First Congregational Church
July 2, 2017
4th Sunday after Pentecost, Independence Day Weekend
“A Hitchhiker, A Brick and A Cup of Cold Water On the Fourth of July”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A seminary student drove about thirty miles to church on Sunday mornings and she would frequently pick up hitchhikers. One day she picked up a young man who noticed that she was wearing a suit and asked if he could go to church with her.
The student said, "Of course you can." The stranger came to church and afterward was invited over to one of the members' home for lunch and fellowship. While there, he received a hot bath, some clean clothes, and a hot meal. In conversation with the youth, his hosts found that he was a Christian, but he had been out of fellowship with God. His home was in another state and he was just passing through on his way back.
Later in the evening, they bought him a bus ticket and sent him on his way. A week later, the seminary student received a letter from the hitchhiker. Enclosed with the letter was a newspaper clipping with headlines reading, "Man turns himself in for murder."
The young man had killed a teenage boy in an attempted robbery and had been running away from the law for some time. But the kindness and hospitality of Christians had convicted him. He wanted to be in fellowship with God, and he knew he needed to do the right thing about his crime. Little did those Christians know that by their faithfulness to show hospitality they had influenced a man to do what was right in God's eyes and thereby help restore him to fellowship with his God. (pause)
A successful man known for his generosity was driving his new car through a poor part of town. A boy tried to flag him down. The man didn’t want to get involved, so he pretended he didn’t see the child. As he slowed for a red traffic light, he heard a loud crash. Someone had thrown a brick at his car, denting the trunk.
The man stopped, jumped out of his car and grabbed the boy that threw the brick. “You juvenile delinquent!” he yelled. “You’ll pay for this or go to jail!”
“I’m sorry, mister,” the boy cried. “My mom’s lying on the floor in our apartment. I think she’s dying. Our phone’s been cut off and I’ve been trying for ten minutes to get someone to stop. I didn’t know what else to do! Take me to jail, but please, call a doctor for my mom first.”
Regardless of what came next, just about all of us can figure out how that man felt. “I’m a doctor,” he said and asked, “Where is she?” The boy took him to his mother and the doctor administered CPR and called an ambulance.
“Will she live?” the boy sobbed. “Yes, son, she will,” the doctor said. “Then it’s worth going to jail. I’m sorry I ruined your car. You can take me in now.” “You’re not going anywhere,” the doctor said. “It was my fault you had to throw a brick to get my attention.” The doctor made sure the boy was taken care of, and as he drove home he resolved not to fix the dent. He would keep it as a reminder that not everyone in need has a brick to throw.
Many of us have heard Loren Eiseley’s story of “the star thrower” -- the one about the guy tossing starfish after starfish back into the sea. When asked why, he replies that if they don’t get back in the water soon, they’ll dry out and die. Looking at a beach strewn with thousands of starfish, his interviewer responds that he can’t possibly hope to make any difference. To which he says -- and this is famous closing line -- “To the ones I throw back, it makes all the difference in the world.”
There is a story about a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his best corn in the regional fair where it won a blue ribbon. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and discovered that the farmer actually shared his best seed corn with his neighbors.
“How can you afford to share your best seeds with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition against yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why sir,” said the farmer, “didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
I don’t remember how many years ago I saw “The Last Samurai,” but a scene in the movie so struck me, that soon after it ended, I sat down to write some notes about it, knowing that one day it would fit somewhere.
There is a woman whose husband is killed by Tom Cruise, and she knows it was him. When Tom is brutally attacked by a group of Samurai, he is spared from death and taken to the woman - to her home, where she has to care for him and treat him as an honored guest. She hides behind her smiles, there is a language issue, and utter disregard for what the woman is being asked to do. But there is also hospitality - that allows for a person who doesn’t understand, to come near, who is a foreigner, to learn and grow into their own awareness.
