“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.”
This is a word we are all too familiar with. It adorns doormats, road signs welcoming us to new states. It is spoken by greeters in restaurants & stores.
But it is much more than a mere two syllables we utter. We all know that just saying “welcome” or putting up a sign that says “all are welcome” is meaningless without the genuine practice of hospitality to back it up.
My friend Trace Haythorn, a Presbyterian scholar and pastor did a bit of research on the word “welcome”. He writes that “In English the word finds its roots in a compounding of ‘well’ and ‘come,’ though with slightly different connotations that we tend to use today. The root of ‘well’ could go in two directions: it could mean something close to our current understanding of ‘wellness’ or ‘well-being,’ but it could be stronger than that, implying desire or pleasure. ‘Come’ finds its roots in an Old English word ‘comer,’ that is, one who arrives or, perhaps closer to the Greek, one who is received. Thus ‘welcome’ can offer in its earliest sense an invitation to come and be well, or to be well in coming. Either way, it is an invitation to be received into the goodness of this new place.”
In our text from Matthew today, we get to listen in near the end of Jesus’ speech to the disciples as he sends them out on a mission – healing and teaching in his name. In earlier verses, Jesus warns them of the less hospitable scenarios in their future – being persecuted or kicked out of town. But here, we get the other side of the story. Jesus tells them that sometimes they will receive a true welcome, they will be received into the goodness of the place they visit. It is interesting here that while it is a pep talk for the disciples, this part of the speech seems to be more directed to the hearers of Matthew’s gospel within the early Christian community, and perhaps to us as well. Here, Jesus tells us that to offer genuine welcome to a stranger is to offer hospitality to Jesus himself.
Hospitality. It is well beyond a greeting and a smile. It is about making one feel welcome – not just hearing the word.
In most places, (and here in the south especially), hospitality comes in the form of food. We greet new neighbors with a plate of cookies. Some churches offer new visitors a loaf of fresh-baked bread. But so often, we stop there. Hospitality is not just about offering food. It is about sharing it. It is about sitting down with those cookies or that bread or that cup of coffee and having a conversation. Sharing our stories with one another. And there is something about food that makes this practice of hospitality all the more enjoyable. As long as it is the means of offering welcome and not trying to be the welcome all by itself.
I have shared with some of you before about a mission trip I went on in high school. As part of an organization called Appalachian Service Project, my church youth group spent a week in rural West Virginia, working on someone’s home. The family we were serving that week had a small kitchen that was in desperate need of work. Previous weeks’ groups had done the demolition and framing, and our task was to put up the drywall and repair parts of the floor. This entire time, the contents of the family’s kitchen were on their lopsided front porch – a wood-fired stove, a small refrigerator were all they had. There was a small water pump for fresh water. We chatted with the family here and there throughout the week, but we tended to do our own thing at lunch time. We had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chips that we ate under the shade of trees, and they spent that time in their house – undoubtedly enjoying a break from the hammering and random conversations of teenagers.
But on Thursday of our workweek, the family told us not to worry about bringing our sack lunches the next day. They wanted to offer us a meal. So as we began to wind down our work on the last day, we stepped out of the small kitchen at lunchtime and were amazed by what we saw. Working with the tiny wood stove and the refrigerator on that lopsided porch, they had prepared a feast. There was a big table set in the front yard with lemonade, potato salad, green beans, macaroni and cheese, rolls, pineapple upside down cake, and some of the best fried chicken I would ever eat. (I enjoyed it thoroughly despite the fact that I realized I was eating a chicken we had visited with throughout the week and had affectionately named Roger). But as good as the food was, what was even better was that it offered us a chance to all sit and talk over this meal. We heard their stories; we shared ours; we laughed; we ate. It was wonderful. The meal was an expression of gratitude, but it was also a profound expression of hospitality. And the power of that welcome has stuck with me ever since.
My meal that day was an extravagant one, especially given the modest resources of our hosts. But it is by no means the only way in which hospitality has to be shared. Remember that Jesus, interestingly, doesn’t speak in terms of extravagance here but of one little cold cup of water. My friend Trace also writes: “To offer hospitality, we simply bring who we are, what we have, where we are. At times that may be grand; at times that may be very little. In every case, it is the gesture itself- the practice- that shapes the character of the encounter, that shapes the character of the participants, of the story of grace that is the essence of the moment.”
We simply bring who we are, what we have, where we are. That is how we practice grace. That is hospitality.
And as Arthur Sutherland states, “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” But it is not always easy. Welcoming another requires attention to the other. It often means setting aside our discomfort for how one may be different or strange to us and meeting her or him as they are. Being an agent of God’s hospitality makes Christ’s presence known, for as Matthew reminds us, when two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is present there as well.
How do we do it here at Northminster? Help me with me sermon here….
What is the “little cup of cold water” that we offer to others?
-Serving as greeters.
-Making sure our building is accessible for all people.
-Food for the food cart.
-Offering listening devices for those who cannot hear as well.
-Having a conversation with a child.
I hope we can continue to build this list. Because there are so many in need of a cool cup of water.
And we shouldn’t just wait for thirsty people to show up on our doorstep. Remember that this text is set in the context of Jesus sending the disciples out on a mission. “There’s a bit of irony in the necessity to go from being hospitable where we are now to also understanding ourselves as sent, as on the move. Because Jesus calls us together into the church, but more importantly sends us back out again.
No one reminds us more eloquently than Barbara Brown Taylor that we are not “consumers” but “providers of God’s love”:
“In a world that can be hard and scary sometimes,
it is tempting to think of the church as a hideout,
the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune.
As we repeat our favorite stories and eat the food that has been prepared for us,
it is tempting to think of ourselves as consumers of God’s love,
chosen people who have been given more good gifts than we can open at one sitting:
healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection.
Then one day the Holy Spirit comes knocking at the door,
disturbing our members-only meeting and reminding us that it is time to share” (Katie Huey).
May God continue to open
and, indeed, our very lives
to the strangers among us.
And may God also send us out, so that we might be among strangers. And may we truly welcome all in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.