“The Welcome Wagon”
Sermon on Matthew 10:37-42
June 29, 2008
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
My family and I just returned from a vacation out West to see Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Over the course of ten days, we put over 2,000 miles on our rental car. I don’t know if any of you have ever gotten to drive around out in Montana, but it is a lot different than driving around in Stanly County! In one of the places where we were staying, we had to drive fifty miles to get to the nearest gas station. There were stretches of road in Montana and Wyoming where we were driving where we wouldn’t even see another house for thirty or forty miles. I don’t know how people manage to live that far removed from what we might call civilization. However, we did get in one traffic jam while driving around on those roads. A section of fencing had broken, and we had to stop to let about twenty cows clear out of the road.
When you’re driving down desolate roads like those, it’s always nice to see some sign of life somewhere other than the beautiful scenery. It was always neat when we would spot an antelope or a buffalo or a bear on the side of the road, but the best thing was when we passed those big signs proclaiming a warm “Welcome to ________.” At least then we knew we were on the right road and headed in the right direction. We have pictures of ourselves posing next to the Welcome to Wyoming sign, the Welcome to Montana sign, the Welcome to Idaho sign, the Welcome to Canada sign. I have seen a few too many welcome signs in the last few days, and I have to confess that the Welcome to Badin sign was the one I wanted to get my picture taken in front of the most when we passed finally passed it.
Have you ever stopped to question why it is that we tend to mark invisible lines on the earth with a big wooden or metal welcome sign? We purchase door mats with the word Welcome on them, we write it on signs, we use the word in our everyday speech, and on occasion we even build welcome centers at state lines full of brochures of places that are more than happy to take your money. But do we really put much thought into our welcomes? It takes more than a wooden sign and a place to use the bathroom to welcome somebody, does it not? Right after passing a big wooden sign that proclaimed “Welcome to Glacier National Park” I spotted an angry looking old man with a shirt that had a picture of an equally angry looking old man on with a gun and the caption, “It’s tourist season…and still ain’t allowed to shoot ‘em.” Something tells me this guy didn’t help make that sign.
The topic of welcoming comes up in our gospel lesson for this morning. He tells his disciples as he sends them out, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Jesus knew a lot about what it meant to feel welcomed by people. At times so many people came to greet him that he could barely walk around. At other times a woman anointed his feet with some very expensive ointment that was worth a year’s salary. Jesus knew what it was like to be welcomed. But Jesus also knew what it was like to be rejected—even by his own friends and disciples. Perhaps that’s why Jesus could be found so many times dining with those who were not welcomed anywhere else.
But to understand the importance of welcoming strangers in ancient Israel and in other parts of the ancient near east as well, we need to understand a few things about their culture—past and present. Primarily, there is a long-standing tradition that a member of that culture is to welcome the stranger and the alien. This goes back to the fact that the people of Israel were resident aliens in Egypt for so long. Therefore, it was a cultural requirement that the people of God welcome those who were strangers, because they were once strangers in a strange land too.
I don’t mean to suggest that Israelis will invite you in to a five course meal if you knocked on their door tonight, but I do mean to suggest that hospitality is paramount. During the two summers that I spent in Israel, there was a group of about four of us who always ate supper at the same restaurant on the beach each night. Our waiter there, Nerik (who was an Israeli soldier), took it upon himself to show us around the area on his day off, in his own car, and at his own expense. When I offered him some money for gas, Nerik told me that his people were once strangers in Egypt and that it was his religious duty to treat strangers as his honored guests and friends. That says a lot more than a sign or a brochure or even a friendly hello. In my mind, Nerik, an Israeli soldier who didn’t speak very good English was the best ambassador for his country I can ever imagine.
Though your ancestors may not have been slaves in Egypt thousands of years ago like my friend Nerik’s, as the people of God, we have been grafted into this same story. Nerik’s story is our story. We are all strangers in a strange place. We are all called to be welcoming to strangers and friends alike.
I want to leave you with a legendary story involving St. Francis of Assisi, or as I like to call him, St. Frank. St. Francis was a 13th century saint who practiced the ministry of hospitality all his life, and who was best known for his close relationship to animals. He is frequently shown with a bird on his shoulder, and he was known to spend much time out in his garden preaching to people and animals alike. One of the most memorable stories about him was the time when he went to the town of Gubbio where a wolf was terrorizing and devouring the townspeople who dared leave the city gates. When Francis learned of the problem, he said he would go and speak to his brother, the wolf.
When the wolf saw Francis and his companions coming toward him, he charged out of the woods bristling and baring his teeth. But Francis made the sign of the cross over the wolf and the wolf bowed at Francis’ feet. Francis said: “Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.” Francis explained to the wolf that he had been killing and frightening the people of Gubbio and this was against God’s law. But he also knew that the reason the wolf had been eating the people was because there was no more food in the forest and he was hungry. Francis said he wanted to make peace between the wolf and the townspeople. Francis returned to Gubbio with the wolf at his side, where Francis preached a sermon in the town square on God’s love and mercy. The wolf agreed to stop terrorizing the people, and in return, the people agreed to feed the wolf. For two years the wolf lived among the people of Gubbio in peace, as their companion and brother, receiving bread and water from their hands. It was reported in the city that the dogs didn’t even bark at the wolf as he walked around town. When the wolf died, the people of Gubbio wept, for the wolf was a reminder to them of the holiness of St. Francis and God’s gentle presence with them.
Now I don’t know if that story is factual or not. But a story doesn’t have to be factual to be true. There is a great deal of truth in it. Jesus calls us to be hospitable people to everyone, especially to those who we might call outsiders. When we welcome outsiders, we welcome the very presence of Christ. And, when we deny outsiders, we turn away the very presence of Christ. It is my hope that everyone feels as welcome in Badin and in our church as I did when I came back from vacation. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.