Sermon for Sunday, 28 June 2020
By Revd George Mwaura
Jeremiah 28: 5–9; Matthew 10: 40–42
What are you worth?
Let us pray together:
Gracious God we pray that you would open our ears to hear your word and know your voice.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, that we may serve you today and always in Jesus’ name.
A] – Do you sometimes wish you were somebody important; you know, somebody who mattered? All the talk about purpose in church circles these days tries to respond to the natural human desire to count for something, to be somebody. But I worry about that trajectory of thought. If your value is all about your purpose in life, what if you fail? Are you then without any value?
The Old Testament reading finds Jeremiah in a pickle. You see, the task of a prophet was, in general, the work of calling the people to come back to God, and to act in obedience to God, rather than predicting the future. Jeremiah’s contest with Hananiah was hampered because his message was the least popular. Everyone was going to welcome the bearer of a message of peace and prosperity, even though it gave false hope.
The Gospel lesson brings us Jesus’ final words of instruction to his disciples and he too speaks of welcome. He starts by noting that whoever welcomes his team of apostles welcomes him, and so also welcomes the father who had sent him. Keep that observation in mind when you think about your purpose in life and God’s purpose for you. A disciple’s character, actions and words are to be such that they and we can be identified as belonging to Jesus. When followers of Jesus are welcomed, it is as if Jesus himself is welcomed, and his Father who sent him, too. While a welcome into a home during Jesus’ time had a far stronger cultural basis than we may experience today, nonetheless our interactions with others, in any location, should in some way bring Jesus into the encounter. In the first century, travelling prophets did not look like much and were not accorded the hospitality extended to important and distinguished people. But Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that a core element of living with a Christian purpose is to extend hospitality even to these wanderers, not because of their appearance, but because their teachings and actions were of God!
B] – In short, Christians see, hear and encounter God and Christ in these rough and tired-looking disciples. So, keep that in mind next time a Jehovah’s Witness comes knocking at your door or when you encounter a street pastor. But it is not just these pastors or religious leaders who warrant our hospitality, no, no! Today’s Gospel teaches that Jesus has so thoroughly identified himself with any of his people that whoever welcomes any person, whoever offers a needy person just a cup of cold water, has offered it to Jesus and consequently to God. The church is called to offer the world a cup of cold water; to put off the flames of hell with the waters of eternity. Hell is hot, you know! Have you ever been to hell?
William Booth discovered hell one night when he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned; then he decided to get up and go for a walk. He journeyed into the poor part of London he had never been. He spent the rest of the night seeing sights and smelling odours he had never experienced. When he arrived home in the early hours of morning, his wife Katherine was almost frantic. ‘Where in the world have you been?’ she asked. ‘Katherine, I’ve been to hell. I’ve been to hell,’ he said! He then narrated what he had seen, and together they founded the Salvation Army.
‘Been to hell and back’ is an old and common expression and I wonder: is there anyone reading or listening to this sermon who has not been to hell and back in his or her personal life? Some of you might mumble, ‘No, George; I have never been to hell.’ If that is the case, why not? Why haven’t you been to hell? You might answer, ‘We are not called to live in hell; we are called to live in heaven.’ Fair enough, I’ll grant you that! But as Dante found out, you can’t get to heaven without going through hell first.
C] – We live in a world that feels like hell for most people; a world torn by hatred and strife as we have witnessed in the last one month here, in America and right across the globe. A world unredeemed, struggling with evil, injustices and stopped in its tracks by a pandemic – a world on fire, to which God can no longer say: Behold, it is good. It is a world desperate for a cup of cold water. And all our small random acts of kindness, tenderness, devotion and forgiveness that might go largely unnoticed strengthen the relationships that are most important to us. But the life of faith is also made up of such small gestures – gestures like making a phone call to ask how a friend or a neighbour is doing, going shopping for those elderly or self-isolating, cutting the grass of your struggling neighbour, reaching out to the lonely in the community, and so on.
According to Jesus, there is no small gesture. A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts – a gift that almost anyone can give. But a cup of cold water is precious to a person who is thirsty – in some instances, it can be the gift of life itself.
When the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was sent to prison in 1895, it was the ultimate humiliation for him, a fall from grace like Geoffrey Archer. Remember him? Oscar, too, was a celebrity in his day, but all that was forgotten once he was convicted. Whenever the prison authorities moved him in public, he was spat at and jeered. On one occasion, when the multitude was particularly hostile, a friend of Wilde appeared and made a simple gesture of friendship and respect that silenced the crowd. What was this simple gesture? As Wilde passed by, handcuffed, and looking at the ground in shame, the man simply raised his hat to him, the smallest of good deeds. Later, Wilde wrote: the memory of that lowly silent act of Love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity, made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken and great heart of the world. Wow, such a small gesture elicited such a powerful sentiment!
So, how should we respond to strangers and those we encounter? Well, welcoming those sent by God is a good place to start.
D] – Christ comes to our door many times in the person of our neighbours, religious leaders even total strangers and we turn them away. One of the reason for this might be that we have failed to realize how valuable we ourselves are to God. Just a little before today’s gospel lesson begins, Jesus reminds the disciples and us that God is in control of all things, even of where the sparrows fly and that we matter to God for surely we are worth more than the sparrow. You and I are highly valued by God! Did you hear that? When you begin to see yourself as God sees you, then just as you matter to him, he will matter a little more to you. That will make it easier to see him, in others just as Matthew’s audience was called by Jesus to see him in the wandering preachers and followers of his day. Remember, you are special, and you matter to God, but those passing through your life are special, too. The roles of those who welcome and those being welcomed are interchangeable. We are all called to be Christ to each other. Jesus sends us to share the Good News, ease human suffering, meet the needs of those desperate and work miracles of love and healing through acts of kindness: in short, to provide cups of cold water! But we are called to remember that we, too, are to go as people willing to receive those same acts of kindness. When we welcome one another, we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us. We can only live out our Christian purpose, after hearing and believing that we matter to God. People who delight in praising God will spontaneously, and with delight, long to serve others when Jesus comes to them in the person of their neighbour. When you are clear about your value to God, Christian living becomes a wonderful opportunity to flourish and thrive as you bring in the harvest for the Lord.