12th Sunday After Pentecost: Proper 17
I’d like to begin with a moment of silence for the people killed and injured on Saturday in Odessa, Texas.
Gracious and merciful God, send your Spirit to walk with us through the world, in times of sorrow as in times of joy. Be with all who experience violence and preserve them, and welcome all those who have died into your everlasting kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Please be seated.
The summer I was 19, I spent 10 weeks in England.
For eight of those weeks I worked at a community center in South East London. I was there to be an extra staff person at the community center’s day program for differently abled adults and plan their Summer Fun activities.
I was eager to get started at work, excited to be in a new place, and for a while I spent my evenings and weekends walking around the city, trying to have the experience I thought I should be having.
I was independent and capable – I did my research and asked my host mom for tips. But after a few weeks cracks began to show, and I realized that mostly I was lonely, overwhelmed by a job that was often emotionally taxing, and lost in a totally new environment.
I was a stranger.
Maybe you have had a similar experience:
You have gone somewhere new or different and realized that it was, in fact, new and different, and not at all like home.
You may have felt lonely, separated from friends or family, unable to connect with the people around you.
And perhaps you’ve felt overwhelmed, expecting one kind experience and finding instead something totally unexpected and disorienting.
Maybe you, too, have felt like a stranger.
“Let mutual love continue,” the author of Hebrews writes. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
The idea of welcoming the stranger runs throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – hospitality is a big deal, no matter who you are. Both literary canons emphasize that is important to show hospitality to people on the margins of society, who have been overlooked and are vulnerable.
We hear that call as Jesus calls all to the banquet in Luke’s gospel, and elsewhere in the epistle – “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
As Christians, we are to go out into the world and act out Christ’s love for it, and that means welcoming all into the house of God, paying close attention to the suffering and all those in need. We attempt, through word and action, to embody God’s love for all creation.
But are we able to accept assistance in return? Are we able to recognize our own weakness and vulnerability?
Often, I’ve found, the concept of the stranger is used in such a way that it distances the people hearing about “the stranger” from the people the word signifies.
Christian speech and writing seems to use the stranger an avatar for anyone we feel we need to be concerned about. It feels like “the stranger” is over there somewhere, far away and in a pitiable condition, someone we can feel sympathy for, but no real empathy with. We get to remain the people who can help; not the people who need help.
This is, of course, not true. There are moments of crisis – a mass shooting, a hurricane, a family tragedy – to which we are all susceptible. But it can be hard to remember that until it happens.
When we think of “the stranger” as a person, or more frequently, a people group, who is somehow fundamentally different from us and in need of our assistance, what we wind up offering isn’t so much hospitality as condescension.
When we think of pain and suffering as far away, we close ourselves off to it. We remain in control of our own lives and narratives,
keeping the chaos of the world at bay by sinking into the myth of our own self sufficiency.
We are in control, we are okay, we are certainly in no need of hospitality ourselves. We are not strangers – we welcome them.
Take it from the prophet Jeremiah – believing that we are self sufficient and can take care of ourselves alone is not a good long term plan.
We need each other, and we need God.
In our Old Testament reading today, we hear Jeremiah prophesying to the families of the house of Israel. He retells the story of the Exodus, and Israel’s arrival in the land God gave them. In doing so he narrates two evils that Israel has committed against the Lord:
they have forsaken their God,
“the fountain of living water,”
and they have “dug out cisterns for themselves,
that can hold no water.”
It is not just that the people have turned away from the Lord, forgetting to cry out to God in times of distress and to give thanks in times of plenty;
it is that they believe that their own self reliance can sustain them.
They need no fountains of living water, because they have dug their own cisterns.
In the context of Jeremiah, this is striking. The people of Israel have been expelled from their homeland, deported by the Babylonian empire. They are the ultimate “strangers” – torn from their homeland and thrown, violently, into a new land.
But still they turn away from God and seek to make their own way, rather than traveling again with the God who has seen them out of slavery and through the desert.
As Christians, Christ is where we find our streams of living water. Our self reliance will not sustain us, in moments where we feel independent and in control, and when we are in desperate need of assistance.
We are all dependent on God – none of us any more or any less.
The idea of the stranger as someone else in need of our assistance has some parallels the ways we attempt to be totally self sufficient, rather than turning to God for sustenance and aid.
The thing I learned the summer I lived in London
was that while I was there ostensibly to fill a need, to work at the community center, I needed the members and the staff’s welcome and support, too.
While I thought I was there to learn a new city and explore a new place, I was really learning the person I was becoming. Not only was I a stranger there, I was in many ways a stranger to myself.
It wasn’t until I acknowledged that I was a stranger who really needed some welcome that I asked for help. People showed me kindness, warmth, and good humor – they invited me to the pub or over for tea.
It wasn’t flashy or sexy – no dramatic changes took place. But the hospitality I received was a reminder that I was very much in need of God’s love, worked out in those around me. And it helped me extend some much needed hospitality to myself, as well.
We are all strangers at some point – all called into new places, new ways of being.
Not only do the people and places around us change, but we change, too, in identity, faith, doubt, experience. A stranger is not occupying a life different than , but someone close by, part of each of us, in need of hospitality and in need of the sustenance of God.
If we are able to recognize ourselves as strangers,
how much better might we be at showing hospitality to those around us?
we may even entertain angels unawares.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.