Living in a World of Strangers

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rev. Dean Snyder

Leviticus 19:33-37

This past week was the annual meeting of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Our delegates were the appointed clergy –Al Hammer,Dawn Hand, Theresa Thames and me—four lay delegates Nancy Groth, TC Morrow,Sarah StilesandRalphWilliams; two other Foundry members who are delegates because of offices they hold at a conference level –Clint Stretchwho serves on the Board of Ordained Ministry and Kerry Kidwell-Slack who is lay leader of the Greater Washington District. I personally am appreciative for their service and I know you are as well.

I want to let you know that Foundry’s four appointed clergy –Al, Dawn, Theresa and me—have been reassigned to Foundry for another year. We are grateful to be returning.

I want to also let you know that our bishop made a personal statement during his state of the church address affirming LGBT Christians and same gender committed relationships. It was a brave statement and I want to read a few paragraphs from his statement –

As our denomination has debated policy on homosexuality, I have not participated in the debate. Rather, I have worked to create space for healthy conversation. Because of our denomination’s inability to admit we disagree and because we are alienating those we seek to reach, I’ve decided to share with you my personal beliefs and how I intend to lead in light of our differences. I do this in the spirit that faithful Christians and good United Methodists will disagree on this and a number of people will disagree with my understanding. I am not trying to change anybody’s opinions or beliefs. I just want to let you know my personal thoughts and feelings, my own struggles and how I will lead when we disagree.

I … personally believe that gay and lesbian people are children of God, loved by God and saved through the love of Jesus Christ. I believe that gays and lesbians can live in loving committed relationships that reflect God’s grace-filled love.

I do not understand all of the mysteries of human sexuality. I believe that our sexuality is a gift from the Creator to be shared in loving committed relationships. I believe this is true whether we are heterosexual or homosexual.

Good people, faithful Christians, good United Methodists will disagree on this. I want you to know what I think and feel. I want to be open and honest with you rather than to appear not to have an opinion.

I want us not to condemn each other when we disagree. I want us to be able to be open and honest with one another and be willing to listen respectfully to one another. So let it begin with me.

There was more and I encourage everyone to go to the bwcumc.org website. I’ve asked our staff to get a link to it on our website as soon as possible (find the link in the recent news section at the bottom of our home page).

I am very moved that our bishop has taken a public stand and, I believe, that you Foundry played a role in his deciding to do what he did. He will take heat. We should thank him and pray for him.

During the service of ordination at annual conference an invitation is extended to people to come forward if they have experienced a call to ordained ministry. This year the person who came forward from Foundry was TC Morrow. TC has come forward before. She is a graduate of Wesley Seminary. If it were not for the restrictions in our denomination against openly gay and lesbian pastors, she would have pursued ordination before this.

Two year ago I conducted a service here at Foundry to honor and pray for TC andLogan’s committed relationship and TC andLoganwere legally married here in the district by TC’s aunt who is a judge.

TC now has to decide whether it is time for her to pursue ordination in theUnitedMethodistChurch. So far as I know no married gay or lesbian person has pursued ordination in theUnitedMethodistChurchbefore, certainly not in this conference.

This is a big decision because the process might be very difficult and hurtful. She could also decide to seek ordination within the church within a church movement. So we want to keep TC in our prayers as she discerns the way forward. I have pledged my 100 percent support to her whatever path toward ordination she takes.

Let’s have a prayer with TC.

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We are beginning a new series of sermons today on the theme of hospitality in a world of strangers. I am indebted to Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out, the middle section entitled “Reaching Out to our Fellow Human Beings” for help in preparing this series.

One of the things I want us to understand better as a result of this series is that hospitality is more than being polite. Hospitality is more than a courtesy. Hospitality is more than a way of being nice or friendly.

Hospitality is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith. Hospitality is a core requirement of the Judeo-Christian movement. You cannot be a follower of Jesus Christ without being hospitable.

And I want us to understand that hospitality is dangerous. Jesus ended up on a cross because of who he was hospitable to. Hospitality is a big deal.

In my very first seminary Bible course we were required to pick an idea from the Old Testament, to study it in its context, and to follow its development within the Old and New Testaments.

I picked for my paper the law of the ger which is a Hebrew word that means stranger, alien, foreigner or immigrant.

