Before the Door

Genesis 18:1-5

Fundraising for the Taiwan Church Press   July 9, 2017


Thank you, Shuang-lian English ministries for allowing me to be here today and to share with again.  I’ve learned from your website that if I want to see videos of myself looking younger than I am now, I can find myself in your archives. Thanks for feeding my vanity.

Between my house in Tainan and the High Speed Train station there this morning I passed many places where people live, and by several churches.  I noticed that every house has a door, and every church has several. Many churches have greeters at the doors on Sunday mornings to make people feel welcome. We like to think of all churches as places where people are welcomed and made to feel that they have friends. But there are churches in many places around the world have a problem. The only people they REALLY welcome are those that come to the door where a greeter will extend a hand and welcome them in.

I: Abraham was Visible and Viewing

Part of welcoming people is making it easier for them to participate in what we do in church. Another part is sharing our welcome in a way that gets it to them even before they come to our doors.  That’s one reason why we remember literature evangelism and the Taiwan Church Press today.

In the story about Abraham and some visitors that we just read, there were two locations: the first was where Abraham resided, (at the Oaks of Mamre) and the second was where he sat,  at the entrance to his tent.

For our purposes today, it doesn’t matter that this story was about Abraham. It doesn’t matter who he was in history. It doesn’t matter who the visitors were, or what they said or what was promised. All that matters is the story of one guy and how he interacted with some travelers. SO, if you don’t know anything about him, listen anyway.

The weather in Taiwan at this time of the year is rather hot, isn’t it? Lately it’s been rainy, too. In the 21st century, many of us have moved to using air-conditioning to make it possible to get through these hot times.  If you ride the MRT here in Taipei, or any of the TRA trains that go anywhere, you roll along in air conditioned comfort. The same is true when you take the bus. But it wasn’t always so. When I came to Taiwan 40 years ago, there was no MRT. Most trains had fans, but only the top 3 classes were air conditioned. And buses?  If you wanted cooling, you only option was to open the window.

Abraham was at the door of his tent because that was probably the best place to be during the hot part of the day. Perhaps at the door he could feel any breeze that passed by. Perhaps at the door he could be in the shade, rather than out where the sun would shine on him. And at the door he was visible to anyone who might approach him (so people who might want to secretly steal from him would be deterred).

But at the door is a risky place to be, too. People who see where you ARE can figure out ways to sneak around behind you. People who have weapons with which to strike you from afar, throwing a rock or a spear, shooting an arrow or a sling-shot, can aim more carefully.

At the door is where the church has to be at all times. People can see the cross on our buildings, people can read the notice board that says when we hold meetings, people have information, but people need to be attracted. Having a beautiful building is one thing, having the door open is another. Along the streets in Tainan there are many churches, some in their own buildings, some in store-fronts, others on upper floors over shops, that have closed and locked iron doors most of the time. Of course, the reason is good. We must protect the piano and the sound equipment. We must prevent evil people from misusing God’s property. So for most of the week, all that people see is that we have a well-taken-care-of, locked building.  Folk religion temples, in contrast, are open all day, every day. About 8 years ago I joined a political protest  march of pastors, Taiwan independence  activists and Buddhist monks in Tainan. At a certain point the march stopped for a few minutes, and many pastors in my group ran into a temple to use the toilet. Had it been a church we’d stopped in front of, the door and the toilet both would likely not have been available to us. It’s possible that many pastors that day thanked God for that temple.

20 years ago I was the pastor of a store-front church in Kaohsiung. When I was in my office at the church, at the back of the second floor doing “pastor stuff”, I got lonely. One day,  I tried doing my office work, sermon preparation and other things “at the door”. It  put me into contact with the people in the neighborhood. I felt downright ‘Abrahamic.’

Being Visible is an important part of our mission to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to our community.

II Abraham Reached Out and Welcomed

At the door you can see what’s happening outside. You can respond to any needs that come up.  Deep inside our houses, enjoying the air conditioning and the television we may miss things like car accidents out front or a neighbor’s house on fire until we hear sirens.

Abraham wasn’t just at the door to stay cool and deter enemies, he was there so that he could see what was happening. When three men appeared he responded; running to them, bowing to them, and welcoming them to be his guests. He called Sarah to provide refreshments, and he served them.

We might imagine that under the Oaks of Mamre there wasn’t much going on, so the appearance of three visitors would be a welcome event. If there were few people in the area, it could mean that newcomers were bringing good news. Like Taiwan 60 years ago, Abraham’s place didn’t have TV. Like Taiwan 100 years ago, there was no radio. Like Taiwan 150 years ago, there was no such thing as a newspaper. Visitors meant news, maybe even entertainment. Of COURSE he would greet them.

