by B.R. Mitchell
Matthew 10:40-42 & Romans 6: 12-23
This church has welcomed me. Thank you all for your support these past few years. I could not have afforded Seminary if it weren’t for this church. And Seminary has been so wonderful for me. I just love it. Thank you for the many opportunities you’ve given me to preach and give children’s messages. Thank you for your prayers and kindnesses during my cancer treatments – your visits, meals, cards and gifts were so welcome! I thank God for this church and each one of you! You have made me feel welcomed!
You noticed in our gospel reading how Jesus uses the word “welcome” over and over – 6 times in just two verses! The word welcome as used here means, to receive warmly and kindly into one’s house. It is not a begrudging welcome, but one filled with kindness and compassion. “The ones welcoming you, welcome me. And the ones welcoming me, welcome the One who sent me.” And that warm welcome is what you, Holy Trinity, have done for me.
This word “welcome” means there is some kind of relationship between the subject and the one the subject is acting upon. It’s not just a “I’m welcoming you whether you want it or not.” That is just a power move. The one who is being welcome must allow the welcoming. There is a mutual participation involved in the welcome. And I believe both the subject and the one the subject is acting upon are changed in some small or large way in this event.
I didn’t know my next door neighbors very well. Their young boys had played a few times with my kids. I wanted to welcome them but wasn’t sure how. Then, one evening, they had a violent, domestic fight. I heard screaming and I ran to the window. I saw a man beating a woman in the driveway. I didn’t know what to do. If I went out there, I would be involved. Then I saw the two small boys crying loudly in the driveway. I knew I had to go. I asked if I could keep the two small boys while the police sorted out the details. The two boys were very scared and couldn’t concentrate on the story I was reading them. So I asked if they would like me to pray for them and their mom and dad. After my prayer, I told them that they could pray to God if they ever felt scared or worried. The 7 year old said, “You mean – God listens to children???” I said, “YES – God especially listens to children.” He stared at me – shocked and said: “He DOES?!” The amazement of those two small scared boys, changed me. I think by welcoming them, I helped their night be a little less scary and they blessed my night by opening and touching my heart.
In the second verse, Jesus describes how those welcoming a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet. Three times the words, “in the name of” are mentioned. This means “in the category of” or “in this capacity” – If you give one of these little ones a cup of cool water – under the category that you belong to Christ – in your capacity as a follower of Christ – you will not lose your reward. In other words – Christ is the reason we are able to act. We are claimed by Christ. We are his sheep. He is our shepherd. It is in this capacity that we are called to welcome one another.
One of my favorite stories is in Luke 15 – the heart of Luke’s gospel. The Pharisees are grumbling and complaining and grumbling and complaining – it’s come to define them – this grumbling and complaining. And here is what they are mad about: Jesus is welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Greek uses the same exact word for welcome – a word meaning Jesus is gladly receiving with mutual participation – these sinners. The Pharisees ask Jesus why he is always welcoming and eating with sinners. Jesus tells the Pharisees the parable of the lost sheep. He does not deny that those he is eating with are sinners (he doesn’t try to say “Oh, they aren’t so bad…) but he says how he has come to seek and save those who are lost – those who are bad off!
You remember the parable he tells them – how the shepherd is going out looking this way and that way until he finds the lost sheep – but his looking doesn’t depend on his finding the sheep. He will look no matter what – whether he finds him or not. Some folks may not want to be found, but God keeps looking! God desires to scoop us up like a little lost lamb and throw us over his shoulders and carry us. We can’t do it on our own – but God won’t do it without us. That’s mutual participation. We must not forget WHOSE we are. It is in that capacity, as God’s sheep, that we welcome others.
