Jesus said, “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.” Matthew 10:40-42
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me.’”
In other words, whoever welcomes you welcomes the Lord Himself and whoever welcomes a friend or family member or fellow worker or mother-in-law or next door neighbor or grocery store clerk or barber or the UPS driver or the kid who hit your new car with a soccer ball…and so on and so forth…welcomes God?
Would there ever be an end to the list of those who are welcome? If there is an end to such a list of who is welcome, what does this mean? And if not, well – what does that mean?
The message we hear in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew was important enough to Jesus and to the early church that some variation on this theme of universal welcome shows up in each gospel, and often more than once. Taking a cue from this Gospel directive, an enduring icon of our church has been the sign, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”.
In Matthew’s gospel we also hear, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” and again in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, that speaks about the final judgment, we hear the following, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. For as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’”
Mark includes similar verses.
And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares “Whoever listens to you listens to Me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects Me rejects the one who sent Me.”
The Jesus in John’s gospel declares, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Hm who sent Me.”
In the New Testament record, the bottom line is clear. Inclusion, reciprocity, doing for others what we would have others do for us, and the welcome and embrace of others, even strangers, especially when they come to us in need, is a divine mandate. In other words, it is about all those things it takes to form and to build community by including the stranger, as a neighbor. The neighbor we are to love, as we love ourselves.
Jesus and the early disciples put a high value on welcoming. In welcoming and through acts of radical hospitality the presence of God is affirmed and proclaimed.
Now pause for a moment and consider again all the ugly, hateful, self-protective, self-serving and fear-based words that have filled the air during these past few years and to the present day, that would rally us to division, exclusion, keeping people separated and kicking people out. Consider well this week’s executive order that restricts the issuing of visas that allow foreign nationals to work in the U.S. Consider also the money wasted on the wall at the southern border and this week’s visit to it that only calls renewed attention to its ugly and hateful message. Three billion dollars has already been spent on this unfinished folly, while eleven million children in this nation suffer food scarcity. Consider also the animus that keeps DACA in a state of limbo and not yet fully resolved.
There certainly may be reasons to consider the economic impact or safety issues at play in being generously hospitable and welcoming, but if an inhospitable, exclusive, indifferent and uncaring attitude animates these reasons, then they are most definitely antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality and whose way of being in this world embodied radical welcome. No one is excluded from the divine embrace and Jesus made it so terribly clear that He expects His disciples to place no one beyond their embrace.
An appreciation of gracious hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates back to well before the time of Jesus. Hospitality is a deeply embedded value in the Middle Eastern culture in which the Word became flesh and the Divine Stranger’s pitching His tent among us.
Even now, in that culture, when a stranger enters a Muslim, Christian or Jewish home it is expected that the stranger be received with joy. There exists a strongly held belief that God desires that strangers be welcomed with an eye toward their becoming friends. By engaging a stranger in this way all the Peoples of the Book believe they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do, and in fact, in welcoming God Himself.
A story that Muslims, Christians and Jews share and treasure, is the story from Genesis that finds Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. When he looks up, he sees three men approaching. He hurries to meet them and bows low to the ground. He says, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let me have some water brought, so you may wash your feet and rest. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed”.
Abraham tells Sarah to get three measures of the finest flour, knead it and bake some bread. He runs to the herd and selects a choice, tender calf and has it prepared for a meal that he sets before them. While they ate, he is most attentive to them. Abraham comes to realize, that, in the person of these three strangers, God Himself is visiting Abraham. It is these strangers who tell Abraham that Sarah will conceive a son. Christian tradition has memorialized these three strangers as a prefiguring of the Blessed Trinity.
Where and how do we experience such welcome today?
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”
Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words that would break relationships, words of opposition and repudiation?
Ugly attitudes play themselves out on the public square. In the evening news there are more and more reports about an increase in bullying of all sorts. Children are bullied in school. People of color are bullied by law enforcement officers. Protesters are bullied by the same. The undocumented and asylum seekers are bullied by ICE on behalf of the administration.
Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the One who sent Him?
Next Saturday this nation will celebrate itself. In anticipation of the Fourth of July, is it not an act of grace that this morning gospel lifts up before us its mandate for gracious and generous welcome?
As we celebrate Independence Day, we are being challenged by God’s word to consider well, for the good of the society that we would endeavor to construct, that we are to be about the business of ever forming and conforming the response we make to the different other and to the stranger to what Jesus willed in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent me”
For Christians who happen also to be Americans, the question of the day, growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighborhoods and communities, in our national policies, in our very attitudes?
For we are Christians first, we are citizens of God’s kingdom first, living that faith in an American context of privilege and challenge. We love this country best when we love God first.
Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he very clearly told us to be welcoming and to advance that kingdom priority, in any way we can, in our own context.
Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God.
As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 28, 2020