On Sunday I preached to a church that is joining the Place of Welcome network. The readings I had chosen were the Genesis story of Abraham welcoming three strangers to his tent at Mamre and the story of the Emmaus Road when the disciples invited Jesus home and recognised him in the breaking of bread. Plenty of people support the Place of Welcome network simply because it is a good thing to do – and as I have said in my previous blogs – we are made for goodness. However if anyone wants a bit of theology to support any kind of activity that encourages strangers to become friends I hope this sermon is helpful in some way.
“It’s very easy to live in a box. Not literally living in a cardboard box because we don’t have a home but nevertheless many of us live in a box.
The size of our box probably depends on our personality. Some people may allow no-one in their box because they have been hurt or damaged by relationships that have gone sour. Others have a whole heap of family and friends and there is laughter and joy, with occasional times of sorrow and grief within the box. We pray for the people in our box, we spend most of our time with the people in our box, we probably spend most of our money on the people in our box and we fear losing anyone that belongs in our box. And there is much that is good, wholesome, loving, kind and true in those relationships given to us by God.
But we might find that most people in our box are quite like us. They may well be of the same faith as us, the same ethnicity, been to the same kind of school or do the same kind of job.
Churches can be a box too – often our buildings look like a giant box and the door can literally be very hard to find. When I worked for the Church of England in Birmingham I had to go and visit lots of churches and I can’t tell you how many times I walked round and round the buildings trying to find the one door that was unlocked so I could get inside and meet whoever I was supposed to be seeing.
After Jesus’s crucifixition, John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples went and hid in a box – a locked room. Jesus’s death took away their hope, their story came to a sudden and bitter end and they were overwhelmed by fear and despair.
The two men we met today in our Gospel reading were in a similar state. Their faces were downcast, they talked about Jesus in the past tense, and their hope of redemption for themselves and their people was no more.
In their grief, their unknowing, their doubt and despair, these two men met a stranger and invited him home. And then they encountered the living, risen Jesus. Then communion and thanksgiving became possible.
There is a wonderful vagueness about the story from Genesis. We don’t know exactly who or what Abraham thinks the three young men are or what they represent. But he does not take any risks. He welcomes the strangers as if he we were welcoming God. He gives them food, drink, dignity and comfort. He doesn’t give them left-overs, he gives the best of what he has. And history and Church tradition has judged that these three men represent the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
From this tradition has grown this beautiful icon which represents the fellowship within the Godhead but also clearly shows the space for us to enter in and join that fellowship, for us to sit and eat with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
There is much about the Trinity that can be confusing but I love the fact that the Trinity illustrates that there is both relationship and difference within the very heart of God’s being.
And I believe that God wants us to have relation and difference in our own boxes, because as Christians we are called to be more and more like God.
But it might not be practical for us to go on to the streets and invite the stranger home. We can’t force friendships with people who are different from ourselves. Some things are very hard to do, particularly if we try and do them alone.
That’s why your church is joining the network of Places of Welcome. This is a movement of places of worship and community centres that are committed to offering hospitality, a place to belong, to whoever needs company and conversation in a local neighbourhood. The network began about three years ago and we now have 43 active Places of Welcome, most of which are in Birmingham with a few elsewhere across the midlands.
These places are branded with a simple logo and can be found on a website so that people can recognise a safe place to find conversation, a cup of tea and a biscuit. They are staffed by volunteers who are willing to allow anyone to join their conversation and can offer a bit of local information.
It’s a very simple offer but it can make a huge difference to someone who has recently arrived as an asylum seeker, become unemployed, got divorced, moved house, been bereaved or become unwell – the list could go on because any of us could find ourselves facing loneliness at any time. And because we recognise that we all have gifts and we all have needs we try to keep the gap between host and guests as small as possible and we find that very quickly the quiet man who was spending hours doing job search on the computer is fantastic at making soup, or the woman who recently arrived from Cambodia is a Maths teacher and can help a child with their homework.
This church already does a lot to open its doors to the community. (And so might your church)
But I believe God calls us as churches and individuals to open our doors even wider and maybe even break open the walls of our boxes so that we can encounter God in the stranger we meet and be converted, transformed into the likeness of Jesus, by the encounters with those who can open our eyes and ears to new truths, fresh insights and deeper understanding.
Just as we have been welcomed by Jesus to join in the conversation and to sit and eat with him, I am convinced that we are then called to welcome others, knowing that the stranger bears the image of Christ through whom we find our salvation.”