Readings: Genesis 22:1-14 Matthew 10:40-42
Let us pray: God of grace, be with us we pray as we listen, reflect and respond to your word for us. May we be challenged and strengthened in the way of Jesus, to your great purpose. Amen.
The fire and the wood are here, says Isaac to his dad, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? His father couldn’t quite meet his eyes for he knew the answer.
This is a difficult reading at first (and second) glance – just another example of the barbarity and violence of the Hebrew Scriptures would be a common response. And as I wanted to concentrate rather more on the Gospel reading today, I wondered what, if any, connection, teaching we find in this Old Testament passage to the words of welcome and reward of the Matthew reading?
And let’s not explain it away. Far be it for me to decide that Abraham was responding to some self-concocted fantasy of God’s wishes or that it was of another age and therefore must be ignored.
A colleague commented that Abraham got an A+ for his test on obedience but we can imagine that he failed relationship 101 – Sarah – can you imagine when she heard, and Isaac – today he would have a counsellor at the very least and might not have been too keen on heading off again with his father into the wilderness.
Seriously though, what is it that we can learn from this reading? One thing for me stands out quite strongly. I hear a mature man of God being taught that, with God at his side, he could venture into the most unimaginably horrific scenarios and trust his God to be present and working in that moment. I wonder if we all too often forget that God is in control here. So let us hold that thought as we explore the Gospel reading for today.
Three short verses from Matthew – 6 times we hear the word ‘welcome’ and 3 times ‘reward’. Most translations use welcome, others ‘receive’, another ‘accept.’
I invite you to listen to the same verses as written in The Message bible – you may find this helpful:
“We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
This creates some different thinking doesn’t it? It challenges us to figure out what exactly is meant by welcome and reward for a start.
Welcome is one of those words that has been firmly drilled into us – we are to be a welcoming people, offer what we have and who we are to strangers. But is this what Jesus means? Well yes certainly. But not the whole meaning. Whether we are welcoming someone into our church or our family or our work place, our club, we are inviting them into our place. A place where we know how things work and where we can be gracious in the midst of familiarity and relative control, on our terms so to speak. You could say that it is our hospitality and welcome that we are offering. And sometimes we can get it very wrong –I’ve been to churches where no-one has talked to me, greeted me, engaged with me. I’m sure we all have and that begs the question that maybe we have also been the people that, unintentionally, haven’t always welcomed well either.
But not perhaps like this story of a theologian researching a book and, having gone to a Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland, was impressed by the team of two greeting strangers at the door. They invited conversation, asked some questions and especially asked for first names. But she quickly realised it wasn’t a desire to get to know you but rather an interview and if your name fell into the obvious categories of Catholic names, like Maria and Catherine and Patrick, they were told they were surely in the wrong place and were sent on their way. Welcome – I don’t think so. That is not what is meant by being welcomed or giving a cup of water to those who are thirsty
When Jesus speaks of welcome, he is asking more of us that even our very best practices - and offering more too. Jesus is asking us to accept others in the same way he has welcomed us, in the name of God. We are to greet the stranger not just with the welcome of hands and hearth but fully with the expansive extravagant hospitality of Jesus. And that asks immeasurably more of us. This might well mean that we are to be hospitable, welcoming, away from our place. It means putting ourselves into other people’s places of need, not expecting them to come to us. It means accepting it will be out of our control and firmly in the control and presence of God. There is that Abraham link.
What might it mean for us?
I heard a story last week of someone who is engaging in conversation (mostly listening) with a hurting person who is on the very fringes of our traditional way of being church. They believe in God but not much the church. No way would they find their way to our door, or our homes. They need us to go to them, to take Jesus welcome to them in a way that they feel safe – and that may well make us feel comparatively unsafe.
We do have to remember, though, that practicing welcome in in Jesus name is definitely less predictable, more of an unknown than accepting people into our familiar spaces and practices - neither does it hold out any certainties. Jesus speaks often of the tribulations of ministry. But we also know that in every experience of care, of reaching out, of seeking to be people of the way of Christ, God’s grace continues to work long after we have gone, in those we meet and in ourselves.
This is a compassionate welcoming where it is needed – a hospitality that goes where it is needed. More than that, it encourages the new, the unfamiliar and the unknown. It takes us new places. It opens up our world views and perspectives as well as our hearts and souls. It’s a two way street. So is this the reward that Jesus talks about – where, when we offer welcome in Jesus name, we too are deeply affected, we are both servants and served, we give and we receive.
So as we gather around the table this morning, we remember again that we are a people who are welcomed by Jesus in all our shapes and hues to share food together, to remember that as we are accepted and loved so we are to offer that to those we meet. Then, as Eugene Peterson puts it, we are intimately linked with God’s purpose, we are living that love in the smallest act of giving or receiving and we are gifted as well as gifting in every encounter. Thanks be to God. Amen.