Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 10:40-42

 

“I assure you,” Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones will be rewarded.”[1]  Can you imagine?  Who would not be willing to offer a cup of cold water even to a stranger on a hot summer day like today?  This is the illustration Jesus chooses to put before the disciples in our gospel this morning to make a point about the importance of civility and the common good.

Six times in three short verses Jesus uses the word “Welcome”.  “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…..”[2]

In those days of ancient Palestine, a sense of hospitality was paramount not only to one’s faith but also to one’s very life and existence.  It was understood regardless of one’s religious perspective and not limited to one’s kin or friendship but also and perhaps, most especially to the “stranger” – the person unknown for whom one was unaccustomed by virtue of their humanity.  It was for the persons most disadvantaged; those who would appear “strange” in a strange place or space unfamiliar and without benefits that others might enjoy.

People traveled a lot in those days and often by foot so the notion of being kind and welcoming to a person was not foreign at all.   It was understood as an inalienable right and something to be expected.

This sort of thing was also the founding principles upon which our nation was founded:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men [all persons] are created equal.  That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.  That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[3]

Whether those early fathers fully understood or even meant what they said, still these were and are great words for America.  They are transcendent words; timeless words for they reach far beyond time; beyond biases and prejudices; and fears and they reach upward toward something higher that allows people to exist together in harmony and a future far brighter.

In our harbor stands a mighty lady.  My guess is that most of you have seen her up close.  Visitors travel from around the world to get a closer view.  Her arm stretches high; she bears a torch in her hand:

Give me your tired, your poor.  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[4]

We ought not forget these words as we are celebrating our nation and our rights as American citizens.  What it means to belong here; our fundamental freedoms.  We ought not to forget these words of shared humanity and welcome for a nation yearning to be truly great.

Jesus said: whoever gives a cup of cold water – the most basic kindness, the most fundamental gesture of civility, the simplest measure of understanding the plight of another  – even to someone you do not know, will be rewarded.   It is our reasonable measure of welcome and hospitality of belonging to the human race.

I remember when I first came here to Park Avenue United Methodist, there were people who said, “Now Pastor, the parsonage is your home and you don’t have to worry about inviting people over.”  I understood it.  I truly got it.  But one of the first things I did that first Christmas was to host an open house and everybody was invited.  Even if you were a visitor and happened to have been here on the Sundays the announcement was made, you were included.

Now, I didn’t feel any obligation around that.  And, I still don’t for that matter.  But it seems to me that one of the surest ways of getting to know a person – their personality, likes and dislikes is to see them where they live.  If you are observant you can learn so much (and perhaps, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it): what colors they like, the sort of furniture they have chosen, whether they like a lot of things all bundled up on top of one another or spread out and spacey assuming they have room for that.  Do they like art or music or books?  Fresh flowers or potted plants or little trinkets here and there?  You see family pictures, old photos and new, and you hear stories about them and the people most important to them that they hold dear.

You can also learn something about how they feel about you – how they value your presence in their space.  How they have anticipated your arrival and made accommodations for you.  How and what they offer you to drink, prepared or have food prepared for the occasion.  And it’s not about money – how ritzy things are (or not) but it is about how they share what they have with you.  It’s a big deal, isn’t it?

I think when someone welcomes another – really welcomes another – whether it be into their home or office, church or community, their life or very presence – it is a way of saying, “I see you as you are and I delight in being near.”  I am also offering myself to you and I welcome you.

What is that quote by Maya Angelou?  “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I think she was right about it.  Most of our lives are driven by our feelings are they not?  How we feel about something or someone, or how people feel about us or our perception of those feelings – whether they are real or not.  Those feelings when we are around them or close by: of overwhelming joy, exhilaration, love, safety – or whether the feelings are of indifference, anger, frustration, fear.  People remember – and sometimes we hold onto them all too long.  It can take a whole lot to persevere around people who don’t make us feel comfortable, safe, wanted, loved – we have enough problems already.  Do we not?

I love the image of a God who delights in our appearing; at the very site of us – a God who welcomes us over and over and over again.

That God who sees us as we are and welcomes us still.  Come closer; let me see more of you.  Hang around.  Regardless of what we have done or said or failed to do. God, the consummate host, stands with arms and heart wide open to receive us with joy.  Come on home.  Sit down; rest.  Your needs, your longings, your heart’s desire has my full attention.   What a powerful image!

Jesus said to the disciples as they are about to go out into the mean old world to take good news to everyone who had ears to hear: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.  And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”[5]

You are welcome here.  That’s what we say about the church, “everybody is welcome.”  It’s risky business because we don’t always know who we’re talking to.  We don’t always know who’s sitting out there listening.  Where they have come from; what fancy ideas they might have about us – and Methodism, homosexuality, and black people and Asian people and women.  We don’t know how they feel about universal healthcare, and refugees and immigrants, people taking “our” jobs.  We don’t always know when we swing the doors wide open who just might walk in.

Sometimes people just wander in off the street on a whim not even believing in Jesus Christ at all out of curiosity and come here expecting us to be a certain way.

We don’t know what sort of personal adjustments we might have to make in order to accommodate their presence.  We run the risk that they might come with all sorts of baggage; past hurts and wounds that make it near impossible to love them no matter what we do.   And because they are fresh at it, they might see some things in us that we have gotten comfortable with and can no longer see in ourselves.

But Jesus said the strangers are worthy of our welcome; even the ones that we might be most adverse to warrant a certain amount of attention and accommodation, kindness and generosity.  Time; comfort and ease – a cup of cold water on a hot steamy day.  And any act of kindness done for another is as personal as doing it for Christ himself.   For God.

We have to ask ourselves whether there is anything that keeps us from this sort of compassionate care?  For this is what it means to be a true follower of Christ.  This sort of grace-filled hospitality must be at the very core of our being and it must undergird all we think and do.

And you can imagine what kind of person… what kind of church… what kind of nation… what kind of world it would be.

 

 

[1] Matthew 10:42

[2] Matthew 10:40-41a

[3] http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

[4] https://www.howtallisthestatueofliberty.org/what-is-the-quote-on-the-statue-of-liberty/

[5] Matthew 10:40