13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Welcome! Welcome to church! Let’s spend a moment greeting each other and saying welcome.
That’s a very simple gesture. You don’t get much more down to earth than an ordinary word of welcome and a handshake. But Jesus seems to be telling us that a simple greeting is also a profoundly spiritual act. “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As we have been greeting each other it is as though we are greeting Christ himself. Isn’t that wonderful?
Today’s gospel reading must be one of the shortest in the lectionary – just 3 verses long. And yet in those 3 verses – the word welcome occurs no less than six times! We should of course put them in context: Jesus is speaking to the 12 disciples as he is about to send them on mission, where they will truly earn the title of apostle, which literally means ‘one who is sent’. As they go they will need to travel light, take risks, trust in God and rely on the hospitality of others. “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Today I want us to think about this everyday word: ‘welcome’.
Being welcomed, and welcoming others; giving hospitality and receiving it – this must be at the very heart of the Christian community. As Arthur Sutherland states, “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.”
Trace Haythorn writes:
“For Jews and Christians, such hospitality has always been a part of who we are. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Torah and was a part of the measure of the Hebrew community’s faithfulness to God. When a traveller came to town, they waited by the well, and it was incumbent upon the townspeople to house and feed the visitor for the night.
Of course, these travellers were rarely family. These were folks unknown to the community. They were aliens, often foreigners, people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, different gods. Opening one’s home was risky. Today in our security conscious age we’d describe such a thing as out and out foolish. But such hospitality was central to the Hebrew identity. They were defined by generous hospitality, for they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God.
The same was true in the early Christian communities. Paul reminded the Romans to offer hospitality to the alien, and in the Letter to the Hebrews the people were reminded to show hospitality to all for in so doing some entertained angels unaware. In Acts, the early deacons practiced hospitality throughout the community, bringing welcome to those in need. And in Matthew’s community, hospitality was still a measure of the faithfulness of the people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples was a regular practice of the young church.”
Such hospitality was of course rooted in the example of Jesus, who was always willing to welcome those who others would consider unwelcome and called on others to do the same: “when you throw a dinner party, don’t invite your friends, your family or your posh neighbours, hoping that they will invite you back to theirs. Invite instead the poor, the handicapped, the lame, and the blind.”(Luke 14:13, my paraphrase)
So Jesus calls for hospitality that has no boundary or limit; where a welcome is extended not in the expectation of social gain, but for its own reward. Where no-one remains excluded and unwelcome.
Taken literally, this is Jesus at his most challenging and difficult. But it is what true hospitality is all about. It is interesting to observe that the Greek word translated hospitality in our Bibles is philoxenia, which literally means ‘love of the stranger’. It is the opposite of that more familiar word xenophobia, which literally means ‘fear of the stranger’. For hospitality is simply a practical way in which we can work out Jesus’ command to love our neighbour, whether friend or stranger. Later Jesus will tell a parable about the feast of the kingdom of God where all are invited in. Just as God is hospitable, calling all people to himself, so too Christians must be hospitable, lovers of the stranger, giving and receiving words of welcome – particularly in situations where welcomes are in short supply.
And that means working, quite intentionally, to make the church a place of welcome. This calling, to be a place of welcome, is the theme of a hymn by Marty Haugen:
Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger
bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
Expressed like this it is a magnificent vision. In the remainder of the sermon I want to explore some ways in which we can develop a ministry of hospitality;
- in our worshipping congregation,
- in our church premises,
- in our community.
1. First of all, we need to make this worshipping congregation a welcoming place.
We are here, and presumably the reason we are here is because once, perhaps recently, perhaps many years ago, we were welcomed into this fellowship. Later in the service three of our friends Janet, Joyce and David will be welcomed as members of the Methodist Church and the church in this place. Actually they’ve been part of our fellowship for ages, so it’s not like we are welcoming strangers. We are formalising an existing relationship. But it is still a welcome and the traditional sign of that welcome is the so-called hand of fellowship, a simple handshake.
