The Reverend Margaret Legg
A familiar reading from Matthew’s Gospel – or is it? St John’s is a familiar church – or is it?
Our Lent sermon series on worship at St John’s begins with ‘welcome’ because each Sunday there are worshippers for whom this is a new experience. How we relate to them while they are here, how welcome they feel could well determine whether or not they ever repeat their visit to a church.
We tend to remember from our Gospel are the 3 temptations and forget the context. Immediately after this Jesus begins work in Galilee, calling his disciples. Immediately before Jesus was baptised – and now, led by the Spirit – he is working through what his ministry will mean; how he will use his divinity. He is facing his inner demons. Does he want to be a showman, is he about self-publicity, will he wield his power for his own gratification? Or will he devote himself to rescuing creation from the mess Adam and Eve have got us into? We tend to forget that at the end of the 40 days (Bible speak for a long period of time) the angels, God’s envoys, are sent to minister to him, to surround and comfort him after his ordeal?
So at St John’s on a Sunday morning we tend to remember the running order of the Service, where we usually sit and with whom, and forget that each week there are newcomers for whom worship here is strange ad unfamiliar. We think of ourselves as a very friendly church. But others tell us that they have been to services where no-one has spoken to them. A friend of mine had this experience not so long ago. In Advent last year, a former churchwarden who has moved away made a return visit. Not knowing anyone, he sat alone. He didn’t remark on this, but when Steve spotted it he sat by him to talk.
What can we do to help the new to feel welcome and glad they came to this church? What are the hallmarks of a welcoming congregation? It begins with the moment we push open the glass doors and step into the building. I once visited for the first time a church not a million miles from here – just on the other side of the Edgware Rd to be greeted by the unexpected question from a harassed looking person: ’Large or small?’ I thought, surely they can't be taking coffee orders already. They had to explain what they meant!!
I've come up with a helpful acronym to encourage us all to be more welcoming - knack, without the k's: Notice, Approach, Converse.
Notice: It continues as we take our seats, introduce ourselves to each other, as Robin invited us to do this morning, as we share the Peace. All opportunities for us to notice faces we don’t recognise and clock that this may be their first visit here.
Approach: After the service is the opportunity to approach and introduce yourself. The temptation, of course, is to head for the people we know and with whom we quite rightly want to spend time over coffee.
Converse: Open a conversation with those who may be newcomers – a conversation rather than a quick ‘Good Morning’ before moving on.
Strong, friendly relationships with each other are part of the bedrock of a vibrant, flourishing community, but not to the exclusion of those who have not yet made friends and established links. The kingdom of heaven is not exclusive and nor are we to be! Congregations change – people move home, change job, die. Without newcomers, new life, we cannot flourish.
But let me speak from my own experience of the very first time I came to the 10am service here. It was sometime ago – I was considering St John’s as a place to serve my title after ordination. I was welcomed, to my great relief, for I was a little nervous (a grilling by the PCC at the Vicarage was lined up for me after the service) with a smile and offered an Order of Service. The Service went smoothly. The Voluntary at the end was beautiful. And then I wondered what to do. Should I join the melee around the refreshments stand? Feeling like a fish out of water I was tempted to slink quietly away. Not temptation in any degree like that Jesus experienced, when he was tested to the limit, but it did cross my mind! The coffee rescued me – it smelt so I good I succumbed.
But then what to do? Eventually (this was before the church was refurbished) I found a corner in which to stand – Jesus had no such corners in his wilderness, but it did feel a bit like a wilderness experience. Certainly I felt uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to be avoiding me! (The team of course knew what I was about and deliberately kept clear!) I was beginning to feel this was an unfriendly place. Then I spotted another person on their own sipping coffee so I introduced myself and we chatted. It wasn’t hard – what brings you here; where are you from; how did you find the worship?
People come here for all sorts of reasons – on holiday, newly moved to the area, led like Jesus by the Spirit to worship in church, returnees after an absence, worshippers at our companion church in New York. It’s not that welcome is about prying, it’s about noticing people who are alone, approaching and then finding ways of relating, of helping them to feel at home. And if you are introduced to a new person, remember, a quick ‘hello’ before moving on is really not enough to feel welcomed, wanted, included.
In summary, the hallmarks of a welcoming congregation are graphically illustrated in Rublev’s icon, ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’, based on the passage in Genesis 18. He notices 3 men in the distance as he sat at the entrance to his tent. Not waiting for them to pass him, he goes over (rushes) to greet them. Not a cursory ‘good morning’ but an invitation to stay a while, to eat and drink with him. On the icon the 3 visitors are seated at a table with a space. The space is for us. All are included, none are excluded. Who are these 3? God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? They bring a divine message to Abraham so at the very least they are angels.
When Jesus left the wilderness, angels ministered to him. When we welcome in this way, then who knows, we too could be ministering to angels