By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-16; Matthew 25:31-46
This morning I am continuing with my post-sabbatical sermon series entitled “A Traveler’s Reflections.” My sabbatical involved several trips, including three airline flights and my trip with my sister, Vicki, a Route 66 vacation, had a pretty stressful start. Our connection to Albuquerque was supposed to take us through Dallas. That day Dallas had terrible weather and closed the airport. Our plane was grounded in Amarillo, Texas. Now, I don’t blame the airlines for the weather. They have no control over that. And, as it turned out, they were more gracious than one might anticipate. But their communication was so poor and so slow that it left many travelers – my sister and I included – in sheer panic-mode.
Amarillo is a small airport and we overwhelmed them at the end of the day shortly before they were closing. Standing outside the airport I was frantically phoning local hotels so my sister and I could find a place to spend the night. A woman passing by us asked what was going on and we quickly relayed our story to her. There were many other passengers on our crowded flight; all of us scrambling. One hotel after another was already booked full. By now it was nearly midnight. The woman who’d passed us suddenly re-appeared. “Have you found a place to stay yet?” she asked. Since we hadn’t, she recommended a local, non-chain hotel with which she was personally familiar so she knew it would be clean and comfortable and likely an untapped resource by out-of-town travelers looking for reliable hotel chains with familiar names. Sure enough, it had an open room. “My husband and I can take you there,” the woman said. They were local and had just returned home. She apologized that they’d just purchased a new home and didn’t even have sheets for the guest room bed. “If we just had sheets for the bed,” she said, “you could stay with us.” Talk about welcoming the stranger. On the drive to the hotel we made small talk. She was a teacher, had hoped to retire soon, but with four children – albeit adults, she joked, they’d likely always need more money. Those of you with adult children know how that goes. As the woman spoke, her husband (driving the SUV) raised three fingers. What did that mean? She spoke again; in a softer tone, a slower pace. That’s right; it was three children now; she hadn’t adjusted to that yet. She proceeded to explain the reason for their flight. Their son, Jason, had undergone a double transplant surgery, but he didn’t make it. My sister and I could hardly believe our ears. Lisa’s and Bobby’s son had only just passed away – that’s why they’d been at the airport – and yet they had stopped to come to the aid of complete strangers only hours after their son’s death. They shared a little more about Jason and their other children. When the car pulled into the hotel lot, Bobby opened his wallet to show me a picture of Jason. I asked if I could say a prayer with them. They said they’d appreciate that so much. So, with Lisa and Bobby in the front seats and my sister and I in the back, we leaned forward, held hands and prayed. My sister and I were stunned. Checking into our hotel room, we both agreed that it seemed beyond coincidental that our paths had crossed. “God sent them,” my sister, Vicki, said. “Their hearts were open to God’s prompting,” I said. “They helped us but I think we helped them, too,” Vicki said.
One of the best parts of my sabbatical was the incredible hospitality I experienced from complete strangers. My original host in London backed out on me after I purchased my plane ticket. Hotels in London are so expensive. I put out a plea on Facebook to fellow Methodists. Sure enough, a friend of a friend connected me to her long-time friend and London host when she traveled: a woman named Thea. Thea’s home was lovely. She’d worked in British parliament and is a long-time member of Wesley Chapel on City Road where, for many years, she served as a tour guide at the Foundery. (More about these Methodist sites during the Sunday School hour in the Great Room on August 25.) But, suffice it to say, a complete stranger turned out to be the most gracious host and a highly qualified tour guide.
Today we live in a culture of “stranger danger.” We are taught to fear those we do not know, especially those who are not “like us.” We are warned to hold them at bay; warned that their very presence is a threat to our security and values. And, we are cautioned against vulnerability. But here is what I discovered through my sabbatical – here is this traveler’s reflection: when I am willing to be vulnerable, to confess aloud “I’m lost,” “I need help,” “I don’t understand how this works,” over and over and over again, even complete strangers will graciously and generously come to my aid.
But I must also confess my personal reality: I am a woman, a white woman, well-educated and healthy, who is well-spoken and speaks English. I wear no hijab, I have no accent… well, except a tinge of Midwestern twang, so I’m told. Although my experience as a traveling stranger in the UK and throughout the U.S. was affirming and encouraging and helped to restore my faith in humanity, I know my experience is not a universal experience.
Cultures around the world and across the ages have wrestled with this question of how to treat the stranger. Many folks don’t realize that this question of how to engage the stranger is addressed in our scripture more than almost any other topic. Some of those scriptures (and it’s a small sampling) are found in your program this morning if you’d like to take them home and read them on your own. If we measure strictly by volume, this concern of how to respond to the stranger in our midst occupies an enormous percentage of God’s Word, revealing that it is – first and foremost – a biblical question. Today, we may frame it as a political issue, even a political “hot potato.” But if we take this book seriously, it is – first and foremost – a spiritual, theological, biblical question. This is not a debate for the campaign trails or a decision for the voting booth. The place for this discussion and decision is here. If God had so much to say about it; then we should not avoid talking about it.
