By Elisabeth Hartwell
RCL Reflection, Pentecost 5A/Proper 8, Year A
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July 2, 2023
Key verse: Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. –Matthew 10:40
I’ve been going to church my whole life. I’ve gone to small, medium, and large churches, churches representing a variety of traditions and denominations, affluent and not-so-affluent churches, conservative and progressive churches. Regardless of their differences, the one thing all these churches have in common is their claim that they’re welcoming.
My fellow preachers, have you ever been to a church that didn’t claim to be hospitable? But the thing is, if you’re like me, you might realize that not every church is truly welcoming.
In this week’s Gospel, Matthew speaks of the need to be welcoming. According to Jesus, how we extend (or don’t extend) hospitality toward one another is directly related to how we welcome Jesus himself – and ultimately, our Triune God.
What’s at stake here is how we become good stewards of the welcome Jesus extends to us. If we don’t reciprocate this welcome in our churches and our relationships, we are not being faithful stewards of the hospitality we ourselves been shown.
Fellow preachers, as we seek a better understanding of what genuine welcome looks like and how to be faithful stewards of God’s hospitality in our own lives, there are a few different directions our sermons might go.
- For starters, a sermon on this Scripture could explore how it is that we extend authentic welcome to one another, moving past the things that prevent us from forming genuine connections. What does hospitality require of us? It means having a truly reciprocal relationship in which we let go of control. We place ourselves on a level playing field with one another and regard ourselves as equals. This is risky stuff, but to truly welcome another person we must allow ourselves to be welcomed by them too.
- Another angle you might take involves examining how this scripture could give us a false sense of pride and self-righteousness. We might assume that we’re the ones whom everyone else should be welcoming. If we don’t feel this welcome, we might be inclined to brush it off, assuming it’s that other person’s loss. After all, when someone rejects us, they’re in turn also rejecting God. Right? Consider, though, all those people of faith who might be very different from you but who also assume they’re the ones who should be welcomed. Do you extend the same hospitality to them that you believe they should extend to you?
- You might also use the sermon as a pep talk of sorts for those who feel constantly rejected and unwelcome, and who are tired from trying to live out their faith. You could focus on the mention of rewards in verses 41-42, asking what it looks like to be rewarded for faith. What do we need to do to earn a reward, and what do rewards look like when we earn them?
Regardless of the direction you take, the question of how we extend hospitality remains very relevant. Consider recent events in the Southern Baptist Church and United Methodist Church. Southern Baptists are putting strict policies in place to prevent women from being ordained, and United Methodists are dividing over issues that dictate (among other things) how they’ll welcome (or not) those who identify as LGBTQIA+. The question of welcome and hospitality remains critical, and is one well worth devoting a sermon to.
Invite congregants to look around the sanctuary during worship. Whom do they see that they know? Whom do they not know? Do they sit in the same pew each Sunday, surrounded by the same people? Who isn’t in worship that they’d like to invite? Encourage your congregants to use Sunday morning worship as a time to practice welcome and hospitality, exploring the barriers that prevent them from being truly welcoming and tapping into the possibilities that may surface once they become more welcoming.
Invite youth in your congregation to consider who their friends are. Do they reach out to make friends with those who are different from them? How do they respond when someone looks, acts, believes, or lives differently from them? Explore with youth what it means to truly welcome someone else, suggesting that it often involves stepping outside of their comfort zone. You might also have a conversation about empathy, encouraging them to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Invite children to consider a time when they were new to a place or unfamiliar with their surroundings. What did other people do that helped them to feel welcome? On the flip side, what made them feel unwelcome? Discuss ways they can help someone else who may be new or scared, and talk about how Jesus always tried to make other people feel welcome by including them, talking and eating with them, and even healing them. When we welcome other people we’re following in Jesus’ footsteps.
The Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell serves as pastor of Hiland Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.