Sunday Sermon – July 2, 2017

I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much for your warm welcome and hospitality                                                              to me and Lauren and the kids.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving to town, it’s that St John’s knows how to welcome others.

I saw it in the way all the children, including my own, were welcomed to a Star Wars-themed Vacation Bible School, swinging pool-noodle light sabers, and singing songs about a little green man named Yoda.

I saw it in the laughter and welcome at the Newcomer’s dinner. It was originally planned to be a pool party, until the rain showed up. But it wasn’t long, before the conversation and laughter inside, drowned out the heavy rains outside.

And I saw it in the way the young adult supper club opened up their arms to Lauren and I, while also saying goodbye to a good and faithful pastor in Daniel.  

There have been so many ways we have received your hospitality: warm welcomes at church, hot meals delivered to us, and suggestions on the best places to eat at and the best places to buy groceries. I also heard a rumor that a young boy who recently moved to town, had eight cookies during refreshments after the 10:30 service last Sunday. He shall remain nameless, but I happen to know he appreciated the hospitality.

St John’s knows how to welcome others, and all of this welcoming and hospitality has been on my mind as I’ve reflected on today’s Gospel. These three short verses are all about welcoming others who come to us in the name of Jesus. And while they may be straight forward instructions, they have much to teach us about where the spiritual life happens.

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus has just finished commissioning the twelve disciples to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. He gives them authority as his witnesses to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. He has told them about the hard road ahead.

And then there’s today’s portion of Matthew’s Gospel. The instructions are addressed to the twelve disciples, but Matthew makes sure we as the church get to overhear what Jesus tells them. Jesus tells the disciples that whenever someone welcomes them, it’s the same thing as welcoming Jesus himself.

And the twelve disciples weren’t the only traveling witnesses. Matthew’s community would have recognized Jesus’ instructions about receiving prophets, righteous persons, and little ones, all three names used interchangeably for these traveling witnesses. It wasn’t unusual to have these travelers show up to teach and proclaim the good news about Jesus.

There’s a document called the Didache that predates portions of the New Testament. It’s from a community of early Jewish Christians most likely in Syria. They were familiar with these gospel-sharing travelers, too.

The Didache gives instructions on how to tell if one of these travelers was legitimate or not. Receive them as the Lord, but if they stay more than two days, or if they ask for money, don’t pay them any attention because they are not to be trusted.

So here we have two early Christian communities that have so many folks coming and going in the name of Jesus that they have to be instructed on how to handle them. And each community is to welcome these travelers, and treat them as representatives of Christ. To acknowledge each of them as containing a gift that must be received, the presence of Jesus himself.

And it’s here, if we take a closer look, that we gain a deeper understanding of Jesus and how he works in the world.

If someone were to ask you where the risen life of Jesus happens, where would you tell them to look? You could tell them that Jesus happens wherever two or more people gather in his name. Not just the original twelve disciples, or people who are called prophets, or righteous, or little ones—but you and me.

We who have come to know the healing love of Jesus ourselves. We who have been given the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of the good news.  We who through our Baptismal vows have promised a lifelong commitment to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”

And this is the key to the spiritual life in Jesus: it happens with others. There’s definitely a place for our own individual prayer and spiritual practices. But we must always remember that Jesus doesn’t call us to lone-ranger spirituality where individuals are somehow supposed to find their way on their own.

Instead, Jesus’ call to follow him is an invitation to join in the life of the community that forms around him – the church. Welcoming each other is so important because it’s how we receive the risen life of Jesus made available to us through each other as those who carry his presence in the world.

We moved here on a Wednesday, the last day of May. On Friday morning, Daniel and I had a mutual friend who was going to be ordained in Birmingham. I got a flat tire the Wednesday afternoon we moved in so I asked Daniel, for a ride up to the ordination. So on Thursday night, I get a text from Daniel. He was wondering if we had our coffee maker up and running yet, and if he could bring me some coffee the next morning. I was glad because we were up to our necks in boxes, and still hadn’t found our coffee.

So the next morning, I get in the car and he hands me my coffee made just the way I like it. Then he hands me a bag with two muffins, one sausage and one veggie, because he wasn’t sure what I’d like. I finished my muffin somewhere between here and Birmingham when I found out Daniel recently had his wisdom teeth out and couldn’t eat either of the muffins he brought me. We had a great time and talked about books, and theology, and life.   

And then something happened on the way. It wasn’t dramatic. There were no special effects. And I only began to become aware of it as the day went on. It was the presence of Jesus was with us as we drove up to Birmingham. I felt his loving presence in the holy, and sacred, and ordinary way it comes to us whenever we gather. Through laughter, connection, and the normal business of just being with one another.

And at the end of the day, I was filled with gratitude and wonder that I wouldn’t have experienced any of the grace of that trip had I done it alone.

So if you’re ever asked where the risen life of Jesus happens, you might find yourself pointing at two guys in a Honda driving up to Birmingham. Or maybe kids and adults at Vacation Bible School. Or new and old friends, sharing a meal in someone’s house. Or maybe it’ll be people gathered on a Sunday morning to pray and give thanks and share a holy meal.

Just look for wherever two or three gather, welcoming the gift of the presence of Jesus in their midst.

And wherever you see that happening, you will see how God’s saving work come to us in this world—Together.