Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Sermon by Fr. Winston T. Smith
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
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.”
Since Pentecost our gospel readings have been challenging us to think about mission. We’ve received the Holy Spirit so how do we move into the world for Christ’s kingdom? For the last three weeks we’ve been in Matthew Chapter 10 where we have been reminded to follow the apostles into the world proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, to move into the fields ready for harvest, and to pray for more workers. We’ve been warned that we will not be treated well on our mission, and that it will create division even in our own homes.
This week, as we end our time in chapter 10, our role in the mission is not as those who are sent out, but as those who receive others on the mission. The focus is on welcoming. The word welcome is used six times in this very brief passage of only three verses. It points us to the importance of hospitality in furthering Jesus’ Kingdom.
The Little Ones
The first thing I noticed as I meditated on this passage is the progression from prophet, to the righteous, to the little ones. When we welcome a prophet we receive a prophet’s reward, when we welcome a righteous person we receive a righteous person’s reward. Then we welcome the “little ones”. It is really a progression of moving from the greatest to the least, from the most obvious to the least obvious, from the one you can’t miss, to the one you might overlook.
When we are told to welcome the prophet we are welcoming the proclaimer, the teacher, the one with the public ministry. We’re probably meant to think here about the apostles themselves, the preachers, the clerics, the evangelists, those with public ministries of one kind or another.
From there we move to welcoming the “righteous” person. The fellow Christian who is living the kingdom life as they should, loving God and loving neighbor.
Then we get to the “little ones”. The Greek word for little ones is micron. It literally means tiny. It’s where we get the prefix micro in microscope or microbe. It often refers to children and is used in the context of children, but in the gospel of Matthew it is the way that Jesus often refers to his own disciples, “the little ones”.
It’s not Jesus looking down on us, or being cute. It is Jesus, again, reminding us that from the world’s perspective, we are not the impressive ones. We are not the ones with the power and the status because we aren’t playing the world’s game. We are living in the reality of another kind of kingdom. And so we carry ourselves in the world as those without power or status. We are about love, not status.
I think the call to welcome the “little ones” is really the point of the entire passage because Jesus recognizes that even within our own ranks as those who are rejected by the world we are tempted to create our own hierarchy, to be more willing to welcome some than others, more likely to welcome a prophet than a righteous person, more likely to welcome a righteous person, than one who is micron, tiny and without status.
And I believe that part of what Jesus is getting at is that we are all the little ones, you and me. We are all loved by God, not because of what we can do or bring to God, but because God is love and has chosen to make us his own children, his own “little ones” through Jesus Christ. Our mission in the world is not simply one of speaking and teaching and proclaiming. It is that, but at an even more basic level, our mission is lived out through hospitality to one another and to those outside, the ones that perhaps no one else welcomes. We are to be living testimonies of God’s own hospitality to us, who has taken the badly broken and sinful people that we can be and has made us his own children, welcoming us into his own home and family.
The Gift of Water
Last weekend I attended the wedding of a good friend who married a young woman from Ghana in West Africa. It was a traditional African wedding and it was nothing like an American wedding. It was outside and the groom’s family and friends sat under a tent facing the bride’s family and friends who were sitting under another tent directly across from them. There was a large table between them that was there for the groom’s family to place presents on for the bride as they processed in. And when the bride came in she was led by an entourage of beautiful African women in brilliant robes with tall colorful headdresses and they danced their way in to African music. It was really magnificent.
But the very first thing that happened before any presents or processions is that the father of the bride stood up and welcomed everyone. And to express his welcome an ice-cold bottle of water was given to each guest. He said the gift of water is the gift of welcoming. I’ve been to lots of weddings and I’ve often received little gifts or favors at the reception as I’m sure you have – You know, if the wedding is around Christmas you get a little Christmas ornament with the couple’s name on it. Or maybe you get a little roll of LifeSavers that says “mint to be” written on the outside.
But water. I thought that was a very significant gift. I imagined traveling a long way through the tropical heat or desert areas of Africa and really needing water after the journey and being so glad to get that taste of cool refreshing water. You see, the gift of water is to give what is most needed in the moment. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to give someone a gift that is really needed or wanted? Most of the time we end up giving people gifts that make us feel good, not necessarily what the other person wants or needs. So I think Jesus is challenging us here to offer hospitality by giving what is needed in the moment. How can we offer a refreshing drink of water to others? How can I give you something that you really need, not just something that I think you need or want to give you?
I want to offer you one very simple way to do that this morning by challenging you to become very careful, fully present listeners. Here’s what I mean by that: We all wrestle with the suffering and hardship. Some of us are suffering loss and grief. Others of us are wrestling with illnesses and pain. Others are dealing with brokenness in our relationships. We are all suffering in one way or another. Sometimes as we encounter each other’s brokenness we are overwhelmed by the suffering of the other. We don’t know what to do and we don’t know what to say and so sometimes we err by either saying nothing and withdrawing OR we speak too quickly and end up saying things that really aren’t helpful. Both responses are often about our own anxiety. Our hearts and minds are so full of the fear of doing the wrong thing so busy trying to figure what to say next or wondering what advice we can give that there’s no room to let in the other person, to allow their words to take up space in our minds so that we can respond thoughtfully and carefully.
So I want you to think about hospitality, that refreshing drink of water as being first of all, making room in your hearts and your minds for the other to take up space, to simply share their thoughts and their feelings. And to welcome them by simply listening. Listen and understand what their experience is like for them. Ask questions that help you to understand what their experience is. And then, don’t feel like you have to fix it or make it all feel better. Simply care. Tell them that you care. Tell them how their experience affects you. Ask them how you can help or what they need. But don’t underestimate the power of being fully present with them and simply listening and caring.
Have you ever visited someone’s home and it’s a beautiful home, beautifully furnished, carpeting that looks like it’s never been walked on, well cared for furniture without a spot or blemish. In fact, it’s so perfect, you’re nervous about being there. You’re the most imperfect thing in the room and you’re afraid of messing something up. That’s what it’s like when you’re trying to share your heart with someone who feels like they have to have all of the right answers.
Hospitality isn’t about giving people perfect space. It’s about providing space that makes them comfortable and feel welcome. Don’t try to give each other perfect space, perfect answers. Don’t be so afraid of being a bad host that you don’t invite them in at all. Invite each other in. Being fully present and listening well, motivated by an earnest desire to be with them in whatever they are feeling, is a profound gift. Ask questions to deepen your understanding of what they are going through. Then simply respond with your genuine love and care. And of course, we can pray for and with each other and encourage each other with scripture, but we can’t do that if we haven’t really listened well first. That is cold water to people who are wearied by their own grief and suffering, who feel isolated and alone in their thoughts and feelings.
By the way, there is a reward in all of this. I mentioned earlier that the word “welcome” occurs six times in this passage. The word “reward” occurs three times. And the reward is promised in the very first sentence of the passage, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In case you’re afraid that hospitality will make your world too messy, or that you’ll be consumed by the needs of others, or that you’ll just make too many mistakes, we have this sweet promise. Our efforts to welcome and love the little ones are important because Jesus sees it and he receives it as worship. When you love the little ones, you are loving Jesus. In welcoming one another into our hearts, Jesus tells us that we are welcoming him into our hearts, God himself. It’s the old paradox, that it is in giving that you receive. It is in losing your life that you find it. It is in welcoming others that you experience Jesus’ welcome.