By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 12, 1997
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
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
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