Sermons from the Sabbatical: Welcoming the Stranger

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Sermons from the Sabbatical: Welcoming the Stranger
Romans 12:9-13; Deuteronomy 10: 12-19; Leviticus 19:33-34
August 13, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Note: This sermon was delivered the Sunday after violent clash between White Supremacists and Counter protesters in Charlottesville, VA on the previous Saturday. One person was killed.

I read the story told of a holocaust survivor named Yitzak who had come to America and is a research physicist. A few years ago he was diagnosed with cancer. His story is told by Dr. Rachel Remen who works with cancer patients. She met him at a retreat for people with cancer. He had come to see if he could engage and defeat this enemy with the power of his mind which he trusted.

At the retreat there is a lot of sharing and even touching… more than he was comfortable with. He is not a “touchy feely” person… I bet some of you understand. He would say, “What is all of this, all of this huggy, huggy? What is the “love the strangers?” But he let them love him anyway at the retreat.

He took his concern to God. He asked God, “God, is it okay to love strangers?” And God says to him, “Yitzak, what is this “strangers”? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.” (from Kitchen Table Wisdom)

God does not make strangers… but we do… don’t we…. As one person pointed out, “We are the ones who decide to make people close to us or make them distant. We decide who to let into our world and who to keep away. Sometimes, a stranger is just someone you haven’t said hello to yet.” (Erica Brown)

This summer I experienced being the stranger. Pastors don’t get to do that very often.

I visited churches from Jerusalem to Pasadena to Raleigh to Cary. They were Presbyterian, Anglican, Melkite Catholic, Methodist and Lutheran. Some were large, some small. I even visited a Synagogue in Jerusalem. The worship ranged from high liturgical with a 16 page bulletin- highly scripted, with processions that would have pleased Larry… to the Presbyterian Church that worshipped in their Fellowship hall around tables without a bulletin (because the projector wasn’t working). Very informal.

Some of my more difficult experiences, should I say, included trying to worship with one church… looking up the time on their website only to discover they had cancelled that service for the summer. No one had changed the website. They were having summer Sunday school in the sanctuary… but not a person spoke to me as I entered. So I left to find another worship service.

I went to another church where I froze to death (you could have hung meat in that sanctuary)…again, not a soul spoke to me except the official greeters. It was a chilly experience!

I learned it is very hard to get a welcome from someone in the pews even in the churches set up for hospitality. It seems like people in the pews often leave the welcoming of visitors to the pastors and greeters. In many churches I observed members talking with fellow members and friends all around me… but no one spoke to me. Maybe it’s me?! I had even signed the fellowship register! Friendliness all around, but not for the stranger in their midst.

On the other hand, I am so glad to report that there were churches that worked hard to welcome me and Sharon when she was with me. At one Presbyterian church I think about 10 people in the congregation greeted us before the service and asked about us. I would go back to that church.

Even in a strange country like Israel I appreciated the efforts at welcome the stranger:

At the Melkite Catholic Church in Jerusalem the 4th century liturgy was offered in Arabic. My Arabic is a little rusty. No worries, they provided an English bulletin. And occasionally throughout the service the priest would tell us what he had said in English. I appreciated that because I was lost a few times in the liturgy.

In Nablus Israel (where Jesus had met the Samaritan woman at the well) we had a similar experience: we attended an Anglican service led in Arabic by a Palestinian priest… they provided an English version of that liturgy. After worship they welcomed us to a tea.

When we attended a Jewish synagogue for a Shabbat service in Jerusalem (all in Hebrew) , members of the congregation sat next to us to explain what was going on to confused Christians.

Interestingly: in those places I was not only a stranger but a minority. Not many English speaking White Anglo Saxon Protestants in Israel!

Here in our own country, I appreciated the efforts of several congregations clearly trying to be welcoming. Many translated parts of their liturgy into Spanish and their brochures and materials were printed in both English and Spanish—their sign of welcome no matter what your native language. One church even had the Lord’s prayer printed in Spanish and Chinese in their English bulletin.

My most memorable experience of hospitality was at All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, California where our son visits occasionally. This is a very large congregation. But from the beginning they wanted us to feel welcome. There was a tent outside the Sanctuary with the big words “Welcome!” As a visitor, we knew where to go. There they gave us a red gift bag filled with information about the church. Within minutes someone came up to us and said they could see we were a visitor since we were carrying a red gift bag. Welcome!

At the welcome table the church offered an option for us to get a nametag. You didn’t have to be a member of the church in order to have a nametag. But they wanted you to feel included as part of that community while you were visiting or seeking or wherever you were on your journey of faith. In other words you could belong before becoming a member. What a welcoming gesture.

Their worship included some of the liturgy translated into Spanish. Their prayer cards and information for children were both in English and Spanish. They invited visitors for coffee with the pastor following each service…

Interestingly, we did not sign a fellowship register but I checked in on facebook. Before lunch was over, someone from All Saints thanked us for worshipping with them.

I share all of this not simply to share what I learned about the hospitality of Christians in other churches… (though we could learn a lot from others)
I share this not because I think we ought to be nice to strangers, though my Momma said we should.

I share this because I have read our Scriptures.

When you dig into our scriptures like the ones we read today, it is clear: how we deal with strangers is not just a matter of being nice or kind or even trying to grow a church. It goes deeper than that. How you treat strangers is a matter of faithfulness to God.

