Monday, March 17, 2014

Yesterday's Sermon - Welcoming the Stranger

Genesis 12:1-6
Leviticus 19:33-34
Deuteronomy 10:18-19
Matthew 25:31-46

Today we continue our study of Matthew 25 by looking at the third of Jesus’ injunctions.  The first is to feed the hungry, the second (which we skipped because of time constraints) is to give drink to the thirsty, and today we are called to welcome the stranger.  I included other scriptures in today’s study which also focus on welcoming the stranger.  The bottom line in all of these is that we are called to remember that all of us have been strangers at one point.  Whether we are talking at a personal level or a political level, all of us here have ancestors that were not from the United States, all of us have travelled, all of us have met people we didn’t know before.  As part of that all of us probably have times in our personal lives or family histories in which we were not welcomed because we were strangers.  And all of us have failed to welcome the stranger among us, in one way or another.  We are all suspicious of people we don’t know and don’t understand.  We make global statements about who strangers are and what they are like.  We fear they are trying to take something from us – our place, our jobs, our space, our friends, our…   and we forget that none of that belongs to us.  All of it belongs to God and God alone, and as God states so very clearly in these passages – God loves the stranger, welcomes her or him always and calls us to do the same.
Mitch Albom, in his book “the Five People you Meet in Heaven” tells the story of a man named Eddie who learned that he had been saved from death at one point by a man whom he called “the blue man”.  Eddie had been a kid when this happened, but the blue man who saved him died while saving Eddie.  Eddie meets him in heaven, and after seeing what the man did for him he says, “I still don’t understand”, Eddie whispered.  “What good came from your death?”
“You lived,” the Blue Man answered.
“But we barely knew each other.  I might as well have been a stranger.”
The Blue Man put his arms on Eddie’s shoulders.  Eddie felt that warm, melting sensation.  “Strangers,” the Blue Man said, “are just family you have yet to come to know.”
As people of faith, we are especially called to see this.  We are all God’s children, ALL God’s children.  Therefore every stranger is, in the truest sense of the word, simply family we have yet to come to know.
Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food - NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
  As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. "We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek." The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him. He walked up to the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment.  Then he recited,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
'The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all that he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, "Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. Will YOU decide to become disciples?"

A church community in New York decided to take on the task of experiencing what it was to be with the “least” of these by spending a night on the street with several of their local neighborhood homeless folk.  While they were out, creating fellowship and engaging in conversation, it began to rain and to rain quite hard.  They chose to seek shelter in a nearby church which had a Saturday evening
service that was about to begin.  As they attempted to enter the church, a security guard met them at the door and kindly but firmly told them they would have to leave.  The pastor of the local church who was leading this experience was among those asked to leave.  She asked why, and the guard said he knew it was raining but that he had been hired expressly for the purpose of keeping out the homeless people who would come into the church simply for shelter and not to hear God’s Word.  The pastor kindly but gently suggested that perhaps strangers would be more open to hearing God’s Word if they were treated as the Bible said they must be by these “people of God.”

When Aislynn, who turns 9 today, was 3 years old I used to take her for "get used to water" swim lessons.  As usual on this one day I sat near the pool with a woman I’d been coming to get to know whose twin boys were also in Aislynn's class.  Unusual to this lesson, there were also two other women sitting in front of us in the "observation" benches: they had brochures in their hands about the classes being offered and seemed to be checking out the adult water aerobics class to see if they wanted to sign up. Half way into the lesson one of the two women in front of me excused herself and left. My new friend also had to leave at that point because her twins needed a trip to the bathroom. As soon as both the other women left, the woman sitting in front of me suddenly burst into tears. She turned towards me and said, "the woman I was sitting with has just made me very sad." I was surprised, at many levels, but mostly that this stranger had trusted me with her feelings, but I also immediately jumped into "pastoral counselor" mode and put my hand on her back and asked what had happened. She sort of melted into my touch and sobbed out that she had just gotten out of the hospital where she'd had two blood transfusions. These transfusions had saved her life and she was doing really well now, though in need of some light exercise. Apparently, though, the women she'd been sitting with had just told her that getting blood transfusions was a really bad thing and that she would probably die from the diseases carried in the new blood. Amazing!
     I told her that there used to be problems, occasionally, with people passing on diseases in this way, but that because of those problems the blood that now gets passed on in transfusions is really very thoroughly tested. Obviously she needed the transfusions and the very fact that she was doing better should show her that the new blood had not made her ill at all! I said that I believed the other woman to be greatly misinformed and apparently not very helpful either. I then just listened as she poured out more information about her life - the joys and struggles, but at the end she said she was feeling much better. As soon as she seemed done and had stopped crying, my friend with her twins returned.
As the lesson ended and we all made our way out of the swim area, the distressed woman came up and said she really felt I had been a God-send that day - that she usually doesn't dump on total strangers and she just thanked God I had been there when I was.  I think about that story – the opportunities we have to interact with strangers, and the possibilities in those moments of bringing comfort, of offering compassion, of bringing care.  God gives us these opportunities to welcome the stranger daily.

One of the ways that St. Andrew’s welcomes the stranger is by inviting, housing and welcoming all the groups and classes that we house here such as the AA groups and recovery groups, as well as through opportunities such as Family Promise and the ILR classes.   We give these strangers a place to be.  We give them a sense of “home”.  I have talked with several of the AA folk who come here for their meetings and they tell me they see this building as their church.
But when pushed a little…”The building?”  I have asked, “you see the building as your church?”
“Well, yes,” one of these men admitted uncomfortably.  “We are welcomed into this space, we are never treated unkindly, but we always remain strangers, never really known, never really talked to, never really invited into relationship.   So while my AA group is ‘church’, and the building is my church, the congregation?….Well, not so much.”   I understand this.  We want to preserve their anonymity and we may think the best way to do that is to avoid engaging them in anything meaningful.  But they are people.  They are the strangers among us whom we are called to treat as our own “citizens”.  They are God’s children and we are missing an opportunity to be Christ to them when we do not look them in the eye, ask how they are, and welcome them not only into our space, but into our hearts as well.

