10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
10:41 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;
10:42 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.”
In college one of our chaplains was a man named Luther. Luther was southern and United Methodist. He had been those two things his entire life. His father was a Methodist preacher. One day, as a young man in the early 1960’s, this son of a Methodist preacher went to a different Methodist congregation for worship. He got to the door, expecting to go in a worship God. And then a man stopped him, and instead of handing him a bulletin told him to leave. Luther was African American, and he was not welcome at their church.
Now Luther, had not come to the doors of the church knowing he wouldn’t be allowed in. He came in the sincere belief that since he was a United Methodist, and more importantly a Christian, he would be welcomed into worship in this United Methodist church. He left that day knowing the truth: not everyone who proclaims Christ’s welcome to all people really means it.
When I heard that story I felt bad for Luther. If you’ve ever experienced rejection for being who God created you to be, then you know how much that hurts you, right to the core. But I felt even worse for the church who did it to him. Because they had no idea what they were missing. They had no idea that they had just turned away Jesus.
No, Luther was not Jesus Christ. Not in the literal sense, anyway. But according to today’s Gospel, he may as well have been. Matthew writes, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And the unspoken part is this: when you fail to welcome someone, you fail to welcome Jesus.
There’s an old joke among preachers. We joke that there are many churches that wouldn’t let Jesus in the door. We also joke that there are many churches that Jesus wouldn’t really want to come to anyway. I’ve always sort of believed that if Jesus came back on a Sunday morning he wouldn’t come and visit us good church folks right away. He’d be in a homeless shelter. Or a hospital. Or a day laborers line. People who need him the most.
But that’s not how it has to be. Because on Sunday morning, we have the power to change that. On Sunday morning we have the power to be the place where the people who need Jesus the most feel welcomed. We have the power to become the first place that people who need love and hope look.
And yet the church has sometimes been the last.
I wear my clergy collar more than most Protestant ministers. Those of us who are Protestant ministers who wear collars sometimes get some flack. We’re told that only Catholic or Episcopal priests do that. We’re told that it creates a hierarchy between ordained people and lay people. We’re told it’s really just too formal.
Now the reality is that the clergy collar was most likely a Protestant invention, and it wasn’t so long ago that almost every clergy person wore them regularly. And the reality is that it’s not a sign of superiority. It’s a sign of functionality. It’s a uniform that tells people who we are and that they can approach us.
I find that happens a lot when I wear my collar. People come up to me in coffee shops, in restaurants, in hospital lobbies, and ask me for help or ask me questions they never would otherwise.
The one thing that happens the most, though, is people tell me why they no longer go to church. They don’t do it angrily. They do it with sadness. They do it because they need someone in the church to hear what happened.
I hear stories like this: I left the church because people judged how I dress on Sunday morning, and I can’t afford dress clothes. I left the church because my family member who has Down Syndrome was not fully included in the children’s programming. I left the church because when my son had AIDS no one in the church would talk about it, even though I needed to. I left the church because as soon as people found out who my daughter really was, she was no longer welcome there. And I refuse to go to a place where she is not welcome.
These are not people who hate God. These are people who love God too much to settle for a partial welcome. These are people who know the Gospel too well to accept anything less than Christ’s love. These are people who need the church, and who have yet to find a place they feel is worthy of that name.
A lot of people say to me, “all Christians are hypocrites.” To which I reply, “yes, we are. And so is everyone. Because we are human.” But then I tell them this: we try really hard not to be. And that’s why we need you to help us change. That’s why we need you to join us. Because we want to get this right.
The church is not God…but for some people we may as well be. And when they feel that we don’t love them, they feel like God doesn’t love them. And when they see the minister in the collar walking down the street, all they want to do is tell me what happened and hear that maybe one representative of the church feels like God still loves them.
God does. And God loves us. God loves both of us so much, that God wants us to extend that welcome to one another. God wants us to welcome one another because in doing so we truly welcome Christ. We will never really know Jesus until we welcome everyone as though they were Jesus.
And that goes for all of us. There is no one who has done this perfectly. And yet those of us who have tried, often find we are better off for it. We find gifts and graces we would never have imagined.
Here’s an example. When you were looking for a pastor, did you really think you would end up calling someone like me? It’s unspoken, but we can talk about the unspoken for a minute. And, I’ll be honest, I thought I would be an associate pastor at a progressive urban church.
And yet, we both felt like God was calling us to one another. And so we decided to extend a welcome to one another. And now, I think we’ve got something good going on here. I think we are building something incredible together, with the help of God’s grace. I am glad we opened ourselves up to one another, and I am glad that in that welcome we found Christ just a little more.
I am, as you know, a big fan of the phrase, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I love it because it means everyone, not just the people we agree with. It means that on Sundays people who vote differently, think differently, and hope differently can still sit next to one another here, be loved for who they are and not just who we hope them to be, and worship God together. And in the end, that’s all that matters. And in the end that’s the gift we get for the welcome that we offer. May this be a church that would welcome Jesus, no matter what shape he took when he came to the front doors. Amen.