Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 2, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rejection. Disappointment. Attack. Spiritual warfare. Persecution. Betrayal, even by members of own’s own family. Not peace, but a sword. In some cases, death.
These are all the things Jesus tells his disciples they can expect as they go out into the world to announce that, in him, the kingdom of heaven has come near. Over the past few Sundays we’ve heard Jesus’ long speech preparing his disciples for all that was to come as they were sent out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and now today we hear the conclusion of that speech. Jesus ends with a promise: There will be many trials, many troubles, to be sure, but they will not be left alone. They will not do this by themselves. They will not be on their own. Although they will face much resistance and hostility and rejection, some will welcome them! Jesus promises there will be some who will be there to provide encouragement and support along the way. They will be received by some with hospitality – and when they are, the rewards will be great for everyone involved.
Jesus promises that whoever welcomes them welcomes him. The disciples are his representatives, after all! They have been sent to bring his word, to speak on Christ’s behalf. And so, as they are received, Jesus himself is being received. This will be rewarded! “Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” Jesus says. Those who receive these apostles as a prophet with a word from God, those who support them in their work, will be receive the same reward as the disciples themselves. “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple,” Jesus says, “truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” “Little ones” in this context is a term of endearment Jesus uses for his disciples. These disciples are little in the eyes of the world, they are vulnerable and dependent. But they will be cared for. Even the smallest gesture – a cup of cold water – will help carry them along and will be noticed by God.
Whenever I hear this verse I can’t help but think back to my pastoral internship in rural North Dakota. I was so worried about how I would be received. I was coming from the west coast. I was young. I was green. I had given about two sermons in my life at that point. I just didn’t know what people would think about me, how they would receive me.
I spent the first couple of weeks following my supervisor around, getting to know the parish a bit. One of the men I met was a retired farmer named Mayo Swenson. Mr. Swenson didn’t say much. He was one of those quiet Swedes who responded to questions by grunting with a Swedish accent. He had this rough demeanor which scared me to death. I was sure he hated me.
On the first Sunday I was to preach I was pretty anxious. I was greeting people in the narthex that morning when, in my peripheral vision, I saw Mr. Swenson going up into the chancel. He leaned over by the chair behind the pulpit. Then I realized what he was doing. He was placing a glass of water on the armrest of the chair. For me.
It was just a glass of water, but it meant the world to me. This simple act was the bit of encouragement and support I needed. After worship I thanked him for his thoughtful gesture. To which he replied with his thick Scandinavian vowels, “Thank you for speaking God’s Word to us.”
I’ve received similar gestures from many of you – whether a literal glass of water or a card or a thoughtful email. I can’t tell you how much these small acts mean to me. They’re small, but they’re huge.
As you carry out your callings in life, your vocations, whether specifically in church-related ministry or other areas of your life, you are going to be battered by rejection and disappointment. You are going to face attack and spiritual warfare. You are going to face hostility and broken relationships. There will be times when you are overwhelmed and anxious and vulnerable and afraid. You have already faced many of these things, no doubt. You may well be facing many of them today.
But God does not leave us to endure these things on our own. God does not leave us to get through it all by ourselves. God does not leave us alone. There are those along the way who provide us with welcome and support and encouragement. There are those whose small acts of hospitality carry us through. We are not expected to be Lone Ranger Christians. In fact, even the Lone Ranger wasn’t the Lone Ranger. He had Tonto! He had a friend who walked with him through all his challenges.
This is why Christian community is so important. We bear Christ to each other. The Office of the Holy Ministry is established by God so that there will be pastors who bear Christ’s Word to the congregation, speaking on Christ’s behalf under vows of scriptural fidelity. That is true and that is important, but it is also true that ALL Christians bear Christ to the world and to each other. In the Smalcald Articles, one of our Lutheran confessional documents, Martin Luther went so far as to say that the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters in Christ is a form of the gospel alongside preaching and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is that significant! Even the smallest gestures of welcome and care you show to each other are sacramental.
We commissioned three new Stephen Ministers last Sunday. As they were up here for the commissioning we had a slide on the screen with the Stephen Ministry logo and the words: “Christ caring for people through people.” This is such a wonderful, concise way of describing not only what Stephen Ministers do – care for people – but also who is behind it all. Christ is caring for people through people! As Jesus says in our gospel for today: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.”
This is especially needed when we’re hurting, when we’re vulnerable. Stephen Ministers have been called “the After People.” As someone has beautifully written: “They are there after the phone call you hoped you’d never get, after the divorce papers are served and the bottom falls out of your life, after the funeral, when everyone has left and the emotions you’ve held at bay come crashing in on you. They are there after the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do,” after the nursing home director shakes your hand and says, “Welcome to your new home, after the last child honks the horn, waves goodbye, and drives away – and the house seems suddenly empty. They are there after the gavel goes down, the handcuffs go on, and your loved one is led away, after the baby arrives, demanding more of you than you ever thought possible, after you find a pink slip with your final paycheck, after your family and friends have heard your story one too many times, but you still need to talk it out.”
What do Stephen Ministers do? They are there. It is as simple as that. They are there to provide mutual conversation and consolation. They are there to provide confidentiality and compassion. They are Christ caring for people through people.
This is a specialized ministry with a lot of important training involved, and I hope you will make use of this ministry in those “after” seasons of your life. But I don’t mention it to try to slip a commercial for it into the sermon. I mention it because what Stephen Ministers do is both a beautiful example of what Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading, and it is just a more formalized and structured version of what we are ALL called to be and do as part of the Christian community. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we bear Jesus to each other. We are Christ caring for people through people, often in ways that are small, but huge.
Sometimes it means simply being there. When my oldest son was a senior in high school his girlfriend’s mother died very suddenly. He wanted so badly to be helpful to this young woman and her family. “What do I do, dad? What do I do?” he asked. And I told him to just be there. Just sit with her. Just listen. Don’t try to fix anything. Don’t try to explain anything. Just be there. It took a lot of bravery to walk into a house filled with that much grief, but he did. And weeks later I heard from the girlfriend’s father how much it meant to all of them. Just being there. Christ caring for people through people.
What we have in our gospel reading for today is both a calling and a promise.
The calling is to be there for each other. It is to welcome one another and provide simple acts of hospitality and care for one another, especially in our “after” moments. The church is so much more than downloadable content to consume. We are a community which practices mutual conversation and consolation. This is nothing less than a form of the gospel itself. It is nothing less than sacramental. Don’t lose sight of this calling.
The promise is that in your “after” moments, you will not be left by yourself. When you face rejection or disappointment, attack or spiritual warfare, hostility or broken relationships, when you are overwhelmed or anxious or vulnerable or grieving, Christ Jesus will come to you.
Jesus comes to us through his Word. He comes to us through his Supper. He also comes to us through other people. He comes to us through the sacrament of Christian care. He comes to us through a welcoming friend, a listening ear, even a cup of cold water.
These things seem little, but they are actually huge.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church