Sermon: Radical Hospitality
The Rev. Loren McGrail
March 22, 2009
Texts: Genesis 18:1-15, Mathew 10:40-42
The Torah tells us: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19: 33-34).
In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger for “What you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me” (Mathew 25:40).
The Qur’an tells us that we should “serve God…and do good to…orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, and those who have nothing. (4:36)
The Hindu scripture Taitiriya Upanishad tells us: “The guest is a representative of God.”
Diverse faith traditions teach us to welcome our brothers and sisters with love and compassion. In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative. There is an expectation that God’s people are people who will welcome the stranger. Just as God protected the people of Israel, God insists on proper care for resident foreigners, treating them like citizens. God’s people will be a people whose just hospitality flows from gratitude and from God’s past care and from their own painful memories of refugee life. To welcome the stranger is to acknowledge her as made in the image of God.
In the Hebrew Scriptures there are many examples and exhortations about how we are to treat the stranger but it is the story of Abraham and Sara that we just heard where the practice of hospitality is most clearly described as an experience of transformation, of mutual gift giving. Abraham’s warm welcome to the three who visited the tent is a wonderful example of how the strange ones, the guests, may bear gifts or may indeed be holy ones. The three turn out to be angels who have come to give a blessing, the good news that Sara will indeed be a mother after all, that there will be descendants. To offer hospitality, then, sometimes means to welcome something unfamiliar, new and unknown into our world. In Hebrews 13 we are reminded that we should not neglect to show hospitality to the stranger for “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Some have even walked with Christ himself and not known it as did the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Hospitality, then, not only welcomes strangers but also recognizes their holiness and receives their blessings. In Greek the word xeno means stranger, guest, and host. We make one another guests or hosts by how we treat one another. Let us remember that Jesus was not the host at the table of the sinners, tax collectors, or prostitutes. He let himself be loved by those who had become strangers relative to the religious communities and institutions of his day. He accepted their invitation. Jesus, our Lord God of Hosts, was and is also the perfect guest, the welcomed stranger. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, for I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, for I was a stranger and you took me in. (Mathew 25: 34-35)
Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…(Mathew 10:40-42). A cup of cold water is not only a gracious act of hospitality but it is a dangerous act. It assumes that we have noticed that someone is thirsty and that we are willing to go to the well and draw water and offer it. As Rev. Maria Palmer puts it, “It might lead us to pulling out a chair and inquiring about the rest of the family. It might lead to prayer, phone calls and being drawn into someone’s life. It could lead to learning about his or her fears and hopes…” Letting ourselves be invited or chosen to share God’s hospitality most likely will lead us to share feelings we would rather not know, like how a mother feels when she is being carted off to a detention center or how a young American born child feels as he holds back his tears and says I hold the Mexican flag in one hand and the American flag in another. Taking someone in would mean feeling outraged to hear that a young Chinese man who had overstayed his visa died in a detention center because of a spinal injury and fractures or that a Salvadoran man died of cancer due to medical negligence. Taking a mother and her child into sanctuary, like the UCC Church in Simi Valley California, means dealing with angry protests from anti-sanctuary groups and a $40,000 bill from the Los Angeles police department for police services and protection It means always questioning whose laws need to be followed? It means sometimes choosing to break manmade laws in order to obey God’s law.
Understanding ourselves as sojourners in the universal quest for life allows us to share in Christ’s Galilean identity, the one who crosses borders and boundaries, who as the theologian Daniel Smith-Christopher puts it is the universal “Good Coyote”. Our identity as sojourners allows us to stand against the powers of oppression and persecution, for we see the stranger as our self, our neighbor or as Reinhold Neibuhur put it, “Love rejoices in the otherness of the other.” This inclusive borderless love helps us recognize our common kinship and “act accordingly, welcoming all into the many rooms of our God’s house.”
This is the hospitality of the heart and it begins here with us when we accept that we are all wanderers or residents in exile, all “peligrinos”, as the Celtic Christians say. We are all guests invited into the tent, all welcome at the table, or in God’s Beloved Community.
