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Ministering from the Margins

This is the sermon I'll be preaching tomorrow at St. Timothy Lutheran Church's Drive-In service. The gospel text is Matthew 10:40-42.

We have a reputation as a welcoming church and so we are. However, in these days of Coronavirus, we have to welcome differently. We cannot hug or shake hands with those with whom we do not live. We need to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from others. As we wear masks, people cannot see if we are smiling or frowning. So, this leaves us in a quandary. How are we to be welcoming in these days, when physically distancing ourselves from others may be the most welcoming, loving thing we can do?

Right out of the box, the basic theme of today’s gospel is obvious—welcome. Before these verses, Jesus was preparing his followers for what they may experience as they were sent out into the world; persecution. Here things have been flipped a bit with the emphasis more on the benefit to those welcoming the evangelists instead of what the sent may encounter.

Because God uses human vessels to spread God’s message, those who welcomed the disciples, welcomed Jesus and whoever welcomed Jesus welcomed the Father. We see the same interconnectedness that there is in the Trinity, with two of the members highlighted.

Can you imagine…the not-getting-it disciples; impetuous Peter, Judas the betrayers and the others representing Jesus? Let’s go one step further. Can you imagine us, the people of St. Timothy being the face of Jesus to our neighbors? We are. As author/pastor Frederick Buechner wrote, “We have it in us to be Christs to each other…to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us” (A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces).

Matthew’s gospel was written for the church of Matthew’s time, several years following Jesus’ time on earth. It was an insider document. In that time some prophets would go from place to place, church to church. They relied on the hospitality of those they visited. We don’t know what a “prophet’s reward” was. It may have been just the pleasure of the presence of such a godly person representing Christ representing God. It is as the author to Hebrews wrote, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). 

Next, we come to those referred to as “righteous,” as distinctive from prophets. They may have been traveling missionaries who were not prophets, although later in Matthew “prophets and righteous” are paired as representing the church as a whole (Brian Stoffregen, Those who welcomed the righteous got what they deserved, “the reward of the righteous.” They had the joy of entertaining God’s workers.

In the 1980s, I lived with my young family as a missionary in the Holy Land. We frequently had the privilege of hosting several missionaries and pastors. Getting to know these people on a personal level was amazing. We were thrilled to have them with us. Granted the situation today does not permit hospitality in the same way and so we move to the “little ones” and here we may have a better idea of how we can experience and exercise hospitality today.
The “little ones” were not those with a big name. They were not famous prophets or righteous ones. “Little ones” were normal, average, ordinary people. They were those who lived in the margins of society. Author Douglas Hare explains, they were “humble Christians who are not church leaders and who may also be poor. Such persons must not be neglected or treated with disdain, because they too represent…Christ.” (Douglas HareInterpretation: Matthew). Could today’s “little ones” be people of color, the handicapped, those of a different sexual orientation? This is where God is calling the church today.
Giving a cup of cold water to “one of these little ones” was all that was required—and yet, that was not so easy either. Remember there was no indoor source of water at that time and there were no refrigerators. A "cup of cold water" indicated sacrifice. It meant going to the village well, drawing the water into a heavy jar, and lugging that back to the family home. If more water was needed? This may require another arduous trip to the well to draw more cold water for the household (Bonnie I Pattison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1). This was to be done for a no-name, easily overlooked by others, relative unknowns, for they too are the face of Jesus.

For someone in his 30s, pastor/teacher/martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very wise. He wrote, “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from everyday Christian life in community…may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; for in the poor sister or brother, Christ is knocking at the door.”  Shall we answer it? Amen!


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