Within this morning’s scripture readings come at least two important messages, one from God, and one from Jesus. And though our understanding of the Trinity might cause us to argue that Jesus and God are one in the same, their messages come from different times, and from different aspects of the Trinity.
In our Hebrew scripture passage, we have the story of Abraham, following God’s instructions to the letter, and very nearly killing Isaac as a sacrifice to God. But God stops him at the last moment, and instead provides a ram for a sacrifice.
Our gospel lesson has Jesus trying to describe his relationship with the one who sent him, and his efforts for this passage conclude with his telling us that even offering a cup of cold water to the little ones will be rewarded.
In one passage, God is telling us that child sacrifice is no longer needed in order to show faithfulness. Eventually, God will tell us that animal sacrifices are no longer necessary either. Isn’t it interesting to see God, the one we think is unchangeable and all-knowing, change God’s mind over time?
And thank God for Abraham and Isaac, that God decided that child sacrifices were no longer necessary. We wouldn’t have Christianity if we didn’t have Isaac, and this part of the Abrahamic story.
So our first passage reminds us of what God doesn’t need from us. The second passage helps us understand what Jesus expects from us: simple hospitality and empathy. Jesus tells us that simply offering a cup of cold water to the littlest among us will be rewarded by God. Now, if you ask me, this seems like a very low bar…maybe a starting point. But don’t you think we could do better than cups of cold water?
Of course we can! We can offer bread, and soup, and protein from our collection of food offerings on communion Sundays! We can offer free reading materials for those who stop in to our offices, a gentle and patient ear for those who need comforting.
Think how wide the possibilities are if the bookends we have to work with are: moving on from the ancient ways of honoring God, and offering cold cups of water to thirsty children. And, it seems to me that there are a lot of other ways we could demonstrate our love of God and our love of neighbor beyond offering cups of cold water.
And in the listing of those things, we will find our purpose, our goal, the things that will define what it means to be One Worshiping Community. What we won’t find in scripture is the instruction to serve ourselves. What we won’t find in God’s Holy Word written in the Bible, is a commandment to serve only ourselves to keep our heads above water as a faith community. No, it is becoming more and more clear to me over time that congregations like ours will need to become focused on others, focused on our neighbors, on serving those in need around us in order to survive.
And most of the writing done on vitality in modern congregations stress that unless a congregation turns it focus outward, toward the world in need, it runs the risk of experiencing decline.
So what are we to do? Start setting up water stands outside our building on hot days, and offer cold cups of water to the thirsty? In a word, yes! But the whole cold cup of water is, in fact, a metaphor, a metaphor for whatever we can do for whomever appears to us in need.
We no longer need to sacrifice children to the Creator God, and offering cold water is an easy way to show God we are faithful, and that we love God. So somewhere in between the two actions will be our niche, our connection to the world outside these four walls, our connection to our neighbors in need. It won’t be enough to ensure that we have a worship service, or communion, or hospital visits, or pastoral counseling, or even Bible study, because those things just serve our own needs…we will need to work hard at figuring out what our community needs, what we can realistically offer the community, and then find a way to actually do it! If we build on some of our strengths, if our foundation is based on the things we can do well, then our actions will have integrity and spirit.
And by the way, while our congregation is working on ways to stay connected to our community, while we are working on ways to be relevant to the people around us, there is some important work we can be doing inside our own spirits: who among us couldn’t benefit from exercising our empathy muscles?
The current state of the world is filled with cynicism, antagonism, blame, and disrespect. And so while we spend some energy contemplating how God wants us to act in the midst of the community in which we live, we each could probably stand to examine our own relationship to the cold and uncaring world we have enabled. We can find ways to reverse the disrespectful way in which our neighbors treat each other by living our faith even in the way we treat others. Doesn’t Jesus call us to be the opposite of what the world has become?
For my other job, the one serving the NY Conference of the United Church of Christ, I manage the mail that comes in: checks to be deposited, requests from pastors and churches for assistance, invoices for all sorts of things. And all that mail comes to a Post Office Box in Solvay, on Milton Avenue.
Very often, as I am entering the building, I hold the door for someone either going in, or going out. What’s sad is that nearly every person for whom I hold the door looks surprised. As if they can’t figure out why on earth would someone hold the door for them? A simple gesture of kindness these days catches most people off-guard, just for a second, and then they smile and say thank you. How cool would it be if they left the Post Office and then held the door for someone later in the day? Or committed some other act of kindness for someone else?
