FIRST LESSON Micah 6:1-8 (p. 1447)
SECOND LESSON Matthew 10:40-42 (p. 1512)
SERMON: “Cups of Cold Water”
It’s Martha Stewart time! You know Martha Stewart. She’s the queen of entertaining, the “Citizen of the Year” in the land of pomp and circumstance. She has built an empire out of hospitality and become a millionaire on style.
She bakes her own bread, grows all her own flowers, and can teach us how to do everything from washing our windows to making our beds with tight hospital corners, while grinding corn for tortillas and stenciling our freshly painted ceilings -- all so that our family and guests can feel welcomed when they arrive.
That is what today’s passage from Matthew is all about – well . . . not really. But it is about hospitality, but not the Martha Stewart kind. This is not about the pomp and circumstance of entertaining. Rather, it’s about welcoming the best and the least into our homes and hearts and meeting the needs of the people around us.
It is about the teaching of Christ and the Rule of Saint Benedict and, at the end, little bit more.
First, the teaching of Christ. Christ taught us that whenever we welcome the greatest or the least of those among us, we welcome him. That’s one of the basic messages of this passage. It is also the message of the well-known passage found in Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the coming of God’s glorious kingdom and the separation of the “sheep from the goats,” saying, to all who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoners, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” And to emphasize his point he declared that those who failed to do these tasks of hospitality and caring for others, failed to do them for Christ.
According to Jesus, to entertain the stranger is to entertain the Savior. That is the basis of the Rule of Saint Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” The rule is not to be seen as a burden, but as a privilege, for what a privilege it would be to entertain our Savior -- what a privilege to offer him a drink, or to give him a ride. Who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to serve our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in some small way? Who wouldn’t consider it an honor? Just so, disciples who follow Jesus are called by God to acts of kindness.
There is a story told about the George Morrison, a Scottish preacher of some fame. Morrison dreamed one night that he traveled up to heaven. There at the Pearly Gates he introduced himself to St. Peter. But St. Peter couldn’t find his name in the Book of Life. Morrison tried to explain that he was a pastor, a man of God. St. Peter had never heard of him. Morrison protested that he had spent years in a well-known ministry and had brought many souls to Christ, but still St. Peter couldn’t locate his name. Finally, St. Peter found it. “Oh, I do have a notation here,” St. Peter remarked, pointing to Morrison’s name. “It says, ‘One night he sat up all night long with somebody who was dying.’” For all his great fame and accomplishments, Morrison would be known in heaven only for his deeds of kindness.
When Henry James was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, James said something that the boy never forgot. “There are three things that are important in human life,” said Henry James. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” One of the very important characteristics of a follower of Christ is kindness. “A cup of cold water . . .”
Kindness is a reflection of the image of God in which we were created. Because God is compassionate and merciful, we are to be compassionate and merciful. Because Jesus is sympathetic and gracious, we are to be sympathetic and gracious. Kindness is a reflection of the image of God in which we were created.
I had the privilege of attending the session meeting at the Three Rivers-Centreville Presbyterian Church several years ago, as an observer. During their time of telling their joys and concerns, one of the elders, a woman, told of how one hot day during the previous week she and her daughter had been driving home from Kalamazoo when, just south of Schoolcraft, they had seen a man lying along the side of the road. Although her daughter expressed real fear about stopping, this woman could not go by, as dozens of drivers were doing, without trying to help the man. Over the protests of her daughter, she turned around and went back to see how they could help. Somehow they managed to get the man away from the edge of the road, to call 911 and get him the help he needed. It turned out that he had been working outdoors all day, and was walking home along 131 when he collapsed from heat exhaustion. Had no one stopped to help him, eventually he would have died there by the side of the road. As I listened to this woman tell her story, I remembered Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, and in this elder I could see a glimpse of the image of Christ.
Kindness is a reflection of the image of God in which we were created. We have also been commanded by Christ to be kind. We don’t have a choice about it. Christ told us, commanded us, to love our enemies. He told us to regard sick people, hungry people, homeless people, people in prison, people who are dying as Christ himself. We are to offer a cup of cold water to anyone who is thirsty, just as we would offer it to him.
