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Welcoming the stranger we will never meet

We have spent the past month focusing on welcome and we have mostly been thinking about what it might mean for us to welcome people into this church, but I want to propose this morning that welcome is bigger than that, that it can be an act of social justice which embraces the whole world. I said back in my first week that welcome is about recognising and making space for the other, and we can do that for the stranger we will never meet just as we can do it for the stranger who becomes a friend.

Baptist theologian Elizabeth Newman speaks of hospitality (which has many of the same connotations as welcome) as participation in the divine life. To me that says that it is how we join with God in engaging with the world, how we experience God more fully in others, and how we reveal God to others more clearly in ourselves. There are no limits on what that might look like. It encompasses being a friendly face at the door and sitting down for a cup of tea and a chat, but it also extends to how we respond to the news and what causes we choose to throw ourselves behind. Recognising this, Newman argues that hospitality is inseparable from every other aspect of our lives. It comes down to how we see and respond to others and so it is bound up with and will affect our political and economic and ethical decisions. Hospitality or welcome is a whole of life commitment.

I chose this theme for our harvest service because harvest is not just about giving thanks for God's generosity, but also an opportunity to think about our own generosity, a chance to reflect on our stewardship of all we have been given, and I think that has lot to do with the kind of welcome we are thinking about here. Welcoming the stranger we will never meet might look like bringing a donation of food for the Red Cross or giving financially to an appeal like Life’s First Cry, as we did as part of our worship. It might also look like reducing our plastic because we know environmental damage protects the most vulnerable, or voting for politicians we believe will do most to safeguard mental health services even though we’ve been fortunate enough not to need them. Individually they may seem like little things, but they are part of a pattern of recognising the needs of others and making space for them in our budgets and our habits and our choices.

Last Saturday I joined the congregation of Neve Shalom Synagogue to celebrate the end of Succoth (the Jewish harvest festival) and to hear about how Leicester has welcomed and can welcome refugees. We heard from a number of refugees and descendants of refugees, people whose lives had been saved or made possible by the generosity and humanity of others, those such as host families who had welcomed the stranger who became a friend, but also those such as politicians and campaigners who had welcomed the stranger they never met. It was a powerful and timely reminder of the importance of welcome as an attitude of openness and an act of justice.

What I really want to suggest is that hospitality or welcome is a way of living in the world with hearts and arms open, a willingness to embrace the other, which for Christians is rooted in a belief that Christ is found in the other. When Jesus said “whatever you did for the least of these, you also did for me” he was reminding us that the image and presence of God is in each person, and that should lead us to act towards every one with care and dignity and love. That can be easy to forget, as we are all capable of exhibiting some very unchristlike qualities at times, so it is helpful to remind ourselves and ask what we do see of Christ in the other.

Our Bible passage on Sunday was the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37, which I chose because he stands out as an example of someone who did live with heart and arms open, as we see in the fact that he was so immediately willing to help the wounded man by the side of the road. That openness is emphasised for me by two key details, first that the Samaritan stands in sharp contrast to the first three passers by who understood hospitality only in terms of a series of prescribed (or proscribed) actions, suggesting that for him it was not an obligation but a disposition, and second that he was crossing the historic divide between Jews and Samaritans in order to help the wounded man, suggesting that this disposition towards hospitality overcame any sense of nationalism or spite when determining his actions.

Of course what we see in the story is the Good Samaritan welcoming the stranger who then had the chance to become a friend, but the fact that he welcomed the stranger who really wasn't supposed to be a friend suggests a great generosity in his understanding of hospitality, and it is that generosity that I'm really interested in. If we too are generous enough to welcome whoever crosses our path, that may encourage us to be generous enough to welcome those on other paths. And likewise, if we can foster an attitude of openness towards those we do not know, that will surely make us more open to those we do.

And if we turn things around and read from the perspective of the wounded man for the moment, he is an example of welcoming help, even from an unexpected source. We need to be prepared to offer that sort of welcome too, to practise hospitality with humility so that we can receive as well as give it. Again, the fact that all this happens against a background of national rivalry and suspicion is significant, because it goes back to what we said a few weeks ago about welcoming difference. The story of the Good Samaritan shows us the transformation and connection that can occur when we see those we differ from or disagree with as whole people, not simply as holders of opposing views.

Living in the world with arms and hearts open is a dangerous but powerful way of living, which is summed up for me in these lyrics from Hillsong's Hosanna:

Heal my heart and make it clean

Open up my eyes to the things unseen

Show me how to love like You have loved me

Break my heart for what breaks Yours

Everything I am for Your Kingdom's cause

As I walk from earth into eternity

Those words have always resonated with me because I think I understand them through my experience with Bosnia. The Bosnian War passed me by at the time as I was only seven when it ended, but then when I was nine I received a letter from a boy in Sarajevo who had received a shoebox I'd sent through Operation Christmas Child, and at fifteen I performed in a play called Fran's War based on a novel by the same name which told the fictionalised story of a group of Bosnian children trying to survive conflict. Those points of contact with Bosnia changed me forever.

My knowledge of the conflict came from a distance of both time and geography, and I have still not yet had the opportunity to visit Bosnia, and yet I have felt a deep sorrow and love for the people of that country. It is a connection which I have never been able to fully explain, but it has led me to spend the last fifteen years or more praying for Bosnia, and seeking to raise awareness of both its history and and its present. That has included a lot of time reading about Bosnia, and while I have read things I can never say out loud because they are just too horrifying to give voice to, I have also discovered stories of great beauty and hope and humanity.

So I think I understand a little of what it means for my heart to break as God's heart breaks. It is exactly as painful as it sounds, but it is also one of the most significant things that has happened to me, because it has cracked me open and made spaces for others to get in and love to pour out. And I think I also understand what it means to walk from earth into eternity. It's not about doing the good stuff now to earn our spot in the good place then, but learning more about the kingdom values of justice and mercy and compassion, because 'on earth as in heaven' means beginning eternity now.

That may not be the most conventional harvest sermon, and it may seem to have brought us a long way from where we started with welcome, but I really want to encourage us to live with arms and hearts open, to respond to God's generosity with our own generosity as we respond to Christ's love with our own love, to find ways of showing hospitality to those we may never know as an act of justice in a world which sorely needs it, to be be people who live with hearts broken by mercy and compassion. I think there's something in there of the welcome demonstrated by our harvest gifts.

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