We need to remember, every time we walk into a new space, we are neither the first person into that new space nor the last.  We will always be a stranger to some and others will always be a stranger to us.

 Welcoming the Stranger may even be harder for us than feeding the hungry because it involves not just opening your hand, your wallet, your food pantry, it involves opening your hearts.  It involves opening your hearts to people you don’t know, to people you don’t understand, to people you may not want anywhere near you at any time.  Welcoming the stranger is a hard call because it involves looking at each person not by their status, rank, ethnicity, background or country of origin but looking at them with eyes that look to see God’s face in the other.  Remember, when you do it for the “least” of these – those people who are hardest to see, hardest to love, and easiest to fear – that is when you do it to Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Forgiveness, Part VII

So here we are again on forgiveness.  I saw, and then shared forward a quote I saw on facebook that said, "Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different."  The timing of my seeing the post was such that it almost felt like it could have been sent just to me in that moment.  I've been struggling, once again, with forgiveness.  I preached on it last week, I know what God would say, I know we are called to forgive.  I know we must do this in order to heal ourselves.  I know we must let go of the past, we must learn to be okay with what has already come to pass, and we must gracefully accept the humanity and imperfection of ourselves and everyone else.  I know this.  I believe it.  I preach it.  I trust it.  Does that mean I can always do it?  No.

I strive to.  I struggle to.  I realize the person I hurt when I can't let go is myself (and sometimes others as well!).  But that doesn't change the fact that I just can't always forgive.  As much as I want to, as much as I need to, there are times I just can't let go of my anger, or, more often, hurt; when I simply cannot find the peace I seek in relationship to others or to myself.

And as I struggled with this quote and with concepts of forgiveness, I realized that for me, it really isn't so much about the past as about the present.  If something has happened in the past that is truly over, that no longer carries current consequences, I really can let go of it, forgive it.  But if it continues to affect the present... In other words I would change that sentence.  I would say, "Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the present could be different."  Of course we have some recourse always to change the present that may be making us unhappy.  But what if we feel that we've done everything we could to reconcile a situation and still are unable to do so?  Those are the hardest situations for me to come to peace with.  When I have tried to make amends, when I have asked forgiveness for my part in the situation, when I have accepted the terms as presented to me by the other, but those terms still make me uneasy, unhappy, still lack resolution or even worse, reconciliation, what am I then to do?  How do we forgive ourselves or those around us when we remain uneasy and unreconciled with the current reality?

I've also been thinking about the Corrie Ten Boom story that I shared in my last posted sermon.  It was nearly impossible for her to extend forgiveness to the guard who asked for her forgiveness.  But she was able to do it.  Still, she had been preaching forgiveness before he approached her.  So I assume that before he made his way to her, she had believed she had forgiven those guards.  It therefore must be different in the hypothetical than in the real.  The past guard did approach her though, and ask her forgiveness and she had to come to terms with the reality of what it is to forgive, in the flesh, this person who had so hurt her.  And she did.  But what if she had seen him and never been approached?  What if he had never asked forgiveness?  What if, instead, he had become concrete - standing there in front of her, but still not acknowledging his need for forgiveness or asking her to extend her forgiveness to him?  For me, the people it is hardest to forgive are the ones who cannot acknowledge their part in a situation, who never see or own that they have done damage.  Every situation involves at least two people.  And while the blame may be unbalanced, one may carry the large part of the fault and the other the minimal amount, each relationship and situation does involved two or more people.  It just does. But not everyone is in a place where they can see their own contribution.  And not everyone can or does ask for forgiveness.

And still, we are called to forgive.
We are called to forgive even when it is not asked for.
We are called to forgive even when we cannot give up the hope of a present that is different.
We are called to forgive those who remain distant, a memory, a hypothetical,
and we are called to forgive those who stand in front of us, whether they ask for forgiveness or not.
We are called to forgive those we love,
and we are called to forgive those we hate.
We are called to forgive the other.
And we are called to forgive ourselves.

I'm reminded once again of the following words from Susan Werner.

Forgiveness – Susan Werner

 How do you love those who never will love you?
 Who are happy to shove you out in front of the train
 How do you not hate those who would leave you lie bleeding
 While they hold their prayer meeting

 How do you love those who never will love you
 Who are so frightened of you they are calling for war
 How do you not hate those who have loaded their Bibles
 And armed their disciples, cuz I don't know anymore

 And I can't find forgiveness for them anywhere in this
 And with God as my witness I really have tried
 How do you love those who never will love you
 I think only God knows and he is not taking sides
 I hope one day he shows us how we can love those
 Who never will love us but who still we must love.

And in the end, for me, all I can do is keep praying about it, keep asking for the strength, the courage, the wisdom and the peace to be able to accept a present that is not what I would want, and to be able therefore to forgive, completely, wholly, and unconditionally.  I ask for the strength to forgive the other even when it is not sought, or returned and even when their part is not seen or acknowledged.  I ask for the courage to forgive myself even when I cannot fix the damage I have done.  I ask for the peace to accept what is, past, present and future with grace.  I ask for God's love to overcome my own limitations in loving.