Proper 8A. 29 June 2014.
Some years ago, I remember going to the Shenandoah County Fair and walking around with the children looking at the various stalls where vendors and organizations advertize their presence. And there was a church that had a drink dispenser filled with water that was set up with cups, next to a verse from today's Gospel lesson on a sign. It said, "Whoever gives a cup of cold water…will not lose their reward."
And it prompted a memory from when I was in high school, and I was going through a phase of taking the Bible very literally. My parents had engaged a company to add a sun room onto our house in Bridgewater, and the carpenter was a very devout and very conservative Christian. He was a nice man; and I enjoyed talking with him. At one point, I offered him a glass of water or iced tea, and he received it gratefully.
For awhile after that I wondered, based on this text, what sort of reward I would be receiving. Would it come in the mail? Of course not. But what sort of spiritual reward or grace would I receive for that? Maybe my reward is having a way to start talking about this text.
When Jesus spoke these words—at least, as Matthew has placed them in his Gospel—it comes at the end of his missionary discourse, which I spoke about that at some length last week.
The missionary discourse is chapter 10 of Matthew's Gospel, beginning with the commission of the twelve disciples, a description of the mission, warnings about persecution, and instructions about how they are to function.
Jesus concludes this discourse with a teaching about the hospitality they will be receiving. He says, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."
Sometimes, for emphasis, Jesus will use the rhetorical power of antitheses to make his point. For instance, later on in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus will say, "I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me to drink; sick and you took care of me." There you have the positive theses. But then he turns and gives the antitheses and says, "But to the others I will say, depart from me you wicked ones, for I was hungry and you gave me no food; thirsty and you did not give me to drink; sick and you did not take care of me." (Ch. 25)
Jesus isn't recorded as saying that here; however, our own sense of logic connects those dots, "Whoever doesn't welcome you, doesn't welcome me; and whoever doesn't welcome me doesn't welcome the one who sent me."
In the disciples' context, they are being sent to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel"—one might say to those who were disenfranchised or undervalued by the Temple and synagogue culture.
Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, he writes that the prophecy of Isaiah had been fulfilled, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." (4.16)
To these people, Jesus comes, and to these people Jesus sends the disciples—to people who have not been given a place in life—to people who are "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd."
If the mission of Jesus is a message of spiritual and religious renewal, one might think it would make more sense to go to the rabbis and priests and leaders of the community. However, Jesus turns this thinking on its ear. Instead of working for some kind of organizational consensus, or community change, he walks around those systems to the people who are in need.
He doesn't call rabbis to be disciples. Remember when he said, "No one sews a new piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak—no one puts new wine in old wineskins"? The rabbis and the priests have all made up their minds about who God is and isn't, and who is in and who is out. Jesus and then his disciples walk around them, and into the hearts of people who have not received the blessings of the covenant.
That's what I believe this text is about. It's not really about the welcome that they—the disciples—will receive; but about the welcome they are to give. (Pause.) The welcome they receive indicates their host's receptivity to the message of Christ, which is "that the kingdom of heaven has come near" them.
Remember that that's the one and only line Jesus gives them to say. It's in chapter 10, he says "As you go, proclaim the good news, `The kingdom of heaven has come near.'" (10.7)
Maybe those words have languished in our consciousness. Maybe we've forgotten the scandal of this message—that God comes near to people regardless of their family background, their financial and social standing. It was an astonishing message then, and it is something that continues to surprise people now.
It was astonishing then because the rules of society and family background were inflexible. Temple priests were born to families of the priesthood; rabbis were born to rabbis.
Actually in many places in the world, to this day, this is still the case. I remember watching a wonderful documentary on India in which they showed people making bronze statues, and there was a man whose job was simply to pour the melted bronze into the molds. That's all he did. Other people who tended the furnace and did the finishing work had roles to play, but the man who poured the bronze was the son of the man who poured the bronze before him, and on back.
When Hindu people die, their bodies are cremated, but the fire used comes from an altar where a fire is perpetually maintained by the sons of the sons of the sons of the man who started that fire!
So for Jesus to walk around these religious leadership families and structures that essentially held all notion of God's presence to themselves, he is freeing people to accept the presence of God within them. The kingdom of heaven has come near. Wow! Not a distant or unapproachable Faith—where to receive it and its blessings you had to be from the right families, but an intimate, caring Faith that all may have.
I've mention it many times before but when Jesus says that God is Our Father. Wow! That God wants to know us, even if we aren't a certain type of person! Wow!
So the hospitality the disciples receive indicates their hosts' willingness to receive this message. If the disciples are not accepted, then neither is their message, neither is the Lord, neither is God the Father.
It may or may not surprise you to learn that though this message is essentially unchanged, it remains astonishing. Sometimes, even to people who are baptized, confirmed, and regularly attend church. For instance, it can become a seductive line of thought that "the kingdom of God has come near" everyone we know, because, we think, everyone we know goes to church.
But the original scandal remains that the kingdom of heaven comes near. It comes near to people who want to receive God, whether they are coming to church every Sunday, or not.
If someone has never heard, or has merely lost sight of God's willingness to have an intimate place in their lives, then this message continues to be astonishing. God says, "Yes, even your little things are important to me."
Maybe some of you remember The Spirit of St. Louis, the Jimmy Stewart movie, in which he plays Charles Lindbergh. At one point, he says, "Over the water I keep watching the waves, see which direction the wind's blowing in, allow for the drift..." Benjamin Mahoney says, "And hope the Lord will do the rest." To which Lindbergh responds, "No, I never bother the Lord. I'll do the rest." Mahoney says, "Might need a little help up there, don't you think? And Lindbergh responds, "No, it will only get in the way."
You can take that as measure of self-confidence, to say, "I won't bother the Lord; the Lord will only get in the way," but a living faith is not a denial of self-confidence. It is God's desire to come near, not just be asked for help.
Later in the movie, feeling exhausted and panicked, as he begins to descend to make the landing, Lindbergh prays, "O God, help me." And when he lands, crowds and crowds of people rush the plane to celebrate. "The kingdom of heaven has come near." (Pause.)
I am willing to guess, if you are anything like me, you go through times when you feel that you are walking with the Lord, and there are times when you think, "I don't want to bother the Lord."
Or maybe life has been more of that—more of a divine absence than presence. I can almost guarantee that there are people in your life, even people who also go to church, who feel that way. That life is more Good Friday than Easter.
But the message of the Lord is that God wants to draw near. Near to us, near to our real selves and our real situations. God is not bound to Temple, synagogue, or even Church. God draws near to us where we live, where we really think and feel. In fact, I might say to you, that that is where the treasure of the Christian life is really to be found.
You and I have been lovingly called to a living faith. A faith where God comes near to us for his own pleasure and happiness, and offers us abundant life.
Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, whose desire is always to be with us and within us: Deepen our ability to perceive you in our daily lives. Deepen our trust in your guidance and power. Deepen our relationship with you that we may lead new and nobler lives, for Christ's sake. Amen.
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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel