On Receiving the Stranger and Difference

Gen. 18:1-10; Lk 24:13-19, 28-32

Sermon Sept. 6, 2009, Eighth St. Mennonite Church, Goshen, IN

No doubt many messages from pulpits today connect to the Labor Day holiday. Labor, both within and beyond the home, is important. Notably for those who struggle to find or hold on to a job, support from worship groups matters. For, work enables identity. But our culture likely defines a person too much by employment, at the expense of other, just as worthy gifts that shape and credit people. Great injustice pervades the world of income too. Some workers hardly deserve their pay, when meted at the expense of less honored, stereotyped tasks. Do you recall the photo in The Mennonite of Sharon Waltner who recently ended as moderator of Mennonite Church USA? In farm cap, blue jeans, and rubber boots, she stood with pitchfork in hand beside a wagon of manure. Perhaps, she modeled labor for more church leaders.

Perhaps because I have given extensive time and energy to volunteer work, even though trained in professions, I was drawn to another theme for today. The texts that Laura read clearly nudge us to welcome occasions to meet and engage strangers, to see people who differ from us as potential blessing.

Hear a word first about stranger and difference. Stranger here does not refer to strange in an odd or negating sense. A stranger is often a worthy person simply not known by some others. Difference also need not carry negative weight; nothing is ‘wrong’ about being different from others. To be different, rather than uniform, can be very good—a clear gift of God. Just hospitality, as Letty Russell’s last book is titled, models God’s welcome when lived out in care and trust for those who differ. Strangers, in a theological sense, and difference that prompts justice or breadth of vision, can counter blindness. Christians know the Divine as plural. God’s wisdom promotes difference in all aspects of life—the galaxy and skin color, religious choice, flower scents, those whom people befriend, or among folk who live on deserts or in valleys. While philoxenia (the love of stranger) is the Greek word for hospitality, xenophobia (the fear or hatred of difference and stranger) reflects a tragic quality.

Last Sunday night I watched “Cease Fire,” a program about crime among 17-25 years-olds on Chicago streets. Don Lemon reported for CNN. Such a setting of crime is not part of our experience; we do not wish to meet such strangers. For youth who lack a sense of meaning to often hear “Don’t shoot” from those who try to intervene differs from counsel of 8th St. youth sponsors. In that Chicago area, one in eight feels safe, I learned. Teachers report that a child who doesn’t feel safe cannot learn.

So, how do texts about the stranger and difference teach us today? While parents urge children to avoid contact with strangers, might we today think of strangers within our religious experience? Not wishing to make false links, we distinguish strangers worthy to credit from those who steal, kill, or abuse God. We also recall strangers whom we try to exclude, when thinking ‘too highly’ of ourselves. Strangers may believe in the Divine in distinct ways; will we receive from their insight to deepen ours? Or do we presume to order God not to receive certain strangers, when we fear their difference.

A related term for today’s worship of God is hospitality, a frequent biblical concept. Friendly or open practice describes being a host or guest, perhaps both in sequence. Luke’s account shows Jesus as invited guest of two disciples. Although they did not recognize him, they said, “Stay with us.” The guest then becomes host of their table exchange. He invites Cleopas and the unnamed—perhaps a Mary, perhaps not named in order to “represent any one of us”—to receive bread. He took, blessed, broke, and offered the common emblem. That ritual act alerts them to who the stranger is. They see with depth what they had failed to even imagine for three sad days. Whereas they had judged the pilgrim to be a stranger because he seemed unaware of what had so shattered their life, he in fact was their miracle. Had they not invited the talkative hiker to join them inside, they would have missed seeing their friend alive. So too, had Abraham and Sarah not welcomed the three strangers to their tent and table, they would have blocked or missed hearing a promise. A laughable promise.

Hosting shapes what we ‘see’ or recognize. I saw my parents host hundreds for meals each year; Mother had seen and helped her (King) parents host Hesston College students, relatives, and poor people new to their region. A recent issue of Timbrel tells of Mary Nitzche’s teaching her daughters the gift of receiving difference. For years, her family hosted ‘foreign’ students in their home. Each month they prepared a meal, read a book, and noted the flag of another country. The daughters came to value other cultures, ethnic groups, and religions.

Gerald Shenk wrote a recent piece in The Mennonite. The faith of our neighbors—those of diverse race or religion, dye or diction—may challenge us, causing us to discern and pose new questions. Learning truth from them, we deepen our own faith and commitment. To offer shelter, safety, and respect across divisions is “a mark of God’s people . . . in a multifaith world,” he says.

