Word of Welcome

~ Matthew 10:40-42 ~

“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

When you are bone-dry thirsty there is nothing like a cup of cold water. And so, it is not surprising that Scripture is replete with images of a drink of water satisfying spiritual longing. As the Psalmist says, “I thirst for you, O God, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” We read that Jesus comes giving living water that satisfies thirst forever.

Remember that scene from the movie “Ben-Hur”? Judah Ben-Hur has been enslaved by the Romans and is being led away with other slaves to the galley ships. They pass through a little Galilean village for a water break. As the garrison leader commands the soldiers and horses to be served first, the slaves pant with desire for water. One of the village women starts to give Ben-Hur a drink but the garrison leader knocks it away from her. “No water for him,” he commands. Devastated, Ben-Hur falls to the ground and whispers, “God, help me.” Suddenly the music changes to the Jesus theme and the hands of the Carpenter reach down to him with a gourd of water, bringing relief. As Judah Ben-Hur is led away he strains to look back at the one who brought him relief with a cup of cold water. He will remember this day.

Thus, today, we encounter the rather famous words, “whoever gives a cup of cold water…” Of course, what that phrase means is a whole other matter. Or, more precisely, who receives the cup of cold water is not easily determined. Jesus talks about receiving prophets, receiving a righteous person, and giving cold water to “little ones.” Who are the “little ones?” Are they literally little children, as some speculate? Are they the least, the lowly, the non-important people, as others surmise? Or are they someone completely different? For that matter, who is this prophet or this righteous person that Jesus talks about? The fact is scholars are all over the place on this. They just don’t know. But what does seem to be the case is that Jesus is talking about ministry in the community. It is, I believe, about welcoming each other and welcoming everyone.

Matthew chapter 10 is called the Mission Discourse. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus appointed the disciples to go out to the people of Israel to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. The Mission Discourse are his instructions to the disciples. He tells them where to go, what to take with them, how to deal with acceptance and rejection, and how to deal with persecution especially that coming from their own families. And, most importantly, to believe that God is with them in this venture.  Here, in verses 40-42, he concludes with this thought: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus tells his disciples that those who welcome them, who receive their message, will be honored. Because if they honor the disciples by receiving them they are also honoring Jesus and God. And if they honor me by honoring you, Jesus says, they will receive their reward. That reward is honor. Honor is the reward.

Jesus addressed this earlier in his instructions to them. As the disciples entered a home, if that home welcomed them, they were to bless it with peace. If they weren’t welcomed, they were to move on. Hospitality will be honored, Jesus tells them. He gives them examples of honorable hospitality. Whoever honors a prophet in the name of that prophet or because he is a prophet, that person will receive the reward of the prophet; they will be honored. Whoever honors a righteous person in the name of that righteous person or because he is a righteous person, that person will receive the reward of a righteous person; they will be honored. Then, taking an unusual angle, Jesus says that even if someone just gives a cup of cold water to a little one because of your ministry as my disciple, they have received their reward, they are honored. The simple gesture of a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name signifies acceptance of his message.

To me, this is an amazing development. Jesus seems to be saying that any movement towards me, no matter how simple or slight, is good. God can work with that, he says. Now, to us, this might seem to be counter-intuitive. We, the church, are inclined to require more. Given all the talk about counting the cost of discipleship we would think that to believe in Jesus demands more than just a cup of cold water. But Jesus is saying here that any response to my message of the kingdom is honorable. Just as the clear, cold water in this glass satisfies my thirst, so does God welcome our response as a cup of cold water.

I believe this is how the grace of God usually works. Oh, I will acknowledge that it is possible, when confronted with the gospel, that a person can believe totally in that moment. But that is very rare. In my experience I find that faith comes slowly, haltingly, a little bit at a time. It is, in fact, a life-long process. Grace is subtle, revealing itself often in the small moments of life. It sneaks up on people. It can even be present in the most tragic of circumstances but one has to look for it. So we have to pay attention. That, I believe, is how we, who have experienced grace, can help others see and embrace the grace of God.

In the movie A River Runs Through It, the narrator, the son of a Presbyterian minister, describes his father’s teaching. God’s grace is everywhere, he says, in the rocks, in the river, in events, in our relationships–everywhere. God calls us to develop the discipline to see the grace that is all around us. Upon seeing it we are to give witness to the work of God’s grace.

We have lots of opportunities to be witnesses to God’s grace. A family member shows remorse for a wrong she has done to you. By forgiving her you are offering God’s grace. In accepting your forgiveness she is embracing God’s grace. A friend is steeped in an addiction of some sort or another. He comes to the end of himself and can only cry out in despair. Your quiet, embracing presence is a powerful demonstration of God’s grace. His feeble attempt to seek help as a result is a healing move of grace. Many will not or cannot see the grace of God working in their lives. I say, tell them anyway: “I believe you are experiencing the grace of God.” We can encourage the movement towards grace.

Let me try to summarize what I think this is all about. In a dry and thirsty world, God’s grace works in subtle and non-coercive ways to bring people to faith. As people embrace God’s grace, even in small ways, they are refreshed with the living water of God’s love. As one who has experienced God’s grace and is learning to pay attention to God’s grace at work in the world, we have the ministry of helping others see and experience grace for themselves. Their response to grace is a cup of cold water, for me and for God.

When it comes right down to it, that is what a welcoming community does. It invites people to experience God’s grace. We have this profound ministry of giving cups of cold water to the folk who may come our way. That is a most welcoming thing. We can be witnesses to the refreshing water of God’s grace to those around us who live in a spiritually burned out world. We can encourage them to embrace the work of grace in their lives. In so doing God will be delighted, as one who just had a cup of cold water.

Given that, we also can be audacious enough to actually invite or welcome people to our community. True, we can hope that people will hear about us. When searching for churches that they will find Noe Valley Ministry on Google and say, “well, that looks like a welcoming church, I think I’ll give it a try.” But all the research shows that people will visit a given church simply because they have been invited by a friend or acquittance.

So, I ask this question: Why would some want to come to our church? Oh, we might say, because we are all really nice people. We are a very welcoming lot. But I ask in earnest, why would different sorts of people want to visit, to be a part of our community? What is it about our church, our community, that people who may not realize they are seeking grace in their lives will maybe find it here? And how will they know that is possible?

As we sing (or listen to) our next hymn I’d like you to think about these questions. In a few minutes we will going into breakout rooms to have a conversation about how to be a welcoming church. I’d like you to think about specific ideas and possible actions that make that happen. What does it mean to be a welcoming church and how do we enact that philosophy? Consider it as we sing a hymn of welcome, of community: All Who Hunger.

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