Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 29, 2008

2008.06.29 “Welcome!”

Central United Methodist Church

“Welcome!”

Pastor David L. Haley

Matthew 10: 40 – 42

June 29th, 2008

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.   Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” – Matthew 10: 40 – 42, from The New Revised Standard Version

     Welcome; Bienvenidos; Wilkommen; Bienvenue; Välkommen (Swedish); Huanyíng Guanglín (Mandarin); Mabuhay (Tagalog); Dobro Pojalovat (Russian) Karibu (Swahili), Swaagat hai (Hindi); Baroukh Haba (Hebrew); Ahla wa sahla (Arabic); Welcome.

      Despite being one of the most universal and universally understood words, despite its power to bring a smile to a traveler’s face, is “welcome” a word falling into disuse?  And is being welcoming to strangers a forgotten art?

      Once upon a time, almost everyone had outside their front door a doormat saying, “Welcome.” But we think of our homes differently now, and don’t visit or entertain guests like we used to, so if there are any signs outside our front door, they are more likely to say, “No solicitors.”

      It used to be that when you walked into places of business, you were greeted with courtesy and welcome.  Today, when you even say “Thank you” to store clerks, they rarely say “You’re welcome.”  If they say anything, they say:  “No problem.”

      From what I hear from many visitors, and from what I have experienced myself, it is even possible to walk into Christian churches as a first-time worshiper and not be greeted. 

      For example, Richard Southern and Robert Norton, church consultants who evaluate congregations, tell of a congregation they visited that asked them to evaluate their worship service. They entered the beautiful Gothic sanctuary a few minutes before service time, where a small assemblage was present. They had settled into an empty pew near the back of the church when two members came up behind them, and in a stage whisper that could be heard across town, said: “Should we tell them they’re sitting in our pew?”  From that comment, and other things, it became clear that that congregation was, for all their good intent, somewhat less than welcoming. (Cracking Your Congregation’s Code, Richard Southern & Robert Norton, p. 51)

      A warm welcome may be on the way out in American civility, and it may even languish in churches, but for Christians – a warm welcome to guests remains a spiritual necessity.

      The art of welcome – hospitality to strangers – has a long tradition in religion, in Judaism, and in the Christian Church.  Did you know, that in Greek, the word “xenos” (from which we get “xenophobia”, fear of strangers), means not only “stranger”, but also “guest”, and also the one who welcomes a stranger, “host.”  In Judaism and Christianity, we are to practice not “xenophobia” but “xenophilia”, love or welcome of strangers.

      There are many Biblical texts from which I could preach this sermon, but today’s text is special. 

      This is the third passage from Matthew in which Jesus is giving his disciples their charge, before sending them out.  A curious thing is that, in Matthew’s Gospel, they never actually go out, which tells us that Jesus may actually be addressing all disciples to come (meaning “us)” rather than just those who were there then.

      Last week we heard from Jesus some harsh teaching, about how as we go out as his disciples into the world there will be resistance and conflict, sometimes even from our own family.

      This week we learn, however, that as we go out, there will also be for us a welcome.  Whether we are the ones welcomed, or the ones who welcome, it is significant both ways: because in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus, we welcome God. In proportion to the welcome we extend, so shall we receive our reward.

      If there is any spiritual absolute, I believe this is one of them: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”  It’s the Christian version of karma, which says, basically, “What goes around comes around.”  If you are negative, you will receive negativity.  If you are positive, you will receive positive. The same thing applies, I believe, to giving, forgiving, and loving, as does what happens when you practice the opposite.

      That’s why the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” has been so universally acknowledged, not just by Christians, but by all spiritual seekers. Do you remember how it ends? 

“For it is in giving, that we receive;

In pardoning, that we are pardoned;

In dying, that we are born to eternal life.”

      As it is also in welcoming, and being welcomed.  What Jesus says here, is that by welcoming even “the least of these”, by so little as giving a cup of cold water, we welcome Jesus, and God who sent him. And by our response, we receive our just reward, the reward of the prophets and of the righteous.

      But there are questions?  Who are the least of these?  It’s not specified; the word is “micron”; “the little ones.” Could it mean the newest disciples? Could it mean “children”, as Matthew uses it elsewhere? Could it mean those most ignored, most distressed, most oppressed, whoever they may be?  Perhaps it is deliberatively not specified, that we might extend to everyone the welcome they deserve, especially the least and the last.

      And what does is requested? Extravagance?  No, the most basic of courtesies: to those who are thirsty, a cup of cold water, given in Jesus’ name. 

      I think we know what we are talking about, because at some time in our lives, everyone of us has experienced such a welcome.  Perhaps as a child, visiting someone, and they made us feel at home.  Perhaps as a homesick young adult far from home, given a home by someone else. Perhaps as a stranded traveler, when someone gave us a place to stay. Perhaps, in a state of spiritual need, when visiting a church, where someone went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Perhaps as an immigrant to this country, when someone treated us not with rudeness or disdain, as an alien or illegal or as a stranger, but as a guest, treating us with dignity and respect. 

      I personally could share stories, of hosts and homes and congregations, of welcoming kindnesses extended to me. I remember when I was a student, driving home to Kentucky one winter night in a blizzard on I-57 that was so bad, they closed the road. I was dead tired, and all the hotels were full.  And a church in Effingham opened their doors, and I gratefully slept that night on the carpeted floor of a Sunday School room. I still think of that church every time I drive through Effingham.

