Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
The Complexities of Welcoming All
Genesis 18:1-8, Luke 17:11-19
Sunday, August 14, 2016
My mother’s parents came from Rumania and Hungary in the early 1900’s. They both came through Ellis Island, with little in their pockets, and dreams of a better life here in the U.S. in their hearts. They learned English, they worked hard, and helped to create a Jewish community in Wilmington, Delaware. They helped to raise my siblings and me and instilled in us a work ethic and an ethic to treat all others as we would want to be treated….with respect and dignity.
My father’s parents came from Hungary just before the turn of the century, also with little in their pockets and similar dreams for a better life in their hearts. They too worked hard. My father’s mother was quite religious and instilled in my dad and his 9 siblings the ethic of hard work, commitment to family, and honor to God. They made their home just north of Wilmington, in Chester, Pennsylvania. My grandfather helped to establish the first Jewish cemetery in the area, believing that his Jewish family members, friends and fellow members of their synagogue should have a place where their remains could be buried and eventually, taken back into the soil.
Had my parents’ parents not come to America, I would not be standing here today, the 2nd generation born here in the U.S. I would hazard to guess that many of us are in the same position. Unless we are descended from Native Americans, we are all immigrants – we were all strangers in a strange land.
So, what makes me more entitled than anyone else to be able to live here? Fate? Timing? The luck of the draw? What makes any of us more entitled to be here? Is it because we are Christian? Does that mean that our Jewish friends should not be here? Does that mean our Muslim friends should not be here? How about the Hispanic congregation that used to worship here? Or the Chinese congregation that worships at the Methodist Church in Pleasantville? Are any of them more or less entitled to be here?
In a very troubling comment made when expounding on the position of one of our presidential candidates, his vice presidential partner, said, in response to whether or not Christians and Jews would be included in those banned from entering the U.S, since the ban on immigrating would depend on whether a country had been compromised by terrorism, said, “yes” the ban would include Christians and Jews and not just Muslims. In one way, I was appalled. In another way, relieved because our Muslim friends appeared on the surface to no longer be singled out. Of course, our own country has been compromised by terrorism, so I wonder where that leaves all of us?
Anyway, my point in bringing this up is that it led me to wonder, just who is okay to be given access to our country, and who is not. How do you draw a line? Perhaps it should be as willy-nilly as the entrance from Ellis Island seemed – if you could speak or understand some English, had money in your pocket and looked healthy, you were allowed to stay. If you happened to feel sick that day, you were more likely to be sent back.
Our Christian values tell us that all are welcome – we are not to discriminate against anyone, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. All are to be welcomed to our table, which is not as easy to accomplish as one would hope and pray it would be. Abraham gives us an example of one who welcomed strangers in a most hospitable way. At the beginning of our reading, we know that God is about to appear to Abraham. However, Abraham doesn’t know that and doesn’t recognize God and yet, he welcomes these three strangers. He goes out of his way to be hospitable. He opens his heart to them by offering them a cool place under the trees, water to wash their feet, choice flour that will be used to make cakes, a young calf, and milk, a precious drink in those days.
We aren’t told why he treats them in this manner, like he had an inkling it was God, or he felt obligated to care for them, or that he might in some way benefit from being so extravagantly welcoming to these strangers. It seems like this is how he always was because the writers don’t tell us that Abraham did something unusual or extraordinary or unexpected. Abraham treats these strangers not as foreigners but as welcome guests. He provided extravagant hospitality to people unknown to him. Not an easy thing for us to do these days.
At our bible study with Temple Beth El last Tuesday, we talked about how hard it is these days to welcome the stranger, to welcome someone different than we are. Esther Gates talked about how this congregation had helped a young person and supported him over many years. Someone from Temple Beth El talked about doing something similar. But, then the question was raised – what about today? Would we do the same thing today? Times have changed, our world has changed – how open would we really be? I think that most, if not all of us, have different feelings about foreigners now.
There are no easy answers – our Open and Affirming Statement, which was voted on in January of 2013, talks about our welcoming people of every race and mixture of races, people of every ethnic background and nationality, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight, people in any economic situation, and people, regardless of physical or mental prowess or limitation. We strive to achieve this covenant that we made with each other and with God. But it is not easy when we have to balance our seeking to be welcoming with being safe. This is a difficult world we live in today. There are no clear answers; there are mostly shades of gray in many situations we face in our lives these days. It is hard to know the answer.
Jesus gives us a clue in this story in Luke. The ten lepers are not identified as to their heritage. They could be from Samara or Galilee or they could be from just about anywhere. They are defined by their leprosy, which is not who they are, it is what they are suffering from. Well, after asking Jesus to have mercy on them, he sends them to the Priests and they go blindly to do so. But one person comes back and thanks Jesus once he sees that his leprosy is gone.
Jesus clearly knew who these people were because he says, weren’t all ten made clean and the other nine did not see fit to return and thank God for their healing – except for this foreigner!!! Except for this foreigner! Then he tells him “go on your way – your faith has made you well.” Jesus saw no difference in them – he saw them as all needing healing. And so he healed the foreigner as well as the nine who apparently weren’t foreigners. I wonder what the disciples and others who were watching what happened thought. Here was Jesus, again, healing someone that they usually ignored. We know that Jesus did that a lot. He talked with people who were unclean, people with whom others would not speak, particularly women. He ate with them, walked with them and prayed for and with them. He was able to see past skin color, gender differences, economic differences, social differences – all of the people that we include in our open and affirming statement, Jesus welcomed. And we try to as well.
I know that my faith is not as strong as Jesus’ faith. I know that I cannot always put aside my fears when I happen upon someone who seems different, or odd or strange to me. But, I am aware of my own prejudices. I try to move beyond them when I can. When someone walks into my office who is looking for assistance, as someone did this past week, I know I need to move aside any judgment or prejudice and be open to them, letting them know that we care about them here at FCC and want to assist and support them if we can.
It is a complex world, and there are no easy solutions. I think that we as a country will continue to struggle with building walls and taking them down, dealing with those who are poor, financially or spiritually, and those who are rich, financially or spiritually, trying to stay safe but at the same time be welcoming to the foreigner, the one who is otherly-abled, the one who is LGBTQ, the one who is suffering from a mental illness, the one who on the outside looks perfectly fine, but inside has doubts. The complexities we face in our world today cannot be ignored, but then neither can our call to care for the least of these and our covenant to welcome all to our church.
I thank God that we, as a church, can struggle together with these concerns. We can talk openly and ask questions and challenge the status quo. We can do that because there is a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place and it is the Spirit of God as manifest within each one of us. That spark of the Spirit is ignited when we together work towards finding a more just, more compassionate, more loving world, whether that is within these walls or beyond these walls. When we go out into the world and seek to treat all with whom we come into contact, with love, with acceptance, with dignity and with grace, we are doing what God has asked us to do, to welcome the stranger and to treat the foreigner in a way that is compassionate and caring, so that they too may come to the place where they realize that their faith has made them well and our faith has made them feel welcomed.