Make Space For A Prophet In Your Heart
This has been another eventful week as we all move together toward Phase III of Rhode Island’s Reopening Plan. We’re see people on the street more, walking around and shopping in their face masks — mostly. And small groups are sitting in the newly created outdoor seating areas as the restaurants start to reopen. Our Emmanuel Reopening Planning Group has been meeting by Zoom every week, preparing to gather in person. Just like the Altar Guild’s work — washing and ironing the altar cloths and ordering wafers — is both ordinary and holy work, we know that God is in all the details as we plan hand sanitizing stations, mark out safe distances between people, and gather extra face masks.
We’re learning a new way of life — one that is safer during COVIDtide — however long that season lasts — and that protects all of us from a virus that we can’t even see until we see someone — a person — it has affected. Everything is so different now. We wear face masks and stand 6 feet apart. We have our temperatures scanned and answer health questions before eating in a restaurant — or — for the lucky ones among us — finally getting a haircut after four months. All this extra process is for a danger that we can’t even see.
We see nice weather, when we all can be outdoors now. We see people in small groups walking or sitting on the beach, or at restaurants, and we see the crisp blue sky over the Pell Bridge, and all the sails out in the harbor as the water glints and flashes like a thousand diamonds. Everything looks familiar — just right, fine — beautiful, even. It doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong. And sometimes I catch myself wondering, with all these new precautions, trainings, and warnings that have become a part of our lives so suddenly, all to guard against an invisible force when everything looks just fine — whether we really need all this preparation and concern.
But when I see someone — a person, or a whole family — that COVID has affected — like a healthcare worker isolated from her family for four months to keep them safe as she works with critically ill patients, r a loved one who has died from COVID, then I know that it’s not all just fine out there, no matter how it looks. The coronavirus is real, and it affects all of us, even though we can’t see it until it causes devastating illness, economic shutdown, political division, and tears at the very fabric of our human family.
As we’ve moved toward reopening the church during this season of COVIDtide, we’ve also experienced the continuing race protests, funerals and memorial services for George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. The pandemic of systemic racism, like the coronavirus, is also difficult to see. It’s hard to detect in a system that is the very infrastructure of our society. We didn’t plan it, cause it, or even want it — none of us did. But we all inherited this foundational societal system — both those who have enjoyed its advantages — never realizing that those advantages didn’t result from hard work and luck — and those who will never see any luck at all no matter how hard they work.
Systemic racism is so familiar to us, so integral to our experience and society, that it’s as invisible to us as water is to a fish. It’s just the environment we breathe and swim in — the world as we’ve always known it, that we inherited and didn’t plan or cause or ask for. But systemic racism, just like COVID, is also excruciating to watch once we do see it and how it affects a person. We recognize that it tears at the very fabric of our human family.
Jesus tells us that in Matthew’s gospel today. He’s talking about empathy. He’s talking about sharing pain and seeing — really seeing — how life affects other people, and responding to that pain just like you would if it happened to your own loved one. Jesus is talking about really seeing others — how their lives are — and caring about that just like you would for your own family. Or for Jesus himself. Because we are all connected. 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.
In the name of is a Semitic expression meaning because one is. So here’s what Jesus is saying:
-whoever welcomes a prophet BECAUSE that person is a prophet…
-whoever welcomes a righteous person BECAUSE that person is righteous…
-and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones BECAUSE HE IS A DISCIPLE OF MINE is really seeing that other person — as a prophet, as a righteous person and is truly being a disciple.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel remembers that Jesus repeated this one idea THREE TIMES here. When repetition happens in scripture, it’s usually because the idea is really important and also difficult to do or believe or see. Here’s what Jesus says:
- Welcome a prophet BECAUSE he is a prophet. Prophets can be a royal nuisance. They point out things you don’t want to
see and tell you things that you don’t want to hear. Remember Mary June Nestler’s great sermon last week about Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Welcoming a prophet BECAUSE he or she is a prophet is a real commitment and means that you’re open to change, and ready to see that the way you know and the way things have always been may need to change. Prophets point out where you might have missed something in how you understand things.
- Welcome a righteous person BECAUSE he is righteous. If you can recognize someone who is righteous, and welcome that view into your life, even when that view is different from yours, you’ve left space for new ways of thinking, seeing, and hearing. You’ve left space for God to open your heart and to change you.
- Give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones. What’s the point of this phrase? Hospitality is at the very root of our Christian faith. Remember that the word hospitality in Greek is philoxenia — literally the love of the stranger. It’s interesting that in Swahili, for example, mgeni means both stranger and guest. Welcoming someone into your life and into your home — like welcoming a prophet or even just a righteous person — can disrupt your life. What if one came to your house today? Do you have a guest room? An extra bed? Maybe a pull-out couch in the living room? What do prophets eat, for goodness sake, and how much? Remember John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. Do they even have locusts in the Middle Eastern section at Stop and Shop? And he wore camel skin clothes — surely that sheds even more than a Labrador. The point is that Jesus knows that none of this is easy. Having a prophet around — or even a righteous person — could become costly to more than just weekly grocery budget. You could have to change your long-set point of view and way of life.
But then Matthew’s Jesus says this: If you give even a cup of cold water — the smallest, easiest, and least costly way there is to show hospitality — the love of the stranger — to one of these little ones, you will not lose your reward. Jesus is telling us that he knows it’s difficult, but loving the stranger — seeing the humanity in others and having empathy for their experience just like we would for our own loved ones — is the very heart of following him.
I was listening to one of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcasts last week as I was walking in the early morning when she described the paradox of story, and I found it helpful: the more particular we get in telling our stories — the more individual and personal they are — the more likely they are to be interesting and relatable to others. It’s the particular parts of our stories — the unique parts that show our individual experience — that connect us to each other as human beings. That interconnection is our grace in these days — the presence of Jesus among us, the holy potential in our Christian love of the strange.
Is this easy and comfortable? Jesus knows it’s not. Having a prophet around can be a royal pain. But if we leave space — maybe make up the bed in the guest room of your heart for a prophet, a righteous person, or a little one. When we leave that space, we have room for seeing the world in a new way, and for loving the stranger as our guest. Amen