For the last several weeks, it seems there has been a common thread in the sermons I have heard. It might be “welcoming the stranger” or it could be as blatant as “make sure we don’t build walls against refugees.” In either case, and in light of the national discussion (or, more likely, argument) on the pros and cons of all immigration laws, the sermons have been timely and, probably, necessary. As with any sermon, the preacher carries a very heavy burden in terms of interpreting the scripture without using that scripture to his or her own means or end. That just goes with the territory.
I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the related themes of these sermons until last Sunday. Admittedly, I hadn’t listened carefully to the scriptures from which this particular sermon was drawn, but I could have sworn the preacher was talking about those passages of Old and New Testament that refer to God’s and Jesus’ directives to welcome the stranger. But when I returned to the Bible this week to re-read that which was read from the pulpit on Sunday, I discovered that it was actually based on Matthew 5:43-48, part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus tells us to love our enemies. There is, within that passage, what’s known as a “saying” attributed to Jesus in which he observes, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47) Perhaps it was this, along with the larger parameter of loving one’s enemies upon which the preacher based his sermon.
It wasn’t that I disagreed with him or anything he said. But even before the end of the homily, I felt I was being lectured as an adult might lecture a child. I felt condescended upon. I heard or felt a tone that told me I was shirking my responsibilities and, the conclusion I had drawn relative to those responsibilities, that I was not properly welcoming the stranger. Oh, and by God, I better start doing it.
The sermon troubled me. As a preacher myself, I have to admit that there have been times that I was hopeful my congregants might walk away troubled by what they had heard, at least troubled enough as I had been this past Sunday to give serious thought to what I had heard and return to the scriptures to study for myself exactly what they spoke to me.
Yesterday, I was called upon to lead a memorial service for a homeless man who I had met about a year ago as part of my work with a homeless ministry at a large downtown Lutheran Church. In fact, without naming him, I wrote about him about that same time in this blog. I had observed that he had gathered up a huge pile of cigarette butts and was carefully dissecting them, pulling out any bits of remaining tobacco and then rolling those leftovers into fresh cigarette papers. I shared with the mourners, “Steve taught me something that day about economy.”
In fact, I had met Steve on my very first day as a volunteer. I was stepping out of my comfort zone to even work among the homeless and I was at a loss as to what I should do. So I sat down and introduced myself to this man who was sitting alone. It wasn’t an easy conversation and I’m not sure that it would have been any easier had I been a seasoned volunteer that day or not. Steve was just a man of few words. But he was kind. There was just something about him that was kind. As I looked around the sizeable group before me at the memorial service, I realized that Steve had a lot of friends, friends who had become as family to him. They had, we had, all started out as strangers.
But even before the memorial service, I found myself sitting yesterday morning in the large weekly circle where the homeless and the volunteers gather to share our first names and how our weeks have been for us. Some had much more to say than others. That wasn’t unusual. But as I listened intently, I heard stories of men and women who had spent time in prison, who were fighting addictions, who were estranged from family, who were uncertain of their future. But it wasn’t just a bitch session. Those same people were talking about God in their lives and how God had not only seen them through tough times but was actually delivering them through the words of scripture and through the angels of mercy that God had put into their lives, men and women who were helping and had helped them through their days. They measured their days by where they were a year ago or three or five years ago and how much better their lives are now. They took the time to thank others in the room who had reached out to them and they thanked those who had no part in this ministry but who had shown them not only kindness but second chances.
When it was time for my turn to share, all I could think of was how I had felt chastised during sermon time on Sunday. So that’s what I shared with the group. I told them that what I had heard was that I wasn’t doing enough to welcome the stranger. But I went on. I said, “You know, a preacher has a privilege to interpret the Bible in the best way he or she can. But I have to say that while what he said was important, and, yes, we do need to reach out more often to others we don’t know, I would hasten to add that there is an absolute joy in doing that. There’s something in it for us too! I sit here and listen to you all give praise to God for all of the blessings in your lives. I’m here as a volunteer to serve you. But in your sharing with me – with me as a stranger for the most part – I am receiving blessing upon blessing from you! There is joy, absolute joy to found in serving the stranger, in greeting others who are not our brother and sister.” I thanked them.
And then I found myself in that memorial service and I realized that all of those folks had once been strangers to Steve, but in one way or another either Steve had reached out to them or they to him. Those strangers had become as brothers and sisters to him.
Yes, we all probably need a good scolding for not doing enough to love our enemies or even our perceived enemies. We don’t do enough to assist the homeless and the hungry and the refugee. And perhaps there are folks who respond positively to a condescending lecture about all of that.
As for me, I tend to shut down when I’m scolded. But when I realize the absolute joy that comes from serving the poor, the stranger, I also know there’s something in it for me. I can be a little greedy as I slurp up the lessons I am taught, the blessings that are shared, the tears that are shed, and the laughter that erupts in a circle of strangers brought together, perhaps, by the meal that will follow, but more often now by the realization that there are people there who care deeply for one another and for their plights.
Jesus once said, “The poor will always be with you.” I am blessed by the poor for in many ways they are richer than I and the lessons they have for me are neither a lecture nor condescension. They don’t even know how richly they bless me.
There’s something in it for me. There’s an indescribable joy in it for me. That’s what I would preach when I come to passages of scripture that direct me to welcome the stranger and to love our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Mathew 5:43-48
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:1-2Share here: