Proper 8, Year A, St. Matthew’s Church, McMinnville

Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (Matt. 10:41).

It’s easy to miss the premise of these few verses from Matthew that serve as our Gospel today: that is, the Christian life is characterized by arrival and departure. Granted, today we hear about arrival and welcome; but it’s just a little bit earlier in the tenth chapter that we find abrupt departure. “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” (Matt. 10:14). A robust teaching for sure. We didn’t hear that in our lectionary this year; we’ll have to wait until next year to hear Mark’s version.

Arrival and departure. All of which is compassed in this chapter-long teaching on Jesus’ commissioning of the twelve disciples for their ministry. He sends them out into the world, “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16), warning them of persecutions that lie ahead. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10: 34). Much of this we’ve heard in our readings over the last couple of weeks, as Jesus prepares the twelve for their mission and ministry; and prepares us, as well, for the work we have to do.

Arrival and departure: bishops know all about this, since we are constantly coming and going, if you don’t mind my saying, though recently I’ve been keeping close to home like the rest of us. I ran across this line in an essay the other day, “A rapid series of unbearable partings is the best proof that one is living” (Cyril Connolly, “England Not My England”). I took the writer to mean that the pain of departure is a part of being human. If so, then it reminds us that the changeability of life is a legitimate part of the experience, and that as human beings we truly possess no permanent abode short of the kingdom. As it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, “For here we have no continuing city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

Our reading today, at the very end of this chapter from Matthew, focuses our attention in a similar way on the end of the journey, on arrival and welcome. Here Jesus talks about the reward that awaits his followers, the joy of those who arrive. No one, of course, is a disciple on account of a reward: that were to put the cart before the horse. Yet there is divine hospitality, the welcome that awaits those who journey with Jesus.

Remember the story of the prodigal son? After squandering himself and wandering in a far-off land, the younger son finally returned home and was welcomed by his father. What did the father say to the older brother? “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15:32). As Jesus says earlier, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk. 15:7). Sinners are looking for rescue and forgiveness, not banking on a reward.

Our reading today focuses us not so much on the reward that we will receive, as on the hospitality we are meant to show. For a long time, I took this reading to be strictly about the hospitality that was to be shown to the disciples by those to whom they were sent. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). But if you think about it again, it’s just as much about what we, the church collectively, need to do, in welcoming others. Again, as it says in Hebrews, “Extend hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

“Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (Matt. 10:41). The righteous person who’s created the possibility of welcome and hospitality for us is Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection. We welcome others in the name of this righteous person. So, who are the people we are meant to be welcoming?

Two answers here. First, those whom God sends to us; those who have arrived and need our welcome. Perhaps there are some here who can remember how they were welcomed to St. Matthew’s Church; how people made room for them in the life of the congregation and extended a helping hand. Some may remember, but we’ve all had the experience of others making room for us whether we remember it or not. We need to extend the same welcome to others.

Second part of the answer: those who are not yet here, especially those who are different from us, and those most in need of hospitality. These are the folks that we need to welcome most. It’s really not about how others greet us and what they’re supposed to do: it’s truly about the way we can stretch ourselves in mission and ministry to others. When others arrive, we need to welcome them; when others are lost, we need to find them.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee