Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, MD 21201
June 28, 2020
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
It’s all too easy to see the way one cruel act can lead to a chain reaction with catastrophic consequences. Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor — the act of one and the complicity of many has led to catastrophic upheaval in our country. Today, I only want to flag this as a backdrop for hearing an alternative, Matthew’s alternative to this kind of chain reaction. I want to spend some time reflecting on the way the gospel capacitates us for a different kind of chain reaction, one that moves towards uplift rather than self-destruction. In a sense, I think Matthew makes a wager with us, namely, that if we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, God will prosper those works. Matthew tells a story of a chain reaction that begins with God’s compassion and seems to grow, page by page, and by extra dimensions. This is the idea in today’s text.
Let me quote the beginning: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” This is the root idea — and it was a radical notion — not only do we welcome Jesus, but we welcome God through Jesus. The circle repeats, with the welcome given to a prophet, to a righteous person, and even to the one who gives a cup of cold water to a little one in the name of a disciple — all circle back to the manifestation of God’s heavenly rule.
Do you hear a faint echo, of a prayer that we know? “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”?
If the first part of the text — if you welcome me you welcome God who sent me — is the title, the last verse is the unexpected climax: if you give a cup of water to one of these little ones, in the name of a disciple (that’s anyone reading Matthew) heaven will rejoice. It reminds us that Jesus wasn’t giving us a theory of life, but a practice for the life we live in obligation to others and he captures it in this tangible expression of welcome, a cup of water for a little one, a vulnerable one.
Jesus uses the word “welcome” to speak of this new world. It’s a world capable of welcoming others, especially those who might not otherwise enjoy welcome. It’s important here to remember with whom Jesus self-identifies — of course, he self-identifies as the Son of God. Just as significant, Jesus does not self-identify with princes or warriors or titans of power or socially elite classes, who did not and continue not to welcome Jesus. Not even the righteous were especially thrilled with Jesus’ arrival. Jesus’ birth was not welcomed by Joseph, who is described as righteous. At least not initially.
The point is, there is already a sense or aura of unwelcomeness in Jesus’ person. In Matthew, Jesus will identify himself with those who are incarcerated; those who face food insecurity; those who are unhoused; others see him as perhaps one who can’t keep his chemical addiction under control. If Jesus were here today, I think we might find him in some pretty shocking places. And yet, the Jesus who was unwelcome among the religiously righteous, the privileged, and socially acceptable not only felt welcomed among the unwelcomed but was able to extend welcome through the Spirit of God who came to be with us, as Emmanuel, God with us, the One who welcomes sinners.
The story of Jesus isn’t a theory about human community, but ethical practices . . . of welcome. And not only in word but also in deed. So in the Gospel of Matthew, the hungry receive bread; the thirsty water to drink; the harassed find one who will bear their burdens; the sick find a doctor. Jesus says you do this in my name, or even in a disciple’s name, even if it’s as small a gesture as giving a “cup of cold water to one of these little ones” — you’re enacting a little resurrection in a world mostly acquainted with the ideologies of death.
When Matthew writes about Jesus’ life, the world around him was not so unlike our own — there were fires of unrest and suppression. It wasn’t a CVS being burned down; and it wasn’t people being tear-gassed so some Herod could pose with a Bible in front of a church for photos. But it felt unwelcoming to far too many people. Jesus speaks to us, not simply to open our eyes to cruelty — of which we have more than enough — but to remind us that our works of hospitality, however small, are also powerful counter-narratives for the formation of community.
This reminded me of a contemporary story of a cup of water given to one who was thirsty — and the chain reaction that ensued. In 1990, Jimmy Dorsey worked as a travel agent in Washington D.C. Dorsey wouldn’t strike you as heroic or unusual. He had served in Vietnam. He was employed by a travel agency. When he came home from work one night, he asked his spouse if she had any cash. “Why?”, she wanted to know. He told her that he’d given a stranger $80 and “fudged a few things at his travel office for the stranger, buying him an extra ticket and changing his return dates on an existing one. He was worried it might cost him his job.”
