Turn Back: Turn Back to the Stranger

Scripture: Leviticus 19:33-34; Hebrews 13:2

Once in a while you can go down some real rabbit holes preparing for a sermon, and that’s what I did this week.  As I thought about what I wanted to say today, I vaguely remembered a board game I played with my family as a kid where the object was to learn about safety.  You moved around the board and answered questions about, like, what to do if you got lost.  (Looking back it doesn’t really sound that fun.) Of course, when I asked my mom what this game was called she had absolutely no recollection that we had ever played anything like that.  Neither did my brother.  At that point it became not just about a sermon, and instead about proving that this suddenly very crucial part of my childhood had actually existed.

After some extensive internet research and Facebook crowdsourcing, I’m about 80% sure that what I was remembering was probably this game called Don’t Talk to Strangers.  Which delighted me, actually, because that’s where I was going with this anyway.

We (at least in the US, in a certain era) tend to learn early in our lives that strangers are people we cannot and should not trust. (I understand that might not be the case in other cultures or even older generations here.)  I think there are good reasons to want our kids to be smart in their interactions with others, and even to be appropriately cautious ourselves – after all, anything can happen.  The result is, though, that for many of us, the word “stranger” tends to have an ominous undertone to it.  A stranger might just be someone who stops you on the street to ask for directions, but there’s also this picture in the back of our minds of someone driving around the neighborhood in a windowless van offering candy to children.

If that’s true for you, I’m not going to tell you that the Bible says everything you learned as a kid is wrong.  Well, only sort of.  The biblical authors know that hospitality can carry a risk.  And yet the Bible, throughout Old Testament and New, repeatedly tells us that the stranger is someone to be welcomed.

Let’s say you are doing your devotional reading one morning out of the book of Leviticus.  Let’s say you make it past all the instructions on what kind of burnt offering is appropriate for which occasion and what to do if you think you have a skin disease, and you come to chapter 19, verses 33-34.  You’d read this: “When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant.  The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.”

The word immigrant there is the Hebrew word ger.  It’s from the verb meaning “to sojourn,” which depending on your translation, may also be rendered alien, resident alien, foreigner, sojourner, or stranger.

This is a command that reappears over and over again in similar forms throughout the law books of the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, and later the prophets call the people back to this same command as well. The ger the biblical authors have in mind here is a “stranger” because they are in a new place, a place where they don’t quite belong.  Please note that if you yourself are an immigrant or “sojourner” in this country, I’m not trying to make a claim or assumption that you don’t “belong” – though it’s certainly possible you’ve felt that way or been made to feel that way; and it’s certainly possible that those of us who were born here have felt like that for any number of reasons too.  In any case, the Hebrew Bible recognizes that the ger is someone whose other-ness, in the place where they find themselves, makes them potentially vulnerable – someone who needs an extra bit of divine protection.

If you then turned in your (long) devotional reading to the New Testament, you might come to Matthew 25, where Jesus famously tells a parable about good sheep and bad goats, and he tells the sheep “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”  The sheep say, “When did we do that?”  And Jesus says, “whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  In Romans, Paul exhorts the church to “extend hospitality to strangers.”  And in Hebrews, the author of that letter refers back to a story in Genesis where Abraham and Sarah welcome three travelers who end up being messengers from God when he writes, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  It seems to me that the idea of a stranger has broadened, here – we are no longer just talking about foreigners, but anyone unknown and in need of a good welcome.

This Lenten season we’re talking about turning back, to God and the people God calls us to love – and over and over, in passages like these, the Bible calls us to turn back to the stranger: to the traveler, the newcomer, the one who doesn’t quite belong.

Let’s go back to that verse from Leviticus.  The Israelites are commanded to treat the immigrants and travelers among them well.  Did you catch the reason God commands them to do that?

Right – for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

The story of Exodus tells us that the Israelite people once lived in Egypt as slaves, which is of course not exactly the same as being an immigrant, but does make for a good example of how not to treat people who are “strangers” among you. Even once the Israelites are free and settled in the Promised Land, God wants to be sure that they don’t forget.  They have been in this place too.  They too have been the ones labeled strangers, and they should treat people always with that memory in mind.

Whether we are immigrants ourselves, whether we’ve lived somewhere else for a period of time, or traveled, or just gone to an unfamiliar place locally – most of us have probably had the experience of being new and unknown somewhere, at some time.  Have you had an experience (good or bad) of being a stranger, that then influenced how you treat other people in the same situation?

I have.  When I was in seminary I had the opportunity to spend a summer in South India, at a seminary in the city of Madurai.  I was so excited about this grand adventure.  And then I got there and I realized that I was both completely alone, and completely terrified.

I was there for an independent study, so I didn’t have a program I was part of or a schedule to adhere to.  I didn’t know how to cross the street – I’d been prepared for the fact that people drove on the left side of the road, but not for the complete disorder of cars, buses, autorickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and random animals all basically maneuvering at wildly varying speeds wherever they could find an open space on the road.  I didn’t speak Tamil.  I didn’t have anyone.  I cried myself to sleep for probably weeks straight.  I thought about just going home.

But one day after a morning chapel service, I met a student named Nyimang.  She recognized me as new or out of place, which I clearly was, introduced herself, and then she invited me over for dinner.  She, her husband Bimol, and their toddler son Manna adopted me and became basically my surrogate family while I was there.

