They Could Even Be Jesus

Sunday, July 2, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 20:40-42

Our readings from the last three weeks have been part of Matthew’s Missionary Discourse. Today we hear the last part. It began two weeks ago when we read what Jesus outlined as the basic instructions for being a disciple: Keeping it simple, by not worrying if we have everything we need, but trusting that God has given us all we need through the power of the Holy Spirit who will give us the words we need to speak. Therefore we can share our faith stories, and the kingdom of God with others knowing that we have been called by God to do this work. We don’t have to be experts or perfect to be Jesus’ disciples.

Last week we heard difficult and challenging words from Jesus who said, “Do not think I have come to bring peace, but a sword.” We had “the talk” about how being a disciple isn’t always easy, and sometimes following Jesus and living as he wants us to live causes divisions. Not everyone wants to hear that we need to love and welcome everyone. Not everyone wants to hear that we need to help those in need, because it might require changing the way we live our lives. Yet Jesus assures us that we must be courageous in following God’s will instead of our own.

Today, we hear how even the smallest act of kindness and welcoming is great in God’s kingdom. In our gospel lesson today we hear Jesus say, “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.” A cup of cold water- is that all it takes? It seems easy enough doesn’t it? Who among us wouldn’t offer a cup of cold water to someone who needs it? Yet, opportunities arise every day to offer refreshment to people, and if we don’t have our hearts and minds in the right place – focused on Jesus – we may pass right by these opportunities.

While in seminary, a group of seminarians including myself slept in cardboard boxes on the square in downtown Gettsyburg to raise awareness about homelessness even locally. We had signs with statistics and a donation box for clothing. It was a particularly cold night; the temperature was in the 30’s, which doesn’t seem that cold, unless your sleeping in a cardboard box. I didn’t sleep well that night. Even I – who loves the cold – was cold down to my bones. And the noise kept me up, and I was in a constant state of alertness. It’s hard to fall asleep when surrounded by potential dangers. We were surrounded by classmates and friends, but we thought about all those who are isolated and have no one. It helped us all to really understand what it meant to be on the streets with no one to care for you. And now, when we see people begging for money on the side of the road, we have a deeper empathy and compassion for them. It’s easy to just drive by when we see these people, saying they should just get a job, but we don’t know their situation. Jesus didn’t tell us to assess everyone’s situation; he said to respond with love and compassion. Think of what would have happened to the entire world if someone hadn’t welcomed Mary and Joseph into their stable that holy night thousands of years ago. Who knew that even that small act of welcome to use a stable would usher in a miracle.

A colleague of mine is a pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Union Deposit, but lives in Dillsburg, so she doesn’t use the parsonage. Instead of renting out the parsonage, this small church offers the it free of charge to families who have relatives in Hershey Medical Center and need a place to stay close by while they are there. They have partnered with another non-profit organization called Love Inc. that helps coordinate this. This small church knows that they are not a church to make a profit, but are called as disciples to welcome those who are in need and to show them the compassion and love of Jesus. To these families who are helped, it is a welcome relief. They experience the love of God in the midst of their struggles.

I know a young couple that lived next door to a young Muslim woman attending the local university in their city. Every day they would smile and offer a genuine welcome of hospitality. It’s just second nature to them to be friendly. After a while they received a small thank you from this young woman that read, “Thank you for always smiling at me, and being kind to me.” From the way it was written they could tell that not everyone in the neighborhood treated her so kindly. They had no idea how much this meant to her. Their small acts of kindness and welcoming made an impact in this woman’s life far greater than they will ever know.

While there is hatred, racism, and violence each and every day, there are also stories like this. We need more of these acts of kindness and welcoming because it isn’t violence that’s going to end violence, it’s love. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” This modern day prophet knew what it was to be courageous and speak out against injustice. He knew that in welcoming all people we welcome Jesus himself. Jesus tells us that in our gospel reading today, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The way we treat each other is the way we treat Jesus.

As we’ve discussed the last few weeks prophets like Jeremiah, Martin Luther King Jr. and any one of us who speak God’s words are not always welcome because the message is often met with ridicule and contempt. Sceptics ask, “But what if we are kind to those who don’t deserve it or who might be taking advantage of the system?” Jesus tells us to treat others just as we would treat Jesus, no exceptions.  It might be wise for us to take a look at our second reading from Romans today, where we are reminded that we ourselves are sinners. We don’t always do or say the right things. We sin and ask God for forgiveness, and then we sin again. Yet, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have been set free to be slaves to sin. Through Jesus we have the gift of sanctification – meaning being made holy – each and every day. It’s a process, yet each and every day we are given another chance to begin again. How can we not show others the same grace and compassion that God shows toward us? Jesus has freed us from sin, so that we are now free to serve God and spread the kingdom of God here on earth.

The kingdom of God is different from this world in that there is no concern as to whether there is enough to go around. Jesus sends us out to continue his ministry, and in Jesus’ presence there is always more than enough. I am reminded of the story in the Old Testament about the prophet Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. God told Elijah to go to Zarephath where God would tell a widow to feed him. This must have seemed odd to Elijah because widows and orphans were among the poorest of the poor, but Elijah did what God told him to do. When Elijah came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks, and he called to her and asked her to bring him a little water. Then, he asked for her to bring him back a little bread too. But she told him that she only had enough oil and meal to make a little loaf of bread for herself and her son that they were planning on eating before they die because they were so poor. But Elijah told her not to be afraid, and to make some for him first before they made some for themselves. He said that God told him to tell her that she would have enough – that the ingredients would not run out and God would provide. Can you imagine if someone asked you to do that when you were in dire straits? But she went and listened to Elijah, and just as God had promised there was more than enough for all of them for a long time. This poor woman gave all she had to welcome this prophet, trusting that God would provide. That is the kind of hospitality and welcome that God asks us to show others.

Small acts of kindness done with great love make the difference sometimes between life and death. This widow was afraid she was going to die, yet she chose kindness and generosity over fear and self-preservation. Jesus tells us that the small acts of kindness – like a cup of water – are also rewarded. And we don’t act with kindness to get the reward, but because God has been gracious to us, we are gracious to others.

We may never know the impact of our actions, but like seeds they will spread and grow. The beggar on the street, the angry person in the check-out lane, the new person who just moved in next door… welcome them and let them welcome you because the Holy Spirit speaks through all of us, not just the prophets. The next person we welcome, offer even a cup of water, go out of our way to help, may not look like it, but they could even be Jesus. Don’t let that encounter with grace pass you by. Amen.

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