When I first arrived in this Diocese I was invited to preach at one of our smaller rural congregations. The Rector had asked me not to robe, so I arrived early and sat in the congregation. Not long afterwards a woman arrived, and came up to me in the pew.
“You can’t sit there,” she said, “that’s my seat.”
I looked down to check that I was actually wearing a clerical shirt, and then pinched myself to check that this wasn’t a bad dream.
“Well, I’ll sit in the row in front then,” I replied.
“O, that wouldn’t be a good idea,” came the response, “there’s a lady who likes to sit there under the heater and she will be here in a few minutes.”
“Perhaps I could sit right at the far end of this pew?” I asked.
“Yes, that would be okay, as long as you leave room for my husband.”
“That’s settled then,” I said, “but you will have to let me come passed you so that I can preach the sermon!”
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” says Jesus, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That experience of welcome which I received when I visited that parish came flooding back to me this week as I met with a Parish Council in one of our city churches which does not currently have a resident priest. I was there to explore a possible future pattern of ministry with them. I began our conversation by asking them to help me to understand the priorities which they had for ministry and mission in that parish. The Treasurer was very clear: his view was that a priest was needed urgently because there was no one in the parish who could type the pew sheet! But he did not want a priest who was going to cost too much money. I began to make a list of these priestly qualities which would be required. Number I: someone who can use a computer.
Someone else wanted to ensure that the priest would have the pastoral skills to look after the congregation, another member of the Parish Council reminded me that the last priest had been responsible for cutting the grass… and so the list went on. That faithful Parish Council, full of wonderful faithful Christians had begun to forget that they were not members of some kind of elite private club.
Everything that they associated with ministry either related to their buildings or to themselves. In a sense they wanted me to help them to find a priest who would be a good care taker of their properties, and a good chaplain to them. In their concern for maintaining what they already had, they had lost sight of the fact that their church community, (just like ours) exists supremely for those who are not yet amongst us, and not for those of us who are already here.
It is that fundamental call to hospitality, to living as a community which is defined by its welcome of others, which is at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning. How do we respond to that call? What does it mean for us to be people who embody the welcome of Jesus in our daily lives, and as this community of faith?
The first time that I can remember being really conscious of that question was when I was the sacristan of one of the college chapels in Oxford when I was a student. In that chapel we had three or four services every day. The whole campus knew that they were going on, because the Chapel was in the centre of the site, and we tolled a great bell before services in order to alert people to the possibility of being gathered together. We said Morning Prayer for I5 minutes at 8.45, we had a Eucharist at lunchtime, every evening we said Evening Prayer after dinner, and then on some days we had a late night service of Taize prayer or Compline, or a second Eucharist. It was a busy place.
We had a wonderful cleaner within that college community. He was a simple man, absolutely devoted to keeping the Chapel clean. Each summer, after term had ended, he and I moved all of the pews to the back of the chapel and he then spent a couple of weeks on his own, on his hands and knees removing with a razor blade all of the wax and dirt which had become fixed to the tiled floor over the last twelve months, and then he would re-varnish the floor so that it was shining by the start of the new academic year. The devotion with which he worked in that chapel was just incredible.
Every morning, whilst we were saying Morning Prayer he would come in with all his cleaning things, (his bucket and his vacuum cleaner), and sit on the other side of the glass doors in the foyer waiting for us to finish so that he could get on with his work. When I was leading those services I could see him sitting on the other side of the doors picking his nose, or whatever he was doing (day after day), I felt an enormous pain, because I longed for what we did, which was so central to our lives to be relevant to him as well, so that he would not just sit there waiting, but would come in and worship with us, and be part of us. But what we did in our services in that beautiful chapel, (the building which he loved so much), did not interest him at all.
We were very welcoming to him, if he had come into to the chapel he would not have risked sitting in someone else’s pew, or doing the wrong thing, we would simply have been thrilled that he was with us. We had a great concern to reach out to all of the students who lived on that college campus. During the time that I was there we used tree-loads of paper for invitations and posters trying to encourage students and staff to come and join us. When people did come they were made very welcome. But the reality was that the vast number of people who we shared that site with (our cleaner amongst them) were not interested in what we did, however welcoming we tried to be.