      I think of when I graduated from seminary in 1976, and moved to Memphis, TN. to become the Associate Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, in mid-town Memphis. When I arrived there, they as yet had no place for me to stay, and one of the most gracious and generous couples in the congregation took me into their home, until I could find a place.  To this day I love them like my own parents.

      I could go on, about people who extended hospitality to me, not only in churches and not only in this country, but in travels around the world. Someone once said you know how travel has changed you, when you look at a map and think not of places, but of names and people. 

      What Jesus is saying here, however, goes beyond simple courtesy.  We don’t welcome others as a courtesy (even though it is), we don’t welcome others expecting reciprocity (even though it works), we don’t welcome people to worship because it will make our church grow (even though it does), we welcome others because Jesus did it and told us to, and because, in welcoming people, we welcome Jesus and we welcome God, who slips in among people.

            That’s why, quite frankly, the work of welcome in churches can never be only the work of a few designated greeters, it must be a culture of welcome, shared by the whole congregation.

We show our welcome by making our houses of worship accessible. This week on Day 1 (formerly the Protestant Hour), the Rev. Trace Haythorn is preaching a sermon very similar to mine (“The Art of Welcome”). In that sermon he talks about driving by a church that had a sign out front proclaiming itself to be a church where everyone is welcome, even claiming to be fully accessible for people with disabilities. It had a lovely ramp up to the door of the sanctuary, friendly folks waiting just inside that door; but there was a step up into the building, a step to reach those people. If you’re in a wheelchair, that’s where your welcome ended.  Thanks to our congregation’s intent and action, our sanctuary (if not all our buildings – yet) are handicapped accessible.

      We show our welcome to visitors by greeting them and learning their names. There are few experiences more painful for pastors attempting to grow a church than watching a visitor come in and sit down, and see nobody speak to them? You could probably add there is nothing more painful for parishioners hoping for their church to grow than watching the Pastor mangle people’s names.

      We show our welcome to visitors by not just telling them where the nursery or the bathrooms or fellowship hall are, or by having signs pointing the way, but by escorting them there ourselves.   

      Sometimes we show our welcome to visitors even by giving them the seats of honor: our seats, even if we have set there for 42 years!  (Remember, you’re giving it up for Jesus!)

      Those are some of the things we do in church, but what about the practice of hospitality in our lives?  I think we need to buck societal trends and work at being courteous, at inviting people out or over, of every now and then in some risky and daring way, becoming a host, especially to the last and the least. After all, most of Jesus’ ministry did not happen in a sanctuary, but around tables, over food. When we take the chance to extend such a welcome, who knows, surprising things may happen.

Many years ago, I came across a book of prayers by Michael Quoist, entitled Prayers of Life.  One in particular has stood out through the years.  It was called, “Lord, Why Did You Tell Me To Love?”, and describes what can happen, but what often happens when we welcome others into our lives, in the name of Christ. 

Lord, why did you tell me to love all men, my brothers?

I have tried but I come back to you, frightened . . .

Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled.

It was well furnished, and I felt cozy.

I was alone, I was at peace,

sheltered from the wind, the rain, the mud.

I would have stayed unsullied in my ivory tower.

But Lord, you have discovered a breach in my defenses,

You have forced me to open my door,

Like a squall of rain in the face, the cry of men has awakened me;

Like a gale of wind a friendship has shaken me,

As a ray of light slips in unnoticed, your grace has stirred me . . .

and rashly enough, I left my door ajar. Now Lord I am lost!

Outside men were lying in wait for me.

I did not know they were so near; in this house, and this street, in this office; my neighbor, my colleague, my friend.

As soon as I started to open the door I saw them, with outstretched hands, burning eyes, longing hearts, like beggars on church steps.

The first ones came in, Lord. There was after all some space in my heart. I welcomed them. I would have cared for them and fondled them,

my very own little lambs, my little flock.

You would have been pleased, Lord, I would have served and honored you in a proper, respectable way.

Till then it was sensible . . .

But the next ones, Lord, the other men I had not seen them; they were hidden behind the first ones.

There were more of them, they were wretched; they overpowered me without warning.

We had to crowd in, I had to find room for them.

Now they have come from all over, in successive waves, pushing one another, jostling one another.

They have come from all over town, from all parts of the country, of the world; numberless, inexhaustible.

They don’t come alone any longer but in groups, bound one to another. They come bending under heavy loads; loads of injustice, of resentment and hate, of suffering and sin . . .

They drag the world behind them with everything rusted, twisted or badly adjusted.

Lord, they hurt me! They are in the way, they are everywhere.

They are too hungry, they are consuming me!

I can’t do anything anymore; as they come in, they push the door, and the door opens wider . . .

Lord! my door is wide open!

I can’t stand it anymore! It’s too much! It’s no kind of a life!

What about my job? my family! my peace? my liberty? and me?

Lord, I’ve lost everything, I don’t belong to myself any longer;

There’s no more room for me at home.

Don’t worry,” God says, “you have gained all.

While men came in to you, I, your Father,

I, your God,

Slipped in among them. (Prayers of Life, Michael Quoist, (1963), p. 90. While included here in Quoist’s original version, in the sermon I used a version edited for brevity and inclusivity.)

And so God does.  And so God does.  Amen.

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