Psalm 13; Matthew 4:40-42

How do you feel welcome?  Every time we enter a space with other human beings in it, whether it is outside, inside a building, or a new group of people, we are greeted in some way.  And each greeting is a little bit different.  The way you are welcomed when you arrive home to your family is probably different than the greeting you get at your work place.  The way we are welcomed by close friends might vary greatly from the way we are welcomed by strangers.  At a store like Sam’s Club you are asked to present a member ID card, while at Wal-Mart you are handed a smiley face sticker.  Someone once told me that the friendliest place on earth had to be the public library because everyone is given a membership card and they aren’t allowed to reject anybody.  Isn’t it interesting how we are welcomed into different spaces in our world? But in truth, there are so many different greetings we experience as we encounter one another.  Greetings of superficial welcome and polite exchange, greetings of rejection or even judgment, as well as greetings of compassionate welcome.

            So, the questions for us today is: how do we, as followers of Christ, welcome people?  If we explore the definition of welcome we find meanings such as ‘receive someone into your house,’ ‘take someone into your arms,’ or even, ‘receive as a guest.’  When used as a verb, welcome always requires hospitality towards another person.  As we look closer, we discover that welcome is more than just an instant reflex to the words “thank you,” welcome is an ACT of compassion and seeking to make another human being feel belonging when they are with us. 

So how do we welcome people into the Church?  And into our lives?  Do we practice welcome in a way that only feels hospitable to people who are already ‘members of the club?’  Or is our practice of welcome inviting to all people regardless of who they are?   Let us keep these questions in our minds as we listen now to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, verses 40-42.  Let us listen for the Word of the Lord:

            “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.”

            This is the Word of the Lord.

                        Thanks be to God.

This passage concludes an extended conversation between Jesus and his followers about discipleship and mission.  Up until verse 40, Jesus is preparing those who are being sent out in his name.  He is warning the disciples about the difficult road ahead, and the fact that they will be vulnerable to the people they encounter along the way.  They are to bring no supplies of their own on their journey; therefore they are going to be dependent upon the generosity of others. 

When we come to this passage, Jesus is shifting, and is now giving instructions to the people who will act as hosts to these traveling disciples.  Jesus tells the people gathered around him that they are responsible for welcoming the disciples into their homes.  But he also goes a step beyond that, not only are his followers asked to welcome the traveling prophets and righteous, but also the ‘little ones.’  Or in other words, anyone who is left vulnerable by society.  And why? Because even when they welcome the littlest child, they welcome Christ himself into their midst.  One scholar describes the scene like this: ““Jesus arrives and says, “Take that love that you have for family, that love for your closest community, and extend it, extend it further and further still.  Welcome in the stranger.  Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand.  Not to change them, but simply because they are God’s too.”  Jesus urges those who are listening to him to welcome, because whether a prophet or a stranger shows up, he or she is a child of God.   Because through the act of this hospitality, the hosts and the guests can be rewarded with the presence of God through connections with one another. 

            Now we might ask ourselves, what does this welcome look like today?  The author of the gospel of Matthew chose to include Jesus’s command to welcome in his writing; therefore it is also addressed to all of us who read it.  But, in a 21st century world where there are few traveling prophets to host directly, how do these instructions translate for us as we seek to welcome people to this part of the body of Christ in downtown Richmond?

Perhaps the place to begin is by letting go.  When we make the decision to practice compassionate welcome, we also decide to let go of our expectations.  After all, we cannot easily open our arms to embrace someone, if those same arms are too busy holding up existing assumptions.   We cannot expect people to change and become just like us.  We cannot expect people to follow the same unspoken rules we do, such as sitting in the same pew every Sunday.  If we are hosting, then we cannot expect anything of our guests.  Welcome is a spiritual discipline because it isn’t easy.  We have to PRACTICE it.  And when we practice genuine welcome, we do so without the expectation that anything will be returned to us.  “We can hope for the reward of experiencing new insights and hear stories of faith that redirect our perceptions.  We can hope that the witness of those we welcome will stimulate our theological and spiritual imaginations so that we become new beings.”  We can hope for all of these things, but we should not welcome solely on the expectation that we will always receive them. Love is not always met with love, but we are still called to give it. 