The Book of Matthew was written somewhere around 85 AD, after the devastation of the Roman-Jewish War that destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It was written less than 20 years after that war, so memories of atrocities and destruction were still fresh in the minds of those left alive. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, the writer reminds us of things that Jesus said fifty years earlier, but were no doubt still difficult to hear and embrace.
40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Thank you, Serenity. Part of what I love about preparing sermons is looking at various words and their underlying meanings, and this morning’s passage is rich with nuance. There’s that little rule of thumb that whenever something in the Bible is repeated, it’s a big deal. If twice is nice, three times is big time.
The Greek word that is repeated six times is δεχόμενος, which is translated as "the one who receives….” It’s where we get ambidextrous. It literally means “to take with the hand, to take hold of, to take up, to receive. So the point is not just to say, how’dee doo, but to get close to whoever comes our way - represented in the span from prophets, righteous persons and “little ones,” not that those are any real designation of people groups.
Cognizant of our national holiday on Tuesday, I got to thinking back to 1776, to the colonial revolt from 1765 to 1783, and I wondered about all those individuals that “welcomed” and “took hold of” the wounded into their homes, offered them cool cups of water for drinking or bathing. I wondered about all those “little ones” that lost a family member, or whose lives were altered when a hand or leg was lost to the war - people that needed hospitality and more than just a few cups of cold water. And those people that provided such hospitality, who were never compensated for the efforts and situations with which they had to deal. And while we may glorify the result of that war, that has allowed us to come to this place in time, God was also present, God’s Holy Spirit worked in the hearts of those who’d rather not be bothered, people who already had enough mouths to feed, people who were barely scraping by.
They may have seemed like small gestures at the time, but I wonder how many of those who reached out did so realizing that by doing those actions of relief and comfort, they were agents of God’s comfort and caring, transforming not only the lives of those for whom they cared, but for their own selves, not unlike a certain doctor and his dented car. Not that they cared for others with the expectations of blue ribbons, mind you, but that the love in their hearts grew.
Bruce Epperly, of patheos.com stated it well. “We welcome and encounter God in encountering the other. Our acts of comfort and kindness, especially toward the vulnerable, touch the very heart of God, and transform our own lives.”
It is not always the wisest thing to pick up a hitchhiker these days, but there are times in our lives when we are representing God by our simple acts of hospitality - of welcoming the stranger, of listening to the frustrated or downcast, even giving a silent hug. In those moments, we are Christ’s agents, representing God in concerns of great matter, more often than not, far beyond our understanding.
Colin Yuckman from working preacher.org said of today’s scripture, “Here is the passage for the anonymous disciple, the one who does hard work but is hardly ever recognized.” And Dave Lose, from the same site, said something like, “There is no small gesture, when we are part of caring for the world God loves so much.”
The thing about our small cups of cold water, regardless of when they are served, is that they require effort on our part, sometimes when we feel least like offering such service. So for all those times that you’ve reached out as God’s agent to bring a little comfort and hospitality, thank you. A good many of us realize that a cold cup of water, which is code for any small act of kindness, is generally not anything fancy, but it truly honors God.
Before we pray, I leave you with words from Ferdinand Funk of sound faith.com. “Christ is God’s hospitality toward us. God gives Himself fully to us in His Son Jesus Christ. In fact, He did not spare His own life to show us how much He wants us to be with him for all eternity. But, God doesn’t only give Himself fully to us. He also fully receives us and accepts us as we are. In Christ we experience both sides of the coin of God’s hospitality toward us.”
Let us pray. God of the Open Door and Open Heart, we thank you for the opportunity and honor we have as your agents to this world. We are grateful for all those who came before us, that have had a hand in us being here, now. We are especially mindful of the gift of freedom with which this nation has been blessed, freedom to make mistakes and to make good. Guide us and lead us to be the agents that reflect light back to you. Help us to remember that hospitality is sometimes a gift we can offer others and sometimes a gift that we must receive. May we not flaunt our own freedom, but help us to work for the freedom of all your people. For all the hospitality and freedom that is ours through your name, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.