Sermon delivered at Ballard First Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA
Grace and peace to you, from God, our Eternal Source, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Did you catch that little detail about a cup of cold water? Do you know why a cup of cold water matters? Well, you’ve got no fridge in the year 35. And Israel-Palestine is not a particularly cold part of the globe. Remember, you’d walk a ways to get to your community water-well. You’d have to let your bucket sink awfully deep to get some of that cold water. And you’d have to carry that jug pretty quickly back to your house, for it to stay cold.
Seems insignificant at first, cold water. But you really would have to go out of your way it seems to get that for a guest.
You know, I do read the bible quite a bit, but I could never have known that without some expert telling me so…
I was talking with our administrator and office person, Cindy Jackson, a few days ago, she asked how I was doing, and all I could think to say was, “Geez, you know, I read the bible a lot…”
And my wife Maddy and I were having a drink the other day down on Market Street, and we were chatting about how our week was, and as I was talking, I found myself saying: “Geez, you know, I read the bible a lot…” “It’s good!” I reassured both of them, “It’s good, not something to complain about.” But, how would I know about cups of cold water if I didn’t look it up? Even though it’s literally part of my job to read and explain the bible, it remains so often a set of baffling texts. I just can’t get my head around every part of it, I don’t think I ever will.
This morning, this is one of those Gospel lessons that is just not so easy to makes sense of. This lesson from Matthew is so small— so small that big Questions pop up quick. Questions that deserve answers. It’s a reading where context really matters. Like: What just happened, why is Jesus saying this? And what does Matthew’s Jesus mean when he says “welcome”?
Here’s a little context: Our lesson comes at the end of a long talk Jesus gives to his 12 closest followers, about how to go out into the world. How to tell people that a new era has come, and era where God is out there, on the loose, and wants to reveal great, happy things to all people. But, these new, great, happy things will change, forever, how we think.
We’ve heard Jesus’ whole talk over the past few Sundays. Remember that sermon by Pastor Erik, the one about Jesus having compassion on the crowds and us having our bowels stirred? That Gospel lesson was about Jesus instructing the twelve, telling them to go out to the lost sheep of the world, bring nothing with them except a walking stick, and to accept only whatever is given them. To be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. That was the first part of Jesus’ directions.
And then last Sunday, Pastor Elise, talked about Colin Kaepernick— a baptized Lutheran and person of faith—in case you didn’t know. Pastor Elise emphasized his bravery and activism in the NFL, because the Gospel lesson urged disciples of Jesus not to fear those who might be able to hurt our bodies, but who can never touch our spirits. This, too, was part of Jesus’ instructions for those being sent out.
These directions were both warning and encouragement. Expect rejection, Jesus said, but know that God has numbered the hairs of your head. Expect even families to come apart at the seams, but know that you belong to God. This challenging set of instructions comes to a close today with our lesson. Jesus tells his followers— those folks he is sending out— that anyone who welcomes them is receiving Jesus himself, and receiving Jesus is the same as welcoming God, who sent him. So, by proxy sort of, the mission of the disciples is bringing the news of God’s salvation to all, in word and deed.
“God’s salvation”— that’s church-talk for the great, happy things that can change everything. And there we have it. The context. Does that help? Or is it still a bit hard to understand?
This big ol’ set of instructions is using cultural metaphors, and images and subtle references to other parts of the bible, that I’m gonna guess you might not know about. Even a metaphor as basic as a “shepherd” is basically lost on me. I don’t interact with sheep very often. We’re just not on that biblical-era wavelength anymore. I think it’s been a real long time since any church has.
I find myself telling people, “Geez, I read the bible a lot….” because I thought it would get easier to understand, or that somehow this whole preaching thing would click into place. I don’t know anything about cold water! It’s tough!
Another, bigger example of a metaphor that’s become obscure: this “welcoming” Jesus is talking about. Do y’all know about the Ancient Near East practices of hospitality? Maybe some of you have been to the Middle East, or to Palestine or Israel, maybe? To understand this list of instructions of Jesus for his followers it would really help to know about the complex system of hospitality. This Near-East hospitality only involves strangers. Family or friends don’t count…
So imagine some old, old city down in Palestine. There’s no countries or passports or checkpoints or anything, just cities and towns that are in loose federations with each other. Strangers are those with no legal protection—they have no affiliation to the town or city you live in. So, this hospitality thing has three stages I’m told.
Step one, as host, you test the stranger. Make sure they’re not kooky, or violent, or dangerous. The bible is full of these kinds of encounters. Once the stranger is deemed worthy of guest-hood, guess what often happens? They get their feet washed. Also, a big biblical metaphor we celebrate right here in church. But, not with strangers, with our church family, so… not quite the same.
