We hear this morning in the lessons from Genesis and Matthew that children hold a remarkable place in God’s vision for the world. Through one child, God will fulfill the promise of the covenant to Abraham, and yet that promise seems jeopardized. In the gospel we hear Jesus, once a child himself, telling his disciples that ministering to any little one is as important as both receiving a prophet and welcoming a righteous person. We may be asking ourselves, what is it about children that make them so important?
Jesus tells his disciples that if someone welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet they will receive a reward, that is, they will be like a prophet — God will speak through them.
Likewise, receive someone righteousness in the name of a righteous person and you will receive the reward of the righteous.
Finally, Jesus says, if you give even something as insignificant as a cup of cold water to one of “these little ones” in the name of a disciple, you too “will not lose you reward.” Jesus is less than clear about what that reward is. And, whether he’s gesturing to children in the audience, or speaking figuratively is also unclear.
And yet, this wouldn’t be the first time that Jesus had spoken of about either the young, or those who are vulnerable. Nor is it the first time we’ve heard him say that the young are important. What we need to see now is why such people are important to him.
For Jesus, children are not simply vital for the well-being a community. Nor is it the case that Jesus thinks that the young or vulnerable are more important than anyone else. Nor does he indicate that they are important simply because they are young or vulnerable.
Rather, children — helpless, vulnerable, and insignificant, at least to the powers of the world — are symbolic; they reveal something central about his kingdom.
What Jesus’s enigmatic statement about rewards says is that caring for little ones in his name is as important as caring for a messenger from God. Ponder that for a moment. Caring for a little one is just as important as showing hospitality to a prophet, or righteous person, or dignitary.
Jesus repeatedly tells his followers and anyone else who will listen that the vulnerable are a sign of the work that God is doing amongst his people. Jesus doesn’t build an empire, he doesn’t curry favor in Rome or Jerusalem, and he certainly doesn’t dine with the elite. Rather, he spends time with the young and vulnerable.
And he suggests that when his disciples care for the vulnerable in his name that that’s like evidence that God is blessing the world.
The message is succinct and Jesus doesn’t mince words: caring for little ones, both children and the outcast, is central to the task of being Christ to the world.
Here at St. David’s, we’ve been blessed with many opportunities to care for little ones. We tend to our own children as parents and friends; and we minister to little ones in Sunday school programs and the day school. We minster to the vulnerable through our work in places like Paul’s Place, the Hamden family center, and Keswick Multicare Center, and participating in events like the Fiesta 5K. Many of us actively support people through these ministries, and this is wonderful. This is as it should be.
But lest we assume that this passage only calls us to action on behalf of the little ones, I want to ask you to reflect a little more deeply on how Jesus’ words might also apply to us.
Think for a moment: yes, we are disciples, but how are we also the little ones that Jesus speaks of?
What might it mean to think of yourself as a little one?
How are you vulnerable or in need of that drink of water?
Are you willing to receive assistance in the name of a disciple?
At one time, you literally were a little one. Perhaps you were baptized as a child. I hope that as a young believer in the way of Jesus Christ you benefited from the church’s ministries. You learned from others, and benefited from their grace and wisdom.
Yet as time goes on, it’s easy for us to become engaged in acts of service, but forget to refresh ourselves or accept refreshment.
I often need to be reminded that I am not yet done growing. This particular lesson is hard for me, not only as a Christian of some years, but also as a parent who is often preoccupied with the growth of my own children. I need to be reminded that God offers me a cup of water through God’s disciples.
That refreshment might mean a hand on the shoulder, someone to listen to us, pray with us, or offer us wise advice. There’s hardly a season of life that we don’t need these acts of grace from each other.
Receiving that cup of water might initially mean participation in things like Bible study, Confirmation, the Sacraments Sunday School Class, and informal conversations with folks after Church. And it’s good that we continuing to grow and develop in the faith in these ways.
For others, receiving that cup of water could involve immersing ourselves more deeply in our parish community, learning how to think of ourselves corporately. St. Paul likens the church to a body, of which each of us is like an appendage, an arm or an eye. We can’t be like Christ on our own. We need each other.
For others still, we might consider participating in a deeper discernment of God’s calling for our lives. God calls each and every one of us to a unique vocation. And we need each other to discern what our callings look like.
God knows our limitations, our vulnerabilities. Jesus Christ experienced them himself when he became human. And he gave us each other as his body as a way of growing amidst those vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Whatever it might mean to accept that cup of water from a disciple, I challenge you today to reflect on the ways in which the church offers you refreshment, to seek it out, and to accept it from each other with joy.
The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, 2017
St. David’s, Baltimore