26 June 2011

Welcoming Jesus:

A Sermon for Proper 8(13)B

This morning's gospel seems to begin in the middle of something -- it starts with Jesus saying "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me". Before we can go on to talk about this message we need to find out more about the conversation we're listening in on this morning. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus makes a preaching tour, going around to the towns and villages in Galilee near his home base in Capernaum, teaching, proclaiming, and healing. At the end he is worried because of the size of the crowds that come to hear him and the lack of anyone to help them and gather them in -- to Jesus they are like sheep without a shepherd or ripe grain without any harvesters.

His solution is first to pray and to tell his disciples to do the same, to pray that God will send labourers for God's harvest. Second he commissions the Twelve, his closest followers, to go out and begin that job, to bring the good news of God's welcome to those that are hungry, hungry not just for that teaching but also for the powerful works, the signs of healing, that accompany it and testify to it. The work doesn't have to be done by Jesus alone -- his followers share in it.

But it is new to them and we know if we've spend much time with the gospel story that the Twelve are not always swift on the uptake where Jesus's teaching to them is concerned. So Jesus takes them aside and gives them very extensive instructions -- Matthew records much more coaching by Jesus than the other evangelists do at this point. Jesus tells them to go out without money or supplies or even a change of clothes, and to teach and heal without asking for payment. They are to trust in the hospitality and the kindness of the strangers they meet in the towns and villages of Galilee, and perhaps on some level to those strangers' curiosity. And he concludes with the words of our gospel reading this morning about welcome.

So the ones being welcomed are Jesus's apostles as they go out on their first independent mission. Matthew's community was looking at these words in the context of their own times when, as in ours, Jesus's disciples are "on their own". Our community, like Matthew's community, is a post-Resurrection, post-Ascension one. We and they have been sent into the world too, enlivened and empowered by the Spirit, to teach and to heal, trusting in that Spirit and in the message we have to share, trusting in the hospitality and curiosity of others. Of course both we and they have applied some of Jesus's words here to their on-going mission. And it is made clear that whether the one welcomed is a leader -- like an apostle, prophet, or righteous person -- or just one of the 'little ones' (a favourite term of Matthew's for the ordinary disciples that have become like little children), the effect is the same. Welcome one, welcome all, and you welcome Jesus himself. Welcome Jesus, and you welcome Jesus's Father.

What then can we take away from these words, from this story, today? Our circumstances seem totally different but there are some points of contact. One thing we can certainly relate to is the supreme importance of welcome. We all know what a difference it makes to feel that we're welcome the first time, whether it's our first visit to a new store or restaurant, the first day in a new school or new job, or our first visit to a new church. But there's more here than that. It is not just about being welcomed. It is also about being welcome.

A lot depends on where we see ourselves in this story. If we see ourselves as those that welcome the Twelve, or a prophet, a righteous person or a "little one", then the most important thing here is that it makes us think about what it means to welcome someone. Jesus sums it up by talking about giving a cup of cold water -- surely a basic of hospitality to offer a stranger traveling in a hot and dusty country. There is a You Tube video making the rounds called "What if Starbucks marketed like the church", in which a hapless couple just try to get two cups of coffee somewhere they've never been before. I won't describe it to you -- you can Google it if you want to see! Suffice it to say that they will never, ever, go back to that Starbucks, and maybe they'll think twice about the Second Cup or Tim's!

The problem is not just that they never felt welcome. It was that nobody was really paying any attention to what they needed or wanted, to what they came for. In Jesus's illustration, the stranger is welcomed not just by the cup of water. He or she is welcomed by the thought and attention that saw their need and met it as best the host could. Welcome is more than just saying 'hi' -- it's giving the cup of cold water or inviting someone to stay for the coffee hour and chatting with them there. It's passing the peace as if you really mean it, whether the people around you are ones you've seen on many previous Sundays or are just seeing for the first time.

But we should also put ourselves in the place of the travellers -- in the beginning of this story, in the section of Jesus's advice to the Twelve that precedes our reading this morning, he tells them, "As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment." So the apostles and others have something to offer, in a sense they make themselves welcome when they come. They have been given gifts by Jesus, gifts of healing, and the gift of good news: the prophets, the righteous ones, and the 'little ones', like us, have received gifts, the gift of prophetic teaching, the gift of righteousness, the gift of the kind of humility that makes adults able to be like children Those gifts are to share, not to be traded for payment. We may not be a congregation of prophets, but we all have gifts to share with the world around us.

How can we do that? How do we proclaim the good news and bring the gift of healing to those in need of them. Well, one way is to be present, just to be here, where we have been for the last century and then some. Choosing to remain on this particular corner was not a passive thing. Being in such a prominent place, marketing ourselves with our sign, sharing with the community through the lunch programme and other ministries -- this is the modern equivalent of the preaching tour of the early church. This is how we share the good news, and how we offer ourselves as the prophets, or righteous ones, or disciples of the past offered themselves. And it is how we too strive to make ourselves welcome to the world.

Let's make no mistake about it -- the stakes are very high. The reading begins with Jesus saying, 'Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.' So our being welcome to the world is as important as our being welcoming. By acting in the ways that engage the interest, the curiosity of others about us and about what we have to share, we do something else as well. We ask for welcome -- welcome for ourselves, welcome for Jesus, and welcome for the Father. If we, helped by the Spirit, make ourselves and what we have to share welcome to others then we open up a whole world of possibilities. By welcoming us, those others have the opportunity to encounter the Risen, transforming God whom we have come to know and to follow. They then can become part of the Welcome Committee, reaching out to share with others what they have been gifted with.

How do we do this? How do we make ourselves and what we have been given welcome to the world around us? And how do we deal with rejection when it comes? We won't always succeed in being welcome, in sharing the kingdom and its work of self-giving love and radical inclusion with others. We are, after all, only human, and we are setting a lofty goal for ourselves, to be the church, God's people, at this corner, in a way that both helps and serves God's world and invites that world into relationship with God. So we will have to learn how to deal with rejection and keep on trying.

We do that through the Spirit, through grace. In this morning's epistle, Paul reminds us that we now live under grace, and that we do so as those who have been brought from death to life. We are a resurrection people, and passing from death to life is a liberating experience. It liberates us from all sorts of past baggage and guilt to receive the free gift of God in Jesus. That is what empowers us to go out into the world seeking to serve and to be welcome. It is the new life of grace that enlivens us and gives us a message and a hope that are worth sharing, and that can make us welcome, not for ourselves, but as messengers. For remember, the one that welcomes us, welcomes Jesus, and the one that welcomes Jesus, welcomes the one that sent him. Amen