We live in times of great division. There is real palpable stress and it seems the smallest difference sets off sparks that create fireworks of heated disagreement. Election time is always challenging. It appears to be a pitting of one group verses another. If you are in one camp, you can’t talk to the other. This year, it seems that the animosity has grown even thicker – causing constant unrest. It is evident everywhere you turn. There are differing opinions on most everything you can imagine and voices rain down louder than a symphony of broken instruments all being played in disarray. It is confusing and hurtful and punishing. Unfortunately, the church is not immune to this either.
The church is to be a beloved community made up of different people with different backgrounds and different affiliations. There are unique gifts and talents brought to the table. There are strong personalities and quiet hard workers. There are people of different ethnicities, different upbringings, and different ways of viewing the world. Actually, if the church is optimal, it is made up of people that are completely unique who express their authenticity in a community which comes together in a way different than the world. We do not need to vote the same way. We do not need to have the same color skin. We do not have to agree on much of anything. If we are all alike and all have the same opinions, we haven’t done a really good job of being the church. All we have done is sought out people like us and excluded anyone that didn’t fit that description. Jesus had a whole lot to say about that – and none of it was good.
In a world so ravaged by division, how does the church respond? How do we come together when we are so different? What is it that unites us? What are we doing and why are we doing it in the first place?
The answer is, well, complicated – except it isn’t. What is always the right answer when an answer is asked in a Christian church? The first response is Jesus. And yep, that is the right answer today, too. So good job if that was your answer. Seems easy enough, right? Jesus is the common factor, the great equalizer, the ultimate Savior for this whole mess. But with Jesus as the answer – it complicates things.
Jesus was quite the controversial person. He stirred up more than his fair share of trouble. To really read his words and follow his teachings calls us to be someone different. It calls us to come together in unique and challenging ways. To follow Jesus means we seek his will and way, leaving ours behind. For Jesus to be the answer means we can worship together, no matter our backgrounds, because it is all about him and not at all about us. Our political opinions, our views of the hot topics, our decisions in everyday life can all be different and we can still come together as God’s children – adopted into the family because of the sacrifice and love of Jesus Christ.
We didn’t become a child of God because of the way we talked, walked, or thought. It wasn’t because we were born into the right family or we were made powerful by the world or because we hold some position in life. We didn’t become a child of God because of who our mama or daddy is, because of our origin or ethnicity, because we were born in the right country or because we deserved it. Quite the opposite is true. None of those are factors God considered. He created you because he loved you. Jesus died for us because he knew we were a big messed up bunch that basically gets most everything wrong. God understood that we wouldn’t get it without the saving love and grace only he could give. And since we couldn’t be good enough, nothing we do qualified us. You are a child of God because Jesus was willing to stretch out his arms in an expression of the ultimate love – and welcome you in.
If that really is the case – if it really is because of the love and sacrifice of Jesus – if it really is when we follow Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior – if it really is about the call and welcome of Jesus and not the qualifications of anything we put in place…then we have a starting point for a community of the beloved. That starting point is Jesus and not us. Our purpose, our goal, our focus, and our whole reason for being has to be Jesus. That means we leave our egos checked at the door – and if we are honest, that’s not easy.
This morning, I want to look at a scripture that packs a powerful punch – and often is taken as a wake-up call for the church and for Christians to reorient back to the mission and vision of Jesus. I want you to hear this, but I also want to focus on one particular teaching. This could be something we miss and also could be the key for coming together, even and especially in times like these.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
I do want to offer that this scripture is the positive note in this teaching. There is an equally negative note about what happens when you do not do these things. I chose this because this should be where we are aiming. You can decide of the opposite is where we already are. We often hear that we are to feed, clothe, visit, and provide water. Those are tangible teachings we hear and understand. Sometimes we even try to do them. But what we may miss is something in the middle of all of this, and may be more challenging. It says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” You welcomed me. You…welcomed…me. That seems to be one of the main challenges of the church. That seems to be one of the most difficult parts of this whole thing. We can hold a feeding ministry, we can have a clothing closet, we can have or support a prison ministry, and we can help people have access to water. These are all things we set up ministries to accomplish. We seek to do them as God’s children. And they are good and needed and more valuable than we can imagine. But is not the whole deal. You welcomed me. Now that is a little more challenging.
We can give someone food without developing a relationship. We can give away coats without actually talking to others. We can set up all kinds of barriers between us and those in need so that we are doing what we need to do but don’t have to get closely involved. Those people can stay those people and we can stay comfortable as us. We can form a group of people like us which doesn’t overly challenge us. But to welcome – that’s a different story.
To welcome is to see something in someone that is useful and valuable. We see a person, a child of God, someone worthy of love. We are required to see past the exterior. To welcome means you look past all of the things you would normally judge. You don’t worry about appearance or background, you don’t think about their political affiliation or opinions, you don’t care about the native language or where they were born. To welcome means that nothing matters except to show the love of Christ. In Matthew 25 – it does not give qualifications to be welcomed. It doesn’t list things to accomplish before being welcomed. It isn’t based on anything. Humanity is welcomed. And the point is that we welcome without judgment because we never know when we have welcomed Jesus into our community.
But, let’s be honest, that really is the kicker, isn’t it? It makes us uncomfortable to have people we don’t agree with. It causes us to evaluate how we do things if there are people from different backgrounds or ethnicities. It challenges us to change because we grow stagnant in the way we do things and changing is just hard. But Jesus never said it was to be easy – he said it was the mission.
You welcomed me. Those words ring so powerfully to me in the times we find ourselves. Who will you welcome? How will you welcome? What will you do to show welcome – to the least of these? Christ…may you be welcome here.