Some Old Testament laws are mentioned only once or twice and are obviously not very significant parts of the Bible. Others become thematic.

The law of the stranger is thematic and consistent throughout scripture. It appears again and again. The Hebrew word “ger” appears 93 times in the Hebrew Bible. The law of the stranger has a significant impact on Jesus’ teaching and the life of the early church as Jew and Gentile became one people.

The law of the stranger is a basic and consistent teaching of Judaism and Christianity.

When a ger [a stranger or an alien or a foreigner] resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the ger. The ger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the ger as yourself, for you were gers in theland ofEgypt: I am the Lord your God. [Lev. 19:33-34]

There are two things about this Scripture I want to mention today as we prepare for this series.

First, I personally think the greatest cause of sin is a lack of imagination. And the lack of imagination is to not be able to picture yourself in someone else’s shoes.

The basic principle of the law of the ger is that you Israelites were once strangers, aliens and foreigners inEgypt. For God’s sake, you ought to know what it feels like.

You shall love the stranger in your midst because you once were strangers inEgypt.

Who here has ever felt like a stranger or an outsider? Raise your hand.

Not one of us who has ever experienced what it feels like to be a stranger or an outsider has any excuse for not being loving and understanding toward a stranger or an outsider.

We ought to even be able to imagine circumstances that we ourselves have never experienced. Even if I’ve never been an immigrant, I ought to be able to imagine what that is like. Even if I have spent my whole life in church and never had to walk in a church door as a stranger to the Christian faith, I ought to be able to imagine what that is like.

But it is an absolute sin to have experienced something yourself and then not be able to imagine what it must be like for someone else to experience the same thing.

Not treating a stranger well when we ourselves have been strangers is biblically unacceptable. Inhospitality is a sin. It was the sin ofSodomandGomorrah.

Where do you think Jesus got the golden rule from? The basis of the golden rule is the law of the ger. Have enough imagination to treat someone else the way you would want to be treated.

The second thing I want us to notice about this scripture that introduces the law of the ger is that it ends with the words – “I am the Lord your God.”

The law of loving the stranger; the outsider; the alien is a spiritual law. It is not a social law alone, it is not a political law alone, it is a spiritual law.

God is a stranger to us. If we do not develop the capacity to love the stranger and the foreigner, we will not be able to develop the spiritual capacity to love God because God is a stranger. Christ is a stranger.

We are strangers to ourselves. Let me tell you that after years of spiritual practices and meditation and counseling and therapy, and self-examination, if I have learned anything, it is that there are deep parts of me from which I am alien.

Without a willingness to love the stranger I cannot love myself because I am a stranger to me.

Every time I get to really know a stranger, I learn something about myself.

The law of the stranger is not just a political or religious or social law, it is a spiritual law. It is more like a law of nature than a prescriptive law.

We don’t need to have Congress pass the law of gravity. We don’t need the Supreme Court to uphold the law of gravity. The law of gravity is a natural law. It is just the way it is.

The law of the stranger is just the way it is. It is a natural spiritual truth. If we cannot welcome a stranger, we cannot welcome God and we cannot welcome our own self.

This is why so many of us are not hospitable to our own selves. We are not welcoming to our own selves. We are not gracious to our own selves. We are judgmental, critical, rejecting toward parts of our own selves.

Hospitality is a core value of the Judeo-Christian faith. Hospitality is grace put into practice. Hospitality is hard. Hospitality can be scary and dangerous.

The great Dominican biblical scholar Edward Schillebeeckx, the theologian of Vatican Two, he died three years ago in the middle of writing a book about the Sacraments at 85 years of age. Schillebeexks said that modern biblical scholarship has challenged just about everything the Bible says about Jesus. He said the only absolutely unquestionable statement ever made about Jesus is the statement that Jesus ate and drank with sinners.

There was no one to whom Jesus denied hospitality. He ate and drank with sinners. It is why they crucified him. He was crucified for being hospitable to sinners.

He still is. This Communion table is for sinners. If you have ever felt like a stranger of an outsider or an alien or a foreigner. If deep within yourself, you still do, this table is for you. You are welcome here. Your presence here has always been longed for. You are invited to eat at Jesus’ table.