We live in a confronting world!
If our own experience isn't enough to convince us of that, the many and various means of the media channel the most difficult aspects of our world right into the centre of where we live.
As if our own struggles and trauma and trials were not enough, we see the worst of strife, war, conflict, corruption and disaster every day. "Here," say the news editors, "be informed, shocked, be entertained by all this misery and terror."
Perhaps it serves to reassure us that our lives are not so bad by comparison, perhaps it serves some positive purposes - I'm not always so sure.
I think it's no wonder though, that we come to church, come into God's house, into the "God space" -looking for refuge from the world around us.
"Help" we want to get out of this nerve fraying reality, "help", we want the world to stop while we get ourselves together again, have our spirits recharged, and yes we could do with some help from God!
But the gospel today is one that confronts us with a call to action in the world! The words are addressed to disciples - to you and me and the whole Christian community. Rather than offering retreat, Jesus calls followers here to engagement with the world around us, calling us to be welcoming, to hospitality and to what ever generosity is possible for us, even the giving of a cup of cold water.
It is not hard to find good reason to yearn for simpler times, to excuse ourselves for lacking an adequate response, thinking that Jesus and his disciples had it so much easier.
But, in truth, this is not the case.
Jesus and his contemporaries lived under the ever present reality of Roman domination. The peace they lived in was the brutally enforced Pax Romana, where crucifixion was common.
These challenging texts come out of a confronting world too!
There are many sorts of confrontation, many opportunities for welcome that pass us by. Art was welcoming a group of amputees to dinner given for them in a large city hotel in Mozambique, dealing with the wheelchairs and various odd prosthetics was a challenge, but the staff were helpful. Ari, who worked with the church organizing a de-landmining program was glad because he didn't want the guests to feel awkward more self conscious than the already were.
It was going well for him until a well dressed man on a nearby table beckoned him over. "What are you doing with that motley bunch of losers here?" Ari saw red, muttered something about victimizing victims and threw the glass of water in his hand in the man's face.
Now, I'm at least fairly sure that that was not what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples that who ever gave a glass of cold water would receive their reward, but it does remind us that our welcome of people should be without prejudice or favour, without judgment on a persons looks or their position.
But before we start to place ourselves on the side of welcomers or welcomed, adequate or lacking, we need to consider the text more carefully.
In this part of Matthew's gospel, Jesus moves straight from talking about losing and gaining life and taking up the cross to follow in his steps, to talking about welcoming and hospitality.
I guess that gives some measure of the weight Jesus gave to these issues.
Now let's have look at the specifics.
Since the end of the ninth chapter Jesus has been addressing his disciples on the subject off Christian mission.
They are to be sent out "for the harvest is plentiful, but the workers few." Chapter ten has a list of instructions as disciples go out with the good news that the "kingdom is near" and to heal.
Our three verses at the end of chapter ten conclude this section.
'Sent ones' or envoys, 'apostles,' which means 'sent ones' were of enormous importance in the ancient world in all cultures.
Jews identified such a figure as a 'shaliach,' which also means 'sent one'
It is difficult for us to grasp the importance of envoys with our telecommunication systems, enabling direct contact.
They used letters - but not a postal system!
They were dependent on traveling representatives who had to be authorized to act for their senders. They might carry letters from their senders, but they had to be able to represent the interests of the ones they served. This was a major factor in ancient civilization. You needed authorized envoys, representatives. The envoy model had already been employed to explain the role of prophets. They were God's messengers.
Interestingly the words for 'angels', in both Greek and Hebrew, come from this same background; they are sent ones, people who are to announce. The commissioned disciples are Jesus' envoys. There is a line of authority here. It fits Matthew's understanding of ministry so well; we all share the same commission: Jesus and disciples.
So in context the passage reads something like this:
"As you go out in Christian mission, doing the things God wants, sharing the good news, if someone welcomes you, in fact they are welcoming Jesus and they will be rewarded, and if you give, even the smallest thing, there is a God registered eternal significance."
In Hebrew society the laws and customs made it crystal clear that the stranger and outcast were to be welcomed, hospitality was to be extended - and Jesus was pushing the limits forward, "even a cup of water given will be rewarded". So if we ask "is Jesus just talking about rewards for apostles, prophets, missionaries, the ordained, the full time workers and those who receive them, the answer is no!" Jesus includes even those who can do the smallest thing in God's name.
Jesus practiced what he preached with regard to accepting others. His welcome could not be broader and the works of his charity had no boundaries, he helped all comers. Lepers, lame, sick, children, foreigners, the lot. In fact I think it would be true to say that in Jesus company you could not find a place of greater welcome.
The crowds flocked to him, even the children were welcome. Jesus practiced what he preached!
"Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, whoever welcomes a prophet, whoever welcomes a righteous person, whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these, none of them will lose their reward."
I know at times I get nervous when I am doing the welcoming. It's a risky business isn't it? You make yourself vulnerable in a new situation. Will you be accepted? will they like what you do or give them? could I have done it better?
How do you feel when welcoming others ? It's not easy at times but our hospitality and acceptance of others is all important.
It's very much like the parable of separating the sheep and the goats near the end of Matthew's gospel. Those who show charity and mercy in their actions are put to one side and those who think they are righteous but haven't been charitable are put on the other. It ends with the saying, "as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."
So what we do to each other, we do to Jesus.
When we welcome, when we give, even a little bit, we do it to Jesus.
Not only that, but Jesus tells his followers that God enters into our lives as we welcome each other, as we welcome those who come in the name of the gospel. So as you and I open ourselves, practice the hospitality and charity of Christian discipleship, we somehow, mysteriously welcome God and God's blessing into our lives.
And I know that it's true!
This is our experience.
May God help us grasp this truth and live it today and always, As a welcoming, charitable and generous people; prepared, like Jesus, to welcome the unloved; prepared, as we are called, to give even simple, small things; open to a hospitality that may be uncomfortable for us at times, but ready to give because we are people of Good News.