Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Welcome Mat -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3A

Matthew 10:40-42  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 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; 42 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.”
                Jesus sent out as disciples two by two – all twelve of them – on a missionary journey.  He sent them out with just the clothes on their backs.  No money in their belts.  No health insurance.  No lunches.  They were to preach the Good News to the Jewish community – not Gentiles or Samaritans.  As they went out on this journey they were to live off the land.  When they entered a community, they were to find a house that was worthy and stay there.  If they found a home to be unworthy – that is one that proved unwelcoming -- they were to rescind their blessing and move on.  Jesus let them know that not everyone would be welcoming.  After all, they were going out into the world like lambs among wolves.  The reading for this week concludes the story that begins in verse 1 of Matthew 10.  In this brief passage, Jesus declares that when people welcome the disciples, they are welcoming him.  They are his representatives.  To use an ecclesial term, they are “vicars” of Christ.  Throughout Matthew 10 Jesus speaks of the blessings that come from welcoming his representatives.  But here he connects their work with his own. 

                What then should we make of this passage today?  Obviously the original commission to preach to the Jewish community has long been expanded to include Samaritans and Gentiles.  Perhaps Matthew’s community was focused on ministry with the Jewish community, but that is not our primary calling today.   What is interesting here is the use of the word welcome in this passage.  It appears four times.  What does it mean to welcome another?  Churches will often think of themselves as friendly and welcoming places, but are they really?  Yes, they enjoy getting together with their friends, but what about the stranger?  The disciples were going out into the world as strangers, placing their own welfare in the hands of people who would rather keep the doors shut.

Then there’s the word about offering a cup of cold water to the “little ones.”  This is most likely not a reference to children.  Instead, it would refer to these evangelists whom Jesus sent out.  It is quite likely that in its original context the “least of these” in Matthew 25 also referred to Jesus’ representatives.  But we needn’t be too restrictive on how we read this today.  Giving the cup of cold water could be a blessing to many of Christ’s “little ones,” from the homeless to the evangelists. 

At the heart of the passage is the call to hospitality.  Hospitality has become, in our time, overly connected to the hotel and restaurant industry.  Churches might have a hospitality or fellowship team, but their job is to take care of the kitchen and organize meals for the church.  That’s okay, as far as it goes, but it goes deeper than making sure there is a nice coffee hour after church. 

In reading the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesuswritten by Chris Smith and John Pattison, I am reminded of the power of the meal.  We gather at the Lord’s Table to share in bread and cup in remembrance of Jesus, but we often forget that in its origins the Table fellowship was part of a larger meal.  Sharing meals together has the possibilities of building community and enlivening conversation.  One would assume that as these disciples made their way across the land, they would have shared meals with the people they stayed with.  It was here that they talked about Jesus and his ministry.  It was in the midst of the meal that they spoke of the realm of God.  The hosts become the hosted, and in the course of the meal and the conversation they receive blessing.

It is interesting how often this happens, if we’re willing to slow down and actually have a conversation – over a meal usually but not always.  We begin to talk about trivialities, but then as we become more comfortable, we go deeper, discussing important issues, including political ones, but in a different context – one of trust and civility.    

 So how do we lay out the welcome mat?  Yes, the focus in the passage is on being welcomed, but as we have become more stationary, perhaps we can put the shoe on the other foot.  Could it be that the ones welcomed will be a guest preacher?  Mission groups from outside the area?  I’m thinking here of Motown Mission and Gospel in Action Detroit, two organizations with which I am affiliated who welcome teams from outside the area to work in Detroit.  How do we provide them welcome?

          Moving deeper, how might the reference to the “little ones” spur our imaginations?  Who might these “little ones” be?  Well, it likely doesn’t refer in the original to children, but surely we can be more welcoming to children in our congregations.  There are the homeless and the ones living on the margins who stand in need of hope.  I learned the other night that about forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, many of whom came out to families who turned them aside.  The little ones could be the migrant workers who pick the fruit and vegetables gracing our tables.  They could be the refugees who are fleeing war and violence in places like Iraq, Syria, and the Congo.  These little ones could be the thousands of children, traveling from Latin America to the United States border in search of safety and a better life.  How should we as a nation welcome these children who are now living in cramped facilities not designed for this purpose?   What would Jesus have us do?

                Perhaps the place to start is with the heart.  Hospitality begins with an attitude of openness to the other.  That is what it means to be a welcoming person.  It involves acceptance, but it is deeper than that.  It is an attitude that is formed by compassion and grace.  But more than that, it is an attitude of vulnerability to the other.   But if we open ourselves up to the other, then we will find blessing.  Yes, it’s risky.  But most blessings come with risk.

                What then does it mean for us as individuals and as congregations to lay out the welcome mat?

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