It’s the 4th Sunday after Pentecost and so far, since the since Pentecost, our gospel readings have challenged us to think about mission. Filled with the Holy Spirit, and now the question is: How do we move into the world to help bring about Christ’s kingdom?
The gospel stories from John and Matthew have been about the Great Commission and Jesus giving the disciples the power to heal and cast out demons and then sending the disciples out into a world with a message that threatens to divide friends and families.
This is our third week in Matthew’s tenth chapter, where we have been reminded to follow the apostles into the world, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to move into the fields ready for harvest, and to pray for more workers. We have been warned that we will not be treated well on our mission and that it will create division even in our own homes.
Unlike Luke, Matthew makes no mention of the actual mission itself; we don’t know if the disciples went out
Or what their mission experience was.
Scholars believe the omission is to highlight Jesus’ speech as a direct address to the readers. We are included in the audience – left not so much with an historical report of what actually occurred in that ancient time, but with a description of ministry itself.
That description of ministry includes not just “doing” but “welcoming.” Jesus uses the word “welcome” six times in this brief passage of only three verses and points us to the importance of hospitality in furthering Jesus’ Kingdom. We are called to consider more deeply what it means to we a person of welcome.
Welcoming in this time of COVID is something that is quite fluid and starts to take on new meaning. When we think of welcome we think about the ways we greet those who come onto our campus or through the doors of the sanctuary. We would give them a lei and ask they leave their contact information on the visitors log. We would shake their hand and talk to them during and after the service inviting them to stay for refreshments and this is still a very valid and important form of welcoming. But now people are able to watch out livestream, they are, if you will, able to eavesdrop into our worship, and welcoming looks different and we don’t encounter strangers in the way we used to.
People check-in online and can participate in worship without having to identify themselves or even meeting a single person so it is harder for us to express welcome the “traditional” ways we have always done.
One of the outcomes of COVID and not having been in public worship is that the Church has been forced to leave the building. It just wasn’t possible for us to gather for worship as we are doing now and the Church has had to be more mobile, more flexible.
When we welcome people to Church we are not just welcoming strangers to this building, these pews and this altar; we are not just welcoming others to our Zoom channel or Face book page.. We have to reframe what it means to welcome.
When we look closely at verses 40-42, and remembering that our role in the mission is not only as those who are sent out but also as those who welcome and receive others along the way, we realize that acts of welcome can and ought to be practiced by us at any time, no matter what circumstances or crises we find ourselves in. We also come to realize that our welcoming does not need to consist of large, heroic acts. We can sit, listen, and pray with those call for justice in matters of race, gender, immigration, LGBT rights, and economics. Furthermore, any simple, basic acts of kindness we offer as genuine welcome for one another are all that God requires of us. We are not slaves to sin, Paul writes, we belong to Christ. And as followers of Jesus, we have been sent out to offer grace and healing and hope. All we need do is look around to see who is in need and try to do something about it.
A theology of hospitality reaches its fullest Christian expression in the final parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel – the one known by most of us a as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that the way we treat those who are most vulnerable among us is, ultimately, representative of our response toward Jesus. Within the parable, Jesus refers to these vulnerable ones with whom he identifies as “the least.” Whether we are deemed righteous has a great deal to do with how hospitable we are toward one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us. But more importantly, we are reminded that righteousness goes well beyond our relationship with God.
As people of faith, we are called to promote compassionate welcome that motivates us to trust, to be open, and to share. At the same time, we need to exercise caution to avoid manipulating others and seeking personal gain. We set out with good intentions to form caring relationships, yet when left to our own devices, we sometimes fall short of creating and sustaining the kind of relationships that help us to become the people God has called us to be. Often times, pride, ego, self-doubt, hopelessness, and other sentiments get in the way and keep us from truly connecting with each other, except in self-interested ways. We need God’s grace to help us with living into compassionate welcome with one another and extending genuine hospitality.
Members of early Christian communities were called “little ones,” and regardless of their origin, the disciples of Jesus were encouraged to identify themselves with the little ones in the world, who in turn, are called to serve other such little ones. Our efforts to welcome and love the little ones are important because Jesus sees it and receives it as worship. According to Jesus, there is no small gesture. A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts – a gift that almost anyone can give. But a cup of cold water is precious to a person who is really thirsty – in some instances, the gift of life itself. When we love others, we love Jesus. In welcoming one another into our hearts, Jesus tells us that we are welcoming him— welcoming God into our hearts. It’s the old paradox, that it is in giving that you receive. It is in losing your life that you find it. It is in welcoming others that you experience Jesus’ welcome.
We are all called to be Christ to each other. Jesus sends us to share the Good News, alleviate human suffering, to meet real needs, to work miracles of love and healing through acts of kindness… cups of water. We are called to remember that we, too, are to go as people willing to receive those same acts of kindness. When we welcome one another, we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us.
Whoever gives you even a cup of cold water… will most definitely not lose their reward.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.