The Rev. Sarah Buteux
July 2, 2017
Before worship began last Sunday a man came to the door of the church on crutches needing help. Ernie welcomed him in and made him comfortable before he set off to find me and let me know we had a guest. As soon as I heard, I went up, offered him a cup of cold water – (because that’s just what you do, I swear I hadn’t read ahead in the lectionary) and I sat down for a few minutes to hear his story.
This is not an unusual occurrence here at First Churches. We are a downtown church, after all, and I’m thankful to say that church still means something to people, especially when they’re down and out. Whether or not they are religious, people seem to feel a little safer in the shadows of a building like this one.
People eat on our steps, sleep in our doorways, and seek whatever help they can find here when the doors are open…and that’s how it should be. So like I said, sitting down with the man to hear his story before worship was not unusual.
What was unusual, however, was what he asked for. Most people have a story that involves needing a little money to get from here to there, but that’s not what (we’ll call him) “Eddie” wanted. He’d recently had surgery on his hips, he’d slept outside all night, and he was clearly exhausted and in a tremendous amount of pain. What he wanted was to get from here to the Franklin Medical center up in Greenfield, but he didn’t ask for money for a bus… he asked for a ride.
I told him I had to go and do worship, but I’d see if we couldn’t work something out. So of course all during worship – in between the singing and the preaching and the praying – I was scanning. I was looking around the sanctuary for people I could ask to do this, but from what I could see, everyone who was here last week would be going a very different direction after worship was over.
I was also here alone last Sunday. I didn’t have Andrew or Todd to back me up, and as a woman I knew I’d be taking an unnecessary risk if I went off alone in my car for a 30 minute drive north with a guy I didn’t know.
We got through coffee hour, Harriett – God bless her – bagged up all the leftover crackers so “Eddie” would have something to eat, and I was praying hard about what to do, when I saw H____, who I knew lived in Greenfield.
Now, I didn’t want to ask her to take him up by herself either, but I sketched out the situation as quickly as I could and said, “H___, if we could follow your car up in my car, I’d a. Actually know how to get to the Franklin medical center, and b. not be alone. Would it be too far out of your way to caravan with us?”
And H_____ was immediately happy to help. We pulled our cars around, got “Eddie” into the passenger seat, and began the drive up North. As we drove, he told me a little more about his story, but I could see how tired he was, so I told him it was ok to close his eyes and just rest. “You’re safe here,” I said.
Which was a little ironic given how much thought I’d been giving to my own safety. Hearing his story, though, I realized just how vulnerable and unsafe he was, and my heart went out to him. I felt really protective of this guy. “Just relax,” I said, “and we’ll get you where you need to be.”
So “Eddie” closed his eyes and I focused on following H___’s car and that’s when I saw the “Be the Church,” bumper sticker on her rear fender. It’s the same words that grace the cover of our bulletin:
Be The Church
Protect the environment
Care for the poor.
Fight for the powerless.
Share earthly and spiritual resources.
Enjoy this life.
I couldn’t help but smile. Here we were, fresh off a worship service where we’d talked all about the risks of following Jesus to the margins to help people on “the outside, the underside, the wrong side,” – right? – and together H___ and I were doing it. We pulled up to the emergency room entrance, helped “Eddie” out of the car, got him up on his crutches and blessed him on his way.
And then H___ and I turned to each other and we were both just vibrating with excitement. I told her about keeping my eyes on her bumper sticker the whole way up and she said, “We got to do it! We got to be the church.” We fell into each other’s arms with relief and joy…but more than anything else, I think what we felt was a deep, deep sense of gratitude.
We were grateful for each other, I know, but we were also grateful to “Eddie,” because he gave us the opportunity to put our faith into practice, to take a chance, to do something – however small – to help.
Because you know what? We really didn’t do all that much. As it turns out, I was on my way up to Maine and dropping him in Greenfield didn’t take me a minute out of my way. H___ just lives a few blocks from the hospital. It wasn’t hard for her either. The doing wasn’t the hard part.
The hard part was getting beyond all the little voices in my head. You all know the voices I’m talking about, right? The ones that make you wonder if the dollar you’re giving to the guy on the side of the road is really going to help him buy dinner.
