Beth Hoffman Faeth June 28, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 10:40–42
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus summons his twelve disciples and issues them a multitude of instructions on what they are to do, what they are to expect and what they must leave behind in order to fulfill God’s mission of preaching and teaching about God’s realm to an unfamiliar people. They will be itinerant preachers and temporary houseguests, relying fully on the hospitality of others to sustain their livelihoods. It will not be an easy life; it is a gospel life. The role of discipleship will challenge every relationship, will divide families, will require sacrifice and will be anything but comfortable. Last week, Paula preached on a section of this chapter that is filled with paradox and explored some of the hardships of being a disciple—then and now. In order to achieve God’s realm there will be suffering and surrender. The assigned Lectionary scripture for this morning is only three verses, the final ones in this dense chapter where Jesus ultimately instructs the disciples that within this unpredictable task of spreading God’s message of justice and love, there are some hospitable rewards:
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.
Let us pray:
God, may your Spirit fall fresh upon us, opening our hearts and minds to what we have not yet considered possible. Amen.
* * *
We are currently in the season of the church year called “Ordinary Time.” Beginning after Pentecost Day (this year, May 31) and lasting until the first Sunday of Advent, Ordinary Time is the longest of the ecclesiastical seasons, and the color associated with Ordinary Time is green to represent growth—growth in our spiritual life, growth in our discipleship practices and, fortunately, this matches the growing season in our own backyards that may even lead to harvest. During this particular time in the church calendar Christians are not commemorating any significant life event of Jesus—his birth, death or resurrection—rather, the focus is on the life and the ministry of the One we are called to follow.
Most of the days of our lives are ordinary, of course—no birth or death, no epiphanies or miracles, hours filled with the ordinary love and hope and fear that draws us into a common life in community. Yet this particular time we find ourselves in feels anything but ordinary. Overused words like unprecedented and surreal and strange fill our vocabulary as we try to make sense of this time of pandemic, this time of dismantling systems of oppression, this time of racial justice, this time of realizing we cannot “go back to normal” because normal wasn’t right or just or equal. Yet we long for things to feel familiar, to be able to gather with those we love, to resume many of the activities and practices we have had to put on hold since March. So while the church may consider this “ordinary time”, we know it as anything but. And while preaching is a holy ordinance that Paula, Seth and I never take lightly, it is even more humbling to craft and preach a message during this anything-but-ordinary time. It reminds me of the scenario of the little boy who watches as his minister mom works on her sermon for Sunday. “How do you know what to say?” asks the boy innocently. Not taking the time to craft much of a response his mother replies hastily, “Well, God tells me.” To which the little boy quips, “Then why do you keep crossing things out?” All I can say is that if God is trying to tell me what to say I really wish that God would speak a whole lot louder. My daughter Ellie says she always knows it is my preaching week because I sigh a lot and spend too much time with my forehead pressed to my desk in seeming despair. Let’s just say some weeks God seems to be speaking in too low of a whisper.
Like many of you, I wrestle with the “what to do” part of the equation that beckons our immediate and constant attention. George Floyd was murdered one month ago and the world roared. Finally, more people are listening to Black and Brown voices, who are wondering what took us so long to recognize the brutality and injustice that plague people of color every day. Finally, questions are being asked and answers being demanded of those in positions of power, who control systems designed to be racist. Finally, we see the Supreme Court making decisions that encourage hope, after too much policy has been designed to exclude and breed hate. A very first step for any of us is to stop defensively declaring that we are not racist, we do not oppress, we are not a part of the problem. Because that simply is not true. White people are given privilege based solely on the color of our skin. If this is something you have not yet accepted then, my friends, it is time to lose the denial. I watched a TED Talk this week and an African American psychologist told the story that when her son was 16 he realized that he made people uncomfortable in an elevator just because he was inhabiting a closed space with white people. And so he learned to say and do things to put people at ease so that they would not fear him for the 42 seconds they shared the same square. I have never had to think twice about getting on an elevator because of the color of my skin. Have you? And when did it become a person of color’s responsibility to make us feel more comfortable with their presence? If you find yourself becoming defensive around racism and your role in it, I suggest you take a deep breath and ask yourself what it really is causing that reaction. Of what are you afraid? And who are you making responsible for your own angst? When we acknowledge our privilege, our inherent bias and our white fragility some things can actually begin to happen: We can step away from our own ego and let those who really need to be heard have an opportunity to speak without interruption. We can live into our own vulnerability and do the deep work of faith, which is to repent, repair and reconstruct systems in which equality and justice are priority.
When we are not sure of the next right thing, when God’s voice isn’t as strong and present and consistent as we wish it would be, we can turn to the scripture as our guide. The tenth chapter of Matthew is not meant to give us an easy instruction manual in the work of a disciple. There are a lot of uncomfortable words on these pages, words that, as Sojourners writer Laura Dykstra describes, “assail us where we are most complacent. The portrait of Jesus and his call to discipleship is harsh and challenging. Ongoing action, radical inclusion, obligatory hospitality, divided families, and life-changing welcomes all call into question the divisions and barriers we use to define ourselves and to keep ourselves safe.”
Jesus is preparing his disciples to disperse into unknown territory and not only talk to strangers about the transformative power of God’s love but to also and most certainly demonstrate what it means to live in God’s way, to be the church. Leaving behind all that was familiar, the disciples are being sent out, traveling only with the companionship of another, to love people radically different than they and to embody the grace and the hope and the power that can come only from God. This would require humility and vulnerability and ultimately the knowledge that most of the time they would be rejected. The work of the disciple is tenacious. Being sent means to keep going, keep preaching, keep showing up with love. And keep reminding people, through word and deed, that they are loved by a God so big there is equal room for all of us in God’s realm. And these final verses in the tenth chapter of Matthew remind us that the rewards of a disciple come though welcome and hospitality, both offered and received . . . and that sometimes the most extraordinary offer of grace comes in the simplicity of a cup of cold water.
Right now, in this anything-but-ordinary time, we are being sent. The moment of George Floyd’s death has turned into a movement, and we as people of faith need to rise to the occasion and start being the people we believe ourselves to be. That means that even in a time of pandemic we must examine our hearts, do some hard work of self reflection, read and study the words of people of color who are imploring us to set our privilege aside and work for the change we long to see, we know is fair, we realize is centuries too late. We are not being asked to be heroes or saviors. We are being sent as disciples. And every act matters, every prayer is significant, every effort to empower the oppressed means something. David Lose, local Lutheran minister and former seminary president, in a commentary about these three short verses in Matthew, says this: “Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.”
There is both cost and joy in discipleship. Jesus does not try to diminish the risk involved in being sent. But how in the world would Christianity have ever spread if precious few weren’t willing to travel long distances and work tirelessly so that others might know God’s love through the life and ministry of Jesus? How can we ever expect our current reality to be different if we are not willing to be bold and courageous, to speak up and step out, to stand up to corruption and greed and privilege? Amelia Earhart, forever remembered in our history as an aviation pioneer, once said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”
Ordinary Time is exactly what we need. Radical hospitality is what we must offer. The simple, basic acts of kindness are where we can begin. Courage and a cup of cold water shall be our transformative companions.
Laurel A. Dykstra, “Uncomfortable Words,” Sojourners, June 2008, https://sojo.net/magazine/june-2008/uncomfortable-words (accessed July 1, 2020).
David Lose, “No Small Gestures,” Working Preacher, June 24, 2014, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3265 (accessed July 1, 2020).