It’s powerful stuff – because, of course, the Sacraments are powerful stuff…but we need to remember that we, with all our inadequacies, fears and reservations, can either be sacramental signs ourselves – pointing out and mediating God’s welcome to others – or the kind of caricatures that disrupt his loving purpose by showing a different way.
On one level it’s simple. We welcome others – because God welcomes us (cf Romans 15:7). The theme of welcome and hospitality is an unbreakable thread woven through the biblical narrative, binding together people of faith from generation to generation. Beginning in the first book of the Bible as God appeared to Abraham by the oaks at Mamre, our faith story starts shaping a theology of welcome. There in Genesis 18 as God passed by Abraham’s tent, Abraham welcomed the stranger with the words, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves…” A theology of welcome rooted in small gestures…and of course in welcoming those three travelers, Abraham welcomed God, disguised in those random strangers, and his whole life was changed.
In Exodus this theme of welcome and hospitality continues as it looks inward. In chapter 23 we read, “You shall not oppress a resident stranger, you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” At some point in time, each of us has been in need of welcome, as we’re reminded here for “we all have been the stranger.” As Christians, of course, we encounter this experience because we know that the world in which we live is not our ultimate home. We are sojournors, resident aliens, as much as any wandering Aramean…but we are confident that we travel through life to a welcome home that is beyond all imagining.
From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical narrative continues to reveal a theology of welcome...you've some examples to look up and reflect on later, but the picture is clear, and Matthew 10 couldn’t be clearer:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
When you think about what it means to actually practice welcome in the twenty-first century, it’s a daunting task. In a culture that encourages us to “network” with people who share our tastes; that defines us in groups of political preferences, social status, and economic standing; that breaks us down by age, sex or money, practising radical hospitality, reflecting God's welcome to us, is a counter cultural challenge…
So, what will it take for us, the God’s church in this place, to construct and practice an authentic theology of welcome? The first thing is perhaps to reaffirm that little things matter—that small gestures of kindness and welcome are deeply remembered. We’ve become so accustomed to the headline-busting grand gestures, so persuaded that more is better that we risk forgetting that little gestures of kindness and welcome can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others. Listen again. Jesus says, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…”
Such a very small gesture. It sounds like tokenism? It might even feel that way to the giver, and Jesus emphasizes that's it is scarcely heroic giving, with his use of the word ‘even.’ But though we often imagine discipleship requires huge sacrifice or entails great feats, as sometimes it does, at others, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without a car. Or saying “Do Come in – it’s lovely to see you” to someone who looks less than certain that they'll feel at home in our service. Somebody whom you might struggle to feel at ease with, might prefer to turn away. Remember, at that moment when they’are hovering by the door, the quality of our welcome will directly influence their understanding of God's welcome.
Shall I say that again? Because it is terrifyingly true. Most people who leave a church because they've felt unwelcome there believe that God will be equally luke-warm in his pleasure at seeing them...but we know, don't we, how he welcomes us. Absolutely. Unconditionally. “Just as I am – of that free love the length, breadth, depth and height to prove”. God welcomes us.
So, in developing our collective theology of welcome we need to recast ourselves in the parable of the prodigal. BECAUSE we have had the experience of being welcomed with that wild generosity that sets all our past sins and failings aside. Because we recognise the danger of becoming the small-minded older brother who is unable to see beyond the obligations of natural justice, which would decree that he remained the “golden boy”, while his brother reaped the reward for his folly. Because we know that as we have received an unconditional loving welcome, this is what we must pass on....because of all this, our model from the parable must be the father...running down the road to sweep up his disreputable son in a whirlwind embrace and pulling him in to join the celebration.
Welcome won’t always be extravagant. We know that many who come to us would be horrified to find themselves at the centre of a wild uproarious party. Though it's apparently not true that cathedral worshippers are there because they prefer anonymity and disengagement to the demands of life in a parish church, nonetheless many people do prefer to slip in quietly...and a real welcome notices and respects that. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much. But this means, of course, that each unwelcoming gesture has, potentially, an equal and unhelpful significance. I'm sorry if that makes you feel as wretched as it does me...or perhaps, after all, I'm not sorry in the least. Perhaps that is something for us to grapple with as we work out how, really, we can live that theology of welcome which runs through the story of our faith. It's bound to be challenging.
Because, of course, when we welcome the stranger we run all sorts of risks. Remember all of those texts from Exodus and Leviticus and Isaiah about welcoming and offering hospitality to the outsider. A true theology of welcome invites, without boundaries, those who are considered to be aliens in our midst—those who are different from us; who look different, think different, and who believe differently. The woman or man just released from prison who needs a new start. The immigrant who needs a place of safety. The gay teenager whose parents have just thrown them out of their home. The child whose lone parent is an addict. These are the ones, Jesus tells us, whom we must welcome. It sounds simple and yet it can feel so complicated. Speaking to the stranger sitting beside you or in front of you or behind you in worship is not easy for everyone. Getting up and walking across the room to sit with someone who is sitting alone can be uncomfortable. Stepping away from a conversation with a trusted friend to speak to a visitor is hard to do, specially if you are secretly worried that they may in fact have been coming to the Cathedral for years and you simply haven’t noticed them! Listening, truly listening to someone whom you disagree with can be frustrating, challenging...It might even change you! Risky stuff. VERY risky. Of course we might hope, or imagine that those strangers will quickly be assimilated, that in just a few weeks they will fit in so comfortably that it is as if they have always been here. Sometimes, that will be true. Sometimes in welcoming the alien we are inviting them in to a process of transformation – but sometimes it is those who have opened their doors that find themselves unexpectedly changed..
Of course we cannot guarantee that our guests will share our tastes or our world view. Let's move from Scripture to the other foundational text that has special significance for us here at Coventry. With our monastic roots, we are heirs to a tradition shaped over generations by the Rule of St Benedict, which has much to say about hospitality. Benedict recognised that even brethren coming from another monastic house might see things in a very different way from the resident community, and that those differences could cause conflict. Listen
“If a monk who is a stranger, arriveth from a distant place and desireth to live in the monastery as a guest, and is satisfied with the customs he findeth there… let him be received for as long a time as he desireth. Still, if he should reasonably, with humility and charity, censure or point out anything, let the Abbot consider discreetly whether the Lord did not perhaps send him for that very purpose.”
Thus, outsiders should always be welcome additions to a community, and differences of opinion, if offered in love, are to be respected and considered – for they might even enrich the host community. In other words, those whom we welcome will constantly enlarge our hearts and our minds….so that we will become step by step closer to being the kind of church in which everyone really might feel at home.
Here our core values complement one another. As ++Justin puts it, reconciliation means we find ways of disagreeing – perhaps very passionately – but loving each other deeply at the same time, and being deeply committed to each other.. Benedict, in fact, goes one step further, in suggesting that it may be that reconciliation, co-operation, and the improvement of the community may be the very reason for disagreement – it is to be treasured as a means of instruction brought about through divine grace.
You see a larger heart is the beginning of revolution. When I let strange people and strange ideas into my heart, I am beginning to shape a new world. Hospitality of the heart could change UK domestic policies. Hospitality of the heart could change UK foreign policy. Hospitality of the heart could make our world a world of potential friends rather than a world of probable enemies.
To be continued