As long as I live, whenever I hear that scripture, I will remember one of my colleagues in Nashville telling about an experience he had. We were talking about the hospitality and the lack of hospitality we had experienced in our pastorates there. Dale told me that a few days before, on a particularly hot summer’s afternoon, he was out riding his bike. As he approached the house of one of his regular members, someone who attended worship every Sunday, he realized that he was physically tired, hot and very thirsty. So he decided that this would be a good time and place to stop. His parishioner who was home, stood and talked to his pastor on the porch, but offered him nothing in the way of hospitality. In Dale’s words, he had to “practically beg to get a cup of water.” While he would have liked to have had a drink of water, what Dale missed most that afternoon was a sense of kindness and caring.
What a contrast between that parishioner who hesitated to bring a drink of water to his near-fainting pastor, and the elder from Three Rivers who stopped to help a stranger! (and probably saved his life!)
As Christians we offer kindness because such is the image of God in us, because Christ commanded us to, and – for the pragmatists among us – simply because this is obviously a good strategy. When we respond to someone else with kindness, love and generosity of spirit, they, too, may become a little kinder, gentler. Research shows that this may even be true in dealing with the I.R.S.
According to a study by Loyola University psychologist Dr. Loretta Stalans, taxpayers’ beliefs about audits have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies: If you expect unfair treatment from an auditor, you’re more likely to get it. It’s not that auditors are mind readers. What happens, explains this psychologist, is that taxpayers who expect unfair treatment fail to establish rapport with their auditors. And in an audit, a cordial relationship with your auditor can save you a lot of hassle – and maybe some money.
You see, auditors are more likely to bend the rules if they believe a taxpayer is trying his/her best to comply with tax laws. “The auditor may accept an explanation that records were lost during a move, or that your ex-wife destroyed them,” Stalans says. A taxpayer who expects unfair treatment, on the other hand, is more likely to act aloof or behave uncooperatively, leading the auditor to assume that he or she is being intentionally noncompliant. In such cases, Stalans found, auditors were five times more likely to assert their authority by, say, rejecting an extension request or a taxpayer’s excuse. The same principle applies to dealing with other authorities, like police. Studies have shown that police officers tend to cooperate with citizens who act respectfully, and to strictly enforce the law when a person acts rudely. Kindness is a strategy that works. As my wise mother used to say, “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
Christians are kind because such is the image of God in us, because Christ commands it, because kindness works, and now here’s the twist in this scripture: This passage was not written for the disciples as a command for them to be hospitable. Read it again, and you will notice that Christ tells his disciples of the gift that will come to those who receive them. In other words, this is about those who are hospitable to us.
In some ways that’s harder to take. We would rather be the giver than the receiver. It’s hard for us to accept assistance graciously. We are quick to refuse help, nurture and support from others. Too often we want to retain our self-sufficiency and our independence. Our cry is “Don’t help me, please. Save your help for someone who really needs it.”
Yet, we all need help. There will come the time when we need a ride to the doctor, or a home-cooked meal. There will be times when an offer to baby-sit the children so husband and wife can have a date will go a long way to saving a marriage. Sometimes we, as Christians, need the hospitality of others as much as we need to give it.
This passage reminds us of a simple rule that we frequently ignore. When we refuse hospitality, when we refuse the loving gifts of time or presence or assistance, we refuse to allow the person offering the gift to receive a blessing. We take away an opportunity from them. For to help us is somehow to help the Lord, to participate in some small way in God’s work. We can see that when we are helping another, but when someone is helping us? That’s much harder.
My friend Pat had a lady in her church years ago who traveled the bus everywhere in St. Louis. One day when it was pouring cats and dogs, Pat overheard another member of her church ask to take this lady home. The woman, of course, refused, saying the bus stop was just on the corner.
“Please,” the second church member said. “I would really feel better if you let me drive you.”
“No. I don’t want to be a burden,” replied the first lady.
“I never thought of you as a burden,” came the response. “All I was thinking of was the privilege of getting to know you better during the ride and of not worrying about you later.”
Too often we refuse the kindness of others, thinking that we don’t want to be a burden, but Jesus says, “My child, you are never a burden. You are a child of the King.”
We are called to be kind, for such is the image of God in us. We are commanded to be kind by Christ himself. We are advised to be kind, because it is an approach to life that works, and this passage of scripture is telling us that we need to allow ourselves both the privilege of giving hospitality and of being willing to receive it.