Extending Welcome, A Sermon by the Rev. Nancy Vogele

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A.G. Vogele on Sunday, July 2, 2017, Fourth Sunday after Penteost.    Readings:  Matthew 10:24-39, Jeremiah 20:7-13

We have not one but three welcome signs at our house: one in English, one in Swahili, and one in Gaelic.  We want people to know that they are welcome.  Yesterday, I also spent a lot of time weeding along the edge of the gardens leading to our front door because I think it’s important that it feels welcoming.  We rarely use the front door during the summer but guests do and I really want them to feel welcomed into our home.

Think about what you do to try to make people feel welcome.
And what others have done to make you feel really welcomed.
Or the times you have felt downright unwelcome.

I was reading about one pastor who used to do workshops around the country on “worship, preaching and evangelism.”  And he would always distribute the results of a survey of people who had recently joined a congregation. The survey gave 48 potential reasons why people might join a particular congregation and those new church members were to rank them.([1])

The number two factor in joining a church was “Because members made me feel welcomed when I attended.”   It was second only to “Because of what the pastor was like as a person.”

Besides the character of the pastor, the power of welcoming by the members of that congregation was crucial to their joining that church.  It was more important than the power of preaching by the preacher (which came in at #6).  A church thrives or withers on the quality of their genuine welcome.

Scripture is full of commands to be welcoming.  And scripture reminds us that when you welcome someone or provide them hospitality, that act has deep relational implications.  For example,

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)

Welcoming one another glorifies God – it is a form of worship.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)

You are kind because you have been shown kindness.  You forgive because you have been forgiven.   You welcome others because you know what it’s like to be welcomed – what it feels like to receive a warm welcome…or not.

The Israelites were initially welcomed by the Egyptian Pharaoh when Joseph was one of his head officials. But scripture says, “Then there arose a pharaoh that knew not Joseph…” (Exodus 1:8) and the Israelites were, all of a sudden, looked at with disdain and suspicion.  And they were enslaved.  Remember how that felt, God said, and do the opposite:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 22:21)

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19).

As in this morning’s Gospel lesson, when you welcome someone, you are welcoming more than just that person. Jesus says that whoever welcomes his disciples are actually welcoming Jesus himself.

This is powerfully brought home in Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the king separates the sheep from the goats, and says to those on his right,

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)

What we do or don’t do for others, well, that is how we are treating Jesus himself.

The Rule of Saint Benedict written in the early 6th century for monks living communally has a whole chapter on how to receive guests.  It reads, in part:

1 All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). …3 Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love. 4 First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, … 6 All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. 7 By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. … 12 The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, 13 and the abbot with the entire community shall wash their feet. 14 After the washing they will recite this verse: God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Ps 47[48]:10). 15 Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.

As Americans, we are so staunchly individualistic.  Welcoming the stranger doesn’t come naturally – at least not the deeper understanding of our complete interconnectedness to one another and God’s complete interconnectedness to us.  To really get, that when you welcome someone, you are welcoming Christ himself – that takes consistent effort and work over time.

But this insight can come in an instant which then gives the motivation to do the work:

When I was a missionary in Zaire, there was this great Danish family who were Methodist missionaries.  I loved to go and visit them whenever I had some time off because they were good people.  I noticed that every day some of the market women would come by Laila’s door to sell her fruits and vegetables and, every day, whether or not Laila bought anything she’d ask each woman, “Mam, unataka maji ya baridi?”  “Mama, would you like a cup of cold water?”  “Yes, yes,” they would all say with a big smile.  Laila would then go to the refrigerator – and we missionaries were some of the few who had refrigerators – and shed get out a bottle of cold water.  She’d pour a glass and then offer it to this woman who was invariably hot and tired.  She drank the water, savoring every drop and when she was done, she’d say, “Asante, Mama.”  “Thank you, Mama.”

I knew I was witnessing Christ in this market woman and Laila, consciously or not, was welcoming Christ in offering that simple cup of cold water.

All the market women knew that Laila would always give them a cup of cold water and so they came by all the time.  It was no sacrificial gift, for we missionaries had plenty of cold water in the fridge.  But I am ashamed to tell you that, in my two years in Zaire, I saw very few of the missionaries – missionaries! – ever offer a simple cup of cold water to a hot and tired Zairean.

But for those who did – and for all who do, we receive great rewards, don’t we? – rewards of friendship, rewards of deepening faith, rewards of hearts full of gratitude.

The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Hebrew Scriptures and was a sign of that community’s faithfulness to God. You see, when a traveler came to town, they waited by the well, and it was incumbent upon the townspeople to house and feed the visitor for the night.

Of course, these travelers were rarely family. These were strangers – people unknown to the community. They were aliens, often foreigners, people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, different gods. Opening one’s home was risky. Today [given our cry for security] we’d describe such a thing as out and out foolish. As Ana Maria Pineda [a Catholic nun and professor at Santa Clara University] reminds us, “Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger.” But such hospitality was central to the Hebrew identity. The risk did not define the people; their hospitality did, for they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God. ([2])

On this holiday weekend when we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, we would do well to remember this fact.

On this holiday weekend, I end with a poem about welcome by Emma Lazarus:

“The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

[1] The “seven highest ranked reasons for joining” were:

1) 2.95 Because of what the pastor was like as a person.
2) 2.84 Because members made me feel welcomed when I attended.
3) 2.78 Because it helped me in my attempt to live a Christian life.
4) 2.68 Because I especially like the worship services.
5) 2.63 Because it was a place where my children could receive good religious education.
6) 2.56 Because the pastor preaches good sermons.
7) 2.53 Because I felt that something was missing in my life.

[2] “The Art of Welcome,” The Rev. Dr. Trace Haythorn, President of the Fund for Theological Education in Atlanta, Georgia, June 29, 2008 (http://day1.org/1101-the_art_of_welcome).

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