Welcoming Prophets

Sunday 26th June 2005
Year A, The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 10:40-42

I am not sure which I like least, the woman who grudgingly offers you one and a half fingers or the man whose hand is like a kilo of raw fish. In the absence of eye-to-eye contact, I like a good, firm, warm handshake with a bit of shake in it. And as I get older and a little less inhibited, I like a good, round hug. That is why I am sorry that Matins does not have "The Peace" in it but we can make up for it on the way out if we did not greet each other warmly on the way in.

Welcoming should be a really important part of our lives but as a culture we are not particularly good at it. Welcoming is the set of rituals we go through to reassure people that they are safe and wanted. It was, of course, particularly important in the days when travel was dangerous, when men arrived at castle gates on horseback in the pitch dark. It was important in a potentially hostile world. Today, when we are all worried about burglary because of the steep rise in drug addiction, when we have bolts and chains, burglar alarms and electric gates, our suspicion seems to have spread itself over us with a thin layer of austerity, suffocating our good humour and sense of the spontaneous. Looked at from our standpoint, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern welcoming and hospitality look a bit over the top; and the Garlands of India and endless Vodkas of Russia are a million miles away from our love of understatement and medium sherry.

But if a prophet came to the village would we be any different? Would we put on a street party for the holy man or are street parties strictly reserved for nostalgia, for looking back, not forward. What would we do to welcome our prophet, our bringer of hope?

Well, you can breathe a collective sigh of relief and keep the trestles stowed because there is, sadly, no immediate prospect of a stirring visitation. But what about the prophets in our midst, those who are said to be without honour in their own country or, at any rate, those nearest to the prophets? How do we treat our clergy?

I think it's fair to say that too often we confuse the office with the person. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say that they would go to church but they cannot stand the Vicar which, of course, is a pretty frail excuse because such people could change church if they really wanted to; after all, they change supermarkets, restaurants, hairdressers and leisure activities. But that is not the answer; it is the modern way to think of ourselves as consumers, to switch loyalties, to avoid people and things we do not like, to stop seeing people who are difficult, to cringe when such people cannot be avoided.

I think it is important at the beginning of the week which sees the Ordination of new Deacons and Priests on the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul to think about our attitudes. When a Priest arrives in our midst this is the culmination of a very long process. It takes years for a Priestly vocation to be discerned and years more for a Priest to be trained; never is the Holy Spirit more heavily taxed, more begged for grace, for deep discernment and wise counsel, than when a vocation is being probed and is in pilgrimage. And when a Parish needs a Priest the Holy Spirit is ardently and anxiously called upon by a Parish; and a Priest prays fervently that in choosing a Parish he is doing the will of the Father to witness to Christ in that place with the blessed fire of the Holy Spirit burning within him. The uniting of Priest and people in Parish life is an act of the Holy Spirit to give strength to the Church of Christ on earth; it calls for deep commitment from everybody; and nobody pretends it is easy. Since when was anything worth having easy to come by? If the exercise of the faculty of Christian love was easy the churches would be packed.

This is not to say, of course, that Parish life is conducted by the Communion of Saints; but, even if it were, that would not be easy. Saints are notoriously difficult to live with because they are too definite, too fixed in their purpose; we would not want a saint in our midst any more than we would want a prophet.

We all have our faults but we seem poorly equipped to come to terms with the necessary faults in our clergy. Much of the alienation goes back so far, like the story of the Montague's and Capulet's in Romeo and Juliet, that nobody can remember the source of the grudge. Sometimes, we say that we do not like so-and-so's manner, even if that is trivial compared with his gifts and his deep care for the community. Sometimes a member of the clergy in our immensely complex and tolerant Anglican ecology does something we do not like or does not do something we do like and we let this get in the way of our corporate communion with God. But worst of all, almost all the time we say nothing and the Priest says nothing; and we are left with a feeling of vague discontent and restlessness without the means to sort it out.

And yet, what does Jesus say in today's Gospel. He says that if we welcome a prophet in his name we will receive the reward of a prophet; but even if, says Jesus, we only offer the weakest among us a cup of cold water we will receive our just reward.

Perhaps it might be best of all for us, whoever we are, if we see in the Priest both the prophet and the weakest among us all. We should forget the grand gesture and start with the cup of cold water, start with the simple thing, start with getting our welcome right.

When I was in Brindisi last week, in a country with whom we were once at war, we were kindly welcomed and smiled upon. If two countries so divided can learn to like each other, then how much easier ought it to be for members of the same Parish in the Christian Church to live together in harmony, no matter what might have divided them.

It will not have escaped your notice that we are a community in danger. We are ridiculed or, much worse, ignored by much of that part of society which is thought of as clever; and we are internally divided. In such circumstances it makes good pragmatic sense to stick together; but the church of Christ is not a utilitarian enterprise ordered by pragmatism, it is the Holy Spirit's community of love. And, when it comes to love for one another, that means: uncontractual love, love which may not be returned; and it means unconditional love, love for its own sake and, most of all, for the sake of Jesus our brother and our Saviour.

If we think that the relationship between Priest and people is the same as that between, say, District Councillor and people where we can switch loyalties or even abstain from our civic duties, then we are wrong. If we think this then we have failed to understand the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the life of The Church. Against the will of the Holy Spirit our hurts and deprivations should count for nothing and what pain they cause us should be offered to God in prayerful silence.