This morning we are going to open once again with a breath prayer which is a simple prayer to center ourselves before we hear words of hope.
Let us begin:
Breathing in: In this pause
Breathing out: I hear God’s whisper
Many years ago, I happened to attend a conservative evangelical church in Fairfield CT where we lived and still own a little house. The Pastor at the church, Steve, was well known for his inspirational preaching which is what prompted me to go. One Sunday, he preached the lectionary passage we read today about Abraham on the verge of taking the life of his son Isaac. I was a single Mom with a sweet little baby at that time, whom I adored with all my heart. I listened to the rather grim passage and the
minister’s sermon on it intently. At the end of worship, I walked up to him and looked him straight in the eyeballs saying, “Pastor Steve, how could anyone in their right mind, tie their unsuspecting kid up, put him on top of a pile of timber to set ablaze and wield a knife over him? Like really, who could do that?” The very reverent Pastor Steve, also a parent of little kids, looked back deeply into my eyes and said, “I have no idea. I know I could never do that, God or not.” I really liked Pastor Steve for that answer because it was brutally honest and authentic. Even though I am not in agreement with a great deal of conservative or fundamentalist doctrine, at that moment Pastor Steve and I were simply two parents facing the Biblical reality of something we knew we would never be able to do.
In a funny way the scripture, his preaching and his honest response to me was like a welcoming cup of water to one who was terribly thirsty. I was parched for knowledge, for solace during a very difficult period in my life and for someone of deep faith to just be real with me. And he was, God bless his heart. Life, or if you prefer God, seems to have a funny way of putting just the right person or circumstances out there for us to learn things about ourselves and about the world that are important milestones and touchstones on which to grow. Even so, I feel skeptical when people say, “God puts exactly what you need in your path” or “everything happens for a reason.” As a person who has been in ministry for more than 20 years I personally cannot confirm that axiom to be true, but if a belief of that nature sustains you, then who am I to judge?
Today we reflect on challenges we face as people of faith. In the Genesis passage, we are asked to believe that God would challenge us to put our children in the position of grave and mortal danger and we are to trust that God or an angel will swoop in and save the day. We are also asked, by way of the Matthew passage. to trust that as we welcome the stranger into our homes and hearts, we are indeed welcoming Jesus himself and therefore welcoming the presence of God. The verse “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.” That’s a mouthful of truth, isn’t it? So, what does it mean?
For one thing, we are specifically reminded that the Disciples of Jesus were not always treated hospitably while on their journeys of mission for God. It must have been extremely difficult to talk about Jesus and the Resurrection to people who were used to believing in a certain way, whether Jewish or Pagan, for so many centuries before Jesus’ time. No doubt the Disciples were hot, tired and hungry after traveling on the dusty desert roads to preach the good news of Christ. A cup of cold water would be a huge relief, not to be taken lightly. In fact, a cup of cold water is a downright luxury in a hot desert climate, just ask anyone who lives without refrigeration in the desert on or near the equator.
Let me ask you, when someone comes to you with a message or opinion that you are not familiar with nor prepared for, do you find a way to treat that person with openness and hospitality? I am not always very good at that, especially if the person has strong political opinions and they are hell bent on changing my mind to their way of thinking. However, when turning a person away or cavalierly dismissing their point of view, we are engaging in a non-compassionate, inhospitable way. Believe me, I am just as guilty of doing that as anyone, because it is human nature to reject that which we believe might hurt us. Being defensive is not all together a bad idea if there is something or someone blatantly out to subvert our own views or to hurt us in some way. I guess the question is, where do you draw the line between self-defense and inhospitable actions and a lack of welcome and compassion?
There is a person who calls our office often looking for money. She seems like a nice enough person and she always has a long explanation of what her immediate issue is which necessitates, yet again, her calling us for money. If it’s a doctor’s appointment, I have offered to pay the doctor directly, but she has turned that down. If she can’t make her rent, I have suggested to pay the landlord. That’s not what she is interested in and she usually has a pretty good reason which she lays on me. It isn’t that we don’t want to help people financially, it is just that it feels as if we are becoming her personal ATM! That’s not good on many levels not the least of which is it is giving her license to take advantage of a church and to experience a sense of remorse or guilt. How does that help anyone, from a psychological, emotional or spiritual perspective? As she calls more frequently I have to think of ways to respond to her request tactfully and welcome her to vent her frustrations, though we do give her money from time to time to time. This is a small issue that pastors deal with, not just me. I believe she is in need but I also feel there are lots of churches in Worcester that can share in the largess of the requests she frequently makes. So, I need to balance hospitality and compassion with good old fashioned reality based practicality and do it in a way that is moral and kind.
Jesus tells us clearly “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” How well equipped are we, here, to be a place of hospitality and welcome? What lengths are we willing to go to make that a reality? What are we not willing to do? These are all questions we continue to ask because sometimes we know ourselves the least even though we think we know ourselves best. As a member of the Committee on Ministry, I was consulting at a UCC Church last week and they told me over and over how welcoming they are. I believe they believe that and they are very nice people. I did have to be honest with them to say that I had passed by their church many times in the last four years but I never once felt it was a place I would just go in and find out what it was about. It does not look all that welcoming to me. Now, this information blew their minds but they were grateful to hear it because they sincerely want to be a welcoming church. We talked about the specifics of what they could be doing to make the outside look more open and welcoming and they will be doing those things.
Here’s another way to look at this. What good and healthy relationships have you found because you were welcomed into a community, a group or a new neighborhood? Anyone care to share their experience of this, today? We’re all ears!
That was great and a true testament to refreshing ourselves in the waters of our community.
Lord, Help us to love as you love and show hospitality to all.