I remember that at one point that summer I was planning to take the train to another city for a couple of days, but of course I didn’t know how to take the train.  So the night before I left I asked Nyim and Bimol how it all worked.  But instead of just giving me directions, they got up early the next morning, met me at my guest house, walked the mile to the train station with me, and helped me get settled in the right place.  When I was terrified and lonely in a new place, they helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.

The thing you should know about Nyimang and Bimol is that they were strangers, too.  It was their first year at the seminary, and the semester was just starting.  They came from a completely different part of India, up in the northeast near Burma.  They didn’t look like most of the other students there.  They spoke about as much Tamil as I did.  They didn’t know their way around, either.

But instead of allowing this fact to make them fearful and withdrawn, they recognized someone who was even more of a stranger than they were, and they said welcome.  And when I did finally come home at the end of the summer, I came home resolving to welcome other people like Nyimang and Bimol had welcomed me.

A few years later I sent Bimol another sermon where I talked a little bit about them and my experience there, and Bimol responded ,“We never realized the significance of the little help we extended to you in Madurai.”  It’s possible he was just being humble.  Or it’s possible that he and Nyimang just really found it so entirely natural to invite a stranger over to dinner and walk a mile to the train station at 6 in the morning for a trip they weren’t even taking that they really thought nothing of it, and that’s the kind of person I’d really like to be.

The truth is I’m not that person, not really, and of course there are plenty of reasons.  Sometimes it’s social anxiety.  Sometimes it’s liking my friend group the way it is and not wanting things to change.  Sometimes it’s a sense of a bigger risk involved.  Sometimes it’s just that I’m wrapped up enough in my own stuff that I don’t really have my eyes open to who could use a little extra welcome.  Some of us are more naturally endowed with the spiritual gift of hospitality than others, and that’s OK, but I think at least some of these reasons apply to all of us, sometimes.

But it’s Lent, and it’s a time of turning back.

How is God calling you to turn back to the stranger this season?  How will you turn back to welcome someone who might be new, feeling out of place, or overlooked?  There are big ways you can do this, like volunteer to teach ESL, or talk to Sarah about getting trained to accompany people to deportation hearings.  There are also smaller ways you can do that, like striking up a conversation with someone new.  Please don’t make assumptions about people and how new they are or how much help they need based on how they look or dress or talk, because that can go in the unwelcoming direction really quickly.  But do break out of your usual fellowship time conversation group, or invite someone new in.  Go meet the neighbors who just moved in down the hall.  Stand up for someone who’s being harassed for being different.

I think we also have the opportunity to turn back to the stranger as a church, together.  At Arlington Temple we strive to be and believe ourselves to be a welcoming community – and I think we succeed in that, in a lot of ways!  I also think it’s good, once in a while, to revisit that mission and how we are or aren’t actually living it out.

I told you we’d be talking more about that in light of our recent United Methodist General Conference and its tightened restrictions on LGBTQ+ people in the life of the church, especially in the areas of ordination and marriage.  In the wake of this decision and the publicity it’s received even in the mainstream media, I’ve seen a lot of churches rushing to advertise that “All are welcome here.”  But when I see a church claim that, I always wonder what “welcome” means to them.  Does it mean that LGBTQ+ people are welcome to come in and be a part of that church’s worship attendance statistics for the week?  (No one’s saying no to that.)  Does it mean that they would be accepted as leaders in the congregation?  Does it mean that they would be welcome to get married in the sanctuary they worship in each Sunday, just as any heterosexual couple would?  The church signs rarely specify.  The thing is that it’s easy to say that people are welcome, but there’s welcome and then there’s welcome.  I believe that if we’re going to advertise ourselves as welcoming, we’d better be clear on what that means.

I should note that the “strangers,” here, might even be people who have been in our churches for a long time; it’s the church itself that has decided they don’t quite belong.

But the question of how far our welcome extends isn’t just a question of our wedding policy.  Last week I had to be reminded to go unlock the street level door for someone who couldn’t get up the stairs to the main entrance, and I thought not only about the ways we’re not terribly accessible to our neighbors with less mobility – something that will definitely change as we look at renovating our building – but also about how that so often isn’t even on my radar until it someone is already subtly excluded.  We’re also a church in the middle of a really diverse area, with neighbors from all over the world.  And that diversity is reflected here to some extent, at least.  I also know that as a white pastor, raised in the dominant culture, I might not always even be aware of ways we’re not entirely living up to this image I have of us – maybe in ways our worship reflects my expectations, or what our leadership looks like compared to the church as a body.

We’re going to be talking more about these things, and these are questions I want you to have rolling around in your heads.  Because there’s welcome and there’s welcome – but God calls us to welcome.  Fully.  Because we’ve been strangers, too, and maybe we still are.

The good news is that this is not just a command, but also a promise.  Abraham and Sarah showed hospitality to strangers and ended up having dinner with angels.  The sheep of Jesus’ parable welcomed the stranger and found out later it had been Jesus all along.  The promise is that in turning back to the stranger, whoever that is, we are also meeting God in a new way, and there is a blessing there – not just for those we welcome, but also for us.

By God’s grace we have been welcomed, and by God’s grace, Jesus keeps showing up, in the newcomer and the traveler and the person who just doesn’t fit in.  And we’ll never know what divine blessings await – unless we talk to strangers.



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