2017-8-13 Welcome the Stranger

Cornerstone EPC                                                                              Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734                                                                          August 13, 2017

“Welcome the Stranger”
Text: Matthew 22:34-40

Many of you came this morning expecting to hear a sermon from 1 Peter 3:18-22.  As I worked to prepare that text for you last week, it became apparent late in the week that—for all the labor I expended during the week—I must study more in order to present you a clear, concise message from God’s Word on that text.  Happily, God, in His kindness, has not left us hungry for His Word today.  Let us hear from Him as He speaks to us from His written Word, the Bible.

(HERE READ THE TEXT)

Two weeks ago our family enjoyed vacation in the north Georgia mountains.  Some of our extended family, including my household, found ourselves on Sunday morning at The Ridge Community Church in Blue Ridge, Georgia.  I commend this congregation to you—and I recommend your attendance if you ever find yourself vacationing in Fannin County, Georgia, over a Sunday morning.

I am now a long-time Christian and long-time minister of Christ’s Gospel, yet on that Sunday morning I entered the sanctuary at The Ridge Community Church as one new to their place and their practices—and as one coming from outside their usual life.  Hence, I felt like the stranger in their midst—even though we be brethren in Christ Jesus.  That feeling began to ease as the owners of our vacation home welcomed us in the narthex.  It faded more as an usher led us into the darkened sanctuary to empty seats (happily, there weren’t very many of those).  Worship began, and though some of the songs were all but unknown to me, I found I could engage God in singing where I could and listening carefully when I couldn’t.

Various members of the church leadership gave brief ministry announcements throughout the worship hour—thus reminding the congregation of its opportunities in the near future to express Christ’s love to their community.  The preaching, from Mark 10:47-50 concerning blind (and, later, seeing) Bartimaeus, provided us Gospel teaching in memorable fashion.  I found myself feeling less a stranger as the hour passed.

After the sermon, as a concluding act of worship, the lead pastor called students and families of school children to the front of the sanctuary for prayer.  He called the public school students, then the teachers, then the administration and Board of Education members.  Then he called for the like in private schools.  Then he called for the homeschooling families to come to the front.  Needless to say, the Jordan family went.  After the prayer, and the dismissal, we were much less strangers than when we entered the building that day.

I thought about my experience there for much of the afternoon—and off-and-on for much of the rest of the vacation week.  I began pondering how I—a seasoned Christian and church-goer—felt stepping into a church for the first time.  Then I began to think of those all around us—some with no Christian or church experience, and some with horrific church experience—who may feel some draw to this place, but who may feel uneasy about coming.  Then I asked, though it took me quite a while to form the question, “How can we, at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, love the stranger when he (or she) comes into our midst?”  The rest of this sermon is an extended application of loving our neighbor when he comes to visit us.

When our visitor arrives at our door, let’s make sure that he knows we are glad he came—and let’s make sure he feels welcome without overwhelming or smothering him.  We do well at this, by God’s grace; let’s keep doing well by His aid.  Let’s invite him (or her, or them) to sit with us during worship.  Let’s show them where needful places are: the restroom, the children’s area, and the like.

When we sing, let’s show our visitor the books we use.  If he elects not to sing with us as we sing our faith in Christ—either because he doesn’t know the songs or because he cannot sing with us yet in good conscience—then let’s not make a big deal about that.  When I preach, I’ll aim not only to announce the text, but I’ll try to tell him where it is (today’s text is in the pew Bible, New Testament, page 20, for example).  There are few things more embarrassing in the sanctuary than to be searching desperately for the Scripture text while the pastor launches into his second main point.  We can help those who are unfamiliar with church things; let’s aim to do it.

We can reassure our visitors at the time of giving and receiving tithes and offerings.  Many who would visit us shy away from it because they think our worship of God with the money He gives us amounts to a money shakedown—pure and simply.  True, some pastors have harangued their hearers about this, or have guilt-tripped them, or similarly—and I am sorry about this.  For we who are all in concerning Jesus Christ, we give cheerfully and obediently in proportion to our God-given means.  For those visiting us—especially for those investigating the claims of Christ to see if they be true—then I do not want you to feel obligation to give.  If you wish to give, then of course you may give, but please feel no obligation.  Just come and worship the Lord with us.

Some shy away from church because they feel that their clothing is not up to what they think is the church’s expected standard—or because they are not comfortable wearing such clothing.  Let that be no impediment to worshipping God with us—and let’s convey that to those whom we would invite to this place.  A veteran pastor, explaining why he did not wear a tie to work during the week, noted concerning his small town, “In my town only three people wear a tie to work: the lawyer, the banker, and the undertaker—and you may not want to see any of them on a given day.”  Let none be inhibited from coming over the matter of dress clothing.

When God brings the Sunday morning worship hour to a close, let’s invite our visitor to come again—and let’s mean it when we say it.  Too often, at close of worship, a given congregations regular attenders will flock to each other—and leave the poor visitor all alone.  Let such not be said of us.  Here is a helpful tip I learned some years ago.  When service ends, no one talks to his friends for two or three minutes afterward.  Instead, go to the visitor.  Thank him for coming.  Invite him to return.  Ask questions (not too personal) that indicate your interest in him.  Do all that lies within you to make him glad he came.

If we, by God’s grace, can comply in the main with these applications, then we will have loved our visiting neighbor well.  May God fill our souls by His Spirit to overflowing—in order that our relations to our visitors will not be seen either as canned presentation or as dutiful drudgery, but as God’s love for them expressed through His redeemed people in Christ Jesus.

AMEN.

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