Another important part of welcome is repentance.  We can ask ourselves; are there behavior patterns that have grown so familiar to us that we are blind to how they get in the way of our welcome?  Are there practices we have that turn people away and make them feel unwelcome?  Part of hospitality is examination.  Examining our own actions to see what we can change in order to signal our willingness to embrace rather than reject.  Repentance then asks us to think more about another person than we do about ourselves.  This is a way of life that moves us beyond personal gain, and leads us to more loving consideration for the people around us. 

Compassion, and care for all of God’s children, is why we welcome in the first place.    In a world where conditions of oppression and violence cause people to cry out, “How long O Lord,”……superficial hospitality is not enough.  It is not enough to wave hello at someone who desperately needs to be embraced and held.  If welcome means literally to ‘take someone into your arms,’ then we are called to figure out how to do that.  How do we embrace people who are told they are not allowed to be in our country because of where they are from?  How do we welcome people who call God by other names and keep different religious practices than we do?  How do we pull people into our arms when they have been traumatized by gun violence in this very city?  How do we welcome people deemed unworthy for health care because they are labeled with ‘pre-existing conditions’?  What does welcome look like when we disagree about politics and policies?  How do we welcome the stranger and the vulnerable?

Here at Second Presbyterian we are having this conversation right now as we discern our building needs and the mission opportunities present through the Capital Campaign.   How might we welcome the stranger who thirsts for Christ, and those who thirst for a cold drink of water?  How do we welcome those who seek a church home, as well as those who seek a safe place to use the bathroom?  What does welcome look like for a life-long member, and the person visiting for the first time?  I know these are not new questions, but if we approach them beginning with Christ’s command to welcome, then perhaps new light will be shed on these questions and help us to find faithful answers. 

I wonder what first made you feel welcome at Second Pres?  Take a moment and think about it, what first welcomed you into this congregation?  What first made you feel that you belonged?  Was it worship?  The music, the liturgy, the preaching or the prayers we share together?  Or perhaps it was the people.  People who opened the door for you and introduced themselves.  Someone to show you where to go in the building or where the coffee was.  Or maybe it was one of the many mission and service opportunities here.  If you volunteered at Walk-In, CARITAS, or Assisting Families of Inmates.  Maybe because you were invited to participate with your gifts, you felt at home.  What was it that made you feel welcome here? 

These are questions I also ponder frequently in my role as campus minister for UKirk at VCU.  One of my goals is to make every single student that shows up at UKirk feel welcome and belonging.  I ask myself, and I work with my advisory board to figure out how to welcome students.  How do I welcome students from campus, all the way over to our location here at Second Presbyterian?  How do I literally welcome them into the building even though I have to keep the doors locked when we meet on Thursday nights for security purposes?  How do I make the space feel like they belong in it, even though the room we meet in might be different next semester?  What does welcome look like to students from all over the country who are away from home and living in a new community?  How can we, as a congregation continue to welcome UKirk Students to our church if they come on Thursday nights, most of us come on Sunday mornings, and our paths hardly ever cross? 

 Friends, as we continue to explore how we welcome people, we might encounter more questions than answers for the time being.  But often, getting the questions right is a more faithful place to start than jumping to conclusions.  It is my hope that as we continue our ministry here in downtown Richmond, that we might look for ways to welcome the stranger and the vulnerable.  And as we do so, remember that the welcome that is needed might change from day to day.  We do not only welcome one time in one way, it is an on-going spiritual practice that we constantly have to examine.  The good news is that when we are welcomed by God, we do not have to check IDs at the door but instead we are welcomed with smiles, endless grace, mercy, and a hospitality that knows no bounds……..and that is the kind of welcome we are called to extend to others.  I’ll leave you with the words of William Goettler, a Dean at Yale Divinity School who says: “Jesus insists that although we might pretend otherwise, we are NOT the gatekeepers of the community of God.  Our work is to welcome, to offer an embrace when embrace is invited, and to give a cup of cool water on a hot summer day.”  Friends, may it be so.  Amen.