Sunday, July 2, 2017
I want you to take a moment to think back to your childhood. When was the first time you remember encountering Jesus? Was it at Sunday School? In a church? Did you hear about him from a friend or family member? Some of you may have heard me tell this story before, but one of my first memories of Jesus was at the church I grew up, Lord of Love Lutheran Church off of 108th and Fort. Still today at the front of the sanctuary there is a huge wooden cross. It is quite realistic looking, and when I was little I remember thinking that THAT was the cross that Jesus died on – that was how real the story of Jesus was for me. But the other thing I remember is hearing the Bible stories about Jesus welcoming the children. Jesus cared about kids like me. Jesus welcomed the children even when the other disciples wanted them to go away and quit bothering him. I was important to Jesus. I had something to contribute. I heard that message clearly from an early age. That had a powerful effect on my life, obviously, as it led me eventually to serve the church as a pastor.
Jesus says today that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.” Now Jesus isn’t necessarily just talking about children, but about all those “little ones” in society – anyone who is undervalued, overlooked, unappreciated. Think about in your life who some of those little ones might be…the grocery store clerk, the garbage collectors, older adults in skilled care facilities, people with physical and mental disabilities. Jesus asks us to welcome these people with the love of a disciple, with his own great love. And you have probably heard a sermon like this before: as Christians we are to be loving, kind, friendly, welcoming people. We can practice hospitality as a spiritual practice, especially by paying attention to those we might otherwise miss, the little ones that Jesus calls us to pay attention to and welcome. I’ve preached a few sermons like this before.
But today, I want to take a little different tack. Because I’m convinced that we cannot extend the welcome and love of Christ to those we know, especially to those little ones, unless we are deeply aware of Christ’s same welcome and love for us. We have to receive welcome, receive the grace of God, before we can share that same love and welcome to anyone else. This is likely more difficult for us to do because we’re taught to be independent, self-sufficient people, for the most part, and we even have that saying, “It is better to give than to receive,” right? I’m not sure, though, if we have never experienced the graciousness of others, if we even know what that looks like enough to emulate graciousness and welcome in return. In fact, if we think of our relationship with Jesus, there is NOTHING that we can give that would be better than the love that we’ve received from him.
Most likely, if you think back to that first experience of Jesus, this was also a time when you experienced the love and welcome of Jesus– it wasn’t about what YOU did to earn Jesus’ love or welcome Jesus into your heart, it was about Jesus waking you up to realize he loves you and welcomes you into the heart of God, just as you are. So I want you to think about this a little more…where have you experienced the amazing love and welcome of God in your life, not just as a child, but even today?
Pastor Rich and I just had an experience where we were reminded that as Christians we receive grace often as much as we give it. One of the mission developer pastors that Pastor Rich works with, John Badeng, invited him to be a groomsman in his Sudanese wedding celebration. It was a huge honor – Rich was the only non-Sudanese person in the wedding party. We learned a lot that day. For example, the wedding invitation came with the day and the location but no time. When Rich asked what time we should be there, John told us “noon.” So all the white people, including us, showed up at noon…but being on African time meant that really the wedding started at 2pm. As people streamed into the church, each one greeted me warmly and tickled the baby. One of the Sudanese pastors interpreted what was going on for us in English while other leaders spoke in Nuer. We were invited into a celebration that we had no idea what was going on, but we were welcomed into anyway.
I really can’t imagine what John and his wife had gone through to get to that day: over twenty years of warfare in their country, walking for days without food or water to get to a refugee camp, waiting in a refugee camp for months before being able to resettle in the United States, being separated and then finding one another again. At the wedding, some of John’s siblings were able to come that he had not seen in over twenty years.. Now, usually because the Sudanese are a minority in our city, the Sudanese have to learn to do things OUR way. Show up on time for work (not African time). Eat our food, speak English, and so on – we are the ones that have welcomed them to live in our country, and they are grateful. Last Saturday was a time for us NOT be in control and simply BE welcomed– a celebration where THEY were the hosts. And out of all of their family, friends, and important people that they chose to invite, I’m still mystified and honored that they also chose to invite us – it was beyond any privilege we earned or deserved.
Another example of receiving grace that I experience as a parent of now TWO children is physically being unable to be in two places with two children at the same time. “Let me help you with that” has been a godsend. My eyes have been opened to people who understand what it’s like to be a parent of young children because they’ve been there before and are willing to help. I don’t like to ask for help, but I know sometimes I just have to. And when I do, it’s like God is tapping me on the shoulder to remind me – I’m in control, not you, Rebecca. I’ve got this, and I’m here to help. Sometimes that’s what God asks us to do – simply receive that help, that welcome, as God’s grace and gift to us.
God loves you and has welcomed you forever into God’s kingdom, period. When you experience radical welcome, that is God in Jesus Christ reminding you that you are a child of God, loved and valued deeply, beyond anything you could hope for or imagine. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus reminds us. Not just that when we welcome others we ought to be recognizing the Christ in those we welcome – that is also true, but that when we receive someone else’s hospitality, someone else’s generosity, someone else’s help, that welcoming is Christ for us and to us. When we can recognize and respond with gratitude to the many ways God is at work in others to show us love, then we can share that love with others in Jesus’ name. Amen.