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37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”
I want to talk this morning about hospitality, which is one of those buzzwords we throw around a lot in the church, and it sounds lovely, like we’re offering a full-service experience here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. But hospitality is more than a buzz word, more than a simple offering of a cold cup of water.
I was doing some reading this week and I came across something I want to share with you from the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary here in Decatur. And she talks about a student who serves at the Open Door Community, which is an organization we’ve been involved with here at North Decatur for probably thirty years. So I thought I would share it this morning.
She says, “The Open Door is a community of hospitality that serves the homeless with meals, clothes, showers, and other services that are hard to come by, on the street. But the main thing The Open Door does is to offer these things in a way that is more like a family than an assembly line, and in that respect, it gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on how we participate in ministries of hospitality: how we offer, or receive, that cup of cold water.[Now, there are a slew of churches and organizations] in Atlanta who serve meals to the homeless—thousands of meals, every day. There’s nothing wrong with this, but these organizations often divide the giver and receiver by placing a physical barrier between them: the buffet table. The only encounter between the parties is the moment when the server’s spoon touches the diner’s plate; there is hardly any need for touch, talk, or even eye contact. One could feasibly stand on either side of this barrier all day long, and never communicate with another soul.Breakfast at the Open Door is different. There are only 120 tickets available each morning. At 6:00 a.m., the door opens, and the person standing at the door begins calling numbers. As your number is called, you enter the dining room and sit family style. Servers bring platters of food, and then they bring refills, as many as you like. There is space and time for conversation, and because the same faces tend to show up day after day, week after week, friendships form. These kinds of relationships are possible because the space is created for them. The Open Door is committed to offering the cup of cold water, yes—but it has also thought long and hard about how to offer it. It may not sound all that practical, but they have decided that offering a smaller number of cups around a table is preferable to offering a thousand cups in a line.”
So this is Dalton talking now, and I will be honest; mostly I like this story because much of what the Open Door does is because of your generosity, as there’s a group here that gets together each month and sits around the table making sandwiches for the Open Door. And so, North Decatur, you already understand that one of the fundamental themes of scripture is that hospitality matters. The work of God cannot just be measured in the number of cups of cold water you offer, but in the hospitality you offer in Jesus’ name. This is why Jesus says, in more than one place in the Gospel of Matthew, that whenever you welcome the stranger, you welcome Jesus.
Which brings us to the cup of cold water. You can go through the motions of hospitality, but unless you are offering hospitality in the spirit God calls you to offer it, unless you are actually welcoming rather than offering lip service to the new people you meet, even if they drive you crazy, the Gospel says, you aren’t worthy of the reward of Jesus Christ.
So rather than talking about the great gifts of hospitality, about how wonderful it is to welcome new people, about how fabulous it makes you feel to invite new people into the fellowship, let’s get real. Hospitality stinks. More often than not, welcoming people is really hard, because the people we are called to welcome are often people way different than we are. I mean, if I were invited to author the people who walked through the door, they’d all look and act and believe like me, and maybe that sounds like hell to you, but it sounds awfully nice to me. But then there’s the point, if everybody looked like us, we’d all look the same, too, and we’d miss out on a whole number of dimensions of what it means to be God’s church made in God’s image.
Hospitality is hard, and that’s part of why Jesus talks about it so much, why there is such reward associated with it. So rather than talking about hospitality as some pie-in-the-sky thing, let’s get real and talk about the three people Jesus calls us to welcome. It would be helpful, if you’d like, to turn to your Bible at this point as we’re going to be looking at this scripture a little more in depth. Jesus specifically names three people to whom we are to extend hospitality, and none of them is particularly easy to welcome.
The first person that Jesus wants us to welcome is the prophet. He says that whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, which sounds great until you remember that a prophet is not somebody on late night television who you can call now for a free tarot card reading. A Biblical prophet doesn’t predict the future, at least not in the way we’d like. Rather than saying that, oh, this card means that you’re going to come into great wealth, a prophet says, unless you change your ways, you are going to have big trouble. That’s the person Jesus wants us to welcome, a prophet, a person who predicts big trouble for us if we don’t change our ways.
Now, let me ask you this. If we had somebody walk in the back doors of the church, right in the middle of the service, who stood in the aisle and wouldn’t leave until he or she had the chance to tell us that we’ve got to change or the church is in trouble, how would you feel about that? Would you feel particularly hospitable? Or would you call the police? I’m not saying we want disorder in the church. I am just saying that if we want to do as Jesus says, we’ve got to remember that the kind of people we are supposed to welcome are the kind of people who walk in and tell us what we are doing wrong, which is not exactly the most fun thing in the whole world. But if we can just welcome and listen, we might just hear a word from God, which is the point, right?
