The tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is filled with the second largest teachings of Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount. In this chapter Jesus is sending out the disciples. He gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” (v.1) This is Jesus’ test run with the disciples. He is sending them out not to the world, like he does in last week’s text which is at the very end of Matthew’s gospel, but to only the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He is sending out Jews to tell the good news among the Jews. He tells them to go out there “proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (v.7,8) They are to do this without pay and not take anything with them. This is shaping up to be a Biblical episode of Man vs. Wild.
He then warns them about what they will experience. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (v.16) It is going to be rough out there. People will persecute you, make fun of you, flog you, imprison you, and claim you are preaching blasphemy. This is a great job description isn’t? What I would like you to do is go out to be in with the people you are comfortable with and tell them the good news, that the kingdom of heaven has come near. They won’t like you and they will reject you but you are doing this in God’s name so it will be okay. How many people would sign up for that job?
It is like the story of a person whose job as a supervisor was to interview candidates for an administrative assistant position. Here is how she told the story, “We scheduled a full day of screenings. Following a very wet and rainy night, some areas of our office roof were leaking and maintenance had a couple of buckets in the hallway. Not a great first impression, but hey, it was a quaint old office building. Each applicant had to complete a battery of written tests.
As one candidate dutifully sat at a desk outside my office, I heard a “crack,” a “swoosh” and then a huge splash. The ceiling tile just above the candidate had collapsed under the weight of the rain water and drenched her. Wet but unharmed, the experience clearly dampened her spirits and her prized interview suit. She immediately informed me that she was no longer interested in the job.”
That might have been how the disciples were feeling when they heard what Jesus was sending them out to do. Then Jesus gets to the verses we have today. It is in these three verses that Jesus talks about how these disciples should be welcomed by those they come in contact with. As the readers and listeners of this private conversation it can be hard to glean much from this short text, yet we do get an image of what hospitality should look like.
Boxes, boxes and more boxes. That is what I saw as I helped out some friends who were moving this week. Tuesday is the official “move day” in the WNCC. What this means is pastors and their families all shuffle on Tuesday. Those moving out of the parsonage are to be out by the noon and the new pastoral family moves in about three that afternoon. This quick three hour turn around happens in a blur and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for parsonage committees to get things done. Yet is there really any other way to move people in and out all at the same time?
I have been a part of the official move day once, when we moved here Tuesday June 26th, 2007. That day this guy named Bobby Bullin showed up with a large truck covered in little plastic balls. We and some fellow members from Hawthorne Land UMC packed up the van and headed out in the morning. We stopped for lunch and took a slow ride up 85 to Thomasville, NC. When we arrived there was a group of energetic movers ready to help us move our stuff into our beautiful new home.
It is something unique to pastors in the UM churches. The first time you meet some of your laity, those you will be ministering to and with for the next however many years is in the hot June sun in front of your new home. You have to start those first conversations and remembering people’s names while they pick up a box of your high school yearbooks or carefully place your wedding china on the floor of the dining room. Nowhere else does this unique interaction happen then in the UM Church. There you have this sea of new faces looking at you, as their new pastor, and seeing what you are all about while carrying all your stuff inside your new house. It is an awkward kind of moment to say the least.
What is also interesting is how people introduce themselves to you for the very first time. One gentleman in my last church came up to me during the tour of the sanctuary on my first visit there and told me his name and then said, “I’m the oldest rat in the barn.” How are you supposed to take that? Does this mean that he simply the oldest member of the church who likes to use old country phrases? Does this mean this church is full of rats and he is the leader who will try to overrun you? How do you take that statement? What do you do with it? I simply smiled, shook his hand, and walked away to say hello to the next person I met.
When I first met Norm he met the moving truck at the parsonage. He came up to me and shook my hand. Miles laughed when he saw this and said, “don’t worry about him, he’s no good. He will probably be on his phone this whole time.” As we unpacked the truck, sure enough, Norm received probably three phone calls and spent most of his time in the backyard talking while we sweated in the June sun. Some first glances you leave wondering what to think, others you realize what you see is what you are going to get.
In a district Congregational Development meeting someone said, “I have never met a church that doesn’t think it is friendly.” I am sure that this is true and that every church thinks, on some level, it is friendly. Being friendly is easy. You can offer kind smiles and a handshake. You can greet people and say hello. Friendly is easy, what is hard is being welcoming.
Jesus in this passage is not talking about being friendly. The Greek word that Matthew uses here means much for than that. The word is dechomai (dack o my). What this word means is to receive, to take with the hand, to grant access to, to receive hospitality, not to refuse friendship, or to receive favorably. Many of the English translations use the word “welcome” in these verses. Some use receive or accept. But anyway you translate it the word moves way beyond just being friendly.
To be welcoming means that we are being open to a visitor, a new arrival. Sometimes we are excited to do this. When a new baby arrives we greet that new human with open arms and we get ourselves ready for the dramatic change it will have on our life. Nothing will be the same for the parents, her siblings, and even the extended family. But the family welcomes this new addition anyway because they are willing to do whatever it takes to make this child feel welcomed to the world and their family.
A single man moved to a new city to start his new job after graduating from college. He was one of those rare exceptions that kept practicing his faith through college. He wanted to find a congregation in this new place where he could continue to grow in his faith. He visited a few congregations in his new neighborhood. After three weeks of this ‘church shopping’ he was starting to feel uncomfortable as he started to notice a trend. When he would arrive for the service he was always greeted by people at the front door. They would do quick small talk and welcome him to the worship service. During the service a few people would say hi but others would shoot him dirty looks. An older lady in her mid eighties wouldn’t stop starring at him during the hymns. There were young families that would give him the once over as well, shielding their children from him during the passing of the peace. By the third week he wanted to go to the next church and wear a sign around his neck, “I’m not here for your children. I’m here to worship God.”
Any time we have new people come and join our midst we look with suspicion. People judge them by the clothes they wear, the car they drive, the way the carry themselves. Here is another story of someone not being accepted. This happened in a large and popular church in Charlotte with four locations around the city. Here is the news story on this incident.
“The church focuses on worship, not on ministries.” Ouch that hurt! Is that what being Church is really about? Jesus sent the disciples out not to do worship but to heal, preach, and teach. We are asked to be welcoming to all those proclaiming the gospel message. From those who are new to the faith, to those who praise God in the only ways they know how. We are to welcome all, ALL in, because we are all children of God who were wonderfully and beautifully made in God’s image.
To be welcoming is to be willing to accept change. It is welcoming in the stranger in order for their story to become our own. The churches that gave bad looks to the young, single man, missed out on an opportunity. The church who sent the special needs family away, who was willing to start a ministry!!!,missed out on much more. Jesus said, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me.” Are we practicing the type of welcoming Jesus is talking about here? The type that opens us up to be transformed by the people we embrace in our lives? When we see a family with a special needs child, or a young man seeking a closer walk with God, and we truly welcome them into our family of faith, we welcome God. When we move beyond a friendly greeting and welcome them into every aspect of what it means to be a part of this community, we welcome Jesus into our lives. It is then that we are able to say with all honesty and truth, You’re Welcomed.
And all God’s people said…Amen.