Christ calls us to build relationships of mutuality, in which we both offer and receive care.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13 A
Text: Matthew 10:40-42
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace be with you, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It feels complicated to be community with one another right now.
COVID-19 forces tough decisions about who you can visit with, how close you can get, and how long you can stay. You have to calculate risk for every social interaction, no matter how minor. To ask: How do I stay safe and keep others safe? How can I love my neighbors while staying physically distant?
Increased awareness of police violence is causing people to re-consider what community safety might look like, to ask new questions about how we can take care of one another, especially those who are most vulnerable? How can we support movements toward systemic change and also support those who are affected by the resulting unrest? How can we raise our voices for justice and also open our ears for learning?
These are complicated and challenging questions, but they’re ones we can’t avoid. We need to wade into the public conversation about how to create community that is just and safe for everyone. We need to be part of this conversation because, as Jesus’ words remind us, caring for one another is part of the deal when you commit to a Gospel-centered life.
Offering hospitality and welcome to another is like offering hospitality to God! That’s what Jesus teaches his disciples. The acts of hospitality don’t have to be fancy. They can be as simple as offering a cup of cold water to a weary desert wanderer.
Cold water isn’t as scarce in our world as it was in Jesus’ world, when the arid climate of the Middle East could only be survived through access to rare natural springs, deep wells, or carefully guarded cisterns. But it’s worth asking: what resources do need to be shared in order for us to live out Christ’s vision of hospitality right now? To what do people need access in order to survive in our world? Sufficient pay? Safe housing? Affordable healthcare? Adequate education?
And what are the small acts, the cups of cold water, that each of us can offer to help move our society in that direction? A cup of cold water could look like donated diapers or laundry detergent. Welcome could look like wearing a mask or staying home. Hospitality could look like showing up for a neighborhood meeting. We offer what we can to whom we can whenever we can.
To be clear, though, Jesus doesn’t only call his followers to offer hospitality; he calls them to receive hospitality as well. He doesn’t just say, “When you welcome others, you welcome me.” He says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” He says this to his disciples as he sends them out into the community to proclaim the message of the Gospel. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and therefore welcomes God.
Scripture is adamant that those who love God are called to love neighbor: to give generously, to resist escalating violence, to protect the most vulnerable. But here, in this teaching, Jesus emphasizes that sometimes Christ-followers will themselves be the ones in need of welcome. Sometimes they will be the ones thirsty and exhausted, reaching out for a mercifully offered cup of cold water.
Earlier, Jesus told the disciples that when they go out into the world to proclaim the good news, they should intentionally go empty-handed. Don’t take any extra supplies, he said. No money, no extra clothes (Matthew 10:7-10). The disciples would be dependent on the generosity and hospitality of others. That will make them vulnerable. Jesus even uses the term “little ones” to describe the position this will put them in (Matthew 10:42). It will make them like children, in need of care from others.
That’s the thing about real hospitality: it requires vulnerability. Both sides have to take a risk. It’s risky to offer hospitality: to welcome others to your home, your table, your heart. It’s also risky to receive hospitality: to entrust your wellbeing, even your life, to others.
And Jesus harbors no illusions. He warns the disciples: Sometimes you will not be welcomed and cared for. Sometimes you’ll be rejected and mistreated, as Jesus himself was. That’s the inherent risk of vulnerability: you might get hurt. The message of the Gospel can be countercultural, even subversive. Walking the way of Jesus isn’t always going to make you popular. Actually, Jesus pretty much guarantees that it will cause tension in even the most intimate of relationships. Jesus uses uncomfortable language about dividing families and households (Matthew 10:35-37). To bear the Gospel is to bear the cross.
But the vulnerability also creates the opportunity for deeper relationships.
The relationship created by authentic hospitality is not transactional. It can’t be. When you invite someone into your home for a meal, you don’t expect them to pay you for it. They can pay it forward, but they can’t pay it back. It’s offered freely, out of joy. It’s received freely, with gratitude. Otherwise it isn’t hospitality.
This is why the work of actively dismantling systems of oppression is part of the Christian vocation.
When we say that there cannot be peace without justice, we are saying that equity is the foundation for authentic community. Creating a community in which everyone can flourish will require sacrifice and risk. Relationships of mutual vulnerability are foundational: Every person able to receive hospitality, and every person able to offer hospitality. Enough cold water to go around.
Womanist theologian Emilie Townes puts it this way: “With compassionate welcome, Jesus calls us to put our love in jeopardy so that its blessings are made manifest in our lives and in the lives of others.” This can add a new set of questions to your considerations of how to be community in these unusual times: How are you practicing the vulnerability of both offering and receiving hospitality? How are you putting your love in jeopardy, taking risks in order to build relationships of mutuality?
They aren’t easy questions and they won’t yield easy answers. But here’s the good news: the risk is worth it.
The way of vulnerable love is the way of life! We know that because we see that in Jesus Christ, who shows us the face of God. Jesus Christ, who was willing to give up everything for the sake of love, even his life. And somehow, miraculously and mysteriously, through that sacrificial death comes new life. Not easy life; not painless life. But real, lasting life.
When you practice loving others with vulnerable, sacrificial love, you are following in the way of Christ. You are taking up the cross. You are bearing the Gospel. You are fulfilling the vocation sealed by the Holy Spirit at your baptism – a baptism that baptized you into Christ’s suffering and death and also into Christ’s resurrection and life. In Christ you are freed by the love of God, for the love of neighbor.
There is enough cold water to go around. We live from a spirit of abundance and thanksgiving, not of scarcity and fear. We proclaim, as our ancestor Abraham did, that God will provide (Genesis 22:14). We rejoice, as the Psalmist did, that God has dealt bountifully with us (Psalm 13:6).
And if God has given us such bounty, it is our work to actively, intentionally, courageously share that bounty with others. It is our work to tear down barriers that prevent anyone from living into the flourishing God intends for them. It is our work to build the relationships of mutual trust that are needed for a just community. So take the risk to be Christ’s love in the world, and trust that others will also be Christ’s love to you.