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Thirteenth Sunday of the Year A

June 28, 2020

Matthew 10: 37-42

By Rev. John Tran

Dear beloved sisters and brothers of God,

The common theme of today’s readings is the work God gives us to do as the followers of Jesus:  to love God and our brothers and sisters through hospitality, generosity, commitment, and charity. They also remind us of the sacrifice demanded of Jesus’ disciples and the suffering they will endure for their Faith when they bear witness to him. 

In our first reading, we see, in Elijah’s welcome by a childless woman and her husband who lived in Shunem, a radical illustration of all four works. The woman recognized the holiness of Elisha. She showed him reverence and hospitality by inviting him to dine with her and her husband and by setting aside and furnishing an upper room of her house for the prophet to occupy whenever he should come to town.  In grateful response, Elisha promised her, "This time next year you will be fondling a baby son." The promise was fulfilled by God.

Paul’s letter to the Romans today, he reminds the Roman Christians, and us, that by Baptism we have been baptized into Jesus’ death, buried with him, and now look forward to resurrection with him (Rom 6:5). As Jesus died to sin, we, too, must be dead to sin and “live for God in Christ Jesus.” Since Baptism is our entrée into this new life in which we are made part of the Body of Christ and Christ is truly present in us, the one who welcomes us welcomes Christ and becomes eligible for a reward. Thus, since those who care for the followers of Jesus are caring for Jesus himself, those who show hospitality to any one of them are eligible for a reward.

Today's Gospel lesson concludes Jesus' great “missionary discourse” in which he instructs his twelve disciples on the cost and the reward of the commitment required of being a disciple. The first half of these sayings of Jesus details the behavior expected of the disciples, and the second half speaks of the behavior expected of others toward the disciples. Even Jesus’ shameful death on the cross is not too high a price to pay if one is to be a true disciple because the reward is so great. Jesus assures his disciples that whoever shows them hospitality will be blessed. Those who receive Jesus receive the One who sent him. So, too, those who help the "little ones" (messengers) will be amply rewarded.

We need to be hospitable and generous: Hospitality means acknowledging the presence of God in others and serving Him in them, especially those in whom we least expect to find Him. We, as individuals and as a community, are to look for opportunities to be hospitable--and, of course, there are plenty of ways of offering hospitality.  Maybe hospitality is offered through a kind word to a stranger - or even a smile. A kind smile or a “hello" to someone waiting with us in a grocery line may be the only kindness that person encounters all day. We become fully alive as Christians through the generous giving of ourselves. What is more important than sending checks for charitable causes is giving of ourselves to people,  first, in the way we think about them, for from that spring will flow  the ways we speak to them and about them, forgive their failings, encourage them, show them respect,  console them, and offer them help. Such generosity reflects warmth radiating from the very love of God.  

The special joy of nature-loving boy Howard Kelly was hiking great distances and studying animals in the wild. On a walking trip, up through Northern Pennsylvania one spring, young Kelly stopped by a small farmhouse for a drink of cool spring water. A little girl answered his knock at the door, and instead of water, she brought him a glass of fresh milk. He thanked her profusely and went on his way. After years of medical studies, he became Dr. Kelly. Dr. Howard Kelly (1858-1943) was a distinguished physician who was one of the four founding doctors of Johns Hopkins, the first medical research university in the U.S. and, arguably, one of the finest hospitals anywhere. In 1895, he established in that school the department of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Over the course of his career, Doctor Kelly advanced the sciences of gynecology and surgery, both as a teacher and as a practitioner. Some years later, that same little girl from Northern Pennsylvania who had given him that glass of milk years ago, came to him for an operation. Just before she left for home, fearful of a huge bill, her bill was brought into the room and across its face was written in a bold hand, “Paid in full for one glass of milk.” That was Dr. Kelly’s style of showing gratitude and hospitality. While he charged the rich patients substantial fees, he provided his services free-of-charge to the less fortunate. By his conservative estimate, in 75% of his cases he neither sought nor received a fee. Today’s Scriptures challenge us to practice hospitality, seeing Christ in others.

Jesus also expresses clearly : “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…."  These words may sound a bit extreme, since family comes first for most of us. 1) What Jesus means is that all loyalties must give place to loyalty to God.   The wants of any person or any group of people (e.g. a family), cannot be met by trampling on or denying the rights and needs of others.  If members of one’s family   act unjustly, one must, in conscience, separate oneself from them.   In other words, one cannot condone immoral practices even by members of one’s family. Jesus clearly is not attacking family life.  He is giving a warning to his disciples of the conflicts and misunderstandings they will experience through their living out the word and thus becoming prophets, proclaiming God’s Will and living presence among His people through their own lives.

But these words of Jesus can have another meaning. All those who become followers of Jesus belong to a new family.  It is a family where every single person, including relatives, friends and even strangers are truly my brothers and sisters. We become part of a larger family to whom we also have responsibilities.  Jesus means that there will be times when we will have to give more love and compassion to the hungry, the sick, those in prison, the social outcasts, the unemployed or the unemployable, the handicapped, and the lonely than to the members of our  own family.  In other words, Jesus is not speaking against the family, but rather reminding us that we are part of a larger family of our fellow Christians.

