Listen to the sermon HERE.
Last week, a number of us from Holy Trinity joined others from the Diocese of New York to participate in the LGBT Pride March. We carried our banner that says “Room for Everyone,” and we were met with cheers and waves the whole way of the march. Even though it wasn’t as hot as in some years, we were grateful to pass several churches where volunteers were waiting for us. At First Presbyterian, Ascension Episcopal, and Marble Collegiate, volunteers greeted us in the street with cups of water. It was a simple but profound gesture of hospitality.
I don’t know about the history of this water ministry at the Church of Ascension or Marble Collegiate, but I remember in the 1980s when First Presbyterian offered its “water table” and some people in the church did not like it. Remember this was the 1980s. A common reaction to AIDS was a combination of ignorance and fear. And many in that church (as with many others) were very much still recovering from a lifetime of bad theology and narrow biblical interpretation. Some felt that even to offer water was, in some sense, a gesture of support for those marching. Others simply took out their bibles, pointed to Matthew 10 and said, “This is what God’s love looks like.” and it can send a multitude of signals.
Offering a cup of water can seem like a small, even tiny, or insignificant thing. Today’s scriptures talk about small things, little things—like offering water, showing hospitality, and looking out for those Jesus refers to as “the little ones.”
When Jesus refers to “the little ones,” he’s not looking down on anyone. “Little” should not be heard as a pejorative or a criticism. It’s not meant to be a put down, but instead, “the little ones” are the ones on the outside, the ones trying to get on their feet, aiming to stand up for themselves, and elbow into a little space so that they, too, can join others at the banquet of God’s love.
In our first reading, Jeremiah is on the side of the “little ones.” The first reading is a part of a longer story that involves Jeremiah and another prophet, a rival prophet named Hananiah. The looming threat is the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah predicts doom and gloom; Hananiah predicts peace and prosperity. Jeremiah is following the longer tradition of prophets, suggesting that if the people of Judah had been more faithful to God, if they had been less self-consumed and thought about others, if they had remembered God’s commandments and kept faith with God, then God would save them. And they would not be in such a mess.
Jeremiah describes how bad things have gotten:
They have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, …they do not defend the rights of the needy. (Jeremiah calls it like he sees it.)
Hananiah, on the other hand, preaches peace. All is well and all shall be well, he says. Don’t worry, things are getting better on their own—you don’t need to change, you don’t need to do a thing—God is coming to you with peace and blessing.
Hananiah offers big words. He gives big ideas and big promises. Comparatively, Jeremiah’s words are insignificant. Jeremiah and his words are regarded as small things, inconsequential, unimportant.
But small things are sometimes the most important. It is sometimes the smallest thing that, in the end, matters the most. Think of Moses who sees a flicker of flame on a bush. He stops to look, and it blazes into the Word of God, and that Word changes his life for ever. Think of the children of Israel, who before the Passover are told to make a small mark over the doorpost of each house—a small mark of blood, but a small mark that saves them and their children. Think of David, the smallest of his clan, who eventually becomes the greatest king in the land; and the pattern repeats itself again and again. Small things are important.
The Gospel today also talks about the importance of small things. Jesus says, “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.” Jesus has been talking about what it means to be a disciple, about how the disciples should go about their ministry—what they will encounter and how they should respond. The “little ones” should not be ignored or mistreated. These “little ones,” as Jesus calls them, should be shown hospitality, they should be regarded with charity, and a hope that good might come to these little ones. But who are these “little ones” Jesus is talking about?
The “little ones” are mentioned elsewhere. Especially in chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, when the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest among them might be, Jesus places a child in front of them and says, “become like these children.” Whoever humbles the self like a little child will come to know the kingdom of God. But then he cautions them, saying, “But woe to the one who causes one of these little ones who believes in me to stumble.” The “little ones” here refers both to the children and to those who are young in their faith, to those who have a childlike heart and a childlike trust; a childlike love of God and other people.
Certainly, the children are among the “little ones.” Children in the ancient Near East were often viewed as less than human. They were thought to have little or no value until they could work, until they could produce, until they could add value to the family or clan. But Jesus points to the value of every life, even when it is the small, as-yet-very-much-lived life of a child.
The disciples and young believers are also among the little ones. Jesus shows tremendous patience with his disciples as they struggle to understand what he’s teaching. Scripture shows the disciples missing the point or jumping to the wrong conclusion again and again.
But in addition to children, the disciples and those who are spiritually young, I think Jesus follows the other prophets in expanding the notion of little ones beyond just those who have a childlike faith. When Jesus encourages his hearers to offer a cup of water, to look out of the little ones, I think he’s also saying something about our own role in looking out for others.
The scriptures ask us today, “who are the little ones in our midst?” Are we willing, are we able, to offer the little ones in our midst, the encouragement, the nourishment, the “cup of water” they need?
We can ask ourselves who the “little ones” are in our midst.
Certainly there are children. If you come by Holy Trinity on a weekday during the school year, you’ll hear the laughter and excitement of the Merricat’s Castle School. That school grew out of Holy Trinity, and we’re proud of that history. But is it enough for us, as a church, to simply ride on the coattails of Merricat’s and call that enough for the children in our neighborhood? Families continue to move in our area, and even though they may only live here for a few years before moving elsewhere, we need to ask what it would look like for us to “offer a cup of water” to the literal “little ones” in our midst. Perhaps Sunday morning is not the most convenient or logical time for those with children to look for programs or fellowship. But we must do more to pray and think about our hospitality of families and children in our neighborhood.
As we’ve seen, the “little ones” Jesus says to look out for are not always little. Almost every Sunday we have young adults who visit Holy Trinity. Some return and some are simply ducking in and ducking out. While we should never heap expectations on visitors, are we doing enough to welcome? Can we do more.
In addition to children and young people, we have a number of people who are “young in the faith.” They are new to the Christian faith or new to the Episcopal Church. While we offer occasional classes here and there, but do we do anywhere near what we might in terms of encouraging and nurturing those “little ones”?
And finally there are some older “little ones” among us—parishioners and neighbors who have lived in this neighborhood for years and some who have just arrived. Some are here temporarily and others are hoping they’ll be able to continue affording to live here. What would it look like for us more fully to “offer a cup of cold water?”
Jesus says that our welcome of the “little ones” is related to our welcome of him. If we receive Christ, if we invite Jesus into our lives, then that welcome extends to those whom Jesus calls his children, his own little ones.
As we look toward the celebration of Independence Day, there is always a temptation to wave the flag in celebration of triumph and success. And while there is much to celebrate and give thanks for, there are still too many who are left out.
In the back of the Prayer Book there’s a Thanksgiving for National Life that ends with words that might guide both our parish and our country. The prayer concludes:
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 839)
May God strengthen us to be faithful in following the risen Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.