Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Difference Does a Welcome Make?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on Sunday, September 9:  Psalm 146, Mark 7:24-37.  The photo below was taken that morning.

The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger...

        Some of you have heard this before (or perhaps, even many times) that one of my favorite church typos occurred in the early days at my first parish.  It was the days before the easy electronic cutting and pasting of pieces of liturgy.  We were singing the psalm--today's psalm, actually--and so it had been typed out on an insert to the bulletin.  Reviewing it right before the liturgy, I laughed out loud when I read verse 8:

The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the strange...

The "r" had been left off.  "The stranger" had become "the strange."

        I left the sermon I had prepared in the sacristy and used that typo to talk about what it might mean to be the church of the strange. We had been talking quite a bit about what hospitality and welcome meant, how to treat the stranger when she or he walked in the door; how to present ourselves as friends rather than strangers.

        But our unspoken assumption was that even though the next person through the door might be a stranger, they were most likely to be people like us, or people who could easily become like us.  This was the suburbs, after all.  But what if the next person through the door was not only a stranger, but also just plain strange?  Strangers like us could relatively easily become friends, but the strange tend to stay strange, don't they?

        Maybe yes. Maybe no.

        Jesus, we are told in this morning's Gospel reading, has gone to the region around Tyre.  It appears as though he's trying to take a break, "escape notice," as the text says.  Perhaps that's why he goes to a region which is predominantly gentile, non-jew.  He needs a break from his ministry and his people.  Sometimes it is helpful to be among strangers!

        Or not.  His reputation obviously has spread beyond his own people and in such a way that it has become disconnected from his identification with them at all.  A gentile woman approaches him with no seeming hesitancy at all.  "Heal my daugter," she pleads, and she doesn't seem to have any doubt that Jesus can and will do just that.

        This seems to Jesus to be beyond his mission, however. This woman is a stranger; beyond that, she is strange.  If nothing else she is strange in the sense that she is dismissable.  He need not feel any responsibility toward her.  He need not feel guilty if he sends her away.

        But the woman will not be dismissed.  She refuses to be strange.  Or, better yet, she embraces her strangeness and throws it right back in his face.  And Jesus learns more deeply the depth of God's welcome and compassion.  It is only the woman's need that matters, not the accident of her birth.

        The woman reminds me of Jacob in the Book of Genesis.  Jacob, you may remember, wrestles with an unknown man (perhaps an angel, perhaps even God) and says, "I will not let go until you bless me."  The Bible does not think that relationship with God is easy, not even for Jesus.  Persistence is one of the key human requirements for relationship with God.

        The next healing is almost a parable for Jesus based on what he has just experienced, as well as for us.  The message is Ephphatha, "Be opened."  It is a kind of opening that Jesus has undergone, and one that we must undergo in the face of a stranger, especially one who is strange.

        So I end by asking the question on the front cover of the leaflet. What difference does a welcome make?  Obviously, the answer is, All the difference in the world.  In the Gospel story it meant that non-Jews became the same kind of "children" as Jews.  That turned the world upside down. It still does.  So many of us are not supposed to be here together, especially on a Sunday morning.  In our culture we are defined as strangers and some of us are considered downright strange. And we sometimes are, both strangers and strange!  But we believe that to follow Jesus we belong together.

        I wonder if at your tables eating later, you could share stories about times you felt a stranger (or strange) and yet were welcomed.  How did that feel? What was the effect of it?  What difference did a welcome make?

        Let me suggest one answer: to welcome someone is to do justice to them or to make justice with them.

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