Text: Matthew 10:40-42
As I read the New Testament it appears from all those who knew Jesus, wrote about him, or heard about him from someone else, there were very few things more important in his life than developing and practicing a theology of welcome. I would go so far as to say that above all of Jesus’ theological presuppositions, it is a theology of welcome or hospitality that most clearly defines his mission and ministry. Many of the narratives found in each of the four gospels center around Jesus’ teachings about what it means to welcome someone, to include them, to show hospitality. Before there was healing, there was a welcome. Before a miracle, there was a welcome. He welcomed sinners and outcasts to join him at the table to eat. He welcomed the little children, those considered by the culture to be invisible, to come to him. And he welcomed the women in his life, also a cultural boundary not to be crossed, to sit with him and discuss things of importance.
But it’s not just the Second Testament or Jesus that emphasizes the importance of offering welcome and showing hospitality. The theme of welcome and hospitality is woven throughout the biblical narrative like an unbreakable thread that holds together people of faith from generation to generation. Beginning in the first book of the Bible as God appeared to Abraham by the oaks at Mamre, our faith story starts shaping a theology of welcome. There in Genesis 18 as God passed by Abraham’s tent, Abraham welcomed the stranger with the words, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves…” A theology of welcome rooted in small gestures.
In Exodus this theme of welcome and hospitality continues as it looks inward. In chapter 23 we read, “You shall not oppress a resident stranger, you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” At some point in time, each of us has been the one looking for welcome. And we are reminded in Exodus of what it feels like to need words and gestures of welcome, for “we all have been the stranger.”
From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical narrative continues to build a theology of welcome.
Isaiah 58 – Is not this the fast that I choose:…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Hebrew 13 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels without knowing it.
I Peter 4 – Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.
Acts 28 – Paul has arrived on the island of Malta and describes his welcome: “The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it.
A few chapters over in Romans 12 we read: Let love be genuine…love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality/welcome to strangers.
And Matthew, in chapter 10 of his gospel, couldn’t be clearer with his words as he conveys a teaching of Jesus: “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 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 passage can seem kind of bland compared to some of the other texts that we often read on Sunday mornings. For example, take today’s lectionary selections. For today, I had the choice of this text in Matthew or the story from Genesis 22 where Abraham is given the command from God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Now you may be thinking, “Umm, Nancy chose the easy text.” And I’ll give you some room for that thinking because to break down the story of a father’s willingness to sacrifice his child is extremely complicated. And when you throw in that it was at God’s command, it is even more complicated. But here’s the thing about comparing biblical texts based on how hard one thinks they are to explain. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is definitely problematic and complex; it is hard to place that story in our twenty-first century context when thinking about God or faith. But when you think about what it means to actually practice a theology of welcome in the twenty-first century, well, that task can be just as daunting. In a culture that steers us toward likeness and sameness; that can isolate us into categories of race, gender, sexual orientation and age; that defines us in groups of political preferences, social status, and economic standing practicing a theology of welcome can be just as challenging and arduous as trying to explain a father sacrificing his son at God’s command.
So, what will it take for us, the church, to construct and practice an authentic theology of welcome? The first thing it will take is for us to reaffirm that little things matter—that small gestures of kindness and welcome are deeply remembered. We’ve become so oriented in our society to believing that we have to be heroic, that we have to make grand gestures, and that more is better and we have forgotten that little gestures of kindness and welcome make the biggest difference in the lives of others. Listen again to our text. Jesus says, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” One theologian writes, “What a little thing…to give a cup of cold water. Jesus emphasizes the same by his use of the word ‘even.’ We often imagine discipleship as requiring huge sacrifice or entailing great feats, and sometimes that is exactly what discipleship comes to. But at other times, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without a car.”
Discipleship doesn’t have to be heroic. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.
First and foremost, a theology of welcome is grounded in small gestures that tend to the relationships in our lives. But that’s only one part. A theology of welcome is also grounded in the small gestures that we make toward the strangers in our lives. Remember all of those texts from Exodus and Leviticus and Isaiah about welcoming and offering hospitality to the stranger. A true theology of welcome invites, without boundaries, those who are considered to be strangers in our midst—those who are different from us; who look different, think different, and who believe differently. The woman or man just released from prison who needs a new start. The immigrant who needs a place of safety. The gay teen whose parents have just thrown them out of their home. The child whose only parent is an addict. These are the ones, Jesus tells us, who we are to welcome and offer hospitality. It sounds simple and yet it can feel so complicated. Speaking to the stranger sitting beside you or in front of you or behind you in worship is not easy for everyone. Getting up and walking across the room to sit with someone who is sitting alone can be uncomfortable. Stepping away from a conversation with a trusted friend to speak to a visitor is hard to do. Listening, truly listening to someone whom you disagree with can be frustrating. Practicing a theology of welcome can stretch us all. Yet, developing a theology of welcome that offers genuine hospitality is paramount for this church and every place that would call themselves a church. If we don’t practice a theology of welcome, we exclude the Christ that welcomed all. If we gather based on outer appearances or outer behaviors, we are excluding the Christ who ate with tax collectors and sinners. If we see the homeless simply as poor people, we could be in danger of being complacent with the structures of injustice in our society. Being a welcoming people can be uncomfortable or it can be uncomfortably transforming—empowering us to be the radically welcoming community that Jesus taught us to be.
Time and again, when I meet with new people coming to our church they will often say to me, “Pullen is a welcoming place.” And I ask, “What makes you say that?” And here is what I often hear. “Your church is the first church I have attended as a visitor in which someone actually spoke to me.” Or I’ll hear, “The people here are so friendly. People actually remembered my name.” Or someone will tell me a story about how a Pullen person reached out to them to invite them to a church or non-church event.
And occasionally, someone will say to me, “This is a hard church when it comes to getting to know people and finding a group. Do you have any suggestions?”
It really is the little things—the small gestures—that matter. Saying hello. Smiling at the unfamiliar face sitting beside you. Offering a hug when passing the peace. Helping someone find where a Sunday school class meets. Remembering someone’s name. Asking that person you’ve noticed in worship for the past month but haven’t formally met to Sunday lunch. Even, giving a cup of cold water.
There are so many theologies for the church today to be thinking about and constructing—a theology of the cross, forgiveness, sin, resurrection, relational theology, and eco-theology. And all are important. AND, one could say that unless we construct and practice a theology of welcome as being vital to the twenty-first church there will be no need for all the other theologies.