No doubt some of you also knew of Erna Fast. Born in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, in 1912 and thirty-some years later a graduate of New York Biblical Seminary, she was denied being a Mennonite minister. Not letting that narrow term limit her, she brought together strangers after World War II. Relief work in Germany led her to help found “America’s oldest continually running exchange program between two colleges,” between Bethel College in Kansas and Germany’s Wuppertal. To value difference, rather than enlarge fears and falsehoods, still escapes some town and church life, I believe.

Last Sunday when 8th Street members shared meals in homes, I started to know Kim Graves. Not quite strangers, we had never more than greeted each other. To learn that she spends five days a week with an autistic child at Parkside School drove me to our texts. How might such a child, who differs from Kim’s daughters, also reflect God’s welcome? Might Kim see the Divine gift of grace in small progress? Surely, the child meets Divine care in Kim’s patience. Their interaction makes them “strangers no more.” They join in God’s kin-dom. Georgene Wilson’s use of kin-dom to replace the sexist kingdom term truly expands our insight into God’s welcome of all.

I first learned about the hospitality that Abraham and Sarah showed at their tent by the oaks of Mamre when reading my mother’s “talks.” Her first public speech, given in her home church when age 13, notes this text. How intriguing, that she who later hosted the living and dead, including some strangers, who credited the Divine as ever-present, chose this ancient account of God’s visit! She also drew on verses from Leviticus 19:34 and Mark 9:41. “. . . you shall love the alien who resides among you as a citizen; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God.” “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name . . . will by no means lose the reward.” Perhaps we Americans need more “alien” experience in order to receive and give water to immigrants.

A divine being’s surprise visit to a person appears in texts of several world religions.1 In the Hebrew Scripture, three unknown visitors appear to elderly Abraham and Sarah. Gracious, he offers water for thirst and foot-washing and suggests that they rest while he garners the ‘tent-crew’ to ready a meal of calf, bread, milk, and butter. Here is warmth of welcome and deep respect offered at midday. Whether Yahweh appeared in all three commoners but spoke as one, mystery pervades. Strangers no more, they symbolize being “members of one family.” After appearing to eat, the guests attend to their ‘task,’ their reason for coming. They report that Sarah would birth a child before another year had passed. That prediction made the eavesdropper inside the tent flaps laugh. The guests depart asking pointedly: “Is anything too hard for God?”

The call to entertain strangers recurs. Thirty-six Hebrew texts remind hearers to “love the stranger.”2 To love the stranger involves basic peace-building, for strangers will be loyal to diverse faith traditions, promote views that differ, or speak languages like Spanish or Hindi. We choose to take risks and offer empathy when we make space for difference. We see anew God’s image in those whose faith, ideals, or patterns of love differ. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that if we fail in such common work, we “make God into [our] image instead of allow God to remake us in God’s image.”3 Self-righteous people might negate the stranger in today’s pluralist context, or set a fence around her. Wishing to keep their own people separate, they fear that strangers might undermine their values or habits. I value what Martin Marty says in his book When Faiths Collide: “To welcome the stranger involves passing over into the other’s life and stories and coming back into our own [faith] enriched.”4

Seeing God in the stranger whom we meet, or in the person who differs from us, helps us avoid being arrogant or intent to limit God’s inclusive being. More about the Emmaus event might renew the offers: “Come, walk with us” or “Stay with us.” By the way, just where Emmaus was\ is has always puzzled scholars. When the stranger asks what the two are discussing and why it matters, he lets them explain their experience, rather than correct them. The disciples continue on their spiritual journey; to let go of the recent past with their Friend is painful. We too are on a road to discover. We too struggle to be patient when scripture is disclosed in new, less traditional, ways—as the Stranger did while walking. In human form, he opened texts, saying that all of it must be fulfilled. Informed about scripture, they simply didn’t want to accept the “scandal of the cross” part. Perhaps their intense grief, or even God, prevented their eyes from seeing. Until he takes, blesses, breaks, and shares bread. Known symbols provide meaning; the two see the world in new terms. Gosbert Byanumgu writes: “In running from him they find Jesus anew.” No longer fearful, they return to Jerusalem to tell their friends. Might we ask what strangers we fear or try to run from lest we discover God’s welcome anew?

In addition to being a story about receiving a stranger, the Emmaus event explains “not knowing.” Are we free to admit at times what we don’t know for sure? Might we hold certain beliefs too rigidly? Like saying that God’s salvation has only one expression, rather than combine humility with conviction. Might we see the walk of faith as discovery, as something that ever unfolds, thanks in part to what strangers reveal to us? As we dialogue with others about hard questions, difference will persist even as further truth may converge. As we invite another to stay, and expect God to truly host the exchange that follows, each ‘side’ is gift to the other through shared search.

