Fourth Sunday of Pentecost

Fourth Sunday of Pentecost

Jeremiah 28:5-9

Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Matthew 10:40-42

[Jesus told his disciples] “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 the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts,  be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Don Shula, who was a longtime and successful coach for my favorite NFL team the Miami Dolphins, is one of my favorite coaches in all of sports. Well there’s a story that has been told by Don himself that: One time he was on vacation in a very rural part of Maine. The local library advertised the showing of a recently popular movie on a Saturday night. 

This was in the days before the internet and the TV reception was almost non-existent in those woods, so the Shula family was very excited to go to the movies that night. They walked in just a few minutes before it was to start. Everyone stood up and gave them a standing ovation. Shula thought, “isn’t that something. Even way out here they know me!” His excitement only lasted a few minutes. Someone told him, “We have to have 15 people or they won’t show the movie. Your family pushed the crowd to 17.” The welcome really wasn’t just for him.

I found this story both humorous, and on point with our readings today. It’s always a nice reminder to remember that the Chrisitan Life is not us Christians showing love to the world; it’s about all of us showing God’s love to the world through what we say and do. We shed the light, we don’t stand in the middle of it.

Let’s be honest: listening to the many and varied voices that speak as Christian leaders, we hear a lot of different things. And that’s a beautiful and necessary thing. If we learn anything from Scripture, it’s that context matters. 

  • Jesus didn’t say the same things to the ruling elites that he said to the poor and downcast. 
  • Paul’s messages to the Philippians and the Corinthians were different. 
  • Reading through the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, one gets a sense of an intimate knowledge about what different messages were needed for different contexts. 

So when we hear Christian leaders focusing on different issues in different times and places it’s not only OK, but deeply biblical. And yet….sometimes we hear leaders downright contradicting each other, calling each other liars or accusing one another of misrepresenting God. 

This, unfortunately, also has biblical precedent. During the first year of Zedekiah’s reign (about 597), there was a quarrel between the prophets Hananiah and Jeremiah. See if any of this sounds familiar. 

  • There had been a massive catastrophe where a large part of the population was lost to sudden death while others were separated from their families. The people who spoke for God had differing responses to the calamity. 
  • Hananiah reassured the people that all would be better and life would go back to normal. They would see their families and friends again just like they used to. He even gave a timetable for the return to normalcy—less than two years (Jeremiah 28:3, 11).
  • Jeremiah, on the other hand, had been warning everyone who could hear about this calamity for almost 30 years. Like any human, he preferred good news to bad and said he wished that Hananiah’s prophesy would come true (Jeremiah 28:6). But he reminded Hananiah and all those listening that a prophet’s job was to prophesy war, famine and pestilence as judgments against the countries that intentionally defied God and abused the powerless (Jeremiah 28:8). 

Harming people and looking to other sources of power instead of God have real consequences. Jeremiah goes on to say that those who prophesy prosperity and a certain timeline for return to peace and normalcy are only to be believed after what they prophesy has come to pass (Jeremiah 28:9). In other words, if someone proclaims judgment when God’s people fail to live up to God’s desires for caring for foreigners, widows, children and the poor, take them seriously. If someone proclaims unlimited prosperity and peace, no matter what systemic evils persist, be very cautious about taking them seriously.

In the short Gospel reading for this week, Jesus advises us to welcome true prophets. Jesus proclaims that whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward (Matthew 10:41). 

I would argue that welcoming a prophet is taking that person seriously about the importance of changing behavior that hurts people and disappoints God. 

We can’t afford to pretend we live in a world of peace when we don’t. The welcoming of such a prophetic vision is very much in line with the words of Paul from Romans. He sees humanity in slavery, working toward the active production of evil. Instead of being slaves of systemic sin that harms others and disappoints God, we are to be slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:17-18). Paul sees humanity as either serving sin or serving God’s righteousness. In the words of that other 20th-century prophet Bob Dylan, “you gotta serve somebody.”

To welcome a prophet means to take them seriously, as conveying the importance that God places on the moment, and on humans loving God and through loving our neighbors. Jeremiah the prophet warns that messages of peace, normalcy and lack of repercussions for abuse are to be believed only when they come true. On the other hand, God’s displeasure with abuse and enjoyment of righteous service toward neighbors is a consistent message throughout Scripture. Let us win a prophet’s reward by taking seriously the messages of the prophets these days who help us remember God’s love for the downtrodden and insistence that we love and serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

Our text comes at the end of a sequence in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus has been preparing his disciples to go out into the world to preach the Kingdom. He is telling them how to respond to the many ways their efforts will be received. When he says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus is drawing a straight line from the disciples through himself to the creator God. 

To welcome a disciple is the same as welcoming Jesus, which is the same as welcoming God. This is a twofold promise.

  • One the one hand—it reminds the disciples to be humble about the reception they receive, for that welcome is not for them, it is for God.
  • On the other hand—it reminds them that they do not go out representing themselves and their own wisdom and their own power; they go out representing God.

