The Greatest Show on Earth! The World Champions! The most delicious cheesecake ever! The greatest country in the history of the world! --That last superlative in particular is a sentiment many of us grew up with. People talked about the greatness of America like they said, “Pass the salt.” They didn’t care about any pesky statistics about where we might improve. They didn’t need to travel anywhere else. We were simply the greatest and there was no dispute about it.
America is a land of superlatives. So much of our popular culture has been defined by the language and concepts of advertising and consumerism. A basic principle of sales is that you must convince people that what you have is so much better than what they currently have. The result is a throwaway society, wasteful in the extreme, and never able to achieve the illusive level of happiness promised by those who sell happiness.
And the American church has bought into this model hook, line, and sinker. Clergy gather in groups and brag about the size of the congregation and their endowment earnings and their plentiful programming. And those of us who pastor smaller congregations (which is the majority of congregations in American) can feel as if there is something wrong with us. There is, of course, if you have bought into the model that success equals the biggest and the brightest and the best.
Of course, none of these measures of success has anything to do with Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. In fact, one could argue that the church as we know it, with its elaborate structures and careful polities and professional clergy are not anywhere close to what Jesus imagined when he first sent out his disciples.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus’s version of success. And it’s only three short verses long! These verses are found at the very end of Jesus’s instructions to his disciples before he sent them out in the world. In the words that precede these, Jesus gave them some very practical advice: “Travel lightly.” “Don’t expect everyone to like you or what you’re doing,” “And don’t be surprised if the life I have called you to will be misunderstood by everyone, even members of your family.” But in these three concluding verses, Jesus said something more esoteric: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” 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.”
This is one of Jesus’s more famous saying. Lots of people have heard this adage about “a cup of cold water” even if they don’t know where it comes from. But fewer people have contemplated the transforming spiritual wisdom contained in their seemingly simple words. Fewer still see in these words a measure of success.
In these three, short verses, Jesus masterfully introduces the concept of absolute spiritual unity or the unity of all things. Notice that he makes no distinction between himself and his disciple, between himself and us, and between us and God. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” It’s all woven together like a seamless piece of fabric.
That’s shocking to lots of people because the church has built most of its history on the idea that there is an absolute separation between God and us. That idea is largely about power and control and a particular theory of the atonement. Humans, we are told, are hopelessly tainted with sin. And God, who cannot even look at sin, had to send Jesus to die for our sin. This is the theology that most of us grew up with. It’s the theology that much of the Western Church continues to propagate. And it’s easy to assume, and people will tell you, that this is what the church has always believed.
The truth is that this is the side of the argument that won. But the Celtic church and Franciscan theology teach a much closer communion between God and us. It sees goodness in humans as a reflection of the divine image. It sees nature as intimately connected to us and to God. In Celtic and Franciscan spirituality, there is no need to interpret these words of Jesus as being symbolic. Instead these words are to be taken literally - “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” God in me and God in you and you in God and the cosmos in me – all of it essentially unified.
Therefore, the smallest act of kindness on any of our parts reverberates throughout the universe – it hums and sings like a great, eternal vibration. A cup of cold water given to a thirsty person is an actual interaction with the divine. In other words, Jesus Christ is truly present in the person you will sit next to on the subway tonight. There is no real separation. And if that’s the truth, then how we treat others has eternal consequences.
Can holiness be boiled down to a simple act of kindness? Can the Christian religion be summarized as radical hospitality and the unity of all things?
In churches like ours, we often feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. We talk about global warming and global poverty and global corruption. We do that because we have bought into God’s dream for the whole world. But what of God’s dream for the next five minutes? What about God’s dream for your next human interaction?
Dan De Leon is a UCC pastor who in a sermon told the story of a man he met in Mexico while on a mission trip with his congregation. The man had crossed the border illegally, only to be caught immediately and sent back. De Leon writes: “Penniless and humiliated, (this man) started over. He… took the horrendous journey again, and this time he made it into the United States where he found work. He worked ten-hour shifts with no breaks making less than minimum wage, never stopped even when he cut his hand open washing dishes; his boss wouldn't let him stop. And since he couldn't speak English, he couldn't express his needs, let alone defend himself under harsh treatment. After three years of saving up a little money under these conditions, he went back home, where he met his now three-year-old daughter for the first time.”
De Leon continues, “At this point I looked over at his wife. She was still knitting, still looking down; and then a tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly wiped it away, as if it was an enemy to which she refused to succumb. Finally, a student in our group, moved by the man's testimony, asked, "How can we help? What can we do to change this?" And (the man) looked at us and said, "Just be nicer. Don't treat us like we're horrible. Be kind." (1)
Be kind. It’s so simple, not so flashy. It’s not the biggest and the best and the brightest mission of the church. But it is transformational – for the one who gives and the one who receives. It refreshes - like a cup of cold water on a hot July day. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.
1 “Hospitality: A Crucial Cup of Cold Water” – a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Dan De Leon, www.Day1.org, accessed on June 22, 2017.