“Creating Space for the Stranger in a Fearful World”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On September 30th, 2012


This fall in my preaching I have been examining the idea of creating space—above all what it means to make room for God in our lives and how we go about doing that.  So far we’ve looked at carving out time for rest in a busy world and for spirituality in a materialistic world.  Today we look at creating space for the stranger in a fearful world.

Our window into that practice this morning/evening is a text from the book of Genesis, and a brief reference to it in two verses in the letter to the Hebrews.  We could be looking at any number of other passages, of course, chief among them Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the most famous of the parables, in which the character looked down upon as the hated half-breed demonstrates what it means to be a neighbor by reaching out to a stranger in desperate need, while other good religious folks pass by, afraid to get involved, afraid to become unclean.  Today’s passage gives us a glimpse into the deep roots of the practice of hospitality in our Abrahamic tradition and what might actually come out of engaging in it.  In this text we meet Abraham, who already has one son, but to whom God had promised a son through his wife Sarah—and not just a son, but descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Listen now for God’s word.

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

            Our second passage consists in just two short verses from the letter to the Hebrews.  Listen for God’s word to you.

            Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

            The very first thing that must be said about creating space for the stranger in a fearful world is that we do live in a world of apprehension and anxiety.  Moreover we live in a culture which can exacerbate those fears, at least some of which are justified. 

            In the years since 9/11 and the development of the Department of Homeland Security we’ve lived with color-coded terror alerts and increased security precautions in airports.  As time consuming as it can be to wait in line and go through scanners and to take off our shoes and our belts, if all of those procedures manage to head of even one act of large scale terror, I, for one, think they are worth it.  A clear-headed view of human nature and recent history acknowledges that there are people in the world who will seek to do you and me harm.  So to take a cautious approach to people we don’t know seems to make sense.   Being careful is not a bad thing.

            When my wife Judith and I were co-pastors in Statesville, NC, we alternated preaching every week, which gave us the opportunity to give gentle feedback to each other on our sermons and other parts of worship leadership.  One Sunday, I shared a Moment for Young Disciples, or as we called it, a children’s sermon, with the children of the church.  Since I was going to be preaching on welcoming the stranger that day, my message to the kids (including my two young daughters) emphasized how they might want to reach out to strangers, to approach people they didn’t know. 

            After the service, Judith pulled me aside to give me a little feedback, with a level of intensity that was unusual.  “Umm…  Remember how you told kids to reach out to strangers in your children’s sermon?”  Yes, I told her.  That was pretty good wasn’t it?  Judith replied, “What on Earth were you thinking?  What about all ‘stranger danger’ messages they’re learning?  They need understand that strangers can mean them harm.  We don’t want them to get into the van or car of someone they don’t know!”

            So yes, some degree of caution with respect to strangers is wise.  But here’s the thing—and my colleague Henry Brinton has pointed this out in his book The Welcoming Congregation—we occasionally take it too far, much too far. Henry opens his book by telling of a congregation in suburban Maryland who had an African immigrant visit their service.  They asked him to leave.[i]  Even after he tried to explain to them that he was a Christian, from Ghana, they called the police to have him removed.

            One of the realities of the way our world is changing is that, even outside of this melting pot area of the country in which we live, people everywhere come into contact with more people who are from different countries or different parts of their country, more people who speak different languages and embrace different religions, in a year than the typical human being in the 18th century would have come across in a whole lifetime. 

            Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the U.K., addressed this in a 2010 radio interview with Krista Tippett.  What he said gave me new insight into what the Bible has to stay about the stranger.  But first he gives voice to the way the world has changed.

It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today, certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America, walk down the average Main Street and you will encounter in 10 minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.[ii]

            He went on:

So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is we’re very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times said the rabbis — is love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you’re a stranger. And this sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.[iii]

            I love that.  What Sacks does is point back to the Hebrew scripture and say that the command that is rehearsed most often, more than any other in the Torah, is to love the stranger, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.  And, because people who are different than you can help enlarge you.  This is a message that Jesus certainly taught and discovered for himself.

            And it goes back as far as Abraham.  As you read his story of encountering the three travelers, it certainly seems that from the very beginning, Abraham understands that he may be having an encounter with God, when he meets these three strangers.  So he pulls out all the stops.

            He has water brought to wash their feet.  He has them rest under a tree.  He has Sarah make bread.  He feeds them a meal of bread and milk and cheese and a fatted calf.  Does the fatted calf remind you of another story of Someone who did something like that, for a prodigal son? 

            If you want to welcome the stranger, feed them.  It was interesting for me to hear Jeff Panitt talk with my colleague Henry Brinton the other evening at our Presbytery meeting.   They were chatting about that story of the African immigrant who was turned away from the church in Maryland. Jeff, who has spent significant time in Africa, mentioned how offended that African would have been.  Because if someone from elsewhere had shown up at his church in Africa, that person would have been greeted with open arms.  Members would have offered to take him to lunch afterwards, or to bring him into their homes for a meal. 

            Hospitality is important.  Knowing how to do it, to create space for the stranger, is important as well. 

            How do we go about creating space for the stranger?  Providing food, a place to rest, a listening ear, a welcoming heart—that’s all part of the answer.  Not labeling them or fearing them because they are different is part of the answer, too.  As is thinking about how you would want to be treated if you were a stranger, and thinking about what it means that we all share a common humanity.

