This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 2. The gospel reading was Matthew 10:40-42.
So, Jesus talks a lot about welcoming here. Welcoming is certainly a topic that we’ve been discussing at Prince of Peace a lot over the past few months, as we voted on whether or not to adopt a particular welcoming statement or not. When I saw that this was the assigned gospel text for today in our three-year lectionary, I was not completely thrilled. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about welcoming yet. Perhaps that was a topic best put to bed for a while. But the Holy Spirit seems to have had different plans. Besides, it’s not like the topic hasn’t come up since the vote.
Since the vote, I have heard some say that we are already a welcoming congregation, and we will continue to be. Of course, as I like to remind people, those of us within the church actually have no ability to say whether we’re welcoming or not. Only visitors can tell us that. And in the conversations I’ve had with visitors over the past few years, I can tell you that yes, we are perceived by most as a very welcoming church.
Since the vote, I have also heard some say that they no longer feel welcome here. I have heard others say that they would not have felt welcome here had the vote gone the other way. I won’t deny any of these people their feelings, but I’m not going to go any further with what I’ve heard from others. That should be in the context of a conversation, not a sermon.
What I will focus on instead is what “welcoming” means. I think it means recognizing someone else as truly human. Recognizing someone else’s humanity as real. Recognizing someone else as a complete person, complete with their dreams, their fears, their joys, their sins, their own particular need for God’s grace, their own particular way Christ’s light shines within. Someone who is just as human as you are, just as important, because just like you, they are also God’s child. I think it means welcoming people just as they are. Not fitting them into our own worldview, but instead opening up and learning about their worldview, which just might be as valid as ours. Listening to them, and embracing their humanity, even if you don’t agree with what you hear. I think that’s what welcoming means.
And that is not easy. It is not how our culture tells us to act. Our culture tells us that there is us and them. But Jesus says that is a lie. There is no “them.” But boy is that hard to remember. And boy is it hard to act on.
I’m going to tell you a story of when I succeeded in welcoming someone this way. Not because I’m especially good at it; I’m not. For every time I’ve succeeded, I could share ten stories of when I failed. But I’ll tell you this for two reasons: to show you that it is possible. And also, to show you the reward I received.
It was the summer of 2003, and I was in Atlanta leading a group of sixteen teenagers and adults at the ELCA National Youth Gathering. As we walked from our hotel to the conference center each day, we encountered many homeless people. I tried to set a good example for our group. You know, teach them the importance of helping the helpless. I gave to everyone who asked. I was proud of every dollar I gave these street people. I say “people,” but I really didn’t see them as people, but rather as a teaching tool for our youth. But then on Wednesday evening, our group was going to have a special dinner at the Hard Rock Café. I got to the restaurant early, and sat down outside. A homeless man made eye contact with me and said, “Can I draw you?” He had a paper and a pencil in his hand. I didn’t want to get caught in a conversation with him. I wanted to give the guy a dollar, and move on. But I didn’t see an escape plan. So I said, “Sure.” And he sat next to me, and started to draw. And then we started to talk. And I found out a lot about him. His name was Jerry. He came from Ohio, and had lost his job a few months ago. He moved to Atlanta, looking for work, but he couldn’t find any. So he sold his possessions to survive, and then he turned to a gift he had, the gift of drawing. He was buying his meals by drawing people like this. We sat there for 45 minutes, talking as he drew. The rest of my group arrived, and they were fascinated by this artist.
I received one of my most cherished decorations, and I paid him for it, a lot more than a dollar. Jerry showed me how he viewed me. And I saw him for who he was, not a helpless, worthless bum, but Jerry, Jerry the artist, Jerry from Ohio. Whenever I look at this picture, I see myself how Jerry saw me, and I see who the Holy Spirit is calling me to be. The Holy Spirit is calling me to be someone who sees all of God’s children as God’s children, as truly human people. This picture was my reward for actually welcoming Jerry into my life.
Jesus says that there is a reward for welcoming people. From my experience, I think the reward is something like this. You get to see someone in a new way, and you get to see yourself in a new way. The way God sees each of you. You get to see Christ living inside you, and you get to see Christ living in the other person. Just as our purpose statement says, “We will seek and serve Christ in all people.”
Four weeks ago, we declined the opportunity to add a welcoming statement to that purpose statement. Four weeks ago, we decided not to put a welcoming statement on paper, not to let a piece of paper do our welcoming for us. And in a way, I think that’s a really good thing. Because it means that you are our welcoming statement. You are the one who determines whether someone who walks in that door is welcome or not. You are the one who decides whether to look for their true humanity or not, whether to seek Christ within them or not. And you are the one who will receive the reward for that welcome.
And it’s not just about worship on a Sunday morning or Saturday evening. The church is not this building, or one hour. The church is us, the disciples of Christ, going about our daily lives throughout the week. You are a welcoming statement in every place you go, in every encounter you have. You have the opportunity to welcome every person you meet. You have the opportunity to receive the reward Jesus spoke of. So go, be that welcoming statement. Receive your reward. See each other, and yourselves, the way God sees you.