“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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I arrived early, feeling out of place even before I entered the darkened room with loud music pumping from the speakers. More than half of the mostly young people wore spandex suits and special shoes. Several had sleek racing jerseys with a zipper low enough to make a deep-neck, though the room wasn’t especially warm. I walked in to my first “spin” (or indoor cycling) class about two years ago, wearing basic running shoes, loose fitting shorts and a t-shirt that was definitely not a deep-v. That’s not really my style. Once I found an open bike, I quickly realized I had no idea how to adjust the seat or handlebars or operate the computer. Other people could clearly see me struggling, but no one offered to help. Just as I considered sneaking out, the instructor noticed that I was new and came over to help me. Thanks to the hospitality of the instructor—an immigrant from Germany named Karin—I returned. And don’t worry . . . I still do not wear spandex or special shoes or a jersey with a deep-v. At the gym I attend, all are welcome to participate in classes, but not all are actively welcomed.
What about church?
Every week, I meet new people from all over the world. We have visitors and members in the congregation from as far away as China, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey or Scotland. We have others who literally cross the street, possibly stopping to pick up a Blue Bottle Coffee. Though most of us don’t wear spandex to church—and I’m not judging if you do—what signals do we send that make people wonder whether they belong and want to sneak out? On many Sundays, I would be wearing a more formal suit or robe. Today I’m wearing jeans, which is rather upsetting to some of you. Some people have candidly told me that they first wondered whether they could afford fancy enough clothes to feel comfortable attending Calvary, and that is sometimes comforting to see leaders dressed down a little. Others here today are looking at the Communion table and wondering whether you are allowed to partake, or if you are expected to do so. Please know that whatever you are wearing, whatever your views on Communion or membership status, whatever the color of your skin or your gender identity or sexual orientation, this community is honored to welcome you! Being a community that actively welcomes people takes work, and God is definitely still working on all of us.
In today’s Scripture, Jesus is quite straightforward when speaking to his disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English substitutes the word “receives” for “welcomes.” There is a difference. Many homes have a welcome mat upon which one may stand. We may even welcome someone into our home. Receiving someone goes deeper. It means we likely acknowledge differences and seek to understand or live in the tension of difference. The first time I preached at Grace Tabernacle Church in the Bayview, Bishop Jackson paid a great compliment to the people of Calvary. “We have received your message,” he said, referring to prayers and songs and our presence. Receiving someone means that you are taking their perspective to heart as an extension of selfless agape love.
When we truly welcome someone or receive them, we receive Jesus and the one who sent him.
As my brother in ministry Rev. Victor H. Floyd often says, welcoming everyone does not mean welcoming all behaviors. Giving someone the stank eye because they are sitting in “your” seat or because their child is making noise is not a welcomed behavior. Neither is assuming that someone is an idiot and yelling at them or talking behind their back because they voted differently than you did
My hope for today is that by considering the life and ministry of Jesus, we’ll take to heart the difference between passively saying “All Are Welcome,” and living into a deep hospitality that actively makes space for everyone.
I learned a great deal about the difference between the active and passive voice from Ed Guthman, my journalism professor and mentor from the University of Southern California. I trust that Professor Guthman is at peace since his death nearly nine years ago, but I cannot imagine him resting. As we approach the 4th of July, he is one of the Americans for whom I am most thankful. In addition to me, Professor Guthman taught Colleen and many of my USC friends about ethics, facts, accuracy, and the importance of writing in the active voice.
Professor Guthman lived in the active voice, winning a Pulitzer as a very young reporter in 1949 for his work in exonerating a professor who had been accused of Communist activities. He eventually joined the Justice Department as information director for Robert F. Kennedy, helping protect James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.
Guthman was so active that Richard Nixon ranked him third on his list of enemies!
I had the opportunity to visit Professor Guthman in his final weeks of hospice care with a rare internal organ disease. Even in his weakened state, Professor Guthman actively received me in his home. He wanted to make sure I was comfortable and had many questions about what brought a journalism student into ministry. Right up to the end, Professor Guthman wanted to live as an active agent shining light into darkness. I think of him almost every time I write anything.
Many churches have signs that say “All Are Welcome.” It’s a nice sentiment, and most congregations who post such a sign are making an effort to live into the words.
Though it may seem like a subtle difference, ours says something different: “We Welcome Everyone. Really.” Through the years when people have told me how they like the “All Are Welcome” sign on the front of the church, I have resisted correcting because the person is expressing gratitude. But there is a difference.
In faith communities, schools, or nations, saying “All Are Welcome” is insufficient. All are welcome may mean that you are welcome to be here as long as you dress like we dress, like the music we like, or have the same stoic “frozen chosen” demeanor.
As a nation and as planet we have too much work to do to stand on the sidelines and speak passively. When Afghanistan’s robotics team consisting exclusively of teenage girls cannot gain entry to this country to compete in a competition, we are living neither as the home of the free, nor of the brave. And we are certainly not reflecting the radical inclusivity of the one whose values so many of our leaders selectively espouse when a Bible passage supports his or her views.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever receives you receives me.”
He said this because he was sending them out into the world, beyond the comfortable walls of any house of worship. He sent them as extensions of agape.
I am so thankful for the multitude of ways you are living as active agents of his love.
I have witnessed it in the Calvary people who took the time to listen to someone sitting near them and learned that their pew neighbor was considering suicide.
I have marveled as our receptionist Samantha wrapped a foot wound with great care and another Calvary person who happened to be a doctor provided pro bono treatment.
I was humbled and inspired when a Calvary family took a complete stranger who had just arrived under duress from another country into their home.
Welcoming, receiving, and loving in the name of Christ is in this community’s DNA.
May we live as active agents of justice and care for all.
May we welcome everyone. Really.