Summit Presbyterian Church
July 2, 2017
Hearing and Hospitality
These words of Jesus come at the end of a long set of instructions to the twelve apostles. He’s sending them on a mission to the towns and villages of Israel to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near. They’re to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. It’s an exciting missionary journey but it comes with warning. All through his speech Jesus tells them it’s a dangerous world out there. The disciples can expect to suffer. They will be dragged before governors and kings; families will be torn apart as brother betrays brother to death and even children will rise against their parents; everyone will hate them because of his name. Given the danger, one might expect Jesus to arm his disciples — perhaps with swords, since he says he came to bring not peace but a sword to the earth. Or we might expect him to at least give them money, food and a uniform. But quite the opposite: he tells them to take no gold, or silver, or copper in their belts; no bag for their journey, or two tunics or sandals, or a staff. He tells them to depend on the people they’re visiting, to seek hospitality. If they’re not welcomed in a house or town to shake the dust from their feet and move on — no need, though, to burn it down or cause harm. And although he tells the disciples to be wise as serpents, their mission doesn’t include defending their lives. He even says they may lose their lives for his sake, adding that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But after all these words of warning, he ends with this promise of blessing for both for the disciples, and those who follow, and all who receive them: “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.” Jesus recognizes the courage of those who receive as well as those who are sent. After all, if a penniless, barefoot, dirty man came to your door asking for food and shelter and claiming that he had the power to cast out demons and raise the dead, would you let him in? I should hope not! It’s not always clear, on first hearing, that the Word of God is good news. It takes courage to hear it and to welcome the messenger. It takes courage to welcome a stranger, who may be a prophet or righteous one or even an angel that we entertain unawares, and to offer a glass of water — especially when that stranger is among the “Little ones” or “the least of these” — a child, or poor, without a home, or in prison. Now, Jesus doesn’t specify the reward — but as the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, it would be in the present as well as the future, in the cool water of this world as well as in the everlasting fountain of the world to come.
Now to the present. Which is also the fourth of July weekend. (I’m aware of that, even though we haven’t yet sung any patriotic hymns). Since the election - and before - we’ve been hearing many speeches on the dangers of this world. Across the political spectrum. Politicians and other people describe the dangers differently; they have different lists of perils. Some put climate change and the possibility of nuclear war on the top; others might put crime and terrorism; others illness or poverty. Now, some lists are more-reality based than others. Some lists are more cynical than others. The writer H.L. Mencken once said, “The whole aim of practical politics, is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” That may be a bit harsh — I wouldn’t say it’s the whole aim of practical politics and not all the hobgoblins are imaginary. But leaders often stoke fears to get elected or push through legislation, to take away freedoms, to otherwise exercise power. Fear is a powerful motivator, as Richard Nixon, a champion fear-monger once recognized: “People react to fear, not love,” he explained. “They don’t teach that in Sunday school. But it’s true.”
Now, I beg to differ with President Nixon. We do teach that in Sunday School, at least in Presbyterian Sunday School. We teach that people react to fear, or in fear — it’s part of our fallen nature. We know it’s true. We can see it with our own eyes, and feel it in our own hearts, and also, the Bible tells us so. We have the examples of Pharoah and King Herod, who killed all the baby boys in their kingdoms out of fear that one of them would grow up to take their throne. We have the example of Jonah, who ran from God when he feared going among those enemies, the Ninevites — it turns out he feared most that they would repent, and no longer be enemies. We see it in the example of Pilate who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion when he feared Jesus and, Matthew says, the crowd. We see it in the example of the Roman state, who used crucifixions to instill fear in the populace. But we also teach in Sunday School not be not afraid. To listen to the Angels, those messengers of God in the Old and New Testament, who say over and over again, to Sarah, to Mary to the Shepherds: do not be afraid. To listen to Jesus who tells the disciples not to fear those who kill the body, or to worry about what you will eat or what you will drink, what you will wear . . . but to look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, clothed and fed by our loving God. To trust, that in Christ, we have life. Now, God knows it’s hard not to be afraid, or to worry, as it’s a dangerous world out there. And Jesus isn’t telling us throw all caution to the wind or to stop wearing seat belts or to knowingly risk the lives of others. But we’re called to respond to danger not out of fear but with love. Love for God, love for neighbor, love for the “least of these” — those who are the most vulnerable among us, including children and those who are poor, or sick, or without homes. It’s risky. It’s counter-intuitive. It makes more sense to stay behind closed doors, to listen only to our favorite news channels and late night hosts, even to buy the gun. But Jesus promises blessing for those who venture forth to speak of God’s love, and to those who have the courage to listen. Jesus promises blessing for those who live righteous lives and for those who support them. Jesus promises blessing for those who offer a cup of cold water, as a disciple, to anyone who is thirsty. For when we do those things we welcome Christ — and what could be more rewarding than that.
And here is where I believe, as Christians, must take issue with President Trump. For his response to the danger in the world is to encourage more fear and to respond defensively. Putting America first. Closing the door to refugees and immigrants and travelers. Harassing scientists and other prophets of our time. Proposing a budget that arms us more heavily while cutting back on diplomacy. Even if those measures would keep us safe — and I don’t believe they will — they close us to blessings, as a people and world. Those policies may keep out terrorists, they may protect wealth or even jobs. But they also keep us from welcoming prophets and righteous ones, from helping those in need, from encountering the God who loves us and all people of this earth.
There’s a song we sometimes sing on the fourth of July, if we’re of a certain political bent. It’s “If I Had a Hammer.” You know the lyrics: If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land. I’d hammer out danger. I’d hammer out warning. I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land. Those lyrics were always perplexing to me — how did danger, warning and love, go together? But Jesus tells us how. By loving despite danger. By loving after we’ve been warned. By loving in the morning and the evening — all over this land and indeed, all over this world.