Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
With an inquisitive toddler in the house, Jeff and I have become increasingly more aware of our responsibility as parents to interpret the world. We are laying the foundation of her worldview. We’re teaching her how to react and interact with life situations and different people.
The other week, we heard a story about two young children who had wandered away from home and were picked up by a neighbor and the police. This hit home for me as I realized how easy it would be for my little one to wander off. Her tendency to go wherever she wants or to open the door and let herself outside has sent me to the store to buy locks and to consider placing a permanent tracking device on her. It also has meant another conversation about police.
After our conversation, we check what she’s understood. What do police do? -They help people. They keep us safe. What do police wear? -They have a badge.
We’re training her to accept help from someone properly identified as a police officer. Not because we’ve met any of the local sheriffs, but because we trust the role of police, and hope that each person serving as such will act as they should. When she needs help, if we weren’t around, we want her to be comfortable getting the help she needs from someone safe.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is preparing his disciples to take on their role as his followers. This passage comes towards the end of Jesus’ speech to the disciples. Jesus is sending them out to all the people of Israel, to declare God’s kingdom, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Jesus tells them to pack nothing, but depend on the hospitality of those they meet. He warns them that this is not going to be easy, in fact, it’s going to be very dangerous. People will reject them. Their ministry will have a bad affect on their families. Yet after these warnings, he offers this message of hope: they have been given the honor of being Jesus’ presence. Those who welcome them will be rewarded.
The writer of Matthew is using this event to speak to his own community. Matthew’s community are the next generation disciples, who struggle with having joined this new Christian movement because it has meant leaving family and familiar ways of living and worshipping. They continue the disciples’ work of proclaiming the kingdom in word and deed, working as Jesus for the world. They have experiences of welcome as well as rejection.
As this text finds its way to my ears, I find myself conflicted as to where we fit in. We’re overhearing a historic event, we’re considering the early church, and we’re expecting God to speak to us with instruction for our lives today. But which role is ours? We might hear this text from either side: both as the ones being welcomed or the ones welcoming others.
We might see ourselves in the long line of disciples whom Jesus sends out into the world. I know this might not be your first impulse. It’s more likely that you’ve been raised to think that missionaries are people who are sent, and that your job is to support those other people who are talented and trained to share the gospel. But the truth is that you have been united with Jesus in your baptism, and so share in his ministry. You are called to bring Jesus into the world, carrying his presence in you, and you do this as prophet, righteous one, and even as the least of the disciples.
As pastor, this task is easier for me to grasp than I think it may be for many of you. Like you all, I am called to enter the role of Jesus’ disciple, Jesus’ emissary, by virtue of my baptism. In addition to my baptismal identity and call, I have also taken on the role, or office, of pastor, through my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Like the police and other public servants, I put on a uniform that speaks to my role. Here for church, I put on my stole as a symbol of being yoked with Christ, and both here and in the community, I wear a clerical collar as a sign of my office. In an age of informality, I still appreciate being called “Pastor” because it is a reminder to both the one addressing and to me that I am called to fulfill a role. This uniform and address are reminders that I work on behalf of, in the name of Christ.
To work in the name of Christ is not to elevate myself to his divinity, but to step back from seeking praise for myself. It’s not about me. It means that I am not looking to be accepted based on who I am, not because I’m Elizabeth, not because I achieved a certain GPA, or went to a certain school, or look a certain way, or can quote so many Bible verses.
Sent in Jesus’ name, I come as an imperfect vessel of Jesus’ perfect presence. As I enter your lives in times of joy and sorrow, in the midst of grief or illness, on your wedding day or the baptism of your child, I dare to enter such holy times and places of vulnerability because I trust that Jesus Christ will be there for you, through me. I myself have nothing to offer, but Christ has something to offer, so I come as Christ’s messenger, Christ’s presence, because that’s what he has told me to do.
You may not have been set aside by ordination or consecration, but you have been chosen and called through baptism, and there you were clothed with Christ and marked with the sign of the cross. You, too, are called to bring Christ to others.
You don’t have to be a great speaker, or healer, or encourager, or administrator. Those gifts are good, but it is not only the people “out front” who serve the world as Christ. This text reminds us that the littlest or the least among us is valued by God. There are many among us who do thankless work. You may do the work that is taken for granted, never noticed until you’re gone on vacation or have to step down. You might not feel like you fit in. Even those who rub us like sand in our sandals have a place in Jesus’ community. Whatever your specific gifts and calling are, you are faithful in sharing them through your greater calling to go into the world as Jesus’ presence. As you live and work in Jesus’ name, it becomes less about you and your abilities, and more about the one in whose name you go. Jesus has the power to make himself known through you in both your best days and your most clumsy efforts.
By taking on your role as baptized child of God, and being welcomed by others for the presence of Christ you bring them, you are blessing them. It can be difficult to accept being welcomed. For those of us who are used to being the host, who like to get up and serve others, it can feel strange to be on the receiving end of hospitality. To be Jesus’ presence can mean taking his stance of humility and accepting welcome as a gift, even from those you intend to serve.
When I was volunteering with Lutheran Disaster Response in Puerto Rico, we built a house in the middle of a shantytown. One afternoon, we were walking through the town, picking up trash. A man came out of his little house with Styrofoam containers of freshly scrambled eggs for us. It was something I was totally unprepared for: accepting a gift from someone who had so little. It was a welcome that bridged the divide between the one planning to serve and the one planned to be served. In Christ’s name, we serve each other. Because we bear Christ to others, we may find ourselves welcomed in unexpected ways.
Jesus also calls us to be the ones welcoming others. In this passage, he is speaking to the insiders, the community of disciples, and Matthew writes to his own community, another group of insiders. So we have to look outside this text to hear the refrain God sings: calling us to welcome the sinner, the outsider, the immigrant, and the powerless, as well as the other Christians: prophets, righteous ones, and even the least and the most irritating within our community.
Here in this place, God is forming your worldview, and training you for your role in the world. Jesus has united himself with you, and calls you to bring his presence to all the world. May you experience the joy of being welcomed for the sake of the one who sends you, and for the sake of the message of love Jesus speaks through you.
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