Who is blessing whom?


A sermon preached on June 26th, 2011.

Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and 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.’  (Matthew 10:40 – 42)

There is something a bit confusing about this short passage.   Who is blessing whom? On one side Jesus speaks five times of a “whoever” – this anybody, anywhere, who is willing to go out of their way to provide hospitality.

One the other side Jesus speaks of himself, a prophet, a righteous person, and finally one of the “little ones.”

As you know, my mother-in-law died two weeks ago.    She could have some hard edges to her, but she mellowed in old age. A few months ago the extended family was sitting around the dinner table, and my daughter Kate was getting hammered about what her plans were – and, what do you mean you don’t have any plans?!!

Kate was feeling pressured to figure out, NOW, what she was going to do with her life.  Grammy’s voice was the lone exception at the table.   “Kate,” she said softly, gently patting her hand, “take your time.  You’re great.  Do what ever your want.  Fear not, little one.”

Fear not, little one.  Kate remembers this expression often on the lips of her Grammy.  Fear not, little one.

Grammy used the term for her grandchildren, who, in spite of the fact that they were now grown up were still in her eyes her “little ones.”

Jesus uses the term “little ones” to refer to his ordinary disciples – folks like you and me.  It is a term that emphasizes our vulnerability — our frailty.

In the passage we heard, it is the “whoevers” who would seem to be doing the heavy lifting. All of the action verbs are associated with them.  The whoevers are the ones who go out of their way to offer hospitality to the little ones, whether by fetching the cup of cold water, or by opening their home, cooking supper, putting clean sheets on the guest bed and clean towels in the bathroom.

The “little ones” in the interactions conjured up don’t seem to be doing much of anything other than receiving.  So it might seem as though it is the “whoevers” who are acting to “bless” the servant of God.

But Jesus says that it is the “whoevers” – the one who welcomes the little one –  that receives the blessing, receives a reward.

Part of what Jesus is pointing to here is the fact that although we tend make sharp distinctions in our minds in regards to the person who is the giver, and the person who is the receiver, in reality the lines between giving and receiving get blurred.  The giver receives and the receiver gives.

Think for instance of the experience we’ve all had numerous times in some form.  Perhaps I’m in my yard, or out in public somewhere.   Lost, a wayfaring stranger stops to ask me for directions.  I know how to tell the person how to go to get to where they want to be and do so, and the person drives off.

On a superficial level, I was the giver and the lost person was the receiver, but on a deeper level I received as well, perhaps far more, because I was given an opportunity to make a real connection, however briefly, with another human being.  Perhaps my heart was softened a bit from the calcification that happens in the course of living in this world.  When I look back on my day, very possibly that little interaction is seen as the most gratifying thing that happened – the moment in the day in which I was reminded what really matters in life.

In the heart of God – and in the human soul that mirrors God’s heart – giving and receiving blur together as all part of the same holy fabric.

Now, it is important to take note of the fact that Jesus’ words in this particular instance aren’t addressed to the “whoevers.”  No, Jesus is addressing the disciples.  This is meant to be instructional for the little ones themselves — for you and me.

Many of us who seek to live Christian lives can be far more comfortable in the role of giver than we are in the role of receiver. We figure we’re supposed to be all about giving, which is true, but we’re also supposed to be all about receiving as well.

By calling us “little ones,” Jesus is using a term that emphasizes our inherent vulnerability.  Embrace your vulnerability, Jesus is saying.  Don’t go through life projecting an aura of invincibility.   Invincible people can’t receive.

Think about what is involved in friendship.  Friendship involves a give and take.

You can’t really have true friendship if you can’t let yourself be vulnerable with the person you would have as a friend.   The giving can’t just take place in only one direction.

It is true that some people aren’t very good at building friendships because they aren’t able to consistently give to the other, but it is also true that some people fail at friendship precisely because they can’t let themselves be vulnerable – can’t let themselves receive.

Those of us who are younger siblings often experience this problem in trying to relate to our elder siblings.  We’re not kids anymore – we’ve both adults, and perhaps we’re ready to forge an adult friendship with our elder siblings, but they (and this is especially true for the first born sibling) just can’t let themselves be vulnerable with us.

In this passage it is as if Jesus were saying, “You think that you have to be doing something to be a blessing – that you have to be ‘giving’  in some readily identifiable way.  What you don’t get is that your very presence is a blessing. Lo, I am with you always.  Trust this.  Fear not little ones.”

Mother Teresa once told a roomful of lepers how loved by God they were and how they were a “gift to the rest of us.”  Interrupting her, an old leper raised his hand, and she called on him.  “Could you repeat that again?” he said.  “It did me good.  So, would you mind… just saying that again.”

Those who show the rest of us how to embrace our vulnerability are a gift for the rest of us – a gift that can save us from the lie the world passes off on us that we don’t dare show our weakness.

Do you get it that your very presence is a blessing… that you are a gift to the rest of us?

When we get a hold of this idea, things begin to shift in the way we interact with the world.    We don’t have to pretend so much.   We don’t have to expend so much energy pretending to be invincible.  We don’t have to expend so much energy looking for something to do to prove our worth.  We are set free to receive the blessings others have to offer us.  AND people will more readily experience us as a blessing.

My experience interacting with other people is that when I succumb to the anxiety that says I must say something profound or do something helpful, I can’t really be present to another person.  When I begin to let go of that stuff, simply trusting the presence of Christ, the interaction goes to a deeper place. Oftentimes I come away feeling as though I’ve done most of the receiving, even as the person I’ve been with is thanking me, though nothing I said or did that was particularly noteworthy.  What matters was that I was present.

Joanne Rich gave a moment of gratitude a while back during which she recalled a story I told in a sermon on her very first visit to our church some 15 years ago.

That anybody would remember anything I said that far back in a sermon amazes me in itself, but the story she recalled involved this mystery of giving and receiving and simply being.

I described how years earlier at my first church I hit a patch where I felt particularly depleted and empty.   I came out of worship one Sunday morning feeling as though I had struck out, feeling exhausted — physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I lay down in my bed, but the problem was that at 3 p.m. I was due at the local nursing home to lead worship.  I didn’t want to go.  I wanted to stay in my bed with covers pulled up.  I didn’t think I had anything to give.

But I was obliged, and so I went.  Somehow, when I got there, I let go of the need to “be on” or “be inspiring” and simply shifted into this mode of being present WITH the old folks – the sense that we’re all in this vulnerable state called life together.  Their faces shown like the sun for me.   It was a blessed time, big time. I came away from there feeling restored, refreshed, centered.

It’s striking that Joanne remembered this particular story and recounted it.   The message she had received on her first Sunday here – conveyed not only in my story but also in the mutual presence of the folks she met here — was that this was a safe place to be vulnerable.   This was a place to both give and receive.

I want to finish with a story told by Gregory Boyle in his book Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion.  The book recounts Gregory’s life working as a Jesuit priest with gang members in Los Angeles.  He tells a story from the year he spent after he was first ordained serving in Bolivia.  He struggled to learn Spanish as he served a parish that had been without a priest for a long time.

A few weeks into his time there, Gregory was approached by a group of health workers who asked him to celebrate Mass to a community of indigenous people who lived up in the highlands harvesting flowers for market.   The health workers explained that the Quechua Indians had not seen a priest in a decade.

He agreed, and the workers picked him up in an open air truck at the bottom of a hill at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon to drive to the top of the mountain.  Midway up, Gregory decided to check the contents of his backpack, only to discover that he has failed to bring along the missalette – the book containing the words of the mass.  At this point early on in his priesthood, he couldn’t wing a Mass in English, let alone in Spanish.   All he has in a Spanish Bible, so he anxiously flipped through the pages trying to find pertinent passages that might sound like the words of consecration.  Soon he is sweating profusely.

They pull into a huge, open-air landing, a field cleared of all crops where hundreds of Quechua Indians were gathering around a makeshift altar.   Gregory stumbled and faked his way through the liturgy, feeling like someone who’s been in a major car accident.  He can’t remember a thing.

With his crib sheet of notes of stolen scriptural quotations, he would lift the bread and wine up in the air whenever he ran out of things to say.  It his mind it would have been hard to imagine the Mass going worse.

When the mass finally ended, Gregory felt spent and humiliated.  He wandered about, trying to gather his shattered self back together again, when a health worker walked an ancient Quechua woman up to him. “She hasn’t gone to confession in ten years.”

Going apart with the old woman, he listened for almost a half hour as she spoke in a dialect he couldn’t understand a word of, unloading decades worth of sins.  Gregory simply nodded, pretending to understand.  Finally she woman was finished, and he managed to communicate some penance and give her his memorized absolution.

As she walked away, Gregory discovers that he has been abandoned.  The field where we celebrated Mass has been vacated.  Inexplicably, even the truck and health workers are gone.

He stood alone at the top of this mountain, stuck without a ride, but in stultifying humiliation.  He was convinced that a worse priest had never visited this place or walked this earth.

With his backpack snug on his shoulder and his spirit deflated, he began making the long walk down the mountain and back to town.  But before has left the field, an old Quechua campesino appears — seemingly out of nowhere — making his way to him.  He appears ancient, his body weathered by work and the burden of an Indian’s life.  He was wearing tethered wool pants, with a white buttoned shirt, greatly frayed at the collar.  He had a rope for a belt.  His suit coat was coarse and worn.  He had a fedora toughed by the years.  He was wearing huaraches, and his feet were caked with Bolivian mud.  Any place that a human face could have wrinkles and creased, this old man has them.  He was at least a foot shorter than Gregory.

He stands right in front of him and said, “Tatai.”  This is Quechua for Padrecito, a word packed with caring, affection, and a charming intimacy.  He looked up at Gregory with penetrating, weary eyes and said, “Thanks for coming.”

Gregory tried to think of something to say, but nothing came.   Which is just as well, because before he could speak the old campesino reached into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieved two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals.  He stood on the tips of his toes and gestured that Gregory might assist with the inclination of his head, which he did.   The old man proceeds to drop the petals over his head.  When his hands were empty, the old man reached into his pockets again and managed two more fistfuls of petals.  He did this again and again, and the store of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seemed to fall forever. Gregory just stood there, letting him do this, staring down at his own mud caked shoes, now moistened with his tears, covered with rose petals.  Finally, the old man took his leave and Gregory was left alone, with only the bright aroma of roses.

We set out to give and find ourselves receiving.  We allow ourselves to receive, and we become a blessing.

Fear not, little ones.

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