“To the church of God which is at Corinth, who are called to be saints.” I Corinthians 1:2
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Nov. 1, 2015
For years I kept a large poster taped to the wall over the desk in my study. It was a picture of six middle aged people: three men, balding on top; and three women whose hair were turning gray. All of them were glaring out at me as if into the lens of a camera. The caption written across the top of the poster read: "Welcome to our Friendly Group!"
The reason this poster captivated my attention was that it reminded me of a small group of which I was a part while a student in Seminary. It was the late 1960's when touchy/feely small groups were in fashion. We were told if we gathered in such a group and shared our true feelings about each other, we would grow, develop insight into our inner motivations and create strong relationships.
I'm sure this theory works for some groups, especially if they are guided by someone who knows what (s)he is doing. But in our case it was disastrous. Instead building self-esteem and insight, it proved to be destructive. We became angry with each other. We criticized things about each other that bugged us. Instead of bonding us together in a caring and understanding fellowship, we became a miserable dysfunctional group that eventually disbanded.
I came across this the poster while I was still part of the group. I saw in each face a resemblance of a person, including me, that was in our group. I would often stare at the images for hours as I sought self-understanding. What had happened? What had gone wrong? What change in dynamic would be necessary to transform and enable us to become the persons we had hoped the group experience would achieve. What would it take to make my ironic poster a true invitation: “Welcome to our Friendly Group?"
You might think it strange that I begin my sermon with this story from my past on All Saints Sunday. The reason is that my initial response to being introduced to the Saints also reminded me of my poster. I was already a long way down the Canterbury Trail to becoming an Episcopalian when I discovered my poster. I had been attending Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky. At their Wednesday evening Eucharist, the priest had been reflecting on the saint whose feast we observed on that particular day. Although I had been drawn to so much that I was discovering in our tradition, what she told us about the saints, wasn’t one of them. The characteristics for which these saints were praised: poverty, celibacy, piety, instance devotional prayer, turning the other cheek, and martyrdom, though admirable, were not values that I found particularly attractive. Saints from the past, grazed upon from this vantage point seemed to me to be dour, humorless, stern, and devoid of joy. It was not until a few years later when I was studying church history in depths in England that I began to get past the hagiography that had been passed down to us from those of another era. Passed on to us from people who had a different set of values and expectations than our own. I began to understand these saints as real people and not the two-dimensional figures who were staring back at me on my poster. Indeed, when I began to research in depth while working on my Ph.D., I found these saints to be people with real problems, who struggled, who made mistakes and who experienced both joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, confidence and fear, victory and defeat. In short I found them to be people like me.
And as they became real persons, I found myself attracted to them. I thought had I been alive when they lived, I would want to hang out with them after all. Why? It was not because they were so holy. Rather it was because they were so human. As I starred at my poster I began to see both saints of old and the friends from my small group with new insight. Instead of irony, I began to see invitation when I read the caption: “Welcome, to our Friendly Group.”
Today as we celebrate All Saints Day, it is not the heroes of the past to which I wish to focus our attention. Rather, I want to put the focus on you and me. As, our name sake, St. Paul, reminds us as he opens so many of his letters, all of us are called to be saints. So I ask us this question: “What image do visitors have of us when they enter our church and parish hall?” “What feeling to we convey when we say: ‘Welcome to our Friendly Group?’”
In the two years I have been here I have often heard some of you say, “St. Paul’s is the friendliest Episcopal church in town. I before I started attending St. Paul’s I visited all of the churches in town. One of the main reasons I decided to become part of St. Paul’s was that I agree we are indeed a friendly bunch! But while we may be the friendliest church, the question I want to ask is: “Are we the most welcoming church?” My honest response to this question, is “sometimes.”
Let me tell you why I say that. True, almost every Sunday we ask if we have visitors and welcome them. Often when they are spotted after service, I see some of you invite them to coffee hour and even sometimes introduce them to others who are at a table. This is good. Other times, however, I have observed some of our visitors come to coffee hour on their own, sit alone, while the rest of us are having great fellowship with those we know. And we never see them again.
Two weeks ago as I began my new relationship with you I told you that we are going to start where we are, use what we have and do what we can. Today, on All Saints day, I suggest we start by becoming more intentional in our welcome to visitors. Bill Kling, who attends the 9:15 service, has long had this a burden of his heart. He has developed a program which we tested last year and are planning to implement fully this year. It consists of three phases: 1) that we recruit and train greeters. This ministry will be distinct from our ushers. Greeters will welcome visitors as they come, invite them to sign our guest book, encourage them to fill out our visitor card to drop in the offering plate, and invite them to coffee. If they agree to come to coffee the Greeters will actually take them to Trinity Hall or ask one of us to do so. Once there, they or you will introduce these new folks to a few of your friends and as you sit down to table, I invited you to intentionally draw them into your conversation.
The second phase is that each week, a person will be responsible to send a letter to all our visitors, thanking them for attending St. Paul’s and expressing hope that they will come again. The final phase comes after they start attending on a regular basis We will train teams of two to call them, and ask if they can stop by their home to get to know them and to tell them about the ministry of Saint Paul’s. From there comes an invitation to become part of one or more of these ministries. This is a very simple program. We already do some of it some of the time. However, I am convinced if we make this intentional we will indeed become a far more welcoming community of which our visitors will want to become a part.
I ask you all to search your hearts. If this is a ministry in which you can see yourself becoming a part and would like to learn more about, I ask you to sign you name on the signup sheet in the Narthex as you leave today. Bill Kling is going to call a meeting of those interested to come and learn about it in more detail.
I conclude my sermon by reminding you that my normal practice is to reflect on one or more of the lectionary readings of the day. I departed from this practice this morning. Today’s readings all focus on the Saints Triumphant and I felt impressed to reflect on those still alive, the Saints Militant. So I close by paraphrasing the opening paragraph that our namesake, St. Paul, who wrote in his first letter to the saints at Corinth.
To St. Paul’s Church of Naples, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace he has given to you because in every way you are enriched with all speech, wisdom and knowledge so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift. God is faithful and has called you to welcome those among you into the fellowship of his son.
As we live into this calling as God’s saints, I believe those who come among will truly hear us say: “Welcome, to our friendly Group!” Amen.