RewardsMatthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)
“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.”
What does it mean to “welcome” someone? Well, to start, it means that you greet them in a friendly way, right? You smile and say something kind. You use eye contact, and you try to make them comfortable because when you attempt to be welcoming, it is not about you and your opinions, but it is about the person that you are reaching out to, the person that you are welcoming.
Folks, if you talk to ten different churches, chances are they all think they are welcoming. But the truth is, churches–though they try hard–are many times the least welcoming places. Sure, they might have someone with a smiling face greet you at the door, and they might begin worship with some kind of welcoming phrase like, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here.” (You might have heard that one before!) And friends, they might honestly believe that they are being “welcoming” and sharing hospitality. But part of being welcoming is being interested in the other person–asking more about them than you talk about yourself. In the church, we often start with a smile. We say hello, and then we start down the list of information: “The bathrooms are out back. We love kids, so do not worry about the noise, but feel free to take a walkabout if you need one. We have lots of programs that you might be interested in, and we are always looking for people to serve on ministries. Do you sing? We could use more people in our choir. Oh, and today is a Communion Sunday. Just to let you know, our table is open to everyone. So please feel free to join us. There is a yard sale on Saturday, and the fair is coming up if you’d like to help out. Oh, and make sure that you stay after worship and join us for coffee hour. What was your name again?”
Friends, remember that being welcomed does not just mean that you are allowed through the door. It means that we care about you and we want to know more about what matters to you. Sure, some churches say that they are welcoming, and they stand under a big banner saying that all are welcome. They go down a long list of exactly who is welcome, but to be honest, being welcomed is not just identifying yourself on a checklist. It is being made to feel comfortable and cared for, not because you fit in the box, but because you are loved just as you are.
Friends, here in Oldtown, we mean it when we say that not only is everyone is welcome but everyone is loved and cherished just as they are. And because of that, the safety of all is our first concern. We are continuing to worship online because it is not yet safe for everyone to return. But I must tell you, since starting our online at home services we have had a lot more people join us in worship, and that is a wonderful thing. People who may not be comfortable attending in-person worship but who are interested in learning more about Jesus, or about what it means to live out their faith, or those who are longing to be inspired to look at the world around them through a little different lens, or those who are hurting and looking for a safe space to heal.
I’m hearing from many people that they like online at-home worship because it meets them where they are in a setting where they are comfortable, rather than being expected to go into a building that they are not used to, surrounded by a community that they don’t know, but who all know each other. Online, they can be themselves. They can wear what they want, and they can try lots of online services without being pressured. They can even leave the service in the middle if it is not what they were looking for.
Now I know, for many of our Oldtowners, online worship just is not the same because our church family is not all together. But to be honest, that can be one of the biggest challenges to new visitors. Coffee hour–which is a time that our church family lives for–can be painful for people who do not know anyone. And though we are a welcoming congregation, during coffee hour we like to spend time with our friends or chat with people that serve on ministries with us, and we aren’t always attentive to new visitors.
In Oldtown, we strive to be a place where ALL are welcome! We do our best to offer hospitality and an extravagant welcome so that souls might be fed, minds stretched, people accepted, and joys and challenges received with love and handled with grace. Do we always get it right? Unfortunately, no. But we are always learning. And the best part of all is that our church family does its best to work together for the safety and equity of all, not to receive a reward or so that others will praise us, but because we know that in this world, we are much stronger together than we ever are alone.
But, that extravagant welcome and hospitality is not something that we offer only on Sunday mornings from our church building. As followers of Jesus, it is our job to offer that same welcome to others wherever we are. Just because we are not meeting for in-person worship does not mean that hospitality and welcome are no longer important. They are more important than ever! Society is hurting so much right now because everyone is divided by looks and understanding, by opinions and politics, by color and gender, by sexual orientation and age and income, by religion and belief systems and culture, by citizenship and experience, and the list goes on and on.
So, what are some things we can say and do to welcome people in our lives? Well, this morning’s scripture came from the gospel of Matthew, and in it, Jesus gave his disciples–and us–instructions as to how we should treat others. And he names welcoming at the top of the list. Jesus points out it is not just about welcoming the powerful or the people that seem important, but we must welcome everyone. Welcoming has nothing to do with getting credit for being nice, but it is about recognizing each person’s unique gifts and passions and taking the time to truly listen to them getting a better understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Jesus then goes on to make it truly clear that when we welcome others, we are also welcoming him.
Friends, remember, we are all made in the image of God. Not just us as Oldtowners or followers of Jesus, but each and every person on this earth. God made each of us unique and special in our own way.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your week ahead, remember that it’s hard to see a smile behind a mask, so you can’t fake it. Do not just offer a courteous smile, but smile like you really mean it, and others will see your kindness in your eyes. Offer a warm welcome to every person that you meet, and when you say “Hi, how are you doing?” listen to their answer, because the world right now longs to be heard and acknowledged. Offering a warm welcome like that is one of the best ways that we can share the love of God with others.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen.