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You Never Know

A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

June 29, 2014

Psalm 89:1-8; Matthew 10:40-42

I read an essay recently by a minister who had returned to visit a congregation he had served a number of years before. It was a special event of some kind, a reunion perhaps. It is not an easy thing to do, as many of you are aware. In some respects Thomas Wolfe was right: “You can’t go home again.”

Next April, Janet and I will be returning to Baltimore to help our former church celebrate its 70th anniversary. I feel honored that of all their former pastors who are still living, they would ask me to preach on that Sunday morning. It will be good to see old friends and re-establish friendships that have been somewhat forgotten. After all – and this is hard to believe – when we return it will have been almost 29 years since we left there.

We’ve managed to keep up with a number of our friends from that area, mainly through Facebook. But, as you well know,  there’s nothing like being there,  shaking an old friend’s hand or giving or receiving a big hug…. having a face-to-face conversation with folks from long ago. On the occasions we’ve been able to do that before, it always seems just like yesterday when we were all together. We’ll share stories and show pictures of family. You know how it is; reunions are like that.

So we’re looking forward to doing it, and have decided to make a fairly extended road trip out of it… take a couple of weeks, perhaps, and see some old haunts along the way. Yet, it isn’t going to be easy. You see, we’ll run into some folk we don’t remember… folk who will, however, remember us.

And that’s the rub. It can make for an awkward situation. To make it even more bothersome, there will be someone who will inevitably ask us the dreaded question: “Do you remember me?” Not only have I had people do that to me before, but sometimes they even put their hand over their name tag so I won’t be able to cheat. I try to lighten the awkward moment by telling them that I remember their name but have forgotten their face… but it doesn’t really help.

You’ll pray for us at the appointed time, won’t you?

Back to the minister who wrote the essay about the return trip to his former church… A woman came up and in gushing tones told him and everyone within earshot that he had personally changed her life, turned it around, and enabled her to be set back on the right path to God. She made quite a show of it, evidently letting her demonstration be a measure of the gratitude she was feeling toward her former pastor. Unfortunately, he could not recall her nor what he had done that caused her to offer such a lavish and effusive testimony. She was obviously crushed at the knowledge that he did not remember her, and in the essay he beat himself up pretty badly over it.

I think he should not be quite so hard on himself. After all, we – none of us – never know how or when we might influence the thinking or doing of someone else. It might even be, in the biblical sense, the entertaining of angels unaware (Hebrews 13:2). You just never know when someone might observe what you do or hear what you say, and because of that simple little encounter their lives are remarkably changed.

You just never know.

Jesus says it can be as simple a thing as offering someone a cup of cold water. The context for his remark, recorded in the passage from Matthew’s gospel we read a bit earlier, has to do with his instructions to the disciples about how they are to conduct their missionary journeys. He’s telling them it’s not an easy world out there, and they will encounter all kinds of various responses to the message they are being sent to share. “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” he tells them.

They had no earthly idea.

Not only that, he puts some pretty restrictive rules on how they are to go about doing this. Proclaim the good news, he tells them. Oh, and while they’re going about doing that, they are also to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, and while doing so take no payment – no gold or silver – for their services. They’re not even to put any change in their pockets. Don’t carry a bag or take any extra clothing or shoes, Jesus instructs them. Be willing to work for what you eat.

That’s all. That’s all. That’s all?

“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” No doubt.

Lest we be tempted to think this is a first-century issue that has nothing to do with us, perhaps it is best that we consider this: our world is still filled with wolves. Iraq is falling apart… again. Egypt isn’t much better, condemning people to death for “crimes” that over this way would, at the most, result in a slap on the wrist, if even that much. In Sudan, a woman was sentenced to be hanged because she converted from her father’s Muslim faith to the Christian faith of her husband. As I understand it, she has been freed, but only after some fairly intense political pressure was applied. Even with that, she and her family have been kept from leaving the country. The latest word is they have sought refuge in the American embassy. So who knows what is in store for them.

And let’s not even get started on Iran.

Before we get all cocky and start thinking that the way we do things over here is so far superior to other nations, we need to consider that we have our blind spots too. If some politicians got their way, our culture might start resembling the Middle East in some very uncomfortable aspects. And consider that since the Sandy Hook massacre, which a couple of would-be office-holders here in Arkansas are denying ever happened (can you imagine?!), there have been close to eighty – count ’em, eighty – school shootings. And that is since Sandy Hook, which took place just a year-and-a-half ago.

No, we have nothing to gloat about. It is into a world like this that Jesus sends out his followers to minister in his name.

“In a world as broken and fragmented as ours,” Craig Kocher says, “a simple act of kindness, a welcome to a stranger, a little genuine hospitality can be downright dangerous.” And that’s true right here in the Bible Belt, even in our very own neighborhood. Used to be, it was safe to pick up hitchhikers. How many of you have done that lately?

“In a world where people are attacked in their own homes,” Kocher says, “answering the doorbell becomes an act of faithfulness. Offering directions to a lost traveler provokes second thoughts… Mumbling hello to a stranger on a crowded street may seem odd. A little airplane flight to visit… friends can be nerve-racking; a bomb may be aboard… In this kind of world, a world of walls and barriers, violence and loneliness, Christian hospitality becomes a prophetic act.”1

A bold, and often dangerous act, too. To us, the word “hospitality” implies coffee and donuts for Sunday school, a polite reception in the parlor with cake and punch, as we had last Sunday. To Jesus, it meant far more than that. It meant acceptance, even to those who, in his society and in his day, were deemed to be unacceptable… which is why he put his arms around lepers, ate with tax collectors and sinners, forgave adulterers, and broke Sabbath laws. Hospitality was not only important to Jesus, it was at the very heart of being like God. And it didn’t make any difference to him where such hospitality took place, or to whom, or on what day.

The word hospitality is not used in this specific passage of scripture, but I do believe that is what is being conveyed by what Jesus tells his disciples. As is true of many expressions in the Greek, the language of the New Testament, it is a combination word: philoxenia. Philo you might recognize. It comes from the word philos, and it means brotherly love… as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Xenia is the name of a city too; this one in Ohio. But before that, it was the Greek word for “stranger.” Put them together and hospitality, or philoxenia, means “love of stranger.” It is not an easy word by which to live in our day and age, even in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Xenia, Ohio… or Little Rock, Arkansas.

Hospitality is a belief rooted deeply in Hebrew scripture. And do you want to know why? It is because Abraham, the father of Jesus’ people, had, at one time, been a stranger and an alien too… called by his God to wander into a land that was not his own. It is because God’s people, the Israelites, were strangers and aliens those four centuries in Egypt. It is because, once they escaped the grasp of Pharaoh, and after wandering in the wilderness forty years, they finally came into a promised land that was not their own. They knew what it was to be strangers and aliens in someone else’s backyard.

Knowing what it feels like to be treated as aliens, the chosen people of God – not without God’s urging, of course – said that if given the opportunity to welcome the stranger in the camp, they would do it. And they would do it, not begrudgingly, but with a smile on their face and a gladness in their hearts. Needless to say, as with everything he did, Jesus took that whole idea to a wholly new and higher level. And he bids you and me to do the same.

A minister had gone through the difficulty of boarding an airliner for an important trip. If you’ve flown any time in the last few years, you know what a burden it can be… the scrutiny, the invasion of privacy, total strangers with no smiles whatsoever on their faces going through your personal belongings, looking at you – even if you’re holding the hand of a small child – as if you could be the next terrorist who shows up on the front page of the newspaper. You finally get to board the plane where you discover that the overhead bin space above your seat has already been taken by someone sitting several rows behind you, and you needed that space because you’ve already had to pay extra for the privilege of bringing it on board. Even the smell of the plane’s cabin can be unpleasant.

On this particular day, this minister had endured all that when he finally and wearily sat down in his assigned seat. It was then that he discovered he was sitting next to Mother Teresa. Yes, that Mother Teresa. Before he had an opportunity to introduce himself, she put out her hand and said, “Hello, I am Agnes Bojaxhiu. But you can call me Teresa.” And again, before he had a chance to say anything in return, she asked, “Who are you and what do you do that makes a difference?”

Judging from his response to the question, going through the difficulty of making that flight was worth it because it made for a life-changing experience. Not only did he meet one of the most famous and influential people in the world, but he brought from that encounter a most searching and enlightening question… one that I put to you today in light of Jesus’ sending out his disciples as sheep in the midst of wolves. When you go out to face the world in which you live, who are you and what do you do that makes a difference?

Now, before you consider yourself too insignificant to even answer that question, look at the ones Jesus is commissioning. There’s not an extraordinary person in the group. You know who they are… fishermen and tax collectors, zealots and nobodies. After thinking about that, consider this, if you will: no one in the history of the world has changed things more than Jesus of Nazareth. Are we agreed on that? After all, if that weren’t true we would not be here today. Yet, if it had not been for the disciples’ doing exactly what Jesus told them to do in spreading the message of their Lord and Savior, we might never have heard of Jesus at all. At most he would have been some vague, incidental reference in an ancient history book that today’s scholars would probably find some reason not to believe. Think of what kind of world this would be today if that had been the case.

So don’t sell yourself short when it comes to the possible impact you can make on someone else, if for no other reason than Jesus refuses to sell you short. It’s incredible to think about it this way, but it is true: he did not hesitate to leave his ministry – what he gave his life literally for – in the hands of those simple folk who had committed themselves to him. And if he can be believed, he will not hesitate to leave his legacy in our hands as well.

You never know who you might sit down next to on an airplane. You never know what conversation you might have with someone that changes that person’s life. You never know who is observing what you are doing at any given moment. You never know who is accepting that cup of water from you, and what impact it might be having on them. You never know what circumstance, or perhaps even a tragedy, that comes to you will shape your destiny and that of others you encounter. You just never know.

But then again, maybe you do. Maybe you do. You see, when God is present in you, you can expect that God will use you. So if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll take issue with the title of today’s sermon. You do know, yes you do. You know, because when you do it in Jesus’ name, you do it for him. And that leaves you in pretty good hands, don’t you think?

Lord, we know that you will guide us in all we do. We know that we are not left to walk this journey of faith alone. We know that you are with us. That much we know. Now, may we be You to all those we meet… in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Notes

1Pulpit Resource, “Risky Business,” Vol. 33, No. 2: Year A, p. 55.