Welcoming in Christ’s name – Matthew 10:40-41
I love that story about graffiti of a cat meaning ‘a kind lady lives here’; that the woman who lived in that house would give food to hoboes or people ‘down on their luck’, but before the fact checkers in the congregation tell me so, I need to disclose that although ‘hobo signs’ or ‘hobo graffiti’ have been widely documented, in the literature and newspapers of the time, and are included in many cultural museums, there is doubt that actual hoboes ever used this kind of writing code. The thinking is that stories about hobo sign language were created during the depression to add to the mystique that had sprung up around the life of hoboes. Its similar way to how Australian authors and poets and artists romanticised the swagman, when, in fact, these very vulnerable and homeless people were living very unromantic lives.
But while hobo signs might not be telling us much about the actual practise of hoboes, they do challenge us to think about ourselves, about the kind of signs people might chalk on the fence posts or the telegraph poles near our homes…(get bread here, go round this town, dogs in garden, table feed, kind man, religious talk gets free meal. people do not give…) They might tell us about the kind of welcome that we offer.
Our very short Bible reading for today from Matthew does a similar thing. It pivots away from a long section where Jesus is giving instructions and warnings to his disciples as he sends them out in mission (the word apostle actually means apostles ‘sent ones’) to speaking – not to the sent ones – but to those who would receive them. Verbs of hospitality – ‘welcome, receive, give ‘ – dominate these three verses.
And a surprising democratisation takes place here, between the sent and their receivers, because here Jesus promises that those who welcome a prophet or a righteous person (people whose reward in heaven was said to be great) will receive the same reward they do! That the welcome and support that is given to those on mission is just as valuable, just as important, as the key figures in that mission. That actually we are all part of the mission. We are all on a mission from God! It may not be more blessed to give as it is to receive, here in Matthew, but it is certainly just as blessed to give as to receive.
It seems I am preaching a series on former ministers of this church, but, again, twenty or so years ago, when I was a student pastor at Northside Baptist, I was asked to lead the evening service and feed and water and welcome the visiting preacher, someone called Rev Jim Barr. So I met Jim and took him out to dinner and he preached and after the service, when Aron had turned up to drive me home, I asked if we could drop him anywhere. “Not really sure,” was Jim’s answer. “Oh,” I said, “Where are you staying? Are you headed back to Melbourne tonight” “Oh no,” said Jim, “my flight’s tomorrow, but I’ve got no plans for tonight.” And so, Aron and I ended up taking Jim home and changing the sheets on mum and dad’s bed (we were staying with them at the time but they were away) and putting Jim up for the night. It was, I think, a fairly equitable exchange of blessings!
But what Jesus is saying about the nature of the community, the behaviour of the community that acts in Jesus name, even goes further than this. Verse 42, “…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.”
There is some debate about who exactly is being identified here. It could be a reference to the disciples or it could be a term members of the writer of Matthew’s community used for themselves…but it is clear we are no longer speaking of those who are singled out as leaders or great evangelists or theological heavyweights, but that these are the regular people, the ordinary people, the ‘little people’ of the Christian community or the wider community. So democratic is God’s meritocracy that rewards are shared not only between those who welcome the spiritual greats as well as the spiritual greats themselves, but ‘the little ones’ are to be welcomed in the same way as the spiritual greats. The passage should remind us of the more famous words in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it [fed, quenched, clothed, nursed, visited] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Or as an older monk in a Russian Orthodox monastery is said to have said to a younger monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever the are in the world, a prostitute, a Prime Minister. It is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming p the road and I said, “Oh Jesus Christ, is it you again?”
There is a slight note of exasperation expressed there. At Jesus turning up so often. But I think the other important thing to note about the welcome we are called to offer, the actions we are called to do, is that they are not elaborate, and they are not strenuous. What is required is very simple and very ordinary, very unextraordinary, very within our resources, very small acts of kindness…a cup of cold water given makes us a disciple.
I can think of so many instances where people have spoken of how simple, ordinary, basic acts of kindness made the difference in the welcome they received – or did not receive. A story Simon Carey Holt tells of a man who worked in the city sharing his sandwiches with a homeless man each day and the friendship that evolved between the two of them. A sadder story about a woman I knew who decided to go back to church after many years, but was frowned upon every time her children made a noise in the service, and so she left, but fortunately found a welcome – and smiles – in another church. A young couple who told me they never would have stayed in our church – it was too old fashioned – but someone invited them to get lunch with them on their first Sunday and they’d stayed ever since. Something as simple as saying we are a church that welcomes LGBTIQ people which has meant a lot to a number of people over the years. Or a blanket knitted by a 96-year-old woman given as an act of welcome.
We have been here at Batemans Bay over the weekend thinking about the mission of our church that we do through the Community Centre and it seems to me that what Jesus says here is very much how we want to see this mission continuing; a mission where one or two or three people are not singled out to do the work, but where we welcome others’ gifts recognising it is the welcome and support of all of us that enables the mission to flourish, a mission where we equally welcome ‘the little ones’ whoever they may be for us and where this welcome, this ministry, this mission, this Community Centre, does not have to elaborate or strenuous or spectacular, but is simply simple signs, good signs, every day, ordinary signs, quiet, helpful, kind signs…cup of cold water signs…signs that all of us, that any of us, can perform in this ministry in which all of us share and which all of are sent as apostles of Jesus.