I believe that hospitality of the heart could change American politics, that it could make a world of potential friends rather than a world of probable enemies. It certainly could help us reform how we treat the strangers among us, our immigrant brothers and sisters, our migrant and undocumented workers. This hospitality of the heart must be at the center of our peace and justice work, especially when it comes to immigration reform.
Hospitality of the heart is a form of resistance. It aligns us with God’s preferential option for the poor, “Opcion preferencial por los pobres”. It calls upon us to become living sanctuaries for God’s abundance, protection, and love.
In the Book of Numbers, local shrines and whole cities functioned as places of refuge for people who had committed a crime especially manslaughter, killing without intent. The sanctuary provided a break in the cycle of vengeance. The religious community offered a sacred space until a person could get a fair hearing.
In the 1980s, during Reagan’s Regime, when death squads were killing Catholic leaders and lay leaders in Central America, refugees started to come to the US to escape persecution. They asked for political asylum and were denied because they were not fleeing communist countries. Cities and churches took pledges to protect these people in an act of solidarity. People were sheltered literally in churches and spoke out about their experiences often behind masks to protect their identities. I know that many of you here were part of this movement now called the Old Sanctuary Movement.
Today, all across our country there is a revitalization of this concept of offering sanctuary. The New Sanctuary Movement is an interfaith movement that seeks to provide prophetic hospitality for undocumented immigrants caught in our broken immigration system. Its main focus is to make visible people who are caught in the system so that we can begin to see them not as faceless border crossers but as children of God, people with dignity and rights. And when they are ripped apart by raids and deportations, we see them as our suffering neighbors within our gates in need of sanctuary. This sanctuary as sanctuary “celebrates the sovereignty of God in history and our lives, marking the limit of civil authority” says the theologian and activist, Bill Wylie-Kellerman. It is an act of resistance that draws a line in the sand; it says no to the powers and principalities and their unjust laws, and yes to the hospitality of the heart. It is a form of extravagant welcome and it demands evangelical courage to live it out.
I end with a short list of some of the things we might understand, change, protest, rage against, demand, or accomplish if we lived out this extravagant welcome with a hospitable heart:
This hospitality of the heart would help us to understand and support the cry, “No human being is illegal” because we would understand that we are all made in the image of God and that all people or workers have value.
This hospitality of the heart would urge us to ask our media, like the Pioneer Press, to stop using words like “Illegals” or “aliens” when talking about our immigrant brothers and sisters.
It would demand us to protest the in humane treatment of immigrants in southern Arizona—the parading of over 300 immigrants in pink panties and chains into a sweltering tent for viewers of Fox television.
This hospitality of the heart would help us to see that capital can exploit people only after it has successfully dehumanized them, criminalized them.
It would help us understand that when immigrant workers’ wages and working conditions are depressed so are all workers.
It would help us understand that when immigrant workers rights are violated, we are all vulnerable and responsible.
It would enable us to join in when they shout, “Injury to one is injury to all.” We are all members of the body of Christ and all members are important and necessary.
Hospitality of the heart would help us to reject legislation for guest workers because it denies workers’ their right to organize, because it sees people in terms of their parts, “braceros.”
Hospitality of the heart would encourage us to support the Dream Act for not only the sake of immigrant children’s right to education but for the sake of all of our futures.
Hospitality of the heart would demand that we work to put a halt to free trade agreements that push people out of their homes and countries because they can no longer make a living.
Hospitality of the heart would demand that we stop paying for the militarization of our border which forces people to cross the desert and sometimes die when all they wanted to do was make a living.
God has given us hearts with many rooms, prepared us to be living sanctuaries, not only kind and true but bold and daring. May we know the joy and suffering of interconnectedness. May we cross all the boundaries and borders that separate us one from each other. May our solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters be a transforming power in the world. With thanksgiving, may we be empowered to make it so. Amen.