Dear Friends in Christ,
The very first Episcopal Church Erin and I ever set foot into was St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Renton, Washington. It was, at the time of our first visit, a sleepy gathering of God’s faithful remnant – 20 or so of the kindest people you could meet in a space that could easily house 5 to 10 times as many. Not initiated into the rite and ritual of Anglicanism, we could have easily gotten lost in the liturgy. The small knot of “regulars” who were there that morning stood and followed along in the service with nary a book or leaflet in sight. Being such a small gathering though, and with all the fumbling we did to keep up, we were easily noticed. I’ll never forget when Maxine sidled up to us and offered to see that we found our way through the liturgy. She opened to pages, pointed to collects and rubrics; she even introduced us around after the service. Maxine was a retired widow in her 70’s and our experiences and contexts couldn’t have been further apart. Yet, without her gracious welcome, her shy affability, her genuine love, and interest in introducing us around, I can say that I doubt Erin and I would have ever visited another Episcopal Church, let alone joined one. Maxine and her gracious of welcome is the reason I’m an Episcopalian today.
But, welcome doesn’t come as easy to all of us as it does to folks like Maxine. One of the reasons welcome is such a difficult thing, is that it takes us out of our comfort zone. So often we come to church precisely because we want to be comfortable, to inhabit the predictable pattern of our liturgy, to see the familiar faces of our clergy and friends, to sing the old standards, and rest in the knowledge that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But, at the same time, even if we are unwilling to admit it, liturgy is work – quite literally the word for liturgy stems from the Greek leiturgia, or “the work of the people”. Worship is a task, albeit a joyful one, that we, God’s people, undertake as we offer our lives and our hopes and our dreams back to God. I liken it to physical exercise. Sometimes difficult and a bit uncomfortable, but ultimately satisfying and exhilarating, we stretch ourselves and are thus shaped and formed and I would wager “better” for having done it. So it is with incorporating the act of welcome into our day of worship.
You may have noticed that I have begun a pattern of greeting our neighbors at the beginning of every 10 AM service. I did so here as I have throughout my ministry because I believe we ought to take every opportunity to extend a hand of welcome, not only to those who are already “initiated” and with us, but especially to those who are joining us for the first time. Greeting each other in a purely social way before the liturgy begins allows us to identify and welcome those who might be visiting, and it holds the practical benefit of returning the “Peace” to its appropriate place in the liturgy itself – namely reserving the Peace as a ritualized way of symbolically being reconciled and making peace with our brothers and sisters before we come to the altar. In other words, by allowing the greeting at the beginning of the service to absorb the social and welcome function that our worship needs, the Peace is allowed to return to that quiet, peaceable, and reflective act which it was always intended to be.
I’ve already heard from folks who have loved the addition of a moment of greeting and welcome at the opening of the service, and from a few who have found it worrisome and jarring. I welcome more of this kind of feedback. Certainly, when we do anything new in worship we are opening the possibility of being shifted out of our comfort zone and, hopefully, able to see from a new vantage the way that God’s grace is pouring into and through our lives in worship and in the world. More than anything, my hope and intent is to continue to lift up and emphasize what has been a longstanding tradition at St. John’s of welcome and gracious hospitality.
Thanks for your comments and feedback – see you Sunday!