June 28, 2020
About forty years ago, or a little more, I was backpacking in the Cascade Mountains. We would hike next to creeks until they became streambeds. The streambeds led to high mountain lakes, beyond which were tiny alpine tarns, some of which never are free of ice all summer. Highest of all were the glaciers and snowfields where the watershed always begins.
In those days, we didn’t see too many other hikers on the trails. The suburbs had not yet grown out to the foot of the mountains; out to the trailheads that led to the upper reaches of the Cascades. Equipment was far more clumsy and heavy, much of it was military surplus.
Hikers counted on the exhaustion of the hike to bring sleep quickly despite a night spent on rocky, lumpy ground.
We were hiking one bright summer afternoon. The trail was relentless in its upward course and we arrived at a snowfield overheated and tired. At the blueish edge of the packed snow water dripped steadily. Every hiker found a drip and filled their water bottle. Today that would be unwise. Pollution is found in the highest snowfields. Too many humans enter the alpine zone these days. You cannot count on the purity of the water anymore. (Even then, there was some risk from animal sources, but we always boiled our stream and lake water before using it.)
But this water was straight from snow, cold, and crystal clear. We drank deeply. And oh, my! I would give anything to taste something again so pure, cold, refreshing.
And dare I even say it, holy.
This is the memory that came to me when I read from today’s gospel from Matthew. “…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.” Matthew placed this saying like a jewel into the midst of a magnificently curated selection of Jesus’s teachings with the twelve disciples.
It’s found a little less than midway through the gospel. After four chapters describing Jesus’s birth, baptism, temptation, and disciple selection process, Matthew turned to focus on the distinctive teachings of Jesus to his disciples. In those days there were all kinds of would-be messiahs; religious leaders, seers, and self-appointed prophets wandered the lands collecting followers, all of which were called disciples just like the ones who gathered around Jesus.
Knowing what Jesus taught, and how it was distinctive from all the other spiritual options was Matthew’s mission and purpose. This is primary material, some ten chapter’s worth – the sayings of Jesus. Without these extraordinary lessons, the cross of Christ is nothing more than a story of yet another religious nut who didn’t know when to call it quits.
Jesus was…different…compelling…comparable to no one else out there. Matthew is fierce about wanting us to know this for certain. With this purpose, Matthew even held off introducing what Jesus had to say about the cross until the tenth chapter. And even then the cross is given only brief mention. There is much to learn before the cross.
So, a cup of cold water, Jesus said. Not just any water. Cold water. In a desert climate where dry hot winds blow most seasons of the year. The desert where water is hope, joy, life. From a deep well, sparkling in the cup. Refreshing and sweet. Pure. And dare I even say it, holy.
While much is made of how hard the journey of faith can be, in the teachings of Jesus it is all balanced with simple acts. Like last week’s gospel. Go out to care for God’s people, take nothing with you. Travel lightly, without heavy clothing, without food, without money. Without regrets. Take only an extra measure of faith. And peace. Wrap yourselves in peace.
And now, this week Jesus wraps up his first sending of the disciples with a few words about welcome. We are talking here about hospitality to God’s servants in faith and the reward that follows. Three categories of welcome are named.
First, there is the welcome to the prophet. The prophet of God who prophesied without flinching or ducking the hard stuff was greatly revered. Jeremiah is such an honored prophet. The prophet Hananiah? Not so much. There is a book of Jeremiah in the Bible, but no book of Hananiah.
So it goes for the ones who say what their ruler wants or needs them to say. To welcome God’s true prophet was to receive the same reverence or, better said, honor as that of the prophet. What’s that old saying? You are known by the friends you keep?
Next is the welcome to the righteous person. This is the next category of God’s faithful servant. Jesus spoke repeatedly about the need for righteousness in the world. And for that you need righteous people. Which is to say, people who can be counted on to do the right thing, adhering to the high standard of God’s governance, and God’s love.
Then comes the welcome to the little ones. Jesus called the disciples “little ones”. But here Jesus seems to be talking about the people who came to be healed and taught by the disciples. Many of them, the very poorest people. Because they – who were considered to be without honor – welcomed the disciples, the poor received honor.
Wrapped around these three welcomes is Jesus’s declaration that all his servants are worthy of honor. Jesus’s followers are, in Paul’s words, “…freed from sin and enslaved to God.” This is the way of sanctification, the way to entirely refreshing and refreshed life in God.
In the culture of Jesus, everyone was a slave in some form or another. So under the circumstances, this was epically good news! Since when is there any better or more honorable one to serve than God? And what if we ourselves are not so free of enslavement as we think?
So we must ask ourselves. Are we disciples? Are we following Jesus? If not then who is lording it over us? If we do belong to Jesus, each of us large to little, then how do we practice the welcome that Jesus taught? What does it look like now? In this country, and in this world? These questions do not put us at ease. This ground is uneven, rocky, hard, and the path is long.
But when we are on the way of Jesus, the way of welcome, we freely give, and are given, at just the right times, a cup of cold water. Refreshing and sweet. Pure. And dare I say it, holy. Amen.