From time to time we have anxious discussions about whether as a church we are welcoming enough. We have new visitors all the time; some stay, some do not. Surveys in which people are questioned why they were attracted to a particular church suggest that the quality of the welcome is important – often more important than things like the quality of the sermons! But this is about more than how people are greeted at the door; it is about the conversations after church and the building up of relationships through pastoral contacts, social events and other church activities. We may be friendly enough, but I do think we have a way to go before we can claim to be a thoroughly welcoming church. A couple of thoughts:
(i) That although some of us seem more naturally able when it comes to greeting, more naturally hospitable, this really is a matter for every single person in church today. All of us can take responsibility for saying hello to the new person who sits at the end of our row, or in front of us, or next to us – and then introducing that person to others.
(ii). Creating a welcoming place is more than what we say before and after church. Our building makes a huge difference. For example, what welcome are we giving to people with disabilities who are unable to climb the steps into the church? We know that this is a big problem, which can only be solved by the forthcoming church development scheme.
Or consider how we might make our worship more welcoming to families. Over the years we have lost families who have moved to other churches where there is more going on for children and young people. What needs to change to make our worship more family-friendly?
2. Secondly we need to make this building a place of welcome. Not just for those of us who gather to worship on Sunday, but a place where people from our neighbourhood, often divided and isolated, can come and find hospitality and welcome one another.
Once again, a building that is renewed, providing facilities for the community, is an essential part of making this happen, but it is not the only, or perhaps even the most important element in creating a place of welcome. Rather it will be our attitude to others.
To explain what I mean, let me offer an example, which I think could be a model for all that we might do as we engage with the community about us; our involvement in the Camden Churches Cold Weather Shelter.
In the winter months our church is quite literally opened up to those who have no other place to stay. An important philosophy of the C4WS is using the language of hospitality. So those using our facilities are called and treated as guests. Not service users or customers. Certainly not called by any of the labels that get put on people: homeless, rough sleepers, asylum seekers. Rather we get to know our guests by name. If you have not been involved in the past couple of years in the C4WS why not make this year the year you volunteer – to cook a meal, to help with breakfast, to share a conversation or play a board game? These are contemporary ways in which we offer a cup of water to others in their need. But be aware that it is not just an opportunity to give, but also to receive, as we hear people’s stories and learn what it means to practice practical compassion.
And I wonder whether this language of guest and host can be extended to other parts of our work as a church, so we don’t talk carelessly of people as “unbelievers” for example or any of the other labels we tend to impose which only succeed in dehumanising and categorising our neighbour. What a difference it would make if we saw all our work in terms of giving hospitality, or if we go out into the community like the 12 apostles, as receiving hospitality in the name of Christ.
3. And talking about moving out beyond the doors of the church, a third way in which our church can be a place of welcome is through our engagement with the wider world. For hospitality is not something just to be practised here, but in our homes and our workplaces, at the shops and the market. How can we make our community a more welcoming place, our borough a more welcoming place, our nation a more welcoming place?
A couple of weeks ago we were given the opportunity to hear stories from the charity ‘Open Doors‘, which promotes the wellbeing of Christians in other parts of the world who find themselves persecuted and discriminated against. Your generous gifts to the work of Open Doors will help people who are often fearful, isolated and cut off from their neighbours. This past week was marked by many organisations, including the Methodist Church, as Refugee Week and today as Refugee Sunday. Historically Britain has a proud history of welcoming those who seek asylum or refuge, and one of the objectives of Refugee Week is to celebrate the contribution made to our society by those who originally came as refugees. The Methodist Church too has benefited richly from the presence of those who sought refuge here and many of the stewards and church officers I have had the privilege of working with over the years originally came to this country fleeing natural disasters, war and political unrest.
In fact, remove the labels ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ and we discover that their stories are familiar. For many of us have our origins in other places and know all too well what it is like to be a stranger in this city. In difficult times we received hospitality and welcome from others. Now in a society where people are often suspicious and isolated from one another, we have a real ministry to offer.: hospitality and welcome
And this is why I am excited about Donghwan coming as minister to this circuit and this church in September. As a circuit we are committed to giving more time to listen to the needs of people in Camden. As our church development plans become more and more concrete this is a hugely important task. Because we are really saying: what kind of a church community do we want to be? And how will our buildings serve us as we seek to be the people that God wants us to be? And how can we be a people who can genuinely sing:
All are welcome, all are welcome
all are welcome in this place.