Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward
By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
“None of these will lose their reward.”
The lectionary does neither essayists nor preachers any favors by plucking these three verses from Matthew 10 to be heard on their own, without any context except the culture and places in which they are proclaimed. These verses are particularly challenging to hear in the American context where some form of prosperity gospel has been at root since the arrival of English Puritans to a land yet unknown to Western Europeans.
In these three verses from Matthew’s Gospel, the American mindset my quickly jump to rewards: What does it take to get the reward? How might we earn “stars in our crowns” as was commonly said in the culture of my upbringing? The concept of stars in one’s crown is not biblical, and this passage certainly doesn’t support it. Neither Jesus nor the author(s) of Matthew’s Gospel spell out what the rewards are, but there is a clear direction for these verses — welcome those who come to you.
“Diversity” is a popular buzzword both in the Church and in the American political left (and the right, but usually with derision). Not only a buzzword, it is often a code word not for welcome, but for tolerance. Religious institutions seek to diversify their make ups by inviting younger people, people of color, or other outliers to be present in bodies of governance, but not to actually voice their unique narrative from being an outsider. This is not diversity or welcome, and it does not bring about the rewards Jesus encourages.
In the Diocese of California, where I was previously the communications officer, diversity is a vitality practice. When the diocese and congregations embraced — truly embraced — diversity there was thriving. Diversity and welcoming of new perspectives were the reward, and vital life followed. Diversity and welcome as a vitality practice insists on going beyond tokenism or structuring organizations to require “one person under the age of 18, one person between 18 and 35” for the sake of optics and optics only.
Optics and representation are important. However, God’s new reign of the Resurrection is not built on optics. It’s built on new life and the freedom of the Resurrected Christ, particularly freedom often yet unknown to those who benefit from and are caught up in systemic power structures. As I wrote for DioCal, “The church is strengthened when varieties of perspectives are shared and each person’s place in the body of Christ is celebrated. To be diverse, we must first wonder if we lack diversity and strive for ways to bring new, treasured people to our midst. A four-part video series on diversity as a vitality tool is available here.”
Not only is the church strengthened, all of civil society is strengthened. Jesus suggests as much when he moves from telling the Twelve, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” to “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.” Jesus assures his hearers that all those doing welcoming will be rewarded, but does not make offering the welcome conditional. His hearers are expected to offer the welcome, not told what their reward will be, and yet will be rewarded. The welcome — bringing in new voices, perspectives, and beloved people of God — is reward in itself.
As Jesus’ hearers today, Christians are expected to offer water — and shelter and visitation — to those in need and those in need of welcome. In mid-2017, there are refugee crises related to warfare and persecution globally. American Christians with voices and representation in their government are charged by Jesus to offer welcome and to direct their government to do the same.
Jesus’ expectation that water will be offered to the little ones is not conditional to fear of the little one’s motivations. Jesus doesn’t say, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — unless they’re scared of the little one — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Heval Mohamed Kelli arrived in the US as a Syrian refugee three weeks after 9/11, after spending six years in Germany. He arrived in Clarksville, Georgia, a city that welcomes 1,500 refugees per year. Kell is a cardiologist now who has moved away from Clarksville but describes his welcome by saying, “’Two days after we arrived in Clarkston, we were terrified. And then all these people arrived at our door with food, wanting to help us learn English … You know, we thought they were the CIA or something, all these white Americans knocking at our door.’ In fact, they were members of Clarkston’s All Saints Episcopal Church: ‘They didn’t look at all like us. But they changed our lives.’”
The Mayor of Clarksville, Kelli, and other residents all describe the innumerable rewards they have all received by being a place of welcome, and place where ethnic restaurants and grocery stores are as vast and varied as the skin tones of humanity.
Clarksville, which offers this welcome, is located in the heart of the American South — where I am from originally ‘a place very vocally opposed to welcoming refugees, particularly from predominantly Muslim countries, regardless of if those countries are embroiled in civil war and those fleeing war need much more than a cup of water. The people — and Christians — of Clarksville are asking for more of their governments, and they will continue to receive their rewards.
In mid-May 2017 the United States denied visa requests from gay Chechen men seeking relief from what is essentially a purge of queer people from society. Lithuania began granting refugee visas just when the United States was rejecting them. From the “Heart of the Bible Belt” to a loudly proclaimed “Christian Nation,” Jesus’ instruction on offering welcome in this passage could not be clearer: simply, it must be done. While Jesus mentions rewards and assures they will not be lost, he does not say what they are.
While human or American inclination may to be ask “What’s in it for me?” this is never the inclination or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. If that question must be answered “Jesus says to” should be an acceptable answer for those who seek to follow him. When advising the Twelve on how they should be welcomed — and how those most in need should be cared for — he mentions reward, but those who have studied welcome or given or experienced it know how Jesus can be so confident that the reward will not be lost: Welcome is the reward.
 “The Beloved Community.” http://diocal.org/bishop/vision/beloved-community#building
 “This small town in America’s Deep South welcomes 1,500 refugees a year.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/24/clarkston-georgia-refugee-resettlement-program.
 “Lithuania Opens Door to Gay Chechens Fleeing Persecution, While U.S. Slams It Shut.” Financial Times. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/18/lithuania-opens-door-to-gay-chechens-fleeing-persecution-while-u-s-slams-it-shut-lgbt-lgbti-rights-russia-persecution-asylum-refugee/.
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.