September 30, 2012 (DC)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22 – Haman is hung on the gallows prepared for Mordecai

Psalm 122 – I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.

commandment of the LORD gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:8)

Hebrews 13:1-7 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unawares.

John 15:5-8 – My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Matthew 25:31-46 – When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.
Luke 14:15-24 – The Parable of the Banquet. The invited guests declined, so throw open the doors, that my house may be full.
Luke 7:36-50 – A woman anoints Jesus with ointment at Simon the Pharisee’s home.

These texts are chosen for Five Practices series.

Some hymn possibilities:

Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations

These next five weeks many of the congregations in our synod are taking part in a five-part series called Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, developed by Methodist bishop Robert Schnase. It is a mainstream denominational approach to preaching the purposes of the church, while engaging people in daily devotions and weekly small group gatherings.

Find everything you need to know about this series.

If you are preaching the lectionary texts, check out the information on the James 5 text (the last in a series of five). Also, check out commentary on the texts from the last time they came around.

I have given four options for the gospel reading, depending on which direction you are headed. The first picks up on the theme of bearing fruit, as an introduction to the series theme about being a fruitful Christian community. The last three come at the first of the five topics: Radical Hospitality.

The first sermon in a series needs to cast a vision for why you’re doing the series. For this, you’ll need to get in touch with why you decided to go with it. “The bishop said so,” is not going to inspire me to do the daily devotions, take part in a group, and attend all five sessions. What will I get out of it? What will I be able to give? How does this move the church forward? Get in touch with your own vision. Some other ideas written below may be helpful.

You’ll also need to lay out the pieces of the series. Help them get excited. This isn’t business as usual; we’re doing some really cool stuff. We’re going to be talking about five basic Christian practices for the next five weeks:

  1. Radical hospitality
  2. Passionate worship
  3. Intentional faith development
  4. Risk-taking mission and service
  5. Extravagant generosity

We’re going to jump start your daily devotions with this devotional book. You’re going make some friends and get to know some folks better in our small group gatherings. There are still openings. Sign up on your way out…

We’re going to be doing some servant projects together when we talk about risk-taking mission and services. We’re going to wrap the whole series up with a big party on October 25 or whatever you have planned. We suggest that the last Sunday be a time for people to estimate their giving for the coming year, and the party be a lunch after church to announce the results.

By now most will have the book, but if not, how do they get it? Keep in mind the various resources. Cultivating Fruitfulness is the daily devotional piece that everyone will need. It’s also available digitally. Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations is for leaders. Then there is workbook for each practice, for the teams that have responsibility for that ministry area to use. I would keep it simple and encourage people to make sure they have Cultivating Fruitfulness. Have extra copies on hand. Let people know they can have one for free if they can’t afford one.

These mechanics may fit better for some in the announcements than in sermon. On the other hand, if your announcements come after the sermon, people won’t understand what you’re doing. I have always felt we can’t preach the announcements – that is, if we can’t make a case for why this is natural and vitally important outflow from the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we shouldn’t be making the announcements all. Preach the announcements. At the heart of this series is a reminder about who we are as the church. Preach it.

One last word of recommendation. If you have multimedia in your worship space, I would recommending showing at least a clip of Bishop Schnase from the videos, so that people get a taste of what he’s saying.

A healthy fruit tree bears fruit.

In John 15 (:5-8), Jesus says,

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

What fruit is your life bearing?

If you were a “Christian” tree, what kind of fruit would you bear? If a church was a fruit tree, what kind of fruit would we bear?

Paul would say, “the fruit of the Spirit.” In Galatians 5 he tells us what that fruit is:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… 

The good news here is that if we are connected to the vine (Jesus), we will bear fruit. If we are filled with the Spirit, we will inevitably bear fruit, as Paul says.

The next few weeks we are going to be looking at five practices of fruitful congregations. At this point I would consider showing part of the introductory video. It’s almost seven minutes long, so maybe too long for some services, but part of it might help.

If you choose not to show the video or don’t have that capacity in your space, I would take time to lay out the five practices, sharing how they flow into one another. People of faith live these spiritual practices:

  1. Radical hospitality
  2. Passionate worship
  3. Intentional faith development
  4. Risk-taking mission and service
  5. Extravagant generosity

“The most visible way that God knits people into the community of Christ,” Bishop Schnase says, “and draws people into relationship with God, is through congregations,” congregations that exhibit these characteristics.

Radical hospitality is the gracious welcome extended by congregations. This brings people into Christian community. Once people belong to the community, they are together in worship, which creates in us a desire to grow closer to God. Intentional faith development allows us to mature in faith. When that happens, we sense God’s call to make a difference in the lives of others, which leads us to risk-taking mission and service. And as we mature in faith, we grow in extravagant generosity. Giving ourselves away for the life of the world and for the sake of the gospel, is at the center of Christianity.

Jesus’ ministry was radical, passionate, intentional, risk-taking, and extravagant. Wouldn’t we want our lives to be the same? Wouldn’t we want our churches to be the same?

Schnase says these are practices. We practice these basics, like a baseball team practices throwing, catching, and important plays. We never perfect them, but we practice them over and over again.

Radical Hospitality

I want you to think of a time when you were shown radical hospitality. What did that radical hospitality look like?

I’m going to be preaching at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Chalmette on September 28, the first day of this series. This question has deep significance there. When Hurricane Katrina hit ten years ago last month, where did you go? This congregation is of a size where I can invite responses. We can process it. Where did you evacuate to? Some stayed in hotels along the highway. Some stayed with family. Some with friends. Some were shown hospitality by strangers.

Some may never have the experience of being utterly dependent on the hospitality of strangers. This is something those fleeing Syria for their lives are experiencing right now. It is a humiliating experience to be dependent. And then it is a moment of grace, when we experience the unmerited grace of those who show us extravagant generosity, hospitality, kindness, and welcome.

There are many kinds of vulnerability. You don’t have to be evacuated or flooded to feel helpless, vulnerable, or in need. In fact, we are all, at times, in some kind of physical, spiritual, or emotional need.

In Matthew 25, Jesus said,

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,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.

Six things: hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prison. One of these six things, critically important to Jesus, was welcoming strangers. How good are we at that? How could we get better?

Are we inviting people? When they come, are we welcoming them? Some churches are more like private clubs with amenities for long-time members. Others treat newcomers like royalty. Which would we like to be?

Think about what it’s like if you go to a fabulous dinner party. What’s the first thing you experience?

  1. An invitation
  2. The host meets you at the door
  3. You’re offered something to drink
  4. You get a chance to engage in conversation
  5. You might meet new people
  6. You eat together
  7. Afterwards the host thanks you for coming and invites you back (if you behaved)

These aren’t magic. They’re just built into the ways human beings do community. Now go back to the list. How are we doing with all these things?

  1. An invitation – How are we verbally inviting? It is said Lutherans invite someone to church every 35 years or so. How about mailed invitations? Are you doing that? Signs out front? What does your web page say? Do people know they are welcome? Are you welcome at a Masonic Lodge? How would you know? How about a Mormon Temple? If no one tells you that you are welcome, how would you know? In John 1, Philip goes to Nathaniel and starts talking to him about Jesus. Nathaniel has a negative reaction. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip responds, simply, “Come and see.” That’s the invitation. Not an argument. If you talk about your excitement about your faith or your church, some may respond negatively. That’s okay. Just extend the invitation. “Come and see.”
  1. The host meets you at the door – How are we at that? I have visited churches where no one was at the door. I’ve been to churches where I had to walk around the building trying locked doors before I found one that was open.
  1. You’re offered something to drink – Many churches have coffee afterwards, in some secret room somewhere else in the building that visitors don’t know exists, perhaps through a breezeway and in another building. How do they know it’s there? How do they know they’re welcome? Gethsemane has coffee as you enter. Is it clear to visitors that they can have some? Would you walk up to a coffee pot in a hosts home and help yourself without being invited?
  1. You get a chance to engage in conversation – I’ve been to churches where not one single person said hello. I’m serious. It is possible to go to church and talk to no one. Could that happen here?
  1. You might meet new people – Do you consider it part of your regular Sunday morning to meet someone new each week?
  1. You eat together – We eat together at this table, bread, and wine in the name of Jesus. And then there is food afterwards? Is the invitation extended verbally each week? When guests come to lunch after church, are they charged for the meal? What if you went to a dinner party and the host said, “That’ll be $10?” What about those who are invited and have no cash with them? What if they can’t afford it? How do we not put them in an awkward position?

What do newcomers need? Why did they come in the first place? What were they looking for? Are we asking the question? If you do, they may not feel safe to answer honestly, “I’m going through a divorce,” or something, but at least you asked. And some will answer, “We just moved into the area.” What do newcomers need? Directions to the post office, grocery store, or bank? Help moving? Friends? How much hospitality are you prepared to offer to welcome a stranger? How far will you go? I have a friend who visited a church in Michigan, and the people next to him invited him to have lunch with them. Now that’s hospitality.

In a few weeks we will look the story of the Good Samaritan, who risked his life to help the man who was beaten and robbed along the road. Then he gives the innkeeper money to cover the expenses and says, whatever else he needs, charge it to my account. Are we willing to learn what true hospitality means?

  1. Afterwards the host thanks you for coming and invites you back (if you behaved) – How are we following up with those who come? Silence after they leave insinuates, that we weren’t all that excited that they showed up. Does every visitor get a call and an invitation to come back?

Think back to that time I asked you to remember when you were shown radical hospitality. How did that feel? What difference did it make? I invite you to open up your heart, your home, your church to the radical hospitality Christ offers.

In Luke 7 (36-50), Jesus is shown hospitality by a woman who Luke tells us is a “sinner.” This means she has been labeled as a person of ill repute. She anoints his feet with expensive oil, along with her tears, drying his feet with her hair. This is, of course, scandalous to the host of the party, Simon the Pharisee. When Simon complains, Jesus responds,

Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

Good hospitality is foot washing, a kiss of welcome, anointing for the dusty roads of life. Good hospitality emerges from a heart filled with love. Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. How much have you been forgiven? How much hospitality has God shown you? How full is your heart with love? How does that then flow in hospitality for the stranger?

The Five Practices are:

  1. Radical hospitality
  2. Passionate worship
  3. Intentional faith development
  4. Risk-taking mission and service
  5. Extravagant generosity