Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 8
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 10:40-42
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit to increasingly abide in us, so that we might increasingly be empowered to bring others to know you through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
This past week Emily and I were in Hendersonville, NC at the renewal conference at Kanuga, where we have been on numerous occasions. The renewal conference historically has been unlike most other conferences. Whereas most conferences are spent listening to one teaching or the other, the renewal conference has consistently been a place where matters of faith are not only talked and taught about, but experienced as well. Over the years Emily and I have been exposed to prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues with interpretation, and resting in the Spirit. It is not called the Renewal Conference for nothing. The expectation is always that the Holy Spirit will be there to do marvelous things in the lives of the community of faith gathered there.
This past conference was no different. We again were privileged to see the Lord work in miraculous ways. One woman shared with Emily and me the experienced she had from a serious car accident. A number of family members were in the car, in fact three generations—grandmother, mother, and grandchildren, when the left rear tire suddenly blew, launching the car into a deadly roll. The grandmother, a friend of Emily and mine, died within moments of the crash. Some members escaped, relatively unharmed. Others, including the woman telling the story, had to be removed by the Jaws of Life. Her name (I am using a pseudonym) is Elizabeth.
After being extracted from the crushed car, Elizabeth was then moved by the paramedics to the nearby ambulance. She told us how she was in the tunnel and saw the light. The feeling was indescribably wonderful. She welcomed it, embraced it, when from a faraway place she heard daughter’s voice faintly calling, “Mother, mother, mother.” Elizabeth did not want to return. This new beautiful place was too wonderful, too glorious. Again, she heard her daughter’s voice, “Mother, mother, mother,” and all went black.
Elizabeth became conscious that she was now in the hospital; disappointed that she had not been allowed to continue toward that beautiful place. Lying there in a semi-conscious state, she suddenly saw her mother. This was the grandmother, who had been killed in the accident. Her mother was hovering there with another woman. Both were clothed in long, red dresses with ruffled collars. Elizabeth told her mother that she wanted to go with her, but her mother said that it was not yet her time. Elizabeth speculated that the other person with her mother had been an angel. Why the red clothing, she did not know.
Later, that same day Emily and I were visiting with a new friend whose father had died when she was seven years old. Around that same time she began to feel the Lord’s presence. He seemed to always be with her, continually, even as she grew older. At the age of 40 it was finally disclosed to her that her father had not merely died. He had committed suicide. He had deserted his family and his daughter, but her heavenly Father had not.
In today’s gospel from St. Matthew we hear a line of reasoning given by Jesus that might very well remind us of the kind of circular reasoning found in John’s gospel. For example, he writes that Jesus said, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20).
Matthew puts it this way in verse 40. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And, then he adds, 41 “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; 42 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.”
The person speaking in Matthew’s gospel is, of course, Jesus. Unwinding His words in the first verse, we then hear this: Whoever welcomes you or me (those of us seated here this morning), welcomes Jesus and the His heavenly Father who sent Him. Did you hear that? Because we are Christians, because we have Jesus living in us, when someone welcomes us as a Christian that person is not only welcoming Jesus, but God the Father as well.
Rather, extraordinary, don’t you think? I doubt we have given much thought or credit to the fact that you and I are somehow carrying Jesus and the Father within us right now. And because God is Trinitarian, we would likewise have to assume that we are carrying around the Holy Spirit. Don’t be quick to brush that off. Seriously, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are dwelling within each of us right now. Think of Emily’s and my new friend at the age of seven who began to know God’s abiding presence with her. Think of the woman who almost died from the car accident. Eternity was just a breath or failure of breath away.
Maybe, you have noticed that when the crucifer and I are preparing the altar for the Eucharist that we make a slight bow to each other between each transaction. The crucifer gives me the bread box and we slightly bow to each other. Why do we do that? We are actually bowing to the Christ, to Jesus, who resides in us. There is holiness in us even though we may not feel that way or even act that way. St. Paul gets at this in the reading we heard from Romans this morning. “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification.” In other words, we are a work in progress, otherwise known as being sanctified. God, the Trinity, is working within us, even if we cannot see or feel it, though, sometimes we do.
The very first day that Emily and I arrived at Kanuga I began to feel the Lord’s presence, the Holy Spirit abiding in me in a very powerful way. This continued for the next two days. The intensity was extraordinary and prolonged. Sadly, on Thursday that strong sense dissipated, seemingly as a result of the teaching I heard that morning. Even so, it was a reminder that God is real and can be experienced, affirming the eternal reality of which scripture speaks.
In the next verse of today’s gospel Jesus tells us that: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” This is to say that whoever welcomes a prophet as being a prophet, rather than as being a butcher, farmer, or some other identity, will receive a prophet’s reward. What then is a prophet’s reward? If we reflect on the Old Testament prophets, we discover that their reward was often persecution if not death. Who would want that reward, right? Why, though, were the prophets’ rewards so often persecution and even death? What had they done that deserved such ill treatment?
Well, they did what a prophet is supposed to do—speak the word of God. They were God’s mouthpieces, telling the people what God was telling them to say to the people. Oftentimes what God was telling the people was to return to Him, to return to being in relationship with Him and discontinue their pagan practices and sin. In other words, the prophet’s reward is to hear the voice of God. When we welcome a prophet, we make ourselves available to hearing God speak to us.
