PRAYER: God of grace and mercy, you call us to be your church, to worship you, and to proclaim your kingdom come. Continue to teach us your ways, that we may strive to welcome the stranger as you taught your disciples. Continue to teach us your ways, that we may see that the welcome we offer others is really offered to you.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Over the last few weeks, the lectionary readings in the gospel have been from Matthew chapters 9 and 10. These readings have told us the story of Jesus sending his disciples throughout Israel to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. He was very specific about only sending them around Israel and not out into the rest of the region because Israel is like – and these are his words in chapter 9 v36, “A sheep without a shepherd.” Israel had lost its way and needed to be brought back into God’s way.
Two weeks ago, the gospel reading was the last few verses of chapter 9 and the first half of chapter 10. The disciples were told about the potential for rejection and persecution they will endure as they go throughout Israel. He tells them that people will be so closed-minded about their message of peace and God’s love – about their message of “The Kingdom of God is near” that they will resort to violence.
But Jesus taught them that the kingdom of God is an invitation to live fully. The disciples watched Jesus offer hope and compassion, kindness in the face of rejection and fear. They saw the miracle of new life being offered in Jesus’ words that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It isn’t just about belief, it’s about acting on that belief and not allowing the shackles of life – the disease, the oppression, the hopelessness, the mental illness, the fear to rule our lives.
Last week’s reading, which was most of the second half of Matthew 10, contained a sharp warning to those disciples as they traveled throughout Israel. Jesus’ words contained a pretty blunt description of what’s going to happen when you choose to follow Jesus. Sons will be turned against their father; daughters will be turned against their mother. Those who love their sons or daughters more than me aren’t worthy of me. That’s a pretty tough thing to read.
But in spite of those dire warnings, three times in the reading last week, Jesus said these words: Do Not Be Afraid. Each day of our Christian journey is both an invitation and a commandment to choose what path we will be on. Will we choose the easy path of silence that benefits those who really need no benefit at all? Or will we choose the difficult road of radical hospitality, of servant leadership, of using our voice on behalf of the voiceless? The Kingdom of God come near is an invitation to a transformational life that – Jesus himself told us – wouldn’t be easy. It is an invitation to make Jesus’ mission our mission.
Today’s reading is the final three verses of that story – of Jesus sending out his disciples – only to Israel.
In the early 1940s, there were three theology students who fled Nazi Germany into the Burgundy region of France. They were looking for a place they could live and continue their theological studies, safe from Hitler and the Gestapo. They settled in a tiny 12th century village called Taizé. They purchased a home and set up an agreement among themselves to live an ecumenical monastic life, continue their studies, and each person doing their utmost to support one another. Their arrangement was successful, and they lived safe from the ravages of World War II in an environment of prayer, study, and brotherhood.
During the war, some German soldiers that were captured were put into POW camps in that region. When the war ended, those former soldiers were released and left to their own devices to get back home to Germany. There were many who began walking and during their journey, they would look for places to stay, but as you might imagine, French citizens were not particularly eager to welcome former Nazi soldiers. Village after village, house after house would turn them away. That is, until they got to Taizé. The three theologians who fled the Nazis welcomed the former German soldiers into their home, under the condition that while they stayed there, they would participate in the ecumenical life of the household. They had to share in doing chores, they had to share in studying, or at least reading the Bible, and they had to participate in worship.
I don’t know how long those former soldiers stayed, but eventually they made their way back to their homes. They had been profoundly changed by their experience in Taizé. After the horrors of war, they experienced hospitality unlike any they could have expected. They had hoped for just a place to sleep, a place to get a meal. Instead, they were welcomed into the home of three men who had escaped them, they were included into the life of that home. They were not considered guests or visitors, they were welcomed as family, as members of the house. When they got home, they told their families about this radical unexpected welcome that they had received. They would go back to Taizé for visits, and they invited others to go with them.
