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You're Welcome!
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 12, 1997

Readings:

Judges 19:13-21 Welcoming the traveler
Matthew 10:1, 5-16 Jesus sends his twelve disciples
Arcana Coelestia #7418.2 Shaking the dust off your feet

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matt. 10:14, 15)

As promised in my New Year's sermon and in the newsletter, today I am starting an occasional series of sermons on the spiritual aspects of being a church that welcomes people and serves their spiritual needs. As a church, I believe it is time for us to begin planning for outreach and growth. This will be a primary agenda item at our Church Committee meeting next week--and I encourage you to come and participate in that meeting. The more people we have involved in this work, the more progress we will make.

At our Church Committee meeting, we will discuss practical aspects of outreach and growth--such as programs to offer, visitor follow-up, and use of the building and grounds. Here in our worship service, we will consider spiritual aspects of growth and outreach. There are, of course, many techniques and formulas for reaching out to new people and making them more likely to come--and return--to our church. But these techniques and formulas mean nothing if we as individuals and as a faith community do not serve the spiritual needs of the people we attract. Techniques and formulas are the form or pattern of our outreach; the spiritual service that we offer people is the substance both of our outreach and of our church. If there is no substance behind the church growth techniques that we use, what good are the techniques? They are empty.

Some of you may not be here today as members of this congregation; you may be here as individuals wishing to gain spiritual nourishment. Perhaps you are concerned that this sermon will have a lot to say to active members of this church, but not much for you personally. However, what I have to say this morning is not only about how a church needs to welcome people through its doors and serve their spiritual needs. It is also about how each one of us needs to welcome people into our lives and serve their spiritual needs on a person-to-person basis.

It is only when each of us as individuals become people who welcome and serve others spiritually that our church as a whole can do so. Our church--any church--is not some abstract concept above and beyond the people who make it up. No. We, the members and friends of this church, are the church. Yes, we do have the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God as the center of our church. But it is only when the Lord and his Word are welcomed into our hearts and minds, and expressed in a life of active service for others, that we actually become a church. The church exists, not where the Lord and his teachings are merely known, but where they are lived.

Our reading from the book of Judges gives us an image of welcoming others and serving their needs. The Levite and the woman and young man who were with him were travelers. Their destination was the house of the Lord. They were sitting in the open square of the city where everyone could see them; yet no one had offered to take them in.

There are many such travelers in the world today--many in our own community. They are seeking "the house of the Lord," but no one has offered to take them in on their way. They may have talked to religious friends and even gone to various churches, but somehow they did not find a welcome. Somehow their spiritual needs were not met.

These are spiritual seekers. They may have been hurt by previous contacts with organized religion. Perhaps they grew up in a church that used fear and guilt as motivators toward religious belief. Perhaps they have felt the sting of a clergy person or "religious" lay person who professed great faith and personal righteousness but did not live by it--who, instead, took advantage of others in the name of religion. Perhaps they are wary of those who claim to be spiritual--and their wariness may be for good reason.

The travelers in our story from Judges had good reason to be wary also. They had already passed by a city of foreigners--people who could be expected not to respect them or take care of them. They wanted to stay at a city of their own people. But even the city they reached--a city of Israelites--turned out not to be a friendly place. If we had continued reading, we would have found that the people of that city very much wanted to take advantage of the travelers. They did mistreat and kill the woman. If the old man coming in from the field had not felt compassion for them and taken them into his home, it is likely that all three would have been mistreated and killed.

Women in the Bible often represent our heart or feeling side. Just as the woman was mistreated and killed, many people have had their feelings of love for the church mistreated and killed by painful encounters with organized religion and with "religious" people who are wolves in sheep's clothing. They have not had their spiritual "animals" fed--meaning having their simple good desires nourished and strengthened; they have not had their feet washed--meaning getting help to put their outward lives in order; they have not been given the food and drink of nourishing love and satisfying spiritual truth. Instead, they have all too often been made to feel guilt and shame at not living up to the church's legalistic standards. Jesus' message of life changing love and understanding has all too often been transformed from a guiding shepherd's staff into a bruising billy club.

We can expect to find that many of the people looking for a church have had this kind of experience with religion. Those who have had good experiences with their church are not likely to be looking elsewhere. But those who have had bad experiences with some other church--if they have not lost interest in church altogether--are the ones likely to try us out. Of course, there are also people who are simply looking for something more satisfying than what they now have. However, even with these people, I suspect that if we scratched the surface, we would find wounds that need healing. All of us have wounds that need healing. Some of us have found healing balm in the church. Others are still looking for it--still bearing wounds with no one to help.

Jesus' ministry consisted of preaching, teaching, and healing. Historically, the Swedenborgian church has been very good at preaching and teaching. If we wish to provide a full ministry in the pattern of our Lord, we must add to our other two strengths a strength in healing. While Jesus often did draw crowds for his teaching, without his healing work he never would have made such an impression on people. As Jesus said in one of his encounters with the self-righteous teachers of the Law, "Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'?" (Mark 2:9) When we show people by our loving care that our church has the power to heal emotional and spiritual wounds, the real strength of our ministry reaches them. Teaching is good; it gives a map and compass for life. But healing people's inner wounds is the heart of the church.

This is true for each of us individually. If we wish to be a part of the Lord's renewed Christian church on earth, our task is not only to learn what the church teaches. It is to live by those teachings through working to care for and heal the inner wounds of the people we encounter each day. Some people may not be ready or asking for healing. But when we see someone who is hurt and is reaching out for help, it is the essence of Christianity to give that help in a loving and respectful way.

This is also true for us as a church. We would all like to see this church grow. But people will not come to our church--and they will especially not return to our church--just because we want it to grow. No! To use a material analogy, we do not usually shop at certain stores because we want to help those stores survive. Rather, we shop there because they have the items we need at prices that we feel we can afford. There may be a grocery store right down the street, but if it does not serve our needs, we will drive out of our way to one that does.

When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to preach the good news of the kingdom and to heal the people's sicknesses, he gave them specific instructions on how to proceed. One of his instructions was in a verse I used in my text: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." We may want to think of ourselves as the Lord's disciples, going out to preach the good news of the new Christianity, and to heal the world's ailments. This is how the Swedenborgian church has too often taken that passage historically. We had something to offer to the world; if they did not receive it gladly, well then, we would just shake the dust off our feet--because they clearly were not worthy of what we offered.

I would suggest that this passage would be more helpful to us if we turn the tables. In our reading from the Arcana, Swedenborg says that this verse "is not referring to houses or towns that do not welcome the disciples; rather, it is talking about people in the church who do not live according to their faith." In other words, we are the cities and towns which the Lord is sending his disciples to visit. Whenever someone comes to our church or to one of us individually seeking to find genuine Christianity in us, the Lord has sent that person on the mission--whether the person realizes it or not. The Lord is always the one who motivates people to seek spiritual growth and healing.

We know that those who come to us have a desire for spiritual healing and understanding; otherwise they would not have left their hobbies and TV sets at home and come to an unfamiliar place to be among people they do not know doing things they are not used to. A person does not walk through our doors by accident; there was a conscious effort of will behind that risky step.

The question, then, is not whether those who come to us are worthy of our faith; the question is whether we are worthy of the faith they have showed in us by coming. If we only preach and teach our faith, but do not live by it, then we are not worthy of their faith. And do you know what? They will sense that we do not really mean it, and they will not come back. They will shake our dust off their feet--and we will fare no better than Sodom and Gomorrah.

But if we really mean what we preach and teach; if we show our love and concern for people by welcoming them, treating them with love and respect, talking and listening to them, and trying to learn what we can do to serve their spiritual needs--if we do these things, then we can share the peace of our church with them. And do you know what? They will come back for more because they know that we love them and care about them, and are here to serve their spiritual needs. This is what being a Christian--and being a Christian church--is all about.



Music: Forever and a Day
1999 by Bruce DeBoer



 
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