Over the last couple of weeks, we have been following the Gospel Matthew as it has challenged and encouraged us as followers of Christ. Two weeks ago, we talked about being Ambassadors of Hope, and last week about being Differentiated Disciples. Today’s passage takes a step back. Instead of speaking about those disciples who are sent, he steps back and refers to those who do the sending.
It is a rather short passage, just three verses long. And it is a rather simple concept that Matthew suggests. If I remember my high school geometry correctly, Jesus uses the transitive property. For those of you who don’t remember, or who didn’t Google it this week to make sure you remembered it, the transitive property says that if a = b, and b = c, then a = c.
Jesus says it this way:
If someone has welcomed a disciple of Christ.
And Christ is as a disciple.
Then welcoming a disciple is the same as welcoming Christ.
And that’s a big deal. The short version is this: how we nurture and send disciples matters. Because it is as if we were doing that very same thing to Christ himself!
This was critical in Matthew’s world and in Matthew’s church. The Gospel writer lived in a world several decades after Christ lived, and the early church was highly dependent on the work of missionaries. Travelling prophets. Itinerate preachers. They would travel around from place to place, and preach in various churches in various towns. And they relied upon the members of these churches to take care of their needs. Give them a place to stay. Feed them. Encourage them. Nurture them. And then send them onto the next place. In fact, Matthew in this passage calls them “little ones” because they were so reliant upon the hospitality of others. The Gospel itself was dependent on the work of these missionaries, and therefore dependent on their hosts and sending churches. And Matthew is telling his readers, in the same way that Christ told those original hearers, that the way that you treat these itinerate preachers should be the same way that you would treat Christ himself!
And so, his message reverberates not only from Jesus’ hearers to Matthew’s but also to ours as well. For we, too, are a sending church! We have always been a sending church! On our church birthday last Wednesday, because I am such a history geek, I re-read through our church’s history again: Strength of Stone. And what I read through those pages were reminders of the ways that we have been a sending church – from our inception. Our church is almost as old as the city of Lawrence and older than the state of Kansas, and as long as we have been around, we have been a sending church.
One hundred and fifty nine years ago, we became a landing place for pastors, missionaries sent by the Baptist Home Missions Society. Like the prophets of Matthew’s day, they were preachers who came to stay for a time with a congregation to be mutually supportive and then send them to their next station. Not just pastors, but pioneers and church members would come to Lawrence and stay for a time in our community. Baptists would come west in to Kansas and become a part of our congregation, learning about life on the prairie and what discipleship looked like in this context. And then they would move further west, starting congregations in other towns and cities further west. Until the turn of the century, we were a sending church throughout the entirety of the western territories. We were the gateway to the Baptist movement throughout the region.
Before long, the influence of KU and Haskell became more important in Lawrence, and as early as 1914, First Baptist was appointing pastors to specifically care for the needs of these students. Those students who came to a new place at an important part of their lives found First Baptist to be a welcoming and nurturing place. Always aware that most of the students would go on to other places and other church, we saw ourselves as a sending congregation.
And over the last 50 years or so, we have been even more intentional about ways that we can host and send those who are called to God’s work. I have tried to gather a list of all of the missionaries we have hosted, pastors we have ordained, and students we have licensed into ministry. My list is woefully inadequate, but it includes Don Ihde, Eva Lou Fletcher, Carolyn Predmore, John and Tomoko Armogast, Tom and Terry Myers, Steve Kawiecki, Aaron Trent, Cody Knapik, and, of course, Louisenie Desauguste. These are just a few of the preachers and missionaries and “prophets” that we have shown hospitality and training and support and encouragement to over the years. None of them are in our church now, as even Dezo is headed to stay in a host home in Kansas City, just up the road from her new school at Avila. But they are or have been in ministry in other places, in part because we have taken seriously the call to serve and send those whom God has called into our midst.
Even now, our hope is to strengthen our identity as a sending church and as a teaching church. The folks who we support and send today will mostly be going other places tomorrow, but that’s been the case from the beginning. For the last few years, we have been using this language of the “ministry triangle.” Much like the research triangle in North Carolina, we find ourselves surrounded by KU students in Lawrence, ministerial candidates at Ottawa, seminary students in Shawnee, and more! And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, Central Baptist Seminary contacted us this summer to become a part of a new program that partners seminary students with churches to help them leave school more prepared and ready for the world of the church. We have been intentional about using that language, but it is not a new identity for us. It really is a continuation of a 159 year pattern and identity. It’s who we are!
