July 2, 2017, Good News for Good People – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click here:   Z0000031

In 1985 we began making plans to move out of the city of St. Louis, where we had lived since we were married. That’s how we ended up arriving in the North Country in 1986, in a 45 passenger school bus, with our six kids and a giant dog and a lot of books and not much else. But it never would have happened if it had not been for the extraordinary kindness and generosity of a family who lived on a little farm outside of Canton. We contacted them through a man whose name we found in a magazine article, introducing ourselves and telling them our somewhat ridiculous hopes and dreams, and strangely enough, they wrote us back – not just a polite card and “hope it all works out” sort of good wishes, but pages and pages of information about the land and the weather and planting in the North Country, and about homeschooling laws: everything we had asked about, and more. And not only that, but they invited us, total strangers, to come and stay with them while we looked for a place to live. So for two months we camped in their apple orchard. Their home was open to us when we needed, and they helped us in every way they possibly could. They were such good, kind people; I’ve rarely met anyone as open and generous and kind. And they weren’t Christians.

We’ve all known non-Christians who live admirable lives, who are kind and compassionate, devoted to their families and generous to outsiders. Maybe you have family members, children, brothers and sisters, neighbors or old friends whose lives are everything a Christian should try to be, but who don’t go to church or profess faith in God. Have you ever wondered how to think about these good people? Should we suspect that they aren’t really as good as they seem – that deep down they are actually sinful? Well, of course they are sinful, if they are human beings. So are you. So am I. The truth is, they’re still lovely people. So are we supposed to assume that even though they seem so nice they won’t end up in heaven because they never accepted Jesus? Because we know that nobody is saved by good works, but only by the grace of God. Or should we just leave the whole question up to God and hope he has a plan for saving them before it’s too late, which is little more sensible, anyway.

The whole problem with all of these ways of thinking about it, is that we’re thinking about the kingdom of heaven all wrong. We’re thinking of it as some kind of organization or political entity where we have to draw lines – figure out who’s “in” and who’s “out” – as if people have to have their papers in order to get into the “good place” and stay out of the “bad place”. The truth, though, is utterly, entirely, completely different. The kingdom of heaven isn’t something we get into at all; the kingdom of heaven is something that gets into us. Think of how we pray in the prayer Jesus taught us: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Not up there someplace, right here. That’s why, when the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom was going to come, he told them, “The kingdom isn’t something you can point to and say ‘Look! there it is!’ or ‘Here it is!’ The kingdom of heaven is in your midst.”

So when the Twelve were sent out on their first mission trip, their task wasn’t to get people they met to sign on or join up, it was to bring the love and health and joy and peace and freedom of the kingdom into the lives of the people that they met. Notice, here we are, still reading that same story about the sending of the Twelve apostles for the third week now.

The first week we read how Jesus looked out over the crowds of people, lost and afraid, like sheep without a shepherd, and how his heart just ached with love for them, and how that love was the good news the apostles had to bring out into the towns and villages.

Then last week we read the warning that Jesus gave the Twelve, that he was sending them into dangerous territory where they would face real persecution, maybe even death, so they needed to be one hundred percent committed. It had to be all or nothing, he told them. Because nothing less than everything would get them through.

And now today we read the last words Jesus spoke to the Twelve before they went out. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” he told them. “and whoever welcomes me welcomes God himself. If anyone shows you a kindness he won’t lose his reward.” Jesus ended with a word of hope. You are going out into dangerous territory, you will suffer hardship…..but you will find kindness along the way. And I will show love to anyone who offers a kindness to my people – even as small and simple a kindness as a cup of cold water on a hot day.

But Jesus goes even farther than just saying he will repay anyone who shows kindness to his own. “Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet, and whoever welcomes the righteous will receive the reward of the righteous, and whoever even offers one of these little ones – and Jesus is talking here about his disciples, not little children – whoever offers you even a cup of water because you are my disciples, he won’t lose his reward.” The message is this: if anyone shows kindness to God’s people, they find themselves drawn in, they find that they belong with God’s people as well. From outsiders, they become insiders. Kindness grows the kingdom.

The Old Testament tells the story of two people in particular who became part of the nation of Israel purely through showing kindness to God’s people. There is the story of Rahab, who was a prostitute in Jericho, which was an enemy of Israel. But when two Israelite men came to spy out the city Rahab risked her life to hide them from the king and help them escape. And then there is the story of Ruth, from the land of Moab, who was widowed very young but chose to stay with her mother-in-law and take care of her rather than to return to her own family, where she would be taken care of.

