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Welcome

In religious orders, the priority given to hospitality and welcome was insisted upon from the very beginning. Remote, early monastic communities in Egypt practised it and the Rule of St Benedict, established in about 520 AD, devotes a whole chapter (number 53) to the subject. It is called “On the Reception of Guests” and opens with these words:

“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ”

echoing not only the words of today’s Gospel reading but the passage that appears later in Matthew:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me”

Any stranger arriving at a Benedictine house was to be welcomed by no less a person than the abbot (or if he was away then the second in charge). The way that they are to be welcomed is laid down very precisely:

“When, therefore a guest is announced let him be met with all due charity; Let them first pray together and thus associate with one another in peace. At the arrival or departure of all guests, let Christ, who indeed is received in their persons be adored in them by bowing the head or even prostrating on the ground.”

So important was welcome in monastic life that the abbot was instructed “to break his fast for the sake of a guest” and even the design of monasteries was adjusted for the reception of guests. The lodging of both the abbot and the porter was near the main entrance away from the rest of the monks so that visitors could be welcomed at any time. Reading from chapter 53 of the rule again:

“The kitchen for the abbot and guests was apart, by itself, so that strangers may not disturb the brethren by coming at unlooked for hours.”

It was OK you see to disturb the abbot.

This idea that a guest is to be welcomed as Christ himself puts us in mind of the story of Abraham in Genesis 18.

“The Lord appeared to Abraham, by the oaks of the Marme as he sat at the entrance of his tent I the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them he ran to meet them”

Notice that, despite the heat and his great age, he ran and you will remember that he urges the men to take shelter from the sun under a tree. He brings them milk and curds and the meat from a tender calf and commands Sarah to make rustle up some cakes.

“Whoever welcomes you”, says Jesus to his disciples, “welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

This is quite an important idea and of vital interest, I think, to our church life. Jesus is pointing out that he was sent by the father so the way which he is received reflects our response to God.

Imagine then that a stranger was to walk in our church door right now. Firstly, this stranger, whoever they are has been impelled to come in. After all, it is not that easy or straight forward to walk into a church where you know no-one; indeed many people might find it difficult to walk into an empty church, let alone a full one. So a good question to ask ourselves might be “Who sent them?”

I think the answer is clear. They are coming to a church not a cinema, a doctor’s surgery, a supermarket or a coffee morning but a place of worship; so we can safely infer that God is working somewhere in their lives.

So, if God has in some way, maybe even unknown to the visitor themselves, sent them here, then the way we welcome them will shape and inform the way we welcome them into our community. A point that the Benedictines understood perfectly.

Now I am not going to ask the churchwardens to prostrate themselves in the porch each time a guest appears but I would like each of us to think carefully about this and particularly about the small things we do when someone new joins us; those things we do to make them feel at home.

As an example of how important this can be is that I remember, at a previous church, a lady telling me about her first visit. Someone seeing her come through the door with a pram and baby in tow immediately rearranged some seating to accommodate them. She had been so struck by this very little thing that she continued to attend that church ever since.

As Jesus said “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple shall not lose their reward.”

Let us then use our Gospel reading to remind us to be sure that, like the Benedictines and the other monastic orders, we are always attentive to our hospitality and welcome and that, in this way, we continue to build on the enormous warmth that this church has and that we shall make St Margaret’s an even more distinctive place and one that is just so very different from the world in which we usually find ourselves.

Amen

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