Welcome the Stranger
Abraham and Sarah welcomed the stranger.
The story goes that three beings appeared to Abraham and Sarah, and they brought them water and food, allowed them respite and welcome. In fact, the account in Genesis shares with us that Abraham and Sarah didn’t offer them the leftovers, but the choice flour and fatted calf.
We can get all Biblical and distance Abraham and Sarah’s actions from our own choices by saying, “Well, Abraham and Sarah KNEW these strangers were from God and they were safe.”
We can, but we are, as lawyers say, assuming facts not in evidence. The text suggests that Abraham knew the three strangers were not like him, however Abraham understood that. But to think that because God was involved this welcome was safe?
No, we can’t assume that.
In fact, we can almost be certain of the opposite, that welcoming God into our lives is not safe. It carries risk, it opens the door to unsettling truths revealed, and it will change us. All of these things activate fear and unrest in our lives.
We also would do well to consider the risk of serving complete strangers food. In the days of Abraham and Sarah, there was not a local Whole Foods to which Sarah could zip right down to and pick up more food. What was served to strangers often came at a direct cost - there would be less food for you and your family. Strangers rarely came with recommendations, and in ancient times, no cell phones existed for a call to the police if things got out of hand.
Welcome, then, almost always implied risk. To practice hospitality is a practice of courage.
The record of God’s relationship with humanity returns to the holy practice of hospitality and welcome as a measure of love again and again and again. The stranger is unknown, vulnerable, and outcast. And the person who has the power of welcome has a choice - to engage in the holy and courageous act of welcome or turn away.
The courageous acts of welcome are committed by an Egyptian princess welcoming a foreign baby Moses from the river. Boaz welcomes Ruth from the grain fields. And Egypt welcomes a new family from another place fleeing a violent country.
Jesus himself understood and preached on the practice of hospitality and welcome. He himself realized the human propensity to refuse welcome because we are scared and fearful. He tells his disciples early in his ministry in the Gospel according to Matthew to go, preach the Good News! You will be welcomed by some, but if anyone will not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet as you leave and, at a later time, they will answer for their choice not to welcome.
In light of the rhetoric being spilled by talking heads and politicians, we might think not welcoming is safe, that refusing to open our communities to the stranger will keep us secure. The stranger, of course, is someone who does not look like us, who does not speak our language or worship God the way we do - a baby from a different culture, sent forth onto the waters by his mother so he could live; a woman widowed by war and famine, seeking a new life; a family fleeing tyranny and violence in their home country, hoping their child can grow up safely.
Logic tells us actually in this country, the most recent violent acts of terror have been done by people who look exactly like us - white, male, claiming to be Christian. So this fear is not about logic. It is much more insidious.
I wonder if we are not coming face to face with the deep evil that exists in us all, that slumbers in our souls until it finds a slim opening, a slight crack in the goodness of our souls, and bursts forth, wrapped in what sounds logical and reasonable, but in fact, is counter to that which God has commanded. Welcome, then becomes a way we save not only the stranger, but our very selves and souls from abandoning of compassion, kindness, and love.
I wonder if this very presence within our selves and souls that clings to the falsehood that we are only ever safe with those just like us, is the evil that God so clearly and frequently calls out when God commands us to welcome, to practice holy hospitality, to care for the least of these. This evil continues the lie the lives of others do not matter; only ourselves.
God says otherwise. Do not, God commands, wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger, for you once were strangers.
And then, just in case we are tempted to qualify this as a mild suggestion which we can ignore when the political power structure waxes and wanes, God adds, “If you do mistreat them, when they cry out to me, I will hear their cry and my wrath will burn.”
In other words, God is really serious about practicing holy welcome in that “Don’t make me stop this car” way.
And yes, the people of God have welcomed the stranger for eons, mostly to good, and sometimes not. Because people make choices that lift up in love and tear down in pain. God, however, does not say welcome the stranger only when you feel safe and secure and in total control or love your enemy when you feel like getting good press. We are called to follow God in love. When it’s fun and easy…and even more, when following the tenets of love, mercy, and welcome are hard, challenging, and scary.
To welcome the stranger is risky, and yet, that very welcome is what we are commanded to do as Christians and people of faith. Yes, we can be as wise as serpents to be aware, to be as careful as we can when we welcome and practice hospitality. But we are also reminded to be innocent at doves, to remember we are not ever able to make ourselves completely safe, to reduce the risk to nil, or to prevent life and all its hardships from happening.
We can, however, refuse to add to the hardships of the outcast, the stranger, and the refugee by breathing deeply, infusing ourselves with the courage of the Holy One, and welcome. Welcome the stranger, God reminds us, because you were once the stranger. And you will also very likely be a stranger in need again.
Welcome, practice hospitality, and love and serve the Lord.