Today in Matthew’s Gospel, we reach the end of chapter 10. It’s the end of a series of difficult readings, even as we face a lot of difficult issues and problems threatening the stability of our country. As if to remind us that the kingdom comes by grace alone, Jesus ends this chapter of His ministry with a final command: “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.”
This passage seems to be talking about hospitality. It’s talking to us loud and clear. It is all about welcoming and opening ourselves up to God’s grace and welcoming all God’s people into the fellowship of the Gospel. Our Lutheran heritage reminds us that we are saved by grace through faith; we cannot help but respond to what God has done for us in Christ, and we do this by reaching out to love and care for others. Hospitality extends God’s love to others so they might be changed. But then comes the surprise: when Christians practice hospitality, with the overflowing love of God, we are changed; we find the joy and peace of being a disciple of Jesus Christ in our own lives.
Hospitality, however, requires a risk. There is vulnerability, courage, and even sacrifice involved with opening ourselves up to others in Christ’s name. When we open ourselves up to others, we make ourselves vulnerable to them. We might be used by them. Opening our door to a stranger could get us assaulted or robbed. Stopping to help someone on the roadside could be dangerous in many ways. Just driving to the Cities these days can be an unsettling thing.
It can be risky to help others in emotional ways as well. Holding the hand of another person involves coming in direct contact with them—something we’re now trained to avoid at all costs. Visiting the hospital or nursing home is not possible now because of the Covid 19. Telling someone “I love you,” involves actually meaning what you say and acting on it. In a world of barriers and walls between people, of violence and anger, of hatred and prejudice, Christian hospitality can be a risky business.
There’s a great story I’m going to share with you about St. Francis of Assisi, a wealthy 13th century Italian man who gave away his wealth and social status to help others as a monk. It’s a story about risk taking and love in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s called St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio: and is from a book titled, “Stories for the Journey,” by William White.
St. Francis loved animals of all kinds. Perhaps the most famous animal in his life was a wolf that terrified the people in the town of Gubbio. This wolf killed other animals and even devoured human beings. Though no one traveled without carrying a weapon, they found that their primitive clubs and spears were no match for the wolf’s sharp teeth.
One day when St. Francis was in Gubbio, he decided to make a visit in the countryside. The citizens warned him about the wolf: “Don’t go outside the gate, Brother Francis,” they said, “because the wolf will attack and kill you!”
Francis said to the people, “Jesus Christ is Lord of all creatures.” Then, without a shield, helmet, or weapon, he and probably a very wary companion, walked out into the country. A few peasants followed him from a distance. Others climbed trees and stood on roof tops to view the encounter with the wolf.
Soon the wolf appeared. When he saw Francis, he broke into a run with his mouth open. Francis made the sign of the cross and called out: “Brother Wolf, in the name of Christ I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”
As soon as Francis made the sign of the cross the wolf closed his terrible jaws and stopped running. When Francis ordered the wolf to come to him, it lowered its head and lay down at the saint’s feet, as though it had become a lamb.
“Brother Wolf,” Francis said, “You have done great harm in this region and you have committed horrible crimes by destroying God’s creatures without any mercy. You have killed human beings who have been created in the image of God. You deserve to be treated like a murderer and be put to death. This whole town is your enemy. But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio.”
The wolf indicated by moving his body that he was willing to accept the saint’s judgment.
Francis continued, “Brother Wolf, since you are willing to keep the peace, I promise that the people of this town will feed you each day so that you need never suffer from hunger again, for I know that whatever you have been doing is because you are very hungry. At the same time, I want you to promise never again to hurt any animal or human being. Do you promise?”
The wolf nodded its head, promising to do what the saint asked. As a sign of its pledge the wolf placed its paw in St. Francis’ hand.
The wolf followed St. Francis into town like a gentle lamb. People gathered in amazement to see the strange sight. Both the people of Gubbio and the wolf kept the pact that Francis made. The wolf went door to door for food and hurt no one. People fed it courteously and it is said that not even a single dog barked at it.
Two years later the wolf died. The people of Gubbio mourned the loss of their new friend because the wolf’s peaceful nature and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of St. Francis.
Maybe this story can have a place in our world these days. Jesus calls us to reach out to our brothers and sisters beyond these walls. Our neighbors might be scary, they might be hungry, they might be lonely, or frightened themselves. Find ways to safely welcome them, engage them, and take some risks as you reach out in love to them. This is the way our Lord showed hospitality. We may cringe now because this hospitality is not easy. It’s risky business. We can witness and be involved in this hospitality as we realize the great love our Lord has shown us. Realizing that we are saved by grace through faith, not having to earn our salvation, we can respond with love toward others as Christ has taught us. When I hear of individuals giving their time to help others who aren’t as fortunate, or people who befriend those who are ill and alone, I see the hospitality that Jesus is talking about today. We can, and do, take the risks of hospitality as we respond in love to those in need. The challenge is great these days. It’s not easy to extend hospitality to someone who is rioting or causing destruction, but that may be just what they need.
There’s a story told about a Bishop who, at a large conference when they were being served a meal, took the hand of the waitress and prayed for her. He thanked God for her and the way she was caring for all those at the dinner, and prayed that if there was anything hurting her, or anything that needed healing in her life, that God would grant her healing and love. As they all held hands around that table and finished the prayer, the waitress had tears streaming down her face. “Thank you,” she said. “Today has been a terrible day. Nothing in my life is going right just now. How did you know?”
How did the bishop know? Or did he? We never know what those strangers in our midst might be going through. A simple prayer for love and healing brought her closer to the love of Christ. This is what our text is saying to us today.
God bless you with healing and the love of Christ as you too go out as His disciples into His world.