Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt 22:15-22
Early in our marriage, Kay and I visited a prominent, well-known historical congregation, of which we were not members. We made it a point to arrive early. We found a parking space and made our way to the front entrance of the sanctuary where an usher provided a bulletin. We were not escorted to a particular pew but given the freedom to find our own seat, which we did, in a pew box, a few rows down the center aisle, on the left.
As I sat there I wondered quietly what it must have been like for families to have worshiped in that same space generations ago. If the walls could only talk and tell their stories. A minute or two went by and I was lost in my thoughts when an older gentleman, accompanied by his wife, tapped me on the shoulder and informed me that Kay and I were sitting in their pew. Without introduction or explanation, we were invited to relocate.
The experience made a lasting impression. What is the culture of Sea Island. Are we good neighbors to one another? Do we readily welcome the stranger? But most importantly, do we welcome Jesus Christ and his message of the gospel?
The church is where we are reminded of the hospitality of Christ as our Lord welcomes each of us as a sheep of his own keeping and where we are called to welcome one another in the love and peace of Christ. The church is where we provide the gift of presence with others and where others provide the gift of presence with us.
The welcoming spirit of the Thessalonian congregation made a lasting impression on Paul and he let others know about it. Surviving strong opposition to the gospel, this early community of Christians saw in Paul the grace of authenticity as he talked about this Jesus whom God had raised from the dead. Paul and his two companions lived and worked among the people investing their lives in the community. In the end, the apostolic mission was successful.
One cannot help but read through the letter and sense that Paul enjoyed a very special relationship with this congregation. According to Paul, this ancient church enjoyed three characteristics that distinguished them as a community of faith: Their works of faith, their labors of love, and their steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ as we remember in another letter to a different church where Paul makes the point that the Lord blesses us with faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love which leads me to the following point. When the love of Jesus Christ permeates a person’s soul, the psyche of a group of people, the corporate spirit of a congregation, friends and neighbors, will feel welcomed and open to the gospel and to one another. May this always be one of our unwritten goals, that all people who walk through the doors of this church seeking the grace of Word and Sacrament feel warmly welcomed in Christ and made to feel at home in Christ. No games. No agendas. No manipulation. Just the love and joy of Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite stories is about the college student who was a week away from graduation. Sunday morning comes and he decides to attend a worship service at a nearby, well-established church. The young man arrives sporting long hair and a scraggly beard, a tee shirt and jeans. As he walks into the sanctuary, he makes his way all the way down to the front but instead of taking a seat in a pew he plops down on the floor.
In a split instant, a patriarch in the congregation stands up. Wearing a coat and tie, the older, distinguished-looking gentleman makes his way to the front of the church by way of the center aisle assisted by a cane. The developing situation has the full attention of the entire congregation who anticipate this young man receiving a harsh reprimand about his inappropriate dress and his lack of decorum.
As the elder reaches the front of the church he leans his walking cane against a pew and carefully braces himself as he sits on the floor next to the college student much to the dismay to the folks in the sanctuary.
Only a matter of seconds tick by when the pastor stands, approaches the pulpit and addresses the congregation, “In a few minutes you will hear a sermon that you will soon forget, but what you have just seen you will always remember.”
As much as Jesus welcomed others and welcomes us, there were folks who did not like Jesus, who disdained his message of the gospel to such a degree that they wanted him gone, eliminated, dead, the only thing holding them back was his ballooning popularity with the people. And this group understood that if they were going to silence the voice of Jesus, they would have to wait for the right time, the right place, and the right moment.
In retrospect, I don’t believe our gospel story is so much about money as it is a story that issues a strong warning: It is impossible to deceive Jesus but it is always possible to deceive ourselves when we question the identity of Christ and do not trust the good news of the gospel.
Every time we turn our backs on someone and do not welcome a neighbor or a stranger, we play a part in trying to silence the voice of Jesus. Welcoming congregations lift up the voice of Christ and his message of the gospel. As a welcoming congregation, may we never be afraid to go where we believe Jesus is calling us to go and may we never be afraid to do what we believe Jesus is calling us to do. May our hearts be open, our hands open, and our presence open and available to anyone and everyone at all times and places in the name of Christ, for Christ.
It was a Sunday morning and the worship service was about to start in a congregation founded between 1685 and 1710, and in a sanctuary built in 1832. History and tradition were very important. Standing on the front porch, I took the hand of a member who was 97 years old. She was born to a family who had rented one of the pew boxes. She was baptized and confirmed from that pew. She fell in love and married from that pew. She gave birth and raised children from that pew. As the years rolled by, she buried a husband and some of her children from that pew.
Escorting “Miss Ella” into the sanctuary and down the aisle we quickly noticed a stranger sitting in her spot. Immediately I thought I had a problem on my hands and wondered what might be the appropriate thing to do. Miss Ella took care of the situation when her face broke into a big smile as she turned and whispered into my ear, “Steve, that stranger is a sign of new life for this old church. I think I’ll sit somewhere else today.” I learned a valuable lesson that day. A heart that is warm, accepting and welcoming of others is a heart that belongs to Jesus Christ.
Turning again to the gospel, Jesus knew immediately that on a day in Jerusalem a particular group of uptight, over-legalistic, super-religious Pharisees were not about to welcome him. In the days to come, however, people like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus would welcome him and with great joy.
As we look at the horizon, down the road, towards the future, in the words of Paul, hearing Christ, believing Christ, following Christ, may we be a welcoming congregation known like the Thessalonians for our works of faith, our labors of love, and our steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ. Amen.
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2017
Steve Keeler, Senior Pastor
Sea Island Presbyterian Church
Beaufort, South Carolina