Today’s sermon, from Matthew 10:41-42
One of the richest traditions I’ve been able to take part in, even in my younger days, is the rich, delicious and time-honored practice of afternoon espresso in Brazil. In Brazil, it is common practice to brew a pot of espresso – a literal pot, as in, a saucepan, of strong, strong coffee buzzing with sugar, and served without cream.
It resembles a Cuban drip coffee. Often, friends will drop by, unannounced, and to avoid being embarrassed like the wedding host who ran out of wine in Cana of Galilee, you had best brew that coffee and make a simple corn cake so that you can be a good host to your most welcome but unannounced guest.
This is common practice throughout Brazilian society, but I remember it most fondly in the context of the Christian community in which I grew up; and it wasn’t just about the coffee. The church my parents helped start with 5 other missionary families was made up of a small handful of Americans and Brazilians working together to spread Christ’s love, and a formative part of the church’s growth was fellowship.
I remember tagging along with my parents to the homes of some of the church members to do Bible studies and pastoral visits. We always received the same welcome: cafezinho, or “little coffee,” that afternoon brew I told you about, and some kind of pastry or french baguette with cheese and deli meat.
Although the food made quite the impression on me, of course, at the heart of each delicious offering was a spirit of hospitality that oozes from the people of Latin America. Hospitality is a gift of welcome offered to someone to make them feel at home and welcomed into a community. Within the Christian tradition, hospitality is a means of getting to know fellow believers, but it is also, and most importantly a command of Jesus.
Think of a time when you were the recipient of someone else’s hospitality. Doesn’t it feel so good?
Whether it’s Christmas cookies at open house with Norma, or a meal at Park Springs with Crawford. Tomatoes from Bill’s garden or flowers from Angie’s, hospitality is the ultimate blanket of warmth for the soul.
When I look out at the gathering today, I just want to take a group shot of all of you and put it in the dictionary as part of the definition of the word. I can think of multiple instances in which every single one of you has shown hospitality, or spiritual acts of welcome to me and others in this church and within our community.
So, what makes hospitality such an important spiritual discipline, that Jesus would say that not even the most basic act of a cup of water will go unrewarded?
In the passage that Azam read for us today, we find Jesus speaking with his disciples, offering them a promise of rewards for their ministry out in the world and issuing them a warning of troubles to come with a life committed to following the way of Christ.
The saving grace that bridges the experiences of loss and reward is the hospitality of others, on which these disciples will have to depend. Following the way of Christ is not an easy thing to do, have you ever noticed that? Committing to the teachings of Christ, if you are really taking the words of Jesus to heart, has the wonderful and dangerous potential to change our lives into something we never imagined or even wanted for ourselves.
You know what I mean?
In the hospitality of fellow believers, fellowshipping with us and welcoming us into community again and again, we find renewed strength to face our wonderful and unpredictable life of following in the footsteps of Christ. This is the comforting truth from Jesus that we hear alongside the disciples on this Sunday.
As he speaks to them, he talks about being welcomed. Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person welcomes Jesus, and whoever gives a cup of cold water to a “little one,” that act of service will not go unnoticed or unrewarded.
Now, a prophet proclaims the word of God, and a righteous person embodies the word of God. When we welcome prophets among us, we welcome God into our midst. So if you think about it, each time we welcome a guest into our pulpit to preach to us through Martha Stearns Marshall month of Preaching, or through mentoring programs at McAfee and Candler, we are welcoming Christ into the fabric of our ministry.
When we seek out and welcome new fellow believers to join us, people like Ms. Hilda and Ms. Grace, who have walked a long journey of faith and embodying the word of God, we are welcoming Jesus into our community of fellowship.
When we honor those who have embodied the word of God and have to leave us long before we are ready to say goodbye, we welcome Christ into our pain and by experiencing his love and care for us through our grief, we become better able to show hospitality and care for those around us who are hurting – and in those sacred moments, God is among us.
A “little one, or “one of the least of these,” is someone whom society has told has very little worth. People wrapped in a different color skin, people who have different ways of worshipping God, people who have lost the ability to think or care for themselves. The list can go on and on. The “least of these” are those people who are so different from us that it might make us reluctant to pay attention to them.
In the context of Matthew’s gospel, a cup of cold water “to a little one,” or to “one of the least of these,” was not as basic or simple and act as it sounds. Cold water was cooler than room temperature water. For someone to give a cup of cold water, they would likely have had to trek for a few miles to a deep well, draw out water to fill a jar and then carry it, probably uphill back to their home, just so their guest could have some cold water. It was an act of service and sacrifice.
And sometimes, we serve and sacrifice as well. Sacrificial love is the hardest kind of love to show, but this is the love that Jesus modeled for us. Sacrificial love takes many forms in our lives, depending on our life stage. We love sacrificially when we give to the work of the church from shrinking accounts that need to last as long as we do.
We love sacrificially when we make it known that every single person regardless of their past or way of life is welcome in these pews, right next to us on Sunday morning, and in our fellowship on Wednesday afternoons.
On this 4th of July weekend, we love sacrificially when we humbly recognize that for many in this country, the “American dream” more closely resembles an “American nightmare,” as they try to gain rights to equal pay and equal treatment, afford healthcare, or even be considered for jobs or promotions.
Sacrificial love, Jesus’ kind of love, in the context of Independence Day would also have us recognize that though this country is built on freedoms gained through the selfless service of men and women in uniform, we don’t do an outstanding job of taking care of our veterans.
Whether we lean to the right or to the left, or set up camp in the middle of issues and ideas, we have the freedom to do so because of them. Sacrificial love calls us to thank and honor them for the freedoms of independence we enjoy each day.
We love sacrificially when we let the words of Jesus “whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” be our guiding light in the way we live our lives, extending hospitality wherever we go.
So then, the good news for us today is that loving like Jesus is a gift that not only allows us to spread Jesus’ love to others by becoming Christ to another person, but that also allows us to experience Christ through that person as well. It’s a beautiful and never-ending cycle of Christs becoming Christs to each other. Frederick Buechner said that “we have it in us to be Christs to each other…to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us.”
Mother Teresa reminds us that “every day, we encounter Christ in distressing disguise in those hungry not only for bread but hungry for love; naked not only for clothing, but naked of human dignity and respect; homeless not only for want of a room of bricks, but homeless because of rejection.”
When we love sacrificially, like Jesus did, when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the isolated, when we give a home of community to the rejected, we have both encountered Christ and embodied Christ.
Christians experience no greater hospitality, no greater model of sacrificial love than the grace given to us by God through Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus’ resurrection from death is the hope in which we walk each day, and the reason for our commitment to share the good news of this hope and Christ’s love with our community, the community outside these walls, the world.
As we prepare our hearts to share in communion together, let’s commit to be people of hospitality who love like Jesus and mean it when we say, “at the table of the Lord, all are welcome.”
Thanks be to God for grace, love and welcome. Amen.