Anyway, step two: becoming a guest. Which involved food of course. And also involved as guest not refusing whatever is given. You get washed and you get fed, and then you get a place to stay. The Old Testament and the Gospels and the whole bible are overflowing with instances of this kind of hospitality. Jesus, so often, is a perfect guest according to these standards. But I always miss the references to this cultural practice, cuz I just don’t know it, I don’t live it. Once you are a guest you enjoy the protection of the “house” of your host.
If all goes well, step three, the stranger-turned-guest leaves the host as a friend. However—if something goes wrong— the stranger-turned-guest leaves as an enemy. There are infringements on this stranger to host to guest dynamic that can run the relationship off the rails at anytime. It’s a complex dance of cultural knowledge.
In the past three Gospel lessons, Jesus is taking this basic cultural practice for granted. It’s an easy way for him to make a potent example of how God works. God in Jesus has turned the disciples from strangers into friends. And then Jesus sends out these special friends as representatives of God, to find new hosts, and to become new guests. Jesus makes sure that his disciples are destitute strangers, too, to find those special hosts who are ready and able to receive God. It’s sort of as if Jesus is saying that God tends to come in very strange, destitute packages.
Surely, we remember that baby-Jesus got zero hospitality when he was born. And who can forget that part in Matthew were Jesus says to those who feed and clothe and visit in prison “the least of these” that they were actually showing Jesus hospitality after all?
If you can think of a bible character, there’s a good chance they were either the recipient of—or the giver of—unknowing, holy hospitality. Abraham and Sarah made a banquet for God’s own presence, Lot, in Sodom and Gomorrah, gleefully welcomed and tried to protect God’s visiting angels. Remember Rahab, the sex-worker from Jericho? She welcomed the Hebrew spies despite the fact they are her enemies. Saul (the first king of Israel) was welcomed as a stranger, given a room to stay, given food to eat. And who could forget the widow of Zarephath? Who fed the prophet Elijah for many days by means of a miraculous supply of flour and oil? Should I keep going? I told you, I read the bible, a lot… The list of beautiful happenings goes on and on…
Hospitality is perhaps one of the most important, and basic cultural practices portrayed in our holy scriptures.
Let’s not forget, not only does God get turned from stranger-to-guest, but it is God’s distinct will that we, too, change strangers into guests. Funny that the same bible books that some might use to ostracize the gay community today, also say, so starkly, “The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt….” And that God’s own actions include, “Loving the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” And, therefore, telling God’s people: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Hospitality is important. Both providing and receiving. God does it, Jesus does it.
Biblical hospitality is relationship; it is community. Hospitality, even when God is involved, also means vulnerability.
It means being vulnerable; at the whim of your host. Needing their protection, benefiting from their privilege. Jesus says his followers will go out with nothing but a walking stick. That’s how we come to God: with nothing.
But, this hospitality also means being able to actually see the vulnerable. And using your privilege, your status, your house, your things to help, but more than help: transform these strangers into guests, and into friends.
So, I guess this is the part of the sermon where I’m supposed to chastise y’all for being bad, capitalistic, American monsters. My heart isn’t in it though.
It is fair to say that there is a culture around us, that would transform us into hideous beasts. A culture that allows for shocking refugee bans, appallingly unjust wars and economic practices, and uses unthinkable racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric… I guess that’s the world being the world.
It seems a little bit like beating a dead horse to say it, but we might also consider that there is a world refugee crisis larger than any other time in human history. Why not consider there is a child immigration crisis on our own southern borders… Consider, there is a youth homelessness crisis in our own city… literally, in our own backyard. If this was an old-fashioned church, this is where I would remind you, grimly, that if we were to appear before Jesus on the last days we would all certainly get our reward…
There are ten-thousand, ten-million human beings all un-welcomed, all still strangers… I would say we’re all done for. But, gladly, this isn’t an old-fashioned church. And, you know, looking back at this gospel lesson—I’m not hearing Jesus words condemning us. God is a perfect host.
We were strangers, but God wants us to be friends. Jesus says, joyfully I think, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous…” Jesus goes on, opening this holy work to all of us, “And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
I mean, even though I read the bible a lot, I still don’t know too much… But, it really sounds like there is some holy work to be done. God washes us in our Baptism, it sounds like we’re expected to wash other people. God feeds us with holy sustenance at the Lord’s table, seems like we’re expected, in response, to make sure people are fed. Without earning it—without even asking—God gives us holy places to dwell in: Our bodies, this whole universe, and certainly this Church.
It seems fair that we, too, extend all kinds of hospitality to strangers.