By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I want to begin today by asking you to recall a memory; I’d like you to recall the time in your life when you witnessed the greatest act of hospitality. It might be one of the times you went to grandma’s house, or your Norwegian hosts on that trip to Europe, or your very first visit to your future in-laws. How were you received, what did they do to make you feel special, and why did they do it; because the answers to those questions are the reasons you can still remember it even today.
I won’t ask you to share your memory, but I’ll share mine. It was the summer of 1975, Marsha was pregnant with our first-born, and I was required by the seminary to spend a month doing an urban plunge on the west side of Chicago. My host family was the Charlsens; Mama, four boys, five girls, all living in a two bedroom apartment. Yup, it was crowded.
They let me sleep on the love seat in the living room, and I displaced the two youngest children in doing so. Every morning, they would let me have the bathroom first. Every evening, Mama made bar-b-que. If I arrived home after dark, two of the older boys in the family would wait for me at the subway stop two blocks from their apartment – sometimes as late as midnight – because they knew I’d be the only white person in the neighborhood. And what did they get for their trouble? A hundred bucks for food; that’s it. Everything else they did for me, they did out of kindness. It’s been thirty years and I haven’t forgotten.
The lesson this morning from Matthew’s gospel is a lesson in hospitality. Jesus is so focused on welcoming the stranger that he uses the word “welcome” six times in two sentences.
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 a righteous person.
Explicit in the words of Jesus is the promise that, if you show hospitality, you will get a prize; in fact, you’ll get the same prize as the person receiving your hospitality. Here’s how it works; if you offer a meal to a prophet like Jeremiah, who was a great prophet, by the way, then you will get whatever reward Jeremiah gets, which is probably a pretty good reward. And if you offer a ride to a righteous person, like, say, Billy Graham, you’ll get the same reward that Billy’s going to get. So it seems that the real challenge in this life is to figure out who the important people are – who the people are who have big rewards coming in heaven – and show hospitality to them. I mean, why waste your time showing hospitality to Steve Molin when you could be showing hospitality to Billy Graham, or Bishop Rogness, or Nelson Mandela, or Pastor Linda? That is the logical conclusion of Jesus’ words today.
That is, until the last verse in our gospel lesson, when Jesus throws us a curve. Did you hear it? “Whoever gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones – truly I tell you – none of these will ever lose their reward.” The point Jesus is making is this: if there is something to be gained by us showing hospitality, it’s not hospitality. If we are only kind to those of wealth and power, it’s not hospitality, it’s bribery. If we only show hospitality to our relatives and friends, it’s just paying them back. “But” Jesus said, “if you so much as give a glass of water to a child, you will never lose your reward.”
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Children in Jesus’ day were of little or no value. People did not walk around town with a sign on their back that said “My kid is an honor student at Jerusalem Middle School.” Children were nobodies in that culture, and there was nothing to be gained by being nice to them, and yet Jesus says that is the ultimate act of kindness. This, says Jesus, is hospitality; when you care for the little ones.
Look at scripture; in almost every instance, when Jesus is speaking about kindness, or generosity, or hospitality, or welcome, he isn’t describing what ought to be done for the rich, or the famous, or the powerful; he is saying this is what ought to be done for the powerless ones: the children, the grieving, the discouraged, the desperate. If you show hospitality to these little ones, your reward will never be lost.
You probably already know that the word hospitality comes from the Latin word “hospital.” Throughout most of history, a hospital was not a place where someone went to be healed. Until our lifetime, a hospital wasn’t a place where you went for some life-saving surgery. A hospital was a place to be comforted…a place to be fed, and loved, and touched, and cared for. Another word from the same root has shown up in our contemporary lexicon in recent years: “hospice.” The purpose of hospice workers is not to cure their patients, but to make them as comfortable as humanly possible. Hospice workers are, in fact, angels in disguise, and their reward, as Jesus promised, will be great.
And it seems to me that God calls the church to be a hospice to the hurting people of this world. Instead of spending so much time and energy pointing out people’s sins, criticizing them for their flaws, condemning them for their lifestyle, and excluding them until they become religious like us…instead of judging them, hasn’t God called us to be loving them? Hasn’t God called us to be on the lookout for the weakest, or the oldest, or the youngest, or the poorest, or the most lonely, and offer a cup of water to them? God’s call is to make them comfortable, but if it makes us uncomfortable, we often ignore God’s call. And I think that breaks God’s heart.
When I was a small child, we lived in an apartment in St. Paul, and that apartment had a front porch. I remember every night in the summertime, sitting on that porch with my mom and dad, watching the people go by. People of every stripe; some in suits, others in overalls, and my folks would talk to them as they passed. “How are the kids, did you find a job yet, what did the doctor say, did you hear about Dave on the corner?”
We don’t have porches anymore; we have decks, in backyards, with fences; so we are insulated from people we don’t know…and therefore, never get to know them. If God has a porch, I’ll be it’s in front; right on the street…and he can see the people pass by, and he knows their circumstances. And if somehow we could sit on the porch with God and see what he sees, we would be moved to action. We would be handing out water by the buckets full, not to fix their problems, not to cure their diseases, but simply to show kindness, and grace, and hospitality.
I close with this; in our lives, when it comes to hospitality, we take turns be the host and being the guest. Sometimes we are the ones who simply need the hug or the cup of water, and kindness comes. Other times, we are the ones providing the hot dish, or the coffee, or the comfort. On Friday morning, Jean Gearhart died. She was a woman with the gift of hospitality. For my nine years here, it was always Jean whom I called when someone died, and she took complete control of the funeral luncheon. She called the family, she ordered the food, she commandeered the desserts and the people to serve them, and she spent an entire day in the church kitchen. By her very presence, the grieving family was comforted. The last two weeks of her life, it was her turn to receive comfort; her family was there, and friends; but also hospice workers. Giving her a drink of water when she needed it most. The adage is true; everything that goes around comes around. And now Jean has received her reward for all the cups of water she poured. And your presence at her memorial service on Tuesday would be the most loving tribute you could provide…as others serve you a sandwich and a salad and a cup of water…in the name of a righteous person. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright 2008 Steven Molin. Used by permission.