Saturday, September 15, 2018

I Was A Stranger, and You Welcomed Me

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 15, 2018

Hebrews 13:22:   “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” 
Matthew 25:31-46, especially v. 35b, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I love the word you’re focusing on during this convention:  the word hospitality.    And I’m tickled by your theme verse from Hebrews 13:2—one of the New Testament’s most evocative passages which echoes beloved tales from Greek and Roman mythology (like the ancient story of Baucis and Philemon) as well as Old Testament narratives like the story in Genesis 18 in which Abraham and Sarah entertain three mysterious strangers—three angels, three “faces of God” by the Oaks of Mamre.

Hospitality definitely deserves our attention, especially in today’s church.  On that we can certainly agree—but just what do we think hospitality is all about?

Is it mainly about politeness and good manners?   Those are certainly not unrelated—politeness and hospitality--and I’m certainly in favor of “good manners” any day of the week. 

More than once I have encouraged folks in our synod to recall  what they hopefully  learned as third graders, regarding how to meet someone you don’t know—how to introduce yourself to them and give them a chance to introduce themselves to you.   Hospitality depends on a modicum of polite manners and simple acts like greeting folks, providing nametags for everyone, making all who show up feel comfortable and at home in our churches.

But, hospitality is also about much, much more than good manners!

It’s also about genuine friendliness and warmth—moving past our shyness, setting aside our natural “reserve” …and going out of our way to open up relational space for that other person or persons---particularly if they’re newcomers who may have just moved into the area.
Hospitality is about good manners—to be sure!---and it’s also about heartfelt warmth and genuine friendliness—oh yes!

But there is even more to this thing we call hospitality, as we see with crystal clarity in our gospel reading from Matthew 25.

Hospitality may start with polite good manners…and hopefully it will move on to warm friendliness…..

…but hospitality reaches its true destination…hospitality blossoms forth into fullest flower when we come to know that at its best Christian hospitality is about all the encounters in which God opens us up to recognizing and receiving Jesus Christ in our midst.

Simply put:  in being hospitable we come face to face with none other than our Lord and Savior!

And this deeper hospitality becomes more astounding, more surprisingly jaw-dropping, whenever it dawns on us that we meet Christ in the very last persons we’d anticipate, in the folks we’re most surprised to encounter!

This is where things get really interesting!

Look again at the whole motley crew Jesus rolls out here in Matthew 25.  Jesus informs us that he identifies most closely NOT with the beautiful, successful, powerful, or famous personalities in our lives…..

….but that Jesus becomes recognizable in the faces of the most desperate, needy ones:   the hungry, thirsty, sick, and naked folks….the strangers we meet in jails and prisons--not the best of the best, but the worst of the worst.

Jesus draws us into hospitality with persons we’re not too sure about, folks we’re maybe inclined to blame for bringing their own troubles upon themselves, individuals who make us nervous, fearful or uncertain….puzzling, perplexing “others” whom we may be inclined to cross the street in order to avoid.

We prefer that our deeds of hospitality feel satisfying…we like it when our warmth and friendliness is reciprocated….but instead Jesus points us to encounters that may well make us wonder, might even feel downright off-putting and uncomfortable!

In case you don’t hear this passage that way, let me paraphrase it just a bit, in today’s vernacular:  
·      “I was in my usual spot, on the street corner holding up a sign that says I’m homeless and haven’t eaten in days--and you gave me food; 
·      I was dehydrated and on the verge of heat-stroke—and you gave me something to drink;
·      I was a refugee fleeing violent gangs in my homeland, and you embraced me;
·      I looked like death warmed over with a ratty shirt and tattered jeans and you gave me something decent to wear;
·      I was trying to sober up after an opioid overdose and you got me to a clinic,
·      I was doing 20 years in the state penitentiary and you went to the time and trouble of becoming my first visitor in months.

Offering that kind of hospitality to those sorts of folks will be scary, unsettling and perhaps even dangerous. 

Offering Jesus’ brand of costly, deep hospitality that’s held up here in Matthew 25 may well make others in our communities start to wonder about you and me.   We may start to become identified with those whom we welcome.

If you think I’m overstating this, recall the sorts of things that are being said nowadays about strangers from other lands who seek to make a new home in this country—(the most of our own immigrant ancestors did decades ago!)

Take a closer look with me at this phrase in particular from Matthew 25:35b.  It’s usually translated, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”   But if we dig deeper into the original Greek language of the New Testament we discover that the word here is xenos, which can mean a stranger, but it can just as easily be translated as a foreigner.   We run into this Greek word xenos whenever we see the word xenophobia—the fear of strangers.

And the word normally translated “welcomed” here comes from the Greek word synago, from which the word synagogue is derived.   Synago is about more than saying a friendly “Hi, how are you?”   It means embracing someone, enfolding them into our own people.    So Matthew 25:35b could be more faithfully translated:  “I was a foreigner and you took me in.”

This clear “dominical saying,” this unmistakable directive straight from our Lord flies right in the face of so much anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-foreigner rhetoric that’s being tossed around willy-nilly in our country right now—rhetoric that has no place in the community of Jesus Christ who so closely identified himself with suspicious strangers that he declared:  “I was a foreigner and you took me in.”

So, my dear friends, the more closely and carefully we listen to Jesus we will be drawn into the kind of deep, dangerous hospitality that could get us criticized, ostracized, and even shunned by others.   

Some of the dirt that’s on those to whom we’re hospitable, may well rub off on us!

Why would Jesus ask such a thing of us?   Why, why would Jesus put us to such a difficult test?   

Why would Jesus expect us to step so far out of our comfort zones?   Why can’t we simply stick to the safe, garden-variety hospitality that’s easy to offer to persons who’re just like ourselves?

Such questions, in the mere asking of them, reveal how much we still have to learn about God’s way with us.

For in truth, Jesus never invites or expects us to do anything that he has not already done for us and for our salvation.

Here in Matthew 25 Jesus doesn’t call us to a costly, risky hospitality that’s beyond our capabilities.   

Rather, Jesus invites us into…Jesus draws us deeply into his own way of being with us and our fellow members of the human family.

For this is not some alien path, far out of our reach.   This is Jesus’ own way in the world.   This hospitality that Jesus holds out before our eyes is the hospitality he first extended to us:  we who were hungry and desperate for nourishment; we who were parched and dry; we who were being hunted down by the Evil One and his minions; we who were exposed and naked as the day we were born; we who were sin-sick souls desperately needing salvation; we who were captive to sin and unable to free ourselves…..we have all been the kinds of people Jesus speaks of here….we were all “those kinds of people” when Jesus, our Host Par Excellence…Jesus, our perfectly hospitable Savior looked upon us with love and pity and forgiveness and healing and welcome.

It is this Jesus who holds up not some impossible ethical standard, but rather invites us, draws us, woos us into his own way of living life large and always for others.  Jesus leads us into a hospitality we could never pull off on our own. 

Jesus invites us into his very own deep, dangerous hospitality, promising to meet us in the face of every person we encounter--—often most clearly and unmistakably in the faces of the strangers we meet.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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