Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Welcome is one of the basic tenets of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus tells us that welcome and genuine hospitality are given as if we are welcoming the One whom we serve. Welcoming prophets has always been the beginning of revival in Judaism and in Christianity. But prophets do not always find a welcome as Jesus knew well. His parable of the tenant in the vineyard illustrated the reality of persecution that the prophets who came before him faced and foreshadowed his own death.
Our gospel lesson today says that those who welcome a prophet in the name of a prophet, will receive a prophet’s reward. I understand prophesy to be speaking the word of God that challenges, convicts, and renews right relationship with God and between people. Prophesy is not easy to hear because it hits us where we live. In the black church that has a tradition of congregational responses like “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” and “Preach it!” a message that hits too close to home can be greeted with “Now you’re meddling, Preacher!” I know pastors that have been asked to leave because their gospel message made people too uncomfortable. I also know that churches that welcome prophetic preaching take the same risk as pastors. They may lose members who disagree with the message or they may find new energy and a sense of purpose that propels them into fruitful ministry that attracts new people—or they may lose members and find their way into life-giving ministry. The prophet’s call is to speak truth to power, to be the voice of those who have no voice, and to work for justice and mercy. Those who welcome the prophet and his or her message receive the reward of the prophet—the power to revive and transform the faith and the world. When we welcome the prophet, we welcome Jesus. And when we welcome Jesus, the prophet, we welcome God and, as Eugene Peterson says in The Message, God moves into the neighborhood.
I take welcoming righteousness to mean ministry that is always concerned with the well-being of the congregant or the congregation. Just as in medicine, the first rule of ministry is to do no harm. So our relationships with each other need to be healthy. We covenant together to love and serve each other, respect and honor each other, not necessarily to agree with each other or see eye to eye. We strive toward right relationship. One of my former students, Tandi Rogers, just spoke at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly Association of Membership Professionals and a portion of her speech is catching fire on Facebook:
We are the people of covenant. We practice covenant. And I say practice, because do we ever perfect it? No. Those mistakes, those steps away from right relations are actually blessed opportunities for faith formation.
I’m not interested in a pretty covenant with all the right words that sits dusty on a shelf. Give me a covenant with smudge marks, and coffee stains, and marked out words and added words and tear stains. Give me a covenant that makes us stretch for a lifetime and into the next generation.
Living in a covenant community built on right relationship demands attention to good practices, creating safety—physical, spiritual, and emotional safety in which people can find healing—and accepting one another’s gifts. Those who welcome those who seek to live in right relationship receive the reward of righteousness. Churches that seek to live in covenant to honor and respect one another live into the joy of Jesus who told his disciples:
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:10-12)
That’s the transitive power of love and joy. When we love each other and covenant to live in right relationship, we share Jesus’ love. When we share Jesus’ love, we live in God’s love and share God’s joy.
Welcome is so powerful that Jesus equates the one who welcomes with the one who is welcomed. We become like the One we welcome. We, therefore have the power to bless. We have access to the riches of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, even those of us who have little in the way of earthly riches can offer the simplest gift of life. If you’ve spent any time in the desert, you know the life-giving, life-saving power of a cup of cold water. Each of us, as faithful disciples of the One who is the river of life, has the power to offer a cup of cold water in a disciple’s name. Our reward is being part of the Kingdom of God, part of what God is already doing to bless the world. “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Who is the disciple who led you into a life of faith and ministry? Whose are the shoulders on which you stand? Who modeled discipleship for you? Let us give thanks for each of these disciples who came before us in the faith.
And who will see and experience your discipleship and follow in your footsteps? That’s your reward—to be a link from the past to the future, to pass on what you have received. If the Church is not growing, is it because we are not offering that cup of cold water? What does a cup of cold water look like on Vashon? Is it a word of grace? I remember paying for my groceries late one afternoon at Thriftway, fumbling in my purse and apologizing for not finding my debit card quickly enough when the cashier offered me a cup of cold water by saying, “Stop. You don’t need to apologize for anything. You are just fine the way God made you.” I left feeling refreshed. An act of kindness, a word of forgiveness, an offer to help, the gift of hospitality, an invitation to worship—all cups of cold water for the soul. The river of life is flowing through us. Who will you offer a cup of cold water to today?