Welcome One Another- Sermon for June 28, 2020 from Pastor John

Sermon for June 28, 2020

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         I was reading a story in the New York Times on Tuesday and it was about a man fully clothed in protective gear. You would not see his face since it was masked along with a face shield. He wore a white garment that completely covered his regular clothes. He even wore protective footwear. He looked like he was dressed totally and carefully for hazard duty. You might think he worked as a medical professional on the front lines of the covid-19 pandemic. He is not in the medical profession. You get a clue to his profession by an article of clothing he wears over his haz-mat outfit. It is a stole featuring a cross. The man is a priest, Father Eduardo Vasquez, who serves in the Philippines. The Title of the article is “A Priest Offers Blessings, Practically in Disguise.” Even his stole helps him in his work: it is two meters long, the right length to measure the six feet of social distance. Pictures show him at a funeral home praying for the dead. There is an interesting picture of a baptism. Instead of using his hands to administer the water of the Sacrament, the water is applied at a distance using a spray bottle.

The article explains why Father Vasquez goes around in protective gear. He is bringing the church to the poorest people who live in the slums. The priest said “Journalists, doctors, garbage collectors and undertakers were out doing their duties. It would be a big knock on the church if we don’t.” Father Vasquez has a nickname, Father Pon-pon, a word from a local dialect that means one who gathers things for the undesirable and the vulnerable. His bishop has called Father Pon-pon a “God-send” during the pandemic saying “his out-of-the-box pastoral responses make the poor know that they are cared for and loved by the church.” The priest said at one time early in his life he dreamed about becoming a businessman and wealthy but he changed his mind when he saw a poster with a question often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi saying, “Lord, what do you want me to do.”

Maybe you have had a similar question in your mind, “Lord, what is my purpose in life?” Or “Lord, How can I make a difference with my life?” I have heard people tell me “If I ever win the lottery I would donate to help feed the hungry or house the homeless or expand the work of the church. But what did the Lord Jesus say to his followers in the gospel reading, “Whoever gives 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.” In our society where it can be taught that money is the answer, Jesus talked about a simple act of kindness given to “one of the little ones”. Just who are the little ones? In a parable later in the gospel of Matthew Jesus talked about ministry to the “least of these” giving examples of the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the stranger, the sick, and the thirsty. A comment by Professor Gail Ramshaw sums up an important blessing of Jesus’ words, “We are a cup of cold water for one another.”

In Jesus’ parable about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger and tending the sick he said “as you did so to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters in need, you did so also to me.” Notice Jesus talked about ministering kindness to one person at a time. Notice as well Jesus said we meet him among the ones in need. In the gospel for today 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.” A word used repeatedly is “welcome”. Jesus told his disciples that anyone who welcomes you as you go out and proclaim the good news of the rule of God, also welcomes me, the one who sent you on a mission of good news; and more than that he or she welcomes God, the one who sent Jesus out of love for this world.

We are to welcome one another, support, encourage, and build up one another in our mutual work of being the church. Our baptisms proclaim the good news that we belong to God with a bond of love that will never be broken. Even when we sin God does not cancel the love revealed so clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. Belonging to God, we are all gifted by the Holy Spirit to be a blessing for the community. And so we must be that cup of cold water for one another. On a hot day, or when you have been working hard at your job of doing work at home, nothing is more refreshing that a cup of cold water. And so part of our calling as Christians, bearers of Jesus, is to refresh one another so we do not become discouraged and enthusiasm for the gospel dries up.

New York Times columnist David Brooks started something called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. He has gone around the country to find people and organizations that are weaving people together to support and care for each other. I think of our quilters who take pieces of cloth and tie them together to make a quilt which can provide warmth and comfort. He told the story of a woman named Lisa Fitzpatrick who was victim of gang violence. She was attacked by two boys, ages 10 and 11, one of whom shot her as part of gang initiation ritual. Certainly this was traumatic but fortunately she recovered. Although a victim of senseless violence, she realized the boys were victims too. She quit her job as a health-care manager and began working with gang members. She opened her home to young kids who might otherwise be tempted to join a gang. One Saturday afternoon she saw 35 kids hanging around her house. She asked why they were spending a lovely day at the home of middle-aged woman. They told her: “You were the first person who ever opened the door.” It is a quite a story that teaches the lesson of welcoming the estranged and unloved means leaving one’s comfort zone of non-involvement. So we must understand the importance of encouraging one another to use our gifts for as we often hear today “We are all in this together.” Together we are to weave a garment of God’s love that wraps around everyone. The trouble with being a follower of Jesus is that it does always mean comfort, a retreat from the world. We are not to give the cup of cold water only to ourselves. Jesus said he is among the least in the world, the sick, hungry, imprisoned, and the stranger. Jesus did not say retreat into the church and blame them or ignore them. Jesus calls us to welcome them, for in so doing we welcome him, and the gracious God who so loves the world.

The second reading for today came from the 6th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The chapter began with a meditation of the meaning of Holy Baptism. We are baptized into Jesus Christ, into his death and resurrection or as Paul wrote “therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Because of Jesus and living or walking with him, we have a new life. This new life means no longer enslaved or dominated by the power of sin. The power of sin leads to death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The word death used by Paul does not mean the natural end of life, but death to living our lives for others and the joy of knowing the free gift of God’s love, given to us by Jesus. The good news is that we live no longer under the dominion and doom of sin and death. Paul said we live under grace and the excitement of sanctification, a promise of the Holy Spirit working in our lives so we engage in the adventure of being that cup of cold water, the gift of refreshment for one another.

At the end of the letter to the Romans Paul wrote “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” There is fear in our nation as the covid-pandemic still is making many sick, some sick unto death. Jesus has welcomed us so we can minister to those who feel afraid, restricted, or shut-in by concern for catching the virus. May we reach out to them and help those who feel isolated so that they are not forgotten but befriended. We see that our city streets are filled with those protesting. We see many things we do not like—looting and vandalism. But may we not lose focus. Another pandemic, another disease, that of racism is still active in our nation. Christ has welcomed us so the church welcome whole-heartedly men and women and children of all races. To welcome others means we listen to one another and be fully aware of another’s pain. And may we offer that cup of cold water for those who thirst for justice and righteousness in our communities.

I began by telling the story of priest in the Philippines who faithfully donned the protective gear needed during the pandemic so he could minister to the forgotten, poor, the very least in the community. Someone said of him, “He is a good example of what a religious man should be.” In our baptisms we have been given the protective gear of grace, countering the infection of sin with forgiveness and newness of life. Living under grace, we can be good examples of religious people, not seeking our own glory, but the glory of God which is to minister to people in need, one at a time, with that simple cup of cold water. For as we help the least and needy, not treating them as ‘objects of charity” but truly welcoming them, we also welcome the Savior Jesus Christ.

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