The challenge of welcome

Matthew 10:40-42
Exodus 22:21-23
Hebrews 13:1-2

There is a well-known story about two British sailors who, finding themselves at a loose end in Copenhagen on a Sunday morning, decide to go to church. Being unfamiliar with Lutheran services and speaking no Danish, they spot a young man sitting in front of them and they decide the sensible thing to do is to watch him for clues as to when to sit, stand etc. All goes well until part way through the service they follow him in standing up only to hear the congregation dissolve into laughter. The Minister taking the service, then leans forward and says in English, ‘what I just said was “will the father of the child please stand”!’

We’re not welcoming, and we’re unfriendly, said no church ever. I have yet to meet a church which doesn’t claim to be welcoming and friendly, but the sad reality is rather different. Even here, we’re not always as good at welcoming people as we think we are. All of our Bible readings today remind us of the importance of welcoming people – be kind to strangers, you might be entertaining angels without knowing it, can you now even give a cup of cold water to a stranger on a hot day?

Ona good day, perhaps we do quite well at talking to people we don’t recognise, but I want to suggest to you that welcome actually goes much beyond pleasantries, but I don’t mean invading the privacy of those who step through our doors. Welcome is about being a church that is person-focused, not issues-focused.

For many people the idea of coming to church seems to involve signing up to a whole set of beliefs and dogma, most of which feel to have little or no bearing on real life, even though most of us are real and grounded people. But the truth is that we haven’t adapted quickly enough with the times. The Pilgrim Project has become so big, because we have a lot of catching up to.

Welcome, at its deeper level, is about trying to close that gap in perception, but it’s much more than the doors wide open, no questions asked. Questions can be intrusive and quite often accompanied by elements of judgement, no matter how subtle. The hidden agenda, however subconscious and unintentional, has too often has been that you are welcome as long as you sign up, eventually, to the way we do things around here, when we know deep down that we need to be ready to do things very differently as new people bring new insights.

Taking welcome to a deeper level turns this process on its head, inviting those of us already in the church to reflect upon their own identity, and to ask questions, not so much about visitors, but about themselves. Who are we? What are our expectations? Do we really present ourselves and our faith in a way that makes the Church accessible and attractive?

Jesus made time for strangers, quite often shunning the familiar and the acceptable, sensing perhaps that it’s in the presence of strangers that we can deepen our own sense of identity. I am of a generation that has watched in disbelief as the universal Church has marginalised, excluded, condemned, and written off staggering numbers of people, and is far from finished at that.

Taking welcome to a deeper level is a wonderful opportunity to set ourselves against this trend, without apology or awkwardness. In a world where it is now clear that searching for God is a major aspect of human behaviour and healthy personal development, surely we have a duty to recover lost ground by presenting ourselves with a voice that is rational, compassionate, and above all, non-judgemental? God can do the judgement bit without our help, or hindrance.

This deeper level of welcome challenges us to consider those who have been defined as “The Other”. Now, what on earth do I mean when I say “The Other”? The Other is the stranger, the Christ in our midst. The Other is people who have been systemically, historically silenced, marginalized and oppressed in relation to our community.

Putting it another way, first we need to look into our church – what kinds of people are here? What cultures and races? What language and education? What socio-economic status? Which genders and sexual orientations, and physical abilities?
Second, we need to look outside our church – who is in the community? Which people are least likely to feel valued and embraced as part of your church? Which people are present in the community around us, but not part of the church?
Third, we need to consider, however inadvertently and unintentionally, church may have given the messages that some people are not wanted?

It would all be very easy if there was a list of what we needed to do to improve on welcome, and take welcome to a deeper level. Perhaps we have some idea what The Other is for us? Perhaps we might need to make changes, for us to fully welcome The Other? What activities, images, messages and events would make it clear that we are making room for the voices, the presence, and the power, of The Other at the heart of our life together?

I’m not suggesting that we demonise the culture of our church, nor that we attempt to erase everything and start from scratch. But, I am challenging us to examine the elements of our church life, and determine where we could make room for another voice, to stretch our arms, stretch our imagination, and discover the joy of embracing and building community with The Other.

I’ve said a great deal about church, but there’s another aspect of welcome at a deeper level, of embracing The Other, that extends far beyond the walls of this or any other church. These days our nation is deeply divided. Many people believe diametrically opposed things about what our national values, and aims, and ethos, are about and should be about. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a great deal of consensus, they called it Butskellism, which was a conjunction of the names of Conservative Rab Butler and the Labour Hugh Gaitskell, the point being that it didn’t matter which party you voted for, because they both had much the same policies. That certainly isn’t the case now. The division between Remain and Leave couldn’t be clearer; and in our recent General Election, the visions offered by Conservative and Labour couldn’t have been more starkly different. And the clear split in opinion between the two couldn’t have been much closer to 50:50. We have become a nation divided, and a nation divided so much that hatred for The Other is much more in evidence than it used to be.

What do I mean by The Other in our nation? For some people, Muslims are The Other, for some people atheists are The Other. For some people Jeremy Corbyn is The Other, and for some people Theresa May is The Other. For some Guardian readers are The Other, for some Daily Mail readers are The Other. For some Remaners are The Other, while for some Brexiteers are The Other.

What we see in our nation is what I was talking about in church played out on a grand scale, and we will get nowhere as a nation, whatever our philosophy, or ideology, our politics, until we learn not to demonise The Other, but to embrace it.

There’s also another aspect of this that we also need to consider, and that’s whatever we perceive as The Other, might also be inside us. What I mean by this is sometimes, when we take a dislike to someone, it’s because of something we see of ourselves in them, often subconsciously, that we dislike in ourselves. The good news is that God knows about everything within ourselves that might dislike, much better than we can know ourselves, and God loves us not despite that, but fully who we are. We can’t love as well as God, by definition, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to the embrace The Other, and make the first steps, as best we can, strengthened by God’s Holy Spirit in us.

The challenge lies before us: can we take welcome beyond pleasantries, to a deeper level? Can we be people who learn to welcome? Can we even be people who dare to recognise The Other, and who want to learn ways to begin to put down our fear, and embrace The Other? Obviously this is about our church, and our world, but it begins in our hearts, and it’s about what kind of people we want to be.

I’m going to end with some words of a hymn we sometimes sing:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread;
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share;
with wisdom and grace dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that’s fair.

For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song;
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, a right to belong.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.

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