If you’ve ever watched a Western movie, you’ve probably seen one of those reward posters that were prominent in the Old West.
"Wanted: Dead or Alive – Black Bart – Reward: $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction."
We tried something like that with Osama Bin Laden, but so far we haven’t had any takers, even though the reward is $25 million. Being married to a teacher, I know that elementary teachers also use a reward system to keep order. Cheryl uses tickets, and if you get enough tickets you get a prize of some sort. It seems to work pretty well for her. And of course, diplomacy is based in a reward system. You don’t get very far with diplomacy if all you have is a stick. Most diplomats find that the carrot works much better than the stick, and it’s a lot cheaper and safer in the long run – no messy wars to deal with.
When it comes to preaching, fire and brimstone is a bit like the carrot and the stick principle. If you turn to Jesus, you get a free pass to paradise. If you don’t – well, hope you like the heat! As you know, I’m not a fire and brimstone preacher. In fact, I don’t put that much emphasis on either the carrot or the stick. In my mind, faith is its own reward. But when Jesus talks about rewards I have to pay attention.
1. The Reward of Being Welcomed
In this passage from Matthew, the focus isn’t on the reward we receive, but is instead centered on the reward received by those who welcome us and our message. If you back up a few verses, you’ll discover that Jesus has sent out the twelve on a little mission trip. Before they go, he tells them that not everyone is going to welcome them and their message. In fact, some people might treat them badly. Remember, he says, if they oppose me, they’ll oppose you. And if you think your families will be different, it’s quite possible that they might decide to disown you and your message. Finally, in a very unpleasant passage, Jesus says to the disciples: "I have come not to bring peace, but the sword: (Mt. 10:34). That may not sound like the Jesus we know and love, but there it is.
The point of this chapter is to remind us that not everyone is open to the message of Jesus, but those who are open will be rewarded and blessed. And when we’re welcomed, Jesus says that he’s welcomed, and if he’s welcomed then the one who sent him is welcomed. This seems to be another way of saying, we are the body of Christ, and where we’re present, he is present, and where he is present, God is present. Those who receive us receive God. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a very big responsibility.
2. The Reward of Being a Welcoming People
Everything I read these days suggests that while people are seeking spiritual guidance and comfort, they’re not looking to the church for answers. They’re open, but they’re not finding answers in the traditional places – like the church. The situation is a bit different than the one Jesus’ earliest disciples faced, at least that’s true here in America. It’s not that there’s opposition, it’s just that many people don’t trust us to be good messengers.
So, in many ways the shoe is on the other foot. If our community is going to be blessed by a relationship with the God of Jesus, then we must offer a welcome to those who are seeking God. But like those earliest disciples we must leave the comfort of our church walls if we’re going to share the message of Jesus with the world. Our message should be one of grace, mercy, love, and justice, but the question is: what does the world see in us that in welcoming us they might welcome the message of Jesus?
As I thought about this passage, I thought about our list of core values. At the very top of that list is the word welcome. When we developed that list, we committed ourselves to being a people who welcome others into our midst. For the past several years, we’ve been learning what it means to put out the welcome mat. Indeed, this is a process that never ends, because the questions and issues facing our world are ever changing. Besides, too often we talk about the principle of welcome in very abstract ways. It’s easy to say: Everyone is welcome. But is that true? Remember what James has to say about making distinctions between rich and poor.
So, what if someone comes to us speaking a language other than English, how will we welcome that person? Or, what if it’s someone of a race or culture that’s different from the majority? In fact, What if their theology is a bit different from ours? Then there’s the matter of sexual orientation. If that’s not enough, we have to deal with generational differences.
When I was a teenager, my mother didn’t always like my music, and I must confess that I don’t always like Brett’s music. That’s just the way it is. But music isn’t the only barrier. In someways there’s even a language barrier. Even if we all speak English, the dialect may be different. Words will mean different things – you know, bad may be good, or not. When we talk across generational lines, things often get lost in translation.
Being a welcoming congregation isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. As I get ready to leave you, I have great confidence that you will continue to grow in your ability and willingness to welcome everyone who comes your way. Not only that, but I believe you’re willing and able to go beyond the walls and share this word of welcome. And as you do this, there is a great reward.
The key to being a welcoming congregation is keeping ones ears and eyes open for the seekers in our midst. There are great numbers of people who desperately want to find answers to their spiritual questions. Just a few weeks back, I was watching Desperate Housewives with Cheryl, and in this particular episode one of the characters, who is representative of that growing community of nonreligious people, goes to church and stands up during the sermon and asks her questions. It’s quite out of the ordinary, but the point is well taken. Why can’t we have a conversation about the important questions that are on our hearts and minds – even if that means disrupting the monologue that is a sermon?
Our calling from God is this: Welcome the stranger into your midst, so that together you may find the answers to the questions of the hour. In this there is great reward.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
May 25, 2008
2nd Sunday after Pentecost