In ancient Palestine, the cross had a terrible meaning.   Crucifixion was a vicious way of executing people, and it was reserved only for those who were not Roman citizens. Only the worst criminals were crucified. The Jews who heard Jesus' call for taking up one’s cross in order to follow him must have been horrified. Yet, that is what Christ wants from his disciples. The cross stands for unconditional forgiveness, the total emptying of ourselves of our wants and needs for the sake of another, and the courageous, consistent choosing to do what is right and just.   The main   paradox of the Christian life is that we must lose life in order to find Life, and we must die to ourselves in order to rise again. ("Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."). We live in a world where "finding their lives" is the paramount ambition of the majority of people. But Jesus tells us very clearly that this should not be our main concern. What he asks of us is that we should “lose this life," which means that we must stop living for ourselves alone.   We must forget our own security and work toward the security of others.  We must learn to take our own health a bit less seriously, in order to care for those who are sick and hungry.   We must stop polluting the environment, so that the rest of the world will have clean air to breathe. All these things fall into place when we lose ourselves in caring for others.

We owe hospitality to strangers in Jesus’ name (“offering a cup of cold water..”): For the Jews, receiving a person's representative or messenger was the same as receiving the person himself. Hence, receiving a man of God who teaches God’s truth was considered equivalent to receiving God Himself. The four main links in the chain of salvation are i) God who sent Jesus with His message, ii) Jesus who preached the “Good News,” iii) the human messenger who preaches Jesus’ message through words and life, and iv), the believer who welcomes the message and the messengers. Giving hospitality to a preacher or a believer is the same as welcoming Jesus Himself. This is why welcoming others is given such high priority in the New Testament, and why it  is a tradition which still lives on in many parts of the Church today. The basis of all hospitality is that we all belong to God’s family, and that every person is our brother or sister. In the game of life, while we would prefer to be the quarterback -- the hero -- Jesus' heart leans toward the water-boy or water-girl.   Hence, providing a cup of water is a valid vocation.

Materialism and consumerism dominate our lives and turn our homes into isolated fortresses with iron gates, intruder alarms, and surveillance cameras.   Society believes in competition, power, influence and success. Jesus’ argument is that when we work hard to ensure that everyone has enough, there will be enough for us, too. Hence, the questions we should ask are,  “Am I living my life at the expense of others?”  “Am I trying to live in solidarity with others?” and “Am I aware of people in my area who are in real need?” In the words of Mother Teresa, "The Gospel is written on your fingers." Holding up her fingers, one at a time, she accented each word: "You-Did-It-To-Me." Mother Teresa then added: "At the end of your life, your five fingers will either excuse you or accuse you of doing it unto the least of these.”

Today’s Gospel lesson implies that there might be differing rewards for prophets, righteous persons, and little ones -- and differing rewards for those who receive prophets, righteous persons, and little ones. The Good News is that the modesty of our circumstances does not limit our potential rewards.  We don't have to be a prophet to receive a prophet's reward--we have only to receive a prophet.  We don't have to be a great saint to receive a great saint's reward--we have only to show hospitality to such a saint.  The smallest gift to the littlest disciple brings a certain reward.  Just as God knows and cares about every hair of our heads, so too, He knows about our generous acts in behalf of the faithful.  Such gifts are counted as gifts to Jesus -- and gifts to Jesus are counted as gifts to the Father. Another bit of Good News is that, as we are engaged in the Lord's work, those who help us are also promised a reward.  That is true whether we are clergy or lay people, preachers or janitors.  We may not find it comfortable to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end of a generous, loving exchange, but the Lord has ordained that our humble, grateful receiving becomes a blessing for the giver.

We need to be hospitable: Hospitality means encountering the hidden presence of God in others, usually where we least expect to find Him, and serving Him there in the loving service we give to the person. The virtue of hospitality is the virtue of recognizing the presence of God in others and nourishing this presence. We, as a community, are to look for the opportunities to be hospitable-- and, of course, there are many ways of offering hospitality.  Maybe we offer hospitality simply by offering a stranger a kind word or a smile. When we live in such a busy and hectic world, we tend to brush off people who need help. A kind smile or a “hello" to someone waiting with us in a grocery line may be the only kindness that person encounters all day.

We become fully alive as Christians through the generous giving of ourselves. What is more important than sending checks for charitable causes is giving of ourselves to people,  first, in the way we think about them, for from that spring will flow  the ways we speak to them and about them, forgive their failings, encourage them, show them respect,  console them, and offer them help. Such generosity reflects warmth radiating from the very love of God.

Following Christ faithfully is tough, but it's worth it! St Maximilian Kolbe is a particularly eloquent example of how our faith in Christ gives strength and meaning in the midst of this world's sufferings. He was a Polish Franciscan arrested by the Gestapo during World War II because of his criticism of Nazism. Eventually, he was sent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where he was treated with extra brutality because he was a priest. We have all heard of the famous incident where a fellow prisoner, a man who was married with children, was condemned by the guards to execution, and St Maximilian Kolbe offered himself in the other prisoner's place. His offer was acc epted and he died with other condemned prisoners in a starvation bunker. But even before that dramatic finish, he was already bringing Christ's light into the darkness of the concentration camp. Here is how a fellow prisoner who survived the camp expressed the inspiring power of Fr Kolbe's presence, even in that hellish place: “Each time I saw Father Kolbe in the courtyard I felt within myself an extraordinary effusion of his goodness. Although he wore the same ragged clothes as the rest of us, with the same tin can hanging from his belt, one forgot this wretched exterior and was conscious only of the charm of his inspired countenance and of his radiant holiness.” 

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