Year A, Pentecost 4
There is no church that doesn’t want to be welcoming, at least not any church that I know. So when we locked the doors of St. John’s and put a sign up that we were closed, it felt like a very dark day for me. I knew it was what we had to do, what the law and the bishop said we must do, but it felt contrary to everything I had ever been taught, or tried to teach others. However, we found new ways to be church. We stopped inviting people in and started going into people’s homes with our online services and zoom coffee hours. Instead of inviting people into the church to have lunch, our outreach team takes bag lunches to others. We, like many organizations were forced to leave our comfort zones and our safe places.
Chapter 10 of Matthew encompasses Jesus’ instruction to the 12 apostles. It begins by telling them what to do if they are not welcomed when they are bringing the Gospel to others. The instruction contains one of the more well known instructions in the Bible, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” Or as Taylor Swift famously sang, “Shake it off.” Matthew goes on to warn about persecution and even the need to separate from families. This life of the apostle wasn’t going to be an easy one. One thing that is consistent through the instructions to the disciples is that Jesus was sending people out. He wasn’t talking about bringing people into the church or the community, he was sending disciples into the world, which leads me to believe that Jesus would approve of the way we have been doing church lately.
In our reading for today, Jesus’ instructions shifts a little. Before, he was warning about the possibility of the disciples not being welcomed. Today, he talks about the rewards of welcoming a disciple of Christ. Because whoever welcomes a disciple of Christ, welcomes Jesus. That is something that we have probably all heard. We understand that Jesus calls us to treat the least of these as we would treat him. But this text feels a little murkier to me. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet….whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person….” What does it mean to welcome a prophet in the name of a prophet? I don’t know how to welcome a prophet. I am not sure even how to welcome a righteous person. Would we welcome them some other way than an unrighteous person? Aren’t we supposed to welcome everyone, regardless of who they are? That is what the Episcopal Church sign says, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”
The phrase “In the name of” is a Jewish expression meaning “because one is”  Now this could mean a few things. It could mean that the welcome was to be extended because the person being welcomed was a prophet or a righteous person. But another interpretation could be more literal, that a person is not to be merely welcomed in the generic “we welcome everyone” way. It is beyond that. Instead, what Jesus is asking is that we welcome each person exactly as they are, not in the way the world may see them, but as their authentic self.We don’t welcome people for who we want them to be, but because of who they truly are. The goal is to reflect the Kingdom of God where we are welcomed exactly as we are. We are respected and appreciated as individuals.
So often when we welcome people, that welcome comes with a certain degree of expectations. In the Episcopal Church, that means they sit when we sit and kneel when we kneel. We are polite and always know that when the priest says, “The Lord be with you”, the response is, “And also with you.” Obviously the Episcopal Church is not the only place that puts expectations on people. Almost every community has some norms, even the small communities of our families. But we cannot let the norms supersede the welcome.
Recently I was talking to some people from our church about how awkward masks are, especially when you can’t always recognize people who you really should recognize. When we come back to church, we are going to be wearing masks. We are all going to look a little different, feel a little different. It will be the same space, but we might not feel the same exact comfort as we once did. We can mourn that (and that is ok) but I wonder if this in an opportunity to welcome one another in a totally new way—let go of previous expectations about how to dress and act. Instead of knowing someone by their face, we listen to their stories. We let go of our more superficial expectations and instead bask in the presence of another one of God’s children.
That is one thing this pandemic has taught us, how precious each one of us is, not only in God’s eyes, but in the eyes of one another. We are not precious in spite of our differences, but because of our differences. I hope that we can consider that the next time we see someone or talk to someone. How can we welcome that person exactly as they are? It sounds so simple, but it’s not. Consider how often you are with someone and think, well if only they could do this differently, or think differently, then they would be so much easier to get along with. The last line of our opening prayer for the day (what we call the collect) is, “Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ…” We worry so much about how to be acceptable to other people or how to make other people more acceptable to us…but really we just have to be acceptable to God. Each one us is born to be God’s temple. No mask or amount of hand sanitizer can change that.
 Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) p 263