Places of Welcome – a sermon

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.

Rublevtrinität_ubt

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.”

 

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Network Overload?

One of the tremendous privileges of my work and job is being part of lots of networks of people who do fantastic things because they are inspired by their faith (in God or in humanity).

As a paid worker I am sometimes overawed by people who find time for their service to God and the world between work, family, worship and recreation.  But being paid full-time to hang out with people like this (people like you) I have a wonderful helicopter view of the network of love in action that is criss-crossing this city linking churches, gurdwaras, synagogues, temples, mosques, Near Neighbours projects, Places of Welcome, arts projects, environmental action and the support of vulnerable people such as refugees and asylum seekers.

Sometimes there is the chance to get some of this network into one room and the effect is always wonderful. To quote Desmond Tutu in Made for Goodness again: “You can see from the people we truly admire that we are attracted to goodness. We do not revere people who are successful. We might envy them and wish that their money were transferred to our bank account. But the people we revere are not necessarily successful, they are something else. They are good.”

That’s why it is fantastic when the networks of good people come together. But I am also concerned that the more networks we create, the more day conferences we hold, the more seminars we run and the more workshops we attend the less time we have to do what it is God has given us to do.

However I think my concerns are unfounded. One of the best networks I have ever come across has a daily meeting. At 9pm. For prayer. Six years ago I was privileged to spend an evening with the San Egidio community in Rome. This is an amazing global network of communities without borders of people who are committed to Friendship with the Poor expressed in hundreds of practical ways.  For example, on Christmas Day 2013, the lunch with the poor, a tradition of the San Egidio community that dates back to 1982, gathered 165,000 people for 1,100 lunches in 74 countries around the world, among them about 22,000 prisoners. I experienced their practical love in action after the short service in the Trastaverte district  when we went to an amazing trattoria connected with the community which was staffed by people with learning difficulties and celebrated those people’s gifts and talents in ways I have never forgotten.

San Egidio

This is not a particularly brilliant picture of this part of the San’ Egidio community at 9pm on a normal Tuesday evening. But their worship reflected the hospitality of their lives. The service was easily accessible and translated into several languages. Old, young, able-bodied and those with disabilities, rich and poor were welcomed together and the quality of relationships was evident – no-one wanted to leave after the service finished.

Alongside prayer and service, the community is committed to communicating the Gospel, ecumenism and dialogue – all things I would happily sign up to and I know many people in this city whose lives model all those values. But I know many others who would love the ethos but belong to different faith traditions.

So this blog is really a question. Does the San’ Egidio community offer something to a city like Birmingham? What might it look like if it grew out of intentionally multi-faith gathering or would separating it from the Church loose the essence of the movement?

Hard-wired for Goodness?

A set of statistics has been ciruclating on social media today outlining the probability that certain jobs will be replaced by computers or robots. For telemarketers the probability is 99/100, for clergy it is 8/1000. Dentists, athletic coaches and recreational therapists are less likely to be replaced by robots than clergy – most other professions including accountants, chemical engineers, airline pilots and editors are more likely. I guess it depends how much of the job requires you to respond to unlimited different cirucmstances rather than following a prescribed set of behaviours.

I wonder too if it is to do with how much of the job can be taught and how much is about personality, character and virtue – undefinable and unquantifiable attributes that bring the best out of people, calm fears and motivate others. (Although my dentist has never yet persuaded me to floss!)

As part of my dissertation I asked around 30 people in a questionnaire what skills and attributes they would look for if they were recruiting a deacon – a kind of clergy person. What came back was not a list of skills, theological degrees or technical know-how but more a list of virtues. Worlds like prayerfulness, compassion, enthusiasm, humility, commitment and openess.

In fact reading the list – and its amazing that 30 people found 30 different ways of saying almost the same thing -I could see they wanted to recruit a deacon that was basically like Jesus. If you ever read the Church Times job adverts for fun you see pretty much the same thing. Everyone wants a vicar who walks on water and can turn water into wine (or perhaps that’s just me!)

It is a oft-quoted idea that the people who irritate us most are those who share our flaws and shortcomings. Conversely, I think that people like to be around other people who reflect back the virtues they have come to recognise in themselves. So Christian disciples want their ordained ministers to reflect the virtues and character that have been formed through their practice of faith -consequently in a church of 100 people that’s a lot of virtue being looked for in one person!

With my book group, I’m reading at the Desmond Tutu’s book Made for Goodness. His key arguement is that humanity if fundamentally good. We know this because we revere good people and we view evil and wrong as aberrations. He says: “Evil cannot have the last word because we are programmed – no, hardwired – for goodness…To be hateful and mean is operating against the deepest yearnings that God placed in our hearts. Goodness is not just our impulse. It is our essence.”

I wonder if our collective behaviour as the Church of God would change if we truly believed that God has made us in God’s image and hard-wired us for goodness. We talk a lot about sin in our liturgies and our prayers and while its good to stay humble and aware of our need of God, perhaps our sense of impending failure limits our capacity for goodness.

Its hopeful that the church (or the bit I have surveyed) wants its clergy to be good – courageous, humble, rooted, open, committed and flexible. It’s a daunting task certainly for this flawed human being but I think it might be even harder for a computer.

But if and when the computers replace the telemarketers, the accountants, the shop assistants and the estate agents I hope they too are hard-wired for goodness and are programmed to respond to a note of desperation in a voice, a look of despair or a gesture of hopelessness. And from time to time I hope they can perform random acts of kindness that lift the spirit and turn a transaction into a human encounter, or even an encounter with the goodness of God.