31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
To start the sermon, I want to do something that I don’t usually do. I hope you will indulge me. Here in just a second, when I give the go ahead, I want you to think about the first time you walked into this building for worship. Maybe it was sixty years ago, maybe it was this morning, but whenever it was, I want you to remember that feeling, what it felt like, and—most importantly—why it happened. (. . .) Ok, when I say go, now I want you find somebody nearby, turn to a neighbor and tell them how it was that you came into worship for the first time. Look around and if there is somebody you don’t know nearby, make sure you ask them OK, GO.
. . .
Now, I am not going to have you report back to the group, but what I do want to do is this. If you first came to church at North Decatur United Methodist Church because somebody invited you here, I want you to raise your hand. Even if it was a parent who invited you, or a friend, or a neighbor—anybody. If you were invited to church, and that is why you are here, raise your hand. Leave them up—everybody look around a little bit.
I know this is less fun to talk about than money, but the fact remains that the single biggest reason people come to church is that someone they know invited them. This is actually why most of US are here, because somebody invited us.
I know, of course, that it is not as easy as it sounds to invite somebody to church. First off, it can be embarrassing if they say no, or if they aren’t interested or whatever. As far as that goes, you know, I just have to think that we’re going to have to largely get over it. I get it. I have told you before that I am an introvert. I am really quite shy. Inviting somebody to church, even a wonderful church like North Decatur, is not something I come to naturally. I have to work at it, to practice it, to look in the mirror and invite MYSELF to church before I have the guts to go out and invite somebody. And you know what I have discovered? While it can be embarrassing, people say yes more than they say no. If you are excited about what is happening at church—and I hope you are—it shows! And people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And I have heard people say, oh, you know, I shouldn’t be the one to invite young families here, because I’m old and I don’t want them to get the wrong idea. To that I say, “Baloney!” I will remind you that your pastor is part of a young family, and I think I’d actually rather get an invitation from someone who is older and who knows a good church when they see it than a younger person who wants to tell me about their cool church. I am much more interested in authenticity than cool.
We’ve just got to get over the embarrassment thing, but that isn’t the only thing. Maybe you’re worried that you’ll invite somebody to church and they will be disappointed. I hope you don’t think they will be disappointed in the preaching! We who have been here a long time can put up with the siliness that sometimes happens in church, but we are wary of welcoming other folks into that silliness, for fear that we will disappoint them. And so let me just let you know that if you are waiting for the perfect moment when everything at the church will be settled and we will be perfectly ready to start inviting people, you’re going to wait a long time. We have been at this business for two thousand years and we still haven’t figured it all out. So go invite somebody to church, go welcome somebody into God’s house.
To help, because I really do understand that this sort of thing isn’t easy, the church has created some pretty good-looking cards that we handed out to you today. You should have three, which will give you one for the refrigerator and two to give to friends and neighbors. I started to give you five, but I thought that three is more manageable. Just find a couple of people—you do know a couple of people, don’t you?—and invite them to church. Give them a card. We’ll be giving one of these to each person who buys a pumpkin from this church, and if you hand it to somebody who already has a church home, so what? Tell them to pass it along to somebody who doesn’t. I look forward to finding out who the first person is that comes back to the church looking for more cards because they’ve already given out all of theirs. I don’t care if you give them to the mailman, or the neighbor, or the cashier at the Kroger. Just make sure you invite somebody, because if I have learned anything about the kingdom of God from today’s scripture lesson, it is that unless you are welcoming the stranger, you’re not welcoming Jesus into your life.
Now, I know, evangelism can be a dirty word. I will share something personal with you and let you know that there was a time when the word evangelism was a word I refused to use. The problem is that the word 'evangelism' has collected so much grime from those who have rolled it around in the dirt, so abused it that some of us want to toss it out entirely, lest we get lumped in with the practitioners of the dark art of proselytism. It is high time we took the business of sharing the good news back from those who make the gift of the Gospel look like punishment rather than life-giving freedom!
