by Rev. David Howarth
Did any of you watch the King’s Coronation, either from the comfort of an armchair or, as we are so close, the streets around Buckingham Palace and Westminster? As we know, as part of the celebrations, the King and Queen have encouraged communities to hold their very own celebrations in the form of a Big Lunch – they even suggested something to form part of that.
- You see, Queen Victoria had her Victoria Sponge Cake.
- The late Queen had Coronation Chicken.
- And this time we have been encouraged to eat quiche.
And, according to some parts of the British press, this has upset the French. For the French maintain that there is only one type of quiche: Quiche Lorraine.
As I have pondered the various and varied events of this weekend, my mind keeps on returning to the notion of the Big Lunch. The pomp and pageantry of the Royal procession was a sight to behold, and I am sure that those of that particular persuasion appreciated the Coronation itself, but for me it is the sense of people coming together with a common goal and eating together that means more to me than anything else. For here there is a sense of fellowship, of welcome and of hospitality, all of which, from our perspective at least, is central to our faith.
I remember a number of years ago while at a local, ecumenical ministers’ meeting being told a story about a minister who felt that the church he was serving was a bit stuffy and could use a bit of friendliness. The minister announced that the following Sunday they were going to restart the custom of shaking hands and greeting each other.
At the end of the service where this was announced, as the story goes, a man in the tenth row turned around to the woman behind him and said, “Good morning.” She looked at him with shock and replied, “I beg your pardon! That friendliness business doesn’t start until next Sunday.”
I am not sure if we here at Fetter Lane have ever been visited by a mystery worshipper. Often these are people who simply just turn up at a service and secretly take mental notes with the view to publish a review on a website called the Ship of Fools. And they can be an interesting read.
There is a story about one of these mystery worshippers attending eighteen different churches on successive Sundays. And on one particular Sunday, this person sat near the front of his chosen church. He was neatly dressed. He enjoyed the service. He smiled at people, and they smiled back. And he even stayed for coffee after the service.
So far so good.
But that was not the end of it. You see, in the review followed he wrote, “I used a scale to rate the reception I received. I awarded points on the following basis: ten points for a smile from a worshipper. Ten for a greeting from someone sitting nearby. One hundred for an exchange of names. Twenty for an invitation to have coffee. Two hundred for an invitation to return. One thousand for an introduction to another worshipper. Two thousand for an invitation to meet the minister. And of a. the churches I have visited recently, he continued, eleven of the eighteen churches earned fewer than one hundred points and five actually received less than Twenty. And in conclusion, he wrote: The teaching may be biblical, the singing inspirational, the sermon uplifting, but when a visitor finds nobody who cares whether he is here, he is not likely to come back. Would you?
Is it possible for an outsider to come into our chapel and leave totally unnoticed? Probably not. But, let’s not be over confident or smug here, for being noticed isn’t the same as receiving a warm welcome.
The church universal talks about being a place of welcome and hospitality. Well, that is the theory, but the big question is, is this also what happens in practice? I love the word, theory, especially as the first few letters, Theo, means the Gift of God in Greek. Are we a gift of God? And do we put that gift into practice?
Over my many years in ministry, I have visited a lot of people’s homes, and it is always nice to see a welcome mat, or a verse carefully framed and displayed saying something like, “God bless all who enter this home.” They are certainly better than other signs that we may occasionally see: “Beware of dog” or “No Trespassing” for example.
If I am being honest, a small number of churches that I have attended over the years fall into the second category, while, thankfully, most fall into the former. But even if we are in the first category, we must guard against falling into the second. For we need to continually remember that the church, in reality, is actually built on welcome, on hospitality, on openness, of friendship and fellowship and of reaching out to people that others would not consider. This is the way it should be: it is biblical, after all.
The Old Testament gives many examples of God’s welcome, of God’s hospitality.
In Genesis chapter 18, we hear the story of Abraham and the three angelic visitors and see a picture of genuine hospitality in the ancient world. Abraham, a respected father, sits in the shade at the door to his tent, not only to enjoy the refreshing air, but so that he could see any weary ravelers pass by, someone he might invite to rest and refresh themselves during the heat of the day. And when such opportunity arose, Abraham would rise and greet his unexpected guests, before hurrying off to ask Sarah to prepare bread for a meal. He would then choose an animal for the feast before sharing a meal with them, ensuring that he would be the best host possible as a mark of welcome, hospitality and service.
Scripture is full of instances little different to this as well as calling us to do the same.
In Exodus we read the words, “Do not oppress a stranger; for you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were oppressed in Egypt.” And likewise in Leviticus, “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God.”
Then in Luke chapter 14 we read, “When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Hospitality, a warm welcome, and the sense of service that comes with those two, is reflected time and time again. And nowhere better is that seen when after supper Jesus takes the bread and wine, blesses them both and given them to his disciples. For here in this pivotal passage, the welcome, the hospitality and service towards friend and stranger alike takes an even greater and more significant turn. For all this happens, not as part of the meal they were eating but afterwards. You see, they had already eaten to fill their stomachs, but now they were to eat again, this time to fill their souls.
No wonder those eleven disciples and all those who would follow in their wake fully understood the importance of openness and the acceptance of outsiders. For not only were those who received benefitted from the physical hospitality of others, but they would also see an expression of spiritual hospitality, welcome and service too. In fact, many a Church Historian would say that the church would have died out if it wasn’t for their openness to offer hospitality, and alongside it, compassion.
And this equally applies to us to. For not only should we hear the Good News, but we should also live out the Good News. And hospitality, welcome and service should be central to everything we do.
- To welcome the friend and stranger without distinction.
- To feed and clothe without judgement.
- To show compassion and love in equal measure.
- And to reflect the love of God in all that we do and say.
So may the Word of God refresh us for practice of hospitality. And may our hearts and our homes be open to all. For we do not know for whom we do it; friend or stranger, and we do it also to the Lord. For ultimately, as we know, this is one of the Holy Habits. Amen.
Rev. David Howarth is Team Minister at Chelsea/Fetter Lane Moravian Church, and the above is part of his sermon preached on Coronation Sunday. With thanks to Sally Moody.