If each one of us committed to finding one way to show empathy or respect or kindness to a person we don’t know, or have judged in the past, if we vowed to show patience to one person we have gotten frustrated with in the past, we would be making big strides in changing the way we use our empathy muscles. To me, it’s so obvious, Jesus was the epitome of empathy. So, as followers of Jesus, why can’t we show empathy to those around us who likely receive very little? It’s almost as easy as pouring a cup of cold water, and we don’t even need any cups, or any water!
So while we continue to need to be the church, to find ways to keep our budgets balance, our doors open, our worship happening, to keep serving communion, to doing the things we do as a congregation, I believe one of the keys to our staying alive and thriving in the future is a transformation: from focusing on survival to focusing on using our resources to serve our neighbors in need. Finding one way to express empathy or kindness toward another person is just the first step in a journey toward loving our neighbors. Let’s try that for a while. Amen.
Our gospel lesson this morning recounts how Jesus commissioned his disciples, how he sent them forth to be in the world. His instructions come at the very end of the chapter of Matthew, with the final words “…I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When the Bible Study Group I used to meet with read this passage out loud, and we came to the line “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted”, there arose a loud and hearty laugh. The idea that Christ’s closest disciples, the ones who knew him the best, the ones who received his most fervent instructions, the ones who broke bread with him, and hung on almost every word he said, doubted, made as all laugh.
If that isn’t permission for modern Christians to question and challenge and discern anew what Jesus meant by his instructions, I don’t know what is! Doubt, even as we are worshiping him, even as we are trying to share him with our neighbors.
In the last 20 years, a kinder, gentler way of introducing Jesus to those who do not know him has come about: building hospitals and schools, providing pumps and filters for clean water, sharing hard earned resources with others so that they might have some basic items for living and growing. If we take some time to contemplate that the disciples still doubted, even as Jesus was about to leave them, then we can understand how others, who have little experience with Christ, might have some serious questions about who this Jesus is. But we know from our own experience that actions speak louder than words. And actions that help others who are in need speak much louder than words that proclaim traditions and faiths. That just makes sense to me. I hope it makes sense to you.
Because the Gospels are full of examples of Jesus reminding us that we aren’t the ones who get to judge others, not on their way of life, not on their choice of faith or their choice of no faith. We are the ones who are called to love our neighbors by offering them help when we can, by offering them prayers always, and by offering them a voice if they would like us to…
Every example I find in our gospels shows Jesus to be kind, patient, and respectful of those whom he helped. Not one shred of disdain, impatience, judgement, irritation or exasperation. With the disciples, yes. He had high expectations, and he showed his frustrations with them occasionally, but with those whom he healed, or helped, Jesus had only patience and loving kindness.
How many disciples will we make if we judge and dismiss our neighbors in need? How many will listen or know about Jesus if they feel judged and disrespected? How many might we reach with patience and loving kindness?
Of course, I’m preaching to the proverbial choir: our One Worshiping Community puts our money where our hearts are: with those in need. We may not have much, but what we have is dedicated to reaching those in need.
The irony is that as churches struggle with financial resources, as we struggle to stay alive, the call to love our neighbor, the call to serve our neighbor is no less strong: and Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age. Which means we continue to help others, even as we are challenged to help ourselves. Which means we can question, and doubt, and find new ways to express our love of neighbor, even if it flies in the face of the way things used to be done.
As this congregation prepares to head out into the wilderness, prepares to take a new path toward what it means to be a congregation in the 21st century, we will have the tradition of sharing the proceeds from our Endowment fund with organizations that are founded on the principles of helping those in need. Diverse organizations, diverse neighbors, receiving resources even when we may not have a building of our own. Even if we are technically homeless for a while.
If our actions are grounded in respect, founded on love, abounding in the gentle impulse to be non-judgmental, we are earnestly answering the call and the commission of our faith. If our focus is on those in need, and not on meeting our own needs, then we are faithfully carrying out what Jesus has called us to do.
Jesus commissioned the disciples, and in a way, commissioned us to make disciples of all nations. But in the world in which we live, many nations already have a faith, are already disciples of another religion. Modern Christianity has begun to find ways to partner with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and with our sisters and brothers of no faith, to find ways to try and make the world a better place. I feel honored to be a part of that tradition.
We can worship God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and we can question, and doubt. That much is clear. I believe we should be questioning and doubting any action from any faith community or person of faith that is not based on love and respect, any intention that is not patient, gentle, or kind. It may be harder, but it’s the only way I know how to make disciples of the nations. Amen.
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