But, it’s not always easy. It wasn’t easy for Matthew’s church, either. The fact that he needed to remind of them of Jesus words about the importance of serving and sending means that there were obviously some roadblocks in the minds of some of these churches, making it harder for them to become sending institutions. We can take a guess from the passage and the passages that surround as to what those roadblocks are. For there are still roadblocks that we face in our calling to be a sending church. Still things that get in the way of us caring for the prophets or missionaries or “little ones” that we have been called to serve and send. So, let us listen with a humble ear to ways that we can learn from Jesus and Matthew for us, as well. For even though we have a legacy of being a sending church, and a teaching church, there are ways that we can learn to do better and grow stronger.
The first roadblock is dehumanization. When there is an opportunity to serve and to send those in our midst, it is much easier to see them as a cliché then actually as a person. As danger of doing this for 159 years is that we think we have seen it all before. “Oh, there’s a college student – boy are they going to be wet behind the ears.” Or “they came over from the Seminary. Must be a liberal.” Or, “another missionary. Guess they are going to be just like the last one.” And when we do that, we fail to truly offer hospitality as Jesus commands. For true hospitality cannot come from a place of condescension, and we cannot have a true sending relationship with a stereotype. Or with a “project.” Or another notch on our belt to show we sent another one. But we can have a relationship with a person. A person that we listen to. And learn from. And get to know. And refrain from judging by their outward appearance, or gender, or age, or status in life. When we send someone, it is our responsibility to listen to them and get to know them. We wouldn’t give shellfish to a guest with a food allergy, or make a houseguest sleep with the windows open if they can’t breathe in pollen. In the same way, when we show hospitality to those whom we serve and send, we need to get to know them well enough to hear who they are and what they need from us. When we dehumanize, we run the risk of causing more damage than we support.
The second roadblock to sending is perfectionism. I hear it all the time. “I don’t know what to do with Dezo because I don’t have the room in my house or the money to help.” Or “I couldn’t possibly go talk with that college student – what would we have to talk about.” Or “I don’t know enough about ministry to talk to that ministerial student…I’ll let one of our former pastors do that.” And we talk ourselves out of serving and sending those in our midst because we think we cannot do it well enough. But look at what Jesus says about this: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciples – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” A cup of cold water! You don’t have to let them live in your house! Or sit down and swap ministry stories for hours! Or teach them the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Now, some of you can. And will feel called to. But you don’t have to.
- Just take them to Wendy’s and buy them a Spicy Chicken Sandwich!
- Go up and introduce yourself and then remember their name when they come back!
- If they are doing ministry in our midst, then volunteer to help for crying out loud!
A cup of cold water is all that Jesus asks. Don’t be a perfectionist about what it takes to show that hospitality. Just take simple and genuine steps, and it will make all the difference.
So, just like Lawrence in the summer, we want to avoid the roadblocks. The roadblocks of dehumanization and perfectionism. But there is one more huge one. I mean big. This is one of those roadblocks to avoid at all cost. Like, “23rd and Iowa big.”
Perhaps the biggest roadblock to keeping us from being a sending church is self-interest. Church, like everywhere else in our country, is becoming a consumer institution. Does the music fit my taste? Is my Sunday school class meeting all of my spiritual needs? Do I get an acceptable parking place and good pew in a sanctuary at precisely 73.2 degrees when I come?
This is never how Jesus or Matthew envisioned the church. A church that serves and sends others to serve needs to understand that self-interest is toxic to the way of hospitality. Thinking back to Jesus’ words from last week’s passage, this is the way of the cross. And the way of the cross is not the way of self-interest.
- A self-interested church demands that those who come scratch our backs as much as we scratch theirs, but a sending church gives up the need for reciprocation.
- A self-interested church demands the programs and projects we want or need, but a sending church looks to the needs of those outside of the building, even outside of our state or country.
- A self-interested church wants things to be the way they were, but a sending church is open to new ideas and new movements of the Spirit. When our church was getting ready for our 100 year celebration, it found itself in the midst of a sea of chaos and change. Here is how author Bob Heacock describes it: “Changes in the world and more changes within Lawrence were underway. Change upon change and more changes even in the church. Couldn’t the church ever settle down and just have a nice quiet religious experience? With all that was going on in the community as well as the church, the people surely had to have the ‘Strength of Stone.’” (144)
And so we have. Imagine with me a map. It is a map of the entire world, and on that map, we place pins. A pin for every person who we have touched. Who has worshiped here during college. Or served as a ministry intern. Or been ordained or licensed here. Or a missionary who we have hosted. Where are they now? What are they doing? How is God using them? One hundred and fifty-nine years of placing pins all around the state and the country and the world. As we celebrate our birthday today, and eat the cake and sing happy birthday, may we be ever vigilant to serve and send for another 159 years, and do what it takes to be a part of the Kingdom work to which we have been called.