Elaine Dorsey, his wife, shook her head. That’s just the way he is. And she didn’t think he’d get fired and he wasn’t.
But he did change the course of one person’s story and perhaps the course of scientific history. The “stranger” was, indeed, a stranger in America’s color-coded obsessiveness.
He was also not an American. Mahmoud Ghannoum is now world-renowned for his research into the microbiome of the stomach — if you’re familiar with probiotics and the value of gut bacteria, you know what you know thanks to his research. And perhaps also to Dorsey, an employee at a DC travel agency. This is how their stories unfolded. Before Ghannoum came to the United States, he and his family were refugees from Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraq. England had become their temporary home, with his young family living as squatters in a dorm in England. They wanted to come to the United States so he could continue his research and find a permanent home in America.
He had managed to get to the United States for a week-long conference, hoping to meet potential employers, and found out too late that the employers would be arriving after the conference — and after his departure date. He was out of money; and he had no way of changing his ticket so that he could stay long enough for the interviews. Feeling at a loss for what to do, he walked down one of the streets in D.C. He saw a travel agent office and said to himself, “What do I have to lose?” Dorsey listened to his story, helped him with the tickets, and gave him $80 and wished him luck. Ghannoum was able to stay for the interviews, got two job offers, and moved his family to the U.S. where, today, he is a renowned expert in microbiome science.
Ghannoum tried to find Dorsey to thank him, but by that time the office had closed and laid off all its workers. Thirty years later, Ghannoum’s son, having heard this story, decided to see if could find Dorsey . . . he did find him, but too late. Dorsey had died as a result of a long struggle with cancer.
But Ghannoum did meet Aaron Dorsey, his son. And his son Aaron remembered something his dad said to him: “He always told me, Are all your needs met? Do you have food? Are you warm? Do you have clothes? If all your needs are met, why be selfish? Why not help others who are cold or hungry or homeless?”
And then Ghannoum did something in Dorsey’s name, who might have been one of Jesus’ more ordinary disciples. He presented Elaine Dorsey with a plaque in honor of her husband. Here’s the inscription: “James R. Dorsey touched the lives of so many people in ways he will never know. The James R. “Jimmy” Dorsey memorial scholarship was established to perpetuate Jimmy’s virtues and endearing qualities. His generosity and his kindness will never be forgotten.”
And with that, he made a $25,000 gift in seed money for a scholarship in Dorsey’s memory. (Petula Dvorak, “A Grateful Scientist” in The Washington Post (16 December 2019) accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-grateful-scientist-meets-the-family-of-the-man-who-helped-him-stay-in-the-us/2019/12/16/a2277ad4-201c-11ea-86f3-3b5019d451db_story.html).
I feel almost embarrassed sharing this story today when we see so much terrible happening in this country. I don’t pretend that this is a panacea that rights all wrongs and I don’t want to be heard that way. But, still, that cup of cold water given to a little one, that for Jesus was the beginning of a chain reaction that continues to this day and continues to God’s glory.
Speaking of a cup of cold water given in Christ’s name. There’s a food pantry in Reid Chapel. What could an ordinary disciple contribute? How would a small gift of a bag of rice (three or four dollars) make a difference for a family facing food-insecurity?
There’s a chance that we can help Madison Avenue Church establish a no-appointment COVID-19 testing site in the 21217-area code, something that doesn’t presently exist. A recent poll found that nearly one in three Black Americans know someone who has died of COVID 19. Madison Avenue Church asks us to have five people commit on July 9th. Five people. Five.
As a part of a health and safety survey, which we will use to substantiate the need for such a site, you ask strangers for whom you are a stranger ten questions: have you been tested, how many people live in your home, how many children under the age of 12, do you have enough food to make it through the month? Governments don’t always know the need. Sometimes it takes ordinary people meeting up with other ordinary people to make a difference. There’s a safety bag, too. It includes hand sanitizer, a protein bar, an extra mask, an orange. And a bottle of water.
Whoever welcomes me, Jesus says, welcomes the one who sent me. Let it begin with a cup of water given in a disciple’s name.
May it be so for each of us. Amen.