls them here.  Won’t you join me in inviting others to join the fellowship and rest in the heartfelt hospitality of Good Shepherd Church?

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