June 28, 2020, Kingdom Price Tags, Matthew 10:40-42 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000204
A new phrase that has become commonplace in pretty much everybody’s vocabulary over the last four or five months is “essential worker”. Rarely does a day go by that we don’t hear or read or see something about essential workers, on the news or in the paper or on billboards. And there’s a very good reason for that. In the most literal sense, it was essential workers who kept things afloat while most of us were doing what we needed to do which was “sheltering in place”: staying put, avoiding contact with other people, not shopping, not going to church, not going to school. And we were able to do that because essential workers kept going to work day after day to keep things running. Some essential workers were, of course, people like doctors and nurses, who worked longer hours than most of us can imagine, taking serious personal risks to care for the many people who became ill during the pandemic.
But essential workers were also the people who checked you out at Price Chopper when you made your quick run to the grocery store once a week. They were the people who re-stocked the shelves at WalMart when panicky customers went a little crazy buying toilet paper. Essential workers were the people mopping the floor at the Post Office when you come to collect your mail. They were the young people who bagged up your takeout when you got tired of cooking. To a great extent, essential workers were the people who did the jobs that most of us didn’t even think about until we discovered that they were what everything else depended on.
And one of the most remarkable things about these essential workers, these people we’ve been thanking on banners and billboards all over the place, is that by and large, they are some of the lowest-paid individuals in our communities. And it’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of essential workers are people of color, too. We definitely live in a society that puts a price tag on human worth. The world thanks essential workers, but it doesn’t really value them. If we want to know who the world really holds in high esteem, all we have to do is compare paychecks, right? Doctors, especially specialists like anesthesiologists and surgeons, earn hefty salaries of a hundred or two hundred thousand a year. But the really big paychecks, like in the millions, go to corporate CEO’s, investment analysts, star athletes and big-name actors. The big rewards in our society, apparently, go to the people whose whole job it is to make more money – and to the people who entertain us. That’s where we put our real priorities as a culture. Most essential workers, on the other hand – bus drivers, cashiers, mail carriers, janitors – the people who kept the world running while we stayed safe – they basically come in near the bottom of the value scale, American-style.
And Jesus had something to say directly to that value scale – because human nature doesn’t really change that much from century to century, or from culture to culture. One day when his disciples were sparring with each other about who was bigger and better than who, Jesus sat them down for a little talk. “You know how it is with the Gentiles,” Jesus said to them, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their leaders like to call themselves ‘benefactors’. Listen: that is not how it will be with you. No, let the greatest among you be as if you were the youngest and least important. Let the one who leads be the one who serves everybody else. Who is normally considered the greater, the one who is sitting at the table, or the one who is serving him? It’s the one at the table, right? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
When Jesus came to reveal to us who the Father is and what exactly he’s like and what he cares about, I would say probably the most shocking revelation of all was this: that humility and service are at the heart of godliness. We were ready to accept that God is pure and sinless, we knew he was big and strong, we believed he was wise and all-knowing. But when it comes to this one central quality of the Almighty, Eternal Creator of the Universe, it’s almost more than we human beings can comprehend. Who could ever have imagined a humble Deity? Who would ever have thought of a Creator who serves his creatures?
But remember, almost the last act of our Lord Jesus was to wrap a towel around his waist and kneel down in front of his disciples – even the disciple who was about to betray him – and to wash their dirty feet like a common servant. We know Peter, at least, was scandalized, and I suspect he spoke for the rest, as usual. But when Jesus had finished, he said to them, “Did you see what I just did? I did that as an example for you. You call me Lord and Master, and you’re right, I am. And if I, your Lord and Master, kneels down to wash your feet, you have to do the same. Follow my example. Wash one another’s feet. Be servants.”
I don’t know of any other place in all the gospels where Jesus so plainly sets an example for his disciples. He teaches people, and many times he admonishes people to put his teachings into action. But only here does he act out one particular behavior so clearly and so explicitly as an example. Only when he washes his disciples’ feet, does Jesus give the command to follow his example so absolutely and so plainly. Service, humble service, is clearly a central tenet, I would even say maybe the central tenet, of the Kingdom of God. And it is hard to think of any other teaching that runs so counter to the values and expectations of the world.
It is exactly the radical values of the Kingdom that Jesus is talking about in the reading today. Jesus is sending his twelve disciples out to all the villages and countryside to announce the coming of the Kingdom, to heal the sick and cast out demons and raise the dead. But he makes it clear that there is to be no celebrity culture here. If they are welcomed into someone’s home it is as if they had welcomed Jesus himself, and, in fact, the Father himself. Whoever opens his door to a prophet is worthy of the same reward as the prophet himself. Whoever opens his door to a righteous person is worthy of the same reward as that righteous person. Jesus doesn’t say anything about the virtues or status of the one who does the welcoming. The mere act of kindly service seems to be of such immense value in the Kingdom that one who serves is of equal value to the one that is being served, whether they be a disciple or a prophet or a person of perfect righteousness. Even the smallest service, just giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty disciple, is worthy of a reward in the Kingdom of God, where humility and service are divine attributes, not marks of shame and inferiority.
God became a real, flesh-and-blood human being and moved into our neighborhood. And we expected him to live in the biggest, most beautiful house, with the most perfectly manicured lawn, and to drive a state-of-the-art car. We expected him to hold a job in the highest echelons of society, where he could make a difference and influence public policy. We expected to hear him speak great wisdom on our TV screens, making the most impressive minds of our generation sound like fools by comparison. We expected him to pull down a higher salary than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined. But when God moved in, it turned out he was just an essential worker, almost beneath our notice. It turned out he came here, not to impress us, but to serve us. And he calls us to follow his example.