Hi everybody! As you may have noticed, our streaming platform was on the blink this weekend. Therefore, despite our best efforts, the live stream did not record, and we do not have the service archived for your viewing. While we sincerely hope this is fixed by next weekend, it is beyond our control–so we’re just praying! In the meantime, I’m posting here the manuscript from my sermon on Sunday. Reading it won’t be quite the same, but I hope you can still hear the call to mission that we receive from Jesus in Matthew 10. Blessings! ~Pastor Brandy
It’s a short gospel reading for this weekend, especially compared to some of the marathon length texts from Matthew we have been reading lately. Short text, should be a short sermon right? I’ll do my best. But seriously, if we’re just reading the Bible to see what God wants us to put on our to-do list for the next few days, I guess just hand out some cups of cold water. Sounds easy enough; I can do that. My kids can even do that. We’ll even use ice, because it has been so hot out this weekend.
Ok. Handing out cool drinks to people who are thirsty is a fine idea, but perhaps you’ve already guessed that this is not the full extent of the meaning for us in these three verses. Because the Bible is far more than a book of tasks and rules; and because carrying out the full intent of Jesus’ teachings has never been simple, easy and straightforward for people like us.
I have pretty much always heard the summary of these verses to be: welcome the stranger. Welcome people as they are. Welcome the prophet for being a prophet. Welcome the righteous person as a righteous person. The word “welcome” shows up four times in the first verse alone. Sounds like a theme to me! Perhaps you’ve heard many wonderful sermons on this reading all about providing hospitality in Jesus’ name, which is great. But this is not going to be one of them.
I’ve noticed something interesting about these verses, or had it pointed out to me, more accurately. And that is that, if we take another look at what Jesus is actually saying, Jesus isn’t speaking to his followers as the ones doing the welcoming; no, he’s speaking to them as the ones who are being welcomed. He says pretty clearly, “Whoever welcomes you…” If we look more closely at Jesus’ words, it’s apparent that he’s not asking his disciples to be good hosts; he’s telling them that they will be hosted! The “whoever” that does the welcoming is the people out there. The “you” is the disciples that Jesus was, and is, sending out. By extension, that “you” is you. Whoever welcomes each of you, welcomes Jesus.
This is not to say that we should not be welcoming ourselves, because we should. But what is much more important for this moment in time is that we, as the church, would be willing to get out of here and be welcomed by others. The whole of Matthew 10 is Jesus talking to his disciples about how they are being sent out and what they should bring and what they should do. Jesus is talking to those who will bring the gospel out into the world, and who will be welcomed, or not, by those to whom they are sent. Chapter 10 is sometimes called the “missionary discourse” because being sent out in mission is the focus. As followers of Jesus who read this 2000 years later, perhaps we are tempted to think that, all this time later, we have moved into the spectator phase of mission work. We just read about other people doing it, in other times and places. However, given the context, what these verses should be telling us is that we are not to simply sit here at home and hand out cool water and keep the good news to ourselves; rather we, too, are sent out to participate in this missionary activity.
It’s good work, but maybe we’re not that happy about this little switch between the work of offering hospitality and receiving hospitality. It’s easier to stay here. It’s nice to be among people we know and love; it’s comfortable in the air conditioning and the beauty of the space. We know what to expect when we come in; we know what to do and how to do it. We know God is here because we’ve experienced God’s presence here before. We trust the promises of the sacraments that we celebrate in this place—that gathered in here is where we receive identity and purpose, forgiveness and grace. As the church, this is our space; and we gather for worship; it’s so important and it’s what we do. And we’re happy to welcome in anyone else who might happen to walk through those doors.
But in this moment, that is not enough. Perhaps it never was. Though in, say, 1950, most people in our society were looking to be part of a church. If they moved to town, they found a church. We got to welcome people and talk about faith on our turf and on our terms, because almost everybody went to church. In 2020, this is not the case. The number of people who are not religious, not spiritual, not practicing faith is incredibly high and growing. Times have changed, as they always do. We’ve moved well beyond the “if you build it they will come” model of proclaiming the gospel. And if people aren’t wandering through our doors on their own to hear the gospel, then we’re going to need to bring it to them. That’s what we’ve been commanded to do all along anyway. As Jesus will say in Matthew chapter 28: Go, go and make disciples.
We need to acknowledge that if we’re really interested in fulfilling our mission statement that includes sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, it’s not enough to be a welcoming church. It’s not enough to celebrate those who take the initiative to open that big old door and walk into this imposing space. It may not even be enough to be an inviting church—to intentionally try to bring people into our building. The only way the gospel is going to get to many people is if we bring it to them. Is if we speak and act and interact in ways that show forth the compassion and grace we ourselves have received from God. The only way the gospel is going to get to many people is if we go out from our comfortable gatherings here and let the Holy Spirit send us into the mission field, which lies right on the other side of that big wooden door.
This past week I was with hundreds of church leaders from across the country at a faithful innovation summit—I mean, I was digitally with them; we had gathered over zoom. The event that we had all originally signed up for several months ago took on a whole different feel after Coronavirus arrived among us so forcefully, and not just because the format of presentation and discussions was online. For pastors in many parts of the country, worshiping in person is still far too risky to undertake, and probably will be for a while. And that carries all the deep grief and lament for church leaders as it does for church members.
So in the midst of all the mourning over the separation of the church body, leaders from various denominations are beginning to wonder: what is God inviting us to do in this moment? What is the invitation? What good might God, in God’s providence, bring about even through crisis? Some leaders were ready to say: one good thing is that this pandemic is helping the church realize that the building is not the mission. The building is a wonderful asset in helping the church do its mission, but gathering together is only part of what the church has always been meant to do. And this time is forcing us to remember that.
What the church sort of forgot during and since those mid-century “glory days,” the big rise and popularity of the Christian church in America, is that the church gathered is only half of the story. That’s only part of what we do.
The rhythm of the church, from its very beginning, has always been Gathered & Sent. Disciples and apostles. We’re gathered in for strengthening; we’re sent out for sharing. We’re gathered in to learn and grow; we’re sent out to do and grow. We’re gathered in to eat and drink; we’re sent out to proclaim and embody. We’re gathered in to baptize and teach; we’re sent out to live that baptismal covenant. It’s like the breath of the Holy Spirit moving us in and out.
If we think we are being the church only when we’re gathered, then we miss the whole purpose of the church being sent. If we think God is only present in our sanctuaries and in the celebration of our sacraments, then we are missing the surprising and joyful ways God is active and moving throughout God’s whole world. We know how to be the church in a sanctuary; we are good at that. What we need to remember and bring back from Scripture and tradition is how to be the church when we are not in a church building.
So wonder with me what it might look like if we embraced our identity not so much as a church that offers welcome, but as a church that goes out to receive welcome in the world. What would happen if we stopped expecting people to come on their own initiative through our church doors, and instead took seriously our calling to bring the gospel to them? What would happen if we truly believed that we bear the presence of Christ to every person we encounter, in every home, workplace, or neighborhood we enter? What would happen if we saw every conversation as an opportunity to speak words of grace, every interaction as an opportunity to embody Christ’s love for the neighbor?
We are gathered for one very important hour each week. We are sent for all the other very important hours of the week. The good news is that God is already present in the places we are sent and the places we will go. When we offer ourselves up as the guest of other people’s welcome in these places, we have the honor and opportunity to embody God’s presence to others in real and concrete ways. It is through us that people will experience the goodness and blessing of God in heaven and the beloved Son. When we go out from this place living a life modeled after Jesus, we will make known to this world the reign of God. Amen.