Here’s the thing. Jesus was a prophet. We have Jesus residing in us. We have the voice of God residing in us. This means that there is something about us that makes us a prophet. We hear from God and we can speak, as does a prophet, for God.
So, what is Jesus talking about when He speaks of a righteous person’s reward? We often associate the word, righteous, with someone who is pure or holy, maybe even self-righteous. The latter is someone we typically try to avoid. They can be arrogant and judgmental, character traits that are unpleasant to be around. The word righteous, also means being in right relationship, and that is a different matter. Jesus is telling us that a person who is in right relationship with God will receive the reward of the righteous. What is that reward? The answer has already been given. The reward is being in relationship with God, who loves us beyond anything we can imagine. Wouldn’t we like to not only know this with our heads or every now and then with our hearts? Wouldn’t we love to know and feel God’s love for us all the time? Imagine what that must be like. Nothing, nothing in our day to day lives, good, bad, or terrible, would overwhelm us. St. Paul’s words are helpful here. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).
Lastly, Jesus tells us in today’s gospel from Matthew that: “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.” You and I are disciples of Jesus, are we not? When we give as a disciple, as a Christian, there is a greater dimension to that than merely giving to someone just because we are nice gals or guys. When we give as a Christian, we are giving in the name of Jesus, which also happens to be in the name of God since, as Jesus told us earlier, when you welcome Him you welcome the one who sent Him—God the Father. In other words, there is more to us than meets the eye. There is greater value to what we do as Christians, as disciples, than we might at first realize.
In her book Preaching the Gospel of Mark,Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm tells a true and remarkable story. “During World War II, a German soldier who was part of the invading army fell sick with typhoid fever along the Russian front. He was nursed back to health by a Russian Mennonite woman who worked at the hospital. Mennonites are a group of Christians who live simply and wear plain clothing. Despite the great risk involved, she somehow obtained the appropriate papers so he could go back to Germany rather than back to the front.
After the war, the soldier immigrated to the United States, worked hard and made a fortune. When it came time to consider what to do with his wealth, and with no way to find the Russian Mennonite woman who had helped him, he found a Mennonite congregation in his local phone directory, walked into the pastor’s office and asked, “What would your congregation do if you had access to two million dollars?” The congregation considered the gift and decided to create a Service and Education Fund that supported disaster relief projects, Habitat for Humanity, volunteer overseas service and grants for those attending a Christian college who are ready to give a year of volunteer service.”
The reward for us as Christians, as followers of Christ, whether we break it down for the prophet, the righteous person, or the disciple is the same. It is God Himself. He is our reward. This is more than some head knowledge, this is more than some verse of scripture; He is someone, something, we can actually experience, taking us to level of wonder beyond our imagining. Elizabeth, who almost died in the car accident, tasted that wonder. So, you and I have been given a very special privilege and responsibility. You and I, who have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit residing in us, have been given a precious, God-given gift and calling. What is that calling?
Following the Civil War, a dejected confederate soldier was sitting outside the grounds of the White House. This was in the six days between the surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. A young boy approached him and inquired why he was so sad. The solider related how he had repeatedly tried to see President Lincoln to tell him why he was unjustly deprived of certain lands in the South following the war. On each occasion, as he attempted to enter the White House, the guards crossed their bayoneted guns in front of the door and turned him away. The boy motioned to the old soldier to follow him. When they approached the entrance, the guards came to attention, stepped aside and opened the door for the boy. He proceeded to the library where the President was resting and introduced the soldier to his father. The boy was Tad Lincoln. The soldier had gained an audience with the President through the President’s son.
You and are not unlike Tad, Lincoln’s son. Because we have access to the Father, through His Son, Jesus, we have been given a mission to lead others to Jesus so that they might be given an audience with God the Father. Like the prophet, we speak for Him, like the righteous we know Him because we are in relationship with Him, and like the disciple we have been given a compassionate heart to give to others. Indeed, in seeing and knowing us, others can see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We are then reminded of our parish vision and mission. It is on the front of the bulletin. Our Vision is “To see everyone at St. Elizabeth’s come to have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus and be increasingly conformed to His likeness through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Mission is “To invite our neighbors to join us in a personal relationship with Jesus through prayer, testimony, kindness, and fellowship.”
You see, there is this curious thing about living into our vision and mission. When we do so, we encounter Jesus. We encounter the one who resides inside of us. Why is that? Could it be because Jesus is already speaking to that person to whom we are ministering, to whom we are telling about Him? It is the extraordinary reality and privilege that Jesus, the Father, and the Son involve us in their life and mission. Little old you and I are part of God’s plan for the salvation and redemption of the world that He created. It is a world that constantly forgets that, ignores that, and needs to be told that. Do you see how special this is? What a wonderful gift we have been given. What a reward we have been given. God Himself is living within us, and we are to share Him with others.
So then, another week stands before us. When we wake up tomorrow morning, and since, as prophets, the Word of God resides in us, let us ask Him how He would have us live that day to bring others to be in relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.