Welcoming—a holy task

Sermon for 29 June ’08

Matthew 10.40-42

This morning, Kerry preached her last sermon as a student minister at Centenary, and said that when she first came,

I remember feeling, well, maybe like someone had given me a cup of cold water. I was encouraged and welcomed. And I’ve been encouraged and welcomed here ever since that first day.

Jesus was telling his disciples that they were his envoys, his ambassadors when they went out to spread the good news. I want to turn that around tonight; I want to talk about our hospitality. About our welcoming people. About being a welcoming congregation to others who come among us.

Nearly every congregation I have known has thought of itself as a friendly place to be. And they’ve been right—they have been friendly places for the regulars, but sometimes only to the regulars. If you’re ‘in’, you come and people gather around you and with you. If you’re already not part of a group, you can feel very much on the edge.

A congregation worthy of the name ‘friendly’ needs to be friendly to the stranger, not just to one another. To be friendly, a congregation needs to open its heart to the stranger.

I’m not trying to ‘get at’ this congregation—we’re about average at welcoming. But the Gospel Reading we heard tonight does talk about welcoming those who come in the name of Christ, so we need to listen to it.

A few weeks ago, I put out a piece of paper about being a welcoming congregation. It’s a kind of ‘how-to’ thing. To be welcoming, we do things like this:

 

  • Remember the rule of 3 to 1: talk to three newcomers for every person you know;
  • Introduce the new person you’ve just met to someone else, don’t just leave them stranded;
  • Introduce yourself with a question: Hi, I’m Dorothy the Dinosaur, I’ve been coming here for two years. How long have you been coming here?
  • When you talk to a new person, have a positive attitude about the church! A negative attitude is spiritual death;
  • Invite them to things.

 

In other words, treat them as you’d like to be treated. You’d be surprised at the results. Almost anyone can do this and do it well. You might want to grab a friend and talk to a new person together. Grab the sheet of paper at the back later if you want a reminder.

But really, it’s not mainly about technique, it’s not about ‘how-to’ be welcoming. It is about where our hearts are. Our hearts need to be where Jesus wants them to be. Mother Teresa, who died a few years ago now, used to work among the poorest people in Calcutta. Once, she was asked by an interviewer: ‘What’s the biggest problem in the world today?’ Without hesitating she replied, ‘The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day.’ We need to draw it larger every day. A new person is a new member of the family. Our circle should be open; we want to draw others into our circle.

So let’s look once more at the opening words of our Gospel Reading tonight:

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…

When we welcome someone new, we are not just welcoming that person. We are welcoming the One who sent them. When someone new comes, this is how we should see them: this person, whether they are a prophet, a disciple or one of the ‘little ones’ has been sent by Jesus Christ. Whether they are attractive or unattractive, whether they are black or white, gay or straight, cool or dull, they have been sent by Jesus Christ. When we fail to welcome them, we reject Jesus. When we welcome them, we welcome Jesus. And when we welcome Jesus, we welcome God the Father and God the Holy Spirit too. Welcoming others is a holy task.

Kerry found a real welcome here. Let us welcome everyone with the same spirit! Let us pray:

God of life,
you call your Church
to be a sign of grace to the world;
may we be gracious to others,
that welcoming them,
we may also welcome you;
in Christ’s name. Amen.

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