Sermon Seeds: …Even a Cup of Cold Water
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)
Genesis 22:1-14 with Psalm 13 or
Jeremiah 28:5-9 with Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Worship resources for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A are at Worship Ways
…Even a Cup of Cold Water
by Kathryn Matthews
I look back on my Catholic school education with much gratitude, particularly for the influence of the nuns who taught us. They were so inspiring that I spent my childhood intent on entering the convent when I graduated from high school. While God led me in very different directions (very different directions!), the desire to do something wholehearted with my life never went away. The way I (and they) saw it, those nuns didn’t just have a “day job.” They had given their whole lives, everything they owned, including their family (that was always impressed on us), to follow God’s call.
Perhaps more memorably, the nuns also told us colorful stories about martyrs and missionaries who gave up even more in response to God’s call, people like Perpetua, Edmund Campion, and Father Damien. It was a wonderful way to grow up, hearing those stories. As an adult, I was heartbroken by the rape and murders of four women missionaries (three of them nuns) in El Salvador in 1980; I’ve been inspired by Sister Helen Prejean’s tireless work against the death penalty; I am moved by the “Nuns on the Bus,” who continue the beautiful tradition of lives consecrated to God, dedicated to sharing the gospel, and offered as a witness for God’s justice, compassion and peace, even in the face of opposition, judgment and a measure of risk.
Jesus took healing to the people
I remember the nuns when I read Jesus’ instructions to his disciples before he sends them out on a mission. His speech ends here with these three verses, but it really began back at the end of chapter nine of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus has been busy himself traveling all around, healing and teaching. Obviously, he didn’t set up shop somewhere and let the sick and struggling just come to him: Jesus feels deep compassion for the suffering and need of the “harassed and helpless” crowds, so he heals them, restores them, and gives them hope. He also observes to his disciples just then that “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” (9:37a).
So, what’s the first thing he does about that situation? He gathers his disciples and sends them out to be those laborers! And what does he say to them, and what does he empower them to do? He tells them to cast out demons and cure every illness, offering gifts of compassion to announce the reign of God drawing near. Keeping that in mind as we come to the close of this speech (his sermon, perhaps?), we might understand our own call more clearly, and embrace it more wholly.
Instructions to his disciples in every age
Jesus was very clear in his instructions, as we know from reading this sermon-speech over the course of several Sundays. He told his disciples to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'” That’s what they were supposed to say, but then what should they do after that? What does the kingdom of heaven look like? How will we know it when we see it, or feel it? Jesus’ keynote address, the Sermon on the Mount (which took three chapters, beginning with chapter five in Matthew), tells us a lot about the reign of God.
The speech that ends today has given us even more information about how we can participate in that reign, now that we’re inspired by Jesus’ words and the way he lived his life. Along with those disciples, we’re told to offer gifts of compassion: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. Isn’t it interesting that there seems to be far more emphasis on healing and raising than on the exact words and teachings they (we) should use? (Church councils would address the words–and–teachings issue much later, but for the time being, the Holy Spirit would be enough.) More emphasis, it seems, on the doing than on the saying, more emphasis on doing good than on holding the “correct” beliefs.
Have an undivided heart
And then Jesus focuses on two things: have no fear, he says, and have an undivided heart. (As Soren Kierkegaard noted, to be “pure of heart” means “to will one thing”; we remember Jesus’ words about “the pure of heart” back in chapter five of this same Gospel.) You probably need to be fearless if you’re going to have an undivided heart, because you’re likely to risk a lot for the sake of the treasure that lies in your heart: perhaps you’ll even risk the loss of social standing, family support, physical safety and financial security.
There have been Christians in every age and place who have known something of that kind of loss, but many of us in the mainline churches in the United States find it harder to relate. We recall Barbara Brown Taylor’s apt description of the temptation we face: “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it. Being a good Christian is not all that different from being a good citizen, after all. You just stay out of trouble and be nice to your neighbors and say your prayers at night. There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself…” (Her sermon, “Family Values,” is in Gospel Medicine).
Getting out of our comfort zones
However, Charles Cousar recognizes what we face if we get up out of our comfort zones to follow Jesus, if we “discover that the announcement of the dawn of a new age is forever risky business…” (Texts for Preaching Year A). Indeed, part of this speech warned us that the same things that happened to Jesus could happen to us–be ready, Jesus says, to experience the same resistance I experience, to be called names and to be misinterpreted. Consider the shocking sight of people with disabilities being carried out of the halls of power, when out of desperation they protested the loss of support from the wider community. Were there others there who were willing to offer their solidarity, even if it meant being misinterpreted and manhandled? Were they willing to run that risk, for the sake of compassion and justice?
We are sent by Jesus, who was sent by God, so we’re associated with Jesus, identified with him, and granted his authority, but along with the authority comes risk, as David Bartlett warns us (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). Is that risk too daunting? M. Eugene Boring draws this hard and uncomfortable conclusion about our discomfort with “talk of witness, persecution, poverty, and martyrdom,” because “our own version of Christianity” may be so comfortable, an accommodation so suited “to our own tastes,” that we have to wonder if it can indeed “remain Christian faith” (Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible). A hard and uncomfortable conclusion, indeed.
We could focus on the lesson about hospitality (a “holy welcome”) in this short text, the last three verses of a much longer speech by Jesus. Hospitality is a very good thing, of course. In the United Church of Christ, we claim “extravagant hospitality” at the heart of our vision for the church, and we commit to embody that virtue, that spiritual practice, the best we can. Jesus, interestingly, doesn’t speak of extravagance here but of one little cold cup of water. Even that much, he says, will be rewarded. If he was arguing from the lesser to the greater (as he so often did), we can imagine how pleased God is by an extravagant welcome offered in God’s name.
However, offering that welcome and the gift of compassion is as good for our spiritual health as it is for the well-being of the one welcomed. It’s one way we experience the reign of God drawing near. Evan Drake Howard writes, “The more extravagant the welcome, the greater the refreshment, the deeper the grounding, the clearer the enlightenment, the stronger the inspiration that will flow from it. The welcome must be extravagant in sincerity and persistence….” Howard says that Jesus lived in a “place of welcome,” and one story after another from the New Testament confirms this (Christian Century, June 17, 2008).
It seems, of course, that Jesus’ “place of welcome” was able to travel with him wherever he went, as he made people feel at home wherever and however they met him. How did the church move so far away from living in “a place of welcome” to be perceived by many as sitting in a place of judgment instead? Why don’t more people feel at home when they come to church?
Courage to trust
We can always count on Richard Swanson for a fresh perspective on the text: he brings together the hospitality (the “chief necessary act” in a nomadic society) and the risk of discipleship. The ancient stories in the Bible about welcoming strangers strike a deep chord within us of “delight that arrives when human beings treat each other as human beings, with honor and respect, and perhaps a little food….This old sign of Torah faithfulness is taken as a sign, house by house, of who expects God to keep the old promises.”
In any age, comfortable or not, it takes courage and tenacity to hold onto the promises and trust in the One who has made them, rather than trusting in our own devices and resourcefulness, or even worse, in the security of “empire” and the powers that be. According to Swanson, “empire” and “welcome” don’t seem to go together well, because empire doesn’t trust in the promises of God (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). Empire prefers its own cunning authority, girded with brute strength.
Called together and sent out
Thus, when someone opens their heart to the promises of God and their door to one who bears those promises (the “sent” ones, the “little ones” who are small and humble but speaking with the authority of the One who sends them), it does not escape God’s notice. God pays attention, after all, to small things and humble acts. (We remember hearing about God’s attentive care for little ones, sparrows and faithful disciples both, last week.)
Now there is a tension here between the necessity to go from being hospitable (where we are) and knowing ourselves as sent out into the world, as on the move, because Jesus calls us together into the church but more importantly sends us back out again. (“Vocation” means calling, of course, but you could also say that it means sending, if we’re called out into the world.)
