Sermon; Proper 8A; Matthew 10:40-42
Today's gospel passage closes out the section on missional instructions given to the twelve disciples. This section began two weeks ago when Jesus called the twelve together and sent them out into various parts of Israel (avoiding Gentiles and Samaritans for the time being) to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. But as I alluded to last week, that is no easy mission. You know it wouldn't be easy when Jesus tells them not to worry about physical death, or that he has come to bring a sword, or that sons will be against fathers and daughters against mothers.
Both we and the disciples are being sent out among wolves to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. And today that commissioning, that sending, is given its final set of instructions. We are being sent out to do great things, but before we go, there's one more thing you need to know. That one more thing is this short paragraph that is today's gospel passage.
Earlier in these missional instructions Jesus told the disciples to shake off the dust of a house or town from their feet if they were not welcomed. Now he's preparing them on how to behave should they be welcomed. “If someone welcomes you, they welcome me.” Both we and the disciples have been elevated to the place of official spokesman. In other words, when we speak, so does Jesus because we speak on his behalf.
This is just the opposite of that disclaimer you see/hear in places: “The views expressed by the participants do not necessarily reflect the views of . . . X.” Well in this case, they do; so we need to be careful about how we represent Christ and the Church.
Jesus' statement, “Whoever welcomes you . . .” and, “Whoever welcomes a prophet . . .” is primarily directed to the twelve. Jesus is implying that the twelve named disciples being sent out speak on his behalf, and anyone welcoming them welcomes both the Son and the Father. He is also elevating them to the status of prophet, a venerated position of that time. In short, the twelve are the VIPs of God's kingdom and not to be ignored.
But it isn't just the twelve who are VIPs. Yes, they include Sts. Peter, Andrew, James, John and the rest. And there are other VIPs who are well-known down through the ages. People like St. Paul and Justin Martyr, Polycarp and Perpetua, Francis and Claire of Assisi, Pope Leo, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and our own Michael Curry are included, as are so many other great people and names of the faith. Anyone who welcomes those people in the name of God will receive their reward.
On the one hand, that's good news. On the other hand, though, this brings up a two-fold problem. First, and most obvious, how do we discern between a VIP and an impostor? That can be difficult because sometimes charisma is mistaken for charism. Without going too far down this path, using the Baptismal Covenant as a framework for discernment would be a good idea.
The second problem is that it can be distressing news because precious few of us rise to the level of those great saints and people I mentioned. What do we do with the myriads upon myriads of Christians living simple, faithful, anonymous lives? Lucky for us Jesus addresses this very issue.
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple . . .”
In Matthew, when Jesus uses the term “little ones” he is referring to the humble Christians who may also be poor, or those who are new to the faith.
Notice what Jesus says here: Whoever GIVES a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple.
In the long history of God's mission on earth, in the long history of the Church in all of its variances, the vast majority of people are like Matthias – known only to God and a few others, living as faithfully as they can, serving in anonymity, and simply going on about their business as faithful witnesses. These are the foot soldiers of the Church. These are the ones who do the vast majority of the work. These are the 99 percent. These people are not to be neglected or treated with disdain by the so-called VIPs or other leaders of the church. These are the ones to whom we are to give in the name of a disciple.
In the Examination portion of a priestly ordination, the ordinand is charged to love and serve the people among whom they work, and to care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. There are no, or should not be any, VIPs in the eyes of a priest. It is my job, then, to treat everyone fairly and offer cups of cold water in the name of Jesus to even the little ones. Who, by the way, may actually need it more than others.
But treating all fairly and offering cups of cold water to the the little ones isn't only my job. You all are counted as disciples. You all have been commissioned to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. You all also speak for Jesus. In the Letter of James, the author, writing to an unspecified group of believers, says, “If you take notice of one wearing fine clothes while denigrating one who is poor, have you not made distinctions?” Like me, it is your job to not distinguish but to offer cups of cold water even to the little ones.
We are being sent out to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. Some of us may become VIPs. Most of us will not. And while you may not be called to far off mission trips, or to become a “superstar Christian,” all of us are called to respect the dignity of every human being. It just may be that our greatest mission field is right here within these walls, welcoming the stranger, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ as St. John's understands it, and giving cups of cold water to the little ones on our midst.
It just may be that our acts of curing, cleansing, and restoring happen right here. It just may be that those cups of cold water we offer will allow those little ones to experience the Church as it was meant to be experienced.
In the name of Christ, may we proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore all people; VIPs and little ones alike.