“All are welcome.” That phrase appears on many church signs. But is it true? Do we welcome—the unloved, the excluded, the unwashed, the mad, the provokers and dissenters, the bad? How does the world view our “Welcome” sign? Do they hear a strain from Cabaret, a master of ceremonies like “Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome” invitation into a bizarre and perverse world? Can they hear a welcome like that we will sing about in our communion hymn: “Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word.”
Last week our passage from Matthew highlighted that the call of God, faith in Jesus, might sunder us from our closest ties—a son from his father, a mother from her daughter. It was shocking. In contrast to last week, where Jesus is tearing apart families, today we are told that the radicalness of God’s love insists on our welcoming all to the circle. This may be equally hard to hear. Seasons of the Spirit states in its commentary:
“Modern relationships and hospitality are often limited by the rules of kinship, profit, gain, and convenience. God’s hospitality blows such rules apart.” (Seasons)
What does it mean to welcome? Someone might ask. And maybe they did—for Jesus gets very specific. “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to even one of these little ones…” Such a human picture of welcome. A cup of cold water on a hot day. We know what that feels like. Being parched. Feeling overheated. Desiring water—something our bodies need to live. How much more would Jesus’ listeners understand since they lived in a desert region. It was one of the reasons hospitality was so important in Mid-Eastern Culture.
I’m fascinated by the levels of relationship found in these few verses. If we are welcomed (remember this is conversation about the disciples going out to proclaim and bring in the kingdom), then Jesus is welcomed. And if Jesus is welcomed, the One who sent him is welcomed, (that is, God). It is what the book of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
But then there is also what seems to be a hierarchy: a prophet, a righteous one, a disciple, and “even these little ones” (at the bottom of the rung). I do notice that the suggestion of giving a cup of cold water is to the least of these. And maybe that is how we know whether we have understood what welcome means.
I was reading Mindful magazine and came across this comment from Omid Safi, Director of Islamic Studies in Durham, NC. In an interview, he was asked, You describe yourself as a progressive Muslim. What does that mean?
He answered: “It is a linking of love and justice. If you love people, you are compassionately concerned about their well-being, and you are concerned about how the most marginalized of people are faring at the moment. The same practice of mindfulness—of striving for a tranquil heart—compels me, and so many others, to speak out and organize and mobilize: We are concerned about our fellow brothers and sisters and creatures and about the planet. There is a tendency to see meditativeness and mindfulness as a very individual and private practice, but I have never accepted this idea that love is something private. Love is public. It is something that you do” (p. 30, August 2017).
Love is something that you do.
Welcome has to be more than a word on a sign.
It can seem as simple as a cup of cold water. But there is nothing simple about that action. In the marrow of our bones, we understand that “a cup of cold water” is about life-giving, life-affirming action. And it is most important to be offered to “even one of these little ones.”
Jesus’ words are meant to be soothing to those who might be anxious because they are going out in God’s name, by saying, those who welcome you, welcome God. But in a funny way, I hear this passage as a challenge: we are called to welcome others, because God has welcomed us to the family.
I think that is why our Faith in Action Ministry Programs have resonated with so many of us. Handing out bags of food to those in need in West Orange is like offering a cup of cold water. Participating in preparing soup kitchen meals, in Newark every month, and here in West Orange once in a while, is like offering a cup of cold water. Helping get Panera left-overs to those who could use them is like offering a cold cup of water. Running a food drive so our neighborhood can support the Food Pantry is like offering a cold cup of water. Come September, helping to house the homeless in our manse through IHN is like offering a cup of cold water. But it is more than the food, or the housing. It is the relationships that are formed. It is those conversations you have, picking out food, or driving people home, or gathering toiletries, or sharing winter gear, or hanging out after dinner.
I think we do extraordinary work, this little congregation of impassioned people. I want to celebrate it without allowing it to go to our heads! Do you hear the “but” coming? But I have this feeling that not everyone has found their niche yet.
So I am inviting us all to think about what tugs at our hearts. I am inviting us to begin to have conversations with one another. I am inviting us to pray that God help us know if there is something else we might be doing. Let’s not rule anything out.
Seasons of Spirit tells of one such “welcoming” action of love in Australia. Orange Sky Laundry is the first free mobile laundry service for the homeless. 2 20-Year-olds— were inspired by the song “Orange Sky” by Alexi Murdoch where he imagines standing beneath an orange sky with his brother or his sister standing by, and he says ‘In your love, my salvation lies…’ So they put 2 washing machines and two driers in the back of a van and started washing street people’s clothes for free.
Think of the organization! The water. The volunteers. What do you wear while washing all your clothes? What do you do for the hour the clothes are washed? Orange Sky wants to have non-judgmental conversations, in hopes that “our friends on the street can make gradual steps back into society.” Starting in Brisbane, Orange Sky has now enlarged into 12 vans, 96 locations, and 800 volunteers. It does 7.2 tonnes of laundry a week! But maybe more importantly, there are 1300 hours of positive and genuine conversation—a true cup of cold water.
That is what Jesus meant by welcome.
That is what we are called to do, in our own way.
That is the simple and yet most important thing—
To find a way to DO our love.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we have felt the cool refreshment of your baptismal waters. Our thirst has been quenched by the living water of your grace. May it inspire us to share a cup of cold water with those so desperately in need. Help us to hear your whisper of where we are to go next, what we are to be doing, who should be our partners, and how we should start. Burn within us, like the Spirit burned in the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Make our summer conversations and dreams and plans fruitful. Renew us and sustain us as we travel in the deserts of this world. Hear our gratitude in having brothers and sisters to stand with us, to push us, to inspire us, even to chide us. May we not miss the “little ones” in our midst and in our world. For we are to welcome them as you welcome and love us. In that love, shown in Jesus the Christ, we say, Amen.
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down-at-heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.
We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You're welcome here if you're just browsing, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don't care if you're more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or haven't been to church since Christmas 10 years ago. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.
We welcome keep-fit moms, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you're having problems, are down in the dumps or don't like organized religion. (We're not that keen on it either.)
We offer welcome to those who think the Earth is flat, work too hard, don't work, can't spell, or are here because Granny is visiting and wanted to come to the cathedral. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither.
We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throats as kids or got lost on the Ring Road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters and you.