A Radical Welcome!

June 28, 2020 (Proper 8A)

Lessons for Proper 8A: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and, Matthew 10:40-42

Let’s just get this straight from the start: Whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus!

And let’s not quibble or equivocate over the definition of “you;” let’s just assume its means everyone for whom the message is meant, that is: everyone! Indeed, I think it fair to say that whoever welcomes a neighbor or work colleague or elected official or mother-in-law, whoever welcomes the smelly guy on the street corner, the chatty seat companion on the airplane, or the political opponent; whoever welcomes the slow talker in the grocery checkout line, the endless talker at the barbershop, or the over-friendly UPS driver…and so on and so forth…welcomes Jesus! Is there ever an end to such a list of those who are welcome? If there is an end to the list, what does this mean? And, maybe more importantly, if there is not an end, what does that mean?

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes any one of us welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.” (Matthew 10:40)

A variation of the message in this lesson from Matthew’s gospel can be found, sometimes more than once,  in each gospel:

  • ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:37; cf. Luke 9:48 & Matt. 18:5)
  • “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, …you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:45)
  • “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15.7)
  • “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)“Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” (John 13:20)

There are numerous other examples and variations throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament record. The bottom line is that there is a strong emphasis on inclusion, reciprocity, and welcome, and on including the alien as a neighbor. Indeed, no other law in the Old Testament is repeated as often as that commanding the welcome of the alien, the stranger, or the sojourner. It seems that Israelites of old and Jesus together with the early disciples and apostles put a high value on welcoming. When they welcomed others, they welcomed Jesus and thereby welcomed God. 

Maybe we should pause for a moment, then, to think about what our nation and our communities have been experiencing – with the COVID pandemic, rising racial tensions, and renewed prejudice, discrimination, and ill-treatment of immigrants, particularly at our southern border.

Hospitality is a primary ethic of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East even now. Whether one is brought into a family home of Muslims, Christians or Jews, there is joy in welcoming, there is the belief that it is desired of God, the welcoming of strangers who are strangers no longer, but beloved friends, believing that in welcoming people into one’s home they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do in welcoming the living God among us.

Such an understanding of hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates back to well before the time of Jesus. It was a matter of survival and community health which translated into the religious understanding of what God wants of us. Where and how do we experience such welcome today?

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”

Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and repudiation?

So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the world stage and in the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in a variety of television shows with comments about the increase in bullying not only among children in our schools, but flowing out into our neighborhoods, showing up in stepped-up immigration strictures and deportation raids, among other things.

Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him?

This Sunday falls between two other occasions marked on the Church calendar: the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul last Thursday, and our celebration of American Independence on the Fourth of July on Tuesday.

It is important to note this for a number of reasons. First, think about Peter and Paul. They did not agree on many things, didn’t get along at all, and finally went their separate ways in the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter insisted that the early believers must follow Jewish ways, must be circumcised, must hold to the Law. Paul’s vision led him to distant lands proclaiming faith in a risen Christ and urging believers to conform their lives to that faith. What they had in common, though, was the conviction that God had visited humanity in Jesus, and that Jesus had brought something new and remarkable to humankind demonstrated in a way to live, a way to relate and a way to witness to God’s love. And they both understood that the welcome of God was an invitation to a place in God’s kingdom.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, and as we sing God Bless America, and as we roast hot dogs and hamburgers and marvel at fireworks and the good ol’ red, white and blue, let us also ask ourselves what Jesus meant in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).

We may believe differently about the details of faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians are wont to do. We may understand civic responsibility differently; Americans have always held a variety of opinions on things.

But for us as Christian Americans or American Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes? For we are Christians first, as citizens of God’s kingdom, living that faith in an American context of privilege and challenge.

Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he pretty clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as Americans, we will stand proudly to celebrate on the Fourth. When we put all that together, one possible outcome is that we may have to agree to disagree on some aspects of American policy as we live our Christian faith in daily practice.

Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. Can we at least agree on that?

As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. AMEN.

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