            When Judith and I were co-pastors of a congregation in North Carolina there was another Presbyterian church up a few miles up the road from our.  It was an African-American congregation, Logan Presbyterian.  We took note of the fact that many of the members of that congregation had the same last names as the members of our congregation, names like Stevenson, Summers, and Crawford.   Given that the ancestors of members of our congregation once owned the ancestors of members of their congregation, it was no surprise that the people of Logan had a least a little animosity and distrust of our congregation.

            But when they were marking their pastor’s 25th year of serving their church, they invited Judith and me as fellow pastors to come to the dinner their church hosted.  When we showed up, we found that we were the only white people at the dinner.  We felt a little of what it would feel like to be the stranger.  But we were warmly greeted, and fed, and honored as special guests.  We were shown a hospitality that made us feel welcome.  

            I have a new friend, who is a friend of friends, actually. She happens to be transgendered.  I’ve never met her in person.  But I do pay attention to some of the things she posts on Facebook.  So often they are quite inspirational.  One of the things Sophie posted in the past week was “There are people who take the heart out of you and people who put it back.”  One of the people who puts the heart back into me is Jesus.  For me heart is a mixture of courage and compassion.  It is about having the strength to do the right thing, the loving thing.  It is about overcoming fear to do the welcoming thing.

            For me heart is a mixture of courage and compassion.  It is about having the strength to do the right thing, the loving thing, to overcome fear to do the the welcoming thing.  It remembers what was on the cover of the bulletin this morning, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

            Some time ago, I ran across a wonderful cartoon by a man named Jerry Van Amerongen. Van Amerongen’s work, in a strip called The Neighborhood, was a lot like The Far Side by Gary Larson:  single panel cartoons with funny captions.  His characters all tended to have big noses and wild looks in their eyes. 

            One of my favorite cartoons of his shows a man out in his backyard, digging holes with a shovel and a crazed expression on his face.  There must be twenty holes around him.  The caption reads, “Jason is strong on how, but weak on why.”

            As important as knowing how to express hospitality to the stranger is, it is equally important to ponder why we’d bother to do so.  One reason can be found in a wonderful story from the book Radical Hospitality.

            The book relates the tale of a woman whose husband called her one day to say he wanted to bring home a guest, a woman from South Africa.  She told him no, don’t even think about it buster.  It couldn’t have been a worse day.

            The washing machine had busted and she was out of diapers, so the babies had dishtowels pinned to their bottoms.  (They were parents of boys, two sets of twins, ages two and five.)  There were no clean towels and the beds were stripped and all she had were soggy sheets.  She explained that the planned to serve boxed macaroni and cheese and hot dogs on paper plates for dinner.  She told him that she had not had time for a shower and did not see any break in her schedule for that particular luxury before midnight.

   What’s more, when the dishtowels on the boy’s bottoms became soiled, she would be stripping them down to naked. 

            It picks up in her voice.  “No,” I told him, “do not bring this woman, not today,” He begged.  He said that we were exactly what she wanted to see, a normal American family.  I pointed out that not many American families had a lunatic for a mother, and two sets of twins, and he just laughed.  He said she would love hot dogs and the twins and the paper plates and even little lunatic me.  I gave in.”

             That night over paper plates and boxed macaroni, the woman, her husband and their four sons heard the stories of apartheid.  The mother knew the younger two would not remember them, but she determined before the meal was over, she would tell the stories to her sons again and again.  She would not let them forget.  The guest had once had her own sons, two of them.  They had both been killed in the violence.

           The guest helped them clean up, she helped put the children to bed, and then sat on the front porch steps and cried while she smoked one cigarette after the another. 

           The mother of the twins later said this of her guest from South Africa.  “She was a child of God who had lost her way.  She didn’t know if she would ever go home again.  She told me weeks later, she opened her heart to a white woman for the first time in years.  She wasn’t the only one who was changed that night, though.  I learned the stranger comes to me with the message of an angel, a gift to me that will change my life.”[iv]

            So what do we do with this call to hospitality, this charge to create space for the stranger, in a fearful world?  Here are four things you might consider:

             1. Don’t let the fear of not doing it perfectly keep you from trying it at all.

            2.  Remember the movie of several years ago called Pay It Forward, and the way it showed how doing a random act of kindness for a stranger could make a difference in the world by starting a chain reaction of acts of kindness?  Do that.  Sometime this week, do something kind for a stranger.  Leave them a note that says, “Hi! I wanted to do something special for you today.  I don’t know you, so that makes it even better.  Hope you feel blessed and cared for!  Pay it forward!  J

             3. Come to the Half the Sky[v] presentation after the service today and bring with you a heart open to seeing in women half a world away from you, who maybe strangers to you now, fellow children of God, who could benefit from our help. 

            4. The next time life brings someone next to you, whether physically or psychologically—whether they be a stranger or a long time friend, think about this question:  How might this person reveal God to me?  Because one of the ways God acts in our lives is through the people that are put next to us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[i] See Henry G. Brinton, The Welcoming Congregation:  Roots and Fruits of Christina Hospitality (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012), p. xi.

[ii] Krista Tippett’s interviewwith Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks  on her  On Being radio show “The Dignity of Difference” can be found  here:  http://www.onbeing.org/program/dignity-difference/transcript/4836#main_content

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Lonni Collins Pratt and Fr. Daniel Holman, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2002).

[v] The Immanuel Book Group studied the book  Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and was motivated to ask the whole Immanuel congregation to read it this past summer. There was a forum after the 10:00 a.m. service to present the ideas in the book (that so many women, who as the saying goes, “hold up half the sky,” find themselves oppressed and mistreated in various parts of the world and that we can be part of the solution to that problem) and to give several concrete ways individuals and organizations are responding to those realities. 

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