I have never been to a Church which aims to be unwelcoming. Can you imagine the sign? “The Anglican Parish of Merewether, if you weren’t here in 1980 you can’t come here now!” The majority of us are committed to being a Church which will welcome anyone who comes through the door. We love to have visitors here, we long for them to stay, and except for a few times when we don’t get it quite right, we offer a great welcome to people here at St Augustine’s. But today’s Gospel is about much more than that, because Jesus talks not only about our welcome, but about us meeting the needs of those who we come into to contact with.
That is the whole point of the cup of cold water, because we don’t give people cups of cold water unless we have found out that they need them. And to find out that someone needs a cup of cold water, requires us to engage at more than a level of distant friendliness, it requires us to engage at a level of genuine interest and concern.
A priest friend of mine recently took three months study leave from his parish, in order to visit a number of large churches in America to see how they operate, and to bring back some new ideas for his ministry, which is in. one of the large Anglican churches in London. One of the places which he visited is called Willow Creek Community Church. Willow Creek is an independent church (it is not part of the Anglican Communion) and its based outside Chicago. It has grown over a period of 20 years from 125 members to something like 15,000 members, which is quite a contrast from the college chapel that I was involved in in Oxford, and indeed from any of our Anglican churches here in Newcastle.
The really interesting thing about Willow Creek, (which is why people visit it to see what is going on), is not its size, but the vision which it has of being church; because the leaders of Willow Creek invented the “Seeker Service” which is right at the heart of its understanding of ministry. So on Sundays if you turn up there for a service, (whether you are on your own, or whether you have been invited by a friend) you become a part of a multi-media experience which is both worship but also a dynamic presentation of the basics of the good news that we find in Christ. So whilst the presentation may be different each week, the heart of the message is always the same. Services on Sundays at Willow Creek are not for the benefit of members, although members are there to welcome visitors, these are services for non-members, these are services for seekers. The most significant thing is that those people who are the hard-core, long term members of the community (people like you and me) meet together for their main time of worship and teaching not on Sundays, but during the week.
That is a fundamentally different way of being Church from anything that I have ever experienced.
At Willow Creek the shop front of the Church, it’s Sunday worship is the place where the members of the Church welcome visitors and offer worship appropriate to visitors, and the mid-week worship, which is not really advertised, is the place where the members of the Church have space to worship and pray and learn together. At Willow Creek they have grasped the heart of what it truly means to be welcoming. Welcoming is not just about being friendly, (“welcome this morning, it is great to have you here at our service”) it is about being so attentive to the needs of those we welcome, that we would be willing to change even the way we worship if it helped them to be more fully incorporated into our life.
The most significant thing about offering someone a glass of water, is the fact that we took the time to find out that someone was thirsty. There will always be a tension between meeting the needs of those of us who have been in the Church for many years, and who understand all of its strange ways (and who come here, rightly, to have our needs met) and meeting the needs of those very many people who live in our parish who have never been in. a Church building, and who do not understand our language, and our symbols and even the basic good news of the story of Jesus.
As we prepare ourselves for our particular focus this year on celebrating our existing ministries and taking stock in order to bring a new focus to those ministries in the future — through our parish programme of “Gifting with Grace” — let’s ensure that we create enough space in our busy parish life to give some of our attention to celebrating the great welcome which we have offered here for many years, and also to reflect on how that welcome might be taken one more step further forward; because if we truly welcome someone here, then we will be changed by their presence and by their gifts and by their needs.
Every time someone new comes amongst us, and is welcomed into us, our life and our worship, and our teaching, and our fellowship will never be the same again. We were welcoming people in my college Chapel, but when the cleaner didn’t come to join us we never took the time to ask him how we might meet his needs by changing what we did. We simply waited in the hope that one day he would change his mind. Jesus says, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
It is like welcoming someone to the extent that we really get to know them, and as we find out that they are thirsty we don’t offer them the food which we had planned to give out — we go instead (out of our way, departing from the script and the plans) to find them a glass of water in order to meet their need.
What does it mean for us to be a welcoming community? Let’s keep that question close to us, in our prayers and in our discussions over the coming weeks.