Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Taking Comfort

I find the Gospel in Matthew 10:10-42 comforting. Jesus tells the Apostles who have left their family to follow him they will have a family within the church community. There is a reward for discipleship. It doesn’t come in money or goods, but in real treasure – eternal life with Christ as God’s free gift of grace. How we enact the call to discipleship varies. Let me give you an example.
I’ve told this story before; perhaps you heard it the first time, but it bears repeating. It is a lesson in discipleship.
In the winter of 1968, my mother had saved up enough money to rent a large house in a rural part of El Sobrante – it was off the main road and up on a hill almost in the middle of nowhere. We thought it was an adventure and wonderful after living in a housing project apartment.
One night in February of 1969, my mother had gone to work on the late shift at the hospital and my sister Kathy and I were left to watch the younger children. Late in the evening the doorbell rang. We thought it was Mom coming home because she forgot something, but it was a man – a stranger. He said he was trying to get to San Francisco to work at the docks. He had a job waiting. He wanted to know if we could give him something to eat, maybe give him some money for bus fare. Kathy and I stood at the door, wondering what to do, mostly frozen by fear. We had broken our mother’s strict rule not to open the door after dark and especially to strangers.  Now, we had a fresh supply of groceries in the house because it was payday and we were particularly happy because Mom bought an unexpected treat – packets of Hostess cupcakes and a box of Hostess fruit pies from the day-old bakery. That was on my mind, and I found out later it was on hers, too. It was a moment before Kathy whispered, “Come with me.” We told the man to wait on the porch, slammed the door shut and locked it, and I followed her into the kitchen and we made sandwiches, found an old thermos and poured some coffee, threw some fruit and some of our prized Hostess cupcakes into a bag with the sandwiches. Kathy handed off the bag and some money she’d taken out of her wallet to the man and said, “God bless.” He said “God bless” and went on his way.  Kathy slammed the door shut.
I’ve never forgotten that night for many reasons – and not because we didn’t get in trouble for opening the door to a stranger or sharing what little we had with that stranger, or my sister’s generosity, but she said “God bless,” to a stranger, and he said it back.

What I didn’t know at that time was that my sister was doing what Christ wants all of us to do. She did what Jesus asks of every person who calls themselves a Christian.

She was welcoming. She was generous and loving – and the icing on the cake was that she asked God’s blessing for him.

Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that whoever welcomes a prophet or, little one, welcomes him.
We know from history and scripture that prophets are those noisy, confrontational types, who tell us truths we don’t want to hear, and they don’t make the best of ends, but they open our hearts and minds to reality and how things are supposed to be. Think of Jesus, John the Baptist, Stephen, Perpetua and her companions, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt. Little ones aren’t necessarily children. They might be people outside our personal circles of friends and fellow Christians, or people outside of the norm of society, what we might call the ‘fringe element.’ They may be the people on the bus or train, in line at a Starbucks or Safeway, or a visitor to the church who happened to walk by and come in for a service – we had such visitors two weeks ago. And they are you and me.
This brief lesson from the Gospel brings attention to the demands of following God’s call. Throughout Matthew’s missionary discourse, Jesus tells of the rewards we can expect. We know that as the Apostles carried out their mission, they were rejected in some places but welcomed in others. They travelled as emissaries of Jesus, and thus, those who welcomed the Apostles welcomed Jesus and welcomed God. This comes from the tradition that accepting a king’s emissary is the same as welcoming the king. There are rewards for receiving Apostles, prophets, righteous persons and little ones. Prophets are those who speak for God. To welcome a prophet is to receive the prophet’s reward – God’s free gift of grace. Righteous people are people mature in faith and living in obedience to God. To welcome a righteous person is to reap the reward of the righteous – again, God’s free gift of grace. And little ones. Here, I use the term as it would apply to all people, and thus, the simple, loving gesture of giving even a cup of water in the name of a disciple is important. It is important because even the smallest act of kindness is recognized by God. It is always tempting to think that the most heroic the service the greater the reward in Christian life, but Jesus here insists that God’s reward is not graded. There’s no chart with stars next to names, nor there are report cards – A’s for prophets; B’s for righteous people, and C’s for little ones and the rest of us. God’s reward is entirely generous and gracious.
We are asked to welcome little ones, make them a part of our community, give to them as Jesus would give to us. It’s not hard to be welcoming. Giving a cup of water to a little one, or a hot meal to someone who’s hungry, offering a sweater or blanket to someone who needs comfort, or listening, really listening, to a message offered by a prophet – or someone who needs a sympathetic and compassionate ear – that’s easy enough. Doing it because we love God and we want to live out the Gospel – now that’s the ticket. We may be prophets, righteous people or little ones. They are you and me, or what we aspire to, in a covenant with God and Jesus. We are chosen, called, tested – sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, but I say to you, there’s always another chance to get it right – the right way that God wants us to take as far as we can to the best of our abilities. Prophets, righteous people and little ones are people who say yes to God, even when it’s the most difficult thing they have to do in their lives.
And no matter who we are and what we chose to do with our callings, God loves us and welcomes all of us into the Kingdom.
Take comfort in that.

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