OK, the second person that Jesus wants us to welcome is the person who is righteous. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous. And listen, if you thought it was hard to welcome the prophet, just try spending quality time with a righteous person. Maybe it is just me, but righteous people drive me crazy. You know me, I’m all about authenticity, being who you are, not getting caught up in being holier than thou, but some people really are righteous. They are more generous than I am with the church, they are better about keeping their language in check while they are in traffic, they are more successful at bringing people together and doing the work of God in the world and raising their families and saving the whales, and I will be honest, it drives me crazy! And you know why it drives me crazy? It’s jealousy, of course. As much as I want to pretend it’s all about those righteous people being holier than thou, it’s really about my own sense of inadequacy, about my own jealousy towards people who seem to have it all together. I can blame it on other people all day long, but at the end of the day, it’s about me and my jealousy towards people who seem to have it all together.
It is not as easy as it sounds, to provide hospitality, to welcome those people into our lives. But it is what Jesus calls us to do, and with good reason, because if we can get past the ridiculous jealousy that sometimes rules our lives, we can see that there is much we have to learn about what it means to live in the fullness of God’s love, of God’s call on our lives. To welcome the righteous is to allow them to rub off on us a little bit, to be called to something better, something greater, something bigger, and isn’t that why we are all here anyway?
The third person Jesus wants us to welcome is probably the easiest to agree upon and the hardest to actually do. Jesus says, “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.” He’s talking about the most vulnerable among us, which of course is children. He’s talking about welcoming children. It seems like it would be easy to agree on this, but you’ll note that the church as a whole doesn’t have such a great track record of welcoming children. We hear awful stories of abuse—and some of us have lived these stories—and we understandably recoil. And it is easy to say we want to be the church that welcomes children, at least until the budget cycle rolls around and we’ve got to decide whether children’s ministry gets the money or we fix the sink or we buy ourselves something nice or give the pastor a raise. You understand, these things might all be good in theory, but if they stand in the way of welcoming these little ones, Jesus says later in the Gospel of Matthew, you might as well tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself in the river. Welcoming children is hard, and you’ve heard me talk time and time again about God’s vision for North Decatur as being the church that welcomes and loves children, but we’ve got to do more than just sign up once in a blue moon to help teach or give lip service to it. If we are going to welcome children, we’ve got to welcome these little ones, and we have to do it in such a way that we aren’t putting a barrier between us and the families who need to hear the Gospel, who need help raising their kids. Just like those people who say, we want to give out as many cold cups of water as possible as long as the buffet table keeps us from having to build relationships with the people who are homeless, the church sometimes says of children, we want to advertise that we love kids because it sounds nice, or so that we can rope new people into joining the church. That’s not good enough, because when Jesus talks about welcoming, he really means welcoming. He means focusing on the things that lead children into a journey of faith that can sustain them for their whole lives long. Maybe you don’t particularly love children, but if you want to receive your reward, you’ve just got to get over it, because when we serve children, when we serve the vulnerable, we see a glimpse of the God who so identifies with those who are the least of these that he was willing to die as a criminal on a cross.
So. Those are the three people Jesus calls us to welcome. We’ve got work to do, church, so let me leave you with one final thought. In this passage, there’s actually a fourth person Jesus talks about welcoming. There’s actually a fourth. If you have your Bible out, take a look at what he says in verse 40. He says, “whoever welcomes . . . you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Whoever welcomes . . . you. That’s a helpful reminder, because the three people Jesus calls us to welcome aren’t the easy to truly welcome, but maybe dealing with us isn’t always peaches and cream, and maybe that’s precisely the point. There is no us versus them. The traditional walls that keep us from one another has to come down. The metaphorical buffet table that stands between those of us in this room and everybody else gets turned over by Jesus Christ who reminds us that hospitality is not just any other buzz word. It’s a recognition that we’re all in this together. It’s a call to welcome the stranger, because it is the case that whether they realize it or not, people need Jesus. People need the church. People need us, and we need them.
Whoever welcomes . . . you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. So let us open our hearts to new relationships, new ways of being. Let us open our minds to new expressions of Jesus in new people. And, my God, somebody throw open the doors, because even if it makes practical sense, if it stands between us and other people, it’s not of God. In the name of the one who calls us to welcome one another just like he first welcomed us, Amen, and Amen.