Hymn: Let us build a house where love can dwell © Marty Haugen 1994
Reflection by Revd Sue McCoan
No prizes for guessing, from the hymn, that the theme for today is ‘welcome’ – the way we are made welcome, and the way we welcome others.
It might seem like tactless timing, given that many of us have been indoors and hardly seen a soul for 3 months. But as we move out of lockdown, as we start to meet people again, then it’s as well to be ready for what new encounters might bring.
By way of starting, can I invite you to remember, or imagine, a time when you were made welcome, and how that felt. And, conversely, you might like to remember or imagine a time when you did not feel welcome, when you met with hostility or perhaps indifference (‘we don’t care if you’re there or not’). It matters, doesn’t it?
I mentioned earlier the Ga-Dangme Fellowship. Ga and Dangme are two of the minority languages in Ghana, and this is a fellowship of Ghanaians from all over London who speak those languages; they meet at St Andrew’s Ealing in the afternoon of the 4th Sunday each month (or they did before lockdown). So I get to go to their services, as often as I can. One of the bits I really like in the service is the way they welcome newcomers. They invite anyone there for the first time to stand up and introduce themselves, and then the whole congregation sings a welcome and the worship leaders come and shake them by the hand, and it’s a big moment. It wouldn’t work everywhere – done badly, it could be really embarrassing, but there is such warmth, and such love, that it really is a welcome. I don’t speak the languages, I quite often don’t know what I’m doing or am supposed to do, but I know that I am welcome there and I really value that.
Jesus, in the bible reading which we shall hear shortly, talks to his disciples about being welcomed. We’ve been looking, over the last two weeks, at Jesus sending them out to bring the good news of the kingdom of Heaven; this is the very end of that briefing. He has already said, if people don’t make you welcome, don’t trouble them; leave them in peace and move on. Now he says, but if they do make welcome, then something very special is happening.
Let’s hear the reading now.
Bible reading: Matthew 10:40-42
‘Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me’ Jesus says, ‘and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’.
Not everybody will welcome a pair of disciples into their home. Not everyone will want to listen to what they have to say. But if they do, then in welcoming the disciples, they are also welcoming Jesus.
We don’t have a tradition in this country of going to the homes of strangers and expecting hospitality. But, in normal times, we meet people: through work, volunteering, leisure activities, in casual encounters. If people make space for you in their lives; if they are prepared to spend time with you and listen to what you have to say; then they have let Jesus into their life in a way that they perhaps don’t even realise, don’t even notice. And we may find ourselves welcomed like this by people we assumed would never be interested.
It’s good to be welcomed. It’s wonderful to be welcomed in the name of Jesus. And if we know the value of being welcomed, then we have a responsibility to welcome others. I am taking it as a given that we want to be welcoming; it’s always worth thinking about how we might do it better.
The hymn we are using throughout our service today reminds us that welcome doesn’t start with meeting someone. We need to build a welcoming environment. The hymn talks of ‘house’ and ‘place’, and we often think in terms of welcoming people into our church buildings, but perhaps this time of lockdown has given us a chance to think more widely, to think of building a virtual house, a fellowship without walls. After all, Jesus didn’t have a home to invite people to – he met them where they were. And we who meet online in worship will almost certainly never all meet together in one physical place – not least because we’re in several different countries.
The first verse talks of a house where love can dwell and all can safely live. How simple, we might think, and how obvious. But over the last few weeks we have been sharply reminded that in this country, in this day and age, there are large numbers of people who do not feel that they can safely live. Because of their skin colour, because of how they identify or whom they love. Building this house is tough.
The other night, on the London news, a black community worker who had been stopped and searched several times was giving training sessions to police recruits, asking them about the assumptions they made when they saw black people. It was clearly hugely uncomfortable for them to face this, and to say it in front of him, but it was a way of breaking through their unconscious attitude so that together they could find better ways of approaching situations. If we are to be a Christian community where love can dwell and all can safely live, we need to call out our own unthinking racism, our own unconscious attitudes towards people who are different. And that includes me. Please let me know when I cause offence – otherwise I may well do it again.
The next two verses speak of building a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true; and of the feast that frees us. This is our preaching and communion, our word and our sacraments, the heart of our worship. In lockdown we have been sharing worship, including communion, in very different ways, but still with truth, still with love. Let’s sing those two verses now.
Hymn: Let us build a house where love can dwell verses 2 and 3
There are 2 more verses to this hymn, which we shall sing at the end of the service. These last 2 verses open up a wider picture. The 4th verse speaks of serving the world beyond our own community, a world where, looking through eyes of love, we see the outcast and the stranger bearing the image of God’s face. Again we might challenge ourselves. Walking round the streets, who are the people we would like to see in church? And who are the people we would really rather didn’t come? Can we see God in all those people? If we’re really honest, that’s quite a tough question.
In fact in all of this, in creating a safe space for all people, in sharing preaching and communion with integrity, and in serving the world, we need to keep examining ourselves and our own attitudes. We will not always get it right and we may unwittingly cause damage along the way.
But here is the thing, in the final verse, that gives us hope. The house, the community, we build, where all are named and loved and treasured, is not built by us getting it right. It is built by prayers of faith and songs of grace; it is built of tears and cries and laughter, as we make our mistakes and accept God’s forgiveness and keep blundering on. And it is in this faith, and this confidence, that we can proclaim from floor to virtual rafter: all are welcome in this place.
Let me end with a prayer from Hawaii about welcome.
Father of all mankind, make the roof of my house wide enough for all opinions, oil the door of my house so it opens easily to friend and stranger, and set such a table in my house that my whole family may speak kindly and freely round it.