Scripture: Romans 12:9–18
The Associated Press released a story this past week that has a lot of church leaders nervous. The ominous title of the article, written by David Sharp, asks: “Millions skipped church during pandemic. Will they return?”
The concern is real. The article tells the stories of congregations in Maine, Virginia, and San Francisco that are struggling—and some failing—to stay open after the pandemic. Many congregations have already closed their doors for good. Many others wonder if they will be next. Small churches are the most vulnerable, but even big churches have had to struggle with cutting staff or programming. The reality is that many congregations were struggling before the pandemic, and this was the final blow to their survival.
The Christian congregation in Rome that Paul writes to had a similar level of anxiety. Scholars tell us that Roman officials evicted all of the Jews from the city in the years following Jesus’ life and death and Resurrection. This would include the Jewish Christians who were beginning to understand who Jesus was and what it looked like to be a Christ-follower. By the time that Paul wrote his letter to the church in the city, Jewish Christians were allowed to return, but it set up a context of anxiety and distrust: Gentile Christians distrusting Jewish Christians; Jewish Christians distrusting Gentile Christians; all of the Christians distrusting the Roman military state. They way that this congregation practiced their faith was upended and thrown into chaos. The congregation struggled, not sure if they were going to survive.
In that context, it is all the more striking to see how Paul invites this congregation to respond. The passage I read a moment ago has a bunch of stuff in it. It is worth a deeper study sometime, but today, I want to pull out a handful of phrases that strike me.
The first is from verse 13: “Extend hospitality to strangers.” This one is actually not new to those raised by the words of the Torah. Hospitality to strangers is a key part of the faith of the Israelites, and we hear it echoed throughout the Old Testament. It is a key part of the law. Prophets decry the peoples’ failure to show hospitality. Jesus highlights these verses and themes in his teaching. And Paul and James and the rest of the New Testament continue the theme. It is not new, but the practice of hospitality is still radical in this context. It may help if you think about a game that our youth love to play called “Romans and Christians.” The point of the game is that there are Christians who have formed an underground church, and have to keep it protected and secret from the Roman spies who are trying to infiltrate it and destroy it. Now, while this is a game and not a history lesson, there are clear historical ties to a period in which Roman leaders had it in for the Christian church in Rome. And in that context, it is only natural to be skeptical, cynical, and afraid of any outsiders. But Paul writes that the Jesus response is the absolute opposite. Hospitality to strangers is the way to go. A radical message for a hard time.
I love the next phrase: “Let love be genuine.” The NRSV has a nice, flowing sentence, but scholar N.T. Wright suggests that Paul’s actual wording here is more like a shout. The literal translation is “Love—genuine”! I can imagine a social media post in all caps and ten exclamation points here. Paul begins this section with a clear command: Love. And not love for your own sake, but genuine, self-giving, agape love for others. In the midst of a hard context filled with skepticism of the other, Paul shouts at the top of his lungs “LOVE!!!”
One last phrase, even though I hate leaving a ton of other good stuff on the table. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” A beautiful phrase that has been used in Christian sympathy cards for generations. But while it might seem overused and saccharine, the reality in that context was that it was anything but. Paul was proclaiming a new reality to the Roman Christians here, demanding that they double down on relationship, trust, empathy, and caretaking. Remember that Paul had most likely never met any of these people…he was planning to visit Rome, but didn’t know the church well. He was not saying, “I know these folks and can vouch for them…they are good people.” Instead, Paul was going out on a limb and saying that “the way of Christ is to live in deep and profound relationship with each other. Period. Rejoice with them in their joys. Cry with them in their pains.”
So what about us? What are we to do when we read these stories of churches closing and get nervous about who is next? I think it is valuable to listen to Paul’s words—injected into an anxious situation—and apply them to our anxious context. Paul knew that many of these folks were familiar with Torah, so he took these old principles and translated them into a new way. And it is the same with us. In our post-pandemic world, we are taking old principles of hospitality, relationship, prayerful sensitivity, genuine love, and translating it to a new reality. Let’s take a few minutes and dream about what that might look like.
One, Paul tells us to “extend hospitality to strangers.” Our Spiritual Leadership Team and Evangelism Team have been meeting the last few months, working on what that might look like in our new normal. In a post-pandemic world that we are slowly starting to enter, how might we extend hospitality to strangers. One way is what we are calling a “reboot” of the First Touch Ministry. LaVerne Hiner and her team have done some incredible work in this ministry over the last decade or so, welcoming those who walk into our doors, extending hospitality to strangers, so that strangers might become friends. But LaVerne and others see a need for a reboot. For those of you old enough to remember the old DOS-based computers, you may remember you could do a hard reboot or a soft reboot. This is a soft reboot…taking the same principles and applying them to our next context. Less physical touch and more virtual options. A move from gifts at the door to handwritten notes, mailed from our Evangelism chair who lives in Montana! Even a move away from the language of “First Touch,” which now has very different connotations. Laura McCorkill is helping to reorganize what we are calling our Welcome Team, as they work to extend hospitality to those who come through our doors, making sure they do it in a way that helps people feel welcome and not on the defensive. If you want to join that work, get in touch with Laura. If you don’t have her contact information, contact the church office and they can put you all in touch. The time has come to extend hospitality in new ways!
Two, we apply this principle of “genuine love” that Paul talks about. Just like Paul had to shout off the page to get the Romans to understand his point, we have to get creative about how we show that love in what has become a virtual world. I think we have an opportunity to do virtual ministry in a way that we never did before! Now, understand that we are blessed. As I talk with other clergy and church leaders, it becomes clear that our tech team here at FBC is second to none. As I tell our story, it astounds other pastors with our sheer number of volunteers, the amount of time that they have volunteered, and the creative and innovative ways they have kept us connected. That is genuine love. They have kept us connected over these months, and to throw all that away and go back to where we were would be a travesty. I believe that we have the opportunity to take what we have learned and grow it. I don’t love the word “hybrid” because it is often associated with bad technology, and a division between first class and second class participants. I kind of like the word “alloy,” which is of course a metal that is formed by taking two strong metals and forming a third, even stronger substance. I believe that we have the potential to create community that is even stronger—an alloy of what we had and what we have become. Again, the Evangelism Team is all over this, led by Margaret Lambie, helping us think about how we will offer genuine love to those who participate virtually instead of physically. Sunday school classes using Owl technology to bring folks into the same space. Chat moderators who keep folks connected online during worship. We have started to play with the idea of a “virtual coffee hour,” a Zoom meeting between those who are worshipping online, helping them to create community even if they are not in the building. I believe that we have been given a gift, one that our tech team has dreamed about for a long time. We can create an alloy community in Lawrence and beyond, one that demonstrates what genuine love is all about. If you have an interest in joining that work, contact Margaret and join the crew!
Finally, we have an opportunity to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” One of the struggles of the pandemic has been social isolation. Folks feeling left out because they could not be in the same physical space with others. I would suggest that relationship building matters more now than it ever has. It takes more to pay attention to relationships and check in with folks. Our shepherd ministry by way of the SLT hopes to continue doing this. The Deacons ministry has done and will continue doing this. Our Sunday school classes and small group ministry can do this. But let me suggest another way to do this. I invite you to hold up your phone. At home or in person, hold it high. I want to offer that if Paul were here today, he would say that this is the best way to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” These devices, imperfect though they are, are a way to stay connected to one another. This might be a horrible idea, but as your preacher, I am giving you permission to play on your phone during church. Many of you used the chat to talk to each other when you were not in the same room. Now, I want you to stay connected to those folks who are not in the room, for whatever reason. Tell them good morning and you are glad that they are worshipping with us. Pass them the peace when we come to that part of the service. When we talk about joys and concerns, share yours on the chat, and read those who offer theirs. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
There are congregations who will close their doors because of this pandemic. And there are congregation who will see this as a new opportunity for ministry that opens the doors to Jesus-shaped community. The AP article suggests that the churches that will likely survive and thrive are those who adapt. Those who see this as an opportunity and not just a struggle.
Your church has chosen to see this as an opportunity. The Spiritual Leadership began an initiative almost a year ago titled ReShape, designed to ask how is God using this pandemic to recreate and reboot and reshape the Church. This week we have explored how we reshape our “welcome.” Over the next three weeks, we will continue this exploration, generated by your responses and your energy, led by your Spiritual Leadership Team.
And just like God did with the congregation in Rome, there is potential and opportunity, even in the midst of anxiety. When we show hospitality to strangers, show genuine love, and rejoice and weep with those who need a listening and loving ear, then God is at work reshaping us…and using us to reshape the Church.