May I Sit Next to You?

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Deuteronomy 10:12-19

I saw a stranger today.
I put food for him
in the eating-place
And drink
in the drinking-place
And music
in the listening-place.

In the Holy name
of the Trinity
He blessed myself
and my family.
And the lark said in her warble
Often, often, often
Goes Christ
in the stranger’s guise.

Those are the words of an old Celtic rune of hospitality that I thought about quite often as I worshipped my way through a dozen or so churches during the summer.

I don’t have an opportunity to visit other congregations very often—and less often, do I get to visit in the guise of a stranger… a visitor. I felt like a mystery worshipper (ala a mystery shopper!)

In fact, did you know that there is a group out there that does this: they are mystery worshippers?  I discovered them on a site called “ship of fools”—and they visit congregations all over the world—reporting on their experience of worship— from the preaching to the music to the atmosphere and to the friendliness of the church. They do this all over the world. Including Cary. 2nd United Methodist was hit a year or two ago.

One of the questions on the survey was this: “Did anyone welcome you personally?”

My answer from my mystery visits- which I tell you in pain is this: more no, than yes.

And I can tell you story after story which pains me to tell you about going to worship and being ignored. People weren’t mean… they just hardly noticed my existence. The ushers handed me a bulletin… but very few gave me a warm word of welcome.

It’s not that the pastors weren’t friendly… they all were. There was warmth from the pulpit. But that is where it seemed to stop.

Sometimes I would sit in the pew all by myself… and no one—no one uttered a single word to me. One lady literally crawled over me to get to her seat and never even acknowledged I was sitting there.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me?” Not so much.

Sharon and I went to visit three churches dear to us… one was First Presbyterian Auburn—where we had worshipped in college  – no one spoke to us. I finally shared with someone that I had been a student there and had worked at the church—I was throwing them a bone… Nothing.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Not so much.

Sharon and I visited a church in the triangle to hear a friend preach—she is one of the best young preachers I know—and we go a long way back: she was a  child of the church I served in Newton. But in her church, no one spoke to us the whole time.

After the service, we had lunch together. I told her of the experience and she said, “I know… I know… as soon as I saw where you were sitting, I knew no one would speak to you. I wished you had sat over there… that side of the church is friendly.’

I never thought of a church having dead zones of hospitality. Let me ask you, I don’t know—do we have dead zones at the Kirk?

During my visits,  I learned something very important— the most important greeter is the person in the pew.

It is important that the minister and the greeters be friendly…but the most important greeter is the person sitting next to you… or in the pew behind you or ahead of you: The person who looks at the friendship register and notices that you indeed are a stranger in their midst.

Which no one did—and I signed a dozen of those friendship registers.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me?” says Jesus.  Not so much.

Deuteronomy says: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”

Paul says, “Contribute to the needs of the saint; extend hospitality to strangers”

Didn’t happen very often.

Which is sad… actually, more than sad…it is tragic… it is actually a breach of our covenant with God and our call to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

It is a series of lost opportunities to be Christ to the stranger… to extend love and grace and welcome to the one who comes who may feel isolated or alone. You never know what burdens or loneliness someone may bring with them to this sanctuary.

So, how sad for someone to come to the Body of Christ and feel like a stranger among brothers and sisters. How tragic for the spiritual seeker to come worship here among God’s people and find not a single child of God would speak to them. And this happens every week in the life of the Christian church.

No wonder many churches are dying. I mean that… evangelism starts in the pews.

I was telling my story to a dear friend and he said… “Jody, it is so true.”

His young adult daughter is in Germany… building pipe organs. She took a huge step as a single young adult to start going to church (do you know how hard it is for a young adult to attend church?)… singing in the choir. She went to choir rehearsals… sang on Sunday for a few months… and the minister never acknowledged her… the people in the choir never spoke to her or welcomed her. They stayed in their cliques.

She has now left the church. She gave the church a chance. And they blew it. Another young adult lost.

Which is why I think hospitality is a moral imperative in Scripture. God expects his people to welcome strangers and treat them with kindness, justice and mercy.

