Sunday, June 28, 2020
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Open and Affirming Sunday
"A Cold Cup of Water"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
The Gospel of Matthew is a pretty “heady” text. Often referred to as “the most Jewish of the gospels,” its writer quite deliberately connected Jesus’ teachings with commonly accepted rabbinic thought. The gospel is broken up into 5 distinct sections known as discourses. The first discourse primarily consists of Jesus’ teaching – with its focus being the Sermon on the Mount and his teaching on prayer culminating in what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” The second discourse – a brief portion of which we read today – is often called the Missionary Discourse with its emphasis on action – specifically to go out and teach others the love of God in word AND in deed.
I’ll leave description of the other three discourses for another Sunday, but I do want us to pay attention to the important transition the writer makes in describing Jesus’ ministry based on solid teaching and how it must move to compassionate action like offering one of the “little ones” a cup of cold water. It’s a small gesture, but it communicates care, acceptance, and welcome. The teaching and challenge prompt the obvious question – how do we do that today? How do we live this gospel imperative to welcome another in Jesus’ name? What does it mean to offer a “cup of cold water” in our setting? [Pause]
The other day on our KCC Zoom chat, I was told of a ministry of the Episcopal Church on Maui that takes its name from this passage. A Cup of Cold Water is a ministry of meeting those in need on the streets – by offering water, toiletries, and towels, as an expression of compassion and welcome. I was delighted to hear of that outreach of the church as an essential ministry, but I want US to ponder how WE are offering an “intentional welcome,” or what we have referred to as “radical hospitality,” in our church today?
I realize this may raise some frustration and seem like an impossible task in light of our current pandemic – where we are constantly being reminded to stay at home – stay 6 feet apart – and wear a mask, but maybe this is an opportune moment to think about what we might do when we return to church, and perhaps more importantly, how we might embody “aloha,” “welcome,” “hospitality” when we are NOT there.
For Jesus, welcome was an outreach ministry. To offer a cold cup of water was not thought of initially as something you did “at church.” No, he was sending people OUT – to offer love and compassion, and his radical message of hospitality – in the streets, in homes, and in the marketplace. But folks were reluctant even then.
You may remember, it was in the preceding chapter of Matthew where he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” In other words, get out and go! There is so much love that needs to be given. There is so much that needs to be done. There are so many who need to hear of God’s love, who need that cup of cold water – right now.
But as I mentioned to those on the Zoom call the other day – this is sometimes easier said than done. Offering love or being offered love sometimes stretches us further than we are willing to go and is sometimes met with unexpected resistance or consequences.
Today is called “Open and Affirming” Sunday in our United Church of Christ. Open and Affirming (or ONA) in our denomination is an initiative of the church which helps individual congregations examine their ministry of welcome to determine whether members of the congregation are doing everything they can to offer hospitality to all who enter our doors regardless of race, class, gender, physical ability, or sexual orientation to name just a few. ONA’s main focus has been on the sexual orientation aspect of welcome, but its purview is much broader and that is particularly important for our day as we conclude a month that has celebrated the rights of GLBTQI persons, as well as persons of color. But I want to share with you my personal experience on the importance of welcome. This is not easy for me to do, but I want you to know how important this is based on my own experience.
I was unable to come to grips with my sexual orientation until I was in my late 30s and early 40s. The desire to have it all: my family, my marriage with a woman I loved and based on vows that I treasured, my kids, and a pastorate where I was thriving all prevented my being honest with myself and others until it nearly tore me apart.
Following years of therapy, marriage counseling, and the realization that I had to allow God to love me for who I am rather than what I wanted others to see, I decided I had to come out to my wife and family and then to my congregation. Not to do so was killing me. To hide was to lie to myself and others. If I was not willing to risk being real and honest with others – how in the world could I expect others to be real and honest with me? I thought my church would be safe place to begin since ours was an open and affirming congregation.
My announcement, that I made at a congregational meeting following a worship service on Epiphany Sunday, was initially met with affirmation – in fact, applause. But it took only a few days before fear began to grip many in the church, and the reality of what this all meant. I was soon accused of deception, and the idea that their high-profile minister would be going through a divorce while coming out as a gay man was more than many in the congregation could bear. Calls for my resignation quickly followed, and I was soon asked to leave.
It was a horrible moment in my life and career. I thought by telling the truth – my truth – I was doing the right thing, but I quickly learned that truth-telling is sometimes too difficult for others to hear – even in the church. I was no longer living up to their expectations – or projections.
I don’t fault the church for how things turned out. I understand the dilemma – now, but at the time I needed their support and to live into their proclamation as an open and affirming congregation – one that welcomes all, loves all, accepts all – as we say in ours. What I needed was their care in offering a cold cup of water, but that was not possible at the time.
The decision to invite me to leave split the congregation. Remember, even Jesus predicted this would occur when it comes to discipleship. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” And “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Some wanted me to stay and fight, but I had neither the stomach, strength, nor the desire to do that. It was clearly best for me to leave. They had their work to do and I had mine. And so, I left and took employment in the for-profit sector for about a year and a half before I was ready to try church once again.
I tell you this not for pity or to cast aspersions on this former congregation. I still have a great deal of respect for that church. It is doing amazing work to this day. No, I share it to remind us all that the work that Jesus has called us to do is not always easy. It can, in fact, be very difficult and may not be received with gratitude. Extravagant welcome sometimes gets all tangled up with our biases and prejudices – ones that we may not even know we had. And then there are times when our welcome can be downright dangerous. [Pause]
It was 5 years ago – almost to the day that Dylan Roof walked into a bible study being held at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. They welcomed him with their cold cup of water. They invited him to pray with them – including him despite the fact that he looked nothing like them. They did what Jesus taught, and their hospitality cost them their lives.
Friends, the work we are called to do may take some strange twists and turns in our lives. At times it will be filled with joy and we may think we are on top of the world. At other times, we may feel like we have lost our way or our last friend. But the invitation is constant,
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of the little ones – they will gain their reward.”
There are many in our world today in desperate need of a cold cup of cold water. And there are many ways that we can offer that thirst-quenching gift to those in need. Let us do everything we can to be the church God has called us to be. Indeed, one that welcomes all, loves all, and accepts all for who they are. May we always be ready to offer a cold cup of water no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.