When my mother-in-law was moving from her home of many years to an apartment in a continuing care community, she knew she was doing the right thing. She had several health conditions that made remaining in her house very difficult. She had investigated and selected a facility that seemed to be a good fit for her, and – rationally – it all made sense. That didn’t mean that she wasn’t scared, however, and sad to be leaving. Thankfully, she already had a few friends in her new place. And one friend in particular, whose name was Grace, took Mom under her wing: meeting her for dinner, introducing her to others, making sure she participated in the various community activities. But that first night, on move-in day, John and I walked her down to the dining room, where we were going to meet Grace. Mom was being very brave, but I could see how hard it was for her, to walk into a roomful of strangers, to know that this was going to be her life from now on. Grace’s presence, her welcome and her care, made all the difference at a difficult and vulnerable time. And because we knew Grace, I knew that her hospitality was part of her ministry, an expression of her faith and being a disciple of Jesus. A simple thing, but so important.
That’s certainly what Jesus says to us today: Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me….and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward.
A cup of cold water, a moment of listening, an invitation to sit, an offer to walk with another, a sympathetic nod or word to the parent whose toddler is pitching a fit in the grocery store, an expression of thanks to the person who has pumped your gasoline, a willingness to see and interact with strangers as vulnerable human beings who have been made in the image of God and for whom Christ died – just as you yourself are.
Such simple things, often small things, and yet this, Jesus tells us, is where the rubber meets the road. This is where the vast majority of us will have our discipleship tested and tried. Why is that? In part, it’s because these moments catch us off-guard. We never know when we will be called upon to offer hospitality to another, to open our heart and schedule to someone else, to imagine what it might be like to be that other person. We can’t gear ourselves up for a set period of exercising compassion and welcome – at least not most days. So our response springs forth from our character, from the way our inner being has been shaped and formed by God’s love and forgiveness of us, by God’s tenderness with our vulnerability and pain.
Another reason why our discipleship is tested and made evident by these small gestures is because they are so basic, so core to human existence – water, food, clothing, shelter, dignity, friendship, mercy, loving-kindness. We all need these things for survival, and we share these needs with every other person God has ever made. Even Jesus came among us in great humility: a child born on the road, to yet-unwed parents, outside their own community, in a place where animals were sheltered, and soon to be on the run – refugees from King Herod’s murderous edict. When we claim to follow Jesus as Lord, we are following and serving One who knows what it is to be hungry, thirsty, in pain, in need of shelter, the object of bad orders born of fear. We follow a Lord who knows what it is to be a stranger and in need of welcome, and who calls us to join him in that place of vulnerability and risk and openness to others.
I suspect that for most of us, that is a pretty tall order. Our culture bids us to put on the armor of perfection, of emotional self-sufficiency, of success-only-and-at-all-costs, and for goodness’ sake doing it all with the apparent ease of a TV talk-show show host and don’t you dare let them see you sweat!
Well, that’s not Jesus’ way. The call to follow him is a continuing call to be real and become more so, to be vulnerable, to stay connected to others even when it feels painful or risky or scary. Sometimes that means giving a cup of cold water to a stranger; sometimes it means welcoming someone new into your circle, your home, your church, your life; sometimes it means being open to chance encounters on the street, on the train, in Shop Rite; sometimes it means standing with a person living on the margins of the community; sometimes it means showing up at a rally or a gathering to support an issue you care deeply about because of your Christian faith. But always listening – listening for the truth of the other person’s life, listening for the words the Holy Spirit may be calling us to speak.
One of the images I often have when I am planning or preaching a funeral is that of Jesus standing on the proverbial doorstep of heaven, arms outstretched, and saying to the person who has died: “Welcome home.” That’s a good image. But the far better image is Jesus standing - at the Church door, or the Parish House door, or out at the crossroads, or at the train station, or in the hospital room, or on the playground, or in the court room or trading floor or school room, or in any of the places people are lost, lonely, broken, afraid - arms outstretched, and bidding us to stand with him, saying to those who need to hear it “Welcome home; welcome to the heart of God.”
So every morning, offer yourself to God. Offer your mind, your heart, your schedule, your energy, your resources; and ask the Spirit to direct your attention to those places and people where God can use you best – even if it’s just to give a cup cold water to someone who is parched and weary.
Let us pray.
Where cross the crowded ways of life,
where sound the cries of race and clan,
above the noise of selfish strife,
we hear your voice, O Son of Man.
Lord, may we listen, may we follow, and may we welcome others in your name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost/Independence Day
July 2, 2017