This is the gift of what it means to be associated with North Decatur United Methodist Church, to have good theology, to bring good news to people! Not news that they must turn or burn, or news that God is mad at them, or any of that kind of street preacher stuff, but good news, that God gives us life, that all people are children of God, that we love everybody and that Jesus does too.
Believe me, I understand the need for sharing our theology, our understanding of grace. I did not grow up in the United Methodist Church. I grew up in a very strict, overbearing, tradition. We didn’t talk much about grace, and you’d never see a sign out front that told everybody that they were welcomed by the God who welcomes us all. But this is who we are! I don’t know about you, but I came to the UMC in college on purpose. I chose it! I don’t mean to suggest that we are perfect—we’re not, we have a ways to go—but we have really great theology! I don’t know of anything the world needs more nowadays than GRACE! And we have it to spare!
We have really great theology, and you’d think that we’d want to stand on the street corners and tell everybody, but of course, that’s not who we are. And besides, great theology is wonderful, but let’s be honest and say that evangelism was easier when it was about going to hell or not. It is a lot easier to convince somebody that they need to go be a witness for Jesus Christ when we talked all about how coming to church saved you from Hell!
Now, I am glad we don’t talk about Hell all that much, because honestly, besides the fact that that kind of talk doesn’t do justice to the power of God’s love for all humanity, it is not just that helpful. But moving towards a more loving view of what it means to follow Jesus does not mean you can get away from inviting people to church, to inviting them into a life of faith. I mean, don’t you think we have something WONDERFUL here? Don’t you think everybody ought to experience it?
They aren’t going to get here unless YOU invite them! That’s the deal! If this is something you think others need, then you’ve got to tell them. Some of them will say no, some of they will think about it, but some of them will say yes, and what a gift it is to welcome the stranger in the name of Jesus, for when we welcome the stranger into the house of God, we are welcoming Jesus himself!
This must be the foundation of everything we do. I say pretty frequently, that if as a pastor I am ultimately in the sales business, my clientele is not inside the sanctuary this morning. My clientele—our clientele, because we are all in this together, is at the grocery store right now! They are in the mall, at breakfast, caring for their kids, and maybe wondering if there might really be something to this business of following Jesus Christ!
The pastor Cary Nieuwopf has said this: “Wanting people to attend and creating a church unchurched people love to attend are two very different things. If you haven’t made radical changes to how you do church, don’t expect radically different results.”
This is quite a challenge, and we’re going to live into it together, but Jesus calls us to nothing less.
Welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality, must be the foundation of everything we do, and the good news is that while this is not the easiest thing about being a Christian, it is not a new thing. Let me share just two ways that this focus on reaching out and welcoming the stranger is already embedded into the life of North Decatur United Methodist Church.
First, as you have said this morning, the reason this church is so full of wonderful people is that you were invited in. I’ve heard the names over and over as I’ve met with you all, as you’ve talked about the saints who have influenced your lives and who invited you into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ through God’s church at the corner of North Decatur Road and Church street. We’ve got to reclaim that mantle, go back to who were have been. Giving out cards won’t solve the issue—it takes relationships, it takes time, it takes heart-work—but it is a start. We’ve got something great here. Let’s tell everybody we can about it.
Second, and finally, we have this theology already built into who we are as United Methodists. One of the reasons I chose to become a United Methodist Christian is that we believe that all people are children of God. We don’t restrict who walks in the door, and we don’t restrict who can become a member. White, black, brown, young, old, male, female, gay, straight, just curious about Christ or lifelong Christian. If you are here, you are welcome, and if you are welcoming, you are serving Jesus.
This is our theology, and on this World Communion Sunday, it is how we understand the holy mystery of the Lord’s Supper, of Communion with God, of Eucharist, thanksgiving for all God has done for us.
This is not my table, it is not your table, just like it is not my chuch. It is God’s church, God’s table. God has set a feast before us, a life rich with colorful people, a vibrant church, a good savior. Let us not keep this incredible gift to ourselves.
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