This idea of “whose we are” is also found in our reading from Romans. Paul is writing to those joined to Christ in Rome. He is welcoming them and hoping they will welcome him on his upcoming visit. He hasn’t met them yet and he isn’t writing to them because of a problem. Because of this, we really get a glimpse into what was driving Paul’s heart – GRACE – grace drives Paul’s heart! He tells them they are not under the law but under grace. As you know, Paul had been a devout Jew and he knew the law and he followed the law. Then on the road to Damascus, he met Jesus. His life was changed. And it’s not that he now he finds fault in the law…its just that he sees how the law has limitations. It can limit harmful things and keep order. But it can’t create something. It can’t make things new. When my neighbors had the huge domestic fight, and the police came to my neighbor’s house, all the police could do was limit the harm. They couldn’t even make the woman being beaten file charges. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Romans 8:3a).
Here in our reading from Romans, Paul says that while you used to be slaves to sin, now you are freed from sin and slaves to righteousness. We are not what we once were. We are in a new “category”. We are children of God – his sheep and it is in this capacity that we are to welcome others.
One of my professors at Seminary, Dr. Brisson, says that we are called to join our heart to God’s heart. And what does God have a heart for? –the little sparrows – all of creation – us – the sheep. Six months ago, I went back to school after going through aggressive cancer treatments. My principal put me in a really tough class. The previous teacher had left in the middle of the year and the class was such a mess – Literally!! Things were spilling out of their desks – there was no order or routine – the kids just got up and walked around the room while I was teaching, got into my desk, threw erasers when I turned my back, hit each other, would get into yelling matches with one another – “You got ugly, ratty tights” one girl yelled and the other girl yelled back “Well at least my parents aren’t from Africa.” I was shocked and appalled. Their test scores had gone way down from the beginning of the year. All they wanted to do was fight, laugh, write mean, vulgar notes, and play video games on their chrome books. I had prepared lessons and we hadn’t done anything – all day! After that first day, on my car ride home, I called my principal – practically in tears and told her I couldn’t do it – I said, “I don’t know if there is hope for this class.”. She reassured me and promised to support me. In spite of her words, that night, I prayed – hard. I was “at then end of myself”. I felt like a lost sheep! I knew I could not do it. I needed God. So I prayed but this time I prayed with complete openness to God’s voice and will for my life. I asked God to tell me who I was. And then I waited and I heard God’s voice – “You are my child.” I am a child of God! And then I prayed that God would help me to love those little lost sheep.
Something changed in me the next day at school. I saw how wounded these children were. I saw how bored some looked. I saw how scared some looked from bullying that had been going on. I saw one boy keep repeating how dumb he was at reading. I was determined to do whatever it took to teach those kids and love those kids. This was not a one-time decision. And I failed many many times in the following months. I began with cleaning the room and their desks. I bought them all water bottles at the dollar store so they didn’t have to get up all the time to get drinks and wander around the room causing mischief. I carried around a clipboard and checked their behavior constantly. I bought them apples or crackers for snack because most of them were hungry. I pushed them in their studies. And I lost my temper many times – the constant vigilance was hard and it wore me out! But they needed someone to be consistent and steadfast. There is a Hebrew word found many times in the Old Testament that I just love: hesed – it means a steadfast kindness. It is kindness that doesn’t quit – it is not random kindness – but it’s consistent – a kindness that is revelatory – it reveals the character. It means – you hafta know the person. I had to put in time getting to know my students and letting them know me so I could see what they needed. The changes were slow going. I got discouraged often and I wanted to quit many times. Slowly but surely, the class began to change. Their scores started to go up. In May, I heard th boy (who had kept saying how horrible and dumb he was at reading and how much he hated it) I heard him say to his friend “Now I’m smart at math AND reading!” One day, as I walked my class to the cafeteria, we heard another 3rd grade teacher loudly scolding her whole class for misbehaving in the hallway. Then, I overheard one of my students whisper to another of my students, “We used be like that. But now were not.” It made my heart soar! They were not what they once were. They had changed!!! I had changed. Welcoming one another changes everyone involved. They had become new. That’s what Paul is telling those in Rome- you are not bound to sin any longer – you are not what you once were! And neither are we. God has changed our status – we are living under grace. And because of that, we can welcome one another. Amen.