As I mentioned last week, I want to spend the next few Sundays talking about my goals for our life together in the coming year. This Sunday, I want to focus on the area of evangelism and being a welcoming congregation. One of my goals for us is that we challenge and stretch ourselves to be even more open and welcoming as a congregation. There are many parts of “welcoming” that we do as a congregation.
We try to be welcoming when someone visits the congregation. Even if you’ve attended the church for many years, or even all your life, all of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of visiting another congregation for some reason or another. Especially if you’ve gone through the process of looking for a new place of worship, or trying for the first time to try out this thing called church, you know that it can be very intimidating to walk into to a service of worship for the first time. You are entering into a place where, at least in a congregation of about this size or smaller, people more or less know each other. You’re entering into a place where everyone else knows the way things are usually done. As regulars, we don’t always think about what we take for granted. For example, we assume that everyone knows to stand up when we sing the Doxology without it being announced. We assume that people know what we mean when we say “Narthex.” We assume that people know the words of the Lord’s Prayer. We have a familiarity with the life of the church that visitors don’t have, and sometimes I think we forget what a bold step, what a risk it is, what a brave act of seeking out God it is for a visitor to come to worship with us.
So we seek to be ever more welcoming to those who come to worship. Practically, this means we want to pay attention to visitors - we need to move out of our own comfort zones to greet those who are unfamiliar to us, to invite people to coffee hour, to help show someone around the church, to express that we’d love to have someone join us for worship again, to answer questions someone might have. Beyond that, it means thinking about how we can be welcoming in other ways – how is our building welcoming? How are our programs inviting? How is our worship welcoming? All of these are matters we can attend to in order to be more welcoming. For example, we just approved a project at Parish Council, dreamed up by Cee Cee Andrew, that will help us revitalize our nursery room, because Cee Cee feels strongly that providing a warm, clean, inviting space for parents to bring their small children can have a big impact on how welcome they feel.
We also want to make sure folks know we’re glad that they’ve been here. Our Evangelism Team has worked on following up with those who’ve visited us for worship. We don’t want to overwhelm people, but we also don’t want people to wonder whether or not we cared if they were here – we do! And then, when people make the decision either to become members of this congregation or to attend regularly, we want to help people feel that they can say, “This church is my church – this is where I belong.” That means we want to let people know that they are not only welcome but encouraged to become part of the work of the church – our mission and ministries. Last week we welcomed four new members, and I can share with you that already theses new members, Melanie, Jessica, Angela, and CJ, are getting involved. Among them you’ll find that already they’ve helped with the Christmas Eve children’s pageant, or brought in items for the food baskets and our personal items collection this month, or joined the choir. They’ve jumped right in. And I hope that we continue to help them be part of this congregation as they make this step of faith in their relationship with God.
There’s another step in being a welcoming congregation – and that’s actually what I would say is the “first” step. How do we encourage folks to attend worship or an event or function of our congregation in the first place? What brings someone here to worship for the first time? What brings someone into contact with our congregation for the first time? This first step is also probably the most challenging for us. If we only wait for people to show up here on their own, we will miss out on many opportunities for sharing God’s love with our neighbors, and we’ll limit ourselves in how we can grow or even maintain the body we have. We must actively be reaching out to others, rather than waiting for others to reach out to us. Jesus is our model – he certainly responded to the needs that people brought to him, but he also went out of his way to be in relationship with others and to invite them into relationship with God. We must do the same. Our evangelism team can help us – our carnival in September was a super example of reaching out and inviting people in. But the most powerful tool we have in inviting folks in is ourselves. There’s no more powerful invitation to come to know God than the one that comes from someone who is your friend, someone who cares for you personally. I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to invite and bring at least one person to worship with you this year. Imagine – imagine, if each person here helped one person this year become part of this congregation. Imagine if even each family unit here helped one person become part of this congregation – that would be amazing! If this work of welcoming sounds particularly compelling to you, I invite you to join the Evangelism Committee for a meeting on Thursday, March 10th, at 6:30pm, and help us dream new ways to open our hearts to all those God draws into this place.
As I lay this hope for you, this goal I have for our work together, I must make it clear that all of this is undergirded by, grounded in, matters because of how God is in relationship with us and who God calls us to be. We are called to be welcoming because we are welcomed by God. The work of welcoming is what we call hospitality. Biblically, hospitality is an essential part of the identity of the people of God. In the Old Testament, the Israelites are called to be hospitable to strangers because they were once strangers in strange lands. For me, the deepest grounding we find for our call to be welcoming as we are welcomed by God comes from our reading from John’s gospel today. It is one of my favorite passages. We find here one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. Jesus presents us with an image that ties into the land and the people that were close to him. “I am the true vine,” Jesus declares. “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” God is the vinegrower. Jesus talks about how the branches – us – can’t have live if they are separated from the vine – himself. And as branches, we’re meant to be the bearers of much fruit – fruit that we’re able to grow because we abide in him as he abides in us. We literally take our life from the vine, and through Christ, we can become fruit-bearing disciples. And Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide – that word means literally “to stay at home.” So we can read it as, “Stay at home in me as I stay at home in you.”
To abide in someone – to let someone abide in you – these acts suggest intimate relationships – being at home in one another. That’s what Jesus lifts up as how we are meant to be with God and one another. To offer abiding love is to offer deep hospitality. Think about getting ready for company. Sometimes, when you have company over, or you visit someone at their house, sometimes you are just that – company. But other times, someone will say to you, “please, make yourself at home.” And sometimes they truly mean it. And when they say this, what they mean is, “be yourself here. Act here as you would act at your own home. My home is your home.” What does it mean to make God at home in us? God grows us, shapes us, prunes us. So the message from the scriptures today is clear: God tells us repeatedly that we are meant to feel at home in God’s heart. We’re meant to be ourselves. To be welcome family. To be able to kick our shoes off and act like we’re not just visiting, but ready to settle in and stay awhile. And what God wants in return is the same welcome from us. God wants to be welcomed into our lives, our homes, our hearts too. God wants not to be an occasional visitor, but someone always there, remaining, always, within us. And further, as part of this family, this ever-expanding family, our relationship with God is never just about God and us – it’s never just the two of us. How we love God and how God loves us always involves our love for our brothers and sisters too. This house that we’ve invited God to stay in with us – God has taken the liberty of inviting over some guests – namely, everybody else.
Jesus says that we are part of the vine – we’re the branches, growing out of Christ, our common ground. That means that the same vine that nourishes and sustains me is the vine that nourishes and sustains you and is the vine that nourishes and sustains others. We’re connected. In fact, John argues, we can’t even claim to love God unless we first claim to love our brothers and sisters. We love God by loving others. God remains at home in us when we invite others to be at home in our hearts as well.
Jesus is the best model we have for how to be welcoming, and the amazing thing about this is that Jesus didn’t have a home, or one place of worship he attended every week into which he could welcome people. He didn’t have a home that we know of where he could invite people over for dinner and make them feel at ease, and he didn’t only make sure to say hello when people showed up where he was. No, Jesus went where the people were. He was always on the move, always out and about, and yet, even though he was the stranger, he still seemed to be the person doing the welcoming. Because wherever Jesus went, he invited folks to be at home in him, and sought to be at home in their lives.
We’re called to carry our welcome with us, to be inviting whether we’re the hosts or the guests, so that wherever we are, we are carrying the message that God makes us a welcome home in God’s heart. Welcome. God welcomes us. Let us be God’s welcome to others. Amen.