Sunday, June 28, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“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.”
America is a land of superlatives. So much of our popular culture has been defined by the language and concepts of advertising and consumerism. A basic principle of sales is that you must convince people that what you have they actually need; that what you have is so much better than what they currently have. The result is a throwaway society, wasteful in the extreme, choking creation to death, and still never able to achieve the illusive level of happiness promised by those who sell happiness.
And the American church has, for the most part, bought into this model hook, line, and sinker. You might be surprised (and a bit disheartened) to learn that the clergy are not excluded from this kind of thinking. Clergy gather in groups and brag about the size of the congregation and their endowment earnings and their plentiful programming, as if it’s a winner-take-all contest.
Of course, none of these measures of success has anything to do with Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. In fact, one could argue, rather convincingly that the church as we know it, with its elaborate structures and careful polities and professional clergy is not anywhere close to what Jesus imagined when he first sent out his disciples into the world.
That’s the setting of today’s lesson. Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world. And he tells them what his version of success looks like. First, Jesus gave them some very practical advice about ministry. He said things like: “Travel lightly.” “Don’t expect everyone to like you or what you’re doing,” “Don’t be surprised if the life I’ve called you to will be misunderstood by everyone, even members of your family.” But in these three concluding verses, Jesus said something more esoteric: “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 – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
This last bit is one of Jesus’s more famous saying. Lots of people have heard this adage about “a cup of cold water” even if they don’t know where it comes from. But fewer people have contemplated the transforming spiritual wisdom contained in in the words before the adage about a cup of cold water.
In fifteen words, Jesus masterfully summarizes the concept of the absolute spiritual unity of all things. Now I know that’s a mouthful, so let’s break it down. Notice that he makes no distinction between himself and his disciples, between himself and us, and between us and God. Listen again: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” It’s all woven together like a seamless piece of fabric. God in me and God in you and you in God and the cosmos in all of us – and all of it unified.
The absolute unity of all things - that’s shocking to hear for lots of people because the church has built most of its history on the idea that there is an absolute separation between God and us. This is the theology that most of us grew up with. It’s the theology that much of the Western Church continues to propagate. It’s a theology built for the accumulation of power and control.
But the truth is that it’s only one theology. Simply put, it’s the side of the theological argument that won. But other Christian theologies, like those of the Celtic church and Franciscan theologians teach a much closer communion between God and us. These theologies teach the essential goodness in humans as a reflection of the divine image. They see nature as intimately connected to us and to God. In Celtic and Franciscan thought, these words of Jesus are to be taken literally: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me (literally), and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me (literally).” God in me and God in you and you in God and the cosmos in all of us – and all of it unified.
And if that is the truth of what Jesus taught; if we are all connected like one seamless piece of fabric, then the smallest act of kindness on any of our parts reverberates throughout the universe. And that means that a cup of cold water given to a thirsty person is a direct interaction with the divine. And if that’s the truth, then how we treat others – whether for good or for ill – is exactly how we treat God.
Can true religion be boiled down to a simple act of kindness? Can the Christian faith be summarized as radical hospitality and the unity of all things? Is it really that simple? Do the little things actually matter in an eternal way?
The Rev. Dan De Leon is a UCC pastor in Texas who told this story in a sermon. He and some of his parishioners were on a mission trip in Mexico. While there, they met a man who had crossed the U.S. border illegally, only to be caught immediately and sent back. And this is the story the man told: “Penniless and humiliated, he started over. He… took the horrendous journey again, and this time he made it into the United States where he found work. He worked ten-hour shifts with no breaks making less than minimum wage, never stopped even when he cut his hand open washing dishes... And since he couldn't speak English, he couldn't express his needs, let alone defend himself under harsh treatment. After three years of saving up a little money under these conditions, he went back home, where he met his now three-year-old daughter for the first time.”
De Leon continues, “At this point I looked over at his wife. She was still knitting, still looking down; and then a tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly wiped it away, as if it (were) an enemy to which she refused to succumb. Finally, an (American) student in our (mission) group, moved by the man's testimony, asked, "How can we help? What can we do…?" And (the man) looked at us and said, "Just be nicer. Don't treat us like we're horrible. Be kind."
Be kind. Be kind. It’s so simple. It’s not at all flashy. It’s not the biggest and the brightest mission of the church. But kindness changes lives. It is absolutely transformational – for the one who gives it and the one who receives it – because we are all one. And kindness gives life, it refreshes - like a cup of cold water on a hot summer day.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.