Providing and receiving God’s love
No one reminds us more eloquently than Barbara Brown Taylor that we are not “consumers” but “providers of God’s love”: we’re not supposed to seek a place of safety and reassurance in the church–it’s not “a hideout,” she says, not “the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune,” and we are not simply “chosen people who have been given more good gifts than we can open at one sitting: healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection.” Instead, “the Holy Spirit comes knocking at the door, disturbing our members-only meeting and reminding us that it is time to share” (This sermon is in Bread of Angels; Taylor’s sermons are wonderful resources for our spiritual lives).
There is so much more in Taylor’s beautiful sermon on this speech of Jesus, about “agents,” not “assistants,” of God, traveling light and sharing what they themselves have received: “What must it be like not only to talk dependence on God but to live it everyday for a year, understanding that reliance on God equals reliance on the hospitality of others? That kind of knowledge,” Taylor writes, “could change a person for good….” It could also inspire a young person to want to grow up and give her own life, wholeheartedly, to the promises of God, even if that takes her places she could have hardly imagined, sitting there, in Sister Perpetua’s first-grade classroom, hearing stories and listening for the sound of God’s call.
The grace of hospitality and open hearts is expressed beautifully in today’s Gospel passage, which is part of a longer discourse by Jesus, who is giving instructions to the disciples at hand, and to the church in every generation as well, including us today. These “little ones” have often been mistakenly thought of as children, but the phrase really refers to the newest disciples and even teachers, like the followers of Jesus who would be going out in mission.
The vulnerable, needy ones could be seen as the traveling teachers who are received with care and generosity and perhaps, given the risk of faith, a kind of courage, too. The reciprocity experienced by the hosts and those they welcome is central to our life today in the church, too. Those who come to our doors bring wisdom and richness just as much as they bring a seeking heart. Those who welcome extend God’s own welcome, and yet need to be open to receive as well.
Profound need and warm hospitality
Think of times in your life that you were in profound need of hospitality, whether you were seeking a place of temporary rest or a place to call home. Think of what you brought with you in those times, the gifts that you bore to share with those who welcomed you. Were your gifts welcomed?
Think of times and opportunities that you have had to welcome others. Did you think of the gifts that they brought you, even as you offered your own generosity to them? How does your congregation think of those who come to visit on any given Sunday? What learnings, what new insights, have those visitors brought? Are visitors and new members seen as potential solutions to problems, as possible challenges and opportunities to grow in unexpected ways, or as problems to be dealt with?
What is the risk in welcoming newcomers into our lives, individually and as congregations? What does this passage, and the larger discourse that includes it, teach us about being the church “on the road,” and not just settled and comfortable in one place? How do we “hit the road” even though we have a church home? How is God still speaking to us today about being in mission, in movement, on the road, in action, traveling light, remaining open and ready for our call in a new day? What is the reward you hope to receive, as an individual and/or as a community of faith?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 20th century
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 20th century
“True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’.”
Letty M. Russell, 21st century
“Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”
John Wesley, 18th century
“One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it–and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Where there are no good works, there is no faith. If works and love do not blossom forth, it is not genuine faith, the gospel has not gained a foothold, and Christ is not yet rightly known.”
Frederick Faber, 19th century
“Mercy has converted more souls than zeal, or eloquence, or learning or all of them together.”
William Blake, 19th century
“Mercy is the golden chain by which society is bound together.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, 21st century
“The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”
Francis Xavier, 16th century Jesuit missionary
“Be great in little things.”
G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
How long, O God?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face
How long must I bear pain
in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart
all day long?
How long shall my enemy
be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me,
O God, my God!
Give light to my eyes,
or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say,
“I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice
because I am shaken.
But I trusted
in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice
in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because God has dealt bountifully
Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
I will sing of your steadfast love,
O God, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim
your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love
is established for ever;
your faithfulness is as firm
as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant
with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
“‘I will establish your descendants
and build your throne
for all generations.'”
Happy are the people
who know the festal shout,
who walk, O God,
in the light of your countenance;
they exult in your name
all day long,
and extol your righteousness.
For you are the glory
of their strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to God
our ruler to the Holy One of Israel.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[Jesus said:] “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 in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!