We all must remember this as we go about our business of being Christians, disciples of Jesus in the world. It is not about us; it is about God. In verse 41, Jesus drives home his point by reminding the disciples of the many biblical stories of prophets and other righteous people being received NOT because they themselves are so special, but because in receiving them the people are receiving and honoring and serving God. And then, in verse 42, Jesus makes one of his classic reversals, turning things upside down and inside out, rearranging our preconceptions and expectations.

Just as we have begun to understand the idea that honoring important people, like disciples and prophets and pastors, is a way of honoring God—Jesus switches things up on us. He begins to talk about honoring ‘little ones’ “And whoever gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.”

See what he did there? The disciples were feeling really proud, seeing themselves connected to the prophets, and to Jesus, and even to God; and then the tables are turned—and they are reminded that they are “little ones” in the kingdom of God. The message of Jesus, the message of the Kingdom, the message of the Gospel—is a message of reversal, of things turned upside down and sideways, of those who are seen by the world to be on top are known to really be on the bottom, and on the bottom are esteemed by God as the most important of all.

In these three short verses, Jesus subtly moves his disciples through a sequence that leads them away from thinking about how important they are to pondering their call to TO BE the least important people in the kingdom in order to serve the least important people in the world in the name of Jesus.

And it is to just this sort of radical and unheard-of thing which we modern day disciples and sent ones, we 21st century prophets and persons who aspire to be righteous, have been called.

  • We have been called to go out in the name of Jesus Christ to share our stuff and God’s love with those whom the world rejects and turns its back on.
  • We have been called to give radical hospitality to illegal aliens and people who keep failing in life and to those who are unable to work and take care of themselves. 
  • We have been called to look at people not with our own eyes but with the loving and gracious eyes of Christ.
  • We have been called to love the loveless, not with our cold and shriveled hearts, but with the warm heart of Christ which overflows with love for all. 
  • We have been called to care for others whether they deserve it or not.

Because none of us is disciplined and righteous and prophetic enough to deserve the love of God; it has been given to us as a gift, and we are called to give it to others free of charge and more importantly free of judgement. Yes, sisters and brothers, we have been called to the ministry of welcoming and receiving and giving and loving whether we know them or not.

What does it mean to be church in a time of global pandemic? How do we move forward when folks can’t even agree whether COVID-19 is real or merely an elaborate hoax? Faith leaders from the United States and other countries continue to seek advice from one another and their denominations, judicatory bodies, and governmental leaders. 

Even so, there is precious little agreement about what to do and how to do it when it comes to reopening houses of worship. In many places, congregants are pushing for a speedy and full reopening, while in other contexts a more measured approach is underway. Either way, it is critical for congregational leaders and worshipers alike to understand and be able to articulate the “why” behind a desire to reopen too quickly or not.

Getting to the “why” of the situation means taking time to drill down to the deeper emotions, fears, expectations, and power alignments. We have to ask the hard questions because this is a critical time for both church and the surrounding culture. Our human temptation and tendency will be to avoid the blood, sweat, and tears to do the hard work of internal examination and readiness for change, and instead hasten toward a quick return to the way things were—but as I said in my devotion this week, things will never be the way they were again. It will be a new creation that we need to be accepting of.

Some people are working heroically to make sense of uncharted waters and to discern how Jesus would lead in these times. 

  • They have moved forward in myriad creative, safe, and faithful ways, and in doing so you are bringing the gospel to new communities of people. 
  • They are letting those rivers of living water flow from your heart to quench the need and prayer of others, modeling radical hospitality and discipleship to be a wide welcome in God’s name.

Other people express sentiments like these: 

  • “Can’t we just quit talking about the virus and privilege and racism and police brutality, say we’re sorry and move on?” 
  • Or, “I’m just longing for a return to our life, to our church and community, to the way things were.” 
  • Or even worse, “I put my trust in God when it comes to this virus. No one is going to keep me out of church, and you can’t make me wear a mask.” 

The bottom line is that reopening our churches is also an act of hospitality. It may be an even greater and more radical act of hospitality to delay opening churches for in-person worship. Most reputable sources agree that worship is one of the riskier places for virus exposure. A recent article in Forbes online, A Stairway to Heaven: Reopening Churches and Coronavirus, pointed to heightened health risks of worship services because they usually include vocal music, handshakes and hugs, passing an offering plate, communion, and refreshments. 

How then might we faithfully welcome one another in the name of Jesus, and therefore in God’s name, while still being mindful of the great love command? What is the most loving thing to do? Remember, Jesus is telling his disciples here that there is no shame in starting out small and keeping things simple.

Yes, my friends, we’ve been called into a large work, one that we cannot do alone. Our work is mutual in giving and receiving help. There is no shame in starting simple and small. Meeting someone’s physical thirst with a cup of cool water may also open them to receive Jesus’ living water pouring from your very heart of love. And the best news of all? Don’t worry about not being able to go back to exactly the way things were or even how you think you remembered them. Change is inevitable and God’s creative work continues. We are promised that we won’t lose out on a thing.