a sermon on Matthew 10:40-42
preached on June 29, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There is truly something wonderful in that short song that we just sang—and not just because I managed to get you all singing in parts a little! Like so many songs from around the world that are coming into our knowledge nowadays, this song comes bearing a story. Even though you can now find it our hymnal, it was collected only a few years ago in South Africa by the Scottish pastor and songwriter John Bell. It comes out of a hospice program for those suffering from HIV/AIDS in South Africa, a program that steps into the gap for those who have been abandoned by friends and family as they deal with this dreadful and incurable disease, a program that responds to such a disease in a place where the lasting effects of poverty and apartheid are still prominent. These people have every reason to question the depth and breadth of God’s loving welcome, and yet still they sing joyfully and hopefully, trusting God’s amazing love to carry them through the difficulties of their disease and welcome them into new life.
This kind of wildly inclusive welcome despite every reason to think and act otherwise stands at the core of what Jesus was describing in our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning. Jesus had been preparing his disciples for their first mission work in his name, and he was about to send them out on their own to share his teachings, heal the sick, and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. He had told them where to go (the people of Israel, not the Samaritans or Gentiles), what to say (“The kingdom of heaven has come near”), what attitude to offer in the face of opposition (have no fear of it), what to leave behind (family and friends and commitments at home), and what to take with them (nothing other than a cross as they followed him).
But then he offered these words from our reading today to close his instructions, telling his disciples not about how they needed to treat others along their way but about the blessing would emerge through them for those who met them along the way. Jesus insisted that his disciples were extensions of him, that any welcome offered to them was welcome offered to him, that God’s reward for the prophets and the righteous extended to those who welcomed prophets and the righteous like them, that care and concern offered to anyone, even a glass of water shared with those who might be looked down upon by society, was ultimately offered to Jesus himself. Without their even knowing it, those who chose to receive the disciples would offer the presence of God to them—and in so doing receive that presence for themselves.
This two-way welcome—the welcome that God offers to us that we proclaimed in our song a few minutes ago and the welcome that we offer to others and so offer back to God—is a critical part of what it means to be church in these days. In a day and age when an increasing number of people have never experienced church for themselves, when God’s welcome so often does not reach people who do not seek it out, when the words of the Bible are still so often used to offer hope to the insider at the exclusion of the outsider, when Sundays are more likely to be spent sipping a latte and reading the newspaper than sitting in a sanctuary, this two-way welcome is more important than ever to show the world what God’s welcome looks like—and to open our eyes to how the world is showing that welcome to us, too.
This two-way welcome is most easily seen in the hospitality we offer to others in our life as the church. Over my nearly nine years here serving as your pastor, we have talked several times about how we do this—how we greet everyone, members and visitors alike, as we arrive for worship; how we work to honor the image of God in everyone who crosses our path; how we offer time and space for those who make their way here to discover God’s welcome within and beyond these walls. But we do this in other ways, too—in our openness in our life to new ideas and different patterns of life together in the church community, in our willingness to embrace the fullness of the lives of those who journey with us, even in our standing with and speaking out for others who cannot do so on their own.
But the two-way welcome that Jesus offers us here is not just about offering God’s welcome to others—it is also about being open to receive that same welcome from others, too. It’s easy for us to think that we need to be good at offering a welcome to others, but Jesus’ message to the disciples here ultimately challenges them to accept the welcome given to them and to trust that it is not just extended to them but to God too. This two-way welcome reminds us that when we offer hospitality at its best, we find ourselves both giving and receiving, for we find that just when we think we are most prepared to host, we are actually becoming the guest. When we think that we have offered enough of a welcome to others, they turn around and show us the same gift. And when we are confident that God’s welcome has reached its limit, God will remind us again in those we have welcomed before, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
This afternoon, several dozen Presbyterians will gather on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in front of First Presbyterian Church, to offer a ministry of welcome to the marchers in the annual New York City Pride Parade. As women and men stream down Fifth Avenue to celebrate the unique culture and community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, these faithful Presbyterians and friends will offer cookies, hugs, and even a cup of cold water to marchers of any and every sort. They’ve been doing this for four or five years now, seeking to extend God’s welcome to each and every person. They’re taking these words of Jesus quite literally, not because of any earthly or heavenly reward, not even expecting to convince some of the marchers to show up at church next Sunday, but because it is the kind of welcome that Jesus himself would offer. As I’ve listened to the stories of friends and colleagues who have shared in this ministry over the years, I’ve heard that this has been a two-way welcome, that they have received as much welcome as they have shared, that their offering of even this simple cup of cold water has broken down barriers, that the transformation that is possible through God’s amazing grace shines here in new and glorious ways, not just to the people who receive this gift of water but even more to the people who step out and share it.
Now while it may not be as easy for us to stand out in front of our church and offer a cup of water to in this way, while we may not be in a place to directly hear the stories of people whose songs can embody an incredible sense of welcome and grace and hope, God still challenges us to offer and receive this kind of welcome in our lives of faith. We can find times and places and ways to share that cup of cold water with those who are thirsty. We can look for other opportunities to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. And we can offer the fullness of God’s welcome to strangers and friends, trusting that in so doing we may receive far more than we have offered.
So may God show us all the more how to give and receive this two-way welcome, this gracious and merciful and wondrous gift that embodies God’s love in our world, so that all people might know the fullness of God’s love each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.