COMMUNING WITH STRANGERS

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

October 1, 2017

Lections: Gen 18:1-8; Hebrews 12:28 – 13:3; Luke 10: 25-34

 

Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen:  if you are a foreigner from one of these countries, you are banned from traveling in our country.  The ban takes aim at “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. The President says this ban will protect the security and interests of the United States and its people, but will it? The cultural practices of the Ancient Near East suggest the answer is “no.”  The desert people who are the direct ancestors of today’s Muslims developed an elaborate ritual of hospitality to keep foreign travelers and the people of the nations they traveled through safe from harm.  

We heard two familiar stories in the scripture readings this morning:  the story of the three angels who visit Abraham; and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the familiar story of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  His answer was likely considered foolishness, because it overturned longstanding customs based on treating neighbors and strangers differently.  Yet this foolishness would become the healing power of the church, for it contextualization as Holy Communion, which we will soon celebrate and freely distribute, “since we are receiving a kingdom.”  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story about hospitality, and hospitality is what we enact at the communion table, where we serve the bread and fruit of the vine, and everyone is welcome, as we say, in the fullness and unity of Christ.

Each of us can recall instances of receiving hospitality when our need was great.  Indeed, the practice of hospitality has its origins in life and death situations.  As one bible scholar notes, “Hospitality customs in the biblical world related to two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien” (Dennis Bratcher).  In Ancient Israel, Jewish law protected the resident alien, that is, the foreigner who resided in Israel, but travelers were vulnerable.  Hospitality customs were a way of protecting the traveler, as well as the persons the traveler encountered.  In the desert, where settlements grew up around scarce food and water, it was especially important for settled people to share these necessities with travelers, rather than provoke the dangers of hostility.

In 1st century Palestine, when Jesus told this story, Samaritans and Jews were estranged; centuries before, Samaria had broken away from the kingdom of Israel, and established a Northern Kingdom, with its own capital and religion. Geographically, Samaritans and Jews lived in proximity to each other, but they were not close in the sense of “friend” or “acquaintance.” Samaritans and Jews shared none of the reciprocal relationships of neighbors; in fact, they hated each other.

In Jesus’ parable, we hear about a Samaritan travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who came upon an injured Jew in the road.  The Jew had been beaten and robbed, and at least other persons, both Jews, had passed by him without stopping to help. The Samaritan, however, “went to the Jew, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:34). This is the behavior the Jew might have expected of his fellow Jews, but not from a Samaritan.

Why didn’t the two Jews help their wounded neighbor?  The road was called “the Bloody Pass,” and its “winding, meandering” path was known for banditry. Martin Luther King speculated that the two Jews in this story were concerned for their own safety; “and so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop). The Samaritan, on the other hand, acted out of concern, not for himself, but for the stranger. His actions help expand our concept of “neighbor” to include “fellow man.” By offering hospitality to strangers, we learn that anyone can become “an acquaintance” or “friend.” Human beings are more alike than different:  as we learn from the Genesis account of creation, everyone is made in the image of God.

There can be no ethical foundation for creating division among peoples and refusing hospitality to strangers; the Samaritan poured oil and wine, “the ordinary remedy,” onto the Jew’s wounds, so that the stranger might be healed. As the 18th-century evangelical John Newton wrote,

“Thus Jesus pities fallen man,
And heals the wounds the soul receives.”

Selah

II

Christians, like all worshipping peoples, begin to feel pity and express mercy in proportion to our experience of love and gratitude.   We can love only as the trauma our souls receive – in the ordinary circumstances and conditions of human life – heals.  Jesus was and is to this day a healer, and we have access to his healing power through his teachings, sacraments, and assembled communities.

The Rublev icon (the frontispiece of the bulletin) depicts the appearance of the Trinity as the three angels who visit with Abraham.  Note the presence of bread and cup on the table, representing the Last Supper, which visually establishes the millennial old correspondence between hospitality in the desert and the memorial sacrament of the Church. The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to love – that is, show mercy – for both neighbors and enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36); Mark 12:30-31).  One measure of love is hospitality shown to angels, when we take the bread and fruit of the vine from the communion table out into the world.  The gifts we bring to the table are meant to be shared with those who are not present, especially when their health and welfare is at stake. When we visit the sick, we unlearn habits of selfishness and replace them with a new way of life, as followers of Jesus.  Jesus outlines this new way in his Sermon on the Mount, where he advocates for reversals of human nature: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you.”

We can only imagine how different the world would be today if we hadn’t labeled – only 15 years ago – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “the Axis of Evil.” Certainly, we would not have the current international refugee crisis, or the national disgrace of closing our borders.  Everywhere and all times Christians are called “to love our enemy, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict” (Social Principles ¶ 165.C).  Social principles are integral to our faith and our achievement of enlightenment.  As a contemporary Catholic priest writes in his autobiography, “One comes to God not by leaving the world but in working for justice and peace” (John Dupuce).

The Jewish commentaries on Genesis 18 mention, along with Abraham’s hospitality, the divine healing that takes place:  Abraham is in pain, as he recovers from circumcision.   Thus, in both the story of the three angels who visit and the parable of the Good Samaritan, a healing takes place. As one commentary on the Torah notes, healing “may not physically alter the course of an illness…sometimes all we can give an afflicted person is the gift of our caring presence, and when we do that, we are following God’s ways” (Etz Hayim, 99).

Loving our neighbor and loving our enemy depend upon loving God. That’s why the first commandment comes first. When we take communion, the God of hospitality is with us, in the sharing of his gifts.  We are strengthened to do God’s will, so that “we turn our attention from God to tend to the needs of people…We are no longer focused on [our] own problems, and [are] moved to help others” (Dupuce, ibid).

And all the people said, “Amen.”

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