(a sermon for June 27, 2020, the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:40-42)
Her name was Peggy Grenier, and she was an elderly widow who lived in a log cabin up the road from us on the lake, and at the end of a wooded pathway; and for a period of time when I was very young, she was one of my very best friends. Actually, Peggy was best friends with just about every one of the little kids who spent their summers on the lake, and as I think about it now, it’s a wonder she had a moment to herself, given all the children who used to come to visit her!
We all loved to “go see Peggy,” and this was because by all indications, she loved to see us! No matter what she was doing or how busy she was, the moment we turned up at her door, she’d stop everything to visit with us. We’d tell Peggy all of our long, drawn-out stories, she’d laugh heartily at all our “little kid jokes,” and over cookies and cold glasses of lemonade we’d have these deep discussions about the great issues of our lives – school and friends and how much we hated social studies – but the thing was that all of this truly seemed to matter to Peggy!
What I remember the most about Peggy is that she really did listen to us, and what’s more, she talked to us like we were grown-ups, which at the age of six is quite a thing indeed! I remember our parents saying to us, “Now, don’t you go up there and bother Peggy every day; she doesn’t need you kids hanging around all the time,” but we never really understood that because you see, Peggy never acted like we were a bother1 She always made us feel welcome, and all these years later I still remember how great that feeling was. And even though she’s long since passed on, other people live there now, and the log cabin itself has been completely remodeled, as far as I’m concerned, that place will always be “Peggy’s Camp.”
To feel welcomed – to be received, as scripture often translates it – is one of life’s great blessings, isn’t it? I’m sure we can all name moments in which a simple act of hospitality made all the difference: someone inviting us to sit at their table and share a meal; inviting us to spend a holiday with them where otherwise we would have been alone; or has been the case for me recently, stopping by the house to bring a flower or a goodie bag or a simply a word of comfort. It’s part and parcel of being a good neighbor, yes, and on a deeper level, it’s the act of affirming the great value of that person through a not-so-random act of kindness; but even more than this, spiritually speaking, it is seeing that person through the eyes of God. It truly is as our reading today describes it, like giving that someone “a cup of cold water” on a hot and muggy day; it’s just that refreshing and life giving…
…and, might I add… an essential part of the Christian life; it is the manner of welcome to which you and I are called as disciples of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said it in our text for this morning, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who every welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
It is worth noting here that these words of Jesus come right on the heels of those other rather disconcerting words from our text for last Sunday, all about how he’d come not “to bring peace but a sword,” about families being set against one another, and about losing one’s life to save it (and all of that, by the way, coming on the heels of Jesus’ dire warnings to the disciples about the inevitability of conflict and persecution). But then, just when any reasonable person might have run the other way, Jesus reminds the disciples of the great importance of the task before them; essentially saying that whenever someone receives them – that is, whenever someone welcomes them into their homes, and into their “circle of trust” and admiration – they will be receiving Christ himself! Just as prophets and righteous believers are received on the basis of who they are, Jesus says, anyone who gives you even a cup of cold water because you’re my disciple is also welcoming me! And when they are welcoming me, Jesus goes on to say, they are welcoming the God who sent me.
In these three short verses from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reminds us of the vital role that his disciples will play in the building up of the Kingdom of God; understanding, of course, that this extends not only to the original twelve but to all who would seek to follow Christ, and that includes you and me. As disciples, you see, you and I are in the truest sense ambassadors of Christ in the places where we dwell, emissaries of his kingdom. So anyone who welcomes us into their circle is also welcoming Jesus; and what that means is that anything and everything we do as “guests” will reflect on the one we represent: our demeanor around those who welcome us matters, as does our sense of graciousness for what we receive, and our ability to speak, act and respond with love befitting the example of our Lord.
