Petersburg,WV. This is the sermon I
preached today. The gospel text is
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness... (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
These are the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. I’d like to take the point and title of Dickens’ work and just tweak it a bit for the purpose of this morning’s message. I call it A Tale of Two Churches.
I got acquainted with Church One during my first year of seminary. It was my teaching parish. That’s where I spent most Sundays engaging in a variety of roles--student, assisting minister, and sometimes preacher and teacher. I will never forget my very first Sunday there. The pastor asked me to visit “incognito.” He said not to wear any clerical collar to identify me as a seminarian so I could experience this church as a visitor would. It was a tiny congregation, so anyone different would stand out. No one seemed to notice my presence however. No one greeted me other than the pastor’s wife. Many of you know that I was not raised Lutheran. My stock answer for why I became a Lutheran is that the Lutherans were friendly, so this experience was puzzling.
I was disturbed by the coldness of the congregation. This was unlike any experience I had ever had in a Lutheran church. If I wasn’t assigned to go there every week, I wouldn’t have returned. The church was dying...and it was obvious why. The climate was chilly and the church needed a climate change. As time went on, people did warm up a bit and were actually friendly by the time the school year drew to a close, but would the average visitor stay long enough to discover this?
Let me tell you about the second church. Last May, Ray and I visited it for the first time. We went to the Bible study before church and had a wonderful time. The discussion was great and everyone seemed to enjoy being together. We felt right at home. After church, those we spoke with seemed warm and friendly. This was our introduction to Grace Lutheran Church. What a contrast to my first Sunday of teaching parish.
One of the great privileges of being your vicar is that I get to hear people’s stories, which is something I love. I have experienced this in your homes, at the nursing home, at the hospital, and in this community. You have let us into your lives. We have laughed and cried and prayed together.
In case you haven’t noticed, Grace Lutheran has been growing. In the process, I’ve been able to hear new people’s stories of what or who brought people here and what makes them want to stay. There are a variety of reasons, but they all seem to boil down to feeling at home here--feeling welcome. It feels like family.
What does Jesus teach about welcoming people? Today’s gospel is only three verses. In the first two verses, the word “welcome” is mentioned six times, so apparently Jesus thought this was a pretty important concept.
In Jesus’ day and in today’s Holy Land, observing the hospitality code is crucial. It is the process by which a stranger is taken under the protection of a host for a given time (Brian Stoffregen). The host would be shamed if anything bad happened to the guest while under his roof. Even today, guests are welcomed whether they show up unexpectedly, whether they are wanted, whether or not there is enough food to feed them. It is inconceivable in Middle Eastern society to tell someone that they have arrived at a bad time, or that you’re too busy to invite them in, or that they should go home before you serve dinner because you didn’t prepare enough to feed them as well.
In today’s gospel, there’s something interesting about the word that is translated “welcomes.” It can also be translated receives, as in receiving a person as a guest. Later in the text a different word is translated receive and it means rewards, with what is due to someone. The reward is in proportion to the reception. The welcomer receives not only who God has brought their way, but also a reward.
Jesus’ emphasis is on who is being welcomed. In today’s gospel, those welcomed are the disciples and missionaries he is sending out. If they are welcomed, then Jesus, whom they represent, is welcomed. And if Jesus is welcomed, then the Father, who sent him, is welcomed.
For non-western people of Jesus’ day and today welcoming an individual just did not happen. They were not and are not individualistic as we are. It was not the individual person who was welcomed, but everything the person stood for. It is much like the role of a diplomat in a foreign country. That person does not speak on her or his behalf, but on behalf of the country being represented.
Welcoming "in the name of" means welcoming in the honor of; in the reputation of. It means welcoming in a way that is true to the integrity and character and goals of the one being welcomed [--] in a way that is truly worthy of the one being welcomed. (David Ewart, www.holytextures.com)
In our gospel lesson today, the word reward comes from a verb meaning “to hire,” meaning the amount paid to the one hired. It refers to what a person has earned and deserves which could be either positive or negative. Jesus promises us a reward if we receive those he has sent to us-whether they are missionaries, prophets, the righteous or the little ones. This doesn’t mean everything is going to be sweetness and light however. Can we have all the blessings of faith without persecution? Can we have resurrection without the cross?
The readings from Jeremiah and Romans also challenge us. What and who do we welcome into our lives? Do we welcome true prophets or false prophets? Do we welcome sin or the righteousness of God in Christ? I don’t know if any of us have ever believed false prophets. Some people recently did however, believing the end of the world was coming. Then it didn’t. They had quit jobs, given all they had to promote this teaching, believing the end was near. They had paid attention to a false prophet.
What happens when we pay attention to and welcome evil into our lives? We just have to look around to see the wage and reward sin pays. We see it in our broken world, in the brokenness of our community, and the brokenness of our own lives. We see it in environmental disasters, in violence and crime and so on.
How do we respond to those who have suffered because of this? There are many ways to welcome those God brings our way. It may be a quiet smile or helping a mother with a small child during pot luck. Perhaps you enjoy talking with people. It may be a prayer and a phone call or a note when you’re thinking about someone. Perhaps you help out at the food pantry or in some other way.
Grace Lutheran is welcoming and growing. That’s wonderful. It’s exciting to see so many here in worship. It also challenges the congregation to look to the future together. How will you fit everyone into this space? There are plans to add on to this building, but what is to be done in the mean time?
Jesus’ challenge today is to keep doing what you’re doing. Keep welcoming interns and their families. Keep reaching out to neighbors and friends and inviting them to join the congregation in its faith journey. Keep welcoming these wonderful little ones God has brought to this church.
Over the years you have received and continue to receive the rewards of being who God has called you to be. You have worked hard and the wages are great. You have a legacy of embracing and training many who are now pastors and chaplains. You have made Ray and me feel at home and have taught us many wonderful things. As we return to Gettysburg, we will cherish these memories and it is my hope that I can integrate these lessons into my ministry as a future pastor. Thank you for being who you are. Thank you for teaching us.