Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
In one of our staff meetings recently, we were talking about who would really be made welcome in our church. What we say here at Park Avenue United Methodist, is that “all are welcome; none are excluded.”
“What if one of those types came by,” someone asked, “a known agitator, a self-proclaimed hater aggressively against others based on their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation?”
The question got my attention. Well, it all depends, I think—right? My first instinct is to protect the entire community. If one comes in to learn or even out of curiosity; if he or she respects us for who we are, tends him or herself in a manner of civility, and does not disrupt our reason for existence, that person without distinction would be welcome in my opinion.
On the other hand, if the person is disruptive, seeks to cause harm, or hurls threats, we ought not be so willing to fill our pews once we are allowed to reopen, to say that everything is acceptable and others are severely at risk unnecessarily.
This whole business of welcome, hospitality, belonging, acceptance is huge in our culture and within the Body of Christ, is it not? Truth is, we just don’t know who might show up and what their agendas are.
We also know that all have not always been welcome.
On this Pride Sunday we recognize this truth still exists. We the Church have been anything but welcoming. At best, we welcome people to sit in the pew. We certainly welcome them to give an offering or pay a tithe but unwelcome them to claim their full identity and live into their own reality within our midst.
There are times when I think that the “Church” ought to stay on bended knees constantly seeking repentance, mercy, and grace for the sins that we have committed against one another.
But then I realize that a truly repentant heart is the heart that rises up, seeks to do better, to make amends moving forward, rights the wrongs that have been done, and work toward a better present and future.
Jesus reminds us in our gospel lesson about what hospitality really looks like.
Six times within three short verses, he uses the word “Welcome”, which applies to all. “Whoever welcomes you,” he says to the disciples, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me (meaning God, the Almighty). Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person…..”
As he is sending those early disciples out into the world with this message of liberation for all, Jesus recognizes that it is not going to always be well received. There will be people who will not want to hear, who will turn a deaf ear, who will turn against them and seek to do all kinds of harm. These words of loving neighbor, justice, and mercy, all are welcome, and the pursuit of happiness for all people is disturbing even now.
They will not welcome you, Jesus seems to say, but I tell you what: whoever does, also welcomes me and they welcome the One who has sent me. This is how closely aligned Jesus is to the message of truth.
He makes clear that there are certain inalienable rights, certain basics, and fundamentals due all people regardless. It is not extra, over, and above but expected; presumed as citizens of the human race.
In those days in ancient Palestine, hospitality was paramount not only to one’s faith but also to one’s humanity. It was a way of being – understood regardless of one’s religious perspective and not limited to one’s kin or friendship but also, and perhaps most especially, to the “stranger” – the person unknown for whom one was unaccustomed.
It was a duty toward those whose customs and ways, proclivities and peculiarities were different from one’s own. We are around “strangers” all the time, are we not? People who are “strange” to us; unfamiliar. Not strange in the way that they are from another planet (although it can sometimes seem that way) or that something is inherently wrong with them or us, but that we just don’t know who they are, what it’s like to walk in their shoes or in their skin. We have no idea. And all too often, it is easy to be ok with that, comfortable seeing but not seeing. Hearing but not hearing.
Jesus said: “…and whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” A cup of cold water would have been the most basic kindness; the most fundamental gesture of shared humanity, the simplest measure of awareness, of knowing to those we do not know and such benevolence will be rewarded. For surely there would be no question about the ones we do know.
I was thinking about this in light of the pandemic that we find ourselves. What would be the equivalent of offering a cool cup of water on a hot summer day in this moment?
Now I know there are those who do not much like having to wear a face mask; it seems like an infringement on their constitutional rights or something. I am tired of it too. I think it took me about 3 weeks to figure out how to breathe and walk – let alone breathe, walk, and talk all at the same time. But wearing a face mask and social distancing seem like such small things in my mind in order to protect myself and others who might be at risk.
After all, more than 120,000 people have died within 4 short months, and the infection rate still climbs. There is still no cure, no vaccine, and no real way to plan a funeral or say goodbye.
Who would not wear a face mask, a simple covering over their mouth and nose for the greater good? To protect even the stranger, the known and the unknown so that someone’s spouse, parent or child, grandmother, neighbor, colleague, and friend might live? Who wouldn’t do that?
It is not political; it is a Christian question, and I am guessing some aspect of it is true for every major religion and even among nonbelievers. It is about how one thinks in relation to themselves and the world.
Perfect welcome is about capacity. It is about the space one has for another.
I think when someone welcomes you, really welcomes you into their home, their job, church or community, into their heart, it is a way of saying: “I see you and I have room for you. Come dwell here for a while. I may not know; I may not understand what to do but I am willing to try. I will learn. I will do my best to figure out what it takes to understand you and I will try not to change you into something else. I am willing to adjust myself accordingly. Because to welcome you means to welcome my Lord again into my heart. Come Lord Jesus.”
This is the image I have of God most often; the God who welcomes me and all of us; a God with great capacity, because some days I need a little extra—how about you? I need a God so invested in me showing up that there is never any turning away.
A God who delights at the sound of my voice, who welcomes my tear streaked face over and over. A God who reads the heart and makes words unnecessary.
That God who sees all, knows all, and welcomes us still.
“Come closer; let me see more of you. Let me see what others miss. Sit down, rest, stick around for a while, I am not finished yet. I am not finished, and you are not finished. Together, we can carve out a new future regardless of what has transpired or what has not – such hospitality.”
Is that not what we most desire? Lord knows I do.
Could it be that we might see one another not only as God sees them but as God’s very own self: “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me. And whoever does even the smallest, simplest act of grace, love, and kindness for those who need it most will not lose their true reward.”
Thanks be to God.