Proper 8A 2005 Matthew 10:34-42
From the New International Version of the Bible: Jesus said to his disciples, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold
water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
This entire Gospel passage is difficult, even dangerous. It raises deep anxieties within us, and then closes with a suggestion
that works righteousness might be possible after all. This text seems to go from the ultimate commitment, giving up one's
family and very life, to the smallest act of obedience. It closes with a promise of reward for doing something as simple as
offering a cup of cold water. What are we to do with such a thing? Isn’t it typical of Jesus that he doesn’t
make it easy for us?
For one give to story telling, as I am, there are specific dangers. The first is to relate it too much to something that
I recognize from my own experience: First story, from the American Civil War.
"During the battle of Fredericksburg there was a little patch of ground that was occupied in turn by the contending forces.
It was covered with the dead and the dying; and all through the afternoon of a weary day the cry was heard, `Water, water!'
A Southern soldier begged his captain to be allowed to answer those piteous cries, but met with refusal. `No; it would be
He persisted, however, saying, `Above the roar of artillery and the crack of the muskets I hear those cries for water. Let
me go!' He set out with a bucket of water and a tin cup. For a while the bullets sang around him, but he seemed to bear a
Then, as the Federals beyond the field perceived his purpose, the firing gradually ceased. For an hour and a half there was
an armistice, while the soldier in grey, in full sight of both armies, went about on his errand of mercy...." (1)
Or related to even more recent experience: The danger here is that we might not recognize our Lord when we see him.
In some seminaries, it seems that recent theological training has often included a "plunge," in which students live on city
streets for several days, unshaven and in less than fashionable dress. They are allowed very little money and are forced
to do what any homeless person might do to survive, such as sleep over warm manholes and beg food. I hasten to add that that
is not the practice at THE Seminary!
One such trainee, ordained for many years but now back at his Seminary in continuing education, wandered as a beggar into
the national office of his denomination and was denied help. Then suddenly the chief executive came out and saw not a homeless
man but his own seminary classmate. "Why didn't you tell my secretary who you were?" he cried.
To this the pastor in continuing education shed a tear and he walked away in silence. He was tempted to leave the ministry
And yet another danger is that of sentimentality, such as that in this story of the Vision of Sir Launfal, a story made popular
by James Russell Lowell.
In the story Sir Launfal has a dream on the night before he is to begin his quest for the Holy Grail. In the dream just as
he is setting out on his quest, a beggar stops him by the palace gates. Annoyed at the disturbance, his flings a penny in
the beggar's direction and rides on. The dream then covers many years of fruitless searching—never does Christ even
give him a glimpse of the cup he had used at the Last Supper before his suffering and death.
Launfal becomes an old man and finally decides to return home. As he comes within sight of the castle, he sees all the lights
ablaze—it is Christmas Eve. When he rides up to the guard he is turned back with a "No beggars allowed!" It is then
that Launfal notices that his shining armor is gone; he is wearing only dirty and tattered clothes.
Dejectedly sitting by the side of the road, he pulls a last crust of bread from his pocket. As he begins to eat it, he notices
a beggar nearby—the same beggar from many years ago. Without even thinking about it, Sir Launfal breaks the bread and
gives half to the beggar. Then he goes to the brook and draws water for both of them to drink from the old knight's wooden
Suddenly a strange thing happens: the crust tastes like fresh bread and the water like the finest wine. He hears Christ saying:
"Not what we give, but what we share,/For the gift without the giver is bare;/Who gives himself with his alms feeds three/Himself,
his hungering neighbor, and me.
Sir Launfal looks down at his wooden bowl and in his hand he holds the Holy Grail. The search is over. With that the knight
wakes from his sleep. It is morning. "Put away my sword and armor," he instructs the servants. "I am not going to distant
countries to look for the Holy Grail. It is right here." And from that day on Sir Launfal opened the gates of his castle
to the poor and hungry. (3)
The passage asks us not only to see the Christ in those whom we serve but also in ourselves as we are sent out to do the work
that we have been given to do. There are overtones of this in Hymn 463, W. H. Auden's poem, He Is the Way: (4)
He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety:
you will come to a great city
that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
For me it seems to come altogether in an experience like this. Last story:
We all know Leroy. We see him all over Kilmarnock, hitchhiking here and there, to and fro. He often is seen right here in
this part of Northumberland County. I have often told the stories about picking up Leroy from time to time and about Leroy
helping feed people in the Lancashire unable to feed themselves. But this is a different kind of story.
Several years ago, Leroy was sitting at his usual place on the bench near the checkout at TriStar. “I was walking by
when Leroy jumped up and yelled, “Preacher, pray for me; give me a blessing.”
There was one interesting thing immediately about this. I had discovered that if I wanted to slip into TriStar and out incognito,
the way to do it was to skip my usual black shirt and white collar, especially if I were in some raggedy old work clothes
as I was that day. People who would recognize me in clericals often wouldn’t in rags. But Leroy always did. He knew
who I was without the help of external trappings.
“Preacher, pray for me; give me a blessing.” I was stunned for a moment and looked around to see who was looking.
It seemed every body was looking right at me and Leroy to see what would happen next. So Leroy took off his cap and I laid
both hands on his head and mumbled a prayer and a blessing. Leroy sent me out the door with loud thank you’s, echoing
across the parking lot, or so it seemed. I was a little embarrassed.
This happened -- and still does – almost every time I am in TriStar. But a funny thing about cups of water for these
little ones, the ones who are not as well off as we are – the funny thing is that cup of water goes a very long way.
By the time a year had passed, I was very comfortable praying over Leroy right there by the checkout stand. And eve, as sometimes
happened, when I went in without looking over to the bench for him, he would run after me down the produce aisle and ask for
his blessing. By this time I had come to look forward to the encounter, and I really missed it when Leroy wasn’t there.
I also noticed that even the harried and harassed and extremely busy checkers and baggers would stop what they were doing
for a second and watch Leroy’s blessing. The small sacramental space that had at first included only Leroy and me now
had spread over the front part of the store. When I looked up after the blessing I could see people smiling and nodding as
if they too had been blessed in some special way.
None of it was about me. It was about Jesus being right there in the TriStar with me and Leroy and everyone who took the
time to stop and see. And it was a really special day when, after I had blessed Leroy, he put his hands on my head and prayed
for me and then blessed me. You had to be there to see it, to feel it, to taste it.
Jesus said, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell
you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Those moments with Leroy were -- and are still -- reward enough.
1. D.J Burrell, as quoted in Sermon Briefs: Matthew 10:34-42, SermonMall.com
2. Preaching Matthew 10:40-42, Part 2., SermonMall.com
3. As retold by William R. White in Stories for the Gathering (Augsburg Fortress, 1997), pp. 20-22, as quoted in Sermon Ideas
For Matthew 10:40-42 Part 6, SermonMall.com
4. Hymn 463, The Hymnal 1982, and in "He Is the Way," in W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random
House, 1976.) and ibid.)