The topic of ‘welcome’ has been bubbling around the public sub-conscious lately. Politicians and activists have been debating what kind of ‘welcome’ it would be appropriate to give Donald Trump, when he takes up the invitation for a State Visit. At the same time, the whole nation is quite starkly divided over what kind of welcome we should give to refugees and migrants from across the globe.
The word ‘welcome’ is rooted in two old English words – ‘willa’ (meaning desire or pleasure), and ‘cuman’ – meaning ‘to come’. So the word can be rendered as something like an expression of joy towards a person whose coming is pleasing.
In the ancient world – the world of Jesus – the giving of a warm welcome was a central plank of how society functioned. In the days before many hotels and hostels were available, it was customary for individuals to give hospitality to travellers, in their own homes. It was a sacred duty to provide shelter and food to strangers – whoever they were, and from wherever they came.
This ancient code has been the subject of much learned thought in recent years. In fact, some have suggested that we need to re-evaluate many of our standard interpretations of Scripture in the light of our new understanding. Take for example the story of Sodom & Gomorrah…
You might remember that three weeks ago, our Gospel reading came from a few verses earlier than today’s. Jesus was sending out his disciples to spread the Gospel. He instructed them not to take extra provisions, and gave them clear directions about how they should stay in people’s homes in the villages and towns. Then he said this:
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust from your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matt 10.14-15). Here, Jesus explicitly links the concept of ‘welcome’ and hospitality with the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah.
“Wait a minute!” (I hear some cry). “Surely the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah was the supposed sin of homosexuality? That’s why it’s called Sodomy, isn’t it?”
Well perhaps not. Perhaps our historical obsession with the subject of homosexuality has put a false layer of meaning onto the story. Perhaps the original writer of Genesis knew that his readers, in his time would have interpreted the story very differently. Consider, for a moment, what happens in the story.
Three ‘angels’ – messengers of God – arrive at Sodom, where they are given hospitality by Lot. They have come to see whether there are any righteous people in the City. But before they turn in for the night, an angry mob gathers outside the house – demanding that these troublesome inquisitors should be brought out of the house – so that the crowd can ‘know’ them (to use the subtle phrase of the King James Bible).
Lot refuses. He has granted hospitality to these messengers, and they are now, by the ancient code, under his protection. He is SO convinced of his responsibility that he even offers his young daughters to the baying mob outside.
Looking at this story, and especially the way that Jesus himself uses it as an example, we are confronted with some very challenging questions. The first question is whether ‘Sodomy’ actually has anything to do with what we general think it does. This fresh interpretation suggests that the failure to offer and secure a welcome to strangers is a far greater sin.
The second question is, of course, ‘why then did the crowd want to (cough) ‘know’ the angels’? The answer is that the crowd basically wanted to punish the angels for coming to judge them. They wanted to scare them and send them on their way – and they proposed to use rape as their weapon. Rape of any kind is a heinous crime, and a terrible offence against any notion of hospitality and welcome. But it has nothing to do with committed, faithful, loving relationships between consenting adults.
Jesus invites us to think instead about the whole notion of hospitality, and welcome. And if the welcome of strangers was such a big issue for him, how much more so should it be for us?
‘Whoever welcomes you’, says Jesus to his followers, ‘also welcomes me, and the one who sent me’. What kind of welcome do we offer to people who come to us? Do we welcome them with the same extravagant love for the stranger that God requires?
There is, I think, much that we do already which is positive and welcoming in this church. For a start, our wonderful church stewards are here every morning, offering refreshment and welcome to all our visitors. It would be wonderful if more people could help with that ministry – and I’d love to receive more offers of help. Ideally, I wish we could offer that ministry every morning and afternoon.
We’ve also provided bright lighting, to especially welcome those with fading eyesight. Thanks to Peter Elmes, blind visitors to the church can feel the model of the building that he has made – and if they join us for worship, braille hymnbooks are available. Another welcoming innovation has been the production of our main service sheet, containing all the hymns, readings and prayers. They are a real help to visitors, who find it so much easier to follow our services – not having to juggle multiple books and sheets of paper. Further still, we are in the process of upgrading our sound system to make our services more audible.
But there is much more that we need to do to improve our welcome. This coming week, for example, we will be meeting with our Architect and Diocesan officials to consider how we can make it easier for wheelchair users to access the building. That’s going to cost a lot of money – a need which I hope will move you all to new generosity. But if hospitality means anything – it certainly means offering a welcome to those in wheelchairs, or pushing prams.
In the longer term, I remain committed to our Mission Development Plan’s intention of being a place which is welcoming to the young – for looking around here today, it’s clear that we need to do just that. As well as our Play House Café, our support of Dynamo Youth Theatre, the Brownies and local schools, and our commitment to Messy Church, we need to find new ways of helping to nurture the faith of young people and children. This is perhaps the greatest act of welcome we can do. For Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me’.
The word welcome is indeed ‘an expression of joy towards someone whose coming is pleasing’. Jesus teaches us that the failure to provide hospitality really was the greatest sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. And these facts leave us with a challenge. How shall we, as a church, as a nation, and individuals and as a community, live up to the immense challenge of being those who truly welcome others in Jesus’ name?