Our scripture reading takes us to the middle of the gospel of Matthew where Jesus is going to various cities reaching out, teaching, and healing people. As he calls more people to follow him, he forms a community of laborers and support systems. Jesus is prepping the disciples and their supporters for the mission of prophecy, justice, and mercy.
Does one word stand out to you in this passage? Matthew, the gospel writer, is not very subtle in his word choice. The word “welcome” appears six times, and in Greek, that repetition is for emphasis of a concept. For us, Jesus embodies a place of welcome more than anyone ever has. When we invite him into our circumstances, we gain entry into his kingdom beyond where wounds are healed, injustices made right, and joys realized in their glorious fullness. We step from our little lives into the larger life of eternity. It seems the early disciples and their followers took that concept of welcome to heart.
During the course of the second and third centuries, a series of plagues hit much of the world. Since this was also a time when the Christian faith was just beginning to spread, you’d have thought that the Christian faith would surely have died, because people would ask, “What kind of God would let this happen?”
Strangely enough, it was a time of great church growth. People flocked to the Christian faith because they noted that Christians seems to be surviving the plagues better than the general populations. The reason was not that God was saving Christians and destroying heathens. The reason was that the Christians were taking Jesus’ command to offer a cup of cold water to their neighbors.
The Christians didn’t know how to stop plagues any better than anyone else, but while the pagans pulled away from the dying, the Christians ministered to the sick by giving them food and something to drink. Many of these Christian caring for the sick died in this loving act, but the number of caregivers who died was dwarfed by the numbers of the ill who recovered. That little bit of food and drink they received was sometimes just enough to help the sick recover.
This surely makes me think of our own plague, COVID, and the caregivers who are helping them.
Each day we have the opportunity to make choices about how we respond to our circumstances. There is a story about a wise man who decided to go on a journey to see some of his friends, do a pilgrimage and preach, as he always did, to anyone along the way. But his plans changed and he had to get there more quickly. After thinking for a while, he decided to go straight up and over the mountain instead of going around it. As soon as his followers and friends heard what he was intending to do, they tried to talk him out of it, saying, “Master, you can’t, it’s not safe. That mountain is filled with thieves and bandits. It’s said to be the home of the leader of them. He’s vicious and robs everyone, rich or poor, and shows no mercy. Don’t go.”
But the man just smiled and said to them, “I have nothing worth robbing and I won’t stand out on the pathway. And so, in spite of all their warnings, he went.
The journey was lovely and he traveled for two days and nights enjoying the beauty and solitude. However, on the third day, he heard the pounding of hoofs and a heavily armed horseman, sword in hand, shouted, “Your money or your life.” He looked at the robber and showed him his empty pockets and said, “No money, so I guess it’s going to be my life!”
The bandit leaned forward to swing his sword, to kill the traveler.
“Wait a minute! You know the rules, if you are going to take my life, then you owe me one wish before I die,” said the wise man.
The bandit hesitated. He did know the rules, but no one had ever thought to invoke them before now. “OK, what do you want, what’s your last wish old man?”
The old man gestured toward an old tree alongside the road. “My wish has two parts to it. See that tree! I want you to hack off its largest limb.”
The bandit laughed, swung the sword, and it was done.
“Good,” said the wise man, “now for the second part. I want you to put the limb back on the tree.”
The bandit was stupefied and just sat on his horse. Then he started laughing and screaming, “You stupid old man. That’s impossible! No one can put a limb back on a tree.”
But the wise man looked sternly at him and replied, “You are the only one here who is stupid! Fix what you have destroyed. Any ignoramus, even a thoughtless child, can destroy and chop off things, but it takes power and creativity to undo such idiocy.” The man grew wrathful and angry, cursing the wise man.
The man calmly continued, “Anyone can kill, maim, or destroy . . . it takes no intelligence whatsoever. Real power is found in being able to undo the harm that you and others do. Real power is found in healing what has been broken, in standing in a breach and drawing both sides together, and in imaginatively bringing life and possibility where there was nothing before. That’s the real kind of power.
The bandit was now silent. He got down off his horse, approached the wise man saying, “I want that kind of power, can you teach me?”
The wise man answered, “Yes, I can teach you, but it is the hardest discipline of all, bringing life out of death and despair. It is a lifelong struggle.”
And they say the bandit rose from his knees, dropped his sword and followed the wise man, and after much study became a disciple who carried on his teaching. May we do likewise. (Megan McKenna, Like Hammer Shattering Rock, Image: New York, 2013, pp. 78-79)
I’ll close with a familiar story about a prisoner heading home on a bus loaded with college students. A young woman sat down next to him and they struck up a conversation. He told her that he’d been in prison for four years and that his wife hadn’t written to him in three and a half. When he learned that he was being paroled, he wrote again and said he still loved her. He would understand, however, if she never wanted to see him again. To make it easier on both of them, he suggested that his wife use a yellow handkerchief to communicate her feelings. If she wanted him back, she would tie the handkerchief on the old oak tree near their home. If there was no handkerchief, he would stay on the bus and keep going. Word of the arrangement spread through the bus. As it came into town, folks flocked to the windows and began cheering. On the tree was not one, but hundreds of yellow handkerchiefs. (story adapted from Evan Drake Howard in Christian Century, June 2008).
Like this story, which inspired the hit song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon on the Ole Oak Tree,” the last three verses of Matthew 10 are about the power of an extravagant welcome. Jesus is sending his disciples out to teach and heal. After warning them about the rejection they will sometimes face, he describes the rewards to those who receive his messengers: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40). May we too be disciple welcomers, welcoming each other, welcoming Jesus, and welcoming God into our hearts, our lives, and our church.
Please pray with me.
Holy God please help us to welcome others and to follow your lead to create a community of teachers and healers. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.