As Jesus took the risk to walk with the two, they risked inviting him: “Stay with us.” Both to offer and to accept welcome were common, yet worth a second thought. Last week-end, we hosted a couple who brought their daughter to transfer to Goshen College. We did not know each other; a mutual friend told them to contact us. Compared with the Emmaus event, our linkage had less risk. But we too were amazed at how much our past experience in India became the symbol between us. By today, that couple is back in India at a new job and location, while everyone whom the daughter meets on campus is a stranger. I truly wonder if others on the campus journey will live out the text “stay with us.” As hosting was a frequent posture among Jews at places like Emmaus, do we when hosting let God be the true host and guest? Do we value differences that remain while free to receive something new from each other?

Other scriptures highlight strangers or what differs. Think back to the unity that marked the beginning of time. Gazing at ancient Babylon’s terraced towers, folks said, “Come, let us build a city with its top to the sky.” Let’s draw attention to and prompt a name for ourselves. Let’s scheme: in control like God, we prove how reliant we are without God. We’ll not be scattered; we’ll have one language; we’ll be great. Seeing the tower of Babel, that sign of human power, God looks down and says, “Let us” (my council of gods) punish those who try to usurp our wish to “fill the earth.” Crushing their unity and order, we will gift them with difference. We will scatter them to places where they fail to understand. Unable to join others against God, they learn how futile their efforts can be. Failure to bridge what differed plus confused speech reveal failure to trust or work with strangers.

But the hopelessness of Babel in the Hebrew text was not God’s last word. Pentecost, recorded in Acts of the Second Testament, reversed Babel. While Babel offered the gift of difference, Pentecost offered the gift of understanding it. As first century Aramaic broke into dialects, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek words also shaped thought. Fifty days after Passover, God’s inclusive Spirit or energy covered the known nations. The Spirit opened what separated people to “new understanding that difference brings.” (Letty Russel, 61) Pilgrim Jews gathered in Jerusalem for a festival; they joined the 700,000 devout, god-fearing Jews who lived there. God’s works, proclaimed by prophets, were heard by each people’s language.

Many gathered to pray in the large home of Mary, wealthy, land-owning mother of John Mark. Awe and emotions of that global crowd strengthened as they heard words that sounded like rushing wind and fire. Tongues—meaning languages, accounts, and reciting—emerged from each. Each heard as if the others all spoke the same language. Local, Jewish Christians, newly blessed to tell others, shared God’s salvation far beyond people of Israel. Barriers among believers fell. The new order showed that what had marked people as strangers could no longer hinder God’s Spirit.

All who call on God in faith belong—whatever God’s name or form; whoever they in faith love; from whatever nation or creed, age or race. Letting God decide who is faithful, neighbors learn about and host each other as they work together. Helpful, Pentecostal writer Amos Yong (Hospitality and the Other) knows that no group has “a corner” on hospitality. For example, he invites Christians in Malaysia, where Islam dominates, “to visit temples and mosques, not as tourists but as pilgrims.” Journeying together, without losing distinct traditions but led by the universal Spirit, believers receive strangers or those with difference. Already indebted, a host becomes ‘hostage’ to the guest. Christians might ‘see Christ’ in the religious other; another might see a guru in the open-minded, Christian stranger.

Many other biblical texts report interaction with strangers. Because they had been wounded strangers, ancient Israelites were to care for the strangers they met. Being “people of God” meant offering such care for those who were different. Ruth the outsider from Moab chose loyalty to her distraught mother-in-law Naomi, left without a child. Then Boaz modeled Yahweh’s welcome to a foreign widow. The Syrophoenician stranger with a need taught Jesus to heal those different from his Jewish kin. The wealthy woman from Shunem talked her husband into a remodel job on their roof so that an unknown, frequent traveler might lodge and eat with them. Not afraid to risk, she intuited Elisha’s being a “man of God.”

Might the day come when Christians reach out to partner with, not colonize, strangers of diverse faiths or nations? To not be imperial means that we “look at hospitality in terms of social structures of justice and partnership across barriers of difference,” Letty Russell suggests. To better understand God’s welcome might follow. God’s welcome blends: surprise divine presence, support for those on the margins, mutual welcome, and community. It values partners, not one as superior to the ‘other.’ (Mt. 28:18-20, the Roman empire model) Not suggesting that strangers’ are always right, Parker Palmer in The Company of Strangers sees how difference helps us look anew at what we claim. “God uses the stranger to shake us” from custom. Without making the stranger become like us, or we to ape the stranger, we find newness in God’s welcome while receiving with compassion an-other’s distinct, sacred being.

May we ponder anew how to be “strangers no more” during the week ahead.
May we recognize God in those like us, and different.


Be blessed, all of you born in the very image of God.
Be blessed and be a blessing to others. Amen.
[from Shaping Sanctuary, 404]