The little voice that tells you not to make eye contact because the woman on the corner might fixate on you and cause a scene. The little voice that whispers that that person over there is not your problem, not your responsibility, not your brother or sister in Christ, and certainly not Jesus.
Those voices can be hard to ignore.
About a week I passed by a Latino man who has been pulled over by not one, not two, but three police cars … not two blocks from the church. I thought about stopping, but the little voices in my head told me to keep driving. “You’re already late,” they said…which wasn’t true. I’m almost never late.
“Ok,” they rationalized, “but if you stop you will be late and who knows, you might just make the situation worse,” which might have been true, I’ll never know. “And besides,” they continued, “You haven’t done any training around this sort of thing yet…you’re not ready…you’re not qualified.” And so I looked away, said a prayer for all involved, and kept right on driving.
Sometimes I give money to people on the street and at the traffic lights and sometimes I will actually take a longer way home to avoid them. Sometimes, when people ask me for money I lie and say I don’t have any cash, when I do and sometimes then ask, even if I don’t have any money, I take the time to go and buy the person lunch anyway and then I sit down and to talk with them for awhile.
I don’t tell you these stories so you’ll think I’m good any more than I tell you these stories so you’ll know I’m not. I tell you all of this because the truth is that I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time and if I’m consistent about anything in my Christian walk, it’s my inconsistency.
I’m still learning to see Jesus in everyone, but whenever I do, he always manages to reach through and teach me something. I think that’s actually the beauty of our passage today.
We’re at the end of the missionary discourse in Matthew that we were talking about last week. These are Jesus’ last words to the disciples before he sends them out to share the good news and heal the sick. But these final words we have before us today are not so much for the disciples as they are for those who will hear the disciples and hopefully open both their hearts and their homes to them.
To that end, Jesus says that if you welcome his disciples it is the same thing as if you welcomed him. Receive them as prophets, he says, receive them as righteous, receive them as you would receive me, and you will be rewarded.
And then he tacks on this little line at the very end, “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.”
Now, there’s some discrepancy amongst scholars about who those little ones are. Some think the little ones are synonymous with these same disciples. After all Jesus sent them out with no food or money, no shoes or change of clothes, no walking sticks for support or protection. He sent them out with nothing but the clothes on their backs, totally dependent upon the hospitality and kindness of strangers.
In which case, it’s makes perfect sense that Jesus would tell people to receive them with kindness back then. They would have needed it. And the people who offered it would have been blessed by their teaching and healing power. But it’s a little hard to know what we’re to do with these verses now since we rarely have opportunities to care for itinerant disciples.
Others think that the little ones are those on the margins for whom Jesus is always concerned, the very people the disciples have been sent out to teach, heal, and help. If this is the case then we become the disciples and we still have plenty of people to care for.
But the more I’ve thought about it this week, the more I think it doesn’t really matter if the little ones are those we should care for because they have come to share God’s good word with us or those we should care for simply because they need our care. I don’t think it needs to be one or the other.
I think the real point is that we are to see Jesus in everyone, period.
We are to see Jesus in those who go out to make God’s love and justice real in the world – including ourselves – and we are to see Jesus in those who are most in need of that love and justice being realized.
Jesus is present in everyone – so we should not only seek to love and care and help all those around us as if they were Jesus, but recognize that everyone – no matter how down and out they might seem – has something to teach us and the power to heal us.
Even those who think they have nothing left to give can help us to get outside of ourselves. They can heal us of our sense of superiority or lack of compassion.
They might just have the kind word you’ve been thirsting for or the word from God you most need to hear. I don’t know. All I know is that we all have the power to help one another – thank you Jesus – and we are all in a position to learn from one another, because God works through all of us.
John Ruskin once said: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”
I think in the end, “Eddie” helped H______ and I more than we helped him. God taught me something in that interaction, gave me a chance to become a little more loving, a little more daring, a little more trusting, and gave H____ and I something to bind us together in a deeper relationship with God and one another.
Last week I talked about how very hard and complicated it can be to follow in the way of Jesus. This week I want to say that it can also, sometimes, be really straightforward and simple. Sometimes as simple as offering a ride or a cup of water or a little kindness. Sometimes as simple as doing the next right thing – however small it might be – and seeing just how much we can learn in the process.