These two foreign women became part of Israel, not because they decided to convert to Judaism but simply because they chose to show kindness to God’s people. And it is incredibly significant that these two women became the great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother of King David, which means they were the great-great-great-many-times-over grandmothers of Jesus. Through their kindness, they were drawn right into the epicenter of the kingdom of God.

In the New Testament, Jesus told a story once about a Jewish man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and got mugged along the way and left for dead. Notice that the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story, the people who “belong”– the “in” crowd – they’re the ones who couldn’t be bothered to stop and help. It was the Samaritan who stopped to show kindness. In that story it is the Samaritan, a foreigner and an outcast, that stands out as a true citizen of the kingdom of God. Having welcomed one of God’s chosen people, God chooses to welcome him. Through his kindness, he is drawn in to the kingdom.

I have said many times in sermons that we are children of God purely by grace, not by being “good people” and that is absolutely true. We can never be good enough in our own power to deserve or earn the love of God; that is sheer, wonderful, unmerited gift. Grace is bigger and more powerful and more outrageous and more essential than we can ever possible understand. But one of the most wonderful and unexpected ways God’s grace works in our lives is that he notices and loves and rewards even the smallest goodness in his creatures. Even though all people are sinful, and selfish, and imperfect, God loves and cherishes our human kindnesses so much that they bring us closer to him. He receives our acts of kindness as if they had been offered to him personally, just like we would be personally grateful to someone who offered a kindness to our child.

Do you remember the parable of the sheep and goats, where the king gathers all the people for judgment, and separates them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats: the sheep, or the “good” people, on his right, and the goats, or the “bad” people, on his left. And the king says to the sheep, “Welcome into my kingdom, for when I was hungry you fed me and when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink and when I was a stranger you welcomed me and when I was sick or in prison you visited me.” And the sheep are perplexed, asking the king, “Lord, whenever did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or sick, or in prison?” And the king answers them, “Truly, I tell you, any time you showed kindness to one of the least of these, my brothers, you showed it to me.”

To the goats, on the other hand, the king says, “Depart from me, you cursed, for when I was hungry you didn’t feed me and when I was thirsty you gave me nothing to drink and when I was a stranger you didn’t welcome me and when I was sick or in prison you didn’t come to visit me.” And of course the goats are just as perplexed as the sheep, saying, “Lord, whenever did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison?” And the the king replies, “Truly, any time you didn’t show kindness to one of the least of these, my brothers, you didn’t do it to me.”

The thing we don’t always notice about this parable is that Jesus doesn’t say that all the sheep are the Christians who go to church and send in their tithe check every week, and all the goats are the guys that slept in on Sunday morning or hung out at the bar or watched too much TV. That’s because that parable doesn’t really have anything to do with trying to pin down who’s in and who’s out. At any given moment any one of us could be a sheep and a goat – reaching out in kindness, or failing to reach out – every single one of us is a mixed bag of successes and failures, kindnesses and unkindnesses.

What Jesus is teaching in that parable is what God loves, and who God loves and how God loves. It teaches that God, in his perfect love and grace, cares so much about his children, and especially his most helpless and vulnerable children – the poor and the homeless and the stranger – that he receives every act of kindness to them as a personal favor to himself. And it also teaches that God rewards our acts of kindness – even the smallest kindness – and that our kindness draws us closer to him.

To the Twelve disciples who were going out into the world with the good news of his love, that meant that every person that would show them kindness, even as small as a cup of cold water, would also begin to share the life of the kingdom of heaven. In welcoming the disciples they were welcoming Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus they were welcoming the Father. Each small kindness, by the grace of God, grew the life of the kingdom in them, like the little mustard seed in the parable that grew and spread its branches so that all the birds of the air came and rested in it.

For us, Jesus’ words give us a new way to see the good around us in people who haven’t yet come to know him. We see that God treasures every little act of kindness so that when any person reaches out to help someone in need, whether big or small, it is as if they had offered a kindness to Jesus himself. When our neighbor gives a donation for the food pantries or the Lunch program for Kids or the Angel Trees; or when people bring boxes and bags of nice, clean, folded clothing to our Thrift Shop, or even when someone brings us a batch of cookies, these are sacred gifts, even though the giver may have no idea how precious they are to God – even if they have no idea that God exists.

Every kindness is a holy thing, because every kindness, even the very smallest act of kindness, even a cup of water, is received by Jesus as a personal favor to himself. In showing kindness to his children people are drawn in to the life of God’s kingdom along with us. By God’s grace, kindness grows the kingdom and draws us into a common life together, so we are no longer insiders and outsiders but only beloved children of one Father.

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