“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and 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.”
I was waiting in line for coffee a couple of weeks ago. This was at Annual Conference actually, and the coffee wasn’t just any coffee. It was a bag of whole bean coffee, the kind you grind yourself. But not only that, this coffee came from a new ministry that my friend Dustin was starting called Deep Time Coffee where they hire and support people who have been impacted by incarceration. It’s an amazing new ministry, and I wanted to support him, and of course I was happy that I could do that while buying one of my favorite things.
So I come to the front of the line, and I’m talking to my friend and hearing all about this new ministry that serves people who were in prison. And finally I ask about buying some of the coffee, but then I run into a problem that makes me feel like a thousand years old. He tells me I can pay with CashApp or Venmo, and you know, I don’t have either of those on my phone. I think I had Venmo once and managed to lock myself out of it. And anyway, I don’t trust the apps with my bank account. But thankfully, he said I could just order some from his website later.
Well, meanwhile, someone is waiting patiently in line behind me through all of this, and so eventually I move out of her way. And I’m just looking through all the different pamphlets and displays on all the different ministries while she buys her coffee. Apparently she has no problem with CashApp. And I overhear her speaking with Dustin. She’s known him a long time, and her son is an old friend of his. Anyway, it’s time for me to go, and as I start to leave, she turns to me, and she just gives me her coffee beans. And she says, “enjoy your coffee.”
At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I almost felt bad about it because I could afford the coffee, I just didn’t have the right technology at the time. And I knew there was no way I could pay her back later because I probably wouldn’t see her again, at least not until the next Annual Conference, maybe.
But then I realized that for her, this was her way to support Dustin and his ministry while also showing me an act of kindness, and the best thing I could do – really the only thing I could do – was say thanks.
What a gift that was. Not just the coffee, but that moment of realizing, all I can do is be grateful. The best thing I can do is just receive that gift, and say thank you. Someone told me once that the first and best response we can have to a gift of kindness or hospitality or even grace, for that matter, is gratitude.
Can you think of a time when someone showed you an act of kindness like that? A time when someone cared for you, or gave you a gift, or showed you hospitality in a way that moved you so much, and all you could do was say thank you? But somehow that act of kindness affected you.
And I bet that because of a gift that you received from someone at some point in your life, a gift that you knew you could never repay, and all you could do was be grateful… I bet that gift shaped you and formed you, and even led you to give to someone else.
The act of kindness that Jesus talks about today is the act of welcoming people. And welcoming people, whether it’s into our own homes or into our church, is such a powerful act of kindness. And really it can be powerful and deeply meaningful without being that complicated at all; it really can be the simplest thing. Jesus says it can be as simple as offering someone a glass of water, or maybe in my case a cup of coffee.
But that simple act of welcoming someone, no matter how simple it is, it can have a huge impact because it says to the person being welcomed, “look, I’m glad that you’re here. You’re welcome here. You matter to me, and you matter to God. You belong here.”
Well, the opposite is also true. When we don’t welcome someone, that can have an impact too. That sends a message too.
Jesus’s words today come at the end of a message that he shares with his disciples. He’s just commissioned them to go out and share the good news of the Kingdom. He’s sending them out to travel to different cities, and visit people in their homes, and minister to them.
He tells them, listen, some people will welcome you and show you hospitality so stay with those people for a while, and be a blessing to them. But then he also warns them – some people will reject you, and it’s going to hurt. So don’t linger in those places. Some people will reject you and even hate you just for being who you are.
I read a story recently from an author named Siobhán Garrigan who wrote a book called The Real Peace Process, which is all about the divisions between Protestants and Catholics that have existed in Northern Ireland, and how churches can get caught up in divisions like that. And while she was researching her book, she talks about visiting a Presbyterian church there, and how, when she walked into the church, she was greeted by two people.
Now, Garrigan realized these two people were ushers whose job was to greet people and get to know them as they arrived. As soon as people walked up to the church, the greeters would quietly ask them their names, which seemed nice at first until she realized what was actually happening.
You see, depending on your name, they would draw certain conclusions about your identity and your religious beliefs. If your name sounded Protestant, you were invited in and shown your seat. But if you had a Catholic-sounding name like Maria or Catherine or Patrick, then you were told that you probably had the wrong church, and maybe you should look elsewhere.
Jesus warned the disciples about this kind of division and prejudice. He told them it would happen. But in the same message, he also taught them about the importance of showing hospitality and welcoming people – because welcoming people and showing them hospitality stands in direct contrast and in radical opposition to rejection and hate.
I don’t know how the disciples felt about all of that, but I know that to us, it may feel inconsequential to welcome somebody in some small way – to say something like “thank you for being here” or “I’m so happy you’re with us today.” It may feel like a small act of kindness that doesn’t mean that much, but I think it’s nothing less than the rejection of rejection itself, and the acceptance of the other person as a beloved child of God.
In fact, Jesus says to his disciples, when people welcome you, they welcome him too, and the one who sent him. That’s how important this is to Jesus. He says when you welcome people, it’s like welcoming Jesus himself. When you welcome people, it’s like welcoming God. And it can be as simple as offering someone a kind word and a cup of cold water.
These verses may remind you of chapter 25 when Jesus preaches the parable of the sheep and the goats, and he says, when “I was hungry… you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
How you treated the least of these, Jesus says, was how you treated me. Well, he’s saying something similar here too. Here Jesus says, it matters when someone offers hospitality and care especially to people in need, to “one of these little ones,” he says. And that word that he uses there for “little ones” isn’t referring to children; it’s actually the same word he uses in chapter 25 when he says the least of these.
So the point of all that is to say that it’s especially important to show hospitality and care for people in need.
But here’s the thing, Jesus is also saying, there will be times when you are those people in need. You see, Jesus’s message isn’t just about welcoming others, it’s also about being welcomed. There will be times when you are the little ones, when you are the least of these, and you’ll need to rely on the hospitality and care of others. And those moments matter.
When people welcome you, Jesus says, it’ll be like they’re welcoming me. So pay attention. There will be times when you show up to help someone else, and someone you don’t even know will show you warmth and offer you peace. There will even be times when you set out to minister to someone else, and instead they minister to you. Pay attention and receive all the goodness of those moments because those are moments of grace.
When Rachel let me know on Friday that her daughter was in the hospital, I was a little unsure if I should just drop in. I wanted to visit, but I hadn’t met Lynn before, and I didn’t know if she’d want me to come. So I called Rachel, and asked her if it would be ok, and you know Rachel didn’t hesitate. She just said to me, “Jed, you come on.” So that’s what I did.
Well when I got there, Lynn just invited me right in, and welcomed me with the warmest and most joyful smile. She was happy to talk to me, and share with me how things were going. We got to know each other a little bit over those few minutes, and as we talked our conversation turned to the problems of the world and recent conflicts and divisions. And eventually, she said to me, “you know, I grew up a Methodist, and I always believed, you should just love people. Leave the judgment up to God, and just love people. That’s all we can do.”
I said to Lynn, you know I came here to check on you and Rachel, but I think you’re preaching to me now. She had welcomed me, and she had ministered to me, and I realized that those few moments were really moments of grace. So I thanked her for sharing those words with me, and it was all I could really do. But what a gift it was to be welcomed by her. What a moment of blessing it was to hear her words.
And I think her words are worth hearing and carrying with us today. Just love people. That’s really all we can do.