I had originally intended to preach this morning on our first reading from Genesis, with the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. Last week I preached on Isaac’s older half-brother Ishmael, whom Abraham sacrificed in a way by sending him and his mother Hagar out to try to survive in the wilderness. It seemed like a good pairing, and I haven’t preached on that passage since 2011 (you can find the previous sermon here). But something about today’s gospel reading coming just before the Fourth of July called out to me. Before we get there, though, I want to reflect for a moment on summer, and in particular summer jobs.
When I was in high school, my first job was working at the local Dairy Queen, which seems appropriate to think about on a hot summer day. In Minnesota, Dairy Queens are ubiquitous. Just about every town has one, and where I grew up it was a Dairy Queen Brazier restaurant—like Wendy’s or McDonald's—there were tables to sit at and we served hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and fish, French fries, even soup, in addition to the Blizzards, Dilly Bars, and Peanut Buster Parfaits.
The hours were long, sometimes working until 2:00 a.m. And it was messy—mopping the floors took hours, cleaning up melted soft serve, chocolate sauce, M&Ms and Oreos ground into the floor. I always thought that working for Dairy Queen was harder than other fast food places because you had to know how to make everything—every crazy Blizzard combination, ice cream cakes, buster bars, and all the food. And on hot days, like today, sometimes there would be lines out the door, in addition to 10 to 15 cars in the drive through.
Once, I was working the drive-through—not at the register or the window, but behind the scenes making orders. And I had made an ice cream cone and was rushing to bring it to the window, only the floor was really wet, so I slipped and went down belly first, hydroplaning about 20 feet across the floor. I didn’t drop the cone, but I crushed it and had to get up and start all over again.
I stayed with that job well into college, going back and working those long hours in the summers. But the summer after my junior year I was just tired of it, and wanted to do something a little more “meaningful” than making Blizzards and dilly bars. So, I checked the want ads in the newspaper and was hired by MPIRG—the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. There are PIRGs all over the country—here it’s called MassPIRG and you often encounter students with clipboards on street corners in Boston and Cambridge wanting to talk about various issues for the public good. In my case, our focus was on environmental justice and renewable clean energy—like solar and wind energy.
Only, we didn’t stand around on busy streets, accosting passers by. Instead, we were driven out to various neighborhoods to knock on doors and discuss energy issues. First in pairs, and then singly. The goal was to secure donations to support MPIRGs research and lobbing efforts. While the hours were better than working at Dairy Queen, we weren’t there until 2:00 a.m., the work itself was tough. Not in the sense of slipping on a mess of melted ice cream and chocolate or having to mop for hours, but finding the inner strength and courage to knock on doors, discuss political issues, and ask for donations.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t do very well. In fact, I think I only lasted in that job for a week and a half, maybe two at the most. I was never even paid. One day the thought of going back just made me sick, so I quit. And, I went back to the Dairy Queen for one more summer.
24 years on, though, I still remember some of my MPIRG door-knocking encounters. For example, I noticed that people tended to be more generous and more interested in less affluent neighborhoods. They presumably had less income or resources to work with, but somehow they seemed to care more. Rich neighborhoods were much tougher.
In one very wealthy neighborhood, I remember knocking on a door and giving my spiel and the woman who answered said that she wasn’t interested in supporting our cause—in fact, as I recall she said that her husband was a vice president for the local nuclear power company, in sharp contradiction with our renewable clean energy mandate. Can you say, “Awkward!”
Even so, she said that she noticed through the window as I knocked on her neighbors’ doors that I was working hard on a hot summer evening, so she offered me a cold can of pop—that’s soda or tonic to most of you. Dr. Pepper it was, I think. In my week or two of door-to-door canvassing, she was the only person to offer me a drink. I’ve never forgotten that kindness and generosity, despite our significant disagreement on energy policy.
Obviously, this encounter comes to mind after hearing Jesus say in today’s gospel: “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.” That’s because, for Jesus, hospitality was everything. He didn’t much care if you agreed with him on matters of faith and doctrine—in fact he performed miracles for all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs—but he did care about how people were welcomed and treated.
Jesus was a regular dinner guest (he never invited people to his own house for dinner so far as we know), at the homes of people who agreed with him and others who didn’t. So he had first-hand experience of being treated well and poorly. He regularly ate with those who were considered “sinners”—for whatever reason—that didn’t seem to matter to him in the least. What did matter was how God was made known, across differences in belief and lifestyle, in the breaking of the bread, in hospitality, in crossing boundaries and barriers, and then in breaking those borders and barriers down.
As we approach our Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations this week, boundaries, borders, and barriers are much on our minds as well. And also, who and if and how we can or will welcome those who may come to our shores, to say nothing of treating well neighbors already here. It is a time when our nation’s most deeply held and cherished values—values that are reflected in Jesus’ teaching this morning—are increasingly vulnerable, and even under attack in some quarters.
Sexist tweets. A rollback of civil rights protections. Immigration bans. Threats to cut Medicaid. These are the realities we face this Independence Day. For me, they are sobering realities. Challenging realities. Realities very far from what I understand to be the very best of who we are, and who we are called to be—as Americans, as humans, and most definitely for us here in church, as Christians and followers of Jesus.
So what do we do? How do we reclaim our values? How do we bring our nation back to its moral center? How do we follow Christ in this challenging time?
Well, I think we start by actually following Christ. This is not to say that everyone in the nation has to become Christian. Far from it. But, for those of us who are disciples of Jesus, it is time for us to take up our crosses and truly follow him—as he told us to do in last week’s gospel passage—across the boundaries and the borders of the world and of our lives. It is time to offer that cup of cold water to any who come to us, thirsting for life, thirsting for freedom, thirsting for hope. As disciples of Jesus, it is time for us to speak up and speak out against sexism, and against racism, and against xenophobia. It is time to challenge narrow world views—not only with arguments, but with love and with life. It is time to recognize that our own best interests—as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation—will only be realized when our neighbors’ best interests are realized as well.
These were the rules of Jesus’ life. And as his disciples, as his friends, they are meant to be the rules of our lives as well. Now, I know that we may think that sure, we can do this hard work, we can speak out against sexism and racism, but what difference will it make in Washington or New York or wherever decisions are made? Well, that’s where our Christian faith comes in as well. Because through that faith we know that the movement we are part of began with just 12 disciples, and as one commentary I read for today reflected “even our smallest acts of kindness and generosity reverberate with cosmic significance,” like that Dr. Pepper offered me so long ago. It broke down a barrier and helped humanity to flourish. If we can do the same, our lives will be richer, and our nation—built on the hopes and dreams of people of every color, religion, language and background—will be all the more whole.
Last week I was in New York City for a couple days. On that trip I spent a lot of time in cabs, talking with drivers who came to this country from all over the world, making a home here and in that city which includes the whole world. For me, the archetypal image of New York, and really of the United States, is the Statue of Liberty. At her base is printed the famous poem—“The New Colossus”—by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus. It seems appropriate to hear it again at this moment as we ready ourselves for our Fourth of July celebrations and reflect on what it means to be American in this land of freedom, liberty, promise, and hope:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Jesus said: “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.”
The call is much the same. The time is now. The moment and opportunity are ours.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.