But, to begin the discussion, it helps to reframe it; to frame it as our Bible frames it because, it is not merely a matter of how we – as the one who belongs, as the one who is “at home,” so to speak – how we respond to the stranger who comes to us. The stories we find in scripture, show that it is very much a matter of how we are responded to by God through the experience of engaging with the stranger. Our bible reveals that the experience of welcoming a stranger is often, in fact, a divine encounter. It is a message woven throughout scripture. Let me say that again. My first week back, I spoke of the many ways we encounter God in our daily living and, if we study scripture, we discover that, the experience of welcoming a stranger is – very often – an experience of divine encounter.
The testimony of scripture is this: God visits us – and often blesses us – through the stranger in our midst and the way in which we receive and welcome the stranger is, ultimately, the way we treat God.
Perhaps nowhere is that message clearer than in this morning’s gospel. It is the end of time, the final judgment and both sheep and goats are shocked to discover that their response to the stranger – their decision to extend or withhold hospitality and welcome – has sealed their eternal fate. Those who extended hospitality to the stranger receive God’s ultimate blessing and welcome as Christ the king declares: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” Those who refuse hospitality toward the stranger are to be separated from God’s presence and thrust into an eternal fire. It’s a pretty powerful message.
One of the earliest biblical stories of God visiting and blessing through the stranger is this morning’s story from Genesis. If you were in worship two weeks ago, I shared the bible story of God initially making covenant with Abraham and promising him a child. But time passed and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, still had not conceived. Then, one day, three mysterious visitors happened by.
One of the most interesting things about this story is the ambiguity that surrounds the identity of these guests. Our narrator introduces the story by announcing that it is a story of “the Lord” appearing to Abraham. Yet, when Abraham looks up, what he sees are three men. They appear to be travelers; strangers on a journey. Then suddenly, in verse 13, they take on the identity of “the Lord” yet again. Even so, as soon as the story wraps up, at verse 16, our narrator explains, “Then the men set out from there.” It is confusing to say the least. In the 15th century, Russian artist Andrei Rublev painted an icon of this scene of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors that is sometimes known as the Holy Trinity.[i] It’s here on our altar this morning. Now, I think defining these three travelers as Father, Son and Holy Spirit goes beyond what the story itself presents; it’s a bit of a theological stretch. Yet without a doubt, the identity of these three guests is ambiguous and ever-shifting. And that is, I would contend, the most important point. As Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats makes clear – God is routinely in the business of coming among us as one of us and distinguishing God from the stranger in our midst is messy and ambiguous and perhaps a rather wasted effort. So it may serve us well to admit that God somehow, in a way beyond our comprehension, incarnates as the stranger in our midst… a stranger who elicits our hospitality, yet also bears God’s blessing.
As a Methodist pastor, one of the greatest thrills of my sabbatical was to visit Wesley Chapel in London and to see the pulpit from which John Wesley preached. As some of you may be aware, the UK is decades ahead of the U.S. in terms of decline in church attendance. By the early 1970’s, the congregation and budget of Wesley Chapel had dwindled and the church was in serious – even dangerous – disrepair. It was closed, deemed no longer safe for occupancy. A plea was put out and funds were collected from Methodists all over the world. Without their support, John Wesley’s original chapel would no longer be in existence. Significant support was given by Methodists in Paraguay. The day I toured the sanctuary, a Paraguayan Methodist church official was on the tour. But money is one thing; people are another. After all, the church is not the building; the Church is the people. London, of course, is a large, global city. And today, Wesley’s Chapel is a vibrant congregation of 500 and, I would speculate; less than half are native British. Its congregation is comprised of members from 50 countries. The morning I worshiped there, the large and vibrant choir was almost entirely composed of immigrants. Had Wesley Chapel not welcomed and embraced the stranger, our flagship Methodist Church would probably be nothing more than a tourist attraction.
Friends: Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is disturbing to say the least. As bible commentator Eugene Boring writes, “To the [gospel audience’s] surprise (ancient and modern), the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ… What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds… constitute the decisive criterion of judgment.”[ii] Now folks might debate this story’s emphasis on “deeds” or “works” and contrast it to scriptures aligning our eternal fate with our accepting Jesus into our hearts. But if we read the entirety of the Bible, here’s what I think we learn: it’s a false dichotomy for they are one in the same. We cannot welcome Jesus into our hearts and lives unless we also welcome the vulnerable, needy stranger because Jesus is present in the vulnerable, needy stranger; having been the one who came among us as Emmanuel – God is with us – a little baby born to a poor, peasant couple who – Matthew tells us – were forced to become refugees, fleeing to Egypt to escape a murderous dictator named Herod.
Folks: I’m no politician and I don’t have the answer for our global migration crisis. Certainly politics have to play a role. But let’s not forfeit our role in the conversation and decisions that are made because, at the end of the day, we’re not really talking about politics; we’re talking about the Bible. And we’re not really talking about strangers; we’re talking about Jesus.
[i] For more background on this icon, see Hospitality: The Heart of Spiritual Direction by Leslie A. Hay; Morehouse Publishing; 2006; pp. 37-42.
[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible: a Commentary in Twelve Volumes; vol. 8; Abingdon Press; 1995; p. 455.
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