In so doing, we remember that there was a time when we were the stranger…(Remember the first time you came and someone welcomed you?) we were the alien and the refugee and God took us in. God expects us to be a people whose hospitality flows in gratitude for God’s past care and from our painful memories of what it was like to be a stranger or a visitor.

So, hospitality is not a matter of being nice… it is a matter of being the people of God… the body of Christ in the world.

Which I’m also glad to tell you did happen for me as well. In about 3-4 churches out of 12.

One of the warmest greetings I received was in a Contemplative service of all places. I was at Hollywood Presbyterian Church… 8:30am service… small crowd. As I entered, I heard Gregorian chants over the loud speaker. I sat down in theatre seats (what do you expect out of Hollywood)… which I tend to think of as a barrier to hospitality.

One of my pastors once told me that the pew is the most Christian piece of furniture in the whole sanctuary… because you can slide over and make room for more people to join you!

Well, Hollywood Presbyterian didn’t have that. But they had people. People broke through those barriers.

As soon as I sat down, a lady in the front of me turned around and introduced herself to me… and welcomed me.  Others did the same. We had a nice conversation.

After the service, I went to sit in the courtyard… kill some time while waiting for another service. I was checking my email on my phone when another older man came up to me… he said, “Welcome, so glad you are here. My name is…”

And I gave him my name… I told him I was a minister on sabbatical… visiting my son… and he said… that’s great. “Would you like me to invite your son to church?”  I was stunned. (I said no thank you—but I really appreciated the offer.)

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me…”  They did!

One of the last churches I visited before returning here was another church not far from here… a very strong and healthy Presbyterian Church.

I found my way to the pew… and just sat there. I looked around… and it was a warm and friendly and noisy sanctuary. You could tell people were gathering… enjoying seeing friends they had not seen all week. You could tell they were just having a very good time with each other. It looked like a warm congregation.

Funny thing… not a soul spoke to me. Maybe people were afraid that I was a member and they didn’t want to risk embarrassment by welcoming me. May I say to you now… that it is better to risk embarrassment than to let someone leave with the impression that we just don’t care.

I remember hearing one lady begin to move into the pew behind me… I heard her say, “Irene… can I sit next to you?”

And I thought, “I wish someone would ask me that question. ‘Can I sit with you or next to you?”  That’s all. They would have acknowledged my existence in the house of God. Who knows, we might have struck up a friendly conversation.

Over the weeks, I’ve thought about that one experience. And I’ve wondered… maybe we can just start there—if we are shy… maybe we can start there… when you come to church and you see someone alone… maybe you can be the one to say, “May I sit next to you?” .

Or maybe at youth group tonight when someone is sitting by themselves… or our next fellowship meal… or in your Sunday School class–  maybe you will be the one who notices that person or couple sitting alone… and maybe you will be the one who asks, “May I… may we … sit with you?”

I was telling this story to a group of colleagues in Raleigh and my friend Nolan said, “You know, I visited the Kirk this summer.”  Immediately, I was nervous. What kind of reception did he receive? Did he sit in a ‘dead zone of hospitality’?

Nolan said, he received a warm and welcoming visit from Kirk members. And I thought, “Whew! I’m so glad.”

At the Kirk, I find myself thankful for those who share that gift with others. Those who share hospitality here make a huge difference.

Steve Johnston was one of those people. Steve,  died recently of pancreatic cancer. As Steve Jobs left a hole in the computer world with his innovation… Steve Johnston leaves behind a huge vacuum in hospitality.  At his memorial service I shared an email from Lawson Rankin reminded us of how Steve shared the gift… and what a difference it made. Lawson said:

“On Sunday’s when we pass the peace, Steve would smile and flash the peace sign to anyone who was too far away to shake hands with him. “

Steve had a gift… a wonderful gift of hospitality. We miss him and his gift.  But good news… it’s a gift we can share too.

And when we do, do not be surprised if you feel blessed… for who knows… the stranger you welcome, may just be the Christ in disguise… waiting to be welcomed by you.


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