Turns out we have work to do

Turns out we have work to do

About this sermon series

Matthew 10:40-42

40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”

Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

Lately, I have been immersed in the instructions of how to send a child to summer camp. Please note, each camp has different instructions, very specific instructions, and missing something can feel like failing your child and flunking the suburbs. Instructions sound like this: Please send your child with lunch, snacks – properly labeled, a water bottle, sunscreen and bug spray with their name on it, a towel, swimsuit, preferably not wet from the day before, water shoes, camp t-shirt, preferably not sticky with candy from the day before, money for the snack bar but not too much (remember the candy situation?), and a packet of documents detailing health insurance, medication, allergies, general personality traits and kid management strategies. One camp asked for a birth certificate and proof of citizenship, the originals. I wondered if perhaps this camp was some kind of top secret government agency.

In light of those instructions, I am astounded by how different Jesus’ instructions are for his 12 apostles in the 10th chapter of Matthew when they are preparing not for camp but for the entire missionary effort. Granted they are adults, but his list sounds like this. To bring: no gold or money of any kind in your belts. No bags, not extra shirts or sandals or staff. There is work to do. Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Drive out demons. Rely upon the hospitality of good people, and if you don’t receive it, shake the dust off your feet. You will need to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves as you go. Will it be safe? Oh heavens no. Not at all. But instead of safety, there will be welcome from some. In fact, those who welcome you will receive a lot more than they bargained for…  Because the Father, Son, Spirit, in fact the entire kingdom of heaven go with you. And there will reward on an eternal scale if someone so much as gives you a cup of cold water.

 I confessed to Arlene that I assumed these disciples were to be giving out the water, but they aren’t doling that out either. And Arlene wisely said, “It can be even harder to receive.”

That kind of call raises the hair on my arms. In our day, it might sound like, “Church, you are sent into the world without a cushy endowment and without a section in the newspaper that says folks should listen to you. Without a smiling wink from culture that says you’re respectable and without the staff and training you think are required. And even so, heal broken people. Raise hopes that seem dead as a doornail. And welcome the very outcasts that your culture treats as pariahs. Be wise as serpents, never naïve about what it takes to make change in this world. But be gentle as doves, never combative jerks who only perpetuate the poison in the world they claim to combat. And will it be safe? Oh heavens no. Some people will leave you for the lamest of reasons and others will break your heart. But instead of safety, there will be welcome enough, community, vocation and beauty so rewarding that it will feel like a cup of cold water for those dying of thirst.

Turns out we have work to do. And Jesus knows it is not easy.

I am reminded of a poem called Sermons We See, by Edward Guest. His last name, Guest, by some coincidence is perfect for the posture with which Christ sends us out. We serve this world as guest, not host. But the words of the poem have stayed with me for years as I consider what the Christian life calls for.

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; 
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way. 
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear, 
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear; 
And the best of all the preachers are the ones who live their creeds, 
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.

            What sermons have you seen?

From my office window, I often see a person straining his biceps with bags of food, fingers growing white under the weight of so many cans. I see the maneuvers required to tug on three doors before finding the one that is unlocked. I realize, too late, that I should assist. Nevertheless, he leaves them for the ECHO food pantry, departing without fanfare except for a few startled squirrels. But each step is a prayer that someone else’s load might be lighter.

            What sermons have you seen?

Every week, we’ll call her Jenny drives to the woman’s prison. She offers prayers and companionship to the women there, hears their stories. She won’t post a picture of her hand on the heavy door so that people on Facebook will add their likes and think of her as virtuous. No one from the newspaper is writing about her as a local hero, even though she is. In fact, no one there knows how close her story is to theirs because she doesn’t make it about her. But by going she heals them and heals her own heart with each visit. She does this because her faith compels her.

            What sermons have you seen?

Rev. Lynda, an African American pastor in a crisp white suit, stood on a stool as her pulpit near a new historical marker at Bull Run. Last week, about 20 of us gathered around her and her family in 90 percent humidity. She pointed to the ground where we stood and said, “This is holy ground. The Holy Spirit is here.” And then she told a story. In the late 1700s, a man named Robert Carter III was one of the wealthiest Virginians. A pillar of colonial aristocracy, friends with Jefferson and Madison, childhood neighbor to Washington over on the Northern Neck. Carter was also a man who broke with his peers by arranging the freedom of nearly 500 people he had enslaved. He offered the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation, and yet his name has all but vanished from the yellowed pages of history. This courageous move was unpopular. He was called everything from eccentric to illiterate to corrupted. His peers were liberty-loving Anglicans who claimed that slavery was like holding a “wolf by the ears, you couldn’t hold on but you didn’t dare let go.” But something greater had taken hold of Carter along the way. He had begun to worship with enslaved people in the little church near Bull Run. And he shared communion with them. In his religious conversion, he saw the bright light of true freedom.

Rev. Lynda took us to the sight of an old church, surrounded by an African American cemetery. It has been discovered by some boy scouts working on their Eagle project. And there in the copse of old trees, she distributed small communion cups. “Here in this place, that old church, they talked about bodies broken and blood shed. The body and blood of Christ. They shared communion in this place. Don’t you think that would have an effect on a person? He realized he had work to do.”

Robert Carter III wrote to his daughter, Harriot in 1803, “My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world” and he died in 1804 with no marble monument or school named after him. In fact, he is buried in an unmarked grave near Baltimore.  He didn’t feel he had done anything virtuous, but it healed. Cleansed. Drove out some old demons. One of the descendants of those freedmen was Nimrod Burke, sergeant of the 23rd US Colored Troops in Civil War, who would march with eagles on his buttons past Bull Run toward the freedom of many others. Though this city is named for a different Burke, his last name reminds me how close this story is to home.

In a moment, we will break the bread and pour out the cup again. That is how Jesus shows us the sermon of his life. Jesus packed lightly, stayed in our homes, then carried the cross so that we might have eternal life. At the table, we will again be relieved of all our old baggage. Hopes that are dead as a doornail will rise again. The outcasts in our world and the outcast parts of our lives will be welcomed. And that means we have work to do.

            So, tell me… what sermons have you seen? And more importantly, what sermons do you still need to see in this world? What sermon is yours to preach with your one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver calls it?

 A sermon of healing as you take flowers to a person who has been grieving longer than society thinks is acceptable or as you work for mental health care for teenagers and give funds for health care devices for Ukrainians. A sermon of courage as you love this country into what it still can be. A sermon of welcome for all who have often felt excluded from the church. Doing all of this without all the necessary assurances that things will be easy or go according to plan. A sermon of joy as you sing loud even before your heart is fully healed. A sermon of good news for the poor and welcome for the outcast and rest for the weary and bread for a hungry world.  

Preach it brothers and sisters. Amen.