Welcoming the stranger is clearly important to our Lord God. Our passages today are but a few examples:

The Lord says in Deuteromy: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”
I note the word “shall”… not may (love the stranger)… not just a good idea… but shall (love the stranger)! Again, my Mom taught me the difference between “shall” and “may”. We know the difference.

In Leviticus we hear these instructions that are repeated at Jewish Seders:
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God”

Any questions?!

That one may sound familiar because it is the second part of the great commandment according to Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then goes on to explain that your neighbor is someone like a Samaritan… a stranger to the Jews. Not even of the same religion or agreeing on what are holy scriptures.

Today that stranger in our midst might be Muslim or Jewish… One of the reasons I am very interested in cross-cultural and interfaith relationships is because Jesus makes it very clear that hospitality is for all regardless of race or religion or where you come from.

Paul no doubt picked up on these Old Testament commands when he told church at Rome:
“Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

In other words, offer your money to help the poor… offer yourselves to help others feel welcome.

Part of my sabbatical time in Israel was spent in lectures from scholars. One of the scholars I enjoyed most was Marcie Lenk, a Jewish scholar that teaches Christianity. She led us in Bible study. She wanted us to explore how the Scriptures deal with “the other” as a way to inform our Jewish-Christian dialogues.

One thing she said really stuck with me. She said, the imperative to love the stranger is repeated more than any other imperative in the Pentateuch (the law of God in the first five books of the Bible) She said it was likely repeated because it was hard to do. She thinks fear is one of the greatest barriers to loving the stranger.

Still it is there in our Scriptures because how we treat strangers is not just a nice idea but is a matter of being a faithful follower. How we treat strangers speaks volumes about the faith we profess.

The All Saints Church get this: I really liked how their welcome brochure which made an effort to make sure all strangers knew they were welcome there. It reads:
“Looking for a deeper connection with the divine that you cannot quite put into words?”
You are Welcome.

Not sure what you believe?
You are welcome.

Moving from another Christian tradition and considering the Episcopal church?
You are welcome.

Lifelong Episcopalian looking for a church where you can live our your baptismal promises?
You are welcome.”

On this morning I am thinking they would want to add this:
Red, Yellow, Black, White or Brown…
You are welcome!

So I come home wondering what welcome looks like and could look like at the Kirk. I thank God for our greeters… and for the ushers who hand out more than a bulletin but a word of welcome. But can I tell you that the most important welcome people receive is from the people in the pews. So I thank God for those of you who welcome people sitting next to you in the pews.

In fact, after visiting several congregations where no one spoke to us from the pews I wondered if all members would accept this challenge at the Kirk. … at least the extroverts among you and maybe some of you introverts who can summon up the will to move beyond your comfort zone. What if Kirk members committed to speak to one stranger a week. Just one. Maybe you’ll find their name in the friendship register as a visitor. Maybe you will get to speak to a fellow member you don’t know yet. That’s okay too.

Your simple welcome could make a bigger difference than you know.

If you are new to the community and feeling alone… then that gift of welcome could help them in their loneliness. If you are hurting and you come here for healing… it may be your word of welcome that is the first word that leads to healing. If you come from someone ostracized on our culture for any reason…and you walk into here… and receive a word of welcome… for some, it could be life-changing.

I know it was for Dewey and Daryl and their Mother, Marge… Some of you may remember their story…I may have told you before… but it is worth repeating and remembering after the events of this weekend. I met Dewey and Daryl in youth group in 1969 or so… the year after MLK died… the end of a decade of such violence in the streets over issues of race. It was a heated atmosphere. We were integrating schools and people weren’t too happy about that.

During that time, my home church in Jacksonville had an active mission to the inner city neighborhood… called Brooklyn. Just a couple of miles from our church. We had a center there with many programs for African Americans. Sort of like our neighborhood ministry here.

Like our neighborhood ministry here, we invited our African American friends to Vacation Bible School … and even to youth group. Dewey and Daryl were two African American friends who came to this upper class Presbyterian Church and youth group. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but looking back it was bold of my church to do that. I wish I could tell you that it made everyone in the church happy, but that would not be truthful. But as a whole, the church was glad to provide the witness.

They provided a welcome to our friends from the inner city… who were as different as the average Riverside Presbyterian member as Prestonwood is from those who live in the inner city of Raleigh.

I lost touch with Dewey and Daryl after leaving for college and my life. But I remember about 20 years later visiting my old home church and asking someone what ever happened to them. Oh, said my friend, sadly Dewey had died… but Daryl was an elder in the church. Then I attended my Dad’s Sunday school class… a class of older members… and there was Marge, sharing prayer concerns and offering prayer. She was a member.

My home church taught me what it looks like to welcome the stranger… not just with words… not even mainly through word… but through actions… through members who welcomed others to the church… who invited them to be a part of the church… My home church taught me that God doesn’t have strangers… so why should we!

This weekend has made it abundantly clear to me that the world today needs the church to be that kind of place once again… where all are welcomed because Christ welcomes all.

So this is my prayer: May the Kirk be that kind of place… for anyone who walks through these doors… May we be ready to offer friendship for the lonely… may we be ready to offer the healing and hope for those who are hurting… may we be ready to be ministers of reconciliation and a means of God’s grace to every person who comes here for worship… especially the least, last, lonely, left out and the lost.

In other words, may we be ready to be the body of Christ for them. Ready to invite them to be a part of our family of faith, where all are welcome in Christ’s name and where we are strangers no more. Amen.