True hospitality…shifting up to make room, being willing to be inconvenienced. Sermon for Adel Parish Church – 3rd Sunday after Trinity, 2020.
Matthew 10: 40 – end
My great, great grandfather, the impressively named Lowther Ellerby Ellis, was a primitive Methodist preacher in Derbyshire. I suspect he could empathise with those first disciples being spoken to in our reading, which is just the end of a passage telling them of all the hardships waiting for those who spread God’s word.
Between 1862 and 1903 my great, great grandfather (and presumably his family) preached in circuits all over the North of England. Each circuit consisted of many village chapels…travelling between them to preach was done mostly on foot. The pay was meagre, and was decided by his congregation – depending partly on how highly they valued his preaching! (I hope you are not getting ideas…) It was not unusual for such preachers to have to beg to support their families.
His experience was not unlike that of the first disciples: sent out to rely on the hospitality of those with whom they shared the good news; warned that their message would often be ignored, and they might well be persecuted for it. Like those first disciples, my great grandfather perhaps needed to hear today’s gospel…
…Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” In other words – disciples are not just talking about Jesus; they are taking God himself into people’s homes and lives.
For my great, great grandfather it must have been an exhausting life. I guess when he preached in a remote village somewhere, he hoped someone might invite him in for a meal, or even offer a bed for the night. But Primitive Methodists were on the whole poor, so this might mean sharing limited food round an extra mouth…juggling already overcrowded sleeping arrangements to squeeze in a visitor. I wonder how often preachers felt really welcome.
I suppose, as a church, we hear readings like this and identify with the disciples…the people with the gospel to share.
But Jesus finishes the passage with a striking phrase “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…will not lose their reward.” This sounds like an invitation to identify with those hearing the gospel, to think of ourselves as those receiving Christ’s messengers.
When I read it this week it felt like a prompt to look at how we as a church welcome people, and perhaps more importantly we view those we welcome.
Adel Parish Church is a welcoming church. I have heard many times from people who came tentatively and stayed because of the welcome. But I don’t think it’s ever something we can take for granted and stop working at.
I was discussing this with Kate Clarke the other day. She talked about the importance of welcoming people as part of the congregation. In a way that sounds obvious – of course everyone who comes is part of the congregation. But I think she was saying something quite deep about how we see people, and the effects this might have.
I think what Kate was saying is that people can be very unsure of themselves – they might not know why they’ve come. It’s very easy in that situation to feel as though everyone else has faith all sorted…The friendly ‘we haven’t seen you here before’…could subtly divide us, the followers of Christ, from them, the newcomer…
Welcoming newcomers ‘as part of the congregation’ is a very subtle difference that could have a big effect on the church. It seems to me that if we welcome newcomers as part of the congregation…we welcome them as fellow pilgrims, also on a journey. We look on them as fellow disciples of Christ.
If we welcome them as fellow disciples of Christ, we are saying that they could be bringing Christ to us. That in welcoming them in, we might be welcoming Christ, and through Christ, God our Father.
When we see welcome like that, we see not only that they might be changed by joining the church, we also expect that we, the church might be changed by them.
If everyone is a fellow Pilgrim, everyone has something to teach us about God. True hospitality is about shifting around to make room, about moving out of our comfortable normal to accommodate others. It’s about being willing to be inconvenienced. But as Jesus says, if we welcome his messengers, we welcome God into our lives, and the rewards are enormous.
Jesus said if we welcome a prophet we receive a prophet’s reward. If we’re ready to imagine those we welcome could be God’s prophets, we will perhaps be ready to let those prophets change us…and find ourselves blessed by God’s presence.
Apparently during lock-down, with church services forced on-line, many people who are not regular church goers are joining in. I wonder if this is partly because they don’t have to worry about what kind of welcome they will receive…they know they won’t have to explain why they have come…to worry about feeling different.
When we eventually return to something like normality, we need to think about how such people can still be part of our church. Not just because we want to share what we’ve gained from being part of this community – but because whoever welcomes a disciple of Jesus (however tentative a disciple they might be) welcomes Jesus himself.
However welcoming they are – churches will still, for many, be slightly scary places to enter. But if we continue to welcome people as ‘part of the congregation’, they might find it easier to stay. And we will be rewarded by discovering what they can teach us about God’s love.