Sermon for July 2, 2023
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4,15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
In 1962, President Kennedy travelled to Newport, Rhode Island, in order to speak at a dinner that preceded the America’s Cup international boating competition. In his remarks, the president, himself an avid yachtsman, said this: “I really don’t know why all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because we all came from the sea. And it’s an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go to the sea, whether it is to sail, swim, or watch it, we are going back from whence we came.”
President Kennedy was clear on the origin of our species in the waters of the world, what Charles Darwin called “a warm little pond.” In a similar manner, the same could be said for each of us: your origin and mine was in the very small ocean of our mother’s watery womb. There, in darkness, each of us slowly but surely developed: from the tiniest egg into a fully formed being.
That you and I are watery creatures is confirmed by modern science. Close to 60% of the adult human body is water. Indeed, our lungs are about 85% water while our brains and hearts are composed of 73% water. I say, Thank God we can pee; otherwise we just might float away given all the water in our bodies. Well, we are also water-dependent creatures. As my physician has reminded me, “Drink more water!” That is, about 2-3 quarts each day. Of course, the sign of our absolute dependence on water is the fact that we thirst, a signal sent from the brain when the water volume in us falls below a certain threshold.
Which brings us to the invitation offered by Jesus in today’s gospel reading: “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones … will not lose their reward.” Perhaps you are well aware of the fact that Jesus and his first followers lived in a region that included an arid climate where water was not abundant and had to be carefully preserved. Giving a cup of cold water to quench someone’s thirst was not only a kind gesture; it could also spell the difference between sickness and health, between death and life. No wonder the offer of hospitality to strangers or friends was a necessity, not an option. But let’s pay attention to these words: “one of these little ones.” Here Jesus is not referring to children but to anyone who is in need and is unable – unable – to return the favor. If anything, “these little ones” is a reference to people who had little status, little if any power or influence; people who were dirt poor or chronically sick or social outcasts – the very people Jesus chose to be with in public, unembarrassed by his association with those who were viewed as unproductive and of little value.
For a moment, we might imagine that Jesus is asking his followers, then and now, to focus their attention, our attention, on people who are thirsty for a cup of cold water, that is, are thirsty for assistance or companionship. But you see, the “little ones” of which he speaks are also you and me, are all of us, especially in those moments when our lives are a mess, are falling apart, are confusing, are marked by regret or grief or loss. To be in need of a cup of cold water is another way of saying that we might be thirsty for mercy, thirsty for mercy in a world whose first priority is not to be merciful. I mean, think about: is anyone running for public office talking about mercy? No, my friends, they are not. Those places are few and far between in our society where we can admit that we are in need and don’t have it all together. Can you imagine that: being able to say without fear of censure or ridicule that you’re a mess, that you need a cup of cold water, of assistance or friendship, and are not obliged to repay the one who is good enough to offer it? Well, dear friends, that is what we call grace.
In the medieval Italian city of Siena, a young woman named Catherine was known to be a God-obsessed Christian who received visions from the Holy Trinity and wrote down what she saw and heard in her spiritual classic, The Dialogue. Indeed, she spoke frequently of her thirst for God, especially as God gives Godself in the Holy Eucharist. “O eternal Trinity, O Godhead,” she wrote. “You are a deep sea: The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you. My soul is thirsty for you, eternal Trinity. When I receive the sacrament of the altar, I find that just as the fish is in the sea and sea in the fish, so are you in my soul and my soul in you, together in the ocean of grace.” Now my assumption, dear friends, is that we gather here, week after week, because we thirst for God and thus come to the altar to have our thirst quenched with the cup of salvation, just as Catherine did. I mean, why else would we come to this place dedicated to the encounter between God and God’s people?
But then let’s keep this salient fact in mind: Catherine lived in the midst of the Black Plague: a pandemic that killed close to 70% of the people who lived in Siena. Rather than protect herself, she walked, each day, from the church’s altar into the narrow streets of her beloved city and with her companions offered cups of cool and refreshing water to the sick and dying, offered them companionship, offered them mercy. What did she say of this relationship between two cups: the one at the altar and the one in the streets? “Christ at the altar serves us charity for our neighbors in the world.” For we cannot have one without the other. So, I say: come to this altar to receive the free and ever-flowing love of God. And, then, have the good sense to know what it asks of you and me as we walk out that door into a world thirsty for the precious gift of mercy. AMEN.