Sharing the Sky
Passage: Matthew 10:40-42
Date: July 2, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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The Moth is a nonprofit group based in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. They host a radio hour and a podcast, during which people tell their stories. I recently heard one such story that I’d like to share with you this morning, as we think about what it means to offer a cup of cold water to someone.
The woman who is telling the story is named Auburn, and I’m paraphrasing what she said. In 1992 she was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and one night she found herself curled up in the fetal position, lying on a filthy carpet in a cluttered apartment, going through terrible withdrawal from a drug she’d been addicted to for years. In her agony, she kept folding and unfolding a little piece of paper that had a phone number on it.
Life had started off well for her. She was raised in comfort and privilege, and she was the kind of kid who had opera lessons and spoke French fluently. Her parents paid for her college education, she had a year abroad. She earned a master’s degree. She was, in her own words, “pedigreed.”
Then in her 20s, living in Ann Arbor, she began to notice poverty and injustice and racism, and it was a revelation to her that people who shared the planet with her lived so differently. She responded. But unlike some who respond by helping to solve the problem, her response was to take all the privilege she had known, and, in her words, “destroy it, rip it in half, spit on it, set it on fire.”
Along came a man who would help her do that – he was older, charming, and she was smitten. A friend of his introduced them both to the drug they became addicted to.
After years of using, and having a baby, and marrying the man, she found herself on this night, curled up in withdrawal, with a piece of paper in her hands.
Her mother, with whom she had not spoken for years, had sent it to her. It was the phone number of a Christian counselor, and her mother suggested that maybe sometime she could call this person. And so, in desperation, in withdrawal, emaciated and covered in bruises, her precious child asleep in the room, she dialed the number.
A man answered and said hello. She said, “I got this number from my mother. Do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffle and assumed she had woken him up. Then he became very present, and said, “Yes. What’s going on?”
She made the call at 2 in the morning and talked with him till the sun rose. He was very kind and gentle and listened well. By the time the sun rose, she felt calm, knew that she could make it through the next day. She was very grateful and as the call came to an end, she said she supposed he was going to tell her to read some Bible verses. He laughed and said he was glad he had been helpful. She said, no, really, how long have you been a Christian counselor?
Then he said, “OK, Auburn, I’ve been trying to avoid this subject. I need you right now not to hang up. That number you called? Wrong number.” (https://www.facebook.com/georgehtakei/videos/1439203406147008/)
As one commentator said, “The simple, basic acts of kindness we perform in genuine welcome of one another are all that God asks of us.” (Emilie Townes, Feasting on the Word) It’s so simple, isn’t it? Sometimes kindness and welcome look like an unseen voice at the other end of a phone call. Sometimes kindness and welcome look like a cup of cold water.
The catch is that it’s easier to be kind and welcoming to some people than to others. There are some people who are just so very awful that it’s hard to muster up a damp paper towel for them, much less a cup of cold water. We can exercise our vast powers of judgment and decide if the person is worthy of our water or our attention or our kindness… but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.
I’m not sure this is what Jesus calls us to, but I’ve figured out a bit of mental and spiritual gymnastics to help me overcome my prejudice and judgment, to help me be kind and welcoming. I look for the lowest common denominator I have with this person.
Maybe this person, like me, has been fired from a job once upon a time. Maybe this person, like me, has known chronic pain because of some part of the body that isn’t working right, and we share that in common. Maybe this person, like me, is a parent, and shares all the worries and decisions and dreams and heartache parents have.
But that doesn’t always work, and sometimes, the lowest common denominator I can find with another human being is the sky – this ceiling over our heads that we share, this sky of blue and gray and black, these gilded, bluer-than-the-ocean, spacious skies. When we were children we thought that Heaven is up and God is up. Looking up to the sky connects us with God and how God wants us to live with each other. With kindness that is welcoming.
For the last year or so, members of twelve congregations, mostly in northeast Portland, have been meeting to talk about poverty in our neighborhood and what we can do about it. The Interfaith Alliance on Poverty is developing into a rather wonderful thing – a movement that connects us with other people of faith who care very deeply about the widening gap between rich and poor here in Portland and how that gap affects the lives of those we share these gorgeous Portland skies with.
At our most recent meeting, one of our members talked about her own experience of growing up in poverty, and the generosity she has known in her life, and how she now chooses to be the generous one to others. Someone asked her how she understood poverty, and she said, “Poverty is when you can’t drink the water out of the faucet. Poverty is when you can’t breathe the air. Poverty is when you have no community to turn to.”
It is so basic. We must breathe. We must drink. We must have others. Why pretend that others don’t need the same things we do? Following Jesus does not have to be all that complicated, really. Love. Be kind. Choose grace. Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty. Love some more. Stretch yourself. Give a hand up when you can whether the person you’re helping deserves it or not.
We’re all in this together, though war and greed and politics and religion seem to be driving us apart at times. There is so much that we share – the air, the water, the land – and there is enough to go around. So if a sojourner passes our way and is tired and thirsty, how can we not offer cold water? Would we not want them to do the same for us? And if the phone rings in the middle of the night and by some small grace we realize that the stranger on the other end is at the end of her rope, how can we not listen? Would we not want them to do the same for us?
One of my favorite commentators, David Lose, says this:
“[Following Jesus] doesn’t have to be heroic. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.” Or, as Mother Teresa said, “There are no great deeds. Only small deeds done in great love.”
There has been much conversation of late about what makes America great. For me, one of the things that makes our nation strong and great is our history of generosity. I would guess that most of us here are the descendants of immigrants who were once welcomed to these shores. I think about the generous aid the U.S. has shown the world over the decades. I think too about the generosity of freedom we know, all those complicated things rolled into the Constitution and the First Amendment, and the generosity of character that allows for dissent and debate.
But I think too about the small acts of generosity by people like my grandmother who, during the Great Depression, as she and my grandfather raised their six children, found a way to give a drink, if not a meal, to a transient in need. And whether she did that because of her faith, or because of her sense of helping out a fellow American in a troubled time, or simply because that’s who she was, I don’t know.
What I do know is this: that we who have been given so much – the earth, the water, the sky – are called to give much in return. It’s the least we can do.