(I preached this sermon last September at St. Luke’s Christian Community Church. I delivered it again yesterday, as part of the Big Soul series on Jesus in the Gospels at Epiphany UCC.)
“Cup of Cold Water”
Mark 9:39-41 – (from a sermon of September 27, 2015) September 25, 2016, preached to Epiphany UCC, Chicago
This weekend is the first weekend of autumn, here in the Northern Hemisphere. The baseball playoffs are around the corner. Football season is with us again. And who isn’t interested in team rankings? The Chicago Cubs have made it to the playoffs! And whether you enjoy college football or pro ball, rankings are certainly something much discussed, in news columns, on television, and in personal conversation.
What if you do not care for sports? Have you or one of your relatives looked at Yelp lately, to check out that new restaurant down the street, and see how many stars the restaurant gets? What about U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the top colleges in the country?
Face it, this mentality has transferred to the church, too. Who’s the top ranked preacher in the country? Does the church down the road make it on to the list of best churches in Illinois? Or what about the top ten children’s ministries in the Chicago area?
In our Gospel reading today, we see that the disciples were not immune to this kind of thinking. Even though they didn’t have the Internet, or Yelp, football, or even the printing press, we can still tell that the disciples were jockeying for position. Arguing and trying to figure out which one of them was the “best.” Who was the “greatest,” anyway?
I think Jesus made them sad, even ashamed of themselves. We can see they got very quiet when He asked them what they were arguing about on the road, just before they reached their destination for the evening. They didn’t want to admit they were arguing over superficial or unimportant things like rankings! Who was the “best,” or the “greatest.” Striving for superficial, unimportant things. I suspect they already knew what Jesus would say about that kind of thinking and striving.
To make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. And then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.”
Wow! Pretty pointed remarks, let me tell you! In other words, Jesus said that being kind to the least of society (for that was what children were, in the first century) was far better than seeking status or striving to be the “best” or the “greatest.” The disciples were right to quiet down in embarrassment when Jesus asked them why they were arguing on the road.
But, all of that is preamble. Setting the stage for what I really wanted to talk about today. And yet, this sermon topic is a continuation of Jesus speaking about being kind, thinking about, and being of service to the least of society.
The disciples just didn’t get it. Jesus makes His point clearly, repeatedly. Being kind to those who are overlooked or ignored? Helping out those who have little or nothing, with no thought for a “return on your investment?” The disciples misunderstand or get confused, over and over and over again. Like right here.
A year ago, the people of the United States had a rare opportunity to see the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, in the flesh. For real. Pope Francis was here, in this country. He arrived in Washington D.C. The President, Vice President, their families, and many other members of Congress and other people in Washington were among those who had the opportunity to hear his Holiness speak to a joint session of Congress. Oh, and the Pope ate lunch with the homeless, instead of with the bigwigs at the White House.
Pope Francis then went to New York City, celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden, drove along Central Park, and visited a Catholic grammar school in a poor, Latino and Black area of the Bronx. Then, he flew to Philadelphia. And, he celebrated a huge open-air Mass in the middle of downtown Philly. Plus, he visited a prison, as well.
I don’t know how much anyone here follows news of Pope Francis, but he is a very unusual man for someone holding one of the highest religious positions in the world. A man of humility, who does not care for the spotlight. Who loves and engages with children and goes out of his way to take “selfies” with young people. He makes a special effort to visit disabled people wherever he goes. Pope Francis is fervent about being pro-life—that’s for all life, including ending abortion as well as capital punishment. He is fervent about protecting the environment—worldwide. He does not wish to be elevated or made much of. So, of course people recognize his humility, good humor, engaging behavior, and respond to him all the more!
(I am not advocating for or against his deeply felt convictions. I’m trying to give a snapshot of Pope Francis, so that we might see how real, genuine and compassionate he is.)
I think Pope Francis would understand immediately what Jesus was saying here. Jesus wanted His disciples to think about others, first and foremost. Not jockey for position, seek high status, or try to be the “best” or “greatest.” Not to go out of our way for standing or high rank.
Jesus goes on to say, “41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” Wait a minute. What’s this? First he’s talking about considering those on the bottom rung in society as fully human, too. Not second-class citizens! Children certainly qualify for that, as do women, the elderly, the disabled, and handicapped. As do immigrants, migrants and refugees.
Let me tell you about a college student bible fellowship in Europe, to give an example of what Jesus was telling His disciples. This comes from the prayer email sent out last September from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications.
“Students with SXEF Greece are mobilising to help throughout the country. Grigoris, a staff worker in Thessaloniki, writes: ‘Greece has been one of the places on the global map where a lot of quite painful changes have taken place. Little did we realize that, in our own “neighborhood”, there was place for more suffering, until we saw the caravans of refugees and migrants crossing the borders holding their babies in their arms.
‘We saw this situation as an opportunity to show that the Christianity we preach is practical. So we went to the northern borders where migrants are gathering, to help in any way we can.’
Sophia, a student, helping there, agreed with Grigoris. ‘Our daily missions gave us the opportunity not to just speak for God but to do something for him. Many times I felt that our actions had the biggest impact, whether with the migrants, the local authorities or humanitarian organizations.’
‘Just with a smile, a bottle of water or some food, I realized better why God wants to serve him with our actions. I think it is because that is also [God’s] own heart for us, to take away our fears and minister to our needs.’
Quite literally, we are sometimes called to give a cup of cold water to people in need. Like these college students did, in northern Greece. Giving a smile, and an encouraging touch. A handshake. Holding a cranky baby or a fretful toddler, so a tired mother can have a short break.
Are these big actions, or expensive things? Often times, no. But, they are human things. We can each do the small things we are able to do. And with a little help from everyone, we can do a whole lot!
I think of what Pope Francis said to the joint session of Congress last September: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. . . . On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
Isn’t this exactly the same thing that Jesus said to His disciples, in our Gospel reading today? Isn’t this what the college student bible fellowship found when they ministered to the hungry, thirsty and tired refugees crossing through their country? Giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name has a huge impact. The action is not a huge deed. But the smile and handshake that accompany the water, or the food, or the supplies? Priceless. And welcoming.
Showing the least of these that someone cares. Someone is concerned. They are not all alone. Each of them is made in the image of God. Just like me. Just like you.
Remember, for God so loved the world. That is, the whole world. Not just part of it. Not two thirds of it. Not just people in the Northern Hemisphere, or people who are right handed. Not just people born to married parents, or the people who are sighted and can hear. But, everyone.
What’s more, Jesus is calling for each of us, all of us, to look at each other and see God’s image in each person’s heart. For God so loved you. For God so loved me. For God so loved . . . each person. In Chicago. In Illinois. In the United States. Yes, even the whole world.