Churches can be very strange places. I have never forgotten one of the first visits that I made to a Parish here in the Hunter when I arrived in this region eight years ago. I had been invited to preach at a beautiful church in one of our small country towns. The Rector had asked me not to wear robes, so I arrived early and sat in the congregation. Not long afterwards a woman arrived, and came up to me in the pew. “You can’t sit there,” she said, “that’s my seat.” I looked down to check that I was actually wearing a clerical shirt, and then pinched myself to check that this wasn’t a bad dream. “Well, I’ll sit in the row in front then,” I replied. “O, that wouldn’t be a good idea,” came the response, “there’s a lady who likes to sit there under the heater and she will be here in a few minutes.” “Perhaps I could sit right at the far end of this pew?” I asked. “Yes, that would be okay, as long as you leave room for my husband.” “That’s settled then,” I said, and with some irony I continued, “but you will have to let me come passed you so that I can preach the sermon!”
In our New Testament reading, which we heard just a moment ago, Jesus says to his disciples, “he that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.” A more accurate modern-language translation would be, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That experience of welcome which I received when I visited that parish came flooding back to me many times over the years that I worked on the Bishop’s staff and as I met with faithful and committed members of our churches who hadn’t quite grasped that the Church was not just there for its members.
I remember meeting with a Parish Council who were waiting for the appointment of a new priest. I was there to explore a possible future pattern of ministry with them. I began our conversation by asking them to help me to understand the priorities which they had for the activities of that parish in the years ahead. The Treasurer was very clear: his view was that a priest was needed urgently because there was no one in the parish who could type the pew sheet! But he did not want a priest who was going to cost too much money. I began to make a list of these priestly qualities which would be required. Number I: someone who can use a computer. Someone else wanted to ensure that any new priest would have the pastoral skills to look after the congregation, another member of the Parish Council reminded me that the last priest had been responsible for cutting the grass… and so the list went on. That faithful Parish Council, full of wonderful Christian people had begun to forget that they were not members of some kind of elite private club. Everything that they associated with the work of the Church either related to their buildings or to themselves. In a sense they wanted me to help them to find a priest who would be a good care taker of their properties, and a good chaplain to them.
In their concern for maintaining what they already had, they had lost sight of the fact that their church community, did not exist only for those who were already members. It was there to serve the people of their town as well. It is that fundamental call to hospitality, to living as a community which is defined by its welcome of others, which is at the heart of the words of Jesus that we have heard this morning.
I have never been to a Church which aims to be unwelcoming. Can you imagine the sign? “The Anglican Parish of East Maitland, if you weren’t here in 1975 you are not welcome here now!” I don’t think so. But sometimes inadvertently, without even realising it, we can act that way. I say all of this this morning because what is true in the Church can be true in all kinds of associations and organisations that have been established for the benefit of others. The majority of people in any Church are committed in their minds to being a place which will welcome anyone who comes through the door. Generally Church people love to have visitors, and relish the opportunity to care for those who are in need. But there is always the temptation for us to be so focused on what we are already doing that we do not find the time to welcome others. What’s true in the Church can be true in other associations that have been established to serve.
It is that fundamental activity of welcoming and serving that is at the heart of Jesus’ words this morning. Not only being nice to people, but also meeting the needs of those who we come into to contact with. We celebrate this morning the noble history of the Country Women’s Association – your heritage of caring for, organising for and transforming the lives of country communities. As I read the history of the CWA some weeks ago, I was truly staggered by the caring impact that the Association has had on our great nation, in times of abundance and in times of great need.
That is the whole point of the cup of cold water, of which Jesus speaks, as an example of hospitality to others, because we don’t give people cups of cold water unless we have found out that they need them. To find out that someone needs a cup of cold water, requires us to engage at more than a level of distant friendliness, it requires us to engage at a level of genuine interest and concern. Welcoming is not just about being friendly, it is about being so attentive to the needs of those we welcome, that we would be willing to change even what we do in order to encourage people to share in our life. The most significant thing about offering someone a glass of water, is the fact that we took the time to find out that someone was thirsty.
There will always be a tension between meeting the needs of those of us who have been in the Church for many years, and who understand all of its strange ways; and meeting the needs of those very many people who have never been in a church building, and who do not understand our language, and our symbols and even the basic good news of what we are about. I think that that is true for all organisations that seek to serve others. We develop a culture, a way of doing things, which (although we never intend it) can make it difficult for others to join us and be part of what we are about. What we do know is that every time someone new comes amongst us, and is welcomed into us, our life will never be the same again.
We celebrate today all that continues to be achieved through the work of the CWA, and particularly in the 26 branches of our HunterRiver Group. We relish the difference that it has made in our lives, and in the lives of the people that we have served. We hear again the words of Jesus, as he says to his disciples, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” we are gently nudged to remember that we are not just here for ourselves, but for all those who are in need around us.