The comment has been made by several Pastors during the COVID 19 lockdowns that coming out of lockdown is much harder than going into lockdown. And it’s true from what I have experienced. Going into lockdown was as simple as shutting the doors and letting members know that until further notice that our church services have been suspended in our church buildings. People knew that because they saw it on the 24 hour news cycle. But coming out of lockdown and back into our churches has been difficult because we cannot open the church building to every member all at once and we cannot welcome visitors.
And after last week’s service several members asked me – can we come next week. Can you imagine the pain that I experienced when I had to say – at this stage – NO. We have to allow others to come to church also. NO – you cannot come to church next week. Did you ever think we would be in a situation where we would have to say NO to someone wanting to come to church? Can you ever imagine a situation where you were hoping that a visitor didn’t turn up unannounced and that you would be in a situation where you would have to turn that person away? So you can understand how difficult this has been for the church in resuming worship.
In a way it was much easier being in lockdown where, in a sense, no one was welcome. That’s really not true – but it’s the reality at present that our churches are struggling to juggle the restrictions. But let us remember that just as worship is not the full extent of our Christian life neither is the welcome we offer to friend and stranger alike on a Sunday. When we leave church on a Sunday we don’t stop being Christians in the rest of our lives. What we experience in worship we live out day to day in our daily lives. Likewise, the fact that we cannot welcome strangers and all members at this stage into our church buildings does not mean we cannot extend a welcome to others to experience the love and grace of God.
In fact that has been the challenge for us in this time of isolation and lockdown in looking at ways of BEING church rather than DOING church. As St Paul says in Romans chapter 12; Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. And so we can continue to extend the hospitality of welcoming even while our churches are extremely restricted – and for some churches – their church buildings are still locked physically.
Notice the transcending levels of Jesus’ welcoming in our Gospel reading today: It begins with God – whoever welcomes you welcome ME and whoever welcomes me welcomes the ONE WHO SENT ME. Then – whoever welcomes a PROPHET
Then – whoever welcomes a RIGHTEOUS PERSON And then whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these LITTLE ONES. So the love and hospitality we show can be extended to anyone – anywhere – even with the giving of a cup of cold water. The outreach and welcome to the world has NOT stopped simply because our church attendance has been restricted. Remember in Jesus’ ministry he went and ate with sinners. He invited himself into the home of Zacchaeus.
He walked among the lepers – the gentiles and the unclean. Jesus was not restricted. And even from the cross – nailed and unable to move physically he is still able to minister to the world as he cries out forgive them Father.
Our welcome can and ought to be practiced by us at any time, no matter what circumstances or crises we find ourselves in.
Worship of God is not just an hour on a Sunday – it is our entire life as Paul says – offer your bodies as a living sacrifice – this is your true and proper worship. Don’t get me wrong – Sunday worship is important – it is where we gather as the family of God around Word and Sacrament. But in situations where our worship is interrupted such as now we can still be the people of God in welcoming friend and stranger alike. We also come to realize that our welcoming does not need to consist of large, heroic acts. Any simple acts of kindness we offer as welcome for one another are all part of God’s work in the world.
In this time of isolation, lockdown and restrictions we simply need to look around to see who is in need and offer God’s welcome which Jesus describes can be as simple as offering a glass of water. The act of welcoming has not been in lockdown and in fact we have been given even greater opportunity to extend it to those who are struggling through economic hardship and also through loneliness.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will highlight how important this work of welcome is to God when he says: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me – or in some translations – you did TO me.’
Christian faith is often described by Jesus as – even if you had faith as small as a mustard seed.
But with this faith we don’t need to move mountains. It is also made up of small acts – acts such as making a phone call to ask how a friend or stranger is doing, helping with groceries for those in isolation and unable to get out, reaching out to the lonely and most vulnerable among us. There are no small gestures. A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts that Jesus mentions – a gift that almost anyone can give. But a cup of cold water is precious and life giving to a person who is thirsty.
It doesn’t take much to be welcoming and sometimes with our busyness of church life we have even overlooked the stranger and needy among us.
Maybe this break has been a blessing that God has been able to use to bring about good. Maybe the good that has come from this is that it has required us to look at new ways of connecting with friends and strangers and gotten us out of our comfortable ways where we can sometimes miss and neglect visitors. There are still many among us who have chosen not to be here in worship for health reasons. Let us not forget them in our busyness to return and fulfil all the requirements to keep our church safe. In our busyness and rejoicing in returning to worship let us continue to support and take the church’s welcome out to others who cannot join us yet and remind them that they are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
The welcome mat doesn’t live at the front door of our church. The welcome mat lives in our hearts as we take the presence of God to the world and offer the gift of welcome into God’s family and not just the church building.