In our Gospel reading today, we hear from Matthew, who wrote in Greek to Jews several decades after the events of Christ’s death and resurrection. It would seem that his major thrust in presenting the teachings of Jesus, is to confirm to his audience that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament teachings, he is the fulfillment of the law and prophesies. Christ embodies what is good and proper- the new Torah, a new Moses for all time.
In this reading we hear the last of the teachings to the disciples about their behavior and tasks in the world as apostles, missionaries, teachers of the Word, messengers of the new Way.
In this declaration of a standard of being, Christ tells the disciples the meaning of their work. It is to teach those who hear them, that in listening to the disciples, they are listening to Jesus. By inviting them into their homes for hospitality, they are inviting in Jesus. As they feed and offer drink to the disciples, so are they doing it to Jesus.
Notice that the word welcome is used six times, the word reward is used three times. Receive is used twice. While the gospel writer is recounting the meaning of the reception the disciples might encounter, it is at the same time, the direction we are take as active Christians today.
Now I am not advocating that you open your front doors to any and all who knock on them and want to share the word of the Lord with you. I leave it to you to determine on your own, if that is the disciple you wish to welcome. But we are a church who offers welcome and reward to those who come to us. How are we engaged in making it attractive and desirable for folks to come in the door and encounter our hospitality?
Much is being written in the media about declining church attendance which results in declining membership. Here in the Hudson Valley we know of churches facing alternate ways to share priests, share resources, share buildings just to keep their worship community alive. Changes in how we do church are on the horizon. How we will find ordained personnel to meet all the needs as those needs shift and redefine themselves. Difficult issues, to which there is no one answer other than prayer and judicious use of resources. As the prayer reminds us Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.
But our reading today gives us a clue. Welcome and hospitality. Shake a hand and fill it with food. Greet someone at the door, invite them in and feed them with the holy spirit. Ask those who might not be churched right now to come with us and experience the fellowship and love we embrace weekly. Reach out to those other than us, yes, different from us, and cloak them in acceptance and love.
If you are like me, I find this challenging. I am not always comfortable telling folks, about my church, my faith, my Jesus. I am nervous about the reaction, possible rejection, outright derision, societal suicide. While I do not agree with the theology of our Mormon brothers and sisters, I am in awe of their devotion to mission work in the midst of scorn and slamming doors. I would not last half a day.
Similarly, I find that I associate mostly with folks who think and respond like I do. One of the difficulties I am encountering in Bedford Prison is the desire the women have for a very conservative, almost fundamentalist, expression of faith. An expression minus ambiguity and the tension of more than one possibility of scriptural meaning, one that is very black and white, not grey. My faith journey does not include that desire for absolute certainty. My sense, and it is mine, perhaps not yours, is that God is capable of more than I could ever imagine or maybe even know, so how can I limit Him or Her with my small brain’s capacity? I need to stretch and accept all eventualities and possibilities , which may or may not be in line with Scripture all the time.
So this means that I must step out of my comfort zone and embrace all aspects of God’s creation. Those on the margins and oppressed, as well as those who have a lot of resources and options before them. There is an old hymn which says:
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north
But one great fellowship of man, throughout the whole wide earth.
My job, our job is to create that fellowship not of like minded folks, but those who differ, who bring texture and color to our palette by their experiences and styles. It is not easy, but we have the model right in front of our noses.
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.”
Many of those same women at Bedford who are grappling with the need for certainty in the midst of chaos , are very faithful and come to our Eucharist week after week. One of them is looked up to as an elder of sorts. Miss June is white haired, has arthritis, was a nurse and radiates compassion. She is soft spoken, amidst the din of louder, younger voices. Yet she always takes the time to invite others from her unit to join her in the chapel. She talks to them about how Jesus can make life a little better in the horror of prison life. She goes back to her unit, retrieves them and accompanies them into the chapel. She gets the prayer book and hymnal they need, she points out where we are, she introduces them to us by name and smiles proudly. Some return the next week, some do not. Miss June keeps talking and recruiting and welcoming those on the edges into the center near the fire of love. I feel daunted and humbled by her evangelism.
Scorn and disregard and open hostility can be evident in this setting. You are either in or you are out of the correct prison crowd. Not unlike High school, but with much more at stake, given the isolation from loved ones that all of them experience, the desire to belong and be accepted is heightened. Yet Miss June takes the risk that her suggestion will be ridiculed or disparaged. She takes that risk because she knows that God can love the person she is tugging along, just as much as God loves her. She only wants to pass it along.
How often are we like Miss June.? If we want to keep our precious church and see it grow, how much risk are we willing to take to draw others into the Spirit’s tether? Are we ashamed or embarrassed by our faith and its expression? If we all pledged to bring someone new with us each week, how quickly do you think we would fill the pews? Who knows what gifts lie outside our doors which we could harness to ministry and outreach. Instead of lamenting what we are losing, I am proposing we get energized to reinvent and replenish our pantry with folks we have not yet met.
Oh yeah and that reward thing. I don’t think that it is a medal or a coupon or reimbursement for a job well done. It might be all of that but for me, it is a personal sense that I have offered what I value most in my life to someone to taste and see . It might work , it might not , but I have done my job for God and tried. I have lived into the risk he asks me to take. I am blessed because I know that he loves me no matter what, why wouldn’t I want someone else to know that feeling too?
So as we await our interim pastor who will shepherd us to another horizon, let’s promise to help each other to augment the richness of this place. In AA the slogan which keeps folks faithful is One day at a Time. Well we can get our reward of a vibrant church, one person at a time. Let’s get going!