ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 12, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
BEING THE CHURCH
Romans 15: 1 – 13; Luke 10: 25 – 37
The last couple weeks, we’ve focused on the challenges of witnessing. Sharing our faith story or the message of the gospel can be intimidating tasks yet being the Church and behaving like Christians is within the reach of every follower of Jesus Christ. In our gospel reading, when the lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, he already knew the answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10: 27). Wanting to wiggle out of part B, he asked Jesus “who is my neighbour? (vs. 29) Jesus responded with a parable about a man who was mugged; badly beatenhe was left at the roadside to die. To avoid being ritually contaminated, two religious leaders walked by without helping the man. Ironically, it was an impious Samaritan who aided the man until he recovered. Jesus turned the lawyer’s question upside down by asking, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (vs. 36) Jesus wanted people to realize it isn’t “who is my neighbour?” that matters but “to whom am I a neighbour?” Everyone has the potential to be a neighbour. To be the Church is to be a neighbour. Loving our neighbour has many expressions. Helping people survive or meeting physical needs is one. Sharing our faith with friends is another. Today I want to focus loving our neighbour into our fellowship. The Church is a good neighbour when we invite, welcome and include all people.
A “monster-in-law” imagined the following invitation: “We regretfully invite you to the wedding of our perfect son The Doctor and some cheap two-bit tramp whose name escapes me right now…” Sometimes the Church does no better. When Terry and I were in Scotland we went into an historical church building where two tour guides were present. One lady was quite chatty. She began by telling me the congregation was on the verge of closing due to attrition. Instead of reaching out and inviting people in, she blamed outsiders for their lack of interest. She grumbled about the congregation with whom they’d amalgamated. She told me in detail about a split in the congregation, complete with a few choice words for those with whom she disagreed. Half of them hated the minister, whose misdemeanors were printed in the bulletin, and the Presbytery had been called in. Noticing a “prayer tree” with requests hanging on it and I asked who said the prayers. She said, “Oh, we just throw them out.” I thought no wonder her church is dying if this is her best attempt at being invitational. Who would ever darken the door? No one wants to belong to a church where everyone is miserable and fighting. When extending an invitation we want to put our best foot forward. People will discover our humanity soon enough, but at this stage we need to be positive and enthusiastic. We need to convey that what we have to offer is going to enrich their lives. Invitations get better responses when they’re up-beat, sincere, and personal. A Real Estate firm in Oregon recognizes the value of building positive relationships. Each agent makes monthly contact with 500 families getting to know the people and establishing a positive connection. They don’t press to come in the house or ask for a listing. After 6 contacts, people remember the agent and their firm. When done consistently for 1 ½ years, it has proven to secure 80% of the available listings. People outside the church want to know we genuinely care about them and will build a relationship regardless of the outcome. In the gospel records Jesus made contact with 132 people: 6 were in the Temple, 4 in synagogues and 122 were with the people in the mainstream of life. Everyone he met, knew he cared about them. Each one was invited into the kingdom in some way. We need to be where people are and when we invite we need to remember it’s difficult for people to walk into an unknown church, they need to feel safe. They need encouragement and they may need accompaniment. They need both an invitation and follow through. Connecting with people, praying for them and enthusiastically asking them out to worship or a fellowship event is an invitational way of being the Church.
We’re also a neighbour to people when we welcome them. Paul encouraged both Jewish and Gentile Christians to “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15: 7) Warmly welcoming people is an easy thing to do. It’s a small gesture with a massive impact. It says “we want you here” which tells them God wants them too. Cowboy Joe was telling a friend about his visit to a big-city church. “When I got there, they had me park in the corral,” Joe began. “You mean the parking lot,” interrupted Charlie. “Inside the door, I was met by a dude.” “That would be the usher,” Charlie explained. “Well, the usher led me down the trail,” Joe said. “Uh, the aisle?” “Then, he stopped at a stall and told me to sit there.” “Pew,” Charlie corrected. “Ya!” recalled Joe, “That’s just what the lady said when I sat down beside her.” Christians have many subtle ways of saying “pew”. In another Scottish town we decided to attend worship. We couldn’t find the building, or get directions so we arrived a little late. We were pleased that a congregational member, who was also late. In the foyer she handed us a hymn book and encouraged us to go in. Being strangers, we got many suspicious looks. After worship, the congregation proved to be very friendly – to each other. No one smiled at us, let alone spoke to us. We’d have gone for coffee but weren’t invited and had no idea where it was, so we decided to leave. Terry took the hymn book to return it and as he went out, a woman snatched it from his hand and said, “We wouldn’t want you walking off with that.” Explaining we were tourists, we asked if we could make a phone call and were coldly told, “We don’t have a phone here”. We asked if we might use her cell phone; she said hers wasn’t working. We asked if there’d be anyone else, reluctantly she called a man over who said he didn’t have his with him. No other attempt to help was made. By the grace of God, St. Stephen’s is experienced by visitors as a friendly, welcoming congregation. That’s both rare and significant; yet we don’t want to ever rest on our laurels. It’s important to greet new people, learn their names, and chat with them after worship to learn a little about their lives. We need to guard against enjoying only each other or talking with our friends to the exclusion of others. We can visit with friends all week – we only have one chance on a Sunday to love our neighbour. Being the Church is welcoming strangers as Christ has welcomed you.
Finally we need to include people. Inclusion is a growing edge for our congregation. It’s not that we don’t do it, but we can always be a better neighbour. From the moment a person walks through the door we either make room for them or not – quite literally. Visitors feel awkward and want a quick place to sit – they wonder, “Who will be a neighbour to me?” How do you respond? Do you slide down the pew or ignore their presence? Do you leave room near the aisles for people to sit? How do ensure every person feels it’s a place where they belong? Do we make a point of inviting them to study or fellowship groups? Do we call them during difficult times? How do we bring the people on the margins of the congregation into the centre? Too often churches make the mistake of assuming those on the edges want to be there; when in reality they’re afraid to step on toes and waiting to be invited in – always invite and let people make their own decision. Including people extends beyond our walls. You can include people by inviting them out for coffee, dropping an email or following up with people who have been absent. Inclusion includes not just letting people be here but letting them in so they can use their gifts. When new people volunteer for something do we resent that they may be taking our place? Are we impatient with them or encouraging? Who do we trust and how long does that take? Do we make it easy for them to open doors or do we control where they can go. A new Church volunteer needed something that was in a seldom used, locked cupboard but didn’t know the combination. She asked the minister to help. He placed his fingers on the lock’s dial and raised his eyes heavenward for a moment. Then he confidently spun the dial and opened the lock. The woman was extremely impressed until the minister confided, “The numbers are written on the ceiling.” I’m not suggesting everyone needs the keys or combinations to every lock – need and security direct those decisions; I am wondering what are the inner circle secrets and the inside scoops that we needlessly guard because they give us power and keep others out? It may be something as simple as giving them a mail file or where we keep paper or as significant as a team decision or the resource book. Many congregations guard those things. Letting others in, accepting, trusting and including them are not only ways we can be the Church, they’re ways we can be a better, healthier, more attractive and stickier congregation.
Who is your neighbour? Anyone you invite, welcome and include. The question is: to whom will you be a neighbour? Being the Church means loving God and loving people. Invite, welcome, include. Be a neighbour, be the Church.