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There are no ‘visitors’ – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: There are no ‘visitors’.

Date/time/service: Sunday 14th March 2021 Zoom and Live stream

Passage of scripture: John 19.25b-27

A sermon about hospitality at York Minster in the context of seeking to ‘Live Christ’s Story’. How on earth do we learn about hospitality from someone who was born in a borrowed stable, buried in a borrowed tomb, lived in obscurity for most of his life and, for the notorious bit of his life, didn’t own a home and therefore, presumably, lived off the hospitality of others?

A tough question. Here is my response. For starters, it is interesting, with all this in mind, that Jesus’ dying wish, as we read in the gospel this morning, was that his mother should have somewhere to live, somewhere to call home and someone to care for her when he was not there. Clearly, despite being an itinerant preacher with ‘nowhere to lay his head’, a home and a loving family were important to Jesus.

Perhaps the most important lesson about hospitality we learn from Jesus is that, for him, there are no outsiders. He spent much of his life extending the hand of friendship to those living on the fringes of society. He seeks out lepers, he talks with Samaritans and he befriends fallen women. He commends the generosity of the poor. He speaks of the importance of valuing and protecting children. He tells stories about God’s mercy and forgiveness, about God searching for the lost. It seems that there is no one he will not talk to, heal and forgive. There is no one he will not embrace with love.

We also know that Jesus enjoyed sharing meals with others, in fact some criticised him for being a ‘glutton and a drunkard’ and for sharing food with all sorts of people he should not have consorted with at all. He ate with people like Zacchaeus the tax collector. He also ate with friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and of course he ate with his disciples regularly. Famously his last meal was with them in the upper room.

So, the gospels tell us that Jesus was very social and enjoyed the hospitality of others, and in terms of his time and energy he was generously hospitable, some would say, outrageously generously hospitable towards all sorts of people – spending time with them in conversation and prayer.

What can we, in this cathedral church of York Minster, learn from all of this?

I know that there are people here today, people who come regularly, because this is a hospitable place. Because, when they first came, tentatively looking for a church, someone spoke to them, befriended them and so drew them into this community. I feel sure there will be others who came here once or twice and no one spoke to them and they left and never came back because they felt this was an inhospitable place. Sometimes we get hospitality right, sometimes we don’t. How do we get it right more of the time?

It is, perhaps, inevitable that we identify as ‘visitors’ those who buy a ticket to visit us as a heritage attraction. But for anyone who comes here to pray alone or to worship with us, perhaps we should learn not to think of them as visitors. Maybe, as Jesus did not possess a home, we should not think about this magnificent place as being ‘ours’? It is very clear that possessing things was not important to Jesus.

York Minster is the place we come to worship. York Minster is the place we come to meet our friends. York Minster is the place we look after because it is, and has been for generations, a precious and beautiful place of encounter with God. But this is not our place. This is as much ‘home’ to those who have worshipped here regularly for 50 years as it is ‘home’ to anyone who wanders in off the street to join in worship or to offer a prayer of thanksgiving or a prayer of despair. This is as much ‘home’ to those of us who give generously of our time and wealth for its thriving as it is ‘home’ for the person who comes through the door once with nothing in their pockets. This is as much ‘home’ to those of us who have a seat in which we regularly sit (including the Archbishop), as it is ‘home’ to the person who comes and, unknowingly, sits in the seat we think of as ours! ‘Friend, come higher’. Perhaps when we think of hospitality at York Minster and what it might look like in 5 years time, one aim we might adopt is that, by 2025 we will have established a culture whereby, in terms of prayer and worship, THERE ARE NO VISITORS. We may feel that this is our spiritual home, and it is, but for the time anyone is here to pray or to worship with us, it is their spiritual home as well. The only difference there is between one of us, who may have been worshipping here for 50 years and someone who is worshipping here for the first time is that we know where the toilets are and where to go for coffee after the service. In every other respect we are the same. This is their home as much as it is ours. If we began to think more like this how would that change the welcome we extend?

How would our understanding of hospitality change if we stopped thinking ‘us’ and ‘them’, regulars and visitors? Could we ever train ourselves never to use the word ‘visitor’ in relation to someone who comes here to pray or to join in our worship? How would the way we welcome people change if we learned to see everyone who comes here to pray simply as our sisters and brothers in Christ?

I wonder where this way of thinking may lead? Perhaps the next challenge will be to consider how to stop thinking of the people who buy a ticket to visit here as a tourist attraction as ‘visitors’? It seems that visiting a place like this, for many people, is just something else to consume. A place to tick off on their tour of the north of England. All they seem to want is a photo to prove that they came here. Are there things we can do to improve our welcome to those simply dashing in to ‘consume’ another visitor attraction, to make them get a sense that this place belongs to them as much as it belongs to us? That this huge space, these magnificent stones and this gleaming glass enfold, is actually here to encourage everyone to have big thoughts, to ask big questions, to encounter something bigger than themselves we call God? We are not here to sell an experience or a photo opportunity, we are here to maintain a place for everyone and anyone to come and stand in awe, not as a consumer but as themselves. This is a massive challenge because we have to ‘market’ ourselves and we have to sell tickets to maintain these magnificent stones and this gleaming glass. But how can we market ourselves as a place of encounter with something bigger than ourselves and not just a place to tick off having visited like the Railway Museum and Yorvik?

My time is up, but one final thought. I am suggesting we train ourselves to stop thinking of York Minster as ‘ours’ and to adopt a radical, generous hospitality whereby it is made clear that it is home to everyone who comes through the door, and I am suggesting this because this approach resonates with the example and teaching of Jesus Christ, who owned nothing. Among the things he didn’t own was a computer. How do we extend his radical, generous hospitality to those who come to York Minster online through our website, Zoom, live-stream or pre-recorded services? How do make ‘online’ York Minster an awe inspiring place of encounter, just like the building and what happens in it?

In short, York Minster is not our church to share, it is God’s house of prayer and, as such, we share it, as Jesus shared himself, with everyone and anyone.

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