Today, the community of Taizé welcomes upwards of a million pilgrims a year from all over the world. Like those German soldiers, each visitor is given a task to serve. Serving meals, cleaning up, sweeping… whatever it is. Everyone who goes there is expected to attend the worship services three times a day. No one comes to Taizé without being fully included into the life of the community. You’re not there as an observer; you’re not there as a visitor. Because people come from all over the world, the worship has evolved to be contemplative, with simple to learn musical chants, and scripture read in multiple languages. Thousands of people from all over the world sing together using lyrics written phonetically in different languages that are set next to translations, so that they can understand what they’re singing. No one can say they’re not included; no one can say they’re not welcome. People leave Taizé having been profoundly transformed by the spirit of ecumenical welcome and hospitality.
These three short verses in Matthew are a reminder for us about how we are to welcome others. In the context of the early church, the disciples were taught to view humanity through a lens of radical welcome. They were warned that not everyone would welcome this vision, whether through fear or some other reason… mostly through fear. Keep in mind however, that the early church was in the vast minority of Israel and rejection, for them, was far more likely than not.
They learned the spirit of welcome through radical hospitality, by seeing others through a lens of grace rather than one of suspicion. They learned to hope for the possibility of being welcomed, but ready for the likelihood that they would not be.
For the church today, we don’t have the burden of being in the minority like the disciples did. The Christian church, despite what some may have you believe, is not persecuted in the United States. We have the luxury of history and tradition on our side. We have the benefit of laws that protect us. We have much to be thankful for. But in spite of all the benefits that the capital “C” Church now possesses, much of the church has lost its ability to be welcoming. Much of the church has lost sight of what it means to be welcoming.
For those of us who have been in the church our whole lives, we look at the church through eyes that know where everything is, what everything is, maybe even why everything is. We all have our roles in the church, whether it’s working with the finances, the music, the mission, or even standing up here talking for a while. But what happens quite often is that we lose sight of what the church appears to be in the eyes of others outside of these four walls.
Whether we’re talking about visitors or members of the community who don’t have any reason why they would ever step foot inside here, the mission of the church, like the mission of those disciples in Matthew 9 & 10 is to proclaim the Kingdom of God come near, and to extend a welcome to all in our community… all of whom God loves.
The kingdom of God is an invitation for the disciples – and us – to widen our vision and see all of humanity as Jesus saw it, with compassion, with grace, with love. The invitation to the Kingdom of God must be seen beyond the walls that are around us. The disciples were not sent throughout Israel in order to invite people to church. They were sent out to proclaim God’s kingdom through compassion, through grace, through love.
Author and minister Russell Rathbun writes that this passage, “tells us to treat a stranger the way we would treat someone who is a guest in our home—can I get you something to drink. It is a way of seeing the world—seeing all people. It is about seeing the other as one of your own. It is about basic human kindness—it is just being nice.” He continues by saying that the ethics of the Kingdom of God surely can have implications for larger global issues, such as poverty and violence, racism and inclusion —but first it is concerned with just being nice to people.
In order to reclaim our ability to welcome, we have to make sure that we have not become so set in our ways, viewing the church through the only lens we know, that we’ve lost sight of what it means to welcome people in the name of the one true shepherd. Within the context of the mission that Jesus gave his disciples, they went out into the villages around them and offered new life, free of fear, free of hopelessness. They offered a path to new life that would serve as a welcome into the Kingdom of God that Jesus said had come near.
If we are to be church of the 21st century, then we need to make sure that we are following the one true shepherd and sharing the love, the grace, the compassion, the hope that the Shepherd offers us all within the context of our community. We need to reconnect to the shepherd and reclaim our ability to welcome others as he taught us to do, not that they will be transformed to be like us, but that we all will be transformed to be like Jesus, the Shepherd.
The welcome that the church offers cannot be mired in the way we’ve always done things. Like the community of Taizé, the church must do something it has resisted for too many years: it must evolve to meet the community around it. Instead of doing everything we’ve always done before because that’s the way we’ve always done it, the church needs to recognize the world around it and offer hospitality that is welcoming and transforming.
We need to renew our commitment to offering new life – transformational living that only comes from God. Jesus sent his disciples out through Israel, and Jesus is sending us out through Sergeantsville, Frenchtown, Kingwood.
The shepherd is guiding us toward the path of being the church of the 21st century. We are reminded to not be afraid, to continue to look to the shepherd, to go out into our communities, our families, our friends, our work, re-presenting Christ in all that we say and do. This is how we reclaim our welcome, and this is how the Kingdom of God is near.
To God be the glory