BUT, in a place where there were Oak trees there was water, a well or a spring. Oak Trees were also where people came to worship. This was a place of physical and spiritual refreshment, seeing visitors pass by and pause at the Oak trees of Mamre was not a special thing. Rather like seeing people come along the street outside our church building.

Abraham did what churches around the world need to do, not waiting for people to enter his tent, he went out to greet them, invite them, and persuade them to spend time with him.

But our times are not Abraham’s time. We are careful people. We tell our children, rightly, to be careful of strangers. But we have the good news of Jesus and salvation, so we need to find ways to reach out in the name of our Lord. We can’t wait to greet people coming into the church, we need to bring them from where they are, through our doors, into our fellowship, and into the glorious news of Jesus.

III Abraham Served and Conversed

Our church is visible, we have a sign, a weekly bulletin, and an excellent web site. We  are familiar with the good news of Jesus Christ in our own lives. We have stories to tell (and EVERYBODY likes stories). We’ve got the tools, what are we to do with them?

The story we read began with Abraham making people comfortable and serving them things they would like. He sat with them in conversation. The story continued with what Abraham RECEIVED in this transaction, but that’s not what we’re here about today. It’s not about what we might GET, but about how to go about being the people, the church, whom God has called us to be, and doing that which might best bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people. We need to welcome people to the kind of situation in which they can best hear, understand and accept the good news of God’s love for this world.

In our church lives, we keep bibles and hymnbooks near the door, and may even put the words to the hymns on the screen for people to be able to sing along with us. But there are times in our worship when visitors or less “church-experienced” folks need a bit of assistance in finding things.  I grew up in a church that had a hymnbook and the Bible. The first time I visited a Catholic church, (which also used a printed Mass book), I was confused. Some years later when I visited a church that had Bible, hymmal, prayer book and supplemental song book, I was lost. Praise God, in each case a kind Christian saw my need and provided some polite direction.

Some things we do “habitually” as churches are strange to people from outside. Sometimes preachers like me are so intent on explaining bible beliefs or church stuff that people who are not familiar with the bible and its contents get NOTHING AT ALL.

Sam Shepherd was a famous American evangelist in the 1930s and 40s. There’s a short book of his sermons and other musings, “Extraordinary Living for Ordinary Men” (The church wasn’t into inclusive language back then). In it there’s an essay in which he explains his way of living, It’s entitled, “I stand near the door.” He wasn’t talking about the door of his room or of his church. He meant the “door” between church people and everyone else. He didn’t want to get so far “into” the church and the life of faith that he couldn’t talk to people who didn’t yet believe. But, he didn’t want to go so far out of the door that he would forget the things of faith that gave meaning to his life.

Today we’re considering literature evangelism Sunday and the work of the Taiwan Church Press. Many things that come from the press are EXACTLY the “near the door” stuff that we  and the society around us need.

Conclusion: Printed Materials to help churches be “Abrahamic”

By being near the door, Abraham could see those who were passing by, and they could see him. The Taiwan Church News publishes a weekly newspaper. It contains not just “church stuff”, but lots of social commentary and many cultural features.  The press puts out the kinds of theological books that help church leaders to do their jobs better and operates bookstores where churches buy the kinds of supplies that churches use. But it doesn’t print Bibles.

Sisters and brothers, the Bible is EXCELLENT, but it’s a difficult reach for many outside of the community of faith to make.  For folks who are likely to zone out on getting anything from the Bible reading it straight up (folks like me), the church press publishes  the weekly “heart farmer” paper. It contains about four stories each week about the struggles of people of faith. It’s local (Taiwan) and not all that religious. If you read it every week for 10 weeks, you’re bound to find a story that intersects with some issue a not-yet-believing friend has encountered, and then you can talk with that friend, “at the door.” For those of us who want to read the bible daily, the Taiwan Church Press offers the New Eyes Bible Reading guides, which help us not to just read a certain number of verses, but also to understand them as people in Taiwan.

Today in our bulletins there is yet one more printed thing, an offering envelope. Even if you put nothing in here, do use this to remind you to ask God to watch over the Taiwan Church press and other agencies engaged in printed word evangelistic work. As our world goes more and more into the digital age, these agencies have to be transformed into what God has for us next.

Our churches also need to be transformed for the digital world that is upon us already. Let’s not be hiding inside, comfortable where the air conditioning blows on us, and not aware of what our neighbors are struggling with outside. Like Abraham, let’s sit near the door, where we can be part of the action that God is doing. AMEN




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