When Susanne and I were living in New York, we didn’t always have Sunday responsibilities so we had the joy of worshipping together on Sunday mornings. To be honest, at first we found the large and very formal New York Episcopal churches not very friendly and hard to feel at home in. We also realized that it had been a long time since we were “visitors” in a congregation, seeking to find acceptance and welcome like every other newcomer to our church.
Finally, we tried St. Bartholomew’s, a large, historic parish located in midtown right next to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel! I knew St. Bart’s had been through hard times in the past, but had made a real turnaround since the arrival of their new rector, Bill Tully. A large part of that is their commitment to what Bill calls “radical hospitality” and a real welcome for the newcomer.
On their website, you can find these words in a section called “What We Are For:” We are for “the dignity and worth of every person. An open-minded, passionate commitment to truth. The importance of everyone’s own spiritual journey. God’s friends wherever we find them. Seeking Christ in every person who comes through the door. The sacredness of life’s rites of passage. The value of community. The hard work necessary to make sure that all are welcomed. Telling the truth about life’s challenges. A “user friendly” church- experience. Children and families.”
The central sentence in that description caught my attention: “Seeking Christ in every person who comes through the door.” That line comes from the 6th century Rule of St Benedict, a rule he wrote for his monks about how they were to live together in community and how they were to welcome the stranger and the sojourner into their midst. They were to welcome them as though they were welcoming Christ himself!
If that sounds familiar to you it may be because of the words Christ himself spoke in the Gospel of St. Matthew this morning. Addressing his disciples, Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (10:40) He was, of course, preparing to send his disciples forth to preach and teach and heal in his name. He was about to transform them from “disciples” (learners) into “apostles” (ones who are sent).
And he wanted them to know that they were going out as his ambassadors. So that, whoever welcomed them, into their homes or synagogues or communities, was actually welcoming Jesus and his message as well. Decades later, St. Paul would describe the Church as “the Body of Christ” – meaning that the Church was to be the visible presence of Christ in the world (after his physical presence was no longer with them).
And, of course, the whole purpose of the Body of Christ (whether that was the earthly body of Jesus or the earthly mission of the Church) is – according to today’s Gospel — to “welcome the one who sent” him. Jesus was all about welcoming people, introducing them to God and to God’s Kingdom. He said, on more than one occasion, that when they looked at him, they were actually looking at what God is like. Jesus was the human face of God! And we are to be the human face of God today.
When those early Middle Eastern audiences heard and welcomed the apostles and their message, they were actually hearing and welcoming Jesus – which means that they were, at the same time, discovering the true and living God — Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all! Our task is exactly the same today – to welcome every newcomer and stranger who walks through our doors as though we were welcoming Christ himself. Because, when we do, we are actually welcoming God ever deeper into our lives and into our community.
We need to do a better job of welcoming at Trinity Cathedral. Like most congregations, I know that we consider ourselves to be warm and friendly. But that sometimes means that we are primarily “warm and friendly” to one another. While we have had special “greeters” here in the past and it is certainly part of the usher’s responsibility to extend a cordial welcome to newcomers, to see that they sign our guest book and to invite them to remain after church for a while, if they can, for coffee hour and a time of conversation, it is up to every single one of us to reach out and provide a welcoming atmosphere.
I have seen – and I’m sure you have too – occasions when the 8 o’clock or 10:30 coffee hours are buzzing with conversation and laughter and small groups sitting around tables while a newcomer or a new family stands around in the middle of the Great Hall, looking pretty lonely and pretty lost.
How do you think that would square with Jesus’ words that “whoever welcomes you welcomes me?” How would it square with St. Benedict’s injunction to “seek Christ in every person who comes through the door?” Or even the Church of St. Bartholomew’s commitment to “do the hard work necessary to make sure that all are welcomed?” Not very well, it seems to me.
So, in this time of transition at Trinity Cathedral, as we prepare to call a new Dean and enter into the next stage of our life and ministry in this historic cathedral parish, let’s all of us rededicate ourselves to being the kind of community which wants to reach out…and wants to grow. Hear again what one growing and vibrant Episcopal congregation says it is “for”
We are for “the dignity and worth of every person. An open-minded, passionate commitment to truth. The importance of everyone’s own spiritual journey. God’s friends wherever we find them. Seeking Christ in every person who comes through the door. The sacredness of life’s rites of passage. The value of community. The hard work necessary to make sure that all are welcomed. Telling the truth about life’s challenges. A “user-friendly” church- experience. Children and families.”
That’s what the people of St. Bart’s in New York are “for.” What are we “for?”