Now, you might think that this is an obvious point (in fact, I hope so; I mean, what’s not to understand about what amounts to “loving one another?”), but in truth of fact, there are a great many people, and many “Christians” among them whose lives never quite approach that example; the kind of folks who by their behaviors give too much credence to those rumors about Christians being holier-than-thou, hyper-critical hypocrites! My point here is that it’s important for you and I to remember that for better or worse, when every day we head out into the world we are carrying our faith along with us; and there are countless occasions throughout the week when what we say, what we do, the choices we make, the attitudes we show toward others – how we live (!) – cannot help but proclaim something about that faith, either positively or negatively.
Which message comes forth… well, that in large part is up to us.
It actually puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner, a passage from his book, Wishful Thinking. “Who knows,” he wrote, “how the awareness of God’s love first hits people. Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid him. Some moment happens in your life that you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen… how about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment… maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.” The bottom line, friends, is that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are his representatives. We are in essence his heart, his hands, his feet, his arms of compassion; in receiving us, you see, the people we encounter can and do discover the love of Jesus Christ; that is both the word of encouragement and the word of challenge that our Lord offered to his disciples as they went out into a harsh and uncertain world. “This is a large work I’ve called you into,” Jesus tells them in The Message version of this text, “but don’t be overwhelmed by it… the smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
In other words, the “effectiveness,” if you will, of true discipleship is not to be measured by the greatness of what is accomplished, but in all the small things that are done greatly. Just as something as simple as a card, or a call, or a visit shows us how much we’re loved and appreciated, when you and I offer up, as Jesus puts it, “even a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple,” not only serves as an affirmation of faith and love and care to that one who was thirsty, it also shows forth the great and giving love of Jesus Christ and of the God who sent him. And understand, when Jesus refers to “these little ones,” he’s not talking necessarily about children, but rather, he’s talking about anyone and everyone who has ever needed to be recognized and affirmed and valued and loved… or who simply need a drink of water.
The point is that these are the ones to whom we are called to bring our faith and our love. and the best way we can reveal the reign of Christ in the world is for them to see Christ in us through merciful acts of love and kindness and grace that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. This, I believe, is what makes you and I authentically Christian, and it’s what makes us the church… yes, what makes us the church no matter where and how we meet.
Once again, it all seems so simple, so basic to the mission we share as believers; and yet I would dare say that in these days when people and groups have become so sharply and bitterly divided over so many issues – not to mention quite literally having to have our faces be covered and be physically distant from one another – that this call to bring forth true love and mercy represents one of the greatest challenges that the church faces in this day and age.
For instance, I don’t know about you, but these days I’m something finding it very difficult to be able to express what I want to express while wearing a facemask! This whole pandemic has made me realize just how much of ourselves we convey to others simply by the look on our face: the way we smile, or frown, or grimace, or share the abundance of our displeasure… or for that matter, our compassion. I think I’ve shared with you the story of how I was in our local Hannaford the other day and another woman came barreling around a crowded corner and fairly well careened into my shopping cart. It wasn’t a big deal – no harm done at all – but what was interesting was that because we were masked we literally stared at each other’s eyes for the longest moment because neither one of us could tell how the other was going to react to this little accident. Was there going to be anger and heated words exchanged, or would we just laugh it off? Based on just the masks we were wearing, there was no way to tell! Frankly, it wasn’t until I made a stupid joke – in my official downeast dialect, mister man, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you folks (!) – that she could tell I wasn’t upset and she could breathe a sigh of relief… and we both had a good laugh as a result.
It was, in its own unique way, a cup of cold water… and whether or not that woman knew it, a little bit of God was revealed. And that was reward indeed.
Karen Mains has said it well: “When we give, having put away our pride, then Christ sanctifies the simple gift. He makes it holy, useful.” Friends, it may well seem to us like what we give is small and perhaps even insignificant in the wider scheme of things, to those who receive what we have to give it is anything but; and it’s certainly not insignificant to the Lord. A cup of cold water matters; for what greater reward can there be than a not so random act of kindness resulting in someone encountering God, perhaps for the very first time?
There’s a lot of very thirsty people out there, friends… and we’ve got plenty of water.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.